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To and from religion: A meeting at the crossroads

An atheist-turned-Muslim meets a Muslim-turned-atheist. Here are some of his reflections and takeaways.

Everyone knew it would be a touchy subject. It was to be a story of another convert – but while mine was a story of finding religion, his was a story of leaving it.

I have met other converts before. Muslim converts, Catholic converts, Buddhist converts – even my own uncle was a Christian convert. But the few times I had met some other ex-Muslims, though, I could feel their strong feelings about their old religion. ‘Islam is a backwards religion’, ‘Muslims are small minded’, ‘Allah is a spiteful God’. I don’t recall my uncle ever talking bad about Taoism.

Was Zahid going to be like this as well? Was he going to curse at Islam, call Muslims terrorists, or make fun of the One that 1.8 billion people around the world hold so dear to their lives?

Thank God, he did none of those things.


Every year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Singapore go from dawn to dusk without food or water during the holy month of Ramadan. Life and work go on as usual, however, and thoughtful non-Muslims sometimes refrain from eating or drinking in front of their Muslim friends out of respect. Zahid’s ex-girlfriend, a non-Muslim, brought it to another level. She didn’t allow Zahid to have lunch with her, saying that it wasn’t right since he should have been fasting.

While he understood where she was coming from, he said it felt patronizing as she shouldn’t have held him up to the religion he no longer identified with. Hearing this definitely felt like a strange situation, but I couldn’t help wondering to myself how I would feel if, for example, my grandfather insisted I pray to the deity statues he has in his house simply because I used to as a kid.

But even though Zahid no longer fasts, this doesn’t mean he can’t be respectful towards others who do. During Ramadan, he would offer to take up the workload of his Muslim colleagues to give them an easier time. Sometimes, if his Muslim friends were having a crisis of faith, he would even offer.

Advice to guide them back to the very religion he himself left. A far cry from the image of an angry and bitter ex-Muslim, he showed how just because he left the religion didn’t mean he had to turn against his friends and community.

RESPECTING BOUNDARIES Throughout my interaction with Zahid, the idea of respecting an individual’s choice stood out very clearly. Much like how he respected his friends’ fasting even though he himself no longer did, he had strong views about not forcing personal ideas or beliefs onto other people. He talked about how some strangers took it upon themselves to lecture him publicly for consuming food that wasn’t certified ‘Halal’, right in front of his own family. His own family had no issue with him eating the chicken hotdog – who was this stranger to talk over his parents?

I personally do not strictly look for Halal certification when I eat out. I know what to avoid, but since I am Chinese people don’t assume that I eat Halal in the first place. Zahid, on the other hand, is Malay, and like other non-Muslims who look Malay (like some Filipinos), strangers sometimes feel entitled to lecture them as if they were Muslim. The irony of such behaviour is that I don’t think it ever achieves what they want in the first place. It only gives others a bad impression of a disrespectful stranger.

While this kind of public lecturing isn’t good behaviour, though, I don’t think it means that we should never offer advice or help to the people around us. Zahid himself mentioned that his own close friends have tried to sway him back into religion, but because they aren’t random strangers trying to pick on him, he was much more understanding of where they were coming from. I’ve heard stories of self-appointed ‘Halal police’ in other societies. And no one likes them. Especially other Muslims.

Mother Teresa, Gandhi: Heaven or Hell?

An interesting topic that hit close to home came up when we talked about who gets to decide who goes to Heaven or Hell. One of Zahid’s reasons for leaving religion was the belief that he didn’t need it to be a good person. For many religious people, being good or bad is a straightforward matter: good people go to Heaven, and bad people go to Hell. For some religious people, though, it’s not so much about good or bad people – it’s whether the people are the same religion as them. The topic wasn’t entirely new to me. As a convert myself, I’ve had to ask myself more than once: my mother is one of the best people I know in my life. She is also non-Muslim. Is she going to go to Hell?

A Christian friend working in the healthcare industry once confided in me about something similar. As a doctor who worked on end of life care, he has seen more than his fair share of people dying under his duty. He chatted with all sorts of patients from all sorts of backgrounds, listened to their dying wishes and life regrets, and knew that they were not bad people. But his Church taught him that non-Christians will go to Hell. He couldn’t accept that. It just felt wrong. His faith waivered.

So, Zahid posed a question: Mother Teresa and Gandhi are known to be great humanitarian workers and people who contributed greatly to their societies. But neither of them is Muslim. Will they go to Heaven or Hell? None of us had hard answers to this very difficult question, but it gave us much to think about.

I personally felt like I could never accept the idea that non-Muslims must go to Hell. I know too many great people in my life who come from all sorts of backgrounds to condemn them to Hell. Who is to say that Muslims don’t do bad things? The road to God, enlightenment, or whatever you might call it, is large and wide. I myself walked on multiple lanes but found God after 21 years. Who gets to judge on such matters? Probably not the ‘Halal police’, but probably not me either.

It was an interesting encounter talking to someone with views that I could relate to while growing up. Being atheist before, I held many of the same views that Zahid did. But my life led me to where I am today, and his life led him somewhere else.

My views have changed a lot since then, but the important lesson I drew from all this was not about who’s right or wrong. It’s that life unfolds in unexpected ways and no one can tell the future – no one from my childhood would have ever expected me to turn Muslim – so we should keep an open mind when listening to someone else’s story. I did not agree with Zahid on many issues, but I didn’t need to in order to listen with an open mind.

This meeting at the crossroads of life was probably quite a rare opportunity, and who knows if something like this will happen again. But I am glad it did, and I wish him all the best no matter where his path takes him.

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