I was asked today, by a Muslim, why I self-identify as an ex-Muslim and not just an atheist. I’ve had the same question posited by fellow atheists as well. Setting aside my impulse to retort with a knee-jerk anthropologists’ argument of “I can call myself whatever I want”, I can see something of a good question hidden in the label-policing.
The simple answer? In the past, Islam was my life, and continues to affect my life, and will never stop affecting who I am.
When asked, many Muslims will proudly declare that Islam is not merely a religion, it is a way of life. For some Muslims, this is more a parroting of an excellent-sounding line rather than a descriptor of their approach towards Islam. For other Muslims, including myself, the term was quite literally accurate. I lived my entire life attempting to integrate as much in the way of Islamic practice as possible. My everyday life was dictated by what I understood of Islam, including but hardly limited to the observation of the 5-times-a-day prayers.
I awoke early in the morning for Fajr, sometimes going back to bed afterwards and sometimes reading from the Quran until it was time for school. Getting ready for school meant dressing in long, opaque, loose clothing and topping off the ensemble with a headscarf arranged carefully so that it not only covered my head and neck, but also draped over whatever hints of bosom might still be visible through my loose top.
My pre-high-school education included religious instruction; during high school, I would engage in self-directed religious study on weekdays and religious instruction on weekends. I prayed Zuhr during school hours and Asr right after school. My evenings revolved around dinner, homework, and Maghrib. Depending on the time of year, I would stay up later than I preferred so that I wouldn’t miss Isha.
In Ramadan, the ritual of my everyday life would include rising before Fajr in order to eat Suhoor, abstaining from food and drink all day, and, at least a few times a week, staying late up for Taraweeh and the occasional qiyaam-ul-layl.
When I was on my period, I would mourn the lack of connection with Allah (Muslims aren’t permitted to fast or pray when menstruating) and try to compensate with the sorts of dhikr my research and teachers told me were okay during that time.
I avoided outings with people who didn’t care to respect my dedication to the daily prayers as well as to Islamic dietary restrictions. This included the less-religious Muslims in my community and family.
That was all I did on a daily basis. What I didn’t do that I might have done had I not been a devout Muslim? Listen to music (or, if I lapsed, listen to music guilt-free and consistently), wear perfumed products, talk much to boys (let alone date them), shake hands with boys and men not closely related to me, sleep on my stomach, fart with impunity (I held it in when I didn’t want to have to make wudhu again), laugh too much, eat any pork-derived foods or most meats, do my eyebrows, paint my nails… I could go on.
I wept every night begging Allah to forgive me for having looked at a cute boy for too long, for failing to do the non-obligatory parts of my prayers, for giving auditory attention to the music playing at the grocery store, for spending time I could have spent on dhikr or reading Islamic books on worldly books instead, for touching myself, for ending up on my stomach despite forcing myself to sleep on my right side, for feeling arrogantly superior to others in my anger at their mockery of my devotion, for not being able to persuade my father to trash our television and allow me to cover my face.
In terms of my life as a whole, I tailored my ambitions to fit what I saw as the best sort of life for a Muslim woman. I decided to become a teacher not only because it suited me, but also because maternity leave doesn’t take as much a toll on a teaching career as other careers and the hours are highly compatible with motherhood. I planned on writing books and engaging in activism about Islam as a way to channel my love of writing without possibly doing anything haraam (poets and fiction-writers being suspect in many interpretations of Islam). I kept myself entirely chaste in the hopes of landing a good Muslim husband as soon as I was legally able to marry.
I may have left Islam, but Islam won’t leave me.
Most obviously, my family remains comprised almost entirely of Muslims. A slim majority of them aren’t nearly as devout as I used to be, but the rest are, and some even more so. Their practice of Islam affects my interactions with them and their attitudes towards me. So long as I maintain contact with my family (and I want to), Islam will affect my life.
In terms of my interactions with the world, I still face the occasional anti-Muslim bigotry. I no longer telegraph my identity via my clothing, but there is a racialized perception of what a Muslim looks like, a perception that I fit. I’ve had aggressive Christian campus preachers ask me if my family is “American or Muslim?”. The only time I got through the airport without all the checks was the one time I wore an atheist t-shirt and necklace in my travels. Before that, I didn’t even know that it was possible to get through security without a scan or a pat-down and thought the TSA had made a mistake by waving me through.
Less externally, the fact that I spent the vast majority of my living years as a highly-practicing Muslim means aspects of it pop up from time to time. For example, I sometimes feel a vague sense of guilt for things like stomach-sleeping with impunity and have to remind myself that it’s over and that I have choices now.
It is important to me to pave the way for a better world. Currently, the one of the areas in which I feel I might be able to create the most change for the better is making the world a safer and better place for ex-Muslims. Everyone deserves the right to believe or not believe in what they choose. No one should be shackled from birth, whether via theology or culture or community, to any particular ideology. I felt woefully alone, incredibly scared, and hunted when I left Islam. I want for those who choose to do as I did to have a better time of it.
The other side of this is my ability to educate never-Muslims on Islam. I don’t have a proselytizing angle but I also don’t believe in promoting xenophobic myths and distortions. I support those trying to change Islam as it exists for the better since they’re doing work that I cannot do as an apostate.
All of this will hardly change as I move further and further away from the faith I was taught from birth.
I am an ex-Muslim. By definition, the term fits: I was a Muslim, and I am no longer a Muslim. By association, the term fits: I was a practicing Muslim for 18 years of my life and it will be impossible, due to a variety of internal and external factors, for me to never deal with Islam ever again.