Secular Unorthodox Muslim

Growing up as a Muslim in America placed me in ethical and socially contradictory environments from an impressionable age. Straddling the gaps between two cultures resulted with my mind becoming a bending, twisty, path between conflicting morals, questionable behavior, and unorthodox beliefs.

So for the past few years I’ve been un-twisting some knots. Sometimes I’d like to take a hot iron to it and smooth out the wrinkles, flatten myself out into a nice crisp set of beliefs with perfect edges that fold just right into my head.

I have some odd beliefs about faith, spirituality, and what being a Muslim is about. But I believe them, they’re my little believies, as Louis CK once put it. And one of those beliefs is that the first Muslims were unorthodox in mind and action. They were questioners of the system by which they’ve lived their entire lives. They were idealistic but were led by a great man who knew how to guide that force.

I also believe that a Muslim is someone who strives for discipline in their behavior and the choices they make. To take the extra time to think and hold off action. To try and learn and not give up even if they don’t get it right the first few (hundred) times.

To the core, I still consider myself as a Muslim because I am always trying to achieve grace. I believe that grace is the underlying theme within the message that our Prophet brought. Grace in form of mercy and of gracefulness, a soft kind touch when possible.

So far I’ve untwisted some of the knots and straightened out the lines of thought into a few of these basic principles (of my own) of being a Muslim. I do not pray 5 times a day but I try and practice discipline in my craft and my hobbies. I don’t socialize at the mosque much, but I try to be gracious and grateful for the conversations I have and the people I’m with.

And I create trouble in the meantime by questioning everything, wondering if there really is a God up there. What if there’s no after-life? What if hell and sin doesn’t exist? Questionings that other “Muslims” would condemn me to the hell-fire for.


Does my faith say you’re going to hell?

My particular upbringing as a Muslim in the deserts of Arizona instilled in me the belief that all people who aren’t Muslims will go to hell.

Hell… even most who are Muslims will go to hell. (For a short few millions of years before they’re exonerated of all their sins)

This poses a personal as well as a social dilemma for me. Personally I don’t believe that I should go to hell. I’m not a bad person, I don’t kick puppies and kittens, I try and control that urge. I try and respect as many people as my racist and sexist upbringing will allow. I live responsibly, mostly ethically. I try not to give anyone a hard time. I hope that I make more people happy in the world than I make them sad.

But I don’t pray regularly, I don’t think about God as nearly as much as I should, I don’t heed the Hadith (or even take them very seriously), and I rarely read the Quran. All of these are minimum criteria, I’m told, to enter Jannah (heaven). Since we don’t believe in a Purgatory, that means it’s the Jahannam (guess what that is?) for me.

I know a lot of good non-muslims, I don’t believe that they should really go to Hell. So I resolve this dilemma by “simply” avoiding the topic of the after-life. This is unfortunate because one of the key principals in my faith is remembering how this life is transient and quick, that there is an after-life and I will be judged.

And this avoidance ripples out to the rest of my thoughts, and thus my actions. I stop going to Mosques where I’m faced with this contradiction directly. I stop having conversations with people about religion, where my hypocrisy can become evident. I even stop thinking about Islam and how I can become a better Muslim.

If I were to try to go back into the fold of my faith, I’d have to confront this dilemma and resolve it in some way. It’s unavoidable, my mind will bring up questions that I won’t be able to answer. I will be tormented with emotions that I won’t know how to deal with, and I’ll have to judge and ostracize others that I would rather think well of and keep in my life.

So what should I do? I don’t have any answers at the moment. Maybe later the fear of Hell will eventually overcome the dilemma and I’ll push non-muslims out of my life and begin to pray and do all the other stuff.

But really? Is that what it means to be a Muslim?


There’s an excerpt on wikipedia that is very interesting:

Awf ibn Malik reported that Muhammad said, “The Jews split into seventy-one sects, one will enter Paradise and seventy will enter Hell. The Christians split into seventy-two sects, seventy-one will enter Hell and one will enter Paradise. By Him in Whose hand is my soul, my Ummah (Muslims) will split into seventy-three sects, one will enter Paradise and seventy-two will enter Hell.” Someone asked, “O Messenger of Allah, who will they be?” He replied, “The main body of the Muslims.”

So it seems that what I’ve been taught to believe all my life is not necessarily the truth (what a shocker!!). And also, if 1/73rds of Muslims can be the “main body,” why can’t 1/72nds of Christians or 1/71ths of Jews be the “main body.” It seems like the math is all there.

Why am I a Muslim?

MuslimI was born a muslim.

That’s always been the answer to why I’m a muslim. But very soon I realized that there’s very few things that bind me by birth to something. I’m bound to groups of people who are brown, have dark hair, and who are male. Besides these and a few other genetic qualities, I had no other ties to this world when I arrived.

And they tell us often in mosques that we’ll exit this world the same way, with nothing.
Well, almost nothing. We will die with our souls being muslim. And this soul will remain floating around somewhere till the day of judgement.

Then maybe there is the same ephemeral tie to me as a muslim before I was even born. But that’s so ludicrous that no muslim will seriously say that you’re born a muslim, with a muslim soul. Unless they’re wacko, most would agree that it’s the practice of Islam that makes you a muslim.

And so after I lost my anchor to my identity as a muslim by birth, I latched onto being a muslim by practice. But the practices were so utterly BORING and monotonous and.. well.. easy. They try and tell you when you’re young that Allah made things easy for us. They’re wrong if they think that’ll entice any child to want to practice their faith more.

Kids love a challenge. They love video games and sports and winning. Or at least I did. And I didn’t see how mindlessly reciting memorized verses and moving our bodies up and down was a challenge at all. And I didn’t see life as a challenge either in my naive little mind. I didn’t understand then how having a grounded practice in meditation 5 times a day will accelerate basically anything that I try to achieve.

But the fact is that, even though it was so easy, I still couldn’t do those prayers fully for very long. It was a challenge but not in the way that I recognized then. Doesn’t mean that I didn’t try. I had great reverence for all of it. Why shouldn’t I? Everyone else had great reverence. So I didn’t tell myself I was bored. I didn’t accept the fact that the people around me were only telling me the more boring aspects of this 1400 year old faith. I didn’t realize that they themselves didn’t really know.. or if they did, they didn’t know how to communicate it to a bunch of 12 year olds.

What I did instead was tell myself that I was a bad boy.

And that worked out really well because bad boys don’t pray, and I really didn’t want to pray anymore. Maybe I had too much freedom? Maybe my parents should’ve pushed more. But my parents, God bless them, are good muslims. And unlike what most of the world and even some muslims think, a good muslim doesn’t force. They wait with patient compassion and always invites, but never mandate. We have enough mandated things in our own lives and our own struggles to worry about anyways. And my parents were good enough to not take their frustration out on their kids and force them to do things they themselves failed to do.

I’ve seen a few examples of what occurs when Islam is shoved down the throats of innocent children a little too hard. They choke, and become the absolute opposite of what anyone intended. I’m glad that I escaped.. most of that fate. Trust me though, my mom did try shoving a lot of things down our throats, so that’s why you might sense a tinge of bitterness in my tone. Just a tinge.

And she still invites me. Every single time, without fail, she invites me. And she’ll die on her death bed and use her last breath to tell us to pray.

It’s obvious that I’m not much of a practicing muslim.

So then am I even a muslim at all? I could always practice without belief or understanding. And that’s what I did for most of my life. I knew though that it was much worse to practice without belief. I thought that without real belief, practice makes no sense and I got the idea that I’d go on a “journey” to sow the seeds of true faith into my heart.

I have a good friend who was in the same situation that I was in. We began to delve into the deeper secrets of our faith alone. We both knew that something more than what we’ve been told exists. Maybe the secret to success (as they also tell us in the mosques) lies in these details we only suspect is hidden inside the books and stories. So we hesitantly took blind steps towards some greater knowledge about our faith.

WearyBuddhaThat was maybe 7 years ago, and I’m still on that journey. And I’ve gone a long way. I’ve learned a lot about my own faith as well as a lot of the other faiths in this community of faiths that exist on this planet.

I’ve had the privilege of developing a friendship with a deeply wise and devout christian who has taught me so many wonderful things about Jesus and how they view the world, existence, and life after death.

I’ve studied buddhism and meditated with Thai Buddhists in their monastery within the mountains. Afterwards we discussed theology and philosophy with the Ajahn over tea.

I’ve studied and practiced Tao personally over years of Chinese martial arts training.

I tried reading the Bhagavad Giītā, but only got as far as reading the introduction to Hindu theology, which was very interesting. I still have the book, I’m sure one day I’ll go over the entire thing.

I’ve even gone through training in psudoscience (no not Dianetics) and it was very helpful to my life and I still interact frequently with that community.

And a lot of other things, but always coming back to Islam and tying it back to Islam. And.. not to be biased, but Islam has yet to disappoint me. All of what I’ve learned fits so well within the message that the Prophet passed along to his ummah. But I don’t think it’s being biased because Islam is a rich religion, and so are a lot of religions and they all have something to offer and they all have a few little cracks and flaws.

During my journey I learned really cool things about Islam, some historical facts about the times of the Prophet and after his death (versus the pre-school level “history” I was taught as a kid). I learned about the golden ages of Islam, the accomplishments of muslims, and how muslims and Islam is tightly woven into the quilt of human history.

And all of this is cool to learn, and I’m proud of muslim contribution. But I have lived my life in a world where Islam is seen as backwater faith, at best, by a lot of the world, including my own. Before I even graduated from Highschool, the spotlight of 9/11 was on Islam and what it meant to be a muslim and everyone had to re-adjust what they knew (and didn’t know) about Islam, especially the muslims themselves.

So I’ve been on my journey for a while now and I’m still slowly walking. I’ve learned a few things, so how about now I finally answer that question?

Why am I a Muslim?

Actually, I came across the answer fairly soon in my journey. And the answer is what has allowed me to expand my horizons and give all those other faiths and belief systems a look-see. The answer was actually in front of my face the entire time, as all great answers always are.

The reason I am a muslim is because of what Islam means. Islam means to submit, without hesitation or objection. Submit to what? Exactly. It doesn’t say. Islam as a religion has a lot to say about it. The prophet had a lot to say about it. People in my life always had a lot to say about it. But those are all the details, the crux of Islam is submission (period).

Some would say submission to Allah, but what is Allah?
We know that whatever Allah is, it’s supposed to be the truest of the true things. Similarly.. Allah is justice, ultimate justice. Allah is compassion, true compassion. Etc. All of these qualities of Islam are tied to the attributes of Allah, the 99 names of Allah. But they’re just pointers to the Allah. Or maybe they are parts of Allah? There’s a whole philosophy around this, the current leading view that is adopted by orthodox muslims is of Al-Ashari’s.

Jewish scholars, and later Christian and then Islamic scholars, seem to have a lot of fun with paradoxes and trying to make sense of the nature of reality. But they all seem to agree that whatever exists, God is higher than that. And thus, if we are submitting to this God, then we’re submitting to everything, the most perfect form of everything.

Islam means to submit to it all.

Submit to the reality around me and the reality I don’t see or know about. This is sort of jarring when I try to think about it. Why should I submit? How can I trust whatever it is that I’m submitting myself to? I don’t want to blindly submit. But Islam doesn’t ask for blind submission. Because you must submit to facts as well. Islam requires you to open your eyes and keep them open and face it all because it’s what is so.

After I’ve thought and experienced some of reality, after I’ve experienced some joy and pain. I find that there is truly nothing more wonderful than submitting to all of it. To fight is useless, I can’t hold myself back from reality. Islam means to submit to the currents of life, to recognize that we’re all in a big sea. We’re fish, not knowing what water is because we’re so immersed in it consistently and we can’t see the most vital element of our existence. We came into existence in this sea. And up to the moment of our death, we shall know nothing outside of the sea of reality.

So ultimately.. I’m a muslim because I was born as one.

But does that make you and everyone a muslim too? Yes, in the greater sense of the word. But like how the color of my skin and the color of my hair is different, yet I’m still a human being, so too does the color of your faith differ, but we’re all submitting to the same thing.

What makes me a Muslim?

Identification with something abstract to have some sense of validation of our sentience is what we humans do best. Maybe to be sentient is to worry about whether we are sentient or not. Religion is one of the strongest and pervasive type of identification that most of the population of human beings on this planet subscribes to. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Jewism are a few of the many variety of things that people would place in their top lists of “who am I?”
Take me for example:
1. I am a man
2. I’m muslim
3. I’m absolutely amazing
4. I’m an Bangali-American
But even though I would strongly identify myself as a Muslim, I don’t really know what that is. When I think of “a muslim,” I have this image of a person wearing a white panjabi with a tupi on his head prostrating in prayer.

This isn't me.. although it should be.. he looks really awesome and patriotic..
What I imagine a Muslim to be.. minus the American flag in the back

But I don’t go around praying and wearing a tupi all the time yet I don’t drop the identity of being a Muslim. So I don’t think what I wear has much to do with the religion that I identify myself with. And that’s true for a lot of other things. The language I speak doesn’t identify me as a Muslim. The color of my skin doesn’t identify me as a Muslim. The food I eat, the friends I have, the country I’m from, none of them identifies me as a Muslim. Those are all external things and are transient, they come and go and different Muslims have different aspects of each of them. I am not any more of a Muslim than a white Bosnian Muslim who has never heard of a tupi.
So what does make me a Muslim? Is it because I pray? I don’t though.. not five times a day like all good Muslims are supposed to. Does that mean I’m not a Muslim? If so.. then I think that statistics of how large the population of Islam is in  the world would be cut in half if not more.
How about the Prophet that I prescribe to? As a Muslim, we hold our prophet, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in high regards. We try to eat, breathe, walk,  talk, and even procreate like the Prophet did. Christians prescribe to Jesus, Buddhists prescribe to the Buddha. It seems to make sense, it seems to fit. We need to identify ourselves to something versus something else. And it’s easy to choose a person of high integrity with lots of charisma and unimaginable compassion to follow and idealize. But I think we easily forget that the prophets were just a sign post, a set of directions to something larger than them and us and anything.
Do you believe that you, as a Muslim or Christian or Jew, will likely to go to heaven anymore than anyone else? Why? Because you love Jesus or Muhammad and those other people don’t?
Do you believe that you’re a nicer, kinder, better human being because you want to be like the Buddha? Orbecause you think about what Jesus would do in certain situations?
Do you believe that you are more worthy of life than others because you think Abraham was cool?
I think most of us are missing the point.
Intolerance, racism, hatred, superiority, fear, despair, hopelessness. These are the things that every religion tries to overcome. Those are the things that every prophet, messenger, saint, priest, or enlightened being tries to get rid of in society.
Yet for some reason, it seems that religion becomes the largest cause of intolerance, hatred, fear and all the rest. And I don’t mean in large scale like wars and terrorism. But in small scales like when you devalue another human being purely because he or she subscribes to a different religion than you.
I think its wrong when we try to prove to each other that our Prophet and our religion is better. I think it’s wrong when we stop ourselves or our children from learning about other people, other cultures, and other ways of living due to religion. I believe it’s wrong when we think that other people of other religions are going to hell because they don’t prescribe to the same Prophet that we do.
We think we’re on a journey towards something yet most of us have stopped walking and we’re admiring a signpost we found on the Way. We love our signpost and we look down on people who are following any other signpost besides ours.
I think I’m going to buy a giant American flag and look for my tupi now.