My eldest son Shaan was riding the bus home from high school when a heated debate erupted in the seat in front of him. A believer — incidentally, not a Muslim — and an atheist were going at it, arguing about the existence of God. The atheist challenged the believer, insisting that now that science had explained almost all of the “mysteries of life”, God was irrelevant. The believer pushed back, making claims that God had created the world, then left it to its own devices (“Mother Nature” was mentioned), and then planned to return one day.
“Hey.” Shaan’s seat-mate nudged him. “Why don’t you say something?”
“Well, he’s a believer and so are you. Why don’t you help the guy out?”
“There’s no point in arguing,” Shaan told him. “They each have their own set of beliefs, and debating isn’t going to necessarily convince either one of them to change his mind and accept my point-of-view instead.”
When the believer exited the bus at the next stop, the atheist turned and faced Shaan and his friend. “Can you believe that guy? That was so lame! He couldn’t answer any of my questions! He couldn’t handle anything I threw at him. None of his logic made any sense; he was just talking in circles!”
Shaan didn’t say anything.
The guy paused and then continued, addressing him directly, “Hey, so what do YOU think about evolution and science? The last time I asked you some questions about your religion, you said some stuff that made me go, Do I even believe what I think I believe?'”
Shaan smiled. “I believe in evolution…up to a point. Anything that science can prove is acceptable to me. I don’t find that evolution is contradictory to God or proves Him wrong. If anything, I believe that whatever evolution we do witness is actually part of God’s Plan; He’s the One Who made it happen in the first place.”
“But,” Shaan continued, “I don’t think I’m evolved from monkeys and apes either. Micro-evolution is one thing, but it takes a real leap of faith to believe in macro-evolution. After all, there’s a reason it’s still called ‘the Theory of Evolution’ and not ‘the hard facts of evolution’. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I don’t look at monkeys and apes and find them to be noble, something I would be proud to be descended from. I believe I come from Adam and Eve — noble beings. We were created in Heaven, now we’re all here for a little while, and we’re all striving to eventually get back to where we originally came from.”
When Shaan recounted this conversation to his father and me, we were visibly impressed … and curious. “What had you said in the past that made the atheist kid doubt his own beliefs?”
“Oh, nothing much,” he shrugged. “I just told him, ‘If I were to believe what you believe, then I would have to accept that there is never going to be any justice. If a person rapes and murders and tortures and gets away with it, then that’s just his good luck. He never has to answer for any of it. And the person who was murdered and tortured and raped just has to deal. He just gets the bad luck. I can’t accept that.’ It was a simple conversation, but it seemed to really throw him for a loop.”
“It may seem simple to you, but those are actually pretty sophisticated responses,” I grinned. “Where did you learn to give answers like that off the top of your head?”
He seemed surprised by my question. “From Shaykh So-and-So and from Ustadh So-and-So … and from you guys.”
“Gee, thanks for throwing us in there too,” Zeeshan chuckled.
“No, seriously. All those aqeedah (Islamic creed) classes you took me to over the years have helped a lot. I still remember the day I decided I was Muslim – not because you two were Muslim or because my grandparents were Muslim – but because I wanted to be Muslim. That decision happened in one of those aqeedah classes. I’ll never forget it.”
Zeeshan and I reflected on how beneficial it was that we had chosen to take our boys to classes taught by dynamic, engaging teachers who didn’t shy away from answering tough questions articulately and intelligently. We never let our kids go sit in the Islamic Center’s babysitting room. We never let them entertain themselves with iPads and iPhones while we attended the talks. No comics, no coloring books to keep them busy. They sat by our sides with a journal and pencil in hand and were encouraged to write down (or draw) anything that they were able to glean from the lectures, anything that made sense to them, no matter how elementary or mundane. Over the years, it’s as if beads of knowledge have been dropping little by little – drip drip drip – into their buckets until they are finally flowing over, alhamdulillah (praise be to God). When their faith is challenged by doubters and questioners now, they actually have something to draw from. Even when it seemed liked nothing was going in at the time, evidence now is showing us that the sponges – our children – had been soaking in rivers of knowledge — despite the yawns and sleepy eyes — after all.
“You know, Mama,” Shaan reflected. “You always talked to me about drugs and alcohol and girls, but I’m not finding that those are the most common things I’m dealing with in high school.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised. “So what is coming up the most often?”
Without missing a beat, he said, “Atheism and pornography addiction.”
“Whoa. For real?”
“Yup. Along with weed, those are probably the three most common things I’m hearing about from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
Before our older two sons started high school (after eight years of homeschooling), Zeeshan and I would often test them by role-playing and throwing challenging questions about their religion at them to see how they would fare. Out of the blue, we would pepper them with FAQ’s – sometimes in a belligerent manner, other times in the tone of sincere inquiry. When they were stumped, we would talk about what would have been an appropriate response and why, complete with suggestions on how to hold one’s poise and what tone of voice and facial expression to adopt. The examples that follow are not theological answers per se but rather short answers to help a questioner see the bigger picture from a Muslim perspective; however, all of the responses have been vetted by Islamic scholars in order to ensure that we aren’t inadvertently contradicting what our faith teaches us.
If God’s so good, why’d He create evil?
So that you don’t wrap your arms around this world. So that you realize that this isn’t a perfect place. If there wasn’t evil in the world, then this world would be Paradise…and it isn’t. Paradise lies somewhere else and it’s going to take some work to get there. In order to show God what we’re really made of, we need to have a choice. We couldn’t choose good if we didn’t actually have the option to choose evil in the first place. In order to exercise free will, both good and evil have to exist…otherwise, what’s the challenge?
If I do good or evil in the world, it’s only for a moment. Then why do I get rewarded or punished eternally for something that happened only in a moment?
Your actions may have been temporary, but your intentions are infinite. We are judged on our intentions.
Why did God create suffering?
God isn’t going to be asked about anything He did or didn’t do. But we will be. The real question is what are we doing about the suffering we witness? There is no doubt in my mind that God is just and merciful; He allows suffering to exist for a broader divine wisdom. (We remind our sons about the beautiful story of Prophet Musa and his teacher Khidr – peace be upon them both – in relation to this point. Unfortunately, that particular story is too long to go into for the purposes of this article.) Rumi tells the story of an ant crawling on a large, intricate Persian carpet. From the ant’s perspective, it appears like the colors are changing so randomly and frequently that he wonders, “What was the Carpet Maker thinking?” There is wisdom in suffering and it requires faith to see that sometimes. We are all part of a much bigger plan. One day we will be shown the Grand Design and everything will finally make sense. Until then, I choose to trust in God and His Decisions for me, both the “fun” ones and the “not-so-fun” ones.
If you think God can do anything, why can’t you believe that He had a son and that He died on the cross?
Actually, I don’t believe that God can do “anything”. (wait for the shocked expression) I believe there are some things that are logically impossible for God. For example… It’s impossible for Him to make a square triangle. It’s impossible for Him to be less than perfect. It’s impossible for Him to depend on His creation (god-as-man needs water and oxygen, right?). It’s impossible for Him to die.
Where is God?
If you’re thinking about Him, then He’s with you. Because that is what God tells us about Himself. He’s closer to us than our jugular vein. He’s with His servant as long as his two lips are moving in remembrance of Him.
You don’t think God’s everywhere?
Nope. Because God created “everywhere” and “everywhere” is a concept of time and space, and God can’t be contained within anything He created.
I don’t believe in God.
Tell me about this God Whom you don’t believe in. It’s totally possible that I don’t believe in “him” either (lower case “h” is intentional).
Why would you follow a man like Muhammad who has done x, y, z (insert every horrible atrocity you can imagine somebody would accuse him — salallaahu alaihi wasallam – of)?
Only someone who doesn’t know him would ask a question like that. I feel sorry for the general public. It’s a crime that people are taught about historical characters like Napoleon and Hitler, yet they are encouraged to remain ignorant about one of the greatest men to ever walk this earth. If you knew him — really, really knew him — you would love him. Stop being a hater and find out the truth!
I could never be Muslim.
Hmm. (pretend to assess the person and shrug noncommitally) Maybe. But let’s talk again in a few months. It’s funny you say that because I already see x, y, and z qualities in you that actually remind me of what it means to be a Muslim.
Editor’s Note: Hina Khan-Mukhtar is a mother of three boys and one of the founders of the homeschooling co-operative known as ILM Tree in Lafayette, California, which now serves over 30 homeschooling families in the East Bay. In addition to teaching Language Arts to elementary, middle school, and high school students, she has written articles on parenting and spiritual traditions for children and is involved in interfaith dialogue. The views expressed here are her own.