How I Lost My Faith
by Hassan Radwan
I was born in 1959, 5th child in a family of 8. My father, Aziz Radwan, was from Egypt. He brought us up as Muslims but wasn't very strict. He used to say ˜Religion is about how you treat people.” He paid a Tunisian Sheikh to teach us Quran & Arabic at home. My mother, Mary Magson, was from a Christian family but converted to Islam largely to please my father. She used to say, “It’s all the same God.”
I wasn't religious growing up and sometimes resented the fact I’d been given a funny name and exotic religion in a country where few shared them at the time. But as I reached my late teens, confusion about my identity & a series of events caused me to re-think my views about Islam.
The first was the Islamic revolution in Iran. I found TV images inspiring: defiant civilians rising up against a brutal tyrant. I was also aware the role religion was playing - my religion, Islam.
I was confronted with another example of the power of religion when my close friend returned from a camping trip to announce he was now a born-again Christian. He became irritatingly exultant about his faith and constantly attempted to convert me. But the more he explained things such as the Trinity, Original Sin, and Atonement, the more I knew these were concepts I could never believe in.
A few months later I saw Cat Stevens on television, giving a farewell concert. He had become a Muslim, changed his name to Yusuf Islam & resigned from the music business. I felt that if such a creative person like Cat Stevens saw something worthwhile in Islam, perhaps I, as someone born with an Islamic heritage, should take it more seriously.
The final episode was when my father invited me to go to Egypt with him for a holiday. I was now 19 years of age and at a crossroads in my life. Unsure of my identity and where I was going.We stayed at my uncle Fouad’s house in Cairo. He was very religious & we soon got into discussions about religion & he gave me a copy of the Quran to read. As a child I had read and learnt a few Surahs but this was the first time I read it right through & to my surprise I found I couldn’t put it down.
The Quran is not like any ordinary book. It doesn’t follow any of the conventions of standard prose. It has no definite beginning nor end. There is no plot to follow and no neat resolution. It jumps abruptly from one account to another. Even its style changes with little warning, from a steady narrative to fast paced rhyming prose. Yet I found it strangely irresistible. It seemed to speak to me on a deep level and I found it comforting.
God is light upon light. Closer than your jugular vein, ready to answer the one who calls upon him. Wherever you turn there is the face of God. Be humble & avoid arrogance. Forgive and control your anger. Treat family, orphans & those in need with kindness. Stand up for justice & keep your trust. No one shall carry the burden of another and no one shall be wronged in the slightest. God sees and appreciates all you do. Not a leaf falls from a tree but God is aware of it.
I felt inspired & the words moved me to tears. I was certain it was the gentle and loving presence of God speaking to me. I spent most of the holiday reading Quran & meeting members of my extended family where conversations invariably turned to religion. I returned to England full of zeal & determination to immerse myself in Islam.
I immediately enrolled for a BA in Arabic & Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) taking Tafseer & Pre-Islamic Poetry as my specialist subjects. I was fortunate to have three wonderful & charismatic Arabic scholars at SOAS at the time who in successive years each became my personal tutor during my 5 years there. Dr. David Cowan, the convert & author of Modern Literary Arabic, Dr. Wansbrough the author of Quranic Studies and Dr. Abdel Haleem the author of the popular translation of the Quran.
As a young Muslim keen to soak up everything I could about Islam, I found the atmosphere at SOAS invigorating. I attended every extra-curricular lecture and debate. I devoured anything and everything that had Islam as its subject matter and the SOAS Library became my home, with its shelves packed full of rare manuscripts. I stayed late into the night and regularly had to be asked to leave by staff locking up.
In between my efforts to learn more about Islam, I was also busy spreading the word to others. I was motivated by an ardent desire to share what I had discovered & to save them from Hell.
A friend invited me to join him on a Tablighi Jamaat - a movement aimed at bringing Muslims back to the path of pure Islam. I found myself on a long road trip heading to the Dewsbury Mosque nestled in the Yorkshire moors. There we listened to talks and invited locals to attend prayers & lectures.
The experience of being isolated in the mosque - cut off from the world - had a profound effect on me. By the time I returned home I found my priorities had shifted. I was less concerned about this life and far more focused on the next life. I let my beard grow longer, I wore a Jilbab and cap. I not only prayed all the compulsory prayers, but I prayed all the extra prayers, too. I did my best to follow each and every Sunnah I could. I fasted every Monday & Thursday, I sipped water in three breath pauses, entered a door with my right foot, slept on my right side, used a Miswak daily and so on. I was determined to keep in my mind that heightened state Taqwa that I had felt at the Dewsbury mosque.
I became president of the SOAS Students Union Islamic Society from 1981 until 1984. During my presidency I set up an Islamic book stall, organized talks, debates, films, a prayer room and permission to use one of the lecture rooms for Friday Prayers.
We shared the responsibility of giving the Khutbah amongst ourselves as well as inviting speakers from outside such as Adil Salahi the translator of Sayyid Qutbs tafseer In the Shade of the Qur'an & Dr Kalim Siddiqui, the Director of The Muslim Institute in Endsleigh Street & his understudy, Dr Ghayasuddin.
It had been my spiritual search for meaning & identity that had brought me to Islam. But it was soon taken for granted that I would support the political stance of other Muslims on issues such as Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan and later on Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq.
Traditional views of Islam see no division between politics and religion. There is no Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto God the things that are Gods. Prophet Muhammad was a military leader as well as a spiritual leader and applied Islam to every part of life, both public and private.
Muslims were to be regarded as one body; If one part of the body feels pain, then the whole body suffers. Therefore, I felt my commitment to Islam meant a commitment to my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world. I began to take a keen interest in global politics. The major issues at the time were the Iranian Islamic revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the ongoing issue of the Palestinians.
The plight of the Palestinians was highlighted in 1982 when unarmed Palestinian men, women and children were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, by Christian militia while the camps were surrounded by the Israeli military.
I remember seeing pictures of whole families lying dead in the narrow streets, their bodies bloated by the hot sun, hands still clutching the ID papers they had been desperately showing. The images created enormous anger within me.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan triggered different emotions. The struggle of the Mujahideen against the might of a superpower was inspiring and it seemed to confirm the oft-repeated claim that only by returning to ‘pure Islam’ could Muslims ever put right injustices we had suffered. My brother and I led an Islamic Circle at the ‘The East Finchley Dawa Society.’ It was for young Muslims learning more about their faith. The meetings were mixed and informal. We invited speakers such as Sheikh Darsh from Regent’s Park Mosque, a delegation from The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, the modernist Dr. Essawi, and brother Yusuf Islam. The Dawa society produced its own magazine called “The Clarion” which I edited and included articles about Islam and topical issues. We also organized sports activities & camping trips.
It was noticeable that by the mid 1980s some hardline and narrow-minded political Islamic groups began monopolizing such meetings. The most prominent of these were the Salafis who espoused a very literalist form of Islam that sought to cleanse the religion of what they regard as innovations, superstitions and heresies. Throughout the 80s, Saudi Arabia financed the spread of Salafi doctrine through mosques & bookshops up and down the country. It's no exaggeration to say they changed the face of Islam in the UK & indeed the world.
The Salafis were not the only group gaining ground at the time. Hizbu-Tahrir - a group aimed at creating an Islamic State in Muslim countries - were their main competitor. One of their prominent members at the time, Farid Kasim, became a regular visitor to our Dawa Society. His one overriding obsession was the Islamic State & often hijacked discussions to propagate his views. Farid and his mentor Omar Bakri were too radical even for Hizbu-Tahrir and they left to form an even more militant group called Al-Muhajiroun.
Islam places great emphasis on marriage and as a young single Muslim I was soon being encouraged to get married to complete my Deen. In 1983 I was introduced to a devout Muslimah and we married a short while later. Marriage has the effect of cementing your beliefs and lifestyle as they are now shared with your partner & children and your investment in it becomes set in stone.
I had 5 children in total across two marriages, though my baby daughter Huda was premature and died in hospital a week after she was born. I remember staying up every night praying and making Dua to God to save her. When she died, I consoled myself that - God knows best, it was a test & she was in a better place. I also blamed myself. I must have failed somewhere at being a good Muslim. I tried even harder to be better Muslim.
After graduating I began my Phd into the Tafseer of al-Zamakhshari. I had translated a third of the tafseer and written two full folders of commentary when the need to earn money for my family meant that I shelved my studies to complete my Postgraduate Certificate of Education so I could begin my 30 years as a school teacher - 15 of which I spent as a senior teacher at Islamia School - the one founded by Yusuf Islam. Islamia School was both a mad and a wonderful place. The sincerity, commitment and genuine warmth of the individuals involved made me feel part of a huge family. The pupils I taught over the years will always remain in my heart and were as dear to me as my own children. Throughout my years there it was always much more than a job.
I was of course faced with incidents & awkward issues that I put in a box labelled ‘God will explain later’. But I was so sure Islam was true that if there was anything that didn't make sense, I would put it down to my own limitations.It's very difficult to doubt & question things you've taken for granted since childhood & become emotionally attached to, particularly when they form the basis of your whole identity. We only tend to question things when we look at them from a fresh perspective. But in order to get that we need to be shaken out of our comfort zone. A series of events in my life gradually began to do just that and forced me to look at things from a different angle. The first major one was 911.
I was teaching at Islamia School on September the 11th as the news of the WTC attacks began filtering through. The school closed early due to death threats made to the school. I remember there was an eerie silence as I drove home. I asked myself how anyone could do such a thing in the name of God and my religion. How could they get Islam so totally wrong?
My instinct was of course to distance Islam from their actions. These people were motivated by a twisted sense of grievance be it political, social or psychological and were just using Islam.
However, some of the ridiculous conspiracy theories that suddenly emerged from the lips of otherwise intelligent people, shocked me. Worse still were a minority who actually tried to defend the attacks, arguing that they were not innocent because they had voted for the Kufr system that was bombing Muslims.
A close friend of mine had become a hardline Salafi and had begun following a Sheikh who was telling his followers to emigrate to Afghanistan to fight the Kuffar. He read me a Bayan from his Imam that was full of quotes from Quran & hadith used to justify the most abhorrent ideology.
Here in front of me was a perfectly sane and intelligent individual who was completely certain he was right in defending the indefensible. Of course, I dismissed his views as a twisted perversion of Islam, yet I couldn’t help feeling shocked at how he could believe these things with such utter conviction. It left me wondering if I too was certain of things and yet could be completely wrong.There were also events in my personal life that shook me out of my comfort zone, including the breakdown of my second marriage. But the greatest blow was the illness of my eldest son. He had fallen in with a group of friends who were smoking. Ironically, they were from Islamia School, the very place I had sent him to be safe and secure. Unfortunately, cannabis triggered schizophrenia in him. Something that he has now suffered from for the past 13 years, requiring regular medication & constant support.
Again, many prayers were offered and in particular Tawassul - begging God - because God loves those who beg him. I thought back to the nights I had begged God to save my daughter Huda. I had believed with all my heart the words of the Quran that said: ‘Call upon Me, I will answer you" (40:60) and "(He it is) who answers the distressed one when he calls upon Him and removes the evil." (27:62). Now here I was again begging God not to take my son - the light of my eyes - away from me, but as always, the heavens stared back with silent indifference.
Like most Muslims - I made a thousand and one excuses for God’s apparent lack of response. It was a test & God will reward you for your Sabr. God has a greater wisdom. It was for the best. It was my fault - I must have done something wrong or my intentions were wrong. And then of course there was the old: God responds to what we need, not what we want. Clearly, I needed my heart broken.
The Quran mocks the pagans & challenges them with a very simple concrete test to prove their idols are false. "Call on those whom you assert besides Him, they have neither the power to remove your troubles from you nor to change them." (17:56) they will not answer" (46:5) But does God answer prayers? Couldn’t the excuses I gave God be applied to the pagan idols?
The Quran asks:
“Who is more astray than he who calls on other than God Allah, who will not respond to him.”
But why shouldn’t this same logic be applied to Allah? Why is it foolish to believe in idols that don’t answer, yet not foolish to believe in a God that doesn’t answer?
I was still teaching at Islamia School when the 7/7 London attacks took place and again, I was confronted with embarrassingly absurd conspiracy theories as well as shocking attempts at justification. Discussions in the staff room in better times had generally been about trivial matters such as what things break wudu & are food additives from insects, haram? But now I started asking how could Muslims use Qur'an & hadith to justify acts of terrorism? Why would God never forgive Shirk? Isn't Hell an excessive punishment? Of course, the answers came in the form of verses, hadith and sayings of scholars. In the past I would have just said, Mashallah & nodded in pious agreement but now I couldn't help questioning the logic of these texts.
I started looking at the Quran in a much more critical way - something we Muslims never truly do. Our starting point is that it is the perfect word of God and reading it is an act of devotion not critical assessment. Any problems that are highlighted are due to our flawed and limited understanding. Any energy spent dwelling on them is only directed at absolving the Quran rather than entertaining the slightest possibility it could be wrong.
However, I was determined to be brutally honest with myself. Amongst the verses that troubled me, the following stood out, as it was difficult to dismiss using the usual ‘context’ argument. “As for those women from whom you fear rebellion (first) admonish them (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) hit them.” (4:34)
I tried many times to explain it in a way that made sense, but it gnawed at my conscience. I re-visited the arguments I had heard many times that the conditions and restrictions which the Quran placed upon wife beating amounted to a virtual ban, particularly since Muslims are obligated to follow the Prophet’s example and he never laid a finger on his wives, saying “The best of you is the best to his wife.” - And he said; such hitting must be “not severe” (ghayr mubarrih) and so the scholars say it must be “light” and was just a symbolic show of displeasure to be administered using a tooth stick.
But these arguments no longer convinced me. If it was true that these restrictions amount to a ban, then why not just ban it? The Quran had no problem banning polytheism which was far more entrenched religiously and financially & didn’t hurt anyone. I came across interpretations that claimed the words “hit them” actually mean “leave them alone” but this explanation not only revealed complete ignorance of Arabic it highlighted that I wasn't the only Muslim who couldn't believe God would allow a man to hit his wife. But instead of questioning the Quran they resorted to absurd apologetics. Seeing how desperate they were to protect their faith against all reason only served to weaken mine.
Once I doubted one verse, I soon found myself doubting others, particularly those about Hell.
No other holy book describes the tortures of Hell in such graphic detail as the Quran. Unbelievers are to be kept alive, so they can have their skin repeatedly roasted or peeled off by hooked rods of iron. Molten brass poured into their mouths and over their heads so that their faces melt. There will be no respite, no let up, just constant torture for eternity. Each time they die they will be brought back again so that they keep screaming in utter agony.
I remember one Khutbah where the Sheikh pointed out the scientific miracle in the verse that says their skins will be replaced. “Science has only recently discovered that pain receptors are in the skin.” he said beaming triumphantly, “Yet here is Allah telling us 1400 years ago that the unbelievers will have their pain receptors replaced so that the pain will never stop.”
How can it make any sense for God to torture his flawed & limited creation without end? What purpose does it serve?
I remembered reading about a cruel Central Asian dictator who had Muslim rebels executed by boiling them alive in vats of scorching oil. I thought what kind of insane monster would do that? Yet the Quran says God will not only do that - but will do it forever, preventing these wretched souls from dying so they endure this unimaginable agony forever. It contradicts all reason & justice & makes a mockery of the Quran’s claim in typically hyperbolic style that God is: "The Most Merciful of those who show Mercy!”
Like many Muslims I used to respond to questions about Hell by saying: “Oh it’s just metaphorical.” But I had to admit that this didn’t make sense either. Metaphors don't change the meaning of something horrible into something nice. If the Qur'an uses such graphic torture as a metaphor, then it means some sort of unimaginable suffering. It cannot mean something benign.
So, whether unbelievers are to be literally burnt forever or it's a metaphor for some other inconceivable torment - the result is exactly the same: A punishment that will cause unimaginable suffering & the most extreme pain possible whether it be physical, mental or spiritual.
There now seemed no end of verses that I could no longer ignore. Verses that allowed slavery or punishments such as flogging and amputating hands. Nonsensical stories of Solomon and his army jinn and talking birds, Yunus swallowed by a whale, squadrons of stone-throwing birds that obliterate armies and the savage tribes of Gog & Magog imprisoned behind an iron wall
The creation of Adam & Eve which is clearly at odds with the evidence that modern humans are a result of a long cumulative process of evolution. Or the mighty Kingdom of Solomon the like of which will never be seen again. Yet despite an abundance of historical & archeological evidence for other empires at the time there is not one scrap of evidence that Solomon even existed let alone had a mighty kingdom. Or the adventures of Thul-Qarnayn that sound suspiciously like the well-known fictional legends of Alexander the Great.
The Quran was simply unravelling before my very eyes. It was as though I had been under a magic spell and suddenly, I had woken up. I asked myself what was it that is so miraculous about the Quran?
The traditional claim is that the Qur'an is inimitable and of such linguistic excellence no human could produce.
Firstly, being inimitable doesn’t mean it’s from God. Most authors & artists leave their fingerprint on their work making it impossible to imitated exactly. It doesn’t mean it’s from God.
Secondly, linguistic excellence is subjective. I’ve read several books by Arabic scholars detailing the amazing style, rhetoric, linguistic techniques etc., but the very process of deciding what to highlight & what criteria to use is inevitably subjective. Is repetition always a good thing? Is ambiguity a sign of divine eloquence? Are verses, the meanings of which Muslims have argued over for 1400 years, proof of superhuman clarity?
If I cannot see this miracle after 50 years of studying the Quran & classical Arabic, how can most Muslims - never mind non-Muslims? Less than 5% of the human race speaks Arabic and only a small percentage of Arabic speakers know classical Arabic in any depth. A miracle that most humans can’t verify for themselves is a poor miracle indeed. Was that really the best an all-Wise God could do?
A more modern defense of the Quran’s divine nature is that it contains scientific miracles. But when I looked into each one it was obvious it was utter nonsense.
I’d kept my doubts and views to myself apart from some discussions with my two brothers. Then out of the blue I received a text from my eldest sister. It read:
“How u doing? I heard startlingly that u r becoming an apostate! Maybe u should try 2 get hold of american writer jeffry lang’s ‘help i’m losing my religion’ love”.
Seeing the word apostate made my heart skip a beat. I put the phone quickly back in my pocket. I told myself that I shouldn’t reply as sharing my thoughts would only upset my sister. But the truth was I still couldn’t admit to myself that I was an Apostate.
My dwindling faith did however make it impossible to carry on at Islamia School and I resigned in 2006. I got a job as an online teaching mentor. This gave me the flexibility to take care of my four children and my mother who was now suffering from Alzheimers. My two ex-wives were happy for the children to stay full time with me - they knew I was a good father and had always been the sort of person people could rely on. I was good at sorting things. Fixing things. Taking care of things. But unknown to them I was gradually slipping into a deep depression.
There were several factors. I was juggling so many things, trying to stay in control. A single working father, taking care of my children, the eldest of whom was now living in supported accommodation for those suffering mental health issues. On top of that caring for my mother with Alzheimer's.
My day would be getting up early to wash and dress my mother and make her breakfast & give her medication. Get my two younger ones up, make breakfast & pack their lunches. Take them to school. Visit my eldest son. Clean his room and cook him food. Come home and cook for my mum. Spend some time online checking and sending work to my students. Pick up my children from school. Cook dinner. Deal with my mother’s mood changes which often meant the children had to ushered away to their bedrooms. Help with homework. Get mother changed & put to bed. Then get up several times throughout the night to my mother calling me. Her Alzheimer's affected her sleep pattern and all sense of time.
On top of this I had lost my faith and had slipped into a nihilistic existential crisis where I could see no meaning nor joy in life. I felt powerless & the situation seemed hopeless.
After 3 years of this routine - day in day out - I went to the doctor for advice. She prescribed antidepressants. But that had the immediate effect of making me feel suicidal and a few weeks later I attempted suicide. It was the lowest point in my life. But strangely it lifted a weight from me. My sister stepped in to care for my mother & my two ex-wives realized the stress I had been under and also stepped up to take some of the burdens I’d been carrying. My brother insisted I stay with him for a while on his farm in Oxfordshire.
Getting away from all the stress and spending time out in the countryside was amazingly therapeutic. I immersed myself in work on the farm doing deliveries, helping with lambing, doing the BBQ on Open Days, collecting eggs, making wooden benches and just about every other odd job. I was able to get my perspective back.
I can’t say I have solved my existential crisis, but it no longer seems to matter as much. As far as Islam is concerned - I know I don’t believe in it anymore. It doesn’t mean I have fundamentally changed. I’m the same person I’ve always been. But one cannot simply *choose* to believe or disbelieve. I simply no-longer believed the Quran was the word of God. I wasn’t evil, arrogant, bad or willfully turning away. I had struggled with it long and hard. I had attempted over many years to make sense of problematic passages, but I had to admit in all honesty the answers I found didn’t satisfy me intellectually, spiritually or morally. If there is a God, he would surely want me to use the heart and mind he gave me, despite its limitations. He would surely appreciate my honesty & sincerity in calling it as I see it.
I don’t hate Islam. I know Islam, like other religions, brings a great deal of good and comfort to many people’s lives & I know of course that Muslims are good decent loving people. And whether I like it or not Islam remains very much part of my life because of Muslim family and friends and of course because it has been the major influence in my life for almost 60 years. Many of its good teachings are still ingrained in my character. But I simply don’t believe it is from God. I believe all religions are man-made. As for God - I’m Agnostic - I just don’t know if there is some sort of God or not. I don’t think anyone really does, if they’re really honest with themselves.
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