Welcome to Mehfil-e-Skeptics (part 1)

My name is Kiran, and I will be your hostess. 🙂

I have been working in the ExMuslim movement and on the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) forum since 2008. I’ve administered and served on the boards of various Muslim and Ex-Muslim organizations, and I am a co-organizer of Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) and the Toronto chapter of Ex-Muslims of Canada.

As my introductory post, I would like to share my story about how I grew up, and how I came to be an Ex-Muslim. This is going to be split into two posts, part 1 is what you are reading. I will post part 2 on Friday 18 October, 2013. [***Updated 18 October 2013: I have posted part 2 of my intro.***]

Born in Pakistan in the late 1970s, I moved to North America with my family in my early teens. My extended family was a mixed bag in terms of religiosity. My mom’s side has always been more religious and more practicing. My dad’s side has also been influenced by Islamic religious cultural practices, albeit in more subtle ways. Half of my relatives identify as Shia, the other half – as Sunni. I was raised a typical Muslim girl: taught to pray, read the Quran in Arabic, and perform the myriad rituals and rites pertaining to Muslim women.

My parents, though traditional in their own ways, were always somewhat non-conformist. My mom valued the education of her daughter considerably more than she was expected to in the patriarchal culture which had stifled and disrupted her own education. When my brothers and I were very young, my dad made it a point to never treat us differently based on gender. Both my parents valued reading, books, science, travel, and an understanding of people from different backgrounds; and they instilled these values in all of us. When we came to North America, they enrolled us in well-reputed, public, secular schools, and encouraged us to make friends with kind, trustworthy people regardless of their culture. They also instilled in us virtues like love, cooperation, communication, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. Sometimes, these things were presented under the banner of a religious story or belief, but just as often, we were taught to value and respect people, their feelings, their perspectives, and their personal choices, for no religious reason, but just because that is how we ourselves would want others to treat us.

Another value my parents encouraged in their children was curiosity, a questioning spirit. My dad would return from his business trips abroad with suitcases full of books on astronomy, geology, psychology, and neurobiology. I inherited my keen interest in natural and social sciences from him. I remember clearly when he took us outside one night to watch Halley’s Comet. As he explained what it was – a rock hurtling through space, which would return when I was in my 80s – the vastness of the universe really began to sink in. My entire view of the world changed that night. Ever since then, I have found immense comfort in the stars, our Moon, and the study of cosmology. My love of science has always been rooted in my love of nature and the universe in which we live, and I thank my dad as often as I can for nurturing this side of me.

My mom was often considered the firebrand in her own family of origin. She came from a traditional, patriarchal family, and had to fight all her life for her right to live, love, and learn on her own terms. She taught me to never capitulate to gender norms that were restrictive or felt wrong to me. She taught me that girls and women can stand up to traditions and practices that devalued them, and demand to be treated as equals. Having spent most of my life in North America, I know she had faced a much steeper uphill battle back in Pakistan, where feminism and women’s rights are still often vilified, and where women who speak out of turn are frequently silenced in any number of brutal ways. Although she and I have had countless arguments about the contradictions inherent in institutional Islam and about gender equality, her faith had bonded her to her mother, and has been a source of comfort for her throughout her life.

I was always asking questions. As I got older, these questions grew increasingly controversial, and the answers became increasingly harder to come by. Every question of mine that was met with incomplete or dismissive answers from the people around me only gave birth to more questions.

My questions often revolved around religion and beliefs. I needed to make sure my faith and my rituals stood for something true: something that could be proven correct without the help of tradition; something that couldn’t be dismissed with the “don’t ask questions, that’s just how we do things” line of thinking. I needed to know why people from other sects or religious backgrounds did not believe in the same things as us. I was often told it was because they were misguided. That didn’t quite make sense to me: who was misguiding them? How did we know that *we* weren’t the misguided ones? Other people were as convinced of their own beliefs as we were, and probably told their children that we were the ones on the wrong path. So who was right? I was told to be thankful that *we* were the lucky ones; that God had chosen *us* to know the real truth. That simply wasn’t enough for me. I realized early on that if I had been born into a different family, or in a different place, I would have been raised to believe the same things about a different religion. I saw how passionately people from different faiths genuinely believed that their religion (usually the one taught to them by their families) was the most authentic. Otherwise, why would they keep believing, following, and practicing something they believed was wrong? But time and time again, my demands to know how we could be sure ours was the right religion came up against a wall of flat, meaningless, and often disturbing responses that didn’t address the central dilemma of my quest. It seemed that nobody around me had the real answers – everyone simply wanted me to stop asking the question.

I decided to learn on my own. I read everything I could get my hands on. I spent days on end in bookstores, devouring books on religions and philosophies. I searched through every library I could find on these and other topics. I wanted to know what other people thought, felt, believed, and experienced. I wanted to see the world from as many perspectives as I could find. I wanted to know what other people saw when they looked at things I was taught to see in particular ways.

In my quest for understanding, I took every opportunity to attend religious ceremonies, churches, temples, synagogues, and other places of worship. I tried to go to as many religious events and rituals as I could. I studied the rites, but most of all, I studied the people taking part in those rites. I watched their faces as they sang hymns, listened to Catholic sermons, did puja, prayed to Allah, read from the Torah, performed funeral rituals, held circumcision parties, got married in different religious ceremonies, and danced around the maypole. I noticed the similarities in how each believer experienced her or his faith. These similarities transcended the divides between different beliefs and ideas, even those that were in direct contradiction with each other.

How could people experience the same feelings of elation, sadness, comfort, fear, hope, and competitiveness, even though they all believed in such different things? The more I studied religions, the more I realized that people’s sense that their faith was rooted in absolute truth had nothing to do with the religion itself. There were far deeper psychological forces at work, and I set out to find them.

Much of this happened before I turned 13.

Though I continued to explore these issues, at some point I simply got busy being a teenager. I put the whole religion and philosophy thing on the backburner, and dove head first into my studies, and into extra-curricular activities: sports, art, music, and theatre. I had all the usual cultural clashes with my parents that any first-generation immigrant kid would easily recognize. Eventually, after graduating from high school, I moved away to University. Here, insulated by distance from my family, I rekindled my curiosity about how others were raised. My university had a sizable international student population, and I shared a dorm with people from all over the world. In between studying, I got to know people from many different cultures. I partied a little, but mostly stayed away from the “party-hardy” college culture. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a feeling that this ‘freedom’ was temporary: eventually, I would have to go back to being a Pakistani Muslim girl.

After my first year at University, financial issues disrupted my education, and I returned home. That same year, my mom suffered an injury which left her temporarily disabled. Suddenly, I felt that I was paying for the freedom I had tasted at University: that God was punishing me for straying too far and not being obedient enough. I decided to renounce my freewheeling ways and follow religion and tradition as I was expected to do. I started attending the local mosque, praying, fasting, and seeking hidayah (Islamic guidance). I slowly lost touch with most of my University and High School friends, and spent more and more time with other Pakistani Muslim girls. I even volunteered as a teaching assistant for young children at the mosque’s weekend Islamic classes, where I taught them to pray and to read Arabic, and told them various accounts of Muhammad, his family members and companions from Islamic history.

End of part 1. Do check in for part 2 on Friday. [***Note: click here for part 2***] Follow me on Twitter @KiranOpal for updates.

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A letter to my former Muslim self

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The Absurdity of Abraham: The troubling morals of Eid al Adha

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