When I was perhaps about 12, I went on a journey called “Umrah.” This is a short pilgrimage that involves going to the holy city of Mecca and performing rituals that are quite symbolic in their nature.
Going to the main mosque where the Ka’bah, otherwise known as the holiest site in all of Islam is located was an experience like no other. Here was a place that, in its grand marble flooring seemed to just cascade endlessly like a hall of mirrors.
As we walked through, there was a deep sense of excitement and gradually increasing fervour until, finally, we stood in front of the centre, gazing upon the Ka’bah where it is believed, the throne of God is located directly under.
My parents wept, and I also wept. It was a sensation of interacting with something so grand, something only seen in pictures and videos, talked about and prayed about that to finally behold it in my sight, was overwhelming.
But even at a young age, I also noticed the other side to the experience. I saw the figure of the Five Star Hilton hotel, towering over the holy mosque in view, and thought to myself “How disrespectful! How can they allow this?”
It turns out that quite a lot of buildings are located within the vicinity of the holy mosque, and they make for quite profitable endeavours, being so closely located to the mosque. Perhaps the Saudi Government could enact a zone around the holy sites, not allowing any worldly matters or anything that has the capacity to make money sit in such close vicinity to such grand divinity; but that would be a hugely wasted opportunity for revenue.
I mention this memory from my childhood to illustrate the point that even back then, the political subtext of the Saudi family lurked in the background of the most holiest of sites. God’s house as it were, had been infiltrated by the oil barons. The more I lived and the more I saw and experienced, the more I began to realise that you cannot disentangle political ideology from religion; they are deeply related.
Just to be clear, I am not conflating the Saudi (or Wahabi) version of Islam with the mainstream or orthodox Islam practised by millions of people today.
The Islam I grew up with was the London-Islam. It was the anachronism of living in a small and protected community and defending against the antagonist (western culture).
This meant that my experience as a child and teenager was always being split into two; my life with my Muslim friends and family took one direction, while my experience with the rest of the world took another. And at the centre I felt myself being pulled across, often feeling like I had to choose sides or be forever interacting with my own hypocrisy.
I could not go in one direction or the other because I would have to reset myself like a magnet, making sure I always stayed in the middle. Which is precisely, nowhere.
This is by no fault of mine or of Islam; this is built into the experience of living in the system.
Muslims believe that profit through interest is strictly forbidden, yet the economic foundations of their society is built upon it.
Muslims are told to stay chaste, but they live in an increasingly sexualised system where the institution of marriage is dwindling.
Some Muslims feel the threat of negative associations with extremism, and have to deal with hate crimes and prejudice as a result.
If getting closer to God is the objective, then the most sensible choice would be to emigrate somewhere where that worship can continue, uninterrupted by the corruptions of the world. I believe this is what the Prophet Muhammad himself did, when he fled to another city.
I did not do this, nor did my family, nor did anyone else around me. Why? The answer is as follows:
Just how the oil barons have infiltrated the house of God, in my opinion, the the power of capitalist ideology has infiltrated the orthodox Muslim condition.
Muslims are not taught to own the means of production. They are told to stay exactly where they are — where the money is.
Knowledge must be spread according to protocol, children must be doctors, lawyers or any other profession that yields maximum financial gain.
Prayers must be counted (and measured in terms of their quality, accuracy and efficiency), fasts in Ramadan must be broken exactly at the pinpoint precise time(rather than referring to the general movement of the sun)
Women must cover up exactly as it says in the book, rather than refer to the relative cultural standards of modesty as evidenced in different eras of history.
Sins must be pointed out, measured and counted and culled, every Friday, as part of the Sin-team’s routine server maintenance.
This is forbidden, that is forbidden, do this, do that, wrong here, right here.
Think about the afterlife — cash in on that reward and build up your credit rating with the Divine Authority.
To even open up any room for conjecture, philosophical discussion, interpretation is heresy, because technically, you need the right qualifications to do so.
I would like to flip that on its head and state the following : to practice a faith is to manifest an internal philosophy, and if you don’t have philosophical training, don’t tell others what to do.
Some of the greatest classical Islamic thinkers (Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al Ghazali) were not just pioneers of Islamic teachings, they were heavy weight academics in their own right.
Ibn Sina practically invented algebra and modern medicine, and contributed philosophically as well; but philosophy is always interdisciplinary. It is insight garnered by reaching the advanced level of another discipline — and therefore reflecting upon the deeper meaning of how things connect.
You can read a lot about maths, memorise formulas, speak about its impact on the world, but if you can’t solve a formula; you’re nothing.
I realised, as I often reflected on my earlier memories, that I was being taught by people who, academically speaking, have no other qualifications besides Islam in their pocket, or have not matched their Islamic knowledge with another intensive field of study.
The same people who taught me what right and wrong might be, had absolutely no training in the philosophy of ethics. The people who taught me how to debate, didn’t even touch a post-graduate in mathematics. The people who taught me Quran had no training in classical literature, Arabic, English or otherwise.
If the stakes are as high as they can possibly get, i.e I burn in hell forever or I ascend to paradise, then can I truly and honestly say that I am okay with that?
I would never let a doctor come within ten feet to my body with any sharp object or ask me to pop a pill in my mouth unless I was absolutely sure they had qualifications and years of experience to make sure that I take care of my body, because I’d like to keep it in a painless state.
But eventually I’ll die. My soul, it is said, will last forever. I need someone way more qualified than doctors or surgeons to take care of my soul, because the stakes are, well, infinite.
Thought-experiments like these allow me to unpack what is happening around me. But when I do these things I am accused of “thinking too deeply” or “logic can only take you so far” or my favourite “there are just some things we cannot know.”
These are easy cop-outs for those who want to cling to their beliefs because they are essentially terrified of looking deeper. They are terrified of doubt. They are terrified of losing what they grew up with. That is not faith; it is fear.
I left the Islam I grew up with because I realised I had to press the hard reset button. The people had corrupted it; and I was not OK with lying to myself or staying complacent.
The easiest step was to acknowledge the doubt, because by definition, faith cannot exist if there is no doubt to ignore.
The hardest step was to let go of the fear — which I began to understand was a fear of letting go of my culture and sentimental associations.
But if I want the truth, I have to be prepared to struggle for it. I have to get used to the idea of being constantly challenged and uncomfortable and be willing to accept that I could be wrong at any point and immediately have to change course.
Tell me, are you ready for that too?