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The Most High-Profile Apostate Yet

Now 25 years old, Zayn Malik was born and raised in a working-class household in Bradford, England, the son of a Pakistani Muslim father and an English mother who was an Islamic convert. When he was 17, he and four other singers who were competing on the British show The X Factor were teamed up into a boy band by Simon Cowell and another judge. The band, called One Direction, quickly became the biggest of international acts. What set Zayn apart was that he identified as a Muslim. Oh, and his sultry good looks. Harry Styles was boyishly handsome, but Zayn was sexy.

Depending on your point of view, this teen heartthrob was either good or bad PR for Islam. From one point of view, Zayn – who drank and smoked pot and had tattoos, all taboos under Islam – performed Islam a favor by making it seem mainstream; from another point of view, his conduct (except for his frequent bedding of non-Muslim women, i.e., infidel whores) profaned the faith.

After five years in One Direction, Zayn left the group in March 2015, saying he wanted to step out of the spotlight and lead a “normal” life. Instead he dropped his last name and set out on a successful solo career. Just now, I checked out his YouTube videos to find viewership stats that I could cite in order to illustrate his popularity. I noticed that one tune, “Dusk Till Dawn,” posted a year ago, had only 18 views. Well, that wasn't too impressive. Then I put on my glasses. It wasn't 18 – it was 1B, one billion.

Now, in the British edition of Vogue, Zayn has made an earth-shaking announcement. Describing him as “pop's handsomest prince” and noting that Zayn “is routinely touted as Britain’s most famous Muslim,” Giles Hattersley landed a scoop. Asking Zayn whether he considers himself a religious person, Hattersley received a reply that, since the article was posted on November 13, has gone around the world and spurred widespread, and highly varied, reactions. “To be honest, I’ve never spoken publicly about what my religious beliefs are. I’m not professed to be a Muslim,” Zayn said. Asked whether he would call himself a Muslim now, Zayn replied, “No, I wouldn’t....I believe whatever people’s religious beliefs are is between them and whoever or whatever they’re practising. For me, I have a spiritual belief of there is a god. Do I believe there’s a hell? No.” (By the way – no joke – Zayn originally planned to become an English teacher.)

The only reason that I know anything about Zayn is that the individual with whom I am domiciled is something of a One Direction aficionado. In 2013, the band released a ditty entitled “Story of My Life.” The video of the song shows each of the boys with his siblings, parents, and other relatives – except for Zayn, whose family is represented only by what appears to be a younger sister. My significant other wondered aloud at the time what this might mean about Zayn's relationship to his family or about their attitude toward his music career. There is, after all, according to many scholars of that faith, no room for music in Islam.

More from Zayn's Vogue chat: “I just want to keep it between me and whatever I believe,” he said, apropos of his spiritual identity. “I feel like that makes me move through life in a nice way. If I behave well, I will get treated well. That’s it. I don’t believe you need to eat a certain meat that’s been prayed over a certain way, I don’t believe you need to read a prayer in a certain language five times a day. I don’t believe any of it. I just believe if you’re a good person everything is going to go right for you.”

According to the Daily Mail, Zayn's frankness about his departure from Islam has caused a “backlash” from fans who say they're variously “disappointed” and “shocked” and “ashamed” of him for “mocking” the religion of his parents. (In fact he said nothing critical about Islam; he just declared that he's no longer a believer.) A sampling of tweets indicates that he's broken the hearts of Muslim devotees who considered him (as one of them put it) their “Muslim idol” but who now say they hate his guts.

For my part, I wonder whether Zayn knows that his apostasy alone is regarded by orthodox Islamic teaching as justification for the death penalty. It's certainly clear that many of Zayn's former votaries in the Muslim community are keenly aware of this theological tenet. As one of them tweeted:

Don't get me wrong I love zayn but honestly i'm so disappointed and shocked....Muslim people can't leave their religion it's not allowed . he did the wrong thing. god will absolutely make a special circle of hell for him I'm so sad:((

Yes, it's semi-literate, but you couldn't do a better job of summing up the nature of Islamic “love.”

Since Zayn has gazillions of listeners who hang on his every word, we can only hope that his apostasy and the responses to it by Muslim ex-fans will help enlighten low-information youth as to the true nature of the Religion of Peace. We can also hope for his safety and his continued courage. The worst – but, alas, most predictable – move at this point would be for him to take it all back, saying either that he had misspoken or been misquoted. Given that he's arguably Britain's – or maybe even the Western world's – most high-profile Muslim apostate yet, that would be quite a shame.