May 20, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I commented in various fora (these letters, Friday sermons, lectures) that there has been a surge of faith problems in our community this Spring. I attribute some of it to the intensity of life these past few years, but there may be other causes. One case to address is the person who consciously leaves God. A friend asked for some input on this, prompting this letter.
We have to distinguish between someone turning against Allah (a’udhubillah) versus someone losing faith in Allah’s existence (a’udhubillah). The former is more like atheism or anti-theism, and the latter is a type of atheism that is more like an agnosticism. Keep in mind that the second point is that someone is losing faith in Allah’s *existence,* which is different than losing faith in Allah taking care of them. Many, many more people struggle with faith in Allah taking care of them.
In the first case, 100% of my experiences have been of people with scarred hearts. Sometimes, they are unable to navigate or negotiate trauma. A common example has been the tragic death of a sibling. Someone is unable to come to terms with the death, and are not getting nurturing from anyone else. So, eventually they turn to Allah by turning against Allah.
More common, the scarred heart comes from jealousy instead of trauma. Usually, this jealousy is masked in the costume of resent. Usually it is resent against the parents. Most often, it is resent against the father. The father might be physically present. Might provide every material benefit to the child. But, the father is emotionally absent. More often, the person’s default image of their father is that he is a tyrant.
In every example, the converted-atheist begins with rational arguments against God’s existence. These are the usual arguments, including “We cannot reconcile Free Will with Predestination,” and “This evil and disorder in the world is proof that a good god does not exist.” The arguments tend to be inconsistent, and when I gently start pushing back on the inconsistencies, the person begins to collapse, like a house of cards. This is because the rational arguments are a mask. The real issue is the scarred heart underneath the mask.
In the second case, when someone loses faith in Allah’s existence, it is usually because of surrendering to something else. Here, the person is taking something else as an ilah (god) and might not realize it. They are dedicating themselves to this other ilah to such a degree that they are re-forming their whole worldview or ontology, without realizing it. It is as though the love of their ilah seeps through their veins and affects everything. They may not realize that they are altering their outlooks on iman (faith), nifaq (hypocrisy), jihad (effort), himma (zeal), sabr (fortitude), ummah (community), and morality, to make the object of worship this new ilah.
It may sound like shirk, it may sound like addiction, but I am holding off from using these terms because “shirk” is a very heavy term, and “addiction” is the diagnosis of the psychologist. Here, we are talking about purification. [Shirk = partnering someone or something with God]
In my experience with local Muslim populations, the three most common ilahs are pornography, the self (i.e. narcissism), particular activist causes. Meaning, someone watches so much pornography, that they start adjusting their schedule to fill their appetite for pornography. Or, they look forward their entire day to their dosage of pornography, and may indulge any time they can. Eventually, they find themselves thinking that they don’t know if they believe in God anymore. Further, they will develop repulsion for people, behaviors, and ideas that would bring them away from their ilah (and/or bring them closer to Allah).
These days, the Self is often such an ilah. This is a much more difficult issue to address. The behavior of taking the Self as an ilah is very similar to the behavior of the Munafiq (hypocrite). The motivation of taking the Self as an ilah often relates to an overcompensation for an internal emptiness. This internal emptiness might result from the same causes of the scarred heart mentioned above and/or deep lack of self-esteem. The emptiness first gets overcompensated with self-loathing, which is a type of narcissism, which then becomes self-love masking the self-loathing. The person’s approach is to turn narcissist, often with the support of enablers who feed the narcissism (friends and family). Such narcissists — out of self-loathing — will find more appeal in distant relationships than in those present before them.
These people get repulsed by people who critique them, and will surround themselves with “yes men.” The “yes men” themselves are often suffering from their own issues. Thus, this mix is very hard to treat because you have to first separate these people, who are otherwise poison for each other. One of the difficulties that the Prophet, may peace be upon him, had with the various groups in Makkah and beyond is that the members of the opposition would lock their hearts in with each other. Consider three metaphors of trees in the Qur’an. One is the tree formed from the true believers, which develops deep roots and is very strong and towering. Another is the Zaqqum, the tree of hell. The dwellers of hell turn to it for nourishment, but it is nasty, yet people keep turning to it: this is the true experience of the narcissists in their interactions with their fellows.
The other tree is actually a seed. This is the seed that sprouts seven stalks and each of those stalks sprouts a hundred more. This last tree is the result of the good word or the gift of donation. Meaning, it is hard for the bystander to pull the narcissist out of his/her congregation, but they might be able to start treating themselves. Or, as one of my teachers used to exclaim, “The solution to nifaq is infaq!” (Infaq = giving to the point of exhaustion).
The third most common ilah is the result of frustrated activism. Activism needs to fueled by love. If it is not, then anything fueling it will eventually expire and anger will become the fuel. More than that, their “Islam” will actually be their cause, and they will force their islam to conform to their cause. Their cause supercedes obligations to the Divine, though the activist — if s/he does pray — will pray primarily for their cause, and the destruction of the opposition. The most telling sign of these people is that they re-form their ummah according to their cause. You will often hear such people rail against the Muslim ummah, while praising other non-Muslims for integrity, though the actual praise is for support for their cause.
Now, I should comment that such an activist might not have a global, national, or local cause. It might be a cause involving just one, two, or a handful of people.
It is very hard for the activist to be fueled by love because s/he sees love as weakness. Further, it is very hard because the activist sees nothing but destruction in their world, and like the persons above, gets scarred from the trauma. Love requires strength. Malcolm called on people to love themselves. Dr. King called on people to love the enemy. James Baldwin called on the enemy to love himself. These are not easy approaches to love, when society pushes you in the opposite direction.
We do have other faith issues in our community, just like every other community. But, in my experience the above are the most common in ours.
I hope you received this letter with the best of health and Iman.
And Allah knows best.