Sohail Ahmed writes:
I was born into a practising and very devout Muslim family in East London. My mother wears the niqab and my father keeps a long beard. Both my parents are fundamentalist Salafi-Wahhabi Muslims.
I was brought up in a household where music and TV were not allowed. I was taught that the non-Muslims, the kuffaar, are the sworn enemy and cannot be trusted. I was told that my country of birth, the United Kingdom, was at war with Islam and was the enemy. I was taken out of assemblies at school by my parents, so that I wouldn’t be influenced by western ‘propaganda’.
I was taught this radical form of Islam both at home and at the local mosque I attended every weekday in Leyton. I became engrossed in Islam; reading Islamic books in my spare time. Eventually, I became quite knowledgeable in Islamic theology and was well known in the Muslim community as a person who was religious and very well versed in the teachings of Islam.
People would come to me with their questions concerning religion and their doubts. I explained to them the finer points of Islamic theology, and removed their doubts. Later, I went on to lead the prayers during the holy month of Ramadan as my pronunciation and recitation of the Qur’an was highly proficient.
What I have not mentioned yet is the fact that I am also gay. It was hard enough growing up in a fundamentalist family, but growing up in a fundamentalist family and being gay was even worse. Somehow, I had always known that I was different. When I hit puberty I realised that I had feelings for the same gender. Initially, I didn’t think much of it. I thought it was what everyone experienced. Only later did I realise that most people experienced attraction towards the opposite gender.
It was about the same time I first learned about Islam’s teachings on homosexuality. Before that, sex and sexuality had been considered a taboo subject and had not ever been discussed at home.
I discovered that Islam taught that gay people were transgressing against God and were abnormal. Consequently, I never accepted myself as gay. I didn’t even accept that there was such a disposition as being gay. I thought that my feelings towards other men were because of the whispers of the devil, and were not reflective of my true nature.
Imagine if someone told you everyday of your life, every minute, that you are evil. That you are the work of the devil. That you are unnatural and an abomination against God. Imagine the effect that would have on your psyche. Now imagine that person was you. Imagine you were the person who was telling yourself that you were evil, devilish and an abomination. And imagine you really believed in what you were saying.
That was what I was experiencing every second of my living and breathing existence. I was trapped in a prison set in hell. But instead of this being a physical prison, with physical bars, this was a prison within my own mind. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t escape from this enormously detrimental predicament.
Hiding my sexuality from others taxed me greatly. Every moment I was terrified that others would find out, either at school or at home. This constant terror caused me to suffer from several anxiety attacks. Every time my parents would call me from my room, I would think that they had discovered my sexuality. I lived my entire teenage life in the shadow of this constant sense of dread.
My sexuality and the internal struggle I was dealing with as a result drew me even closer to my religion. I was constantly praying, praising God, and reading the Qur’an. I would ask God every day to remove my affliction of being attracted towards other men. I would beg him to change me so that I could attracted to girls. I so desperately wanted to be normal. I envied my friends for their heterosexuality. Why couldn’t I be straight like them?
I read various religious edicts saying that the way to cure oneself of the disease of homosexuality was to get married to a girl. Because of that I begged my parents to get me married off to someone. I am from a Pakistani ethnic background, so such arranged marriages are quite normal. Thankfully, my parents declined my request, otherwise I would have destroyed not only my life but the life of an unsuspecting innocent girl also.
First doubts about my faith
I had full faith in Islam. I was absolutely sure that it was the right religion. Out of all my peers, I had the most faith and belief in Islam. So when I began to have doubts about Islam it hit really hard.
My first doubts were within the paradigm of Islam. The Qur’an teaches that magic is real, that angels taught the people of Babylon the dark secrets of black magic with the proviso that they not practice it ever.
So I asked myself: How do I know the prophet Muhammad wasn’t a magician? This question put me into a state of great perplexity. No matter what I tried I couldn’t shake the doubt off. I asked some of my peers and read on the subject but couldn’t find anything that would resolve my doubt.
Also I began to doubt the morality of some of the things I believed in. Was it really right to kill apostates? Where was the freedom or justice in that? Was it right to stone people to death for any reason, least of all because they had had sex outside of marriage? Was it right to chop off the hand of the thief? What if the criminal was a victim of circumstance? Was it right that Islam treated women as inferior second class citizens? These burgeoning questions drew me into a well of confusion.
The doubts themselves weren’t the problem. It was the fact that I was convinced that I would burn in hell forever and forever that was the issue. All my life I had believed in God and Islam. Suddenly I was doubting the validity of the very religion I had myself preached all these years.
I was no longer a true believer in Islam. I was a doubter. Would God ever forgive me for that? Would I ever be accepted into heaven? This fear of being punished for eternity drove me crazy. I tried everything I possibly could to increase my faith, my imaan, but nothing worked.
I fell into a cycle of despair. I thought I was one of the most evil people on earth. Not only was I attracted to other men but also I had just lost my faith. I was convinced I was being punished by God and that I deserved the torment that came my way. My self esteem dropped. My studies suffered. I ended up having to leave medical school because of the severe depression and anxiety that I was suffering from. I just couldn’t keep it together anymore.
Ever since I can remember, I always enjoyed science at school. It was my favourite subject. I was fascinated by how the world worked, and it gave an outlet to my natural intellectual curiosity and creativity. I always came out on top in every science class I was in.
However, there was a problem that arose out of my curiosity: the contradiction between my fundamentalist Islamic beliefs and evolution. This contradiction always troubled me. It came to the fore when an Imam at the mosque I used to attend came out and said that evolution did in fact happen and that it does not contradict Islam. The name of this Imam was Usama Hasan. I had become well acquainted with Hasan over the years as a member of his congregation. I respected him deeply. Hence, when he publicly said that evolution did happen, and he openly preached it from the pulpit, I was deeply perturbed.
So, after a few years of living in this existential hell of not believing but wanting to believe, and of being gay but not wanting to be gay, I decided to question some of my most basic beliefs about the Qur’an.
I had always been taught that the theory of evolution contradicted Islam and that it was untrue; that Adam and Eve (or Hawaa), were the first humans that were directly fashioned and designed by the hand of God. For the first time ever, I approached the subject with an open mind. I listened to what Usama Hasan had to say on the subject. I listened to and watched Richard Dawkins discussing evolution. I did a lot of research on the topic by reading books, browsing online and watching videos. As such I came to the definitive conclusion that evolution did in fact occur.
Now that I had accepted evolution as fact, this posed a grave threat to my religious belief system. I again referred to Usama Hasan and other progressive Islamic thinkers, and decided that evolution did not contradict the Qur’an. I had reconciled evolution with my religious beliefs.
Subsequently, I wondered what other things I could change my mind about when it came to Islam. I began to read at length about progressive Islamic theology. Slowly but surely, all my fundamentalist beliefs fell away, one by one. I no longer believed in stoning people to death. I no longer believed in cutting off a person’s hand as a punishment. I no longer believed in violent Jihad or holy war.
I had now become a progressive Sufi Muslim. Spiritually, I was happy where I was. Religion finally made sense to me and it felt good. At last I could reconcile my religion with my own personal inner moral compass.
Accepting my sexuality
After a few months of being a progressive Muslim, I decided to look at all the scientific research that had been carried out on the topic of human sexuality. After carrying out this extensive exercise going through scientific literature, I came to a number of conclusions: that being gay was entirely natural, that it was not a choice and that it could not be changed.
After I realised that, I came out to myself. This was the most liberating experience of my life. I was finally at peace with who I was. I was no longer trying to convince myself that I was something other than what I was. This happened beginning of last year, so I came out to myself at the age of 21.
Once I came out to myself, I realised that my religious views regarding homosexuality made no sense. If God had made gay people, why would he throw them in hell for being gay? God was supposed to be all merciful and just. Why would a just God make someone gay, make them experience love and attraction towards the same gender and then demand that that person never have a relationship? That just seemed deeply unjust and unfair.
So I decided that I would look into alternative interpretations of the textual sources of Islam when it came to homosexuality. After looking into the theology behind progressive, gay-inclusive interpretations in Islam, I came to the conclusion that being gay didn’t go against Islam. The book written by the Islamic academic Scott Kugle, “Homosexuality in Islam”, helped me greatly with this.
I spent the next few months blissfully. I was comfortable with both my religion and my sexuality, and I was proud of both. Furthermore, for the time ever I felt proud to be British. I realised how lucky I was to be born in Britain as a British citizen, with equal rights to every other citizen regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexuality or political viewpoint.
This pride in my nationality only grew as I became more interested in politics and realised all things the British government to help others who were less well off, both for the poor in the United Kingdom and the poor abroad.
However, my old doubts returned again. How did I know Islam was the true religion? In fact, how did I know God even existed? Was Islam like the other religions in that it was made up by people?
All this time I had been afraid of looking into these questions. I always had that fear of hell that terrified me into submission and to a blind conforming orthodox faith. But now I had already questioned some of the basic assumptions about my religion and I had as a result changed my views. Why couldn’t I now go on to change my view about the very existence of God? I decided then to put my fears of hell to the side and to look at the deep philosophical question about the existence of God with an open mind free of duress.
I had always been convinced that Islam was the true religion on the basis that there were ‘scientific miracles’ in the Qur’an. When I looked into these so called scientific miracles, I realised that the miraculous facts had been forced onto the language of the Qur’an retrospectively by Muslim apologists.
In fact, the verses in question were so ambiguous, and the link between the modern scientific interpretations and the actual intended Arabic meanings of the words so tenuous, that there was nothing resembling a miracle in the Qur’an at all. Furthermore there were scientific, factual and historical inaccuracies.
I also questioned the story of the life of Muhammad. Imagine a similar man came to me today, I posited. How would I view him? I’d view him as an individual who was suffering a form of mental illness whereby he was experiencing religious delusions. In fact, people who suffer from schizophrenia are well known to have religious delusions and hallucinations.
How likely was it that Muhammad actually split the moon in two, or that he flew to heaven on a winged horse? Put it another way, why was I embarrassed in talking about these fairy-tale-like parts of my religion with non-Muslims? If it was the ultimate truth why be embarrassed about it?
I studied the philosophy and the physics behind the creation, or start, of the universe. I came to realise that it was entirely plausible that the universe came into existence without there being a God. I also studied the religious arguments for the existence of God. I watched many debates, including some debates by Hamza Tzortzis, William Lane Craig, Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins. I asked many people who were knowledgeable in Islam about my doubts about the existence of God, but none of them could answer my questions. Finally, after months of research and questioning, I realised I was agnostic. I didn’t believe in Islam or the existence of God anymore.
Coming out to the world
Once I realised that I was gay I knew straight away that I would want to tell others. I couldn’t live a life of lies, hidden and secret. I also decided that I wanted to tell the world that I was no longer Muslim. I knew I would face a backlash for doing so, but the freedom of living life in openly and honestly far outweighed, in my mind, the negative repercussions of coming out.
At first I came to those who were closest to me. My best friend at the time was the first person I came out to as gay and as ex-Muslim. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. He reacted, much to my surprise, very positively; he hugged me and said that nothing had changed between us. After that I slowly came out to my other close friends. A few weeks later, I had come out to total of seven close friends, all of whom were Muslim, and all of them had been very accepting.
One of my friends, who would regularly make homophobic remarks and jokes, especially supported me. I came out to him straight after he made a homophobic jibe against a person I knew at university. At first he didn’t believe me, but when he realised I was telling him the truth, he shook my hand and told me that he would stand behind me no matter what. Within a few seconds his views of gay people had completely changed for the better, and he would since then remain one my staunchest allies.
During this time, my relationship with my family had been deteriorating. I would regularly have arguments with my parents on issues related to religion. Every time my mother or father would make a misogynistic remark or would say something denigrating against the ‘kuffaar’ I would become extremely angry. I would challenge their views and we would get into impassioned arguments. These arguments and disagreements continued for a few months, until one day I became so angry and exasperated with my parents’ mode of thinking, that I blurted out the words that I no longer believed in God. Immediately my parents told me to pack my bag and leave the house.
I tried to reason with them, but all efforts failed. Dejected and half angry, I packed my bag with whatever I could fit into it, and I left the house. I made my way to a cheap hotel, and stayed the night. The following day, I contacted homeless charities. They all told me to stay at a friend’s or a family member’s house. The only person I could go to was my grandmother. So I went to her house.
She listened empathetically to my story. Tactically, I did not tell her about my agnosticism. I simply told her that I was ‘unsure’ whether God existed. She proceeded to phone my parents, who responded angrily. I took the phone from my grandmother and spoke to my mother on the phone. There were raised voices. My mother gave the phone to my father, who told me that I had return home, because they had discovered something that I had been keeping a secret from them.
Upon hearing the words, my blood ran cold. I realised with exactitude what my father was talking about. He was referring to my sexuality; to the fact that I was gay. Finally, my greatest fear had come true. My parents had found out. I don’t think I have been as terrified as I was at that moment. I was too afraid of going home, for fear of what my parents might do to me. After a number of ensuing calls, my father and mother managed to calm my fears and convince me to come home.
When I arrived home, my father took me out into the garden, so that my little brothers and sisters wouldn’t be able to overhear what we had to discuss. He was afraid that in hearing what I had to say that I may somehow influence them and turn them gay. He asked me a number of questions. Had I ever had sex? Did I have a boyfriend? When did I know I was gay? Why hadn’t told them about my sexuality? I answered the barrage of questions as honestly as I could, whilst always mindful of my safety. As a result, I lied to my father and told him that I had never slept with another guy before.
He said many things to me that day. Many terrible things. Things like I was disgusting, evil, twisted, that I was abomination against God and that I was unnatural. I tried the best I could to defend myself and my identity as a gay man. In the end, my father told me that I could only stay in the house if I agreed to be exorcised. As I had nowhere else to go, reluctantly, I agreed.
Over the next few weeks, I was repeatedly exposed to exorcisms, or ruqyah. I underwent at least four exorcisms. Every exorcism would send me skidding into a spiral of depression and anxiety. Even though my rational mind knew that the exorcisms had no truth behind them, because of the environment in which exorcism was carried out, because everyone there believed in the exorcism, because everyone believed that I was possessed by demons, it created a kind of force-field of belief, that drew me into it and affected my own beliefs.
It was like I was being sucked into a black-hole of despair, evil, superstition and irrationality. I began to consider whether I really was possessed. I began to wonder whether I would end up shaking uncontrollably. Would the devil in me cause me to speak in tongues? These questions thrust the sharp knife of desolation and desperation deeper into my heart.
They culminated in a suicide attempt.
After two months of repeated exorcisms I’d had enough. There was nothing left for me in life. There was only the deep pervading darkness of melancholy and despondency. I had no future. I would never be accepted. I would never experience happiness, joy or love. My mental field of vision was severely constricted and all I could see was the shadow of depression.
I was in the process of preparing to hang myself using the wardrobe in my bedroom, when my father walked in on me. That is most likely the only reason I am alive today writing this story. I talked to my father and he convinced to not kill myself. I thank him for that much, if not anything else.
After the suicide attempt, I decided that I could no longer stay with my parents. I contacted the housing department at my university and I found suitable student accommodation for myself. A few weeks later I moved out. Moving out was quite uneventful. My parents didn’t even say a word to me.
Settling into my new place was fraught with difficulty. I experienced severe depressive episodes and homesickness. But after a few weeks, and once the new university academic year started, things looked much better. I made a lot of new friends. It felt liberating being free to tell everyone about my sexuality. My depression and anxiety greatly improved. The prospects of my life suddenly looked much better than they had ever done.
I met a few other ex-Muslims at my university, Queen Mary, and together we decided we would run the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism society. After a few months of feeling comfortable in my new identity as an openly gay ex-Muslim, I decided to come out to all of my friends and the wider world. I came out on Facebook, simultaneously as gay and as an ex-Muslim. The effect this had was far larger than I ever would have thought. People who I had never met were talking about me. Everyone was talking about the preacher who had come out as gay and had left Islam. I got many hate messages. But I also got many messages of support. I was overwhelmed by the support I received, and I for once felt accepted and loved for who I was.
At one point, a few guys who were angry because I left Islam harassed me on campus. They threw the word murtad¸ a word which means apostate, at me as insult. I was deeply hurt by this and fell into yet another episode of depression for a couple of days. But I recovered quickly, and I was back to my active and happy self in no time.
Right now I’m quite an activist. I campaign for ex-Muslim rights, against Islamist radicalisation on university campuses, and for women’s rights and LGBT rights.
I now refer to myself as an agnostic deist Muslim. I am agnostic about a personal God, but I think there is likely to be something or someone that started the universe or multiverse. I still follow the customs and traditions of Islam but not the superstitious, intolerant, extreme aspects. I am happy, at last.