Leaving Islam




My sweet Grandmother and the concept of “Najass” 

Keyvan Shirazi 

I am an American son of Iranian immigrants.  My parents came to the United States in the 1950’s, and I was born and grew up in the Midwest.  Today I consider myself simply an American, and not an Iranian-American, for I cannot respect the crude, separatist thinking of those who hyphenate their identities in this way.  Though my family was originally Muslim, probably as far back as the early Middle Ages, I am not now a practicing Muslim, nor have I ever been one in the past.  More to the point though, recent events in the world, and my own interpretation of their significance, have lately compelled me to conclude that there is virtually no chance I would ever become a Muslim in the future.  The reason I feel this way is because I have come to believe that to devote oneself to Islam is to risk seriously the loss of one’s humanity and the right to be called a civilized human being. 

Like many people around the world since 9/11, I too have wondered what it is that inspires Muslims to become such utterly bloodthirsty terrorists.  At first, I would insist that the problem lay with Islamic extremists, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia in particular.  When people challenged me on this, arguing that the problem was the moral backwardness inherent in Islam itself, I would dismiss their accusations on the grounds that I personally knew practicing Muslims who were as peaceful and inoffensive as any people on the planet.  That latter bit I still know to be true, but the former part of my reasoning – namely, that the decency of some Muslims exonerated Islam itself – is not an opinion that I have the energy or the inclination to defend anymore.  I just don’t feel in my heart that this statement is true.  Every ounce of my common sense demands that I stop kidding myself. 

And yet it was not the relentless string of terrorist acts committed by Muslims in Iraq and almost everyplace else that caused me to abandon the defense of Islam.  It was something that happened over 30 years ago, something I never really thought much about until quite recently when I realized that the significance of that event was that it contained at least one of the clues to explaining why global terrorism is an almost exclusively Islamic phenomenon.   

In 1974, when I was in my late teens I flew to Iran to spend a few weeks with my extended family members.  Many of these people have since fled the country to live in Europe and North America.  Back in the 1970’s, however, when the Shah was in power, Iran was a nation whose authoritarian government was sufficiently hands-off in the way it treated the population that if you did not overtly antagonize the ruler you could lead a reasonably normal, prosperous life.   Iran was no picnic under the Shah, but nothing like the nightmare it has become under the turban-headed Islamofascists of today.  There were many places much worse than Iran back then.  There are not many such places now.   

That same year my sister came to visit Iran with her first husband, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian farm boy from northern Iowa.  He was a bit of a hippy, though not egregiously so, and he exhibited a great deal of friendly curiosity to learn about exotic places like Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, all of which the two of them explored that year in an old Volkswagen van.  

Most of the time there we spent with my maternal relatives, but for a couple of days we went to visit my father’s older brother at his flat in Tehran.  My uncle’s flat was somewhat crowded, for he shared it with his wife and a number of other relatives, including my grandmother.  My grandmother has been dead since 1992, but I think of her often and truly miss her sweet face and high pitched, chirpy voice.  She was a devout Muslim who, though illiterate in Farsi, had managed to teach herself to read the Koran in the original Arabic.  To this day she remains probably the closest thing to a saintly person I have ever known.  But as kind and gentle as she was to the end of her life, she was not quite a saint, and I believe it was her Islamic faith that kept her from reaching that plateau. 

My grandmother was delighted to see me when I rang my uncle’s door bell.  My sister and my brother-in-law were with me on that occasion, and there was a lot of good cheer to go around.  As my grandmother became increasingly acquainted with my brother-in-law she clearly liked him.  I remember that unmistakably.  He was definitely welcome in her home.  And yet, she would not physically touch him, either to embrace him as a family member, or even to shake his hand.  The reason for this was simple:  He was not a Muslim, therefore, he was najass.  The word means “dirty” – not dirty in the sense of physically grimy – but rather spiritually tainted, filthy in a deeper sense, something akin to an “Untouchable” in Hindu society.  People who submit to the teachings of Islam are taught that non-Muslims can no more be touched than pork or alcohol.  My grandmother truly bore him no ill will, but because she had submitted to Islam, she felt she had to accept its dictates with respect to the treatment of non-Muslims. It was less an act of hostility to my brother-in-law than an act of surrender to her religion.  This is what strikes me so forcefully today.  As kindly and gentle a person as she was, her kindness had nothing to do with her being Muslim, as I had previously thought.  She was kind and decent in spite of being a Muslim, for the only thing she learned from Islam was an arrogant disdain for different faiths and those who practice them. 

You might be asking how she managed this self-evident contradiction.  How could she have liked him and welcomed him into her home if Islam had taught her that non-Muslims are dirty?  The answer, in my view, is because Muslims who maintain their humanity and decency do so by compromising with their faith, by deviating from it in some way.  As the Koranic scriptures and the Hadiths reveal, being a strict and pure Muslim requires that a person fill his heart with so much concentrated hatred for the “unbeliever” that most people simply don’t have the strength to keep up the daily routine of being an intolerant barbarian.  So they quietly tell themselves that they will be good Muslims, but only up to a point.   They will honor and revere the Koran, but they will not necessarily take it too literally.  Much of what the Koran tells them to do they will silently ignore. 

My late grandmother maintained her kind-hearted, cheerful disposition because there was something in her soul besides Islam, something that – call it what you will - fought with Islam and held it at bay, enabling her to rise far above the level of the sort of fascist thug that Islamic doctrine is tailored to produce.  She submitted to Islam, but for all her outwardly evident devotion, she submitted to it only partly. 

Now contrast my grandmother with somebody like Umm Nidal, a member of the Hamas-led parliament in Gaza.  Even by the Palestinians’ abysmal moral standards this woman is a hideous witch, the Shelob to Hamas’ orcs, who glories in the fact that her sons blew themselves to bits simply for the pleasure and “honor” of killing some Jews.  Umm Nidal is also a devout Muslim, and yet not only is she no saint, she barely qualifies as a human being at all for she is so indescribably vile that even her rapist would occupy a higher moral plane than she does – assuming any man would be stupid enough to touch such a loathsome creature. 

What makes Umm Nidal different from my grandmother?  I think the difference is that if you could peer into the Palestinian witch’s soul you would find nothing there but Islam, a total submission to this ugly ideology.   

I can no longer argue that the problem in the world stems merely from Islamic extremists like the Wahhabis.  Yes, they are arguably the worst of the lot, the scum-de-la-scum, so to speak, of the Islamic world.  But the Wahhabis are not the root of the problem; Islam itself is.  And that is why I could never attempt to be any kind of Muslim at all, much less a “good” Muslim.  The thought of sinking that low is simply too shameful.  And that my sweet grandmother managed to avoid the fate of the Palestinian witch is a miracle for which I am genuinely grateful.







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