I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Muslims who’ve experienced spiritual crises of faith, which caused them to reconsider their belief in Islam or leave it altogether. And I’ve experienced a few of my own, which made me re-evaluate my understanding of my faith and religious identity.
One of the main mental stumbling blocks, which held be back from becoming a Muslim was my fear of imperfection manifested in sins I thought I might possibly commit at some point in the future. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Islam so that I could know what I was getting into and what I signed up for. Muslims believe that the one’s previous sins are washed away by conversion to the faith so I wanted to make sure that I remained in that purest of states, forever.
I can smile now looking back at my fairly innocent naiveté. For all the books I read that gave a nice overview of Islam, I didn’t know that God loves for us to turn to him in repentance when we make a mistake or sin so that he can forgives us. I didn’t know the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) informing us of the reality that every one of us commits sins and that the best of us in the sight of God are the ones who repent the most.
I wanted to be perfect but perfection is not an inherent quality of human beings. After much difficulty, I’ve come to realize that while I can strive for perfection, I’m also okay turning to God to forgive me when I fall short. This has been a hard realization and is still a continual process.
The Muslim community like any religious group can be incredibly compassionate or unforgiving. I’ve actually found more liberal-minded Muslims to be among the most open, honest and welcoming of others. There seems to be a “come as you are” philosophy among them. While in more conservative communities, I’ve found the philosophy tends toward the “pretend to be perfect or don’t come at all” mentality.
The “come as you are” philosophy can be problematic in that it sometimes overshadows or negates any religious boundaries. But the latter philosophy can also be problematic in forcing individuals, according to Wajahat Ali, “to perpetually lie, subvert, hide and pretend due to upholding a fairy-tale of a life just so others will not condemn, mock, ridicule, or exploit them for their fallibilities.”
I’ve seen converts and born Muslims move away from Islam because they cannot reconcile between being a flawed human being that makes mistakes and the religious perfection hypocritically demanded by many of their equally flawed co-religionists.
I sometimes just want to say to them and to myself, it’s okay, come to Islam as you are, you’re not broken, turn to God, and forget about the criticism from others. I’m deeply flawed but I’m still Muslim and so are you.
But we can’t admit to being flawed or we’ll be accused of disclosing or publicizing our sins. We can’t ask for help or we’ll be shunned. We have to go on pretending to be perfect trying to avoid the social stigma attached to being an imperfect Muslim.
I was once asked by an imam whom I respect to disclose if I had committed a sin, and in my mind, I was like, who are you? You’re just a sinful believer like myself, we’re not Catholic and this is not a confessional booth, so what’s up with the Inquisition?
I’m always amazed and saddened by the Muslims who actually wish and say that they want another person to leave Islam or that you can’t be both [insert your own sin] and a Muslim. Really? Why not? Committing sins doesn’t take you outside the fold of Islam. Rather, those who commit sins and who repent to God (not necessarily to you or other human beings) is praised in both the Quran and the hadith literature.
This inability to admit we’re human and that we make mistakes can destroy a person’s faith. So often, the community response to a person who has the misfortune to have their mistakes become public knowledge is to ridicule, abuse, and banish rather than to welcome, recognizing their human frailty, and to seek to help them.
I’m missing my friends who have left Islam for this very reason. I pray that we can help them find a way back and that we’re not among those pushing others further away based on our own insecurities and limited understanding.