Why doubt is essential to faith

JUNE 18 -- Two weeks ago, I discovered a TED talk by Lesley Hazleton (writer of The First Muslim) titled "The doubt essential to faith." When I found this video, I felt renewed again because Hazleton finally put into words my thoughts and opinions.

In the year 610 CE, the archangel Gabriel appeared before Prophet Muhammad in the cave of Hira on Jabal al-Nour to give him the first revelation of the Quran. Gabriel told him, “Read” to which Prophet Muhammad responded, “I am unable to read.”

The command was issued twice, and both times Prophet Muhammad gave the same answer, and finally Gabriel grasped him with overwhelming force and commanded him to recite, “Read in the name of your Lord who created — created man from a clot. Read: for your Lord is Most Bountiful, who teaches by the pen, teaches man that which he knew not.” (Quran 96:1-5)

When Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran, he was so terrified that he fled down the mountain to seek refuge in the arms of his wife, Khadijah RA. He was afraid, as though he was a man being pursued.

He was convinced at first that what had happened in the cave was not real, but was a hallucination at best. He did not radiate light, there was no sense of ecstasy, no holy aura surrounding him. When he descended from the mountain, he did not tremble with joy, but with fear. He wasn’t filled with conviction, but by doubt.

Hazleton mentions that whether you’re a rationalist or someone who believes in the supernatural, whether you think Prophet Muhammad’s experience in the cave of Hira was just the result of some hallucination, what is clear is that it did happen, for this was the core mystical moment of Islam, and the experience that transformed Prophet Muhammad forever.

Despite all the doubts that he had of that night, Prophet Muhammad had faith in what he had experienced and started his journey of struggle as a radical advocate of obtaining social and economic justice. Despite all the doubts that he had, Prophet Muhammad started a revolution on his own.

This is where it becomes clear that doubt is essential to faith.

It may sound ridiculous to some, because having doubts in your faith is generally seen as blasphemy. As though you are questioning the authenticity of what you believe in, and this may put you on the brink of transgression.

However, if you abolish all doubt and assume that you already possess all the answers, what is left is not faith, but heartless conviction.

You become certain that you possess the Truth (with a capital T), and this turns into dogmatism and self-righteousness. You gain an obnoxious pride in believing that you and you alone are right. This quickly devolves into arrogance, the seed of fundamentalism.

Muslim fundamentalists, like fundamentalists of any religion, claim to have all the answers. Even though it is apparent that their prophets had to struggle through physical and mental wars for their faith, these people act as though the answer to real faith was divinely ordained to them.

The Quran constantly urged Prophet Muhammad not to despair whenever he had doubts, and not forgetting that the Quran also condemns those who proudly proclaim they know everything and they alone are right.

Ironically, fundamentalists like to use the term “infidel” to describe anyone who does not adhere to their rules and beliefs. In Latin, “infidel” means “faithless.” However, their absolutism and dogma prove to be opposite of having faith. We have to realize that no matter whether these fundamentalists claim to be Christians, Jews or Muslims, extremists are none of the above. But as Hazleton mentions, she thinks that they are in fact the infidels.

Fundamentalism isn’t faith. It is fanaticism. It is time we draw a line between the two.

Real faith has no easy answers. It is a never-ending struggle. It is difficult. It is a continuous questioning of what we think we know. It goes hand-in-hand with doubt. It is easy to throw one’s hands up in resignation and let doubt make you admit defeat.

But Hazleton, just like many of us, refused to live that way.

And this is why I, despite having my doubts, can still have faith that Islam will reclaim its golden era. I have faith that Muslims of today will rise from the ashes, and reform Islam from the institutionalised and politicised religion that it has turned into, and revive the aesthetic and beautiful spirituality within it. The same way that Hazleton, despite being an agnostic Jew, can have faith that the Middle East will gain peace despite the signs that show the contrary.

Whether you are a theist or an atheist, what drives us to have faith in something is our rejection of despair. We fight through our doubts because we have faith in the future.

Hazleton asked: Could Prophet Muhammad have changed the world if he had given in to the close-minded certainty of the arrogant and cruel people around him? No.

More than anything, she feels that Prophet Muhammad would be outraged by the fundamentalists who claim to speak and act in his name with violence, threats and arrogant certainty. He would be appalled at the oppression of people because of their gender. He would be utterly upset at the bitter wars that is happening because of sectarianism.

Fundamentalism is an obscene travesty of everything that Prophet Muhammad had lived and struggled for, and I know for a fact that if he were alive today, he would commit himself fully to making peace.

It is only human to doubt. We are mere mortals who have to understand that we do not know everything, and that not everything is meant to be understood. It is only in doubt that we can find faith.

* This is an updated version of the column, with certain references added.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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