I became a Muslim in 2004. I’d been fairly familiar with Islam since my college days, having lived a year in India, and gotten my degree in Philosophy and South Asian Studies. I believed Islam was the purest and most sensible of religions. Nonetheless, I’d been raised in a family that was agnostic at best, and I’d felt no need for religion in my own life.
Nonetheless, as one grows up, things change. One late-summer day I was walking through a street fair in Brooklyn and came across an information table set up by the local mosque. I’d just come from the gym, so I was dressed in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, and I was carrying a bottle of wine for my girlfriend’s birthday. I’m sure I looked to the men staffing that table like the least-likely of candidates to become the next Muslim. They didn’t even bother to speak to me. But as I stood there looking at their brochures, one in particular caught my eye. It was entitled “The Purpose of Life in Islam.” The purpose of life is one of the central questions of Philosophy, of course—and one that it had never satisfactorily answered, as far as I was concerned—so I was open to a new take on the question. Most of Philosophy’s answers had revolved around either happiness or ethical behavior as life’s purpose, and both answers sufficed as explanations of how best to spend our time given that we are already here, but neither satisfactorily answered, “Why are we here in the first place?”
One line in the brochure particularly captured me. It said something to the effect that, “Islam holds that mankind was created for the sole purpose of praising The One who created him.” My heart stopped. Of course! Philosophically it made complete sense, as it perfectly and elegantly engaged why we are here in the first place. But beyond appreciation of a sound philosophical argument, a voice from deep in my soul told me that now, at last, standing on that Brooklyn street, I had finally heard The Message. And that voice added—not without an edge of tired impatience—that now I had to do something with the information. I would be held accountable. “But,” I countered, “I don’t think I even believe in God.” The answer-from-within came, “Don’t worry. Just do what believers do, and belief will come.”
Honestly, I was terror stricken, as I thought at the time that God had spoken to me. And when an atheist thinks he hears God speaking, he gets pretty shaken. Within a week’s time I had contacted the people who produced the brochure, asked a few basic questions, taken shahada, broken up with my girlfriend, and was on my way to memorizing my first surahs of the Qur’an. I propelled myself forward into Islam on the conviction that if I just did what believers do, belief would come.
What I thought that meant at the time was that I would eventually find certitude in my heart—that in time all my doubts about God, and Heaven and Hell, would fade away and be replaced with peace. Now, ten years later, and ten years into a life-transformation based on that one piece of advice from some disembodied voice, I have a more nuanced understanding of what that counsel meant.
If you’ll allow me to put on my philosopher’s hat for a moment, let me clarify that belief is not the same as certitude or knowledge. Knowledge is about things we can prove, generally not so much by logical deduction as by observation through the senses. While I may not know the President of the United States personally, I can say I know he exists and who he is because I’ve seen and heard him numerous times in the media. Certitude on the other hand, is akin to knowledge, but about things we cannot prove. I am certain, for example, that tomorrow daylight will come. Certitude is about things we generally know, but may not be able to prove in the particular. If you show me a video of a man and ask me whether it’s the President or an imposter, I could say I’m certain it’s really him. I can’t prove it, but I have no doubts.
So far, this is just clarification of terms, and perhaps not very helpful by itself. But suffice it to say that I was expecting certitude about God to come about through my practice. I thought that was what it meant to be a believer, to have faith. As years passed and the certitude didn’t come, I was left with self-doubt and crisis. But this begs the question, if God wanted us to know Him, why wouldn‘t He make Himself readily known? Make Himself visible and audible? It would be easy for Him to do if He wanted to.
The answer, I now appreciate, is that He doesn’t want us to know Him. He wants us to believe. Knowledge and certitude are easy. They are irrefutable—or at least presumed to be true in the case of certitude—and require nothing of us. Belief, however, is about things we cannot prove—generally or in the particular—but hold to nonetheless. It requires constant renewal on our part, and a constant kind of giving or generosity from us. It’s work. And because it is belief—not certitude, and cannot be proven—it is intrinsically accompanied by doubt. And yes, you read that correctly; I said belief requires doubt.
We are humans. We are rational beings. To hold to something we cannot prove without having doubts is completely contrary to human nature. (A nature, mind you, that God Himself created.) Belief, then, is the work God wants from us if we are to earn a place in Paradise. And the fact that we are able to maintain it, year after year, knowing that we will never have proof in this world, is a kind of minor miracle—a miracle because the amazing thing about belief is that if we ask God to give it to us, then we already have it. Disbelievers, on the other hand, don’t have doubts. On the contrary, they feel certitude that there is no God. No miracles for them.
I write this because there are many brothers and sisters out there who have wavered in their practice because they have doubts. And there are many more people out there, unreligious like my former self, who have cut themselves off from a better life—in both worlds—because they mistake their doubts for rejection. They fail to understand, as I failed to at the beginning, that their doubts are a gift, an opening, from God. Those doubts are what make belief possible in our hearts. They are signs to us that the seeds of faith have already been planted; they need only be watered by practice. They are not a gift to embrace, but rather to step on, as a boost on the ladder to Paradise. Without them, we would never have to ask Allah to give us faith, and without asking Him, we might never know we have it.
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