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Apostasy in Islam

The trauma of apostasy in Muslim communities

Walking away from religion is seldom easy. It can be psychologically difficult to lose one’s faith in God, emotionally painful to doubt the existence of life after death, and existentially trying to come to terms with the fact that there is nothing supernatural out there: no magical realms, no paranormal powers, no divine beings. Just us, this planet, the universe, and the unavoidably mind-blowing mystery of it all.

However, when it comes to apostasy—the rejection of one’s religion—the personal loss of faith is actually often the least of one’s struggles. Much more worrying, awkward, and potentially damaging is the toll apostasy takes on one’s relationships with others. People who reject their religion often face strained relations—or worse— with spouses, parents, siblings, children, and friends. And this problem is particularly strong among contemporary Muslim communities.

In his latest book, The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam, British scholar Simon Cottee details the lived experiences of men and women who were active, believing Muslims but who then—for various reasons—came to lose their faith and reject their Islamic identity. Never mind the cognitive processes involved in their loss of faith, their criticisms of the Qu’ran, their criticsms of Muhammed, or the various reaons and factors which caused them to see Islam as untrue—the most dramatic aspects of their journeys out of Islam often involved the hostile reactions of family and friends.

Consider Nubia, a young woman of Saudi and Sudanese background. When she told her mother that she had lost her faith, the news broke her mother’s heart: “She asked me, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I didn’t say anything. And she was really hurt and it was horrible. It just ended in tears. It was really, really bad. I’d never seen my mum cry in my entire life. She’s the strongest woman I know, so to see her cry over that was heart-breaking.” But it got worse. “She said at some point, ‘Well, you can leave the religion, but it would mean losing us’…so she’s like, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you, ‘you’re not my daughter’…she said if you decide to come out and tell everyone about it then I had better face the consequences, because the ruling on apostasy in shariah is death. If anyone decides to carry that out I won’t stop them. So it really hurt.”

Consider Aisha, of Somali parents. For her, it was her sister who reacted strongly: “She said that I shouldn’t be allowed near her children in case I indoctrinate them and turn them into atheists.” And then Aisha’s sister said, “You’re as bad as a pedophile.”

Alia, whose family comes from Pakistan, faced total rejection from her parents in the wake of her apostasy. Her father said to her, “If you don’t want to come back to Islam, we can’t have you here.” He gave her one weekend to re-embrace Islam, and if she failed to, she would be kicked out of the house. Which is what happened.

These are highlights from just three individuals in Cottee’s study. But one can read about so many more similar scenarios in various websites, such as,, or

Of course, Islam isn’t the only religion to condemn and malign those who reject it. Hasidic Judaism rejects and condemns those who want to be secular, Fundamentalist Mormons do the same, as well as fundamentalist Christians, stalwart Scientologists, etc. Indeed, wherever religion is strong, those who doubt its truth claims or reject its rituals are likely to be hated, ostracized, and/or punished. But in Islam, the problem of apostasy seems particularly thorny. For example, of the 13 countries in the world today that legislate execution for atheism or apostasy, all are Islamic; there are no non-Muslim nations which meet out the death penalty for rejecting religion. And Cottee’s study isn’t the only one detailing the negative social sanctions and family condemnations apostates are apt to experience in Muslim communities around the world. One can read similar accounts in Ibn Warraq’s Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out and Richardson and Crimp’s Why We Left Islam: Former Muslims Speak Out.

Individuals who have been raised Muslim have every right to reject that faith. Men and women, boys and girls—no matter what their parents or siblings believe—are free to believe something different. The right to one’s own faith—or lack thereof—is an essential human right. But it is a right that, for many people, can only be exercised with great struggle. As Professor Cottee notes, “If they [ex-Muslims] disclose their apostasy to loved ones, they risk hurting them and incurring their rejection. Yet if they conceal it from them, they must endure the psychological misery of living a lie.”

Hopefully, as more and more individuals reject Islam—as well as Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, Scientology, etc.—living a lie will be less of an option for fewer and fewer people, and apostasy won’t be as traumatic as it can be for so many. Too many.

More from Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.
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