We now turn to our findings on the ways in which doubt commonly manifests among American Muslims. Naturally, the particular circumstances that lead individuals to doubt the validity of their faith are going to be just that: particular. Moreover, given the sparsity of any systematic data on this topic, a number of respondents were hesitant to even comment on which situations they consider to be “common.” Add to these challenges the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of American Muslims, and the complexity of this topic can become overwhelming. In reflecting on these challenges, one respondent put it this way: “It’s complex. It’s not an easy thing. Our community has so many layers.” What comments like these underscore is that there is no singular cause nor archetypal experience that leads one from faith to unfaith.
Although we recognize that the faith journeys of Muslims in America are each distinctive, a number of recurrent themes emerged in our interviews. To more clearly present these insights, we group the findings under three broad headings: Doubts stemming from 1) moral and social concerns, 2) philosophical and scientific concerns, or 3) personal trauma. Within each of these groupings, we elaborate on the most salient issues, highlighting representative or illuminating quotes and the occasional case study. As will become evident, rarely is an occurrence of doubt wholly contained within just one of these categories. Yet, taken together, these accounts paint a detailed, but necessarily incomplete, picture of American Muslim doubt.
Moral and Social Concerns
A natural starting point for our discussion is the role that morality and the norms of American society at large play in altering Muslims’ relationship with their faith. Like any other religion, Islam contains a set of moral and ethical prescriptions. The American cultural milieu, in its own ways, also comes with certain normative expectations and values that constitute an ethical vision. Given these two separate systems with vastly different origins and contexts of development, it is only natural that there will be areas of overlap as well as areas of tension and outright conflict. For American Muslims, these tensions and conflicts can become an impetus for doubt. This subsection expounds on these anxieties with a focus on two interrelated areas: gender roles and sexuality, and specific events in Islamic history.
Gender roles and sexuality
Gender roles in Islam are a perennial hot-button topic. There are numerous questions around which this discourse pivots: Can women lead mixed-gender salat? Is the hijab obligatory? Is there such a thing as a man or woman’s “role”? One respondent described how a mother’s preferential treatment of boys over girls became a source of doubt for her daughter:
[Her mother] treated boys differently than girls...kind of like the older brother does anything he wants and the mom won’t say anything, but the sister has a lot more limitations, reprimanding, and discipline. That led her to [question] the overall way that women are treated in the Muslim community. Eventually, she began blaming the religion and its ‘culture of oppression.’ [This eventually led to her] doubting why we can’t drink or eat certain things. Now, I would characterize her as agnostic in faith.
Another respondent bemoaned how constructive conversations around women in Islam and the Muslim community are often preemptively foreclosed due to “aggressive” tactics:
Some scholars are picking fights with feminism—trying to win an argument when they should be trying to win people over […] [These feminists] are not trying to attack, they are merely saying ‘Hey, I don't think this is fair, give me something to allay my concerns and show me that you respect me.’
Yet, it may also be that one party does not even wish to interact with the other, as one imam noted:
I have personally not had that many conversations with women [about their doubts]. The reason is simply that a lot of our sisters who are wanting to leave the faith are already so dismissive of the male clergy […] and that really goes to this hardcore strand of feminism, one of the stepping stones to losing faith. There is this anti-male clergy syndrome.
As these excerpts indicate, there is an interplay of perception and reality when gender norms are at the core of one’s doubt. On the one hand, female Muslims may believe that the differentiation between men and women in mainstream understandings of Islam does not accord with their personal views on gender equality. On the other hand, they may misperceive the depth and breadth of this disconnect due to cultural accretions that, over time, become intertwined with Muslim practice. Relatedly, it may be that a negative lived experience trumps any consideration of Islam's normative prescriptions on these issues. A possibly self-perpetuating divide between male faith leaders and female lay Muslims (no doubt conditioned on the leader’s positionality) may preempt dialogue on these matters and further complicate this pathway to doubt. With all the potential moving parts in this dynamic, it is certainly worthy of deeper examination in its own right.
Another related and similarly enduring topic is that of sexuality. The culture around dating and casual sexual encounters can lead some Muslims to become frustrated with Islam’s prohibition on pre-marital relations. Doubt, then, can come about through a desire to alleviate mental anguish: “[Those who] have dated […] [who] have been sexually active […] it’s not to their benefit to make Islam out to be the truth. They want it to not be the truth so they don’t feel so guilty about doing those things.”
While contemporary American religious leaders have addressed the challenges of attraction to the opposite sex, recent shifts in public opinion and policy have forced them to tackle a topic they have been far less accustomed to dealing with: homosexuality. Certainly, the mainstream position that homosexual acts are prohibited in Islam may lead those Muslims with same-sex urges to question their place in the faith. Yet, the ways in which religious leaders address the issue of homosexuality have consequences that go beyond those directly affected.
Case Study—Moral incongruence: One imam recounted a conversation he had over dinner with a young woman in her early thirties who considered herself Muslim but had major reservations about Islam. She could not make sense of the Islamic understanding of homosexuality and reconcile it with her innate sense of justice and morality. How could God, who is the Creator of all things, condemn people who were “born differently” either to live lives of celibacy or to leave Islam? This was her understanding of the issue, which the imam tried to clarify and correct (without success). She herself did not identify as homosexual, but the question went to the core of faith and theology for her because it implicates God’s justice. Indeed, this uneasiness with a particular construction of theodicy and divine justice informs a number of pathways to doubt.
In addition to bumping up against doctrinal tenets, social norms can also render certain episodes in Islamic history problematic in the minds of American Muslims. The marriage of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to Aisha is a case in point. A favorite target of Islamophobes, this key moment in the prophetic history can provide an opening for doubt if not properly contextualized. Similarly, the issue of slavery in Islam has become a recurring topic of concern, particularly as younger American Muslims are now more sensitive to the issues of social injustice around them. As one scholar who gave an in-depth lecture on this topic put it, “The ‘Islam came to abolish slavery’ response is simply insufficient.”
Some historical content, however, has more direct bearing on contemporary world events. While any honest assessment of the roots of terrorism acknowledges the political and social causes, the religious component is often brought to the fore whenever “Radical Islam” is the primary culprit. The heinous nature of terrorist acts supposedly carried out in the name of Islam can lead Muslims to question whether their faith is inherently intolerant, particularly when set against the backdrop of liberalism and universal rights. A “humanist critique,” as one respondent dubbed it, may emerge from this line of thought wherein an individual “associates ISIS with Islam [and] believes there is a problem with a religion that gives birth to such brutality.” References to certain historical events and battles in the early history of Islam figure into these associations and simple reassurances that “Islam means peace” do little to curb the resultant doubts.
Philosophical and Scientific Concerns
Critiques of Islam on a more philosophical or scientific basis also feature prominently in the discussions our respondents have with doubting Muslims. By far, the topic of evolution is most commonly brought up in these conversations and so, first, we address it in its own right. Subsequently, we highlight the perception that Islam is generally at odds with science and rationality and the attendant disillusionment this negative association creates.
The theory of evolution
Just as charges of intolerance may be leveled at those espousing conservative views on homosexuality, so too do individuals who do not subscribe to the entirety of the theory of evolution risk being labeled “unscientific,” “unenlightened,” and “irrational.” Thus, while addressing this theory's spiritual implications, religious leaders in America must also navigate the broader social stigma associated with espousing anything less than an unqualified endorsement of evolutionary theory. One respondent opined that framing this issue as a zero-sum proposal—namely, “You either believe in evolution, or you believe in Islam”—can itself prove harmful to one’s faith beyond any of the intellectual challenges that arise from evolutionary theory itself:
There has been a disservice on both extremes. You have people coming out on the minbar saying [believing in evolution] is kufr—that’s just simply inaccurate. Evolution is very wide and most of it has no contradiction with any of our revealed sources. On the other hand, you have this inferiority complex […] unquestioned deference to science and an eagerness to accept anything and everything from that domain.
Although no one in our sample was dismissive of the apprehension that some Muslims feel when they learn about Darwinism, respondents differed in their assessment of how difficult it is to adequately address the theological challenges this theory poses. One scholar who has thought deeply about this matter from multiple angles spoke candidly about his struggle to come up with convincing responses to the pointed inquiries he receives:
I’m very frank in saying that the theory of evolution is one of the biggest problems we’ve ever had in our intellectual tradition…Many imams say it’s just a theory, not a fact—that’s ridiculous […] That’s not to say I have a solution to Darwinism. That’s one of the things I say in lectures: I don’t know, I really don’t know […] But the theory of evolution can be modified and it can be made to […] fit within an Islamic worldview, and that’s the only way I can believe in it for the time being.
One leader, however, was confident that clarifying the means and limits of scientific knowledge sufficed to momentarily assuage the concerns voiced by a member of his congregation. Another imam seemed even more sanguine about the issue: “If [someone] has a doubt about evolution, you bring him to the shaykh and the shaykh clarifies it. Case closed.” What these varied responses point to is a lack of consensus around not just the best way to tackle this issue, but whether the leaders charged with addressing it are qualified to do so.
Perceived irreconcilability between science and religion
In line with the broader perception that religion and science are irreconcilable—a position championed by highly visible public intellectuals and “new atheists”—a number of respondents mentioned how scientifically-based doubts tend to crop up particularly among college-aged American Muslims. One interviewee relayed an encounter he had with an individual questioning whether the Quran could be considered “scientifically inaccurate” in light of verses that seem to describe the sun as stationary. Although in this situation our interviewee felt that the questioner’s concerns were easily allayed, the following case study details a far less straightforward interaction.
Case Study—Scientific Incongruence: One respondent related the story of a mother who feared her daughter, a college student, was on the brink of leaving Islam. When the imam sat down with the daughter one-on-one, she admitted her struggles with faith as a student of biomedicine. It was not so much that the information she was learning contradicted the Islamic sources of knowledge, but more that the way in which she was obtaining her scientific learning was in stark contrast to her religious education. The latter, more specifically, was a ritualistic and cultural amalgam that left her with a superficial understanding of the faith while her college studies in the sciences were systematic and engaging. According to the interviewee, this story is quite typical. Importantly, it highlights that rather than science simply being “more believable” than Islam, it is often the case that a scientific system of understanding can be more comprehensive and comprehensible than the disjointed and shallow conception of Islam that many American Muslims are taught.
Beyond questions of science and religion, respondents also noted doubts arising due to more philosophical considerations. These kinds of concerns were particularly prevalent among Muslim college students who were often exposed to critiques of religion through their college classes and fellow students. We have already mentioned how the issue of theodicy—i.e., “the problem of evil,” “how can an all-good God allow suffering?” etc.—is one common pathway to doubt. Other pathways are more epistemological in nature. Not infrequently, our respondents were asked by their community members to explain how it is possible to prove with certainty that God exists and that Islam is true. When “proof” was not forthcoming, this became a source of doubt that affected all parts of the questioners’ faith. In their minds, if there is no satisfying proof that God even exists, then how can there be proof of anything else in Islam, like the personal religious obligation to pray five times a day, to abstain from alcohol, etc.?
Our final pathway to doubt, personal trauma, is perhaps the most common among the conversations our respondents reported. This frequency is owed, in part, to some manner of personal trauma at times informing or reinforcing the other sources of doubt discussed above, making it difficult to get a clear sense of which causes are primary. This is certainly not to say that the social and intellectual bases for doubt are disingenuous; rather, instances in which these critiques are raised may consciously or subconsciously mask a deeper, more intimate grievance. To be sure, there are numerous instances where personal trauma manifests in its own right. We discuss three modes below that capture much of the variation we observed in our interviews.
One type of trauma that leads to doubt is that which takes place over an extended period of time, often years. This can take the form of child abuse, spousal abuse, or abuse at the hands of a family friend or community leader. Given this spectrum and what we know about who is most likely to be the victim in such incidents, it is not surprising that women are often the ones that bring such grievances to imams:
A lot of young sisters have come to me […] Almost always, there’s abuse that takes place by the father or the mother, or an abusive relationship or marriage, or they had a traumatic experience with the hijab—the hijab was forced on them. The women that come to me with faith crises, it’s almost always trauma as opposed to intellectual criticisms.
Trauma may also be sudden, such as the death of a close family member, the diagnosis of a serious illness, or divorce. Per our interviewees, this was not a common source of doubt. Indeed, several respondents admitted that they could not recall any instances when a sudden tragedy brought someone to the point of leaving Islam. Some respondents even commented that the inverse was more likely—that such tribulation is a means by which one’s belief is strengthened. All this is not to deemphasize acute trauma as a source of doubt. Rather, as alluded to earlier, it could be that acute grief is the underlying cause of doubt, though it may not be immediately apparent, as the following case study highlights.
Case Study—Personal Trauma: One interviewee told us a story about a student who was referred to him by a prominent imam because of a theological quandary the student could not settle on his own. He was unable to reconcile free will with divine will and concluded that due to this seeming contradiction, all religion must be “made up” and God Himself may not exist. This respondent took the time to engage the young man rationally, pointing out the flaws in his logic while sensing there was likely more to the story. The next day after their dialogue, he saw the young man at fajr prayer where they started up their conversation once more. This time, the tone changed. The student was less aggressive than he had been the previous day and asked more questions. Not long into this follow-up conversation, the student began weeping over the recent death of his brother in a car crash.
The above case study highlights the multiple layers that can shape any individual instance of doubt. First, the apparent problem is one of the perceived theological incongruities in Islam. Beneath this surface-level discontent, however, is a traumatic life experience. If we go even deeper beyond the pain of losing a loved one, we find that the inability to process tragedy within a religious framework may be the root cause of doubt.
Additionally, this incident points to the phenomenon of masking that a number of our interviewees observed. As in the above story, this can take the form of superficial grievances concealing more fundamental tribulations. It may also be the case, however, that individuals are masking their doubt altogether by opting to talk about more “acceptable” troubles. A number of our interviewees mentioned, for example, that individuals would often come to them ostensibly wanting to talk about a common issue—e.g., problems with their family, difficulty sleeping, etc.—but an experienced and empathetic assessment of their situation soon made it clear that their issues went much deeper and that they were, for one reason or another, uneasy about opening up. This point further underscores the challenge of fully identifying let alone addressing the numerous and sometimes hidden layers of doubt.
A final mode of trauma comes by way of negative interaction with members of the Muslim community. That is, individuals may either implicitly or explicitly be made to feel unwelcome at the mosque or other communal spaces and consequently associate this negative experience with a shortcoming in the faith itself. At times, the trigger can take the form of repeated and overt discrimination.
Case Study—Communal Judgment: A young black American woman in Detroit grew up Muslim while much of her extended family, including her grandmother, remained Christian. The young woman had a decent Islamic education and upbringing, but, according to the imam, she lacked an Islamic “culture” to help solidify her Muslim identity. Also crucially lacking was a wider positive community influence. Her experiences in mosques had been consistently negative. For example, she would often feel “judged” by other mosque attendees who would criticize her dress. Having been disenchanted by these experiences, she one day accepted her grandmother’s offer to attend church with her. In church she found women with open arms, hugging her, embracing her, and inviting her over for meals while the sermon emphasized God’s love and loving each other. Not long after, she left Islam and became a Christian.
Case Study—Communal Racism: One imam told of a convert who left Islam not after a few months or a handful of years, but after nearly two decades of being Muslim. Beyond the longer than typical time span, this case is noteworthy in that when this man left Islam, his wife and teenage children similarly followed him out of the faith. Some time after making this life-altering decision, the man in question caught up with our interviewee and revealed how persistent racism in the Muslim community eventually raised in his mind theological doubts:
He said for the first five, ten years of Islam, [he would think to himself], "Yeah I know these people are racist, but Allah and His Messenger are Allah and His Messenger." Eventually, that [certainty gave way] to deep doubts about the faith: "Maybe the reason why Islam is unable to transform these people is because Islam isn’t transformative; therefore, if Islam is not transformative, then it is not true […] then it kind of rolls downhill."
Although race and gender are oft-recurring issues when it comes to communal trauma, a broader generational divide may also contribute to these negative interactions. These dynamics, in part, inform the so-called “third space” or “unmosqued” movement. Ultimately, there are multiple and intersecting touchstones that lead to doubt through a communal pathway.