I was born into a family of
Saudi Arabian traders. My parents moved from Saudi Arabia to Syria, where
I was born, to expand the business they owned and managed. When I was four
years old my father decided the family would return to Saudi Arabia. From
conversations I later had my mother I learned the six years he’d spent
in Syria, though, had changed him. My parents were educated and well to
do, but my father hadn’t travelled much in his lifetime before moving to
Syria; it was there that he came into contact with people of different
faiths and views and, through conversations with acquaintances and others,
became aware of views which were at odds with those of his own Islamic
faith. Despite financial gains, he was increasingly uncomfortable with
being in close proximity with non-Islamic faiths and at the end of his
sixth year in Syria decided to return to Saudi Arabia (and, as an
acquaintance of mine would put it years later without mincing words, his
brought up in the Islamic fashion in Saudi Arabia and, when I was six,
began to wear the dress insisted upon by Islam and society. As is usual in
that country, I went to a girls-only school and learned “how to read the
Quran”, how to be a good and obedient wife and mother, and how I could
hope for an eternal life in paradise by remaining obedient to my husband.
I believed this, as any six year-old would. My father insisted I also read
the Quran aloud to him after dinner and explain to him, in my words, what
the verses meant. The enjoyment he derived from listening to me read to
him would turn to anger when, in later years, I began to question those
same verses. By the age of seventeen I found the “education” I was
receiving stultifying and discussed returning to Syria to study at a
university there with my mother. I also told her I was opposed to the
marriage arrangements my father was making for me, and that I wanted to
have a university education as he had without the additional burden of
being “an obedient wife”. The two of us spoke to my father about this
and he agreed to it. Arrangements were made for me to live with family
friends in Syria while I studied.
from a strict and orthodox regime into the comparatively free Syrian
society was like a breath of fresh air. There was, of course, the initial
shock of finding oneself amongst peers who discussed politics and religion
and enunciated what appeared to me at the time to be dangerous views, not
realising that what was “daring” discussion in Syria was seen as
middle of the road views in the West. Then there was the matter of dress.
Furthermore, never having ventured out alone, it was almost daunting to be
driven to class without my father and later, for the sake of convenience,
to be given the opportunity to learn to drive a car! Once past the shock
of this newfound openness and freedom I decided to make as much use of it
as I could before returning to Saudi Arabia. Apart from my chosen subject
at university I read as much as I could on religion, philosophy and
sociology. I was trying to find the answers to the questions I had
regarding the Quran. I still went to the mosque with my guardians every
week and observed all the religious festivals for I was still a Muslim.
university library I couldn’t believe the sheer wealth of knowledge
available on theology and Islam, on philosophy and sociology. The only
books on theology I’d come across in my school library in Saudi Arabia
dealt with Islam and Islam alone. As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned no
other religion exists, save for those corruptions of Islam such as Judaism
and Christianity. I was like the proverbial child in the candy store who
is told she could have anything she wanted. For the first time I heard of
al-Ma’ari. This was a watershed. The questions I’d asked of my father
were naïve and childish compared to the views of al-Ma’ari asked. Like
many Muslims before me have done, I spent a lot of time reading his
Luzumiyat and other works if only to prove he was mistaken. His
description of religion as a noxious weed, as a fable invented by the
ancients, and his denial of a resurrection were heresy by any standards.
For the first time, I read poetry which did not distinguish between Islam
and other religions, treating all with equal contempt:
are stumbling, Christians all astray
wildered, Magians far on error's way.
mortals are composed of two great schools
knaves or else religious fools.
Saudi Arabia I was taught that Islam is the only way to paradise. In Syria
I heard discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of religions, but
here, for the first time, I was reading words which dispensed with
religion altogether. Having been brought up in a rigidly Islamic society
it took a while before my mind could even grasp the concept. I recall
staying up until three in the morning reading al-Ma’ari’s works trying
to decipher the true meaning beyond his dissimulation, trying to find how
he could claim to be a good man while ridiculing every Islamic tenet. This
led me to further reading; I read the works of accepted Muslim apologists
but they merely raised more questions. They either did not acknowledge
those parts of the Quran which ran counter to their arguments or more or
less stated that it had to be accepted on faith alone. I read the works of
several “Orientalists”. These authors appeared to lend credence al-Ma’ari’s
views. I took my problem to a trusted teacher at university. I spent hours
with her discussing my dilemma. She pointed out two paths and told me she
could give me a map, but the journey was mine to make.
finally realised I was at a crossroad: I could continue to pursue what was
an increasingly dangerous study and attempt to find the answers I sought
or close once and for all the books I’d brought from the library and
return to my comfortable Islamic way of life, where no questions on Islam
and its prophet are brooked and none asked. The second option would ensure
I had a materially comfortable life and I would sink into that pleasant
anonymity wherein any ripples in life’s stream are soon calmed using the
oils of religion. The first option, though more dangerous to my belief
system, offered me answers to the questions which had dogged me for years.
I could live the life my parents wanted me to live or I could try to find
my answers even if it meant losing my faith
age of nineteen I read of an informal discussion, which was to be held at
the university, on the relationship of Islam and Judaism. I went to the
meeting expecting the usual softly-softly approach. A lecturer at the
university was to speak on Islam while the person speaking on Judaism was
a Jew who had just completed a doctoral thesis on a subject with relevance
to religion. Within the first ten minutes of his speech the Jewish
gentleman had demolished whatever ideas I held as to what constitutes a
prophet. It became more serious from there on. He drew parallels between
Judaism and Islam and demonstrated how the latter had to compete with
other religions to gain the belief of the populace. Here, at last, were
the answers I had been looking for, answers based on fact and not belief,
on credibility not blind faith.
in touch with the gentleman and soon was involved in regular
correspondence with him. This in itself was dangerous. Should my guardian
family come to know I was corresponding with a Jew, they would not
hesitate to contact my father and my newfound freedoms would come to an
end immediately. However, the benefits, to my mind, outweighed the risks.
For the first time in my life I had someone who could give me very
specific answers to the questions I still had or point me to specific
texts, thus saving me the bother of searching through several texts. We
met on several occasions, always at cafes and other open venues and
obviously without the knowledge of my guardians. When he invited me to his
home to meet his family I was in two minds. To visit the house of a Jew
was unthinkable to my family and yet we had, by now, struck up a strong
and valued friendship. I went to his home for a meal.
family welcomed me as warmly as mine would close and cherished friends.
I’d half expected to encounter, if not coldness given my nationality
and/or religion, at least some strain or difficulty. I was wrong,
completely wrong. I was immediately made to feel part of the family, asked
if I would care to pray over the meal to my Islamic deity, using Arabic. I
declined because by then I was fast losing the faith I’d once held so
strongly in Islam and its beliefs. By the end of that meal I knew beyond
doubt that I was privileged to have met this family, these Jews I’d been
brought up to regard as inimical to Islam and Muslims, and that we were to
be friends forever. They are good people who hold to their religious views
with great faith but have not, in the years that I have known them now,
made the slightest attempt in any way to impose that faith upon me or even
persuade me as to the validity of that faith. That meeting was the first
of many, every one of them enjoyed, every minute cherished.
returned to my guardian’s home and knew I had to re-think my values. The
views I’d held of Jews in general were wrong. But if they were wrong
what was I to make of the teachings in the Quran which emphasised their
sins and perceived wrongdoing? I turned increasingly to my reading of the
treatises on the Quran until I realised that I wasn’t looking for
explanations any longer but a valid excuse which would allow me to
maintain the beliefs with which I’d been brought up. It was with a heavy
heart that I realised that blind belief in a self-contradictory text was
not for me any longer.
same time, the meetings with my Jewish friend grew more frequent and when
he proposed to me I accepted. He told me he recognised the difficulties we
would face and the obvious physical danger to his family and us. He also
told me that we would have to emigrate from Syria even if my family
accepted our relationship.
telephoned my father to explain my feelings and actions he was furious and
disowned me. He had me declared apostate in Saudi Arabia and Syria and
ensured my name was mentioned as an apostate in mosques there. My fiancé
and I knew we had to leave Syria immediately. We were married very shortly
thereafter and, despite our hardships, have never once regretted our
decision. We moved to a Western nation where we now reside permanently. I
maintained surreptitious contact with my Mother who, while saddened at the
prospect of never seeing me again, tried to understand the rationale
behind my loss of faith. My husband and I developed our respective careers
in our new homeland.
six months ago, towards the end of 2002, my Mother called me to tell me
that my father was very ill. Few think of their parents as mortal, it may
be the last vestiges of the child within us. The news came as a shock.
Greater was the shock, though, at the news that my father wished to see me
again, together with my husband. We couldn’t meet in Saudi Arabia - that
would have been foolhardy; so we met (with no small difficulty to my
father) in Syria. The meeting was emotional. I tried to explain to my
father what I felt, my beliefs, my love for my husband. He explained to me
his anger at having his beliefs shattered by his daughter and the pressure
brought to bear upon him by relatives and friends to have me declared
apostate. Then came the reconciliation. He told me I was his still his
daughter, that he couldn’t deny me, that he accepted my husband as his
son-in-law, and that he now knew that no god would tear a family apart.
His death five weeks later was all the more bitter because of our
reconciliation, of the lack of time to say all we wanted.
husband and I returned to our home in the West knowing my father’s
relatives and friends would still persecute us had we decided to remain in
Syria. I have now given up any faith I ever had in Islam. I see it for
what it is: a man-made, duplicitous fabrication, a lust for power which
tolerates no resistance, despite what its texts might claim. I also know
now it is this very intolerance which will be its downfall. The West need
not start a crusade against Islam to destroy it; its complete and total
metamorphosis will come from within. The process has begun in Iran, with
Soroush at the forefront, which is ironic, seeing that the latest Islamic
surge began there in 1979.
For me, it cannot come too soon.