The brother actually is well-versed in the fundaments of Islamic creed, way beyond the average Muslim. Besides school and sports, his entire pastime involves reading Quran, watching videos on YouTube, and discussing Islam with friends. He is well aware of the aya "Say, ‘[God says], My servants who have harmed yourselves by your own excess, do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is truly the Most Forgiving, the Most Merciful" (39:53), the ahadith that elaborate on the waswasa of the shaytan, and the misguidance of our own nafs. In a nutshell, the brother already knows his thoughts are unwarranted, and has convinced himself rationally long ago of Allah’s existence as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s (salAllah alaihi wa sallem) prophethood; he has since never found a single flaw in the Islamic framework.
Suddenly, well into his teenage years, the brother experiences intense feelings of doubt despite all reasonable convictions telling him otherwise. Confusing, isn’t it? If it is for you, then imagine what it must be like for him. In order to begin untangling this mystery, it would be wise to reflect on a significant component of everyone’s development: the parents. Indeed, the brother mentions that his greatest fear is to avoid disappointing his parents. Unfortunately, following this train of thought, he comes to one devastating conclusion: is he really a Muslim by choice, or is it just an act he’s perfected over the years to please his parents? His confusion is even more staggering, as he reflects upon the hundreds of YouTube videos that highlight the miraculous nature of the Quran; rationally, he is fully aware that the Islamic faith has its proof, and he is convinced that – in spite of his parents – Islam must be more than just cultural baggage.
Emotionally, however, he feels quite differently. To him, Islam is just another example of how his parents have tried to control his life. Indeed, some parents unfortunately use Islam as a means to control their children, imposing so-called ‘Islamic’ restrictions on their children that may have no actual grounding in the religion. This is not to say that parents cannot encourage certain values with teenagers – indeed they should - however, encouragement is one thing, and control is another. For one can only be controlled for so long; sooner or later, the innermost psychological need to make one’s own decisions becomes uncontainable. In these moments of desperation, the brother wishes he could just break the shackles of his parents and run away, but this causes a great deal of anxiety – tragically, the shackles are engraved with the word “Islam.” Thus, his deep feelings of hypocrisy come to light: he questions why he harbors these strong feelings of wanting to let go of Islam, despite all rational thought telling him it’s the truth. The shackles his parents have imposed on him may be intolerable, but they’re indispensable.
Analogies are the prophetic means of illustrating a point, so let me provide one to crystalize mine. Imagine a man crossing a wilderness. Doing so, he follows a single path carved into the landscape, however he does not follow this path by choice; instead, this single path is enclosed by a fence on both sides. The man perceives no choice in the matter – he must continue on this endless path that has been constructed by someone else. Theoretically, this wouldn’t be an issue if not for one significant shortcoming: the man can see through the fence, in the wilderness beyond. Naturally, an idea is incepted: are there perhaps other ways out of the wilderness? Thus, slowly but surely, the man’s desire to choose a path other than the one he is forced upon expands. He begins to acknowledge his innermost desires to carve his own path, and sure enough, his frustration towards the path he’s imprisoned upon evolves into anger – anger towards both the path and its architects. Clearly, the architects have forgotten that if one truly desires to suppress another’s free will, one must nurture the delusion that no other paths exist; an impossible feat in the wilderness.
Let’s discuss the metaphor with regards to the youth I mentioned above. The wilderness can be likened to the world, whereas the path reflects the route his parents have chosen for him to cross. Growing up, the youth becomes more and more aware of other directions he could possibly take, however the fence – fear of punishment, shame or guilt – ensures he does not stray away. At this point, it is important to highlight how God has given us a free will for a reason; indeed, if there was any authority in the universe that could potentially control our every move, it would be God. But He doesn’t. In fact, the purpose of our existence is to examine – once we reached a certain age of maturity - if we are willing to choose the path that leads to Him or not. “But where’s the issue?” you ask, “The path that’s fenced is the Islamic one, right? Even if he’s fenced in, he’s at least on the right path.” Well, therein lies the dilemma, and if you truly take a moment to empathize with the youth, you too can perhaps begin to appreciate why 1) he feels like a hypocrite and 2) a part of him wants to leave Islam.
Because his parents are Muslim, and this is quite significant, the youth has associated their path with that of Islam; because his parents never nurtured his God-given agency and provided him with the allowance of making his own choices, the youth is incapable of differentiating between acts of obedience towards his parents and towards God. This sentiment is quite familiar with many youth today, many of whom display religious devotion as to avoid punishment or shame of the parents. Certainly, the youths who never give their existence a second thought will most likely stray from the path of their parents - and by extension, Islam – when circumstances are more opportune. The discussion of “leaving faith” however is beyond the scope of this article, for I merely want to focus on the example I’ve highlighted above. You see, as I mentioned previously, this youth is quite fascinated with existential questions; he’s been eagerly watching videos of scholars/philosophers and participating in ‘meaning of life’ debates ever since high school. And therein lays the greatest irony: that the youth was able to rationally conclude that Islam is the truth is of upmost psychological significance to his anxiety. Not because Islam is the source of anxiety - although an ignoramus may quickly jump to that conclusion - but because the path he has ‘chosen’ to embark on just happens to be the same path his parents have confined him to his whole life.
Now the youth can never be sure of if his choice in belief, despite its rationale, is truly his decision or not – a monumental issue for someone who takes his faith very seriously. Consider this exercise in empathy: imagine having to endure every single act of religious obedience (ablution, prayer, fasting, etc.) with the following thought “Are you really a Muslim? You don’t really believe in God. Are you REALLY convinced that He exists, or are you doing it for your parents? You don’t really believe in God…” As his heart beats more rapidly, he sinks into to darkness of uncertainty, living at the psychological edge; his anxiety is beyond distressing, and he spends every waking moment in fear of God’s wrath.
The last few years have been spent trying to counteract his anxiety; he would arm himself to the teeth with arguments for Islam in attempt to convince himself, once and for all, of God’s existence. And yet, despite every single proof presented to him, and despite his very own rational convictions, the thoughts of doubt only intensified. “Are you SURE it’s the truth, or are you just trying to please your parents. Can you be absolutely sure of anything?” At this point, the youth revealed to me his only imaginable course of action that would eradicate it: “I’d like to leave Islam, and see if maybe I would come back to it.” It’s quite unusual, to say the least, but perfectly understandable when contextualized with what I mentioned previously. Essentially, the youth fears that the thoughts he holds inside – in all their blasphemous glory – represent the true “him,” and the only way to objectively test the reality of that hypothesis is to indulge it. Clearly, all attempts to persuade the youth of Islam has only amplified his anxiety, so Islam must be the cause, right? Here are some thoughts that crossed my mind: These are blasphemous thoughts, so perhaps he needs to be re-educated in Islamic creed (aqeeda). Or these are thoughts of doubt, so perhaps he needs a daii’ (one who invites others to Islam) to convince him of Islam’s truth. Or maybe he just needs to hear more stories of sahaba (companions) encountering similar thoughts of hypocrisy, of which there are many examples. Needless to say, none of these methods worked because they neglect the real issue; this is why his – and our – preoccupation with Islam is relatively useless.
Thus, let’s leave Islam aside. The youth is unsure if his choices are truly his, and so he feels the need to make his own decisions. Following this train of thought, he comes to the conclusion that the only way to actually leave his parents’ path is to leave Islam. However, is that really the only option? And will that truly eradicate his anxiety, which is so intense precisely because he rationally deduced Islam to be the truth? It wouldn’t. In fact, his anxiety would most likely become unbearable at that point. What the youth must do instead is carve his own path through the wilderness, implementing everything he’s deduced so far. To do that, he must first recognize what path he’s currently on; clearly, the youth already has an idea, and his very strong urge to rebel against his parents’ desires is a testament to that. Now, the youth must take the single most difficult act that we were created for; an act so significant, that ideally our entire upbringing should be intended to prepare us for this point. He must step out into the wilderness, away from the comfort and confinement of his parents, and choose his own path in life. Only now when he has healthily disassociated himself from his parents’ path, will his decision to lead an Islamic life feel more authentic and real. His God-given agency will have come to fruition, and the anxiety associated with its suppression will fade away. In fact, at this point the youth could theoretically choose to return to his parents’ path; it's understandable how, in some instances, their desires, dreams and ambitions may truly be for our best. However, the crucial difference this time is that we choose to follow their lead voluntarily, instead of submitting ourselves to them unwillingly.
Please note that I avoided referring to any psychological theory, or utilizing psychological rhetoric, knowingly and intentionally. Furthermore, I avoided discussing the possible reasons as to why some people relinquish their agency to their parents – or, conversely, why parents control their children – as well as how to recognize if this may be personally relevant to you. This isn’t a self-help article. My intention was to simply demonstrate how Islamic ‘issues’ may in fact be masking unresolved psychological concerns, and to briefly illustrate the significance of our free will. However, if you indeed feel that this case example mirrors an issue you’ve been struggling with, I urge you to consult a therapist or a counsellor. This will be the topic of my next post.