Q&A | A Moroccan ex-Muslim on losing her religion

Leaving Islam is a hard thing to do. The subject of this interview once had a conversation with Sarah – who recently wrote about her experience of leaving Christianity – about why she’d chosen to stop practicing the faith she’d grown up with in Morocco. The two were surprised to find many parallels in their experiences, however the consequences of rejecting faith are greater for our interviewee, so they’ve chosen to remain anonymous as they discuss why they’re no longer Muslim.

What was your relationship with Islam like before you decided to leave the religion? Would you describe yourself as having been very committed, or not so committed?
My relationship with Islam went through various stages. I grew up in a family where Islam’s presence is more cultural than religious – my father never prayed and my mom did so occasionally. Islam was only present through Ramadan and the Muslim celebrations (Eid). It was in high school that I started getting more education about Islam, mainly through very religious teachers who had a big influence on me.

By then, I was very committed to religion in the sense that I was doing my prayers regularly, fasting, considering sexual relations outside marriage as the worst sin. However, all the time there was this contradiction between my upbringing and Islam’s teaching and obligations, especially regarding how women should dress or behave in society.

What does ‘being Muslim’ look like in Morocco? It sounds like it’s fairly conservative and strict, but perhaps not as much as in some other countries where Islam is the main religion?
It is important to know that religion is highly instrumentalised in politics, especially by the monarchy – as the king uses his title as the “commander of believers” as a way to legitimise his power. However, within society the understanding of Islam is different from one person to another; there is no typical ‘Muslim’.

“Religion is highly instrumentalised in politics, especially by the monarchy – as the king uses his title as the “commander of believers” as a way to legitimise his power.”

In general, people are not too strict about Islam and would go against a lot of its obligations, but without acknowledging it. So, you can drink alcohol, have sex without marriage – but hide to do so and/or hope that one day you will repent.

Can you explain the series of events that led you to decide you weren’t Muslim anymore?
Well, as I said before, I had these contradictions between the way I wanted to live my life and the way I was brought up – with the strict and constraining Islamic rules. I tried my best, but all the time I considered that I was doing wrong stuff according to religion. I also had some problems with some parts of the religion, especially the lack of equality between men and women, the idea of hell, the violence of some parts of it.

I tried to convince myself that I don’t have a good understanding of it, and that it must serve God’s higher purpose of justice and equity, and sometimes tried to find explanations that suits my values. In doing so, I postponed thinking about it seriously. However, and thankfully, I couldn’t postpone this forever, especially because I was questioning and critically thinking about the world around me through my work, and I couldn’t spare my own religious beliefs.

“I tried my best, but all the time I considered that I was doing wrong stuff according to religion.”

I also wanted to have some coherence between the way I enjoyed living my life and the things I believe in. I did some research about the history of religion and its teachings from both Islamic and non-Islamic sources, and discussed these issues a lot with some friends who went through the same process. I found out that the idea that I had of God – as merciful and just – was completely different from the violent history of Islam and other religions, and that I don’t want to live my life according to it. I decided that I was not Muslim anymore and felt a huge relief.

Did you tell your family and friends? What was their reaction?
I didn’t tell my family, I only told my sister, who doesn’t care a lot about religion even if she considers herself Muslim. She was ok with that but the rest of my family wouldn’t be, even if they are not too religious. They consider that not being Muslim anymore is a huge deal, as in Islam non-believers go to hell.

My mom would be sad to know about it, so I preferred to not tell her. I told my friends who I thought would accept it, but couldn’t tell my best friend from high school, for example, because she is too strict about religion and I don’t think she would understand. This is frustrating, because friendship is not the same when you can’t share something that important, and talk about a fundamental change in your life.

What are the consequences that people in Morocco typically face if they leave Islam, or act in a way that is contradictory to its system of beliefs and rules?
Islam is the official religion in Morocco and you are considered Muslim ‘by default’ when your parents are. So, there is no freedom of faith. There are also some laws not directly inspired by Islamic law, but that punish with prison people who go against some religious rules, like having sex outside marriage or eating in public during Ramadan.

“Friendship is not the same when you can’t share something that important, and talk about a fundamental change in your life.”

These laws are, however, randomly applied and poor people are mostly the victims of these laws. They are also sometimes used against some activists to put them in prison without being considered political prisoners.

What are some key misperceptions that you have found people in the West to have of what it means to be Muslim?
Some people in the West like to homogenise and generalise about being Muslim, they think everyone lives by Islamic law and follows its rules. A lot of people were shocked to see that I am Muslim and I drink alcohol, while alcohol is widely consumed by Moroccans who consider themselves to be Muslim. I think they didn’t talk to me a lot about Islam at the time I still was, because they assumed I wasn’t Muslim.

Is there anything that you miss about practicing your faith? (Would you normally refer to it as faith? Or is there a better word?)
I would refer to it as faith, and I think that’s what I miss – not the practicing. Having faith in something bigger than us, some greater power that will balance things and do justice in this messed up world, and that might answer my prayers.

Have you been drawn to explore any other religions or forms of spirituality? Would you describe yourself as atheist or agnostic now, or prefer not to use a label?
I would describe myself as agnostic, as there is no proof that God exists or not. I don’t believe in God as described in the different religions, so I am not particularly interested in other religions. I haven’t yet explored other forms of spirituality, as my experience of not being Muslim is a recent one and I need time to reflect on it.

Losing your religion? You might like the work of this organisation.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.

Header image by Ian Hart.