Lesley Hazleton, a British-American author who wrote a profile of the Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, gives a stimulating TED talk on the importance of doubt to acquiring faith. She points out that Muhammad’s first reaction to his divine revelation was one of terror, uncertainty and conviction that it couldn’t have been real.
This modest man who became an ardent advocate for social and economic justice in Arabia started his journey to Islam trembling with fear, overwhelmed by doubt, panic and disorientation. It was this visceral human reaction that “brought Muhammad alive” for Hazleton. Doubt, she says, is essential to faith. Without it, what’s left is heartless conviction that risks devolving into dogmatism and fundamentalism. And absolutism, she rightly argues, is the opposite of faith.
“Real faith has no easy answers, it involves and ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling of issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt,” according to Hazleton.
The 13-minute video brought my thoughts back five years to 2009, to the immense doubt that filled my mind in the months before I discovered Islam, a state of surrender to the Almighty.
Beleaguered by anger and despair over a series of personal and family struggles, I made a conscious decision to abandon my relationship with God. While I didn’t stop believing that He existed, I was frustrated by the constant stream of obstacles and challenges that He had lined along on my path. Upset and full of uncertainty about my faith, I sought comfort and solace in books, physical exercises like swimming and friendships. These succeeded at provided distractions. Yet the underlying frustration and sadness in my heart lingered.
After eight months or so of rejecting His presence in my life, I found God pulling me toward Him. In spite of my best efforts to stop it, I was drawn to Him not again, but in many ways that I would discover, for the first time.
At first I vehemently resisted the pull. But a power within me, that I hadn’t been aware of before, knew there was no going back. That was the first time I learned how to listen to my soul. Beyond my angered mind she sat yearning for comfort, answers and guidance.
In February of 2010, while attending an economic conference in Jeddah for work, my sister, who lived about an hour’s drive away from the Saudi Red Sea port city, came to pick me up so that we could go together for an umrah pilgrimage in Mecca. I refused at first, feeling deeply that I had no need to visit the sacred site due to my detachment from God.
In the end, I was coaxed into going. I performed the rites without a flash of inspiration — not even when I found myself being thrust in a mob of worshippers toward the Black Stone on the eastern corner of the Kaaba. The stone first descended from Heaven whiter than milk before the sins of humankind turned it black, according to Prophetic tradition. Every year millions of pilgrims, usually unsuccessfully, try to touch or kiss it as the Prophet had. And there I was, pressing my lips against it without conveying a shred of emotion.
What happened in the following months was nothing short of an extraordinary and exceptionally personal spiritual awakening that nourished my soul’s desire for guidance. My faith sprung from seeds of doubt, and my progress since then has rested in constantly questioning my actions to discover how they can be modified to honour my relationship with God.
Being Muslim isn’t about having all of the answers. Doubt is not only a crucial part of the process, but also a key ingredient in sparking curiosity and discovery. Doubt is not an inhibitor, it is a stimulus. Having doubt in my ability to comprehend, coupled with a certainty that this is a journey rather than a destination is, in a way, a crucial part of keeping the faith.