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Leaving Faith Behind, edited by Fiyaz Mughal and Aliyah Saleem

08 March 2019

Philip Lewis considers the stories of Muslims who gave up their faith

THIS is a brave and informative work. It comprises five vivid personal accounts by Muslims in Britain explaining why they abandoned their ancestral faith. Each chapter provides a partial but unvarnished insight into the realities of lived Islam. It took courage for Fiyaz Mughal, the Muslim editor, to give voice and profile to a group of people routinely vilified and ostracised by other Muslims.

Mughal, who pioneered the first, national, anti-Muslim hate-crime monitor, Tell Mama, makes clear in his own scene-setting chapter that space for self-critical and reformist minded Muslims like himself is being squeezed by non-Muslim extremists without and Islamist extremists within. The latter, with their “corrosive, victim-driven narratives”, seek to delegitimise more balanced and nuanced analyses — besides betraying the breadth and depth of the classical tradition.

His fellow editor, Aliyah Saleem, an ex-Muslim, is co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a community-services programme of the national charity Humanists UK. She is also one of the five contributors. What is refreshing is that, although some of the stories contain harrying details of fear and self-loathing, this is not a polemical work attacking Islam. Rather, it is a plea for those leaving Islam to be given the space to do so without intimidation or social death. It is a sad comment that the two other female contributors felt constrained to remain anonymous.

The five narratives provide fascinating insights into diverse social and institutional worlds. Aliyah’s story begins as a rebellious teenager sent to residential Islamic colleges for girls in the UK and Pakistan. Hassan Radwan studied for a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at SOAS, where he was president of the Islamic Society. After this, he spent 30 years teaching, half of them in Yusuf Islam’s Islamia school.

Jimmy Banglash struggles with discovering that he is gay in a conservative Pathan family, in which he also worries about the oppressive pattern of male guardianship to which his older sister is exposed. “Marwa Shami” attends a private high school for girls whose suffocating ethos leads her to self-harm and internalising self-hatred. Finally, “Aisha Hussain’s” journey includes many years as an enthusiastic proponent of all things Islamic on websites, and an active member of her university’s Islamic Society.

While each person’s story is particular, certain common themes and motifs were evident. All had become increasingly alienated from scriptural texts interpreted to allow, in certain circumstances, violence against women, and rank homophobia. Questions and dissent were deemed inadmissible. Islamic religious teachers seemed quite unable to allay their anxieties across a wide range of such issues. Particularly troubling were controversial episodes in the Prophet’s life.

Perplexity was voiced about why military success rather than intellectual achievement was invariably celebrated in the attenuated Islamic history to which some were exposed. All found the idea of hell for non-believers — “described in the most gruesome and graphic detail in over 500 places throughout the Qur’an” — impossible to square with a compassionate deity.

The last word should go to Fiyaz Mughal: “What is taking place today — this fissure, split and fragmentation within Muslim communities — means that over the next fifty years the numbers leaving the faith will continue to rise, and those leaving will continue to be discriminated against if we do not have a frank and honest conversation about the issues.”

Dr Philip Lewis is Consultant on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to the Bishop of Leeds, and a former lecturer in Peace Studies at Bradford University.

Leaving Faith Behind: The journeys and perspectives of people who have chosen to leave Islam
Fiyaz Mughal and Aliyah Saleem, editors
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