I still remember those middle school Islam classes where teachers adamantly proclaimed that the very existence of the heavens is irrefutable testament to God’s everlasting presence and how an “atheist” is analogous to a ship without a rudder (i.e. purposeless, morally bankrupt). What I don’t remember is whether I was skeptical to any of this or not. I used to be quite religious and when I was taught Evolution in biology lessons I tried to reconcile it with my faith by thinking that “monkeys came from man, like it says in the Qur’an, not the other way around”.
By the time I was in my mid teens I had grown very uncomfortable with certain aspects of the religion that my parents had faithfully brought me up in (when I came back home from school, my mom sometimes made me perform the midday prayer before she served lunch). I began to question the applicability of divine law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of sexuality and status of women in Islam among many other things that are too numerous (and foggy in memory) to recall here. I used to share these ideas with my de facto best friend, H, and he was like-minded enough not to recoil in horror but we bounced them off of one another and this perhaps brewed up a healthy level of religious skepticism between the two of us.
A few years down the line, I was in my late teens by then, I met my friend through work who shall be called C. A bigger skeptic than I was (or still am), he played the devil’s advocate and teased my ‘radical’ beliefs almost mercilessly for my reluctance to embrace the orthodox version of Islam. He also didn’t shy away from pointing it out that with beliefs such as mine, I had strayed away from the path of Islam and can no longer call myself a ‘Muslim’. Until then I had never doubted that I was not a Muslim and needless to say, I felt deeply hurt and rejected but now I appreciate C for his honest criticism.
Around the same time I met N on an internet website and his biggest contribution to helping me freeing up my mind was introducing me to the works of Carl Sagan, particularly Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The 13-part TV series with its outdated graphics from the 80s opened my eyes to the real grandeur of the planet Earth, the Solar System, the vastness of the Milky Way, the existence billions of galaxies, various mind-boggling cosmic phenomena and the seemingly infinite vastness of the broader Universe. It gave me a whole new outlook on life and what it means to be alive in this universe, “… on this tiny mote of dust suspended in a beam of sunlight…” in the words of the great cosmologist himself. Given the incalculable improbability of our very existence from the beginning of the creation of the cosmos, it made painfully clear to me that life cannot simply be an excuse for a Creator to put us here just so we could worship Him. And furthermore, it made me question the motives of the Creator Himself… how could He have managed the creation of the cosmos, both in the macro and micro scales, commanded forces ranging from universal gravitation affecting entire galaxies to strong/weak nuclear forces at the subatomic level, be so petty and petulant to demand that we, humans, worship Him and Him alone or else face eternal damnation in the form of the most sadistic, cruel punishment imaginable for all eternity?!? Try as I might have, I couldn’t wrap my mind around this.
I discussed some of these ideas with N and he helped me set up a blog through which I used to communicate them further, while (trying to) remain respectful to Islam. I dabbled in themes such as the nature of the divine, Islamic xenophobia and victim mentality, predestination, morality, mortality, misery, ethics of homosexuality and freedom of religion. The comments were interesting (some supporting, others condescendingly antagonizing) and they greatly helped to shape the person who I am today. One such comment left by my friend W blatantly (but apologetically) accused me of cherry-picking, that is choosing aspects of religion that I like and jettisoning that I didn’t. He was quite right to point that out and it helped me face the somewhat daunting consequences of such thinking.
This was 3 years ago. I was still desperately trying to cling on to the self-deceiving idea that I was a Muslim despite all my contradictory thinking when I found myself stuck in Southern India for a few days. Not having access to neither television nor internet, I begged my host to take me to a bookstore where I could find something to read and this is where I found Richard Dawkins. His book “The God Delusion” was a godsend (if you can pardon the expression) as it led me to embrace my godlessness. It was thrilling to learn that atheism can lead to a happy, balanced and moral life, where a person was not required to abandon intellectual skepticism, but rather nourished it. It opened my eyes to morality being independent from religion (although the latter sometimes inspire the former) and how there was no logical evidence that demonstrably proves God’s existence. I have great respect for Richard and since then, have read “A Selfish Gene” which shows how prolific a science writer he truly is, able to explain the most complicated concepts of gene-centered evolutionary biology with relative ease, although I do not share some of his ideas on religion such as that it is an inherently evil force that drives us, and that humanity is better off without it.
After Dawkins, I began to read into theology, religion and critical analysis of Islam and other religions. To this end, I have even recently finished reading the Qur’an with commentary from Yusuf Ali nonetheless (It is the most sleep inducing book I have ever read and its choke full of contradictions and the rantings of an insanely narcissistic excuse of a deity. No wonder most Muslims never bother to read it. This is the subject of a future post). I debated with friends like C, whose confidence of the superiority or Islam (actually, disguised bigotry) has slowly diminished and ironically enough, he is finding himself in the same position I was in, a few years ago when I first met him. I don’t take comfort in my confident stance on religion and his contrastingly shaky faith, and have on occasion advised him that he should try to relax and not exhaust himself with it. Like myself just a couple of years ago, he is worried about the apparent meaninglessness and vacuousness of life when confronted with our eventual mortality sans an omnipotent creator. I explained to him that even if God does not exist, and by extension, if the afterlife is just a fanciful figment of human imagination, we should feel privileged to be alive at all, again referring back to the astronomical improbability of the universe and its governing laws. I have told him that we can never be certain of such supernatural nonsense that we are indoctrinated into believing unquestioningly from early childhood, but part of being human is to nourish and nurture our inherent inquisitiveness, to know more about ourselves and our surrounding, which offers too many distractions in the form of discoveries that one lifetime cannot possibly fathom. I told him that I find meaning in life through science and the pursuit of knowledge.
Another point that we had discussed was human misery; the seeming injustice of life, some being born into abject poverty or disease or conflict and contrasted by our own relatively luxuriant lives, in which we are still thrust into heart-rending sorrow at the thought of never again holding a loved one who recently passed. I told him that I have consoled myself believing that my misery and sadness shall only exist as long as I do. That I seek solace in my own mortality.
Life maybe full of heartache and pain and suffering but I have never forgotten my blessings. I was born into a middle class family to doting parents who didn’t get me everything but never made me feel that I was lacking anything. I got the chance to study what I really wanted; science, all the way to higher education. I have a limited number of friends who I trust completely and can be myself around them. But above all, what I truly cherish in life are parents who loves me unconditionally. I do not have to hide who I really am around them and freely discuss my frustrations with them and often they would agree with me. I have rebuked dad for chiming in with the anti-Semitic rhetoric and mom for believing in irrational practices on countless occasions. Of course, this has led to a few heated arguments with particularly my mom but we have never let our disagreements come between us. What I really like about my parents are that they are not as close-minded as most of their generation, as proved by a recent conversation in which mom admitted that she would only accept a hadith that appealed to her sense of morality and logic. A few months ago, my mom asked me if I believed in God (dad was there too) and I flatly told them that I didn’t have any reason to do so, which is the honest to goodness truth. I don’t know, and seriously, at this stage of my life, I simply don’t care whether He exists or not. I answered this truthfully because I was confident that they would understand me and not betray our trust by bringing in a Mullah like some other parents have done with their ‘wayward’ kids. Also because I had earlier challenged my mom to prove that she loves God more than she does me (she failed). Having parents like this makes me feel even more privileged, especially having met friends like W who claimed one of his parents broke down in front of him when he came out. I feel sorry for the guy who still has to go to the Friday prayers with its mind-numbing sermons in order to keep up the charade.
Having said all of this, I am forced to come back to the reality in which I am sitting here typing away. The most recently amended constitution does not respect individual human rights or even human dignity for that matter and the Nazim incident of earlier this year demonstrates that the current socio-political climate of the Maldives does not provide a very accommodating setting for people such as myself but in fact is downright hostile. A person now stands to lose his life for defiance where it used to be merely his citizenship. The situation is further exacerbated by certain factions of the population that has vowed to demonize secularism and to taint any liberal idea with Islamophobia or anti-Islamism. I am a pessimistic person and I don’t foresee how we could dig ourselves out of the country’s spiraling demise to become an eventual theocratic hellhole that mirrors the so-called Islamic cultural masters, Saudi Arabia. My friend C thinks “… the majority of people shall rule whether you like it not, whether its fair or not. If you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you cannot live with the extant ideals or customs of a country, whether its your own or foreign, just pack up and seek refuge elsewhere, where you feel welcome. Non-Muslim Maldivians should say adieu just like the women in France who insist on wearing the headscarf should consider living in Iran“. The way I figure it, its either this or stand and fight. I haven’t decided just yet.
Another young man who couldn’t cope with the pressure of a society that was increasingly becoming more and more radicalized, took the easy way out and committed suicide. I cannot imagine myself in his shoes for I do not express myself around strangers or even relatives so I cannot really fathom the hostility that he felt, nor the disappointment of his parents that would have surely burdened his heart. But I would have liked to tell him that this life that we have right here, regardless of whether God exists or not, is the only life that we are absolutely certain to have. I would have told him to “try until your very last fighting breath not to squander it“.