Arabs Without God: Chapter 2

By Brian Whitaker

Chapter 2: Atheism in Arab history

THE ARABIC language has no exact equivalent of the English word “atheist”. While “atheist” is derived from ancient Greek (a- meaning “without”, theos meaning “god”) and clearly refers to non-belief in God or gods, the Arabic terms normally used today – mulhid for atheist and ilhad for atheism – have broader connotations of deviant belief. Mulhid certainly includes atheists but has also been applied to other kinds of dissenters such as apostates and heretics. This causes some difficulties when considering the history of Arab atheism but it also suggests that Arab critiques of religion in the past were not simply about belief or disbelief in God.

Historically, fear of atheists seems to have far exceeded their actual numbers. Though identifiable atheists in Islamic history are rather scarce, there are lots of polemical treatises in Arabic attacking unnamed people who deny God’s existence. The earliest surviving work of this kind is thought to be Radd ‘ala al-Mulhid (“Reply to the Heretic”) by al-Qasim bin Ibrahim, a Zaydi theologian of the ninth century CE. Al-Qasim was so anxious to keep Muslims on the straight path that he wrote two more books on the same subject – The Small Book of Proof and The Great Book of Proof – advising readers “what to answer the heretics and unbelievers when they ask for a proof of the existence of God”.

In her book, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam, Sarah Stroumsa writes:

One would naturally be inclined to infer from these facts that the “heretics and unbelievers” intended by al-Qasim were people who denied, or at least questioned, the existence of God, and that al-Qasim was concerned about the persuasive power of such contemporaneous atheists ...

Nevertheless, in the discussions of God’s existence the actual opponents are not identified as individuals. As a group, they are sometimes referred to as heretics, unbelievers, materialists, or sceptics. These designations often appear together, and they do not always seem to be clearly distinguished in the authors’ mind ...

And yet we can search these texts in vain for a specific contemporaneous individual accused of denying the existence of God … The atheists themselves always remain faceless and nameless. When a name does appear, it is always that of a person accused of some specific heretical doctrine which, the theologians say, is as bad as atheism or may lead to atheism – never of somebody the core of whose heresy is actually identified as atheism.[i]

Although freethinkers certainly existed in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages, Stroumsa questions whether any of them can accurately be described as atheists. The most plausible explanation is that freethinkers of the time had different priorities. Science had not yet begun to provide alternative ideas about the origins of the universe or the development of species so there was less reason to dispute the existence of a divine Creator. At the time, it was far more relevant to dispute the authenticity of prophets and divine revelation – which the freethinkers certainly did.

The shahada, the declaration of faith which all Muslims recite, contains two essential elements: an uncompromising rejection of polytheism (“There is no god but God”) and an assertion that “Muhammad is the Messenger of God”. Muhammad, though not the only prophet in Islam, is regarded as the last of the prophets, delivering God’s final message to humanity. Islam also recognises the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, including Jesus, and the Qur’an says repeatedly that every nation or people has had its own prophet.[ii] Muhammad, on the other hand, is not recognised as a prophet by Christians and Jews.

Amid contested claims of prophethood, distinguishing between “true” and “false” prophets by examining their credentials thus became an important matter for those of a religious inclination, and no less so for others who declared that all prophets were false. Stroumsa writes:

In their effort to discredit the notion of prophecy, the freethinkers proceeded in several directions. On the theoretical front, they attempted to show the implausibility of the very notion of prophecy. On the polemical front, they endeavoured to show that throughout history, people who claimed to be prophets were in fact manipulative tricksters and impostors.

Far more than Judaism and Christianity, Islam defines itself around the concept of prophecy and, according to Stroumsa, the appearance of freethinkers who rejected prophecy demonstrates its central position in Islamic thought.

Two notable figures assigned the mulhid label in the ninth and tenth centuries were Ibn al-Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi. Both were Persian, though Rawandi spent some time in Baghdad, and both men were very different in character. Rawandi seems to have relished being scandalous while Razi was a respected scholar. The twentieth-century Egyptian existentialist philosopher Abd al-Rahman Badawi summarised their views as “anti-prophetic rationalism”. Their shared premise, he said, was that reason (or intellect) is sufficient on its own for the knowledge of good and evil, so there is no need for sending divine messengers.[iii]

Arabs Without God is available in paperback from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). It is also available in Arabic (online, free of charge) and in Italian under the title Arabi Senza Dio.

Rawandi reportedly described the Qur’an as “the speech of an unwise being” and is said to have denounced the miracles of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad as fraudulent tricks. Razi’s critiques of prophecy and revelation have been lost but it is known from the titles of his books that he wrote about “impostors of prophecy” and “the refutation of religions”. Although Razi’s main focus was Islam, he also attacked Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheanism and appears to have argued that God – if He were truly wise – would not have singled out some people as prophets, given them influence over others and then incited their followers to fight each other.

Razi does seem to have believed in a wise and compassionate God but his quarrel was with prophecy and “revealed” religions, and the bigotry and authoritarianism that can result from them. A wise God, in his view, would have gone about things in a different way. Razi is quoted as saying:

The most fitting [behaviour] for the wisdom of the Wise One and the compassion of the Compassionate One [i.e. God] is that He should inspire all His servants with the knowledge of whatever is beneficial or detrimental to them, in this world and the next. He should not set some individuals over others, and there should be between them neither rivalry nor disagreement which would bring them to perdition …

The followers of revealed religions have learned their religion by following the authority of their leaders. They reject rational speculation and inquiry about the fundamental doctrines [of religion]. They restrict and forbid it. They transmit traditions in the name of their leaders, which oblige them to refrain from speculation on religious matters, and declare that anyone who contradicts the traditions they transmit must be branded an infidel.[iv]

One remarkable freethinker during the Abbasid caliphate was the blind poet Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (973-1057CE). “His poems,” R A Nicholson writes, “leave no aspect of the age untouched, and present a vivid picture of degeneracy and corruption, in which tyrannous rulers, venal judges, hypocritical and unscrupulous theologians, swindling astrologers, roving swarms of dervishes and godless Carmathians occupy a prominent place.”[v]

Ma’arri was a sort of monotheist though his monotheism, as Nicholson notes, seems to have been little more than “a conviction that all things are governed by inexorable Fate, whose mysteries none may fathom and from whose omnipotence there is no escape”. Ma’arri was born in Syria, near Aleppo, but his ideas were strongly influenced by spending a year and a half in Baghdad which, despite being the capital of Islam at the time, “thronged with travellers and merchants from all parts of the East, harbouring followers of every creed and sect – Christians and Jews, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, Sabians and Sufis, materialists and rationalists”.[vi]

Returning to his home town in Syria, Ma’arri adopted an ascetic lifestyle which included vegetarianism and sexual abstinence. Rejecting the idea of resurrection, he regarded death as deliverance from the miseries of life – which led him also to reject marriage and procreation. He is said to have proposed the following epitaph for his grave:

This wrong was by my father done
To me, but ne’er by me to one. [vii]

Ma’arri’s views were clearly heretical, as a few samples of his verses illustrate:

Hanifs are stumbling, Christians all astray,
Jews wildered, Magians far on error’s way.
We mortals are composed of two great schools –
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.

Here, he mocks the pilgrimage to Mecca where the faithful are required to walk seven times around the kaaba:

Praise God and pray,
Walk seventy times, not seven, the Temple around
And impious remain!
Devout is he alone who, when he may
Feast his desires, is found
With courage to abstain.

Elsewhere, he says:

Falsehood hath so corrupted the world
The wrangling sects each other’s gospel chide.

And …

Of all the godly doctrine that I from the pulpit heard
My heart has never accepted so much as a single word

Negative as this was, Ma’arri also had a more positive side, advocating rationalism and the pursuit of truth as a moral guide:

Take Reason for thy guide and do what she
Approves, the best of counsellors in sooth.
Accept no law the Pentateuch lays down:
Not there is what thou seekest – the plain truth.

Ma’arri is perhaps fortunate to have lived when he did. Had he been writing today and posting his verses on Facebook he would surely have found himself in trouble – either from the authorities or from enraged Islamists. Besides parodying the Qur’an, he also wrote Risalat al-Ghufran (“Letter of Forgiveness”) portraying heaven as a kind of Bohemian literary salon. This particular work also gives a clue as to how he deflected critics: it included an attack on freethinkers while expressing a hope that they were not as bad as they appeared. Nicholson comments that Ma’arri, “like so many wise men of the East”, practised dissimulation as a fine art:[viii]

I lift my voice to utter lies absurd
But when I speak the truth, my hushed tones scarce are heard.

Ma’arri ended his days as a highly respected figure, at least in his Syrian home town. A Persian poet who visited him when he was in his seventies described him as “the chief man in the town, very rich, revered by the inhabitants and surrounded by more than two hundred students who came from all parts to attend his lectures on literature and poetry.”[ix]

A near-contemporary of Ma’arri was Omar Khayyam, the astronomer and mathematician, born in 1048. Khayyam was of Persian rather than Arab ethnicity but his name is as well-known in the Arab countries as it is in the west and he is often cited by Arab atheists. Though noted as a scientist during his lifetime, today he is mostly associated with the Rubaiyat, a collection verses that celebrate the pleasures of wine and sometimes mock religious belief:

Look not above, there is no answer there
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.

* * *

And do you think that unto such as you;
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
God gave the secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that, too.

* * *

Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus –
Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink![x]

Because of irreverent verses such as these, Omar Khayyam has acquired the reputation (probably wrongly) of being an atheist. He thus became one of 45 “non-believers” – ranging from the Roman poet Lucretius to the present-day activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali – featured by the late Christopher Hitchens in his book, The Portable Atheist. Hitchens said of him: “Khayyam clearly doubted that god had revealed himself to some men and not to others, especially in light of the very obvious fact that those who claimed to interpret the revelation were fond of using their claim in order to acquire and wield power over others in this world. He was not the first to notice this aspect of religion, but he was among the wittiest.”[xi]

There are several problems, however. Khayyam’s actual religious views are a matter of considerable scholarly dispute: some regard him as a mystic or a Sufi rather than an atheist. It is also unclear how many – if any – of the famous quatrains (four-line stanzas) in the Rubaiyat were really the work of Khayyam. In his book, In Search of Omar Khayyam, Ali Dashti explains:

The inescapable facts are: that contemporary writers who knew Khayyam do not speak of him as a poet and certainly quote none of his verse; that during the two centuries following his death a small number of quatrains begin to make their appearance in a variety of biographical, theological and historical works, to a total of some sixty by the middle of the fourteenth century; and that thereafter the figures increase steadily until by the seventeenth century we find ourselves confronted with collections ranging from 500 to 1,000, many of which can be instantly dismissed on linguistic and other grounds.[xii]

The celebrated nineteenth-century English “translation” of the Rubaiyat by Edward Fitzgerald also needs to be treated with caution. Taking the Persian verses as inspiration, Fitzgerald reorganised them to create an imaginary day in Khayyam’s life in order to compose what Dashti describes as “an entirely independent masterpiece”. In the process, Fitzgerald employed free translation and paraphrase, to the extent that it is difficult to identify the Persian source for some of his lines.

Regardless of who wrote the original verses, though, they are still of historical interest since they undoubtedly reflect ideas that were in circulation and regarded as legitimate poetic themes at the time. That is not necessarily the case today. In 2013, Fazil Say, a renowned Turkish composer and pianist who is also an atheist, was given a suspended jail sentence after being convicted of blasphemy and “inciting hatred” in a series of tweets which included lines attributed to Omar Khayyam:[xiii]

You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you?

You say two huris [companions] await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?

Arab atheism since the nineteenth century

FORMS of ilhad that were more clearly recognisable as atheism began to emerge in the Islamic world in the nineteenth century. Samuli Schielke writes:

From the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on, a new wave of anti-religious dissent, this time explicitly including atheism, has gained currency in different parts of the Islamic world. While early Islamic ilhad grew in the heartlands of a thriving empire, the second coming of ilhad/atheism in the Islamic world took place under the very different conditions of European imperial expansion that cast serious doubts upon established traditions of knowledge, social organisation, and religion.

First freethinking and anticlerical circles emerged in Iran, India, the Ottoman Empire, and among Muslims in Russia during the second half of the nineteenth century – notably carried by both Christian and Muslim Arabs in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In this time, tendencies of anti-clerical and anti-religious nationalism emerged within the wider framework of secularist modernism.[xiv]

Although much of this can be attributed to foreign influences during the colonial period, Schielke cites evidence from nineteenth-century Iran to suggest that “contemporary Muslim atheism is not simply an adaptation of western atheism, but also draws upon indigenous heretic traditions”.

The most notorious Egyptian atheist of the 1930s was Ismail Adham, a writer and literary critic from Alexandria. In 1936 he wrote a book disputing the authenticity and the historical reliability of the hadith (the reported sayings and deeds of the Prophet) and sent a hundred free copies to the religious scholars at al-Azhar, the ancient centre of Islamic learning in Cairo. This infuriated the Rector of al-Azhar, Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi, who complained to the interior ministry and within a few days Adham’s book was banned. A year later Adham produced an even more contentious work, Limadha ana Mulhid? (“Why am I an Atheist?”) which generated some heated responses from religious believers.

Quoting Adham’s polemic, Schielke says it was exemplary in the way he presented science (physics, mathematics, and evolution theory in particular) as the new faith that replaces religious belief:

I left religions, and abandoned all [religious] beliefs, and put my faith in science and scientific logic alone. To my great surprise and amazement, I found myself happier and more confident than I had been when I had struggled with myself in the attempt to maintain my religious belief.

It emerged later, though, that Adham was not only an atheist but something of a fantasist. Perhaps fearing that his work would not be taken seriously without heavyweight academic qualifications, he had assembled an impressive but fictitious list of credentials which appeared on the cover of one of his books when he was still only 25 years old:

D.Litt. (Hon), Ph.D., Sc.D. (Moscow), Vice-President of the Russian Soviet Institute for Islamic Studies, Member of the Russian Soviet Academy for Science, formerly Professor of High Mathematics, University of St. Petersburg, Professor of Islamic History at the College of History, Stamboul.

Adham also claimed to have written a biography of the Prophet (in German), a three-volume history of Islam (in Turkish), two volumes on mathematics and physics (in German and Russian) and three volumes on the theory of relativity (also in German and Russian).[xv] It was not until 1972 that the reality of these claims became clear when an article for the Journal of Arabic Literature revealed:

Adham never got any doctorate, never became a member of the Academy of Sciences, never published one book or article in either Russian, French or German, never wrote his two-volume work in Turkish, entitled Islam Tarihi, never made friends with the Russian Orientalist Barthold, who had already died in 1930, one year before Adham claims to have gone to Russia, and never met with favourable criticism from the Russian Orientalist Kazimirsky, because there was no such person …[xvi]

It has been suggested that Adham may never have travelled beyond Egypt. In 1940, at the age of 29, he was found dead in the sea off Gleem Beach in Alexandria with a suicide note pinned inside his pocket.

Abd al-Rahman Badawi (1917-2002), an Egyptian who also taught at universities in Libya and Kuwait, is regarded as the first existentialist Arab philosopher and is particularly remembered for his book, Min Tarikh al-Ilhad fi al-Islam (“A History of Atheism in Islam”), which was written in the 1940s and is still read today. Badawi’s views were complex, however, and in his later years he defended both the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed against attacks by Orientalists.[xvii]

Abdullah al-Qasimi (1907-1996) has been described – rather inappropriately – as the “godfather” of Gulf atheism and one of his most famous statements, that “the occupation of our brains by gods is the worst form of occupation,” is still quoted by Arab atheists today. Born into a conservative family in the Nejd region of what is now Saudi Arabia, Qasimi started off as a fairly typical – and by some accounts excellent – Saudi religious scholar before turning to atheism. During his religious phase he was even likened to Ibn Taymiyyah, the thirteenth-century theologian who is much admired by Islamists, and at one point he was expelled from al-Azhar University in Cairo for his Salafist views.[xviii]

A note posted on the Islamic Awakening website by someone who is clearly not an admirer describes Qasimi’s loss of faith:

He jumped into books of philosophy and a few years later, wrote some weird modernist books. When the Saudi shuyukh tried to shut him up, he complained to Sheikh Sayyid Qutb [a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Nasser in 1966]. Qutb at first defended Qasimi’s right to speak, but when Qasimi sent Qutb a copy of his (Qasimi’s) new books and articles, Qutb freaked and accused Qasimi – rightfully – of trying to destroy Islam.

Qasimi bailed and I know at least one of his sons apostated with him, and he lived in Egypt. He tried to form an atheist political movement there, but Gamal Abdel Nasser found it to be too far and Qasimi was jailed, more than once I believe.

He spent some time in Lebanon where he was involved with the Literary Society and they treated him like a VIP. Eventually, Sheikh Ibn Aqil al-Zahiri who himself is/was a man of many specialties met Qasimi in Garden City [in Cairo]. They argued back and forth into the night ...

Basically, Qasimi was verbally copy-pasting from Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, and when Sheikh Ibn Aqil would quote the kuffar’s own secular philosophers ripping those guys up, Qasimi would just change the subject. Basically he would make accusations regarding the existence of Allah based verbatim on the books of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers, and any time Sheikh Ibn Aqil brought the hammer down on him Qasimi would just look for another topic where he could possibly make a point.

The writer adds:

He was an arrogant beast the entire time and unrepentant to the very end. He died from cancer in Cairo in a death which one hopes was long and slow.[xix]

Debating the role of religion

WHILE it’s worth noting the existence of atheist writers like Qasimi and Adham who were able to express their views in print, Arab debate about religion from the mid-nineteenth century onwards has generally been less concerned with the existence of God than with questions about the role of religion in society and politics. To understand the reasons for this it is necessary to look at the historical background – the decline of the Ottoman Empire, European domination, the rise of nationalism and eventual independence. Europe, in particular, became a source of both wonderment and alarm: it was seen “not only as an adversary but also as a challenge, and in some ways an attractive one,” historian Albert Hourani writes.

The power and greatness of Europe, modern science and technology, the political institutions of the European states, and the social morality of modern societies were all favourite themes [of Arab writers]. Such writing raised a fundamental problem: how could Arab Muslims, and how could the Ottoman Muslim state, acquire the strength to confront Europe and become part of the modern world?”[xx]

Some of the earliest attempts to answer these questions have a familiar ring, even today. For example, the Tunisian reformist Khayr al-Din, who died in 1889, warned Muslims against rejecting “what is praiseworthy” in other religions “simply because they have the idea fixed in their minds that all the acts and institutions of those who are not Muslims should be avoided”.[xxi] To a lesser extent, Arab Christians in Lebanon and Syria faced challenges from Europe too:

The power of the hierarchies of the churches, recognised and supported by the state, could be an obstacle to their thinking and expressing themselves as they please. Some of them moved in the direction of secularism, or of Protestantism, which was as near as they could go to secularism in a society where identity was expressed in terms of membership of a religious community”. [xxii]

Among Muslims, opinion was divided between those who saw Islam as part of the problem, thus seeking to diminish its role, and others who sought to rejuvenate it and make it part of the solution. In the latter camp, two prominent figures of the nineteenth century were Jamal Eddin al-Afghani (1839-97) and Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905).

Afghani, who was probably of Persian origin, tried to resolve the question of how Muslims could live in the modern world while remaining true to themselves, and did so by proposing what Halim Barakat describes as “two seemingly contradictory courses of action: a return to the original sources of Islam and the adoption of liberal European ideas and institutions, including western sciences, constitutional rule, communal unity, elections, and national representation”.[xxiii] Despite his enthusiasm for science, however, he was highly critical of Darwinism. Afghani’s protégé, Muhammad Abdu, developed his ideas further, seeking to draw a distinction between the fundamental tenets of Islam, which he saw as constant and unchanging, and Muslim laws and customs which could be adapted (within limits) to changing circumstances.

The same period also brought the first murmurings of Arab nationalism, initially in response to the decline of the Ottoman Empire but later, increasingly, in opposition to western imperialism. Besides encouraging a heightened sense of Arab (as opposed to Muslim) identity, nationalism inevitably raised questions about possible forms of self-government, including the question of what part – if any – religion should play in that.

Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849-1902) was one of the first Arabs of modern times to argue for a separation of the state from religion, advocating secular, nationalist government based on the principles of democracy, socialism, scientific thinking and tolerance. He viewed socialism as the way to overcome despotism and accused religious traditionalists of attempting “to reinforce their authority over the simple-minded believers” by using religion as “an instrument of disunity” for the purpose of spreading the “spirit of submissiveness and compliance.”[xxiv]

In 1924, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the fiercely secularist founder of modern Turkey, formally abolished the Islamic caliphate. Established in the first few days after the death of the Prophet, the caliphate had survived in various forms and locations before being claimed in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman sultans. Its abolition by Atatürk prompted moves to revive it elsewhere, though there were some who thought Muslims were better off without it. In 1925, Ali Abd al-Raziq, an Egyptian sheikh at al-Azhar, caused controversy with his book, Islam and the Bases of Authority, arguing that Islam did not prescribe any particular form of government and Muslims were therefore free to create their own systems. The caliphs, he said, were wrongly assumed to have been God’s representatives on Earth when in fact they were nothing more than political rulers. It was because of this mistaken belief that they had been allowed to tyrannise their subjects in the name of religion. For his efforts, Abd al-Raziq was duly expelled from al-Azhar.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that debates about religion tended to centre on issues that were of immediate practical relevance rather than more abstract questions about the existence of God. The twentieth century produced numerous Arab thinkers who clearly leaned towards secularism, including such writers as Taha Hussein and the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. How many of them were fully-fledged atheists (in private if not in public) is a matter for conjecture.[xxv]

Marxism had a significant following among Arabs in the decades immediately after the Second World War and was accompanied by secularist ideas which were later overshadowed by the rise of political Islam. Even if people at the time tended to express their atheism obliquely – in discussions of existentialism, for example – rather than directly, the atmosphere during the heyday of Arab leftism was certainly more conducive to religious scepticism than it has been in more recent times. Badra, a Lebanese agnostic and feminist, recalls instances in Lebanon and Syria where “atheism was lived not in isolation but in communities”. She continued:

I was not personally part of these groups but I had friends who were. When I moved to Beirut, I discovered a whole parallel world with a generation of people from this background. They grew up within leftist youth groups and were raised on these values, especially among what was called the Lebanese Nationalist Movement (Haraka Wataniya) which gathered the Socialist Party of Kamal Jumblatt, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Communists.

In addition, even if atheism was not dealt with as a subject on its own, the intellectuals who were active during the civil war period were secular and provocative towards religion on many occasions. Beirut’s cultural life, particularly the experimental theatre in the 1960s and then during the civil war, which had cultural influence on the other Arab countries at that time, is full of examples and references to existentialism, absurdism, etc. The Lebanese literature of the civil war portrays a lot of atheistic views. [xxvi]

The 1950s and 1960s, Schielke writes, were a time of great optimism “vested in a progressive socialist future when religiosity was seen to be in retreat among highly-educated urban populations of the Middle East and South Asia” – though that was to change later with the growth of Islamist movements in the region and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Schielke is somewhat dismissive of the Marxists’ efforts to confront religion, however. Atheistic or non-religious views, if expressed at all, tended to take the form of “condescending vanguardism rather than the fierce anti-clericalism of the early twentieth century”. On the whole, communists and socialists in Muslim countries rarely promoted atheism in public, he says. “On the contrary, they have usually tried to counter anti-communist propaganda by arguing that Islam, when properly understood, is perfectly in accordance with socialism.” This might seem a tactical position to avoid confronting religion directly but Schielke suggests it was actually congruent with the beliefs of most communists in the Muslim world.[xxvii]

The only historical example of Marxist-Leninist rule in the Middle East was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), established in the south of the country after the British withdrew from Aden in 1967. Aspiring to build a “rational, socialist” society in the ancestral homeland of the Bin Laden family, the new government found itself grappling with the question of how to deal with Islam. An initial – sometimes violent – crackdown on the religious establishment was followed by nationalisation of the awqaf (religious trusts) and making the clerics employees of the state.

While maintaining control over religious institutions the regime eventually developed a more sophisticated approach, apparently acting on advice from the Soviet bloc. The Central Committee of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party reportedly told them:

Religion is being used as a weapon against you. Why don’t you use the same weapon against your enemies? Why are you relinquishing the initiative to the reactionaries and opportunists? Why shouldn’t the progressives have the initiative?

Why don’t you say: “We are against exploitative capitalism” and say at the same time: “Our master Muhammad was against exploitative capitalism”? No faqih or qadi will be able at all to find any Qur’anic verse or hadith to prove that Muhammad was in favour of exploitative capitalism since he was, in fact, against exploitation.[xxviii]

This led to the PDRY government promoting a socialist brand of Islam in which Lenin’s birthday could be celebrated along with more traditional religious festivals. In the regime’s official view, there was no real contradiction between socialism and Islam – though it seems that not everyone in South Yemen agreed. According to Salim Salih Mohammed, a senior figure in the party, there was one Islam for the rich and another for the poor. For the poor, Islam favoured social justice and an end to exploitation while the rich used it “for their own reactionary goals and to counter the benefits and striving of the people”.[xxix] This also provided the basis for a foreign policy in which Islam was portrayed as being threatened by imperialism (despite the fact that in 1979 South Yemen was the only Arab country to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continued for some time afterwards to back the Kabul regime against the mujahidin).

There were some parallels between South Yemen’s brand of socialist Islam and the Roman Catholic “liberation theology” movement that had emerged in Latin America focusing on poverty and social injustice – which the Vatican regarded as too political and insufficiently spiritual. In a study of the uneasy coexistence between Islam and the state in the People’s Democratic Republic, Norman Cigar comments that the Yemeni socialists treated Islam “exclusively as a socio-economic phenomenon concerned only with this world” while ignoring or sidelining other aspects of the faith.[xxx]

Domestically, the Yemeni socialists chipped away at religion’s role in everyday life – if and when it seemed feasible. Sharia law was replaced by secular laws in most areas, including family law, but the regime held back from abolishing the sharia-based inheritance system. Reform of inheritance might have been considered a priority for socialists, since it contributed to inequalities in wealth, but there seem to have been fears that the public would not accept it.

South Yemen’s newspapers were the only ones among the Arab countries not to publish daily prayer times or fasting times during Ramadan. Fasting during Ramadan was tolerated, but rather grudgingly. State TV pointedly broadcast cookery programmes at times when Muslims were supposed to be fasting, and there were frequent grumbles about government employees absenting themselves from work during Ramadan:

The state-run media has been consistently critical of the fact that employees in the state sector come in to work late, tired from having stayed up the night before, and do little work before leaving early for home. Many, in fact, apparently feign illness to avoid coming in to work at all.[xxxi]

Writing in 1990, shortly before the unification of north and south Yemen brought Marxist rule to an end, Cigar noted:

Despite the state’s efforts to inculcate a Marxist belief system, the bulk of the PDRY’s population apparently is still deeply attached to Islam in its traditional expression … There are strong indications, however, that the general population has not been mobilised around the regime … Even the country’s leadership has acknowledged this continuing legitimacy gap.

For example, in a recent speech, Ali Salim al-Baid, the Secretary-General of the YSP [Yemen Socialist Party], complained about his countrymen’s “backward mentality”, and claimed that “the shaykhs have gone, the Sultans have gone, feudalism has gone, but their mentality and culture remain”.

Al-Baid was not immune to the influence of that mentality himself. In 1979 and 1980 he had been suspended from all Socialist Party activities for exercising his Islamic right to marry a second wife.[xxxii]

Military defeat: a divine punishment?

FOLLOWING the 1967 war with Israel in which Arab forces suffered a humiliating defeat, Arab nationalism went into decline – along with the secularist ideas that had often accompanied it. Inevitably, some saw military defeat as a punishment from God, wreaked upon Muslims for deviating from the righteous path. Salah al-Din al-Munajjid, a Syrian-born scholar who eventually settled in Saudi Arabia, wrote The Pillars of the Catastrophe or the Reasons Behind the Defeat of 1967, arguing that Arabs had lost the war because they “gave up their faith in God, so He gave up on them”.[xxxiii] The titles of Munajjid’s other political writings show his general perspective: they included The Bolshevisation of Islam and The Socialist Delusion.

Meanwhile, Constantin Zurayk – also Syrian-born – offered a different explanation for the Arabs’ defeat. In the 1950s Zurayk had published The Meaning of the Catastrophe, about the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes during the establishment of Israel. After the 1967 war he produced another volume, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Revisited, which mainly blamed the more recent defeat on stagnation in Arab society. Arabs, he said, needed to move “from an emotional, illusionary, mythological and poetic society into a practical achievement-oriented, rational and scientific one.”[xxxiv] Zurayk, interestingly, came from an Orthodox Christian family but saw a positive role for Islam and its cultural heritage in Arab nationalism – so long as the “true nature” of Islam was understood. History, he argued, had shown that Arab civilisation flourished when Islam flourished but it waned when Arabs followed religion blindly.

Although 1967 can be regarded as the point when the tide turned against secular nationalism, it was not until the Iranian revolution of 1979 that political Islam began to emerge as a major force in the Arab countries. The 1967 war, however, had helped to prepare the way. Viewing defeat as divine punishment had a certain popular appeal, since it absolved Arabs of the need to do anything beyond clinging more firmly to religion – and in that respect its effects were debilitating rather than empowering.

The Islamic revival of the late twentieth century was a far cry from what reformers had envisaged a hundred years earlier when they advocated borrowing “praiseworthy” ideas from other faiths and cultures. What emerged instead was a backward-looking version of Islam which rejected “innovation” and “alien” ideas in the name of authenticity while constructing a supposedly Islamic identity that was based, at least in part, on an imagined past. One aspect of this was an insistence on strict interpretations of sharia law; another was a highly visible kind of religiosity where believers were expected to show “good” Muslim behaviour by observing prescribed rules. The stricter the rules became, the more likely they were to provide a distinct sense of Islamic identity and feelings of religious virtue for those who endured the inconvenience of observing them in minutest detail.

Rules could be found on numerous Islamic websites, including Muttaqun Online (“for those who fear Allah”) which gave detailed guidance on “lawful” clothing for men. Men’s clothes, it said, should cover the whole body but not reach below the ankles, and must not be tight-fitting. White and green were good colours for men to wear but red was bad unless mixed with another colour, and you must not tuck your shirt inside your trousers.[xxxv]

In 2006, an amusing controversy broke out in Egypt when Dr Rashad Khalil, an expert on Islamic law at al-Azhar, warned that being completely naked during sexual intercourse invalidates a marriage. His ruling was promptly dismissed by other scholars, including one who argued that “anything that can bring spouses closer to each other” should be permitted. Another religious scholar suggested it was permissible for married couples to see each other naked as long as they did not look at the genitals. To avoid problems in that area, he recommended having sex under a blanket. One of the most absurd examples of religious rule-making occurred in Iraq in 2008 when militants sought to impose “gender” segregation of vegetables. Claiming that tomatoes are feminine and cucumbers masculine, they argued that greengrocers should not place them next to each other, and that women should not buy or handle cucumbers.[xxxvi]

While attitudes like these may drive some people away from Islam others argue that they can be challenged more effectively by staying within the faith – nominally, at least. The logic is that criticisms are more likely to be listened to if they come from “progressive” Muslims, Muslim “reformers” or believing secularists than from those who reject Islam completely. This is not to suggest that reformers, secularists, etc, are necessarily insincere but there do seem to be some among them who could be described as “tactical” believers; how many is impossible to know.

In an article on “New Secularism in the Arab World”, published in 1999, Ghassan Abdullah surveyed the work of a score of “secular” thinkers. Significantly, though, none of them was described in the article as an atheist. Asked about this, Abdullah replied that he thought a high proportion of them were in fact atheists, or at least did not subscribe to the idea of a God in the sky. Several of them had said so privately, he added. “Writing critically about religion in the Arab world is not easy or safe,” he continued, but “as readers of rationalists in Arabic, we develop a sense of what such writers mean when they use certain ways of expressing their thoughts, and can guess their positions that they cannot declare openly”.[xxxvii]

One of those mentioned in Abdullah’s article was Muhammad Shahrour, a Syrian professor of engineering who in 1990 published a book analysing the text of the Qur’an. Twenty years of research had led him to conclude that traditional religious scholarship is unscientific. Essentially, Shahrour adopted an anti-Islamist position, seeking to reconcile Islam with modern philosophy as well as the rationalist view of the world and science. His view of the sharia was that “jurisprudence in the name of God is a farce benefiting only those wanting to maintain political power”.[xxxviii] Despite his many criticisms of Islam as currently practised, he was still reluctant to dismiss religion entirely. His acceptance of it, however, looked more like a case of bowing to political reality than bowing to God:

I consider that, since religion has an important normative role in the Middle Eastern societies, it is impossible to ignore it. Liberals tried to do so, and they failed in their attempt to transport western political formula to the Arab/Muslim states. Marxists wanted to impose a secularisation, to deconstruct religion, and also failed.[xxxix]

One notable example of a “humanistic” approach to religion was the Deen Research Center, an online project associated with the late Nasr Abu Zayd (see Chapter Nine). Describing itself as a “modern Islamic thinktank”, it steered a precarious course between belief and non-belief, and its description of God stopped just short of atheism:

We do not believe in a god as seen by the mainstream within the religions. We believe in a god, or rather a force that is beyond comprehension, has no form or position, nor has any personal gains in the results of the universe but also does not play with humans as a despotic king or a dictator. We do not believe in ideas of salvational worship or the supernatural. The universe will have endless surprises for humanity, but it is part of one creation. Only God is the complete Other, the one beyond creation.[xl]

Progressive versions of Islam have several typical characteristics. The most important of these is that they view the Qur’an historically, arguing that rules which applied in the time of the Prophet can (and should) be reinterpreted today in the light of changing circumstances. This is the opposite of the Islamist view that the Qur’an should be read literally and ahistorically, and that its message is unchanging and applicable to all times and places. Progressive Muslims also tend to reject the authority of the hadith – collections of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet which have formed the basis for much extra-Qur’anic rule-making over the centuries. In addition to that, they usually reject sharia in the form it is traditionally practised and favour a secular state.

Among non-believers interviewed for this book, opinions differed as to whether Islam can be reformed. A few thought, or at least hoped, it could. Gamal, an Egyptian atheist, said reform was “very possible” but he was “not convinced of this idea that there are moderate versions and radical versions within Islam”. Rather, he thought it was a case of various preachers presenting religion in a variety of ways “in order to accommodate the concerns or fears of certain segments of society”.[xli] Badra, a feminist from Lebanon, said “I don’t believe in more liberal Islam. There are new movements referring to Islamic feminism, but I don’t believe in that. Maybe this goes back to my first contact with the Qur’anic text, which was not positive. I do not think that you can be both a good Muslim (or – to a lesser extent – a good Christian) and a feminist.”[xlii] Ahmad Saeed, a Yemeni, said he had been “a very progressive Muslim” before leaving Islam but he is now more sceptical about the prospects for change:

I used to think Islam has faults and that we should reform the religion and update it and try to be more human and civilised, but it doesn’t work on many Muslims. They have been brainwashed way too much. I think education is the solution. If we give Muslims a very strong, extensive education, in the future they are going to figure out that we have to be humans before we have to be Muslims.[xliii]

In a magazine interview, Moroccan atheist Kacem El Ghazzali was asked if he thought Islam could be reformed, as has happened in branches of Christianity. He replied:

In my opinion, there can be no reform or Enlightenment in Sunni or Shia Islam because there is no Church to reform. In Islam, we are subject to the power of a sacred book and the instructions it gives. Our identity and our understanding of ourselves come from the Qur’an. If Muslims could use their reason, without instructions from a book that is recognised as the word of God, then we could talk about Enlightenment. [xliv]

The Qur’an is the point where atheists and Muslim reformers part company. While they share a common goal in seeking secularism, the reformers largely derive their secularist arguments from the text of the Qur’an. Much as they may try to re-interpret it for the modern world, the Qur’an is still the authority they ultimately have to rely upon to make their case. And on that, atheists beg to differ.

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[i]. Stroumsa, Sarah: Freethinkers of Medieval Islam. Leiden, Brill: 1999

[ii] . See, for example, Qur’an 16:36: “We have raised in every nation a messenger” and 35:24: “There is not a nation but a warner hath passed among them.”

[iii]. Quoted by Samuli Schielke, “The Islamic World”, chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Athiesm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013

[iv]. Stroumsa, op cit, pp 95-96

[v]. Nicholson, R A: A Literary History of the Arabs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. p 324.

[vi]. Nicholson: op cit, p 314.

[vii]. Nicholson: op cit, p 317.

[viii]. Nicholson: op cit, p 319.

[ix]. Nicholson: op cit, pp 323-324.

[x]. Richard Le Galliene’s translation.

[xi]. Hitchens, Christopher: The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007. p7.

[xii]. Dashti, Ali: In Search of Omar Khayyam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. p14. Dashti was an Iranian rationalist, journalist and senator who died in 1982. His book was originally published in Persian.

[xiii]. Letsch, Constanze “Turkish composer and pianist convicted of blasphemy on Twitter.” The Guardian, 16 April 2013.

[xiv]. Schielke, op cit

[xvi]. Juynboll, G H A: “Ismail Ahmad Adham (1911-1940), the Atheist.” Journal of Arabic Literature. 3: 1972, pp 54-71. Cited by Garnett, op. cit.

[xvii]. “Abdul-Rahman Badawi.” Philosophers of the Arabs website, undated.

[xviii]. Qassemi, Sultan Sooud al-: “Gulf atheism in the age of social media”. Al-Monitor, 3 March 2014.

[xx]. Hourani, Albert: A History of the Arab Peoples. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. p 306

[xxi]. Hourani, op cit, p 306.

[xxii]. Hourani, op cit, p 307.

[xxiii]. Hourani, op cit, pp 243-244.

[xxiv]. Barakat, Halim: The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993, p 249

[xxv]. The Philosophers of the Arabs website describes some of them and outlines their views.

[xxvi]. Email correspondence with the author, July 2014.

[xxvii]. Schielke, op cit

[xxviii]. Quoted by Norman Cigar: “Islam and the state in South Yemen: the uneasy coexistence.” Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 26, Issue 2, 1990

[xxix]. Quoted by Cigar, op cit

[xxx]. Somalia, on the Horn of Africa but technically an Arab country since it joined the Arab League in 1974, also had a period of Marxist rule which attempted to blend scientific socialism with Islamic tenets.

[xxxi]. Cigar, op cit

[xxxii]. Manea, Elham The Arab State and Women’s Rights. New York: Routledge, 2011

[xxxiii]. Barakat, op cit, p 258

[xxxiv]. Barakat, op cit, p 257

[xxxv]. Mutaqqun Online: ‘Male hijab according to Qur’an and Sunnah’.

[xxxvi]. “Al-Qa’eda in Iraq alienated by cucumber laws and brutality.” Daily Telegraph, 11 Aug 2008. Impositions such as this were said to be a major reason for al-Qa’ida’s declining support among Iraqi Sunnis.

[xxxvii]. Author’s email correspondence with Ghassan Abdullah, April 2014.

[xxxviii]. Mudhoon, Loay: “In the Footsteps of Averroes.” Qantara website, 2009. See also Muhammad Sharour: “The Divine Text and Pluralism in Muslim Societies.” Chapter in Mehran Kamrava (ed): The New Voices of Islam. University of California Press, 2007.

[xxxix]. Shahrour, Muhammad: “Reading the Religious Text – A New Approach”.

[xli]. Author’s interview, April 2014. Gamal is a pseudonym.

[xlii]. Author’s interview, April 2014.

[xliii]. Author’s interview, April 2014. Ahmad Saeed is a pseudonym.

[xliv]. “L’islam peut-il être réformé?” Poste de Veille website, 12 March 2013. The interview was originally published in German by Die Zeit.