Hide the Bacon and the Wine: From Islam to Agnosticism: Sakina Walsh

Michael Hakeem Memorial Award – First Place College Essay

The following essay took first place in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2008 college essay competition. Sakina Walsh is the recipient of a $2,000 cash scholarship as the 2008 Michael Hakeem Memorial winner.

by Sakina Walsh

As my father stands over a steaming pot of beef and potato curry, its pungent scent racing through the kitchen, he reiterates for what seems like the hundredth time this month that he hopes I can become a practicing Muslim, that I have the charisma to become a real leader in the Muslim community. I take a deep breath as that familiar feeling hits me yet again–the mixed emotions of not wanting to disappoint my father yet wanting to be respected for my own beliefs. I have openly declared myself Agnostic, telling my father I am open to religion. Yet my father, a very intelligent man steadfast in his faith, has never once been able to give me an answer to even one of these questions: If Islam is meant to be a universal religion for all humankind, then why was it revealed in the middle of Arabia to one man at a time when there was no reliable form of global communication? If our sole purpose in life is to follow God’s “book”–be it the Quran, the Bible, or the Torah–what was the purpose of life for the majority of humankind who lived before any of these religions or books existed? How is it that whenever something in a religion is proven completely impossible or extreme, religious authorities claim that story or passage is only meant to be symbolic? Who chooses what is literal and what is symbolic?

I sit on a bar stool a few feet away from my father, filling my mouth with a spoonful of yogurt. I choose my words carefully, wanting to broach my doubts convincingly yet not offensively. “I have a problem with the way Islam treats women,” I tell him. “No matter how you look at it, there’s just no equality. Men have rights over women in virtually every domain. If a man gets bored with his wife or doesn’t like something she does, he can just bring home another one. There’s nothing she can do.”

“That’s not true,” he counters. “She can divorce him.”

I stare at my father in silence. “Besides,” he continues, “this whole concept of ‘equality’ is a Western notion. It’s just what we’re used to, so it sounds normal to us. Maybe God didn’t mean for men and women to be equal. After all, men are naturally stronger than women, and that’s just how nature made them.”

What’s shocking about his argument is not how offensive it is to me as a woman, or how flawed or religiously inconsistent it is (Islam, after all, claims men and women are equal although it doesn’t give them equal rights). It’s the realization that, a few years ago, I would have been inclined to make myself believe him, to find a way to accept his broken argument. I would have rationalized, too, just as he’s doing now. I was just too scared to let go.

And how could I not be? Religion was whispered into my ear after I was born, as my father recited “La Illa ha Illa Allah Muhammadun Rasulullah” into my newborn ear canal in the hospital room. There is no God but Allah, it means, and Muhammad is his messenger. By the age of four I was learning how to read Arabic so that I could finish reciting the Quran by the time I was eight. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually know what I was saying. I was taught to read Arabic and to memorize Arabic verses for prayers. But I wasn’t taught to actually speak it–I had no idea what a single word of the language really meant. Yet as I listened to my mother recite the Quran aloud in a traditional melodious voice all throughout Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, and as I watched my parents silently mouth Arabic verses as they prayed several times a day, and as I obeyed my mother’s instructions to wash my hands before I touched the Quran, something about the language began to feel sacred.

When Decembers in our home passed each year without a Christmas tree or a single glass of eggnog, I realized that most of my friends and classmates were Christian while I was a Muslim. My parents satiated my questions by telling me we were right and they were wrong, because Jesus wasn’t really the son of God, but that Christians were still good people. I didn’t stop to wonder if my parents were the ones who were wrong. After all, they were right about everything else–they always knew the answers to my homework, and my dad could ride a bike with no hands, and my mom’s brownies came out perfect every time. Through my adolescence and early teens, I simply believed being a good Muslim was the right thing to do. That’s what I had been taught. When I had my doubts, I formulated intellectual rationalizations. I had quick rebuttals to the questions my Atheist friends posed. I was charismatic and convincing; and my answers always sounded better than theirs. Although I was an award-winning debater, I believed the only reason I was able to silence these questions was because what I believed had to be correct. But in my mid-teens, when the relationship between my parents and me became destructive and intolerant, I rejected faith out of anger and rebellion. Inside, I still felt like I had a personal relationship with god. But after screaming one day that I didn’t believe in god, I began thinking more about it and the questions became harder to dismiss. I watched my mother spend a sizable portion of her life on her knees praying, five times a day, and it made me wonder why her life never seemed to get any better.

If god answered even a small percentage of prayers, wouldn’t religious people have at least somewhat of a better life than nonbelievers? Yet I saw absolutely no difference–people that prayed were not noticeably richer or better looking or healthier than those who didn’t. They had the same mortality rates and the same chances of getting into Harvard. So where were all those prayers going? But I just couldn’t comprehend how the majority of the world, all of these centuries later, still adhered to the basic Abrahamic message if it wasn’t really true. I couldn’t believe that the majority of the world had been swept up by a lie. So after I moved out of my parents’ home at the age of 17, I reclaimed Islam. I wanted to get my life in order, and I had always been taught not to look to myself but to turn to God. It was convenient to believe God would do things for me that I couldn’t do myself. So I prayed, often five times a day. I didn’t drink at the crazy punk rocker parties I went to, and I didn’t eat pork. When good things happened, I attributed them to God, but when bad things happened I told myself God was testing my faith. It was the easy way to keep belief alive. But inside, I felt unsettled with the unanswered questions I tried not to think about.

I went to college certain of God’s presence, but I began wondering if the Jews or the Christians were the ones that really had it right. What if Islam was the distorted faith? I had to be objective and study other religions, too. If I did this, I thought, God’s authentic religion would surely stand out. So I enrolled in a World Religions class, and it changed my life. Going back to their roots, none of the religions we studied felt genuine; all of them seemed convoluted and eerily similar in that they all felt like they were invented just to give support to human weakness. Although Roman mythology, Hinduism and the Judeo-Christian faiths have widely divergent sources and histories, studying them side by side, they all seemed like some sort of psychological anesthesia to treat the same age-old human suffering and uncertainties.

After this, as my college career progressed and I allowed myself to truly think about the inconsistencies I found–something I would have been too afraid to have done in the past–none of the major faiths could stand up to logical reasoning. Every religion claims to be the one true faith, writing off the others as wrong or a distortion. Yet almost every Muslim that is born a Muslim stays a Muslim. Most born Christian stay Christian; Hindus and Jews follow the same. Conversions between faiths do occur but they are rare. What this means is that most people simply accept the religion they are born into without really thinking about it. They accept an entire way of life, a set of values, and a belief system about an afterlife . . . just because that’s what they were born into. A complete chance event. This is scary. I can’t help but see this as a predecessor to the psychological contortions that gave way to pre-Civil War Americans thinking slavery is perfectly acceptable, or the waves of mass suicides by those in religious cults, or today’s terrorists and suicide bombers actually believing they’re giving up their lives for a good cause.

Still, the “what if” remains: what if they’re right and I’m wrong? But the way I see it, if I am a good person to the best of my abilities, what just God would say, “Not good enough?” Every faith claims that God is all-knowing and completely just. If this is the case, and I reject religion because I, with the brain God gave me, simply cannot make sense of it or find answers to my questions, how can God justly punish me for that?

My father insists that I choose not to believe because having to abide by religious principles would simply be inconvenient to me. What he doesn’t understand is how inconvenient it is to not believe. I wish I believed that all I had to do was believe in Jesus or follow the five pillars of Islam to go to heaven. I wish I believed there was a heaven, so that when someone I love dies, I’d have the comfort of knowing I’ll see them there. I wish I could claim to even begin to know what will happen after we die–the complete uncertainty is grueling and, at times, terrifying. As a believer, when someone wrongs you and gets away with it you think God will serve justice sooner or later. As an unbeliever, you just have to accept life isn’t fair. As a believer, if you’re sick or poor or deformed you think God will reward your suffering in this world or the next. As an unbeliever, it’s up to you to make the best of it. A believing, innocent person on death row or on a crashing plane or in an abusive relationship thinks there must be a reason. An unbelieving person must either find a way out or accept this venomous misfortune.

Unbelievers are not gifted with a book stating their values for them–they have to figure out life on their own. They actually have to think. Not believing means coming to terms with mortality, with accepting that life is limited and uncertain. Not believing means going through life without the comfort of believing in an invisible justice system. All of this takes incredible inner strength and self-discipline. Contrary to what people may say, we are not weak because we do not believe. We are extraordinarily strong.

“Moving away from religion has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve anything but an easy life. It wasn’t until college that I finally did so–and at that point, I had to rethink everything I had ever believed in, because it was all based on the premise of a religion I could no longer logically accept. I grew up in a strict Muslim household where religion was a daily part of life and reactions to religious violation were strong. My own life has included phases of religiosity, but the more educated I became the harder it became to connect the dots.

“I grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and attended Florida State University, majoring in psychology. I worked my way through school and am now a student at the Johnson School of Business at Cornell.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation