Major Rashid Khan, who has retired from military service, comes from an orthodox family that prayed five times and observed Ramzan. "When I entered college, I started thinking about Islam and the Quran. I realised that we were not allowed to ask questions about religion," he says, adding that his intellectual thinking departed from Islam on the issue that the moon was split at Prophet Muhammad's hint and also over the issue of the killing of over 700 Jews of Banu Quraiza tribe, who had surrendered before the prophet. He left Islam and was scolded by his father; his elder brothers stopped talking to him. "My brothers did so because they think Muslims can have no business with those who reject Islam," he says.
Major Khan brought up his children in a free atmosphere. "When my children were around 8-10 years, I started explaining to them what definitions of god exist in different communities. I told my children: you are free to decide; I will never force you to accept any religion. I also brought Islamic teachers to teach them the Quran," says he, adding that children as young as 3-4 are taken to madrassa and that there is a need to ban madrassas because they teach hatred of other religions through such concepts as kafirs. His children have evolved their own thinking away from Islam.
When I entered college, I started thinking about Islam and the Quran. I realised that we were not allowed to ask questions about religion
Razia Ahmed, a student of Law based in Jaipur, says she was interested in history, philosophy and French revolution but her engineer father got her into science. She initially taught computers but has since moved to studying law. "As a child of 10-11, I was sent to study at a madrassa in Azamgarh (a centre of Islamic learning in Uttar Pradesh)," she says, adding: "At the madrassa, Islamic clerics taught that more girls than boys will go into hell. I was told that of 100 people in hell, 99 will be women." She asked her teachers to explain why mostly girls will go to hell to which she was told: "woh na-shukri hoti hain [they are not thankful]."
This came as a shock to Razia, but she continued to be religious till she was 25. "I used to justify polygamy, but for how long I could have continued to tell a lie," she says, adding: "I lost any respect for the prophet when I got to know about the practice of thighing." She is inclined towards atheism. Speaking about terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Muslim countries, Razia says her relatives sometimes justified the Islamic State and the Mumbai blasts, and offers a profound comment on the nature of Islam and its followers: "As a community, we want either victimhood or supremacy."
S Ahmad (name changed) holds a doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Based in Delhi's Jamia Nagar, a pre-dominantly Muslim locality, he comes from an orthodox family and his father is a member of a religious organisation. "I began questioning Islam after watching a video of Richard Dawkins [the English biologist]. His book, The God Delusion, destroyed my arguments," he says, adding that for morality, there is no need for religious books. He is however also clear that there is no escape from his identity as a Muslim, especially when a policeman abuses, or picks up innocent Muslims in false terror cases, or when Indian soldiers travelling in trains abuse Muslim youths as katuwa (a pejorative for those who are circumcised).
Arif Mohammad, a student of engineering in Bhopal, comes from a family of practicing Muslims. "I believe in Karma rather than god," he says, adding: "Consciously or unconsciously, I began questioning Islam after Class 12 but there was curiosity about religions right from childhood." Arif Muhammad describes himself as Indian and not as Indian Muslim. "I have noticed about 50 Muslims [on social media] who have left Islam but they cannot openly talk about Islam," he says adding that some of these youths have left Islam because they do not want to become part of terrorism. "These Muslim youths prefer their cultural identity over their Islamic identity. “
Arif Mohammad also notes that in order to avoid security issues cultural Muslims like him choose their friends wisely because some friends do become violent. "Social media has helped such Muslims to connect with each other and to realise that there are people like us on the planet," he says, adding that such Muslims are connected via Facebook pages of Iranian Atheists, Afghan Atheists and so on. He notes that there are many Muslims like him in Bhopal, Jabalpur and other cities. Regarding the movement of ex-Muslims, he says that it cannot emerge as a formal movement without a leader. This point is also shared by Ali Muntazar who stresses the need for a platform for ex-Muslims.
The stories of the above-named people are not isolated. It is indeed a trend that Muslim youths are leaving Islam in towns across India, but most of those interviewed here observed that there is also a rival trend of Muslims becoming more religious than they used to be. A few points that emerge about those who are leaving Islam: They live in fear of local Islamic clerics, they become isolated in their local neighbourhoods, their stories bring out the fact that questioning minds are not acceptable to Islam, there is a teaching of hate against non-Muslims by Islamic scholars and virtually every Islamic cleric considers himself as the ruler of Muslims. However, given the critical thinking emerging through these former Muslims, there is an urgent need for a platform for them where they can join hands, network and discuss Islam, more so since Islam is engaged in an eternal conflict with the identity of India as a civilisation.