Nebil sat silently – but attentively listening – through most of the class at the masjid organized for new Muslims. At the end of a lively exchange between the members of the group about what kinds of actions might invalidate one’s fast during Ramadan, Nebil intervened and offered his advice about the matter. As someone with a long personal history of religious practice and experience, he encouraged the group to “not make the deen too hard on ourselves.”
Given the cool confidence with which he offered his advice, along with the healthy-sized beard he was sporting, my (semi-conscious) impression of Nebil was that of someone very confident and secure in his religious practice and faith. He then told me that he was currently working with a Muslim organization, and was simply attending this class out of curiosity. This only reinforced my initial impression, as I assumed this was a typical expression of pious commitment through participation in communal religious activities.
In light of my own experiences, I should have known of course that appearances never give us the whole story. Especially at the masjid.
“Shortly after this initial encounter, we met at a cafe to get to know one another. Among other things, we discussed our religious trajectories in life. During this exchange, he referred a few times to the challenge of reconciling Islam with his lived experience.”
Despite my knowing better, it typically seems that everyone at the masjid is much more comfortable and fully aligned with the community’s standards of religious observance than they actually are. The social dynamics of the mosque bring out certain aspects of people, which presents a rather incomplete picture of the people around us. Nebil was no exception to this.
Shortly after this initial encounter, we met at a cafe to get to know one another. Among other things, we discussed our religious trajectories in life. During this exchange, he referred a few times to the challenge of reconciling Islam with his lived experience. “I wish I didn’t have to reconcile religion with my experience. I wish I could just trust my intuition more and not feel all this guilt,” he said. “I can’t get rid of Islam, and I can’t get rid of my personal experience.” Despite this evocative language, he spoke rather vaguely and abstractly about this concern, and I had no sense of what this meant to him. At the time, this sentiment sounded like it was largely an abstract or intellectual concern, as opposed to an active struggle overwhelming his life.
It wasn’t until some time later that I learned that Nebil did not – or in fact, could not – perform his daily prayers.
Blocked from Prayer
Growing up, Islam was part of Nebil’s identity and family practice, but did not play a central role in his life. Several years before I met him, though, he had arrived at a newfound commitment to living out religious teachings. In committing himself to religious practice, he focused most on ritual worship.
His religious fervor gradually evolved into an intense attentiveness to every minute detail of ritual performance, particularly in daily prayers. Nebil’s anxiety about correct performance then became obsessive and debilitating, to the extent that every prayer led to severe psychic turmoil and pain. This was later diagnosed as the result of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (O.C.D.), tied to earlier life traumas. As these struggles led him over time to a downward spiral of psychological instability, Nebil found that he could no longer regularly perform ritual prayer. When he would try to perform any act of ritual devotion, he would feel a sharp physical pain in his gut and relive the emotional anxiety of his experiences.
This painful experience led him to develop a very tense relationship not only with God, but also with communal teachings on Islamic ethics and law. Nebil felt deeply betrayed and disillusioned by the religious discourse around him. He perceived the religious system to be deeply conflicting with his intuitive sense of right and wrong, given the way in which the expectations of that system were “out of touch” with his experiences, circumstances, and needs.
“He felt bound by the authority of this discourse, but couldn’t fulfill the standards and obligations presented as God’s will. His experiences thus left him with no clear framework about what it means to live out his commitment to Islam and God, leading him therefore to deep uncertainty and frustration. While it was not apparent to anyone, he was at the apex of a spiritual crisis.”
“No scholar or imam that I’ve explained my situation to has ever told me that I don’t have to pray,” he explained. They would insist that “ṣalāh is still wājib [obligatory].” While he knew intuitively that this expectation could not be correct, given how physically and psychologically damaging it was to him, he still couldn’t “help but feel guilty” and “alienated from Islam” as a result. He felt bound by the authority of this discourse, but couldn’t fulfill the standards and obligations presented as God’s will. His experiences thus left him with no clear framework about what it means to live out his commitment to Islam and God, leading him therefore to deep uncertainty and frustration. While it was not apparent to anyone, he was at the apex of a spiritual crisis.
A Crisis of Faith
According to recent studies, almost a quarter of American adults now mark “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. This ever-increasing rise of religious disaffiliation over the past few decades is generally presented as the result of growing skepticism and doubt about religious belief. Thus, even if religion is not destined for extinction as classical secularization narratives have assumed, the “monopoly” of “organized religion” nonetheless has been significantly undermined.
“Given these trends and the pervasive discourse about religious doubt in the broader American public, it is no surprise that discussion of a ‘crisis of faith’ has likewise become a pervasive preoccupation in American Muslim communities.”Given these trends and the pervasive discourse about religious doubt in the broader American public, it is no surprise that discussion of a “crisis of faith” has likewise become a pervasive preoccupation in American Muslim communities. Over the course of the last decade, American Muslim public discourse has increasingly identified doubt as a matter of urgent concern, speaking of a crisis of faith afflicting a growing number of Muslims. From lectures and sermons at local mosques, seminars, and national conventions, to online forums, articles, and videos, there has been a plethora of material by public preachers and intellectuals seeking to address this concern. In fact, entire institutes and organizations have been founded that are dedicated to addressing this “crisis of faith.”
For the past several years, I have been researching this ever-growing sense of a crisis of faith in the Muslim community, spending two years with Muslim communities in Boston exploring people’s personal experiences around faith and doubt while also analyzing national community conversations and discourses around this issue.
“This article focuses on one particular tension in this national conversation on doubt: the cognitive dissonance that arises when an individual’s personal judgments and sensibilities conflict with constructions of orthodoxy.”This article focuses on one particular tension in this national conversation on doubt: the cognitive dissonance that arises when an individual’s personal judgments and sensibilities conflict with constructions of orthodoxy. The response of community preachers to the problem of doubt has generally been to emphasize that people must establish the proper intellectual foundations of religious belief, and that they must trust in religious authority. However, these communal voices fail to take into account how personal experience plays a very central role in people’s sense of cognitive dissonance. I began with Nebil’s story precisely because it highlights the serious dilemma faced by Muslims who grapple with this tension between personal experience and religious authority.
Submitting to Orthodoxy
When I began this research, I had assumed that the communal concern with doubt would focus on responding to Muslims like Nebil who are struggling with the disorienting and destabilizing experience of doubt, disillusionment, and confusion. I expected that preachers and public intellectuals responding to the “problem of doubt” would address individual Muslims’ experience of losing their faith or struggling to live out their faith in the face of such serious cognitive dissonance. However, as I explored the ways in which this concern is discussed in community contexts, I came to realize that this individual turmoil is not always the primary concern in communal discourse.
Rather, I realized that very often the discourse on doubt centered on preserving a particular idea of Islamic authenticity and orthodoxy. Instead of genuinely grappling with the challenge of people’s religious disillusionment and confusion, community preachers and public intellectuals often express a concern with the increasing questioning of tenets that are deemed to be essential components of Islam. By challenging such supposedly unquestionable doctrines, individuals are seen as failing to meet the minimum demands of faith, and thus not having proper belief. These figures thus conflate doubt with challenging the claims of religious orthodoxy.
In the context of a growing tide of interpretive voices that are seen as unorthodox or heretical, community preachers increasingly present the questioning or reinterpretation of orthodoxy as people merely elevating their subjective opinions and personal desires to a higher position than God’s commands. They argue that true belief in the Qur’an and the Prophet necessarily entails accepting these sources as containing perfect guidance and wisdom. Whereas human reasoning is flawed and culturally relative, Allah has provided us with perfect guidance through revelation (as interpreted by pious scholars). They thus assert the need to accept “Islam as it is” and submit to the entirety of its rulings and doctrines.
“In the context of a growing tide of interpretive voices that are seen as unorthodox or heretical, community preachers increasingly present the questioning or reinterpretation of orthodoxy as people merely elevating their subjective opinions and personal desires to a higher position than God’s commands.”
According to these figures, therefore, the solution to the community’s crisis of faith is to demonstrate to Muslims that accepting the truth of Islamic revelation necessarily entails submitting to “tradition” as these authority figures construct it. However, such responses fail to recognize or account for the power of personal experience.
Between Experience and Authority
The story of Nebil’s psychological crisis that I began with highlights the significant challenge and dilemma that is presented by this expectation of submission. By demanding that people disregard their own intuitions and submit to the authority of tradition, these figures ignore the significance of people’s life experiences, and the embodied knowledge and intuitions that these experiences provide.
Nebil’s narrative demonstrates that, when people’s intuitive judgments conflict with authoritative teachings, they are faced with a difficult dilemma. At the heart of this dilemma is a set of fundamental questions around trust and authority: who and what does one trust as a source of authority?
In Nebil’s case, his experiential knowledge has led him to a personal judgment about the obligation of ritual prayer that conflicts with the judgment of the authoritative Islamic teachings he is connected to. This conflict poses a crucial question: should he trust his own experiential judgment or the judgment of communal authorities? For Nebil, it is not possible to simply disregard his personal experience and judgment in this situation.
“I am not arguing therefore that people are completely bound by their experiential sensibilities or intuitions and must necessarily affirm those over authoritative doctrine.”It is important to recognize, of course, that each situation is unique, and there are a variety of ways that people can and do respond to such dilemmas. In my research and experience, I have seen situations in which people dissent from communal teachings and affirm their own intuitive judgments, as well as situations in which people affirm the authority of the teachings in question even when they conflict with their own intuitive judgment.
I am not arguing therefore that people are completely bound by their experiential sensibilities or intuitions and must necessarily affirm those over authoritative doctrine. What I do want to present here, however, is an explanation for why this tension presents such a serious dilemma and challenge, and why the communal preaching I have been discussing is inadequate in addressing the issues at hand.
The Hold of Experience
To begin with, one must recognize that doubt is not merely cognitive but in fact experiential. Community authorities tend to frame doubt as most essentially an intellectual problem or clash of ideas (e.g. between a “true Islamic” framework and a “liberal/secular/modern/western” framework). However, this way of seeing the problem as a “clash of ideas” fails to appreciate that when people challenge authoritative doctrines, they do not simply hold these ideas cognitively as an intellectual conviction. It is not merely a conflict of persuasion or judgment. Rather, these moral judgments and commitments are generally based in experiential knowledge that is embodied and affective.
The tension between personal experience and authority can therefore lead to a serious dilemma that is experienced as unsettling or paralyzing. One cannot simply will or reason away such dilemmas. In fact, even those who willingly assent to the judgment of authoritative teachings cannot simply make such intuitive or experiential judgments disappear.
“The tension between personal experience and authority can therefore lead to a serious dilemma that is experienced as unsettling or paralyzing. One cannot simply will or reason away such dilemmas.”
For instance, in a conversation I had with another interlocutor, she asserted that the practice of polygyny is deeply upsetting to her, as she had seen how it emotionally devastated her own mother. She uncomfortably expressed that polygyny is something she is “not convinced about as of yet.” When I asked if she meant that she is not yet convinced that it is right, she responded that “it’s not an issue of it being right.” After quoting a verse from the Qur’an to this effect, she asserted, “I agree to this, it’s not my choice, it’s not up to me. I consent. But if you ask me insi…[stutters]…like, from the inside, I will tell you I’m not convinced. And I’m not…whatever. I’m just musallamah [submitted] … It’s about submission.”
What her response illustrates is that despite accepting the moral demand of assenting to religious doctrine regardless of one’s own judgment, she cannot simply lose her experiential sense that this is something that can be deeply destructive and unjust. Neither intellectual persuasion nor appeals to authority can eliminate such deeply held experiential sensibilities and intuitions.
Confirming Faith Through Experience
Thus far, I have been explaining why the tension between intuition and doctrine can present such a genuine dilemma and challenge. I have emphasized that people’s deeply held intuitions are more than just cognitive or intellectual, and thus cannot simply be disregarded. But there is another important factor that makes this dilemma much more acute: we have to consider the way in which intuitions and experiences are also the basis upon which people affirm faith itself. Therefore, in a similar fashion, it feels natural to trust those personal intuitions and experiences when it comes to specific doctrinal teachings that they disagree with.
Let me return to Nebil’s story to illustrate my point. Through our countless exchanges, I came to realize over time that he trusts his experience not only when it comes to challenging community teachings, but also in his relationship to Islam generally. For Nebil, the memory and longing for a life centered around God and the Prophet are too real and deep for him to abandon or lose faith in. He trusts the powerful spiritual experiences he has had, and this keeps him bound to tradition and faith, despite his frustrations about how to live out that commitment. But this inclination to trust his experience is also what makes him feel compelled to trust his intuitive judgments when it comes to his dilemma concerning prayer.
“Nebil’s orientation highlights how self-trust of one’s experience serves as the fundamental basis upon which many people today ground their faith-commitment. In countless cases of people I have spoken to (as well as narratives that I have heard and read), it is personal experience that keeps people bound to religious commitment. In a world filled with religious doubt, personal experience reigns supreme in confirming one’s faith.”
To understand why people turn to personal experience in this way, we have to recognize how the process of modern secularization has increasingly relegated religion to a fundamentally individual matter. Religious truths are no longer embedded in the very fabric of the socio-political order as part of what structures reality. Religious belief cannot simply be taken for granted, but is instead inherently contested. In this context, belief becomes something that must be consciously affirmed and justified by every individual. In attempting to justify belief, people are increasingly compelled to rely on their own personal spiritual experiences and gut feelings, as well as the personal meaning and value that religious life has for them. People do of course present rational arguments for the truth of Islam; but in the face of the uncertainty that emerges from competing paradigms in the public sphere, it is individual experience that carries ultimate authority to affirm and justify faith.
“People do of course present rational arguments for the truth of Islam; but in the face of the uncertainty that emerges from competing paradigms in the public sphere, it is individual experience that carries ultimate authority to affirm and justify faith.In fact, even preachers attempting to guard the faith of Muslims are a product of this secularization.”
In fact, even preachers attempting to guard the faith of Muslims are a product of this secularization. Even those who emphasize the rationality of faith ultimately justify faith by appealing to the personal value and meaning that it has for people, and by insisting that one must personally experience faith to know its truth. These preachers consistently appeal to Muslims’ moral sensibilities, intuitions, and spiritual experiences as a way of justifying and confirming faith. In the face of secularized doubt, they emphasize the importance of individuals trusting their own experiences and instincts, in order to affirm faith in Islam. Therefore, even if rational argumentation in the public sphere cannot indisputably prove the validity of Islam, personal experience will vindicate faith.
By the same token, then, people in this context also increasingly turn to personal meaning and experience to negotiate specific religious teachings. In a context in which religion is structured as fundamentally a matter of individual belief, people will naturally rely on their own sense of personal meaning and experience to adjudicate religious controversies and doubts. If one must affirm the truth of Islam by appealing to personal experience and sensibilities, then that must apply to particular religious teachings as well. For if one were to discard those experiential sensibilities and instincts in fundamental ways, and simply “submit” to authority, then the general grounds upon which faith is validated will also be eroded. That, then, makes one’s faith as a whole increasingly questionable and tenuous.
“It is this dynamic of how religion is configured in a secularized public sphere that makes the authority of personal experience increasingly important in our world.”
It is this dynamic of how religion is configured in a secularized public sphere that makes the authority of personal experience increasingly important in our world. Yet, while religious authorities and preachers consistently appeal to personal experience and intuition in order to validate faith, they argue in other situations that individuals should disregard those same deeply-held intuitions if they conflict with orthodox doctrine. By expecting simple submission to authority, however, they fail to understand the conditions and pressures that make Muslims feel compelled to trust their experience and intuition. These dynamics around experience and authority must be better understood and attended to in any discussion on doubt and the “crisis of faith” in American Islam.
 At the end of this article, I will return to the idea of secularization and briefly address how I understand the relationship between secularization and belief. For a sample of some basic sociological analysis of these conditions and the place of “organized religion” in the contemporary United States, see: Casanova, “The Religious Situation in the United States”; Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion; Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s; Taylor, A Secular Age; and Ammerman, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Beyond Binary Choices in the Study of Religion.” For a quantitative overview, see Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends.
 This research was the basis of my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, titled, “Faith With Doubt: American Muslims, Secularity, and the ‘Crisis of Faith’”, as well as the book manuscript that I am currently working on.