India is witnessing the emergence of a movement of ‘ex-Muslims’. Troubled by the involvement of Muslims in suicide bombings in primarily Muslim countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, helped by the availability of alternative interpretations of Islam on the internet, and driven by a questioning mind, Muslim youths in India are gradually leaving Islam. Such youths — both men and women, and well educated — are typically in their twenties and thirties and describe themselves as ex-Muslims, atheists or cultural Muslims. They network through social media, Facebook and WhatsApp, often use anonymous Ids, and are based in towns across India.
Sultan Shahin, editor of the reformist website NewageIslam.com, says that there is no organised movement of ex-Muslims in India like it is in Western countries such as Britain, but some Muslims called him to inquire about real Islam. "I have spoken to 3-4 Muslims who have left five-time prayers. A lawyer in Delhi even convinced his father to leave Islam," Shahin says, adding that many such youths browse anti-Islam websites and accept the jihadi discourse as real Islam.
"I see individuals coming up [on social media] and we know each other. I can say that I am one of them," says Nadia Nongzai, speaking of ex-Muslims. Nadia, who is based in Shillong and holds a B Tech in computer science and a Master's degree in economics, comes from a practicing Muslim family. "In school, I could not believe that the god [Allah] who is so great will not have a sense of fair play and will send all non-Muslim kids of my school to hell," she says, questioning the Islamic teachings that non-Muslims will not enter heaven. She does not hesitate in describing herself an ex-Muslim. Asked if this could pose a security threat to her, she says she doesn't hide her identity and adds: "I am trained in martial arts."
Sazi Suber (name changed) was born in Saudi Arabia and raised there by his parents till 10. His mother, who converted from Christianity to Islam and returned to Christianity later, brought him back to Mangalore, where he was sent to a madrassa. Sazi now holds a BE in computer science and is working on an app for comic books. "When I came to India, I found dogs cute and lovable. My mother told me that playing with dogs is haram [forbidden by Islam]," he says about the first clash of viewpoint he had regarding Islam. In Islam, dogs are seen as unpious and Muslims are forbidden to keep them as pets.
They network through social media, Facebook and WhatsApp, often use anonymous IDs, and are based in towns across India.
- Illustrations: Satwik Gade
Two years after coming to India, Sazi was attending a congregation in Mangalore where an Islamic cleric was telling Muslims on a loudspeaker to not accept water and food from non-Muslim homes. This came as a shock to him and he couldn't reconcile with this idea. "It was like telling me to hate my mom who was a Christian. No child can accept this," he says about the cleric's announcement. It fuelled his questioning of Islam. "I started reading science. Islam appeared as a shock. The logical conclusion led me to think: this was not right," Sazi, now an atheist and 27 years old, says, adding that he also began questioning as to why only Muslims were involved in suicide bombings.
Ashiq (nickname) is an electronics engineer based in Thiruvananthapuram. "I used to go to a madrassa. I read books from the library about science. I used to ask my teachers: Who created god? But the teachers wouldn’t respond to my questions," he says, adding that they would instead say: "You are guided by Satan. They would call me Satan's shadow." Ashiq's most piercing question to his madrassa teachers was: since a day can last six months in countries near the North Pole, when should Muslims break their day-long fast? The madrassa teachers did not have knowledge of geography. "The clerics beat me up for asking this," he says.
"My friends would call me son of Satan. They wouldn't play cricket with me. I was isolated. Only my mother was there to talk to me," Ashiq says. He was also taught not to accept food from non-Muslims. "The clerics threw me out of class when I questioned them why they teach: Do not accept food from Hindus," he says. Later, his mother advised him to somehow complete his studies and not ask questions because they will declare you a kafir (infidel). "For the next year, I did not ask any question," he says. Now, he is 29 years old and has joined Facebook and WhatsApp groups to encourage scientific temper among Muslim youths. "We ask basic questions: Where did we come from? How was the earth born?"
Ali Muntazar, 27 years old and based in Kolkata, comes from a family of clerics. His grandfather and father were Islamic scholars. He does not practice Islam and uses terms like "revolutionist" and baghawti (treasonous) to describe himself. He doesn't offer prayers on Eid or any other day and eats openly during Ramzan. Asked if he has run into trouble over this, he says: "I was nearly beaten up. But in India there is democracy; that is why I was saved." He says he had a questioning mind since childhood, but his father's friends, who were clerics, could not answer his queries satisfactorily. Ali Muntazar was troubled by the fact that the life of his khala (mother's sister) was destroyed by triple talaq, the practice whereby a husband divorces his wife by uttering talaq (divorce) three times. He is bitter: "The first victims of Islam's atank [terror] are Muslims themselves."
Illustrations: Satwik Gade
My friends would call me son of Satan. They wouldn't play cricket with me. I was isolated. Only my mother was there to talk to me
Bohra Muslims are a sect of Shia Islam. A number of Bohra Muslim youths are leaving Islam at the level of ideas, though it is not easy for them to not be part of the strongly-mandated practices. A Bengaluru-based Bohra Muslim, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: "The Bohra community has a strong policy of ex-communication, which can have a strong negative bearing on their daily life and business. But within the community, there is a growing disquiet about the role of Syedna [the leader]." He adds, "Culturally, I am more of a Bohra rather than a Muslim. But I wouldn't describe myself as ex-Muslim. I am not bothered personally, but I am afraid of repercussions for my parents, my business partner and our business."
D Zafar, who is doing a PhD on religious fanaticism in English literature and lives in Moradabad, has performed Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. In his quest for knowledge, he read three translations of the Quran and has now left Islam. Local Islamic clerics could not answer his questions, and instead would threaten him: awam mein hamara ek byan tum ko murtad qarar kardega aur tum ko shahr chhorna padega (Our one statement declaring you apostate will force you to leave the city). Once the local mosque imam was about to publish his photograph declaring him murtad (apostate), which had to be resolved through political influence.
"We stopped talking about it [Islam]. We used to get messages that you could not teach Islam, but if you want to teach English, it is fine," Zafar says, adding he was told by Islamic clerics: kafiron se door raha karo (maintain distance from kafirs). Later, he joined some three-night camps of the Tablighi Jamaat, a revivalist group, but some rival doctrinal groups persuaded him against this. Zafar's basic point of difference was this: "The entire Quran does not mandate five-times namaz [prayer]. Some Muslims even offer only 3-time prayers." He notes that there is no uniformity in prayers because there are 20 types of prayers among 200 doctrinal sects in Islam.
Major Rashid Khan, who has retired from military service, comes from an orthodox family that prayed five times and observed Ramzan. "When I entered college, I started thinking about Islam and the Quran. I realised that we were not allowed to ask questions about religion," he says, adding that his intellectual thinking departed from Islam on the issue that the moon was split at Prophet Muhammad's hint and also over the issue of the killing of over 700 Jews of Banu Quraiza tribe, who had surrendered before the prophet. He left Islam and was scolded by his father; his elder brothers stopped talking to him. "My brothers did so because they think Muslims can have no business with those who reject Islam," he says.
Major Khan brought up his children in a free atmosphere. "When my children were around 8-10 years, I started explaining to them what definitions of god exist in different communities. I told my children: you are free to decide; I will never force you to accept any religion. I also brought Islamic teachers to teach them the Quran," says he, adding that children as young as 3-4 are taken to madrassa and that there is a need to ban madrassas because they teach hatred of other religions through such concepts as kafirs. His children have evolved their own thinking away from Islam.
When I entered college, I started thinking about Islam and the Quran. I realised that we were not allowed to ask questions about religion
Razia Ahmed, a student of Law based in Jaipur, says she was interested in history, philosophy and French revolution but her engineer father got her into science. She initially taught computers but has since moved to studying law. "As a child of 10-11, I was sent to study at a madrassa in Azamgarh (a centre of Islamic learning in Uttar Pradesh)," she says, adding: "At the madrassa, Islamic clerics taught that more girls than boys will go into hell. I was told that of 100 people in hell, 99 will be women." She asked her teachers to explain why mostly girls will go to hell to which she was told: "woh na-shukri hoti hain [they are not thankful]."
This came as a shock to Razia, but she continued to be religious till she was 25. "I used to justify polygamy, but for how long I could have continued to tell a lie," she says, adding: "I lost any respect for the prophet when I got to know about the practice of thighing." She is inclined towards atheism. Speaking about terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Muslim countries, Razia says her relatives sometimes justified the Islamic State and the Mumbai blasts, and offers a profound comment on the nature of Islam and its followers: "As a community, we want either victimhood or supremacy."
S Ahmad (name changed) holds a doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Based in Delhi's Jamia Nagar, a pre-dominantly Muslim locality, he comes from an orthodox family and his father is a member of a religious organisation. "I began questioning Islam after watching a video of Richard Dawkins [the English biologist]. His book, The God Delusion, destroyed my arguments," he says, adding that for morality, there is no need for religious books. He is however also clear that there is no escape from his identity as a Muslim, especially when a policeman abuses, or picks up innocent Muslims in false terror cases, or when Indian soldiers travelling in trains abuse Muslim youths as katuwa (a pejorative for those who are circumcised).
I used to justify polygamy, but for how long could I have continued to tell a lie? I lost any respect for the Prophet when I got to know about the practice of thighing
Illustrations: Satwik Gade
Arif Mohammad, a student of engineering in Bhopal, comes from a family of practicing Muslims. "I believe in Karma rather than god," he says, adding: "Consciously or unconsciously, I began questioning Islam after Class 12 but there was curiosity about religions right from childhood." Arif Muhammad describes himself as Indian and not as Indian Muslim. "I have noticed about 50 Muslims [on social media] who have left Islam but they cannot openly talk about Islam," he says adding that some of these youths have left Islam because they do not want to become part of terrorism. "These Muslim youths prefer their cultural identity over their Islamic identity. “
Arif Mohammad also notes that in order to avoid security issues cultural Muslims like him choose their friends wisely because some friends do become violent. "Social media has helped such Muslims to connect with each other and to realise that there are people like us on the planet," he says, adding that such Muslims are connected via Facebook pages of Iranian Atheists, Afghan Atheists and so on. He notes that there are many Muslims like him in Bhopal, Jabalpur and other cities. Regarding the movement of ex-Muslims, he says that it cannot emerge as a formal movement without a leader. This point is also shared by Ali Muntazar who stresses the need for a platform for ex-Muslims.
The stories of the above-named people are not isolated. It is indeed a trend that Muslim youths are leaving Islam in towns across India, but most of those interviewed here observed that there is also a rival trend of Muslims becoming more religious than they used to be. A few points that emerge about those who are leaving Islam: They live in fear of local Islamic clerics, they become isolated in their local neighbourhoods, their stories bring out the fact that questioning minds are not acceptable to Islam, there is a teaching of hate against non-Muslims by Islamic scholars and virtually every Islamic cleric considers himself as the ruler of Muslims. However, given the critical thinking emerging through these former Muslims, there is an urgent need for a platform for them where they can join hands, network and discuss Islam, more so since Islam is engaged in an eternal conflict with the identity of India as a civilisation.