The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.—Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A spectre is haunting Islam: the spectre of atheism. The imams and mullahs are losing their grip over people throughout the Muslim world (they lost their own minds long ago). This is the topic of Ibn Warraq’s new book, Leaving the Allah Delusion Behind: Atheism and Freethought in Islam. In the final part of his exciting survey, Warraq details the extraordinary increase in both the Muslim world and the west of people born into the faith who have left it and now call themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and ex-Muslims. Witness, for example, the thousands who follow the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of groups championing freethought in Muslim countries from Turkey to Indonesia. Witness the many books and articles written by ex-Muslims, from the memoirs of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to theses on Islamic fascism by Hamed Abdel-Samad.
Warraq’s book provides the first comprehensive general survey of freethought and atheism in Islam in both history and the present. There were freethinkers from the earliest days of Islam—indeed, their existence is as old as humanity itself. In his introduction, Warraq takes a brief look at the evidence for unbelief in various other ancient cultures, including those of India and China, pointing out that such evidence undermines the strange view of the faithful that religion is somehow inherent in or natural to humanity. Adherence to religion has never been universal—there have always been many dissenters and irreligious people, demonstrating that scepticism and unbelief are not exclusively modern or western phenomena.
Warraq’s latest work provides a further demonstration of his in-depth knowledge of history and his erudition. He examines freethought and atheism in Islam from the faith’s earliest days, through Islam’s glorious medieval period, when art and science flourished, to the contemporary outpourings of anti-Islam scepticism.
Take, for example, the surprising case of the libertine Umayyad caliph Walid b. Yazid (709–744 CE). Like many a lecherous pope, al-Walid cared more for wine and women than for faith, as he writes: “Let God, the Angels and the righteous be witness: I love to sing, drink wine and nibble beautiful cheeks.” The caliph’s lifestyle was frowned upon: his killer and successor as caliph justified the assassination as a defence of religion against a depraved unbeliever. The killing of apostates was nothing new at that time, of course, and has since become routine.
Disbelief was not limited to cheek-nibbling caliphs, however. Warraq relays many cases of doubters from all strata of early Muslim society. My favourite is Abu Nuwas (762–early ninth century CE):
the great lyric poet whose twin passions were beautiful boys and wine. One day he entered a mosque drunk as ever, and when the imam recited verse 1 from Sura CIX, Al-Kafirun, The Disbelievers: “Say: O! You unbelievers …,” Abu Nuwas cried out, “Here I am!”
Nuwas narrowly avoided a grisly fate that time but, on another occasion, he ended up in prison for his views. Other poets challenged orthodoxy, too—most notably the great medieval Persian Omar Khayyam and the Syrian-born al-Ma’arri (973–1058 CE), whose audacious verses excoriate everything about Islam, from the Hajj to its clerics. In Dawkinsian vein, he writes of religious people that:
They live as their fathers and receive
By rote the same religion which they leave.
He means that people are religious because of their upbringing, not because they have reasoned themselves into faith. Al-Ma’arri was ecumenical in his lambasting of religion, however:
They all err—Muslims, Christians, Jews and Magians;
Two make Humanity’s universal sect:
One man intelligent without religion,
And one religious without intellect.
The prominence of lyricists among freethinkers recalls Baal’s description of poets in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
There was also the great Iranian physician al-Razi (865–925 CE), “perhaps the greatest freethinker in the whole of Islam.” Al-Razi’s humanism and championing of reason and empirical methods fit well with his Epicurean attitude to death and his fierce criticism of all forms of religious dogmatism. He viewed Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as frauds who contradicted themselves and each other and publicly stated that books of philosophy and science were superior in beauty and truth to the Quran.
During part of the Middle Ages, Islamic society was relatively multicultural and science and art flourished. But, in the end, in what Warraq calls “an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims,” orthodoxy won out and philosophy was for the most part excluded (the influential medieval Muslim writer al-Ghazali, who viewed philosophy as heretical, is probably the best representation of this shift- he has much to answer for). Nonetheless, as Warraq shows, Islamic freethought continued to exert an important influence thereafter.
In the book’s middle section, Warraq details how, through a complex chain of European philosophers and thinkers, the medieval Muslim Ibn Rushd’s philosophy came to inspire Spinoza, most notably through Ibn Rushd’s idea that philosophy and theology represent different but equally valid spheres of truth—which, taken to its logical endpoint by more radical thinkers, ends up with theology being demolished by and replaced with philosophy. If Warraq is correct and if the historian Jonathan Israel is right to state that Spinoza was the originator of radical Enlightenment modernity, then Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, is an even more influential figure in world history than previously thought. Add to this the fact that medieval Arab and Muslim freethinking literature influenced many Enlightenment infidels—medieval Muslim Bible criticism influenced the much later Biblical critics of Europe, for example—and we can say that rebellion against Islam helped Europe rebel against Christian orthodoxy. This was a multicultural, secular triumph:
Not for the first time, we are witness to Muslim mediation between the pre-Islamic world [i.e. ancient Greek philosophy] and Europe, in this case, in the form of Spinoza, on a subject that had far-reaching consequences for the development of the European Radical Enlightenment and in fact, eventually, for the whole world.
From ancient Greece to Islam to the Jewish heretic Spinoza’s inauguration of Enlightenment in Christian Europe—this is a much more beautiful form of multiculturalism than the version so common today, wherein faith and culture groups clamour for ever more exemptions from secular morality.
Warraq also looks at the modern freethinkers of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including such irreligious figures as Muhammad Ali Jinnah—whose Pakistan was once a reasonably secular society—and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the “bisexual, polyamorous, atheist” founder of secular Turkey (another country now in thrall to a recrudescent Islamism), as well as intellectuals such as the Egyptian Farag Foda, the French-Tunisian Lafif Lakhdar and the Iranian Ali Dashti.
But the most moving elements of the book are the stories of the everyday people, who have set up groups on social media to express their atheism in countries where they could be killed for holding such views. Important contemporary figures, such as Maryam Namazie, Sarah Haider and Armin Navabi, challenge religious orthodoxy, the western left’s betrayal of ex-Muslims and the Islamophobia canard. Then there are the anonymous testimonies of ex-Muslims related to Jimmy Bangash, the life coach who supports apostates through Yasmine Mohammed’s Free Hearts, Free Minds foundation. Many of these apostates have suffered mentally and physically because of the suppression of freethinking in intolerant religious societies.
Drawing on statistics and on his survey of global social media, Warraq makes a convincing case that atheism is on the rise in the Islamic world. Why should this be? Several reasons are suggested by Warraq and those he cites, but one common factor is that many ex-Muslims have studied the Quran for themselves and found it severely lacking in truth and beauty. They have also seen and experienced what religion has done to their societies—and many of them have denounced those societies as backwards, locked into barbarism by clerics and Islamic law. The young Syrian Omar Youssef Souleimane also dismisses the view that western colonialism is to blame for all the Islamic world’s ills: he reminds us that Islam was itself an imperial power and that the economic, political and social misery of many people—particularly women—in Islamic countries is directly linked to primitive religious codes that prevent the flourishing of the human spirit.
This disillusion among freethinkers, especially the young, at the deletrious effects of religious dogmatism on their societies is summed up by the title of the book’s conclusion: “The Allah that Failed.” Warraq also cites a formerly pious young Iraqi girl who grew up celebrating the destruction of 9/11 but, upon seeing the devastation wrought on her country by religious sectarians, said: “Now I hate Islam. Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army are spreading hatred. People are being killed for nothing … [The clerics] are making a society of nonbelievers.” The Arab Spring and more recent protests have shown that there is a gnawing hunger for change.
Almost all the ex-Muslim and atheist pages in Islamic countries contain quotations by famous atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking. This is another reason why non-belief is on the rise in these areas: New Atheism, so often derided as moribund by critics, is alive and well, and is inspiring thousands of people to liberate themselves from religious dogma. The Arabic translation of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, available for free on the Internet, has been downloaded more than ten million times. Warraq describes young people in theocracies who have smuggled New Atheist texts into their countries and found them exhilarating. Such books are samizdat texts in the Islamic world and the New Atheists have done more good for more people than almost all of those (often mediocre) critics put together. The Ideas Beyond Borders group, which seeks to promulgate knowledge in areas where access to scientific and philosophical material is severely lacking, is responsible for much of this spread of new ideas in the Islamic world.
Ibn Warraq has provided inspiration and ammunition to those extraordinary men and women who defy daily the slander and violence of faithful bigots—some of them in the west, where ostracism and even physical assault or murder is the sad fate of many apostates from Islam. Though I wholeheartedly support reformist Muslims, such as Irshad Manji, and believe in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s project for a Muslim Reformation, I think the best hope for the Muslim world lies in the hands of the freethinkers who are challenging religion tout court. Theirs is a moral, philosophical, social, economic and political struggle geared towards achieving liberty and their existence is a powerful reminder that freethought in Islam is still flourishing even amid the ruins created by backward clerics. Leaving the Allah Delusion Behind is both an excellent work of scholarship and an exciting affirmation of the importance of contemporary freethinking by a man who is himself a brave infidel who continues to write despite the threats of violence and death hurled at him by fanatics. All that remains to be said is: atheists of the world, unite!