Despite rising numbers of atheistic S’poreans, this ex-Muslim remains closeted
He had reservations revealing the truth to his family, especially since they are devout Muslims.
Growing up, 25-year-old Rahim* (not his real name) practised his faith as a Muslim religiously.
He would try his best to perform the five daily prayers, diligently went to the mosque for Friday prayers, and attended religious classes every weekend to strengthen his faith and increase his knowledge.
But that changed in 2016 when he renounced his Muslim faith to become an atheist.
The thought of leaving the religion came to him while he was on his prayer mat and heard a voice in his head said:
“What if God doesn’t want me to pray?”
With more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans who believe in religion, Rahim is part of a small but growing statistic.
According to the General Household Survey from 2015, 18.5 per cent of Singaporeans have no religion, a steady increase of more than three per cent since 2000.
Now, there are more Singaporeans with no religion than there are Hindus (five per cent), Taoists (10 per cent) and Muslims (14 per cent).
Despite the rising trend, some atheists, including Rahim, remain closeted.
Used to be pious
After having a long sip of water, he explained that he cannot come out to the public as he comes from a family with a “strong and traditional” religious background, especially since his mother is an ustazah (religious teacher).
In fact, he shared that the man he is today is a stark difference from the boy he was growing up.
As a teenager, he considered himself to be “very pious”, having had weekly classes in a madrasah (religious school) and regularly performed his five daily prayers.
At one point in his life, he used to defend his religion when his peers made assumptions or made fun of Islam.
“Back then, my friends would say things about Islam and I would be defensive.”
Hanging the prayer mat for good
Things slowly took a turn when he started doing his national service.
While he continued to perform his prayers, he started to find it more difficult to fulfil.
Blame it on him being easily distracted and the nature of his duty, he says.
“There came a point where I was praying but I got distracted because I would be afraid that things would happen suddenly, since I attend to emergencies.”
For a while, he was able to put aside those “harmful” thoughts and tried to focus on his relationship with God, only to realise that he couldn’t do it anymore.
While performing his prayers on one of those days, a voice in his head said: “What if God doesn’t want me to pray?”
On that day, he hung his prayer mat for good.
Missing prayers = not Muslim
A lot of people are guilty of assuming that former Muslims renounce the religion to partake in haram acts like drinking and having premarital sex, or to convert to another religion.
But that’s not always the case.
Rahim, for example, became an apostate because he couldn’t seek solace in the religion anymore.
This is in part due to growing up surrounded by people telling him that if one doesn’t pray, then one isn’t a Muslim.
“There’s this school of thought that says you cannot miss your prayer. If not, you’re not a Muslim. My mother also stressed that point to me, so I guess I bought into the idea and tried to pray religiously but found that very hard.”
Difficult time during Ramadan
According to him, the month of Ramadhan is a lot like hell for the majority of ex-Muslims.
While the rest of his family fasts at home, he has to find a way to eat and drink discreetly.
“I can’t go to the toilet and drink from the pipe because you can hear the slurp sounds, I really have to go out and find a way to eat and drink.”
Once, his mother caught him drinking in the kitchen.
Thankfully for him, she thought that he had forgotten that the fasting month had started.
While Rahim is fortunate enough to be able to pass off as a non-Muslim Indian in public, he has heard of Malay apostates who aren’t as lucky.
“Some people, and I’m also including the non-Muslims, will discourage them from eating pork or drink alcohol. They will imply that what the person is doing is preposterous or evil, even.”
But not being able to eat and drink freely at home was the least of his problems.
For him, waking up for the pre-dawn meal is what makes the month so difficult, especially when he doesn’t believe in the purpose of Ramadhan anymore.
“The hard part is waking up (for predawn meals) because it disrupts my body clock. If I was a Muslim, I would see no problem waking up at 5am and going through my day as per normal. But because I don’t believe in it anymore, I feel more tired from the day.”
“You’re just confused”
When he first became an atheist, Rahim had no qualms telling people of his apostasy.
However, he had reservations revealing the truth to his family, especially since they are devout Muslims.
For the uninitiated, apostasy is considered to be a grave sin in many schools of Islam.
However, he didn’t want to remain closeted.
He reluctantly tried twice to talk to his mother about it, only for her to brush him off, perhaps because she thought it was just silly of him to do so.
It was only after she chanced upon his social media posts of him criticising the religion did she realise that he was, as a matter of fact, telling the truth.
In a bid to convince her son to not renounce the religion, she sat him down and tried to have a calm conversation to prove the validity of Islam.
But when that didn’t work, she told him that he was just “confused”.
“She told me that I was confused and wanted me to attend more religious lectures. To me, that was absurd so I told her that I won’t go.”
Angered by his defiance, she apparently got upset and began to brand Rahim and his brother as “useless”.
Conservative towards moral issues
He only realised that his mother reacted that way because a group of people were putting pressure on her.
Sadly, this group of people were his relatives, who were strongly against the idea of him renouncing the religion.
This, however, doesn’t seem to be an isolated case to just the Muslim community.
In a study by the Institute of Policy Studies, Muslims Singaporeans and Christians Singaporeans were found to be more conservative towards moral issues.
“What right do I have to subject her to that kind of pressure?”
His relatives, whom he claims to live all over the world, were the ones who discovered his social media posts and sent screenshots of them to his mother.
And instead of advising her gently, they shamed her for raising him to be the person he is today.
“They said things like, ‘If you socialised him with us, he wouldn’t have turned out this way.'”
Now, he no longer criticises or expresses his honest thoughts on Islam. Not online, at least.
And it’s not out of respect for his relatives, but because of the difficult position his mother was put in.
“I have some kind of respect for my mother. What right do I have to subject her to that kind of pressure?”
Verge of suicide
Balancing his mother’s feelings, including her undying persistence for him to go for religious lectures and being an apostate is no easy task.
In fact, it took such a toll on him, both physically and mentally, that he had once considered suicide.
“At that time, I just wanted to end my life because I thought I did something wrong. It didn’t feel good.”
Not knowing anyone with a shared experience makes him feel like a black sheep.
“It’s a traumatic experience for me because it feels like I’m the only person who is like this.”
While he has his friends who act as sounding boards, it is still difficult for him to express his concerns to them.
“I confide in my friends, but it’s hard because you would want to talk to someone with a relatable problem so they can understand what you’re going through.”
However, there are more non-religious communities in Singapore now, including the Humanist Society Singapore and the Council of Ex-Muslims Singapore (CEMS), that exist to raise awareness and serve as a support system for members of the community.
Grateful to have roof over his head
However, he tries to see the light in his current situation.
For one, he’s grateful to still have a roof over his head.
“When I told my parents about it, I definitely thought they were going to kick me out of the house.”
And he feels that Singapore is a relatively safe country for his community despite still being a religiously tolerant and conservative state.
“At least I won’t get beheaded here for being an ex-Muslim,” he said.
I let out a little laugh thinking he was saying it in jest, but I stopped myself when I realised that he wasn’t joking.
At least 13 countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia and Yemen, impose capital punishment upon people for conversion of religions or apostasy, according to a 2017 Independent report.
Freedom of religion is the general rule in Quran
According to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. did not implement any form of punishments.
They also stressed that there are other religious texts which seem to suggest that religious freedom is not in line with the teachings of Islam.
This includes a hadith narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas:
“Whoever changes their religion, kill them”.
Generally, apostasy isn’t illegal in Singapore, as the Office of the Mufti in Singapore is of the opinion that “freedom of religion is the general rule in the Quran”:
“Office of the Mufti wishes to emphasise that freedom of religion is the general rule in the Quran and a fundamental principle in Islam. The treatment of apostasy as a crime punishable by death came about later during the period where Islam gained political ascendancy. As such, the act of apostasy was not treated as a purely theological issue, but as an act of treason because the apostate is seen as having abandoned his or her loyalty and allegiance to the Muslim community.”
The courage to put yourself first
Rahim’s journey has been pretty rough, and he doesn’t have a happy ending to his story yet.
However, he hopes that no other apostate would have to experience what he had gone through.
If there’s something he could tell to other closeted atheists like him, he hopes that they will have the courage to always put themselves first.
“You have the right to protect your own feelings over other people.
I would also appeal to people’s rationality to show some compassion and understand that everybody is human too. It’s their own experience that makes them who they are.”
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Top image by Fasiha Nazren, for illustration purposes only.