A World Without God: A Crisis Of Identity (Long Read)
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we killed him”.
The words of Nietzsche have reached a crescendo in the postmodern world we inhabit today where the idol of the “self” is worshipped. Secularism is the new world order and disbelief is the default ‘faith’, having successfully trickled down from the elite bourgeoisie to reach the masses. This reality hit me like a ton of bricks as I stared with my mouth agar at the infamous words of Nietzsche neatly printed on the first page of my required reading notes for the Political Science degree I had enrolled in. After up hauling my entire life from Pakistan to England so I could be ‘educated’ from a prestigious university and begin a ‘successful’ life, I was faced with a conundrum. How do I authentically live my faith whilst immersed in an environment that was bent on eradicating God from the hearts and minds of people?
This is not an academic critique or even a critique for that matter of modernisms. This is not a rebuttal or a defense. It is not within the scope of this article to deconstruct postmodernism and reveal it for the fallacious ideology that it is. This is simply a regurgitation of my thoughts as I grapple with my faith in this unprecedented new world we find ourselves in. I am well aware that I am far from the only young Muslim struggling to uphold Islamic orthodoxy in an era where ‘traditional’ and ‘conservative’ is synonymous with irrational and narrow-mindedness. Plagued with doubts. Wrought by uncertainties. Endeavouring to make sense of the world, with a silent resolve to not cave in. This is the jihad of the young Muslim — and the casualties are mounting.
My eyes welled with tears as I gazed at my notes; and frankly, I lost it. I lost my composure. I felt vulnerable. Ambushed without any intellectual arsenal to defend my faith with. My consciousness echoed the words “here we go again”. This was not the first time I felt the need to take cover in order to preserve my faith. I pulled out my prayer rug, laid it on the floor, faced it towards Mecca, dived into sajdah and sobbed. Why was I rattled? Because Nietzsche was right, his brazen statement was a true reflection of this new Godless world. It packed a punch for me and to understand that, let me take you back. Back to Pakistan. Back to life ‘before’. Before I knew Islam.
Who I Was
At this stage, you are probably wondering if I am a convert to the faith. Technically, no. I am desi so I inherited Islam as a cultural identity. Being brown and being Muslim just went hand in hand. You wore shalwar kameez, ate samosas, and fasted for a month out of the year. That is what I had known. Your run of the mill, middle class, culturally Muslim, Pakistani girl. Fiercely patriotic about my country, and en route to becoming a bona fide liberal. Secretly lamenting marriage as a deplorable institution whose sole purpose was the subjugation of women, considered women who covered as the acme of regression, and viewed religion with more than just an air of suspicion.
My aspirations in life were to study really hard so I could party really hard later on in life. Higher ideals? Well, the only thing that I was taught to revere via the media and education system was the nation-state and ‘serving’ it was the epitome of living with purpose. I can almost hear reverberations of Nusret Fateh Alis popular nationalistic song “Mera Iman Pakistan”, i.e., Pakistan is my faith. The contested claim is that Pakistan was made so Islam could prosper in this land. I would argue that 70 years later, our motto is “Pakistan must prosper, be it with or without Islam”. Preferably without.
It was very easy for the nation-state to take the place of God because God was relegated to simply garnishing my sentences with mashAllah and inshaAllah. God was absent at home. He was a vengeful, spiteful, angry God outside the home that big, burly men would berate you to fear. These spokespeople for God (that is how I saw them) were the laughing stock of the upper middle classes and no one with an iota of intelligence would take them seriously. They seemed incapable of benefitting society in any measurable fashion so they might as well isolate themselves in madrassas and carry on with their chanting or whatever it is that they do. Out of sight, out of mind. That is what the ulema were. In a nutshell, irrelevant at best and a nuisance at worst. I will remind you again, I lived in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
These are my frank admissions and believe me, there are a plethora of young people that concur with these views. All the people that seemed to care about religion were poor and uneducated for the most part and largely derided. The way in which people of the upper echelons of society lived their life, it was apparent that only their names reflected any association with Islam. I believed that people continued to indulge in some of the rituals in order to maintain a façade because they would rather not deal with the social repercussions of openly admitting that they did not really think that barakah was a real thing or that two angel scribes sit on your shoulders and write down your deeds.
Secretly, they (I include my past self in this group) thought the whole concept was ridiculous. Not to mention how much they resented the drudgery of reciting the Quran to ‘mauvli sahab’; just the endeavor of reciting something while having zero comprehension of what it was that you were reciting ran home the point of how nonsensical the whole thing was. For the majority of middle-class children, this was their only exposure to the Quran, a miserable fifteen minutes. Talk about imbibing a strong Muslim identity. To add on to that devastating list, if your parents never prioritized the religion and only paid lip service to it, you did not stand a chance of holding onto even the edifice of the tradition.
I vividly remember highlighting in bright pink the verses in a Pickthall translation of the Quran that I felt were sexist or plain wrong. Cue all the favorite verses of your average Islamophobe. I remember my Islamic studies teachers at school being unable to answer questions like, why were there so many battles during the early caliphates? Was Islam spread by the sword? I remember the short surahs recited in the morning assembly being there just for ceremonial purposes. I recall turning my nose up to our religious neighbours who did not own a television set. All of it is indelibly imprinted in my mind’s eye. I grew up in a Muslim country, in a Muslim family. In retrospect, I feel that the path had been paved for me to become an atheist and a hard leaning leftist.
Who I Became
Today, I can say that despite all the odds stacked against me, for some reason Allah did not let go of me and that I consciously chose to be Muslim. What I want to know is, why was it more probable for me to not make it? Why is the path of leading a God-conscious life, a path less traversed? Why are Muslim youth groping in the dark for guidance? Why is the stage set for them to disavow themselves from their faith? Who has set this stage? Who or what do I hold to be culpable for my almost spiritual death? I made it, Alhamdulillah, but there are scores who do not. They will not confess that they have in essence left the fold of the religion but they have decided that they will not offer salah and will distance themselves from the Quran, not out of laziness, but out of the conviction that the less Islam they have in their life, the better they will be for it.
The loss of a meaningful Islam in the lives of young people is a damning indictment of our failings as an ummah to pass on this deen to our progeny. We dropped the baton and bowed out of the race altogether. The story of how I came to the life-changing conclusion that Islam is the truth is a story for another time. I want to focus on the internal monologue that occurs in a young mind once they have reached this conclusion and the challenges they face in carving a niche for themselves in a Godless world.
The anger that was burgeoning inside of me for being deprived of an authentic understanding of Islam left me bitter and heartbroken. However, as I slowly began to reclaim Islam, steadily started enslaving myself to God, for the first time my enraptured gaze stared at the chains that had shackled me previously. Chains that were invisible but which I could now clearly behold as the ideologies I had subconsciously been ascribing to, the doctrines that I was being fed at school and the dogmas being thrust down my throat through the media. I recognized that the views I had endorsed were part of larger isms and I could put my finger on them and name them. The reason why this became so glaringly obvious is that now that my fitrah beckoned me to believe, opinions being propagated in society that were starkly against Islamic teachings began to bother me immensely.
Alarm bells would be ringing and red flags would show up where previously I would nod my head vociferously in agreement. Now, I valued the Quran as Gods speech, I loved Muhammad (pbuh) and without reticence strove to follow his teachings, because I recognized it for the truth that it was. This is the most transformative experience because once your reason and fitrah arrive at the truth value of Islam, everything that Islam espouses, everything that emanates from within the Islamic canons, of its unequivocal prohibitions and commandments, you submit to. Western sensibilities be damned.
The Struggle of Identity
This new commitment would not allow me to sit silently in Sociology class where my Muslim teacher would assert that gender is a social construct. My heart would wince when my classmates would appreciate Marxism and how aptly Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses and then go on to make a crude joke about the “maulvis” and “mullahs”. I had once believed that the poor were given religion to pacify them so they could continue being exploited and not once question their oppressors but rather seek solace in some make belief paradise. I began to identify why I thought so badly of my religion before and it dawned on me that a plethora of Western ideologies had permeated into the very fabric of the Muslim world.
Why did I think that the idea of a God as the creator was far-fetched? Well, of course, it was a ludicrous notion, the creation myth had been busted by Darwin’s theory of evolution. As an avid Biology student, I knew this was more than just an insinuation, it was an assertion — and I did not question it; it fit in very neatly into the worldview that I was developing. I can still go back to that reverie, as a young child of eight or nine years old telling my mother that my Quran teacher was just another Homosapien!
And my all-time favourite: Muslim women are oppressed in Islam. This was not even contested, it was fact. As I studied feminism, I understood why I had highlighted those verses in the Quran. What my yardstick had been. What my criterion of judgment had been. Now that I actually believed in Islam, beyond mere lip service but rather at the core of my being, everything started irking me. There was not a subject left except that I had major contentions against its core principles. I found myself alone in trying to argue against the status quo. Being at the receiving end of deriding comments and condescending glances did not help the matter. What goes around comes around I guess.
My faith fell into turmoil once more, this time not because I was not convinced of its intellectual veracity but because I was so utterly exhausted trying to ride the tiger of modernity while simultaneously shielding my faith against a myriad of assaults hurled its way. I had come to value this panacea and was vehemently protective over it because of how tumultuous the sojourn had been to reach it. I was acutely aware that if I loosened my grip for even a moment, Islam could slip away again.
I knew that this hyper vigilance needed to be offset with a strong spiritual connection with God. However, the intellectual warfare against religion is bound to take a toll on your spirituality especially if you do not have a religious support system to fall back on, be that traditional scholars or family members. The cognitive dissonance that ensued because of the incompatibility of what I believed, with what I was being taught, wore me thin. Shaytan knew that and he used that against me with the barrage of wasswass he would send my way. In hindsight, the intensity of wasswass that I experienced eventually strengthened my beliefs; I could never be in doubt about the existence of the belligerent devil again. He was pretty persistent in trying to get me to drop the religious act; everyone around me was waiting for this new ‘fad’ of mine to subside. Praise be to God, to the chagrin of Iblees, salah kept me alive, it was my ventilator up until I could breathe on my own again.
I had once tried to communicate to a loved one what I was struggling with. The remark that was made is still something I think about often. I was told that praying and fasting and hijab and all that Islam stuff has nothing to do with your education, your career, or any other aspect of your life. Religion is restricted to the masjid, it has no place out in the real world. It is confined to the personal domain. So you carry on praying but there is no need to linger on any of the secular stuff you are struggling to reconcile faith with. Religion has nothing to say about it. I was gobsmacked, truly horrified at what I heard. Muslims are enthusiastically looking to emulate the West and its path to ‘prosperity’ by embracing separation of masjid and state, or more accurately separating religion from the realm of all other human endeavor.
‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and render unto God the things which are Gods’.
We Muslims should be rejecting this outright. Instead, we are going down the same lizard hole.
Islam and Secular Islam
The colonialists might have departed but their farewell gift to us was the dismantling of our education system where Islam and the Islamic secular as Dr. Sherman Jackson aptly coins it, were two sides of the same coin. They not only coexisted harmoniously but the notion that the two are separate spheres pertaining to completely different domains was inconceivable. Anatomy was taught in the same madrasah’s where the Quran was being committed to memory.
There was no awkward tension. In order to continue the colonization of our minds, our imperialist masters handed us the leftover crumbs from their dinner table. Not only was education going to alienate Muslims from their own faith, but it was also going to drain them of any critical analysis skills so they could never figure out that they were being played. Or, in any case, find out only when it was too late when the cancer became malignant. Why destroy Islam via physical conquest when you can just convince the adherents to reject it with their ‘rationale’? It is a much more sustainable method of colonialization.
The syllabus of the modern education system disseminated throughout the Muslim lands has a clear agenda. It is not neutral as purported rather it espouses the aim to usher in the Godless age — they are not even subtle about it. As I was entering the lion’s den, back to my former colonial masters in the United Kingdom. It was bad enough being conservative in Pakistan where people at least pretended to have faith; here the mockery of God was blatant and ubiquitous. See the problem is that you cannot turn your Muslim brain off. It does not come with a switch. We have a word called taqwa, roughly translated as God consciousness, and taqwa is not confined to just prayer, it is supposed to manifest itself at all times, in all places. That is the whole point of it. When you send your teenager to university, having extradited his or her religious upbringing to maulvi sahab or Sunday school, if they do not have their salah prioritized, their Muslim identity cemented, their mental faculties will face the brunt of relentless intellectual attacks against faith. It is not just a degree you will be paying for, but also a very expensive indoctrination of liberal ideas.
The outcomes can be varied ranging from apostasy to a reduction of Islam to a cultural identity, to my favourite category of progressive, liberal, Muslims. How does the latter group like their Islam? Flexible to the extent of being unrecognizable served with a side of appeasement to the socio-political climate. The progressive Muslims are a contradiction in terms, they have a proclivity to want to dispose of what Islam actually says on a matter and replace it with what they would have it say. Of course, that would have to be in keeping with the liberal criterion of right and wrong. The concept of God being the ultimate authority in Islam is a concept they do not entertain.
For the conservative Muslim (one whose moral compass is the Quran and Sunnah), sitting in a lecture hall listening to your openly atheist professor is an exercise in restraining exasperated sighs. You are constantly reiterating to yourself that you must be critical of the subject matter you are being taught, do not accept it at face value. This goes for every subject under the sun. The sciences are taught with the assumption that the order and spectacular beauty that you see in nature is all random, let us not dwell too much on being awed and moved by what we study, let us instead divert our attention to how we can manipulate it to serve us. Essentially let us devoid knowledge from true tadabbur and tafakkur, let us engage in a superficial study based on reductionist principles and underpinned by naturalist philosophy, using the miracle of consciousness that we are still trying to explain away. If one were to take this mindset to its logical conclusion, you would end up with a very dark view of humankind. It makes complete sense that Nietzsche became clinically insane.
“There is No God”
The humanities are also steeped with challenges for Muslims. Everything that is taught is taught with the assumption that there is no God; there is no such thing as revelation. If there is no prior connection with the divine, how do you think such an environment will impact a Muslim? The God that you worship, prostrate to several times a day, when you walk out the door of your house, you operate and function in an environment that mocks faith in the Divine. Without spiritual fortitude, swimming against the stream is no easy feat. Most Muslims will and do get persuaded by the dominant, progressive narrative and are quick to proffer a ‘reformist’ interpretation of Islam. Suddenly, matters of unanimous consensus spanning over 1400 years are open to scrutiny, all under the banner of inclusivity, acceptance, and social justice.
What about the small minority of youth that is unwavering on its stance to hold tenaciously onto Islam as per the Quran and Sunnah? These vestiges of hope survived through divine guidance and/or an Islamically committed household. Very often they feel spurred on by their faith to serve God in whatever capacity they can. The practice of Islam and what one chooses to pursue in life are inextricably linked and these young Muslims aspire to create positive change for the ummah and not just be another cog in the wheel. Slight problem, the world is Godless and you cannot bring him to work with you. Not in academia, not in the media, and certainly not in politics.
When what is taught at the institutional level needs to be taken with a pound of salt, contriving a route to impact the ummah has become even more of a challenge. We are beginning to see that climbing the ladder of success via educational and professional excellence without a thorough grounding in Islam, in order to reach a station of power within politics; media and Science have backfired badly. We need representation they said, we need more Muslims out there they said. Small caveat, in order to get to the top you need to ally yourself with the left and essentially give up your ethics and values as a Muslim. Compromise for the sake of the greater good is the euphemism often used. It is becoming clear that conservative Muslims will not be reaching those positions any time soon unless they start sputtering the same nonsense. So where do they channel themselves?
The problem gets exacerbated when there is no mentorship that can guide young Muslims, in particular mentors that are experts in their fields while also being knowledgeable about Islam. The scholars in the West are beginning to wake up to the reality that we are losing our youth, hence you see initiatives like the Yaqeen Institute springing up. It is a laudable effort and I wish I had these resources when I felt my faith being shaken. However, if we really want to reverse the tide, we cannot resort to band-aid solutions for gaping wide wounds. The Islamization of knowledge is long overdue, efforts to recast knowledge in an Islamic mould can only begin when people understand the urgency with which the conflict of modern knowledge with religious thought needs to be tackled.
Zaytuna College in California comes to mind as one of the few institutions trying to reinstate an Islamic paradigm in the study of subjects like logic, politics, and astronomy. We need to make this a norm across the spectrum of subjects, in all parts of the ummah. It is a long-term initiative that requires Muslim intellectuals to band together with the common goal of establishing our own educational institutes; with our own syllabi so we can truly respond to Gods call when He says:
“Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the most bountiful one who taught by the pen, who taught man what he did not know.”