I know when I became an atheist. It was the first year of my high school. But before becoming an atheist, I underwent another conversion. I was born to a Shiite dominated culture, and I was indoctrinated to the Shiite religion at the elementary school (my parents were the “we don’t teach our child about god this way or that way type) and when I began to question my faith, I first became a Sunni.
My time with Sunni Islam was very brief and very superficial. It surely didn’t last more than a few months. I was still in the process of rethinking my entire life, and it was a step in the path to my inevitable atheism. But looking back, I find it interesting, and illuminating about my thinking process as I was losing my faith gradually.
In case you are not aware: Sunni Muslims are the majority. They believe in Muhammad and his four successors – Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, and Ali. Now the Shiites believe the first three were usurpers and the man designated by Allah to succeed Muhammad was Ali, the fourth actual caliph, and then the rightful caliphs were the sons of Ali and then their sons. In our version of Shiism, we have 12 Imams – and they are all decedents of Ali until we reach Mahdi who is still alive (after some 1300 years) and he is bound to return someday and then the perfect Islamic era will be upon us.
I was a 12 Imam Shiite – in addition to that, I was a reformist. As a reformist I firmly believed that Islam was completely compatible with modern enlightenment values – science, skepticism, democracy, equality, and freedom. I also believed that Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic, and Ali Shariati, its intellectual thinker, were progressive democrats whose words were twisted by the conservatives who took power in Iran after Khomeini. My Islam was deeply political, and my politics were deeply progressive. In western sense of the word I was never an Islamist, but I did consider myself one. My language was deeply Islamic – jihad was a struggle against the tyranny of the Islamic regime, theocracy was a form of idolatry, Amr bil Ma’ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar (commanding the good and forbidding the evil) meant criticizing the clergy and the regime and not bothering people with how they should dress, and the greatest enemy of Islam was the clergy hierarchy.
This was the kind of Muslim that I was before I started out the journey which would lead me to my atheism.
My views about all of these things changed. I’m still a reformist – I support them unequivocally in the context of Iranian politics. But my ideology has changed – I believe the Qur’an is a tyrannical book, that Khomeini was a bloodthirsty tyrant, and while Shariati was a much greyer personality, the signs of tyrannical attitudes are unmistakable in his works as well. But before I lose my faith in Islam, Khomeini, and Shariati (in that order), [seriously, I was still a fan of Khomeini as an atheist for a while until I learned about the Iranian history], I lost my faith in 12 Imam Shiism.
I don’t know what exactly prompted me to begin questioning every thing I held sacred. Maybe it was nothing in particular. But without questioning the faith and the overall ideology, I began questioning the specific rules of Islam.
And it all began with a single question. “Why can’t we draw the picture of Muhammad?” I was questioning every religious rule I adhered to, and it was this question which served as a snowball which destroyed my Shiite allegiance once it got rolling.
Westerners should be familiar with this rule. I’m sure you all remember the recent events of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and before that how South Park was censored and before all that the anger that the Danish cartoons evoked.
Now, as a Muslim, I never accepted that insulting the prophet should be something we react negatively to (much less violently). We were all told that the Prophet was very kind to people who assaulted and insulted him, that there was someone who threw ashes on his head everyday, but he got worried when that person became sick and went to visit him.
So insulting the Prophet was a rule applied only to Muslims. And I would have probably said that if westerners are insulting Islam it is our own fault and we need to reform Islam so that we represent the Islam the way it deserves to be represented.
But this is not the entirety of the rule – we aren’t supposed to draw the pictures of Mohammad and the Imams at all. Why? Is there any sound theological reasoning for this?
The answer my theology teacher at school gave me was completely unconvincing. He said “We don’t know how they looked so we can’t draw them.” Why not? We don’t know how Saadi or Hafiz looked like but we still draw them and the Iranians imagine them in a specific way.
“Well, every Muslim is deeply attached to the idea of the Prophet and the Imams, and drawing them would make them appear earthly and would harm that holy image”.
That was also unconvincing, because after all, the Prophets and the Imams were earthly people – they were humans, they went to the toilet and had sex and all that. Even the Qur’an makes sure to remind the Prophet from time to time that he’s a human being.
Unconvinced by these answers, I came across the answer that basically all graven images were once considered haram, all painting, all statues, because they represented idolatry. And this was a convincing answer. I didn’t think we should ban Picasso and Bernini of course – there was no tangible connection between their works and idolatry.
But you could easily connect a picture of Mohammad or the Imams to idolatry. Because people consider these images holy, and they would treat them like idols.
And I did see that around me. You see, “never picture Mohammad or Ali or other Imams” is one of those rules that Iranians completely ignore. If you come to Iran you will certainly run across this picture many times:
This is supposed to be Imam Ali, and people have that picture everywhere, and they revere it and treat it like a holy object.
I looked into this more. I found out that Sunni Muslims take the issue of idolatry much more seriously than the Shiite. They extend it to things like graves of great people. I read that the officials of Saudi regime put some goons to guard the grave of the Prophet in Medina, and when the Shiite try to treat them like holy objects they beat them with sticks.
Now I of course find this act if violence completely uncalled for and I don’t even know if it is true or not. But at that time this was very attractive to me.
The Shiite people do treat the images of Prophet and the Imams as holy objects. But they go far beyond that. They treat the resting places the same way. They have pilgrimages to the Mashhad, the resting place of Imam Reza (the 8th Imam), to Karbala for the 3rd Imam, to Najaf for the 1st one, and they treat these pilgrimages as holy things. They actually do pray to the dead Imams, asking them for stuff and making sacrifices in their names and donating to charity in their names and stuff. And I always found that superstitious, and annoying, but now I had a stronger word to condemn such things with – idolatry.
I thought that the Shiites were misguided, that they had turned the religion into a form of idolatry.
But once you take he reverence for Imams out of the Shiite religion, a little remains of it. All Shiites were already idolaters in my mind. I still believed we should treat the Prophet and the Imams like the messengers of God and follow their example, but I have already lost touch with the identity formation process of being a Shiite. If you go so far to refuse to take part in Ashoura mourning for the third Imam and call the whole thing heretical, you’re already a Shiite in name only, and excluded from the community.
The next strike against my Shiite affiliation came when I realized how similar to Catholicism Shiism is. Catholicism relies heavily on a clerical hierarchy, so do Shiites. The hierarchy of Shiites is much less informal, and there hasn’t been a figure similar to Pope for a very long time, but it’s still a clerical hierarchy. Christians are obsessed with the martyrdom of the Christ, we’re obsessed with the martyrdom of the Imams and specifically the third one Hussein. Christians are obsessed with a persecution complex, imagining Jesus as this poor revolutionary guy who stood up to power, and we like to picture the Imams the same way – if there ever was a “professional victim” Christians and the Shiites qualify. They both have a messiah figure. The Shiites even have their own antichrist. His name is Dajjal.
Comparing Christianity and Shiism was almost the last straw. Like, come on – the Prophet said that he had come to cleanse religion from all the superstitions and perversions added by the Jews and Christians, and now the Shiite had put all those superstitions and perversions back into Islam? The fact that the Sunni didn’t have those elements was deeply attractive to me.
And noticing this similarity I went to read about Mahdi, the the allegedly 1300 year old 12th Imam who should come back and do messiah stuff. I was very dissatisfied with his concept – why would Allah have to keep this particular guy alive 1300 years while any person could do his job? (Our job is to follow the words of these people, not to follow them blindly like slaves, my Muslim thinking went). Why not have someone be born when the time is right? Why hide him anyway?
I think that among all religious ideas I have considered in my life, the idea of Mahdi is seriously the most absurd one. After a little thinking I really couldn’t cling to him.
So out of Shiite rituals and traditions and out of Shiite messiah, I had only my reverence for Ali as the first caliph to distinguish me from a Sunni. And that changed when I read about Omar and found him a very similar figure to Ali as Shiites describe him – I found out that even some stories which were originally about Omar were plagiarized and attributed to Ali in Shiite books.
So this was my next question – why am I supposed to hate Omar, exactly? He was a just ruler (I thought based on my Muslim opinions at the time), he lived in austerity, and he helped the poor, and he had spread the Islam more than anyone (at the time I looked at Omar’s conquests as liberating people from the tyranny of the evil Persian empire). When Shiites elevated Ali as the most perfect man possible, they all checked the exact same boxes.
And no one could answer my question other than “Well he usurped Ali’s throne”. Well he deserved it, by all accounts. If we go by competence, he and Ali were basically the same rulers. And yes, when you read those stories in half of them Ali is there counselling and helping Omar. Based on a ton of Shiite and Sunni narratives, Ali was Omar’s right hand man.
So when I added Omar to the list of my religious heroes, I decided it’s time to stop believing in Shiism for good and identify as a Sunni. The Sunni are of course an oppressed minority in Iran – I didn’t come out to anyone but my parents.
Now that I had changed sects, I had to relearn everything. And I decided to start at the beginning. I decided to begin my journey as a Sunni by reading the Qur’an, something I had postponed and I felt very guilty, because I abhorred Muslims who had not read the Qur’an.
And the Qur’an, my dear reader, made me an atheist.