Leaving Islam: A Preliminary Study of Conversion out of Islam

It is frequently stated that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, in part due to conversion. And while conversion to Islam has been the subject of extensive discussion, our goal is to investigate the processes through and conditions under which people exit Islam. Therefore, we aim to critically explore the contemporary dimensions of this conversion process from Islam and discern recurring themes that figure prominently in testimonies made by former Muslims.

In this particular paper, we will be presenting the first phase of our research, which is a preliminary survey of this type of discourse as found in both popular books and on the Internet. This will serve as a comparative ground when we later engage in the second phase of our research, which will consist of actual interviews, which we aim to conduct in the near future. Though there are certainly a number of sources to choose from, we will give special consideration to those few popular sources which have gained a considerable amount of attention, both positive and negative. These include the “Answering Islam” web site, the web site of Nonie Darwish, the “Apostates of Islam” web site, and, especially, the works of “Ibn Warraq” (Author of Why I am not a Muslim and Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out). In fact, most of our analysis will be over Leaving Islam due to its perceived prominence.

Before delving into the sources, we should make several cautionary remarks. First of all, many, if not most, of the testimonies that we will analyze come from individuals who take on pseudonyms, presumably in order to hide their identity, for fear of putting themselves in harm’s way. Partially because of this, some of the testimonies may have been fabricated. Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that a good number of the testimonies may indeed be factual as they tend to involve lengthy descriptions of very specific personal details that seem to reveal a genuine element, particularly in those testimonies found in published works, such as Leaving Islam. Furthermore, the purpose of this phase of our research is simply to survey “popular” literature in order to get an idea of what is presented in the public sphere, and hence gauge the elements of public perception of conversion away from Islam.i

We should also point out that when listing the individuals’ motivations for leaving Islam, we are simply paraphrasing their viewpoints, as opposed to presenting either factual assessments of Islam or our own Muslim viewpoints. Thus, one may find that the understanding of Islam presented may be a controversial one that a number of prominent Muslim scholars, both dead and alive, would not attest to. An example of this is the recurring theme in many of the testimonies that Islam requires the belief in the eternal damnation of all good-hearted non-Muslims. In this case, when we look to the famous Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī’s Faysal al-Tafriqa bayna al-islām wa al-zandaqa (The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing Islam from Masked Infidelity), we find one of the most prominent classical jurists arguing that those individuals who have either never heard of Islam or are exposed to a distorted and undesirable presentation of Islam may attain God’s mercy.ii The controversial view of none other than Ibn Taymiyyah regarding the non-eternity of punishment in Hell may also be cited here. Another instance of this may be found in the discussion of the rules of Shari‘a that pertain to women. For example, we find some instances of individuals believing that, according to Islamic law, a woman must marry whomever the father selects, even if she is opposed to such an arrangement.

This, however, is clearly not the view of many Muslim jurists, conservative or otherwise, and can hardly be said to be a definitive representation of Shari‘a. Nevertheless, the purpose of this paper is not to engage the individual testimonies in an academic debate, but simply to understand the viewpoints expressed. For this purpose alone, the motivations cited by the individuals for their conversion out of Islam will often be listed as if they were indeed facts. And though the sources examined are highly polemical in nature, we would like to limit the purpose of this paper to simply being an academic survey of popular literature related to conversions out of Islam. We aim to do this by determining (whenever possible) the following factors in each of the testimonies: country/region of origin, gender, family background, and motivations for leaving Islam.

Furthermore, we should point out there is an unavoidable element of subjectivity used in analyzing the testimonies. For example, when describing the level of religiosity of the families of the individuals in question, we are largely dependent on the viewpoint of the individuals. Furthermore, how is one to determine who is religious and who is not without getting into a detailed legal, or even spiritual, discussion that may ultimately fail in achieving its purpose to begin with? Moreover, when discussing the motivations cited for leaving Islam, it should be noted that it is very well possible that some motivations played a more prominent role to the individuals in question than others.

However, to rank the degree to which certain motivations were more influential than others would certainly be an unfeasible task given the limited descriptions presented in the testimonies. (And it is precisely because of the limited descriptions given that we were unable to systematically analyze other factors, e.g. socioeconomic class, level of education, race,etc., though these details were discernible in a few instances). Furthermore, it is also possible that some of the items that we categorized as “motivations” were merely remarks that were not directly associated with the decision to leave Islam. Again, this is difficult to determine, as the testimonies do not always clarify the precise thought processes of the individuals in question. Finally, we have tried to categorize the different motivations into two groups: “Intellectual motivations” and “experiential/social motivations.” As one may imply, the former deals with theoretical and ideological concerns.

The latter, on the other hand, deals with both personal experiences and what history has shown us with regards to the social behavior of those who follow certain ideologies. It goes without saying that the line between intellectual motivations and experiential/social motivations may be thin at times, particularly when analyzing those cases where an ideology is said to be the cause behind a particular social behavior or event. In such instances, we will classify the motivation as “experiential/social.” Whenever possible, these motivations will be grouped into further sub-categories in order to help us comprehend the results. For example, if an individual states a number of ideological concerns that all relate to the topic of “rules of Shari‘a pertaining to women,”then we will tend to list the motivation as such in order to avoid complicating this survey with very specific details. Now we are ready to examine the data we have.

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