About a month ago (?), someone posting at A Woman’s Country under the initials K.M. put up a post about some aspects of life after leaving Islam. Particularly about the longlasting impact that certain mundane practices can have even once you no longer believe the theological reasons why you are supposed to do them, as well as the problem of how to meet one’s needs for de-stressing when religious rituals are no longer an option.
While she identifies as someone who has left Islam altogether and I don’t, I liked that post, and thought that it raised some important issues that can face anyone who leaves an insular, high demand religious group and whose beliefs shift significantly.
It is spooky to say to the least when you find yourself continuing to act and react in preprogrammed “sunna” ways that way back when, you learned (it isn’t as if you were born doing them!), but now you can’t seem to unlearn. After all, we put so much pious effort in the aftermath of our conversions into learning all the rules, in training our bodies and our automatic responses: Don’t shake hands with men, walk, sit and move modestly, lower your gaze, don’t laugh loudly in public or where non-mahram men might hear you, because modesty should be second nature and is a barometer of your faith as a Muslim woman. Always wash away all traces of urine and feces, avoid dogs (and especially, contact with dog spit), carefully read all food labels and avoid all hints of pork and alcohol byproducts, because believers are pure and God only accepts what is pure and if you really believe you should find anything impure intrinsically disgusting.
Avoid music (except nasheeds or possibly classical), don’t dance or whistle, careful of what you sing (and who might be able to overhear your voice), prefer reciting the Quran and reading the stories of the Companions and making dhikr to reading fiction or poetry or watching movies or plays or going to fairs, because a believer takes life seriously and is forever wary of being seduced by dunyawi attractions. The sincere believers should opt to follow the sunna in preference to the ways of the world or one’s own comfort, so one should put on the right shoe before the left (and take them off in reverse order), sleep on one’s side facing qibla (too bad for us restless sleepers), step into a washroom left foot first (and saying the appropriate du’a)… and so on.
Our efforts were constantly scrutinized by born Muslims as well as other converts, and were often found wanting. We were told that we had to constantly be on guard lest our pious efforts come to nothing, because it is all too easy to slide back into immodesty and not caring about pure and impure, halaal and haraam, akhira and dunya. And now, only to find out that many such habits have been so well inculated that even once they no longer have any foundation in belief they still persist. To realize that this actually has nothing to do with faith or the truth (or not) of the religious teachings in question, but that what we did was train ourselves to give conditioned responses. It was a psychological mechanism. Like training a dog, I suppose, by teaching it to associate certain commands/stimuli with certain “appropriate” actions, or like teaching small children not to run into the road or put dirt in their mouths.
Talking to other converts who used to be conservative Muslims but now are not about this sort of thing, I notice that depending on a number of things—the Muslim communities we were involved with, when we converted, our own personalities, and other factors—there seem to be similarities as well as differences in what practices people retain. Things such as continuing to avoid pork, or finding the idea of not washing one’s genitals after urination or defecation “gross” seem to be more common than remaining a teetotaller or refusing to date or marry a non-Muslim. Which on the face of it makes little sense. Is pork really “more haraam” than alcohol? (One could easily argue the reverse—drinking has a hudud punishment, but eating pork does not.) How is it “worse” to fail to wash off urine than to have sex with someone who is not halaal to you? But disgust isn’t rational. Which may be why it outlasts faith or a censorious community.
K.M. points out that such survivals of conservative Muslim practice can cause difficulties when socializing with people who have different expectations of “normal” behavior—who expect you to be fine with dancing and singing at a party or having their dog enthusiastically lick you, or who take your aversion to pork personally. It’s at moments like these that you feel a deep gulf between your life and theirs. Outwardly, you may pass as “normal,” but once people get to know you these apparently minor issues crop up… and some people are put off by what they see as unreasonable weirdness or even traces of religious “fanaticism.” Because in their minds apparently, having left an insular Muslim community (aka “them” par excellence) you have now joined “us” (aka normal mainstream North American white middle class post-Christian society), and the truth of this momentous transition ought to be displayed for all to see?
It’s at moments like these that I am brought face to face with how tolerance for some people has pretty narrow limits. I mean, if I am not forcing my pork-avoiding ways on others, or making others uncomfortable about their food choices, when what is it to anyone whether I eat pork or not? Why should it be anyone’s business, much less a problem for them?
Tolerance unfortunately seems to be in short supply nowadays, and not only in “mainstream” society. K.M.’s post was up a couple of weeks ago, but now it’s gone—and it isn’t findable on the wayback machine, either, so the intention behind taking it down was evidently to deep-six it.
This is unfortunate, though I can understand why she might do that. In the post itself, she indicated that she anticipated that some people might react to the issues she raises by claiming that she really does know that Islam is the truth, deep down, and that that is why she still finds herself looking for some sort of spiritual-but-not-religious-or-theistic practice. If this is the reason it was taken down—that it generated hostile or harassing comments—then that is very sad to say the least. Sad, ridiculous… and abusive.
K.M. has written before about the ways that she has been shunned since leaving Islam, by former friends, relatives and coworkers. I’ve been dealing with shunning too from one particular quarter recently. While we all know the “Shar’i” reasons why shunning takes place, as well as internet trolling of exMuslim posts and cut-and-paste ranting comments by “true believers,” it still strikes me as beyond ridiculous. For one thing, it’s the internet age. Medieval ways of trying to shut down debate and censor information DON’T WORK ANY MORE. It doesn’t matter what such-and-such scholars (medieval or contemporary) have to say about how real or alleged “apostates” should be punished, or how their ideas should be kept out of circulation lest they contaminate others… that stuff just doesn’t work any more.
Now, anyone who is curious can access a wide range of “blasphemous” ideas in seconds at the click of a mouse. People and groups who shun and censor do nothing but show that they lack confidence in their own beliefs, as well as the fact that they are abusive bullies. Great advertisement for the “truth” of one’s belief system… not.
Refusing to accept that people learn and grow and make decisions based on their own experiences that you may not approve of, and to respect them as fellow human beings who merit the same good treatment that you want for yourself and those you love is abusive, because it denies the complex humanity of others. Believers’ condescension towards others who do not (or who no longer) share their beliefs as “misguided” is based on the assumption that their experiences and their reactions to those experiences should be the standard for everyone else, and that they are superior to others and can judge them (which oddly enough reminds me of the story of Iblis… tellingly). They lack respect for the processes that people go through when they decide that they no longer believe, or that they now believe differently.
And, somehow they seem to think that such actions will lead “the lost” back… or at least, deter their children from similarly being “lost.” Good luck with that.
Anyway, K.M., I hope you are all right. I enjoy reading what you write. Please keep writing.