Review of "Why I Am Not a Muslim"
[This review was originally published in the New Humanist, Bradlaugh House, 47 Theobald’s Road, London, England WC1X 8SP. Reproduced with permission.]
In one of his early works the traditionalist writer Frithjof Schuon makes an acute observation about the mentality of Muslims: `The intellectual – and thereby the rational – foundation of Islam results in the average Muslim having a curious tendency to believe that non-Muslims either know that Islam is the truth and reject it out of pure obstinacy, or else are simply ignorant of it and can be converted by elementary explanations; that anyone should be able to oppose Islam with a good conscience quite exceeds the Muslim’s powers of imagination, precisely because Islam coincides in his mind with the irresistible logic of things’. (Stations of Wisdom). How true this is will strike anyone who has tried to have a rational discussion on religion with a Muslim born of Muslim parents and raise d in a Muslim culture.
However, that this situation does admit exceptions is proved by the author of the book under review. Ibn Warraq was born into a Muslim family and grew up in a country that now describes itself as an Islamic republic. His earliest memories are of his circumcision and first day at Quran school, and his family still consider themselves Muslims. He, however, now considers himself a secular humanist who believes that: `all religions are sick men’s dreams, false – demonstrably false – and pernicious’.
Given such views, arrived at against such odds and expressed at such risk, the pusillanimous attitude of many Western intellectuals to the Rushdie affair is described with scorn:
The most infuriating and nauseating aspect of the Rushdie affair was the spate of articles and books written by Western apologists for Islam – journalists, scholars, fellow travellers, converts (some from communism) – who claimed to be speaking for Muslims. This is surely condescension of the worst kind, and it is untrue. Many courageous individuals from the Muslim world supported and continue to support Rushdie.
For Ibn Warraq support for Rushdie has to be seen as part of a larger war against the rise of `fundamentalist` Islam:
For those who regret not being alive in the 1930s to be able to show their commitment to a cause, there is, first, the Rushdie affair, and, second, the war that is taking place in Algeria, the Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, a war whose principal victims are Muslims, Muslim women, Muslim intellectuals, writers, ordinary decent people. This book is part of my war effort.
Considering the number of Muslims now resident in Western countries this is a war towards which no one, who values critical thought, free speech and democracy, can afford to be indifferent.
This is not simply a matter of `the demonisation of Islam’, but of simply and honestly looking facts in the face, something that Muslims and their supporters are notoriously incapable of doing. It can be predicted now that the main response of the Muslim community to this book will be to shout `Apostate’, accuse the author of every kind of moral degeneracy, and leave the facts and arguments he adduces completely unaddressed.
These facts and arguments concern the wholly human origin of the Quran, the wholly tendentious and invented character of the hadith, the sexually-obsessed and anti-feminine nature of the sharia, the Arab empire spread by the sword and maintained by terror, the persecution of religious and intellectual minorities in that empire in the name of Islam, the incapacity of Muslims for any kind of critical or self-critical thought, and the abject intellectual and moral poverty of Islam compared to the modern secular West.
The amazing thing is that it has taken so long for such a book to appear and that it has been left to a non-Westerner to write it, since the material for its assembly has been around for anything up to a century. The mealy-mouthed and apologetic character of so much Western scholarship on Islam springs from the fact that many of these scholars, were, and are, believers, albeit in the rival creed of Christianity. While they might be willing to show Muhammad in a poor light compared to Jesus, they were not keen to press the non-historical and non-divine arguments too far, since they realised that such arguments could just as well be used against their own cherished beliefs. They preferred a complicity of intellectual dishonesty with the Muslims in the face of an increasingly skeptical and secular environment.
Perhaps the most important thing demonstrated by Ibn Warraq is that Islam is fundamentalist by nature, and not by some peculiar and aberrant recent development. All Muslims, not just the fanatics, believe that every word of the Quran is quite literally the word of God, absolutely and unquestionably true for all times, places, and people, and practically the same goes for the hadith and the sharia. Anyone who wishes to argue that the fanatics’ interpretation of these elements is wrong and that a far more `liberal’ interpretation can be made and that that is the real Islam, have really only their own tastes and inclinations to support them. There is no Pope in Islam, nor any Councils with authority to impose a Creed. The fanatic who thinks that all unbelievers should be killed has just as much authority as the Sufi who thinks that all religions are true and that even atheists go to heaven. Both parties could adduce Quranic texts and hadith to support their positions, and both would be drawing, in their own minds, upon the immutable word of God. As Ibn Warraq observes: `Even if we concede that Muslim conservatives have interpreted the sharia in their own way, what gives us the right to say that their interpretation is the inauthentic one and that of the liberal Muslims, authentic? Who is going to decide what is authentic Islam?’
With regard to so-called liberal Islam this manifests in the West chiefly in the form of `Sufism or Islamic Mysticism’. the title of Chapter 12. Unfortunately, this is the shortest chapter in the book, a mere six pages, and has the appearance of an afterthought, since Sufism is only really dealt with in the first two pages and there inadequately. This is unfortunate because Sufism has been taken up by many Western intellectuals for whom real Islam is Sufism, and real Sufism is the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. This is in fact a ludicrous position, since it amounts to saying that real Islam is a minority view within a minority view, a view, moreover, that for most of the history of Islam has been suspected of heresy. What is needed with regard to Sufism is an in-depth critique of the metaphysics of Ibn Arabi as expounded in the works of such contemporary scholars as William Chittick and Michel Chodkiewicz, together with a sociological survey of the circus that surrounds such contemporary Sufis as Sheikh Nazim al-Qubrusi; but that would amount to another book.
Another important achievement of Ibn Warraq is that he explodes the myth of Islamic tolerance, a myth largely invented by Jews and Western freethinkers as a stick with which to beat the Catholic Church. Islam was never a religion of tolerance and it is not tolerant by nature. Despite the way the apologists would like to depict it, Islam was spread by the sword and has been maintained by the sword throughout its history, not to mention the scourge and the cross. In truth it was the Arab empire that was spread by the sword and it is as an Arab empire that Islam is maintained to this day in the form of a religion largely invented to hold that empire together and subdue native populations. An unmitigated cultural disaster parading as God’s will. Religious minorities were always second-class citizens in this empire and were only tolerated on sufferance and in abject deference to their Arab/Muslim masters; for polytheists and unbelievers there was no tolerance at all, it was conversion or death.
These repulsive characteristics are written into the Quran, the hadith and the sharia, and are an ineradicable feature of the religion. There is no way that Islam can reform itself and remain Islam, no way it can ever be made compatible with pluralism, free speech, critical thought and democracy. Anyone convinced they already possess the truth have no need for such things. Although Muslims resident in non-Muslim countries clamour for every kind of indulgence for their own beliefs and customs, there can be no doubt that given any kind of power they would impose their own beliefs and eliminate all difference. In short, as Ibn Warraq describes it in his Dedication, Islam is religious fascism, and it is only a feeble-minded political correctness that prevents it from being recognised as such.
Finally, we should note two further important points made by Ibn Warraq. First, that Islam never really encouraged science, if by science we mean `disinterested enquiry’. What Islam always meant by ‘ knowledge’ was religious knowledge, anything else was deemed dangerous to the faith. All the real science that occurred under Islam occurred despite the religion not because of it. Second, how indebted the Muslim world has always been to the West, not only to the Greeks in the beginning, but particularly in modern times in knowledge of its own intellectual and cultural history.
These unpalatable, half realised home truths are manifest in the contemporary Muslim world in the form of a massive resentment and inferiority complex:
It is a depressing fact that during the Gulf War almost every single Muslim and Arab intellectual sympathized with Saddam Hussein, because, we are told, `he stood up to the West’. In this explanation is summed up all sense of Islamic failure, and feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the West. The Muslim world must be in a dire way if it sees hope in a tyrant who has murdered literally thousands of his own countrymen.
Indeed, and a Westerner can hardly imagine the courage it must take for Ibn Warraq to say as much.
The problem with a book such as this is that it will most likely never reach those most in need of it. That is to say young people in general and young Muslims in particular, those whose minds have not already been closed by fanaticism. How many libraries will stock it, or dare to stock it if they knew its contents? A hardback at over twenty pounds, published by an American publisher, is not likely to find its way on to high-street book shelves alongside all those uncritical, paperback apologies for Islam that seem to be appearing in ever increasing numbers. What is needed is more books like Ibn Warraq’s, published by British publishers, at reasonable prices and with good distribution. But dare they do it?
A minor fault that could be corrected in future editions is that several important books and authors mentioned in text and notes fail to appear in the bibliography.
Hadith. A tradition of the sayings or practice of the Prophet. One of the main sources of Islamic law.
Sharia. Islamic law consisting of the teachings of the Quran, the sunna of the prophet which is incorporated in the recognized traditions; the consensus of the scholars of the orthodox community; the method of reasoning by analogy.
Sunna. Properly, a custom or practice, and later narrowed down to the practice of the Prophet or a tradition recording the same.