This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), October 2018, Volume 13, Issue 4.
Apostasy, commonly defined as the renunciation of one’s faith, or a clandestine rejection of a religious belief, is a topic that is rarely discussed, especially within the Malay community. Whilst a complex and sensitive issue, apostasy is not unlawful in Singapore and does not have the legal ramifications in Singapore as is the case in some countries. Singaporeans have greater autonomy over religious affiliation and every person has a constitutional right to profess, practise, or propagate religious belief.
Due to the religious and cultural taboo surrounding apostasy, it is difficult to have access, in a systematic way, to those who have left Islam. Despite this, however, we must acknowledge that there exist ex-Muslims in our community.
Based on our research, the reluctance of former Muslims in admitting that they had left the religion often stems from their worry of social stigma, moral condemnation, and ostracism that follows. Many do not divulge their unbelief to their families, let alone the wider Malay community where about 99% are Muslims. For the Malays here, religion is central to their cultural identity. The imbrication of ethnicity and religion among the Malay/Muslim community is one of the main factors why many ex-Muslims among the community choose to stay hidden.
The Karyawan team had the opportunity to speak with a few ex-Muslims who were willing to share their stories. The team’s conversations with them provide a rare insight into the experiences that led to some of them leaving Islam and can shed some light to corroborate or dispel some of the speculations on the circumstances leading to apostasy. It is hoped that this sharing will raise awareness about the complexities underpinning the issues faced by apostates and raise the prospects of starting a conversation based on compassion and understanding within the community.
Seeking Faith, Losing Faith
According to the ex-Muslims we spoke to, the process to renounce Islam in Singapore is straightforward and brief. The procedure includes taking a Statutory Declaration of Oath at the Supreme Court and making an appointment with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to remove their names from the MUIS database. This means that they will no longer receive correspondence from MUIS pertaining to Islamic matters, such as zakat obligations. They would also be given an option to attend a counselling session before confirming their status, but most of them would skip the option.
The Karyawan team spoke to Andy (not his real name) who stated that he had his name removed from the MUIS database.
Andy, now 42 years old, was born Muslim and according to him, practised as devoutly as he could for more than 20 years. Islam guided every aspect of his life, but towards the later years, he suffered a deep crisis of faith. He started questioning the logic and rationale of the scriptures in the Quran. Eventually, his doubts and questions about the Quran and Islam led him to reject the religion.
“At the age of 20, I was very into Islam, trying to connect science and Islam, trying to prove to people that our religion is the right one. As I got deeper into it, I started to wonder.” Andy said. He says that he is now an atheist and officially renounced Islam at the age of 38.
“Although my official renunciation was not on paper till recently, I was already a non-believer inside for a very long time,” Andy explained.
Religions can provide core guiding principles that help believers focus on what matters most in their lives. When we asked Andy for his guiding principles in life, he said, “It’s simple; don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”
Andy added, “There is this common misconception that we renounced Islam because we want to drink, we want to eat pork, or because we have to abide by all the strict rules, but that is actually not the case. As for me, I left Islam simply because I do not believe in it anymore. We want the Malay/Muslim community to accept that we have a different opinion. We shouldn’t be shunned just because we are of the same race but have different religions.”
Like Andy, ex-Muslims who choose to renounce Islam officially are no longer bounded by the Administration of the Muslim Law Act (AMLA) in Singapore, which have ramifications in terms of marriage, inheritance and burial rites. However, there are many others who have yet to remove their names from the MUIS database.
One of them goes by the name of Bob (not his real name). Although Bob, 43, was a non-practicing Muslim, he believed in the teachings of Islam and held the culture close to heart. However, growing up, Bob always felt that there was something odd about him and that he couldn’t align himself to his gender identity.
“Leaving Islam had something to do with my life. I was questioning a lot of things throughout my life as a Muslim. Another factor was the rise of LGBT discrimination within my own community,” Bob said.
Bob added, “For me, it’s rather simple, I no longer want to think of what people think of me. Since Islam couldn’t accept me as an LGBT member, I would rather leave the faith that can’t accept me as who I am to spare myself from further heartache. Furthermore, I think I am better at defending myself as compared to trying to defend a religion which I may not fully understand, especially when it is not in my native language.”
Bob shared that his family is aware of his apostasy although things have been different since. According to him, many ex-Muslims choose not to renounce Islam officially due to various reasons, one of which is to guard their family ties.
“My family did try to talk me out of it, but after explaining my situation, they still accepted me as who I am. My mum is the one who is worried most and maybe it’s because of her that I have not renounced Islam officially,” Bob said.
As apostasy is a sensitive issue to be discussed, the primary emotional and ideological outlet for ex-Muslims has mostly been the internet. The Karyawan team found an online support group for local ex-Muslims which claims to be a platform where participants can share their thoughts anonymously.
“Some were originally Christians, Hindus or Buddhists before they converted to Islam. They later converted back to their original religion when they left Islam. However, most of them are generally atheist or agnostic,” Bob shared.
The Karyawan team also had the opportunity to interview Risya (not her real name).
Individuals like Risya prefer the term Agnostic Muslim as it is a better reflection of their doubts as well as their faith. They occasionally draw on many aspects of Islamic wisdom and teachings, despite rejecting other parts.
“I grew up with a faith. I believe, but I just have questions. The Muslims around me were very judgmental and frowned when I questioned the religion. They judged me for not agreeing with certain rulings, for not practising, and for not dressing modestly. When everyone around me keep telling me that I was not a Muslim, I was faithless, that was when I decided to withdraw from Islam,” Risya explained.
Risya disaffiliated with Islam for a while until she chanced upon an “open mosque” while she was abroad. According to her, the mosque was built to establish a safe space for LGBT Muslims, many of whom feel obliged to hide their identities when entering mosques or avoid them entirely.
“Some were praying with whatever they had on. You can pray in a scarf that don’t cover your hair and no one will judge you. The prayer was led by a women when I was there. It was in this liberal mosque where all Muslims – women and men, Sunni and Shiites, can pray together in the same row. I never met a Muslim community that accepts you as who you are (before this). They were really welcoming and that was when I truly saw that this is the type of God that I want to believe in, and this is the type of Muslim community that I want to be a part of, very loving and inclusive,” Risya shared.
The Karyawan team also spoke to Sarah (not her real name) who recently held a dialogue session between Muslims and ex-Muslims. According to her findings, the factors that lead one to renounce Islam is multidimensional. The most common reasons for leaving Islam turned out to be the ex-Muslim’s perception on how Islam perceives women’s roles, the Islamic inheritance rulings, and their sexual orientations. Some of them were mistreated by the Malay/Muslim community for being different, causing them to form a negative association with Islam and eventually retreating from the religion completely.
Apostasy: An Ustaz’s Perspective
The Karyawan team spoke to Ustaz Syahid (not his real name), an Islamic University of Madinah graduate in Shariah Law, who explained that Islam prohibits apostasy and considers the act to be a grievous offence.
For those who have doubts about Islam, he advises them to research and gain a deeper understanding about Islam before making their decision. He said, “My advice to those with doubts is to read, learn and research about the religion they are leaving and the one they are about to embrace. Requesting assistance in doing so from asatizah is also advisable, and then make a fair comparison between the two religions. If a fair comparison is done through proper research then the truth will prevail to them.”
When asked how the community should approach former Muslims, he shared, “It is mentioned in the Islamic text that, if the apostate is our parent for instance, we must treat them in the best manner and our responsibility towards them remains unchanged. Whatever the relationship the ex-Muslims have with us, we are advised to be patient and help them clarify their doubts or misconceptions about Islam. We should also seek help from experts if we are not equipped with the proper skills to communicate, because, sometimes, our action may actually worsen the situation.”
Forging Mutual Respect
There are clearly many and varied reasons for apostasy. Walking away from religion is seldom easy. Based on our interviews, the whole cognitive process of losing one’s faith can be psychologically difficult and emotionally painful.
Most religious individuals were born into their faith and grew up surrounded by its creed and cultural reflections. Their identities emerged from their experience, which is then idealised and introjected from childhood to adulthood. There is often an emotional tie that binds them to their faith.
Similarly, there is likely an emotive seed for those who reject their faith. A troubled relationship with society, early environmental conditions, experienced acts of religiously-themed trauma – there are many things that can cause a person to leave his/her faith.
It is with this humility of recognising our emotional motives and the limitations of knowledge and reason that we should also begin to find mutual respect and empathy for others. Not just for those who uphold the faith, but for everyone.
Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.
Photo Credit: Karyawan