19/06/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Faith, Fundamentalism, Fanaticism And A Casual Conversation

JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images
A Muslim takes part in a special morning prayer to start Eid-al-Fitr festival, marking the end of their holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland, on August 19, 2012. Muslims in the US joined millions of others around the world to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan with traditional day-long family festivities and feasting. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages)

Towards the end of my time in Egypt, I was engaged in a series of animated discussions with one of my students on the subject of religion and the role of faith in our lives. This young girl of 22, a devout, fundamental* Muslim was trying to get me to commit to Allah (PBUH).

(*Fundamental should not be confused with fanatic: A fundamentalist simply means someone who follow the fundamentals of something - in this case, religion. Thanks to western media, we now think a Muslim Fundamentalist and Terrorist are synonymous which is to put mildly, stupid. Instead, a Muslim or a Christian fundamentalist is simply someone who chooses to practice the religion strictly as per the Holy Qur'an or the Holy Bible respectively.)

I must also mention the focal point of our discussion was not getting me to commit to Islam, this wasn't some kid trying to tell me that her religion is better than mine or her God is real and mine's imaginary. No. This was a girl, who when found out that I was an atheist got so upset that she decided to do something about it.

The relevant back and forth was as follows:

Me: So now you're trying to convert me to Islam?

Her: I'm trying to get you to commit to something!

Me: You sound like my ex-girlfriends.

Her: You're using humour to get out of a difficult conversation I'm intent on having.

Me: OK. Lets make this real. Convince me. Why should I become a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or Pagan or whatever Tom Cruise is? I don't want to pray five times a day. Hell I don't want to pray at all. My whole problem with religion in general are these rules and regulations and people telling me what I can and cannot do. If I want to eat beef or pork I should be able to. If I want to drink or smoke I should be able to. And why should I keep asking God for things or tell him how awesome he is? I would rather go out into the world and take whatever the hell I want through determination and hard work.

(Please note that I was 26 and quite full of myself. I have since then, been humbled. Repeatedly.)

Her: Tanmay, Søren Kierkegaard said, "The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays." I don't want you to become a Muslim or become religious; what unsettles me is that there is absence of faith in your life and I really believe that faith is something that should be in everyone's life, because it is such a powerful tool that, if used properly, can help you get through the most difficult times in your life.

Have you had a eureka moment in your life? Well I had one. Right there.

It was at this point I realised I was speaking to someone considerably more evolved (and intelligent) than me and that I had no reasonable argument I could put forward in response to what she had just said.

So I did what I do best, I tried to use humour to get myself out of a spot.

Me: Well, if you can ask Allah (PBUH) to excuse me from the Ramadan fasting, I can consider embracing Islam.

Her (laughing): I'll be sure to ask Him but I doubt He'll agree.


I wanted to share this conversation because I have since learnt the benefits of having faith in life. I'm still religion agnostic but I do encourage people to believe if I think it will help them get through a difficult time in their life. I'm even happy to share my own life experiences with anyone who has a crisis of faith. I can't offer religious advice but I do think some of the things I have to say may help with coping.

And of course, having spent time with some incredible people in Egypt (you know who you are and you know I love you) and witnessed, first hand, their commitment during the Holy month of Ramadan, I wanted to send lots of strength and good wishes. Oh, and I have since found better use for humour: Let the hunger games begin!

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