I have forever pondered over this, and feel the need to constantly re-evaluate the basis for my beliefs. Although I have acquired philosophical and rational justifications for my present beliefs, I used to believe for very practical reasons. Let me share some of those practical reasons, and how they gradually lost all validity for me.
The number one reason I always followed that which I followed is because I wanted to fit in. As a child, I am taught the ways of my parents, my uncles and my siblings, and thus observing their rituals and beliefs makes me fit in. I grew up in a community where the Muslims were a small minority within a larger Christian society. This meant that the Muslim family had to really establish a very strong attachment to its beliefs to prevent children from growing up and becoming assimilated into the larger Christian community, and thereby losing their original beliefs and identity. The mosque and other places where Muslims gathered were centers of entrenching the Muslim identity and insulating a Muslim psychologically from other members of society. I suspect this is what traditional Jewish born youngsters experienced in the past. Perhaps this is what all small religious communities do to ensure their survival. So the first reason I believed was because I had been psychologically and socially conditioned to believe the way I do. Now what if my parents had it wrong? What does the child of criminal parents think or do? Does he or she automatically just imitate their criminal activities? If I look at infamous crime families, then this indeed seems to be the case. Believing just to fit with the family or the community can in no way be used as a proof that you believe in the right stuff, and has consequently lost validity to me.
The second practical reason why I believed was because it made me feel better and more elevated than other lost souls. As a child I was always told that being a Muslim means you have higher standards of personal hygiene, higher dietary standards and higher moral standards. It felt good to be Muslim, because you hardly saw a drunk Muslim, a beggar Muslim or a Muslim lost in some vice like illicit sex or gambling. The comfort of this belief was disturbed when I first saw very poor (beggar) Muslims in other countries (and now locally.) It was also severely shattered when I learnt that Muslims in Afghanistan, are the biggest producers of opium as the hardest drug in the world. I also heard first hand, and from reliable sources, that prominent Muslim kings and presidents used alcohol, including some who hold prominent positions in Saudi Arabia. Yazeed, king of the Muslims, within 50 years of the death of the Prophet Muhammad (p), is also known to have imbibed alcohol. “But”, says the Muslim apologist, “those Muslims are not following the teachings of Islam.” My response is, then why are they elected or tolerated as kings and presidents? There is no law in traditionalist Islamic shariah that makes it unlawful to tolerate a drunk, gambling king. In fact, Sunni jurisprudence makes it incumbent to obey the authorities no matter how repugnant they are. (See “Reliance of the Traveller” by Noah Haa Mim Keller.) Even the bit about we are better because we value hygiene more is devoid of truth in reality. It is difficult to claim hygiene superiority when looking at many modern Western societies, which seem to reflect a higher standard of public hygiene than Muslim countries and societies. I have found the toilets in churches to be generally cleaner that those at mosques. What about dietary standards? Well, in 2012, the MJC, the body that 80% of Muslims in my area recognize, certified more than ten tons of pig hearts for consumption by the Muslim community. This happened because they just did not uphold the trust they were given to do thorough inspection of the meat they certify as Halaal. Not a single member of the MJC is known to have been disciplined for this gross violation of the MJC “Halaal Trust”. The “we are better than them…” basis for clinging to a belief-system turned out to be chauvinistic nonsense.
The third practical reason I believed was because it seems that worshipping and prayers, the way I was taught, guaranteed me a good afterlife. I would not like to end up in the nasty place called Hell, and by making some sacrifices in time and effort in worship and prayer would seem to be a small price to pay for eternal salvation. Other religions make the same claim, but as a Muslim, my prayers and my rituals are carefully defined and legislated by thousands of scholars, going back centuries. Certainly, these men cannot all be evil or misguided. The troubling thought however is that Jews also follow some tough laws and also have a lengthy tradition. They could not be right however because they oppress the Palestinians and are the masters of the interest-based banking system, I thought. But what if the Jews who do not oppress Palestinians or promote interest-based banking are then not perhaps on the right path? The other, more troublesome problem that perplexed me is which Islamic tradition was best? Sunni’s claim that Shi’ites will burn in hell, while Barelwi Sunni’s are condemned to hell by Tablighi Sunni’s. How do I know which Islam is going to bring me salvation? I was told to stick with the majority, but what if the majority happened to be Barelwi? Or Shia? It brings one back to reason number 1, above why people believe: “just follow what your parents taught you and hope for the best.” I have already invalidated this as pure nonsense.
The final practical basis I found to base my religious beliefs on was to identify an upright, heroic figure and to emulate his beliefs. By associating with such a figure, I could be somewhat in control, as well as experience moral and religious karma for having made some effort to avoid hell. The concept of Taqleed says that you can emulate a learned man, and delegate your key rational and philosophical life-decisions to him. There is a similar movement in the Christian world where it seems “charismatic churches” are based on some or other charismatic leadership personality. Upon closer examination however, I found that there are thousands of people who, in obedience to some leadership figure, end up at war with people that have done them no harm. By splitting society up into blind emulators seems to be a recipe for the formation of cliques. The reason for this is that (1) Clearly not all charismatic leaders are good, and (2) no charismatic thinker is perfect, so there will be plenty of conflict if this is the chosen route.
There can be no guarantee of salvation on earth or in the afterlife in
- following someone blindly,
- following a religion in order to fit in,
- following a religion in order to be superior to others
- or following a religion because it has majority support within society.
In the end, shaping a religious world view for myself will require of me to use my own intellect. Being an agnostic is no solution. Being an agnostic is equivalent to burying my head in the sand. There HAS to be a solution. Being an agnostic is like taking a tranquilizer and going to sleep. It does not answer my important questions, only amounts to me saying: “I can’t get answers, just let it be.”
What are those questions?
- Is there an objective truth?
- If there is such a Truth, how can I access it?
- If I can access it, how does it impact on my day-to-day existence?
The scientific and rational philosophical routes are based on the faith in the existence of rational coherence and inter-connectedness in the physical world. Mathematicians develop proofs, with the subliminal axiomatic faith that it will hold in all cases. 2+2=4 is a belief that holds for all times and spaces. The rational/scientific method therefore does not shy away from making “ultimate truth” claims. Why then should one not hope and yearn for the existence of a greater and broader universal Truth that transcends Science and Mathematics? In other words, a truth that transcends the realm of the physical. In pondering the natural world, which our senses behold, it screams out coherence and rationality. This to me is the first sign that points to the existence of an objective universal Truth that transcends the physically observable. After all, the temporal nature of all that is observable necessitates the existence of a non-temporal, higher frame of reference. I cannot conceive of any object without conceiving of its limits, thereby conceiving the existence of the “beyond”. If the physical universe/multi-verse has a finite existence, then there has to be a greater existence, beyond which these are founded; an Existence or Being beyond physics or nature. A realm that is of necessity unfathomable and therefore not limitable, because any object that is sensible has boundaries, and is therefore limited. The existence of an ultimate and transcendent Truth is therefore the natural conclusion one has to arrive at when contemplating the physical universe.
“Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.”