EARLY IN MY TEENS, I began to lose my faith. It was a gradual process of asking myself questions until one day I realized that religion simply did not make sense to me.
I was a child, and religion – or God – was not something I had thought much about. Till then, my experience of religion was to a large extent similar to other people. It was something that was just there. I knew that I was muslim, that this involved learning Arabic as it was the language of the Quran, namaz (which everyone should do, but was mostly just performed by the elder relatives, my grandparents, and especially for men, was enough once a week at Jumma), and being muslim also meant eid and shab-e-barat. Gorgeous food, the brightness of mehndi on my palms, shiny new clothes and the crackle of new shoes. There were other things of course, the bits and pieces we learnt at school, the suras and hadiths, the anecdotes of the Prophet’s life, learning good and evil – guna and sowab, halal and haram, pak and napak. That was just the way things were – just as I knew that I was a child who would grow up one day and that parents knew everything. I just knew that Allah was there and would remain so until I was good and ready to deal with him. Except that when the time came, he was not there.
But all that came later – the doubt, the self doubt, the compromises I made with myself and within myself to retain a semblance of faith, so that I did not feel too lost and too alone. The whole process of not accepting without question all that I am told, or given began with what happened one spring morning when I was 11 or 12 years old.
I was a maktab student then. My parents, in an attempt to educate us in more ways than one, enrolled my brother and myself in the maktab nearby. We would wake up intolerably early and trudge to the maktab with our Kaidas. Still at the frock wearing age, I would put on a shalwar and an orna for the occasion. One morning I was late. To hurry things along mom sent me off to the maktab in my nightie. She didn’t forget my orna though. It was a long dress reaching down to my toes. Which is why mother thought it was ok for me to wear it without a shalwar. I mean the point was that my body be covered neck down to my ankles and that my head be covered. My dress and my orna did that. When I got to the maktab, our Hujoor called me and asked (in front of all my friends), ‘Tomar jamar niche ki?’ (What’s under your dress?) Then he went on to yell about the various improprieties carried out by university teachers and their children and that I should get out of his maktab and only dare come back when I was properly clothed. I could feel my ears burning in shame and rage. I could hear all the children sniggering and I remember running straight home.
The shame I felt was two-fold – there was the fact that I had been humiliated in front of the other children; and then there was the fact that though I wasn’t sure why, there was a niggling feeling in my mind that there was something almost indecent in the way Hujoor had asked what I had under my dress. I cried my eyes out and being very stubborn told mom that I would never go back. She, being more understanding than I gave her credit for, never forced me back.
I recount this episode for two reasons. First, because it set me thinking. As far as I could learn through careful questioning, the idea was to cover my body. That had been accomplished. Then why did Hujoor embarrass me like that? This question nobody logically answered. Then overcoming my initial embarrassment I asked father. My father, a teacher, has long inculcated the habit of producing a lengthy lecture on being asked a question – it’s become a reflex action.
He told me that it was hard for people to look beyond the immediate facts. To the Hujoor’s mind, I was a girl and should be wearing a shalwar. He probably didn’t intend to make any indecent innuendo, it was only that he was a man of limited education, and his choice of words was unfortunate. To his mind if I was not wearing a shalwar I was inappropriately dressed. That was all he was attempting to ascertain. But my legs were covered with my dress, I argued. I was appropriately dressed. Theoretically, I was correct, my father replied. But the Hujoor wasn’t thinking rationally, most people didn’t. To him I was a girl and should be dressed in a specific way. If I wasn’t, then whether whatever else I was wearing was accomplishing the same purpose did not matter to him – I would still be inappropriately dressed. It was as if with that incident, a lot of things that had been bothering me crystallized and began a process.
If my wearing a long dress was inappropriate then wasn’t my wearing a frock (which left my legs uncovered) even more so? But all the other girls of my age wore frocks and that didn’t seem to bother anyone. Yet my wearing pants (like boys) seemed to bother everyone – yet pants kept my legs totally covered. How could I possibly make sense of that? I began to see the illogicality of religion as practiced by most people. However, notice that I made that distinction – religion as practiced, religion itself had still not lost its place in my eyes.
The second process that the maktab incident set off was that I began to realise what small men these “Teachers of Faith” were. Of the Hujoors I had known till then, one I have mentioned. Among the others there was a wife beater, otherwise a kindly man, and another who excelled in devising punishments for children especially young boys. I now realize that there is more than one way of “beating” a woman (as the saying goes in Bangla, Hate Na mere Bhate Mara) and that probably other men were no better husbands than he was and that the propensity for bullying the weak is not the domain of religious teachers – but at that time these sins seemed the lowest of the low.
These, I questioned myself, were people we were supposed to respect? Because they carried the word of God to us? These men of limited understanding, these men of tarnished souls who reduced the glory of this god-given life to a set of blind rules and customs to be observed without understanding.
I suppose I should feel grateful to that Hujoor. For it was his short sightedness and his failure to distinguish between decency and indecency (for it seemed to me then that his words were a hundred times more indecent than even if I had been wearing nothing at all) that made me begin to ask questions; that made me become an agnostic at the ripe old age of 14. But I still retained my faith in the essence of my religion.
THE PATH FROM DOUBTING what people told me to doubting the very existence of god was quite short in terms of time – but it was not an easy path. I found out that supposedly rational, and otherwise sensible people could not react with equanimity when questioned closely about Islam. There was the type that would not tolerate questions. Then there was the type that would tolerate questions, but the questions, alongside the answers, they would formulate themselves. Then there was the type that would allow you any question at all (these were the liberated, modern-thinking muslims) but only up to a certain point. There would always be some point when the answer would be Faith was simply a matter of believing not logic.
By then I was hanging on to my faith by the slenderest of threads. I had come to the conclusion – and in this conclusion a lot of those from the third type agreed – that the inconsistencies and a lot of what seemed barbaric in Islam stemmed from the fact that this was a religion over a thousand years old. A lot of Muhammad’s actions and words (polygamy, child marriages, declaring women as the spoils of war) could be explained by the fact that as all human beings, he was a child of his time. This I made myself believe until one day the glaring inconsistency hit me – if certain Islamic practices seemed barbaric in the light of today, that meant that Islam and the Prophet were appropriate only for that particular time in human history. Yet the Quran was said to be a book of divine origin for all time and for all people and the Prophet’s life was supposed to be emulated by all good Muslims. It was a shock to my whole system.
How could I reconcile what I perceived as good (ironically a lot of which I had gleaned from religion itself) with the other things that I found in religion? After seeing the words that relegated all women to being second best all our lives, how could I retain my sense of self, my pride in who I was? I rejected religion at first simply because if I continued to believe in what was written in that book, I no longer had the vast spaces of my mind to move through; because it limited and constrained my world instead of making it the place of the unlimited possibilities of my imaginings.
That book told me that no matter how much I read, how much I knew, no matter what love and compassion for people I held in my breast, no matter my intelligence, my talents, my love of laughter, I would never ever be as good as even the lowliest of men. Because I was a woman. I was a field for a man to sow his seed, I was part of the spoils of war for a warrior, I was impure at times because I had the power to breed children, my word was not to be trusted against that of a man, I was the gateway to hell because men would desire me.
How could I live my life with that? I stopped believing at all. But then what was the alternative? What did non-belief have to offer me that belief did not? Let me tell you.
Atheism treats human beings as adults – religion does not. Atheism believes that humans are capable of living a good life, and are capable of doing good because it is in our nature to do good. That humans need no stick of eternal and divine punishment or carrot of eternal and divine bliss to achieve goodness. Religion limits our capacity to be human. Religion believes that a man will not treat his wife, children, family or friends as he should, or that a woman will disgrace herself and betray her family if he or she is not afraid of burning in hellfire.
How could any system of belief compete with the dignity and the respect that non-belief had to offer to me? If I was a religious being I was relegated to the status of second class citizen as a woman. If I was a religious creature I was merely created by a divine being to sing His glory to the stars. Instead I decided that I was human, the highest in the order of life, I was infinite possibility, I was the limitless sky, I was the sun’s laughter. I would be captain of my own ship. I would do good and not evil, not because I would be allowed a good time when I died, but because good was worth doing because it was good. Because I, as a human, among all the creatures, had the unique capacity to distinguish between good and evil; and the will to choose between them.
I have talked with many believers on the manner and the nature of belief during my short span of life. At one point they all seem to feel affronted by my lack of faith. Most of them go on to tell me how transient and fruitless is the earthly life that I live no matter what base pleasure it might give me. What every single one of them fail to understand is how intensely and for how long I had yearned to be a believer.
Faith meant that I had an all powerful all knowing all loving father figure watching over me. Anything bad that happened to me – he’d take care of me one way or another, if not in this earthly life then in the next. Was there anything more comforting than that? To know that evil would not triumph, that the anguish of the innocent in this world would not go unavenged – that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”. The temptation to leave everything in the hands of a deity was immense.
I would give a lot to be able to believe. But in the end I had to tread the rocky and non-comforting path of atheism. I gave up the shelter of a divine shadow – but I gained a life that could question and explore every nook and cranny of existence. I questioned and rejected religion and became an atheist because I could not answer the inconsistencies of religion to myself, and because religion limited me as a human being – I remain an atheist because I have discovered that I do not need religion to tell me who I am.
Originally published in Mukto-mona, July 18, 2001.