The Despair of Doubt and the Light of Faith

By Ismail Royer

This essay was written in about 2007 in the Communications Management Unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. 

Some of the writings of the late Mother Theresa were recently published wherein it was revealed that for years she suffered from doubts and estrangement from God.

Some popular writers, advocates of atheism, were filled with joy at the news: if a champion of faith was secretly a doubter, they said, then the faith of the masses is yet more tenuous. I, a Muslim, am tempted to blame Mother Theresa’s crisis on her worship of the Messiah along with God. Had she worshiped God alone, I would like to argue, she would have been fulfilled.

Both reactions miss something about the nature of belief. The truth is that people of all religions report vicissitudes of faith. It is further true that distance from God is painless for the one whose heart is dead: but for the one whose heart is as sensitive as an open wound, for the soul who never recovered from its separation from its Maker, doubt and distance from God is the source of horror and anguish.

Indeed, it is this same despair, this merciful despair, that first wracked the soul as it masqueraded with the ignorant and heedless, as it tried to get by, tried to convince itself that it was like everyone else, while it knew something was wrong. It was this same despair that impelled it to ask itself, “Is this really me?”, to answer honestly that it was not, and then to seek its way home to God.

So while doubt and estrangement from God are not things to be desired, they are signs of life in the heart. They are also part of our nature. The Qur’an speaks of Abraham, Moses, and then Disciples of Jesus seeking of God signs from heaven – not because they did not believe, but because they wanted comfort for their hearts. When the Prophet Muhammad first received the revelation, he doubted his sanity, and his Lord, and his wife comforted him. The Companions of the Prophet complained of whispers of doubt that came to them, and he prescribed words of remembrance that would restore certainty to their hearts. 

The one who views this aspect of faith as proof that faith is a delusion does not know what faith is. The purpose of our existence is to struggle to penetrate the physical world that distracts and blinds us, to discover the truth, a truth confirmed by signs from without and intuitions from within but a truth nevertheless unseen. The worshiper stumbles because the struggle is hard and there can be no complete victory in this life, not because, as the skeptic imagines, there is no underlying unseen truth.

As to recovering from these stumbles, “Truly in the remembrance of God the hearts find comfort.” And in a beautiful passage: “Verily in the creation of the heavens and earth and the alteration of night and day there are indeed signs for men of understanding, Those who remember God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the Creation in the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord! You did not create all this to no purpose! Exalted be you! Give us salvation from the penalty of the fire!’”

And the Prophet said to his Companions about these verses: “Woe to the one who reads it and does not contemplate on it.”

The reality further comes clear when on reflects on what the skeptics ask us to believe in the alternatives: that there is no soul, that life and the universe have no meaning, that there is no purpose. This is the creed of the living dead.

In reality, a man or woman with insight and awareness knows with an impervious surety that he has an immortal soul, that life has meaning, that there is a purpose. It is on this unshakable foundation that his faith is based, a home to which he may always return. It is not our belief, it is our being.

And further searching within himself and in the creation he will know that God is one, the merciful and all powerful sustainer. He will become aware of his desire to draw nearer to God, and he will realize he needs guidance to do so. God in His mercy must have put this guidance on earth where we could find it; the matter could not be otherwise. “We will show them Our signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth) and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth.”

And the believer should not let the behavior and stupidity of his supposed fellow believers or others discourage him. This is because reality is completely unaffected by the failure of others, even your own failure, to grasp it. The earth was round even when most of humanity thought it was flat. Likewise, God’s oneness and lordship are not diminished even if Arabs are building islands shaped like palm trees or Iraqis are killing each other, or if no one understands you.

So if something in Mother Theresa’s plight sounds familiar, then know your heart is alive, and that your soul seeks God. Find Him in contemplation of His creation and yourself. Rediscover and rebuild your faith, brick by brick, certain knowledge upon certain knowledge, and seek comfort in prayer, for, as ibn Taymiyya wrote, “There is no tranquility in this world except in remembrance of Him.”

2 thoughts on “The Despair of Doubt and the Light of Faith

  1. When I was an atheist no religious person in my life was okay it. So when I became muslim I assumed they would be happy for me. One friend told that Allah was not god. Another friend warned me about joining ISIS and all muslim men being abusive. After I had been muslim for a while I had a bit of a crisis of faith and started to doubt if I could live as a muslim. Don’t really want to go into details about what caused this but I was surprised to find that many of the friends I still had were happy about this and encouraged me to leave. When I realized I couldn’t live without Allah and had to start practising again none of them were happy for me. This helped me realize who I should take as friends and who I shouldn’t. To know that Allah exists but not want to follow his guidance was one of the worst feelings in the world and for someone to have been happy about such a difficult stage for me is unbelievable.

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