By Imam Ajmal Masroor
Today, I am going to write about a very sensitive subject. I know some of you will not like what I am about to share, but I will share it anyway. This writing has been spurred by a message I received from a concerned brother, who was upset by how people were reacting to my Friday sermon from last week. Particularly one part, which I have uploaded here for your information.
The question of why our children are leaving Islam needs more data and analysis. However, in the absence of such data and analysis, someone has to raise this issue, based on our daily dealings with the community. In the last month, I have dealt with five young women and two young men who have chosen to leave Islam and become an atheist, agnostic or Christian. Their families have been in contact with me seeking help and support.
Sadly, I have even witnessed this in members of my wider family. This topic is never discussed as people get too emotional, instead of having a measured and civil exchange. It leaves bad feelings and creates distance between family members, so the topic is avoided at all costs. This is not ideal, but we all prefer to save our relationships rather than argue about religion.
My father, who has passed away, may Allah have mercy on his soul, would be totally heartbroken if he was alive to witness what is happening in his family. He used to share his fears, and almost foresee the future when he told us this story. He once met a retired British army general who told him, “Mr Hussain, you are here in our country as an economic migrant, you will always remain a foreigner, you will never accept Britain as your home, and that’s ok. We don’t want you. But let me tell you something, we will have your children. Many of them will leave your religion and reject your culture, they will be ours in every way!”
My father was horrified to hear this confident and powerful prediction. He always reminded us to remain true to our faith. He taught us in the best way he knew. I ask God to forgive him and grant him the best rewards. I have two children and I worry about their future too. May God protect them and keep them steadfast in their faith.
If only I could show you how true that man’s prediction was! If only I could tell my father that his fears are coming true. If only I could tell my father that, while he did his best to protect me from the possibility of leaving Islam, his strategy did not work for many in his family. When I asked him why he put me in an Islamic school, his response was simple, “To keep you in Islam”. While going to an Islamic school is not a guarantee of remaining in Islam, it still worked for me, and for that, I am grateful to him and God. However, for many this has not worked.
I feel extremely sad that I cannot help my family members to review their position, because they have shut their door to such a possibility. I feel sad that I cannot help other families with such challenging situations. For anyone to accept and live by Islam, being born in a Muslim family is not enough. They have to be willing to explore the religion with an open mind and heart to be intellectually convinced. I pray for them regularly and I continue my quest to find answers and ways to help them return. The door to Islam is always open, and as a fellow Muslim, I feel I have a duty to support people who are struggling to make sense of Islam.
After speaking to hundreds of people, many who have left, or are considering leaving Islam, here are some of the key reasons I have identified:
1. Misogyny – Muslims claim that Islam offers men and women equality, but in practice, Muslims do not treat men and women equally. Many women leave Islam because of their experience of misogyny in Muslim society. They feel they are discriminated against, given second class status, excluded, and often treated as the problem. Misogyny manifests its ugly face deeply in every facet of life. Many Muslim women face unequal treatment from the day they are born. They witness their male family members having a different set of rules to them. I am often told by women, “Growing up with brothers and sisters, we found boys could do anything and get away with it. But if we made even one small mistake, we were told that we would bring dishonour upon the family, even the community.”
Can you imagine the burden placed on young women to be so pure and perfect? Growing up has enough pressure and challenges for the young souls, and adding misogyny is simply soul-destroying. This double standard between the way men and women are treated is wholly wrong. It is in total contradiction to the Islamic teachings of love, respect, justice, excellence and compassion. If the mothers of our future generations are feeling discriminated against and excluded, what does it say about our future? Sadly, Muslim men who behave in this way have contributed to many people, women in particular, leaving Islam. I have observed that more Muslim women leave Islam than men. Why are you surprised to hear this when some of you have treated women so unfairly?
2. Mosques – These buildings are constructed, at vast expense, with amazing carpets, lighting, bathrooms, domes and minarets. But very little, in comparison, is spent on educating and supporting the Muslims who live in the surrounding areas. They become bubbles, or elite clubs, for Muslim men who hang out at prayer times and hardly connect with the rest of the community. They become places of comfort for those who are already committed to Islam. They do not have a culture of openness or an ambience of invitation. Those who feel no affinity to the faith, or are struggling to make sense of it, would hardly find it a welcoming atmosphere. Yet the mosque of the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not only a place of worship but of refuge, shelter, family counselling, social justice, economic development, mental health support, international relations and much more. The mosque of the blessed Prophet led the society in all that was morally healthy.
The majority of mosques in the UK do not have facilities for women or youth, and where they can be found, they are usually substandard. Women and youth are treated as outsiders. Vast amounts of space lie empty for 20 hours a day. Apart from the five daily prayers and children’s Quran-reading classes, the mosque space is hardly used. Ask a Muslim woman whether she feels involved or included in the mosque! I can guarantee you that the vast majority would say that they feel excluded, uninvolved, unwanted and uninvited. There is only one mosque that I know which is led by an amazing sister, and she has an amazing team of brothers and sisters running the mosque. It is the Wightman Road mosque in Turnpike Lane, North London. Ask the sisters how much nonsense they have to face from the so-called ‘practising’ Muslim brothers! Ask a Muslim woman how included she feels in the mosque?
Many of the Mosques are not fit the purpose. In Islam, if a mosque excludes a woman from accessing it, then it should not even be called a mosque according to classical scholars. Dr Akram Nadwi discusses this in details in his translations and explanation of the book called “Lawfulness of women attending prayers in the mosque” by Ibn Hazm. When you exclude women from accessing the mosque why are you surprised when they leave the mosques?
Mosques are not offering sufficient intellectually-based educational, spiritual and social space for our younger generations. They do not come to them because they are not attractive enough. I believe every mosque should have a full-time youth centre based in, or attached to it. A good portion of every Friday’s collection should be assigned to running youth service. Imagine the impact on a whole generation of Muslims who are disconnected from the most important Islamic space! Why should we be surprised to see them leaving Islam?
3. Imams – For the last 30 years we have been complaining about Imams not speaking English. Now the majority speak English, but the complaints have not abated. Many are inadequately trained to serve their community. They may have knowledge of sharia (Islamic legal system), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and seerah (biographies of the Prophet/s), but what use is it if Imams are unable to relate to the people they are meant to serve? What good are all the books in an Imam’s library, if he is unable to offer adequate intellectual responses to the many daily challenges our youth face?
Many Imams do not get training in how to deal with the social issues the communities are facing, they do not get sufficient resources to support the community, and they do not even get paid enough to be able to focus in their job. Imams are supposed to be teachers of our children. If they are incompetent what will our children gain except incompetency! I have come across many horror stories of people who have left Islam because of their experience with their local Imam. Some of the awful experiences include being beaten black and blue while learning the Quran, and even experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of some rotten Imams.
Imams need to be up-skilled to be able to meet the challenges of the community. They need safeguarding training, adequate salaries and resources, professional management, and mentorship by senior scholars. Imams need to respected for their work but also held accountable for their actions. We are all humans, without supervision and accountability we could fall prey of the whispers of Shaytan. Take measures to protect everyone before it’s too late.
Many people leave Islam because their local Imams are not intellectually capable of responding to their challenging questions including questions on secularism, atheism, sexuality, LGBT and freedom etc. For the new generation, phrases like “God said and the Prophet said” are not enough. They want reasons, proof, evidence and intellectual rigour. People are desperately seeking a safe space to think critically, questions without barriers and doubt with judgment. The first step to knowledge is scepticism. Islam encourages critical thinking, questioning and doubting and Qur’an offers resounding proof of certainty. We need young people to know this and Imams need to promote it. If you cannot present Islam to the community properly why are you an Imam?
There is a severe shortage of female Islamic scholars. We have failed to invest in institutions to train Muslim women to become Islamic scholars. Women have little opportunity to learn from male Islamic scholars and Imams. Culture plays a role, but Imams almost always stay in the male section of the prayer space. They should be equally accessible to both males and females in safe and secure spaces. Knowledge should not be a male commodity alone.
When Imams are not able to answer questions adequately, present Islam intellectually or intelligently and are not accessible to women or youth, why are we surprised to see many people leaving Islam?
4. Bad parenting – The most important need of our children is to grow in a safe home. Their most significant teachers are their parents. Children, whose parents are absent or cannot get on with each other and whose family-life is dysfunctional, grow up with deep scars in their hearts and minds. If they see their parents preaching Islam at them, but failing to practice it, they feel let down, betrayed. Many children complain that their parents were the worst examples of Islam.
Many Muslim children experience very little love when growing up. They may be rarely reassured with words of love, or given hugs, kisses or a tender touch. They grow up with an emotional deficit, and they believe this is due to Islam. Then perhaps, as they get older, if they encounter loving attention from others, they may be attracted to it. In some cases, they get into inappropriate emotional and sexual relationships, and the consequences can be dire. They leave Islam because they feel if Islam shaped their parents, they do not want to be shaped in the same way.
Our children’s affinity to Islam is largely dependent on how we present Islam to them. We have to strike a balance between gentleness and discipline, leniency and firmness, between conservatism and moderation, between ritualised practices and intellectual underpinnings. We have to nurture our children’s natural dispositions and to inspire hope and aspirations in them. We have to allow our children to make mistakes and learn from them. We have to help our children keep on dreaming, even if their dreams change.
When we have been a bad example of Islam and have displayed behaviour problems, why are we surprised that our children are leaving Islam? When we have told children that Islam is all about hell and punishment, the wrath of God and eternal damnation, why are we surprised when our children leave Islam?
5. Ignorance – There is wholesale ignorance about Islam in our community. Religious literacy is not given priority. Professional qualifications take precedence over a solid intellectual foundation of Islamic principles. We have generations who have learned to read the Qur’an without any understanding of its meaning or underlying message, who have been taught rudimentary rituals of Islam, reminiscent of kindergarten level, and whose only connection with God is emotional.
Many who leave Islam do not know much about their faith. They have no idea why they are even Muslim. They do not know why they pray. They do not understand Islam’s ethical and moral approach to life. They are just Muslims by virtue of being born in a Muslim family with their families emphasising halal meat and prayers. Why are we surprised when Muslims leave Islam?
In Islam the first order of God is knowledge. It is through literacy and numeracy one can excel in every aspect of life including discovering God. It is through reading, writing and reflecting that one can find true enlightenment. Qur’an is all about reading, writing and reflecting. Did you know that approximately 5% of the Qur’an contains commandments in the form of permissible or prohibitions, the rest of the 95% of the Qur’an is all about deep reflection and contemplation? When the Muslim community suffers from a pandemic of religious illiteracy, why are we surprised when our children decide to leave Islam?
6. Bad examples – In Muslim community whether in the UK or abroad, true examples of Islamic behaviour are not difficult to find, but sadly they are not widely known. However, bad examples of Islam are all around us. From Muslims claiming to follow Islam and then bombing innocent people, carrying out terrorist activities or setting up a so-called “Islamic state”, to Muslim governments in, for example, Saudi Arabia executing people arbitrarily, killing innocent men, women and children in Yemen out of a quarrel with neighbouring Iran; destroying democracy and establishing a dictatorship in Egypt; detaining people without charge in Algeria; banishing people in Bangladesh; mass-murdering people in Syria, and so on and so on.
We witness corruption in Muslim society at all levels. We see no justice or peace in Muslim majority countries. We see Muslims in the western countries causing trouble between themselves by fighting for mosque management positions, defrauding charities, conducting dishonest businesses, not paying taxes, working while claiming benefits, lying, cheating, selling drugs and getting involved in criminal activities. When our children grow up in or become witness to such behaviour amongst their fellow Muslims why are we surprised when they leave Islam?
We know Islam does not teach corruption or terrorism, despotism or dictatorship; it teaches freedom, fairness, justice, excellence and compassion. It invites its followers to lead moral and ethical lives, to stand against shamelessness, evil and transgression. It teaches peaceful coexistence and moderation. Sadly, many Muslims do not follow the teachings of their faith. When young people are looking for good examples of their faith and they find it difficult what should they do? Why are we surprised when they leave Islam?
Did you know that the Muslim population in the UK is less than 5% of the total population but they constitute more than 15% of the UK prison population? This must mean something! Why are there three times more Muslims in prison than there should be? In fact, we should not have any prisoners from Muslim families. When our children see such examples of Muslim society, they feel unimpressed, ashamed, disgusted and they often blame Islam for these ills. Why are we surprised when they leave Islam?
7. Abuse – Many young people have experienced verbal and physical abuse in their homes at the hands of their patents. Being parents does not give you the right to beat your children and verbally abuse them. Children are a gift and a beauty in our lives, they are creations of God. Any abuse of our children is an abuse of God’s gift. When Muslim parents use Islam to demand their rights from their children, but fail to deliver a safe, loving and nurturing space for their children’s physical, emotional and spiritual growth, they have either been neglectful or abusive to their children. When a child experiences abuse at the hands of their parents they remain scared forever. We should not be surprised when children who have experienced abuse, choose to leave Islam.
I have reports of many who have experienced sexual abuse from their family members. When Muslims claim sexual purity and chastity and then these children experience sexual abuse from the very people who have been preaching to them about sexual propriety, they feel angry at the hypocrisy. Violating a child is a crime that requires the maximum punishment. It requires society to come together and protect our children. In many cases, children have experienced awful abuse but seen their families and community remain silent or brush it under the carpet. In some cases, children were blamed for talking about it and accused of making up stories. How do you think children feel under such circumstances? Why are you surprised when some of them leave Islam because you are a Muslim and you have perpetrated such a crime or remained silent?
8. Dull – Many children experience Islam without much fun. They remember how Islam was all about “don’t do this” and “do this”, a constant barrage of instructions. Some say they remember so many things that were haram, it felt like everything was haram. They were not allowed to laugh or joke too much as they were told that Allah does not like it. They were told to pray, fast and read the Qur’an, but not have fun; that they should always remember death and the hereafter, and not get too attached to the joys of life; that they should not watch much TV or go to the cinema because it was sinful. They felt that the element of fun was removed from their childhood because of Islam.
Even in adult life, they see Muslims who get upset over cartoons, comedies or can’t even take a joke. Islam has become associated with being dull and boring. I hear this from many young people in colleges and universities. They say Islam is too restrictive. It does not allow them to do much. They have got this idea from their observation of Muslims and often of their families.
I tell them that they would be hard-pressed to find too many rules or restrictions in Islam. The Highway Code, that you must learn if you want to drive, contains more rules than the whole of Islam. However, the criticism of some Muslims being rigid and dull is not unfounded. I sometimes remind older generations to cast their mind to a time when they were young. Islam doesn’t mean dull and boring life – it encourages all good things as long as they are ethical and moral. Have fun and enjoy what God has given you in abundance.
Sadly, I don’t find it surprising that many young people chose to leave Islam because of their bad experiences with Muslims. We have to listen to the experience of our children and change. We have to live Islam authentically, honestly and with confidence. We have to present Islam intellectually and smartly and most importantly we have to exemplify Islam in our life if we want our children to remain Muslim.
I say to those who are considering leaving Islam or have left Islam to pause and think – do not judge Islam by Muslims’ behaviour, rather judge Muslims by the teachings of Islam. If you study Islam with an open mind and heart you may find the answers you are looking for. I did!