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Al-Salem '17: On religion and intellectualism

Freshman fall, I took a class called RELS 0055: “Modern Problems of Belief” that questioned why many believe one cannot be both modern and religious. While the class only focused on white male philosophers and never touched on Islam at all, it did enlighten my world with one special reading: “Fear and Trembling” by Søren Kierkegaard. This reading taught me how to articulate the belief that faith is in fact the most difficult thing to tap into “by virtue of the absurd.”

Coming from a background where religion wasn’t questioned theoretically or philosophically, but only taught as hard, cold facts, taking this class was a huge step for me. I remember one friend from high school refused to take the class because she was nervous it would shake her core beliefs. At the time, I found this understandable, albeit kind of cowardly. The idea that religion should not be questioned or engaged with never sat well with me. I wanted to believe in religion by tackling all the doubts that could possibly shake it, not simply because I was raised within the religion.

I knew that if I had discovered Islam wasn’t for me and had ended up looking to align myself with a new belief system, it would have been agnosticism. I have always felt there is something very self-absorbed about believing confidently that there is absolutely nothing out there in the universe. I am someone who believes that anything that could exist might exist — I am only a human, after all. I believe in the potential for alternate universes, aliens, other life forms, what have you — which I know may set me up as an unreliable, nonsensical individual, but that is what offends me about the human rationale. Our minds are only capable of so much that it seems insane to me to think we are the only people in this universe — it is so much easier to believe in what can be seen than to believe in what cannot be seen.

But I found, through my own research and discovery, that I did believe in one thing confidently: There was something out there looking out for me. For me, that something would take the shape and form of God — something Islam does not define in a concrete way, which I valued. I do not want to go into the minute details of how and why I chose to fully associate myself with Islam, as it is not the issue of which religion I chose that matters, but rather the affiliation of being unintelligent if religious. Why, especially at college and within intellectual circles, am I considered less intelligent for believing in a higher power?

For me, my intellect and my faith are complementary: My faith does not limit my intellect. In fact, my faith pushed my intellect, pushed me to explore and question and discover more than I would have otherwise. Religion tests reason to its full capacity — it stands to make one question not whether there is a God, but why said God commanded this or that. I have always treated religion as my own personal interpretation of what to do with the absurdity that is being alive. This is why I have always treated religion as an individual-based experience, a big metaphor that can only be interpreted the way “you” understand it. This agency in my faith, coupled with validation of the unknown and beyond, inspires my intellect instead of operating in spite of it. 

Most people won’t immediately admit out loud that they consider religious people to be less intellectually equipped than non-religious counterparts, but it is inherent in discussions around religion. For example, within that freshman year course, during section many students spoke about believing in God as a child as if it were equivalent to believing in Santa Claus. There was this implicit superiority that pervaded the conversation, and while freshman year Sara was too shy to face it head on, I’d like to state clearly now: You are not more “modern” and “intelligent” than those who believe in something greater than themselves. You are just self-righteous and offensive.

Some will argue vehemently that religion has brought nothing but pain and sorrow to the world. To them I will say this: Humans are terrible; religion is not. If the world’s history had been different and there wasn’t religion to rally around and kill for, there would be something else. Humans will fight over money, over power, over anything — religion is not the reason for human depravity; it is just its scapegoat.   

For those who position themselves on a higher pedestal than religious individuals: You are also succumbing to a Westernized idea of modernity. In Lara Deeb’s excellent ethnography, “An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon,” she writes about how “the West is positioned at the center of a universal modernity” with which the rest of the world is meant to align itself. The Muslims within her ethnography cleverly bit back with their assertion that their “modernness” is not empty, but enchanted — an increased modernization that comes with an increased piety that is both more deeply felt and more deeply understood. There is an agency in faith that is erased by those who talk about religion as though it is for the blind to lead the blind.

I want to end on this point. Everyone has the right to believe in whatever they want — whether that is a belief in faith or a belief in no god. But, in the fantastic and more articulate words of Kierkegaard, “what every man has not a right to do, is to make others believe that faith is something lowly, or that it is an easy thing, whereas it is the greatest and the hardest.”

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at

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