Growing up in the Middle East back in the seventies, I witnessed many young men and women joining political parties that adopted capitalism, socialism, communism and atheism. That was the popular culture at the time, especially for young adults, as the allure of such groups was to embrace a sense of identity and empowerment after the humiliating loss of the 1967 war with Israel. Faith in God, practicing Islam, and relating oneself with an Islamic identity was seen as backwards, an impediment to the community from progressing as a modern civilization!

In the eighties, I remember having discussions and debates with people who had abandoned Islam to adopt those trends which revealed the sad truth behind the popularity of such ideologies within Muslim communities. For the majority, it was not as much about the adopted ideology based on true understanding of its creed or doctrine, but rather it was more about rejecting faith in God or in Islam’s tenets because of the doubts that invaded their minds from the spread of misconceptions. For example, many had no understanding of Qadr or even how to comprehend what the term meant. This lack of understanding Qadr confused them about the liability of their choices, the existence of evil, and why God allows it to happen. The rise of superpower nations like the US and the former Soviet Union adopting such ideologies and promoting it aggressively made it easy for people to be influenced to reject Islam and faith in general, and to adopt opposite ideologies such as atheism for example, believing this was a more modern or scientific ideology.

Looking at our youth now living in the US, attending high schools and colleges, I’m witnessing a similar resurgence. It has become trendy to reject all types of “organized religion” which is increasingly seen as backwards and outdated. Islamophobia, the rise of hate against Muslims, and the rampant spread of anti-Islamic rhetoric are, I believe, main contributors to our young Muslim men and women disassociating from their identity as Muslims, and even adopting other ideas that are growing in mainstream America, such as atheism or agnosticism, in order to have a sense of belonging and to blend in.

Who is to blame? Are we just to step back, shake our heads, and blame the society we live in? Some of the blame might be on the shoulders of families who do not put much effort to nurture the true Islamic identity in their kids; others might blame Imams and Muslim leaders for the lack of relativity in introducing Islam in the proper context befitting the time and place we are living in, but for sure adult individuals must also take the blame and responsibility for their own choices.

What I am trying to say is that the rise of atheism in the Muslim community has to do a lot with the atmosphere we are living in, that is also prompting people to distance themselves from Islam. There could be some who choose to adopt atheism as a belief, but from the cases I have dealt with in my position as an Imam, I see the struggle is more about fear of standing out or even of being harmed.

I believe we need to address this matter from three perspectives; reviving the human essence in each one of us for its core is faith, clarifying misconceptions about Islam for it will clear doubts, and strengthening family values of how to raise our kids.

There’s a story about a man who told a simple, old woman that he had written a book with 100 proofs that God exists, to which the old woman replied, “If you didn’t have 100 doubts you wouldn’t need 100 proofs!” This story shows that the path we should challenge atheism or any other ideologies on should first be on the basis of the natural inclination and composition (Al-Fitrah) that our being speaks to us from within. I believe this was the approach used in the Quran away from philosophical analysis and discussions. Many verses in the Quran remind people about their natural submission to the idea of God’s existence, especially in moments of hardship: {Yet whenever harm strikes you at sea, all that you [used to] call upon [in worship] vanishes [from your hearts] – except for Him [alone]. Then when He delivers you to [dry] land, you turn away [from worshiping Him alone]. For the human being is an [unbelieving] ingrate} 17:67.

One of the students visiting the Mosque to learn about Islam asked me if I had ever doubted my faith, to which I answered: “To reach faith you need to doubt, but once certain, there should be no place of doubt.” The prophet (SAAW) once told people who complained that doubtful matters disturbed their thoughts about faith, “Have you found it, indeed it is a sign of faith.” Meaning that he (SAAW) pointed out that they still had core faith and they should build on it.

It is not healthy to shun every question about faith as a sign of atheism but rather be prepared to have answers that bring truth to the mind and soul, especially from trusted figures like parents or teachers. Shaming our kids for asking questions will not stop their questions, it will only stop them from asking us.

Establishing safe areas at homes, schools, and public places is the best environment for young people to connect to faith through trust and true caring. When abuse is practiced at homes, bullying at school, and discrimination in public places, it will be hard for these young men and women to identify themselves with faith in God or Islam. Between confusion and fear, many will lose the quality time needed for a spiritual connection with God.

I can’t claim that these couple of pages adequately addresses all the reasons for atheism or how to deal with it, but I am trying to find answers to help these young men and women be close to God, and to find solutions to challenges they face in life not shun them away.

A person once asked Imam Mohammad Ghazali about the ruling of one who does not pray. Imam Ghazali said, “The ruling is to take his hand to the Masjid.”

Instead of taking the easy way of marking an X on people and walking away, let us take the responsibility of inviting them to faith.

By Sh Kifah Mustapha