Science and the road to reason: an ex-Muslim’s journey

Aliyah Saleem

I was born in London into a Pakistani Muslim family. Like most kids from Muslim families I knew I was Muslim, although I didn’t know why. I did know I had to go to madrassas on the weekends or after school, and that I had to follow some rules that my friends didn’t. My mum moved me around because I used to get into arguments with teachers. When I was about 5 or 6-years-old a teacher slapped me at our local madrassa. I wasn’t wearing my head scarf properly so she pulled me by my ear and slapped me with her massive hand. Mum removed me as soon as she heard. After this incident I went to another madrassa.

Still, my mum wasn’t strict with me. I used to go to the park with my cousins, fall in love with travelling boys, and dance with the music channels on full blast. My life consisted of ignoring family drama, skateboarding, roller-skating and convincing the boys at school to let me play football. I loved extreme sports and watched as much as I could while dreaming of being able to do motor cycle tricks as soon as I was old enough. Then my parents dropped a bombshell on me when I was ten: I was to be whisked off to an Islamic boarding school. I cried, and begged them to not send me away. My mum cried with me and I know she has always felt guilty about it. She believed that getting me out of the turbulent family home would be good for me. Being devoutly religious herself, she wasn’t able to see how disastrous this decision would turn out to be. I have spoken elsewhere about the school in some detail, but now would like to focus on what led me to finally abandoning the Islamic faith all together.

Al-Hudaa college in Lahore, Pakistan

I found myself aged 17 back in the UK from my year in Pakistan studying the Quran. Out there I had become completely dedicated to Islam; I took on the veil and cried in the night about all the people who would burn in hell. Back in the UK, my heart was filled with religious zeal. I had started college, and was teaching Quranic interpretation in the prayer room of the college. I was also teaching young children Islamic studies and Arabic. But now I found myself with full access to the internet, which I hadn’t had in years. At the school in Pakistan we had online access during class time, but that was about it. Newspapers and novels deemed inappropriate, like Harry Potter, were banned or simply not provided. Although they like to deny it, television was also banned. Back home I was able to browse the internet with ease. My parents were fairly strict with me but they always encouraged me to read and go to the library, and in the end, it was the acquisition of knowledge that crushed my belief in Islam.

During our studies, we also looked at religion from a sociological perspective. I was introduced to feminism and Marxism, and for the first time in my life I learned that some people view religion as an apparatus for social control. I began to think about religion through a feminist perspective, as an apparatus to control the bodies, sexuality and lives of women. I had always been taught that Islam gave women all their rights. For instance, Muhammad stopped the practice of female infanticide and Aisha his wife had been a scholar after his death. Before I began studying feminism I thought the hijab was there to benefit women as it protected them. I hadn’t thought of the way it could be used to control them instead.

I found myself thinking about Islam and women in a way that I had never dared to before. I did not like wearing the hijab as a young teen; I never wanted to wear it in the first place. But by the time I was approaching my late teens I would have felt naked without it. I became fully conscious of the suffocation that had followed me for years. I reflected on how my own submission to Islam took place after years of sometimes silent, and sometimes open rebellion. I remembered how I had said I didn’t want to wear hijab even though I was going to this school. So when did wearing it full-time, without complaint, become a reality? When did I stop resisting?

aliyah god delusinoI was in the library one day, caressing the edges of books with the tips of my fingers. Then a title jumped out at me and my jaw dropped. The God Delusion was staring at me. I had never imagined that belief in God could be a delusion. I genuinely believed that people who did not accept Islam knew it was the truth, but that they were rebelling because of their desires. I know, because that’s how I saw it. I grabbed this book, and took it out, feeling a mixture of excitement and fear. I had heard of evolution before reading it, but we certainly didn’t learn about it at Islamic school. In Pakistan, I read Harun Yahya’s excuse for a textbook where he tries to pin Nazism and Stalin’s actions on Darwin. Now I began reading about it in a different way. A lot of what Dawkins said didn’t slot into place because I didn’t really get evolution at all. I put The God Delusion down and decided to just focus on evolution for a bit. I looked up the library catalogue and was amazed at how many titles came up. Here I was thinking it was a tiny fringe theory. I absorbed myself with this for a while, and was convinced by all the evidence laid out before me.

I moved on from evolution to cosmology. At this point I was beginning to show cracks but I still clung onto God. I mean it could have been God who actually did evolution right? I tried to ignore Adam and Eve. I came across Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot. I confess I could only take in chunks of it. My science education was lacking, but one thing that did penetrate my brain was how tiny we are. In the book, I saw a picture that changed my life forever. It was a picture of a beam of light with a tiny blue dot, and that was Earth. Aliyah Pale Blue DotMy heart stopped for a second when I saw that picture, and for that moment, my fear of hell, dying, God, the hijab all vanished. I stopped thinking about whether Islam was true or not, and just sat in awe of the magnitude of the universe we live in. I reasoned, and continue to reason that even if God exists, he/she/it would be magnificent enough to not care which foot I put in the bathroom first, or whether a drop of urine caught on my clothes, which I was taught could lead to punishment in the grave. He/she/it couldn’t possibly be so petty as to punish us forever just because we didn’t worship correctly or were born into the wrong religion.

I know many believers are not convinced by the reasons I give as to why I don’t believe in God, which is fair enough. They can believe whatever they like, and if they were convinced by the arguments against God’s existence then they would be sceptics also. Many will say that instructions on entering the bathroom in a certain way is not really what religion is about, or that I have misunderstood religion. Perhaps I have done so after many years of studying it, but I doubt it. It’s all well and good to speak about religion and God in the abstract, but this is what religion is about to millions of people; little instructions on how to live, eat, marry and so on. Eat with your right hand, say bismillah before mealtimes, make sure to clean with your left hand and if you laugh during prayer, start all over again.

I used to sit on the roof of our conservatory with my Spider-Man blanket watching the stars. When I realised the possibility that God might not exist I felt a lightness the like of which I have never experienced again. I was finally content realising that no one was reading my thoughts, deciphering my dreams or measuring the width of blackness in my heart. There was so much else which made me reject Islam, including the rampant homophobia, the half testimony of women, the legitimisation of wife beating in the Quran, and the enslavement of non-Muslim women after war.

I accept that some people are willing to ‘contextualise’ the wife-beating verse, but I’m sorry, if the Quran is the last guide for all of mankind to follow don’t you think Allah could have put a note in saying that women should not be beaten in any context, at any time? Also the Quran refers to itself as being clear, which doesn’t seem true to me. This is not to suggest that I am not aware that there are so many interpretations of Islam, and that it means different things to millions of people. This only suggests to me that Islam is a product of human invention and creativity and not from a Creator. That Islam and the other religions in the world have come from us does not in anyway demean them for me. Rather I see religion as the end result of humanity’s need to understand the world around it. Now, with science, the enlightenment and philosophy, I don’t feel that belief in the supernatural is necessary to explain the world around us. However I do respect people’s right to believe whatever they like, and to practice however they like, as long as it does not harm others.

Aliyah Saleem

I have now been Godless for around six years. I now dance, listen to music, go out at night, wear whatever the fuck I like and do as I please. I spent all of my teen years in a mental cage, and I have done my best to burst free from that. I have never regretted the decision to leave Islam, and to choose my own path.  As an ex-Muslim I have dealt with a lot of difficulties. My immediate family knew from the start. At first they did not understand, but as time has gone on they have respected who I am even if they don’t agree with me. As my mother told an extended family member recently, “all my daughter is saying is that she wants proof.”

I have spent years alone as an ex-Muslim feeling isolated, guilty and ashamed because of prejudice within the Muslim community towards ex-Muslims. I had to re-wire my brain, and unlearn the misogyny that was ingrained in me. I have now found others out there, and I know that things are changing for us. Sometimes we need to be told that not only are we not alone, but that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Being faithless is becoming reality even in conservative Muslim communities. No matter how much religious leaders bleat on that we are misinformed, our numbers are growing. Prepare for the storm within.

Aliyah Saleem

Aliyah Saleem

Aliyah Saleem is an ex-Muslim atheist who attended an Islamic school in Britain for five years. She also studied in an Islamic institution for a year in Pakistan. Having left Islam at 19, Aliyah has since spoken about ex-Muslim issues as well as advocating for secular education. She is the co-founder of Faith to Faithless, an organisation that raises awareness of the discrimination and prejudiced faced by people who leave religion. Aliyah is an ex-hijabi and niqabi who has also written about her work and personal experiences for The Times. You can follow Aliyah on Twitter @ali_jones89 and through her blog,

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Steiner says:

    Hate to rain on the parade here, but I had this young lady as a “friend” on both Facebook and Twitter. We followed each other, liked one another’s posts, commented, and polemicized…


    Until I dared to express the view that I was uncomfortable with ostentatious breastfeeding in public. I said it involved bodily fluids and was hence gross. It took her literally two minutes to unfriend, unfollow, and block me.

    “Sorry” but, whatever her personal journey and experience, she–like Maryam Namazie–has still not embraced pluralism, tolerance, and free thought. She retains the fascistoid tendencies of her Islamic upbringing. Her story does have value. that is certain, but beware of lionizing her.

  2. Aliyah Saleem Aliyah Saleem says:

    Hey Michael – I do remember you.

    I added you, and then became disheartened at how right wing you are. I am looking at your Facebook page now I see that you are behind Trump for the presidency. I suppose when you equated breast milk with urine or semen I had had enough. I blocked you because I didn’t want to engage with you any further. That is my right as I have ownership over who I wish to speak to.

    Adding you as a friend was obviously a mistake if you can throw your vote behind a man who wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, ban Muslims from entering the USA and is stupid enough to speak about his penis size during a debate that will be aired across the world.

    You wrote this on your facebook page:

    ‘The G.O.P. establishment had better take heed: We KNOW you are rigging the voting process, we KNOW you are conducting a dirty-tricks campaign against Trump, we KNOW you will stop at almost nothing to steal the primaries from Trump. If it does happen, be prepared to spend years in the political wilderness because we WILL punish you in Senate and House elections for years to come. Plus, we’ll end up with Hillary as POTUS because there is no way in hell Cruz or Rubio will defeat her.
    Don’t be stupid. The People want Donald Trump. You defy our wishes at your great peril.’

    I am glad I unfriended you so I didn’t have to see all your hysterical Trump posts.


    • Avatar depalan says:

      Removing religion from the system can be such a relief, and gives so much time to explore the world, ease to deal and appreciate more to life. It brings center to oneself in so much beautiful way

  3. Ms Saleem writes a wonderful and sensible article and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. From the above comment by Michael I can see clearly that she does not suffer fools greatly and I commend her again in her response. Americans who vote for Donald Trump are certainly a strange breed.

  4. Avatar Ken B says:

    Hi Aliyah,
    You might find this YouTube video interesting:
    I hope you enjoy it! 🙂
    Ken B.

  5. Avatar Syed Kamal says:

    Yes it happened a long time ago in my case, once you stop believing how free and light one feels has stuck in my memory. I have long maintained that Atheists of the world regardless of gender, culture, language or region must unite. Individual emancipation from the tyranny of religion is good but as human being we seek and crave comradeship of like minded, At a personal and social level it is not easy to be an atheist, but if truth matters to you there is no other way to be. Best wishes.

  6. Avatar Peter says:

    I do not understand your attitude,even though I applaud your leaving the shackles of Islam.
    What is wrong with a man who wants to stòp and control run away immigration ?
    Should we not control our borders at all anymore ?Does Pakistan and other countries have border controls ?
    What is wrong to prevent weirdo muslims with a penchant for violent and scary behaviors and customs such as your ex coreligionists at whose hands you seem to have suffered much as well as countless millions ,to enter the US.?
    Or are we to açcept everyone and anyone indiscriminately in any numbers without conditions even though it is evident that there are individuals amongst them who have less than peaceful intentions,even murderous criminals ?
    Can we emigrate to Pakistan freely?
    Why did your family emigrate to the UK ?
    Could Islam’ideology itself be the cause for all that poverty and misery?Why should we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by it ?

    Did you not suffer enough ?

    • Avatar Kevin says:

      @Peter “I do not understand your attitude,even though I applaud your leaving the shackles of Islam.
      What is wrong with a man who wants to stòp and control run away immigration ?
      Should we not control our borders at all anymore ?Does Pakistan and other countries have border controls ?…”

      The thing is, Trump didn’t just say ‘weirdo Muslims’ or ‘some Mexican immigrants are criminals’. He is a lazy-minded bigot who will say anything to get into office, plain and simple.

  7. Avatar Shazad says:

    Vêry sad: your parents did all for u: but u gone your own way.u have got freedom from cloths,hijab,parents,family &religious belief would not give u satisfaction.Islam is religion of peace ,love,respect .its creation of creator not mankind.scince is all about Quran.scintists study Quran and get benefit of it .
    May Allaha bless u

  8. Avatar Gilbert Alabi Diche says:

    Brave woman! I wish the world had more of you.

  9. Avatar Nadeem Naik says:

    Aliyah, I understand how you feel. It appears from your writing on Islam, have missed the beauty of religion. A person in your circumstances would have bolted from any faith, it’s understandable. Is there any Ayah in the glorious Quran which you find, worth an atom’s weight, can uplift humankind. I am sure you will.

    I am cinched you are well aware of the west wall of Supreme Court of USA, frieze depicting Muhammad PBUH among 18 “lawgivers” above Supreme Court justices’ bench.

    I never went to any madrasa growing up in Lahore, would not know be able to relate to your personal experience. But I am confident you can quote me one Ayah, liberating oneself, which no other holy books offer.

    1. Help me understand there is no God
    2. I extend you an invitation on my live radio show, (what Quran says) to explore Islamic values. Send me an email.
    Looking forward to hear from you.
    Thank you.
    Nadeem Naik

    • Avatar Kevin says:

      I can’t speak for Aliyah, but here’s some verses that I find interesting:

      These are two adversaries who have disputed over their Lord. But those who disbelieved will have cut out for them garments of fire. Poured upon their heads will be scalding water
      By which is melted that within their bellies and [their] skins.
      And for [striking] them are maces of iron.
      Every time they want to get out of Hellfire from anguish, they will be returned to it, and [it will be said], “Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire!”

      Every other verse of the Qur’an could be love and roses, but they still wouldn’t excuse these verses which describe an insanely cruel punishment for the mere ‘crime’ of rejecting Islam’s unsubstantiated claims.

      Allah is the ‘most merciful’?? No, Allah is the most irrational & sadistic.

  10. Avatar qazi says:

    So unfortunate that you left a flawless religion. May Allah give you hidayat and make your akhirat better for you. I wish you return to islam beforr its too late. sit somewhere alone and ponder over whether you have done right to be an atheist.

  11. Avatar Dev says:

    As believers people would feel cheated if no all mighty is found but non believers is in win win Situation ….if thy exist it’s bonus and total blank would be long time conviction.

  12. Avatar Mujahedin says:

    All these for $ ………………… i have notice all the conversion after left from the home country….and moving to Europe so the main reason Money………………

  13. Avatar Mj says:

    ” I have now been Godless for around six years. I now dance, listen to music, go out at night, wear whatever the fuck I like and do as I please. I spent all of my teen years in a mental cage, and I have done my best to burst free from that. I have never regretted the decision to leave Islam, and to choose my own path. As an ex-Muslim I have dealt with a lot of difficulties.”I quote U my free thinking sister. ” although u might b in a cage b4 but now u re free. Tell is there any religion dat will tolerate wat u now do as a free person who doesn’t belong to any religion? Neither Christianity, Hinduism, bhuduhism, grail msg, enckakar, paganism, etc will never support u to dress half naked. Like d Christians dey say ur body is d temple of God. So if u do what so ever u like is a sin

  14. Avatar DeMans says:

    You should be really proud of where you are now. The moment we are born, our parents and society force their beliefs on our pliable minds, they prevent us from THINKING and developing our own belief systems. You see it everywhere:
    -born in America makes you Christian
    -born in Pakistan makes you Muslim
    -born in Thailand makes you Buddhist

    This would not have been the case had the case for religion been so strong.

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