Why I Left “Islam” but Chose to Come Back

A Response to Rescuing Ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam

Five days ago, VICE News published a documentary called Rescuing Ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam. I watched it last night after returning home from performing at a local open mic. I was left horrified and deeply saddened at what I saw. As a Muslim woman, I wanted to hug all the participants in the documentary and tell them, “I am sorry.”

Rescuing Ex-Muslims captures stories of persecution of three ex-Muslims and features, Imtiaz Shams, the co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British organization that helps ex-religious minorities. Since it is featured primarily in the UK, I was immediately taken back to my crisis of faith 5 years ago when in order to “escape” my own religious identity, I went to study abroad in Scotland, UK.

I grew up in Pakistan where religion was a dogma that I found at odds with my outspoken personality and a non-practicing extended family. I went to a segregated Islamic school that used religion as a disciplining tool. In high school, I got into trouble for defying the authorities’ nepotism and favoritism towards boys and was publicly shamed by having to step down from the position of president at the student council. I still vividly remember the day when the principal announced in the morning assembly that it was our class’ sins that caused the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. That God was punishing the entire nation because of us. In October 2005, I was 16.

As you can imagine, upon coming to the US on my own in 2008 to study at Mount Holyoke College, I too felt like Rana when she exclaims amidst New Year’s celebrations in the documentary, “I [am] dreaming! I feel like normal people!” Alas! My “normalness” only lasted a year when I decided to keep my hijab (headscarf) on after finishing prayer at the Karachi airport on the way back to America in 2009.

I became clinically depressed that year. I was in love with a Pakistan man who insisted that if I did not cover my face, he would not marry me. My hijab was simply not enough for him. While on campus, the liberal Muslim students isolated me because they felt threatened of being morally policed by me. When I visited my aunts in New York; one of them would snicker as I walked, making fun of my protruding hips as she found the pairing of my jeans and hijab odd. My uncle told me that either I wear an abaya and niqab (what Rana wore to escape Saudi Arabia) or my “half and half Islam” was useless.

I was sick of upholding the image of a “perfect Muslim.” As a woman, I felt that the rules were so stringent that I did not have a place in Islam. Like any other 20-year-old, I too had other “normal people” struggles. Hence, when I decided to do a junior year abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, I resolved to take off my hijab. I would start afresh in a country where nobody knew me. I would leave Islam.

I watched the fireworks by myself on the New Year’s Eve of 2011 over the River Clyde in Glasgow; and wondered if there was a God, what was His plan for me. I had kept myself away from Muslims the entire year so upon meeting folks from the Christian Union the following day, I immediately joined. I was studying figure drawing and sculpture at the Glasgow School of Art, so the fear of judgment by the Muslim community for working with nudes kept me at a further distance. Until I met Sophie.

Sophie was not Muslim. She was the residential advisor at my university hall. Sophie had heard about Islam and when her friend, David, a convert to Islam invited both of us to a meeting called New to Islam, I hesitantly agreed. I found Sophie to be very similar to me, so we started to hang out more. I cooked while Sophie baked. We broke bread and drank tea. She had questions about Islam and (inside) I too had the same questions. So we researched and studied and listened until one spring night, I got a call from her, “Sidra, do you mind if I come over to your apartment?”

Sophie wanted to convert to Islam and wanted me to be her first witness.

When Sophie took her shahada (Islamic testimony of faith) at 2:00 am in my room, I too renewed my faith. Here I was, thinking God had abandoned me based on how “Muslims” treated me but God showed me that He still loved me. That He would use me to help Sophie fall in love with Islam.

Through the people I met in Glasgow, I found a practical way of reconciling Islam and my secular identity. Sophie and now her husband, David, are proud Scots who uphold their Scottish traditions as much as they uphold Islam. I also happened to meet Hamza Yousaf, one of the ministers at the Scottish Parliament. Thus, it was in the UK where I rediscovered my faith and realized that I could be free AND Muslim at the same time. That I did not have to choose between one over the other.

Sophie Hall and David Duncan. Photo credits: Colin Templeton, Herald Scotland.

Looking back at the stories of the participants in the Rescuing Ex-Muslims documentary, I observe hate and abuse coming from those who claim to be “Muslims.” I am currently a student at the Qalam Seminary in Dallas, TX. Academically we define sahaba, the companions of Muhammad as “anyone who met the Prophet as a Muslim and died on Islam, even if he/she rejected faith in between.” That enough is an evidence that Muhammad did not persecute every apostate. The more I study about him, the more I fall in love with his empathy and compassion. Therefore, now that I am consciously Muslim, I always reflect as to what would Muhammad do if he was in my shoes.

And so, he would say to Nissar, Sara, Imtiaz and Rana; “God and His Messenger love you nevertheless,” the same words that he spoke to an alcoholic amongst his companions because of the Qur’anic verse,

“Let there be no compulsion in religion.” — Qur’an 2:256