Clean Break

Zoya Patel reflects on her painful break-up with Islam.

Abstract image of a blue shadowed moon, offset from a red shadowed moon

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

The biggest break-up I have ever had was messy. It involved my family, numerous heated discussions, periods of not talking to each other. It kept me up at night, made me cry, sometimes made me even question if life was worth living. 

I lied about it to my friends, and pretended everything was ok for weeks, months; if I’m being honest, for years. It was a relationship with more than a person – it was a belief system, a point of being, a connector of communities and an explanation for the entire world. I was breaking up with Islam. 

I was 15 when I first started feeling like maybe this relationship wasn’t healthy for me. Until then, I’d been a devout believer. Growing up in regional Australia, Islam was a driving force of connection for my family with the local Muslim community. We were immediately linked with a group of other young families from diverse backgrounds and countries of origin, ranging from Bosnia to Malaysia, Lebanon to Fiji. 

For many, [faith] is beyond choice – it is fundamental to their sense of self … and their ability to propel their bodies and minds through this otherwise chaotic life.

We organised to celebrate Eid each year in a church hall, and held picnics together in the local park, where we would share halal food, and play games. The women would teach each other how to make delicacies from their countries, and the men would share the duty of slaughtering sheep and chickens, because the closest halal butcher was four hours away. 

When I was very young, I didn’t even know that believing in Allah was unique to our little community. I assumed everyone practised Islam, because it was all that I knew. Of course, this blissful ignorance was short-lived, but even after I started school and realised that our family was different for more than just our skin colour, I never questioned that Islam was the only true religion. I knew it, deep in my bones, in the certainty with which I prayed each night. Allah hu akbar, we would say, and I had no doubts whatsoever that Allah was indeed the greatest. 

It didn’t take long for this conviction to unravel. At 11, I travelled to Mecca with my family, and came back even firmer in my faith. Not long after, the September 11 attacks irrevocably shattered the tenuous grasp we had as Muslims on a peaceful way of life in an adopted country. 

It was the first time I had seen evil committed in the name of religion. I watched the footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and tried to imagine the final emotions of the terrorists who had hijacked those planes. How could they face their own deaths without fear, when I had been told so many times that Allah doesn’t condone violence? How could such carnage be committed in the name of the benevolent and merciful god I had been taught to worship? 

I couldn’t see the connection between the horrific acts of the terrorists and the religion I had been taught.

As I grew up, and began to read more about Islam, though, the constraints of Islam as an organised religion began to feel tighter and more restrictive than they had when I was a child. 

My faith felt strong, but the way I was expected to demonstrate it often felt arbitrary.

I know that everyone practises religion differently, but the way I experienced it was based on a demand for compliance from believers; I had to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, and interact with the world a certain way. My faith felt strong, but the way I was expected to demonstrate it often felt arbitrary. Would Allah really care about how long my skirt was, if I was still a devout supplicant? Did Allah keep such a rigid tally on each minor interaction I had and whether it complied with the expectations of women listed in the Quran? 

Gradually, these feelings turned into an overwhelming sense of dissonance.  My faith had dwindled, and my uneasiness with the demands of religious life had grown. I couldn’t maintain my beliefs and I wanted to learn who I was outside of the system of a religion. It was time for me to make a clean break from Islam.

At the time, I thought it would be straightforward; an act as simple as telling people I no longer believed. I imagined it to be like other breaks – there would be a clear dividing line between the Muslim Zoya and the atheist Zoya, a severing that would heal cleanly. 

But instead, the wound festered. Even as my parents came to accept my beliefs (or lack thereof), my own psyche couldn’t come to grips with it. 

For my entire life, I had felt safe in the knowledge that the world existed for a reason. 

The pain, the suffering, the joy and the love – all of it had been designed by a supreme being, and was being guided by his hand. It was not pointless. The apparent randomness of the world could be defined as a test of our faith, and the good things could be seen as our reward. 

Most importantly, we were never alone. We were always accompanied by the omniscient presence of Allah. 

Now, I had to confront the chaos of human life – meaningless, unplanned and subject to no oversight greater than that of the flawed human race itself. 

What I had envisioned as a clean break turned out to be a series of fractures, and a splintering, that didn’t fully heal. I found myself praying automatically when worried or stressed. I would think atheist thoughts and then automatically wince and glance upwards, fearful of Allah’s gaze. 

I felt untethered, unsure of where my moral compass would lead if it didn’t have the magnetic force of Mecca to guide it. 

I would think atheist thoughts and then automatically wince and glance upwards, fearful of Allah’s gaze.

It took more than a decade for the break to heal, and eventually fuse into a new shape – different from before, but no longer sensitive to my touch. Over those years, I would occasionally allow my thoughts to prod at the absence of belief, to test the site for pain – did it still fill me with a swooping sensation of loss to accept that Allah does not exist? Could I accept what I felt to be true without immediately experiencing the rush of fear and uncertainty it triggered in me, a result of years of uncritical belief? 

Now, I know that the pain I suffered was inevitable in such a significant moment of change, to both my identity and the way I understood the world. Faith runs much deeper than our mostly secular society tends to acknowledge. For many, it is beyond choice – it is fundamental to their sense of self, their understanding of their place in the world, and their ability to propel their bodies and minds through this otherwise chaotic life. 

A clean break was never possible, but that doesn’t make my conviction weaker. In untangling myself from the remaining threads of my Islamic faith, I realised that there is so much to be gained from guiding one’s own moral compass, and being the arbiter of right and wrong without the system of organised religion around you. 

I will forever defend the right for individuals to practise their religion in peace, but equally, I am relieved to have found my own way to the beliefs I now hold – a belief in humanity, the ability to have a positive impact on the world around us, and sheer wonder in this beautiful, magical accident we call life. 

Portrait of Zoya Patel

Zoya Patel is the founder and editor-in-chief of award-winning feminist journal Feminartsy. Her debut book No Country Woman was published by Hachette Australia in 2018, to critical acclaim. 

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