Apostate Ibn Warraq campaigns for the right not to be a Muslim
By Lee Smith , Globe Correspondent, 8/17/2003
EVER SINCE SEPT. 11, 2001, American scholars, pundits, and ordinary citizens have not hesitated to offer their opinions about the state of Islam. Critics say the religion is long overdue for the kind of a thoroughgoing reformation that modernized and diversified Christianity in the 16th century. More sympathetic voices argue that today's Islam is not an ideological monolith but a thriving culture, with as many Islams as there are Muslims. But what has been virtually ignored is that there are Muslims, both in the Muslim world and outside it, who want nothing to do with Islam, moderate or otherwise.
Most keep their feelings to themselves. Those Muslims who disown or even criticize their faith publicly are likely to be accused of apostasy, a crime punishable by death under Islamic law–a penalty enforced in a number of Muslim nations, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. But more commonly, the punishment for speaking freely is a kind of social death as the apostate is ostracized by family, friends, and community. Muslim moderates and Western scholars of Islam frequently cite the Koranic verse that affirms there is no compulsion in religion. Yet the weight of Islamic tradition, including the Koran, compels a Muslim to remain Muslim.
The Indian-born and English-educated Ibn Warraq, 57, is among the most prominent and outspoken Muslim apostates alive today. His 1995 book ``Why I Am Not a Muslim'' was an impassioned polemic against almost 1,400 years of Muslim dogma and its effect on the Islamic world. The more recent collections he has edited–``What the Koran Really Says'' (2002) and this year's ``Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out''–present less confrontational, more scholarly lines of attack.
Still, Warraq (the name is a pseudonym) aims to skewer the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of a faith that commands the allegiance of a billion people–as well as the hypocrisies of those Western defenders of Islam who would not tolerate its strictures in their own cultures.
To his admirers in the West and in the Muslim world, Warraq is a latter-day Voltaire who may herald an Islamic enlightenment. ``He wants to open it up for people who are born into a religion they can't leave,'' says Patricia Crone, a scholar
of Islam at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.
To his critics, Warraq is an intolerant pseudo-scholar whose bitter polemics set back the very possibility of modernizing the faith. ``If you already know what Islamophobes and Orientalists believe, this author has nothing original to add,'' says Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA and the author most recently of ``The Place of Tolerance in Islam'' (2002). ``It's good propaganda, but not good scholarship.''
Whatever one thinks of his arguments, the fact that Warraq needs to make them at all highlights a critical question at a time when American policy makers have vowed to transform the political culture of the Muslim world: Can Islamic societies truly accommodate dissent and democracy?
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For all the argumentative zeal of his writing, Warraq is a mild-mannered man who describes himself as agnostic. ``My atheist friends think it's an illogical position,'' he said recently over lunch in New York. ``I believe there is no afterlife, and no paternal figure who watches after us, but I do have a sense of awe and mystery. I guess I'm religious in a very broad sense of the word.''
Presumably, that's the kind of Islamic culture Warraq is interested in–one so moderate that there's plenty of room for people who don't believe in God, something like the contemporary West. His website, called the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society (ISIS), is one of a number of online gathering places for fellow nonbelievers, some of whose testimonials are published, anonymously, in ``Leaving Islam.''
Warraq is also a founder of an organization called Advocates of Article 18, which is named for the article of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to change it. The group was founded last year, following a meeting of ex-Muslims at the Center for Inquiry, a secular-humanist organization based in Amherst, N.Y.
At the meeting, Warraq says, the Iranian participants, some of whom had been tortured by the Khomeini government, ``wanted to eliminate Islam.'' For his part, Warraq says he just wants to win the right to criticize the religion without fear of retribution. ``Criticism, free speech, is the foundation of democracy,'' he declares. ``We criticize and use reason to solve human problems in the best way possible. You can't do that if certain things are off-limits, like the Koran.''
Warraq's own path to apostasy coincided roughly with his journey to the West. He was born in 1946 in Rajkot, the same town in India where Gandhi grew up. After the family moved to Pakistan following Partition, their father, a sometime film critic with connections to Bombay intellectual circles, reluctantly sent his sons to Koranic schools, where they learned to recite the Holy Book ``without understanding a word,'' Warraq recalls.
His father eventually sent the children to boarding school in England, where he requested that they not be exposed to chapel or other Christian institutions. ``I was exempted from morning prayers, along with the Jewish students, so all my friends came from a group of Jews,'' he says.
At 18, Warraq decided to return to his Muslim roots. He went to the University of Edinburgh to study Arabic with one of the 20th century's great English Orientalists, Montgomery Watt, a Christian minister sympathetic to Islam even in its most militant manifestations, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Later, in ``Why I Am Not a Muslim,'' Warraq would harshly criticize Watt for his influential apologetics on behalf of some of Islam's most troubling tendencies.
After leaving college, Warraq led a peripatetic life. He taught primary school in England, opened an Indian restaurant in France, and then worked as a courier for a travel agent, which sent him mainly to the Far East and North Africa. His thinking crystallized around the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, another Muslim-born freethinker educated in the West. ``I clearly identified myself with Rushdie,'' says Warraq, who was dismayed by the reluctance of many Western liberals to defend the embattled writer. In 1992, he published an article in the magazine Free Thought that became the seed for ``Why I Am Not a Muslim.''
Today, Warraq lives in a European city. (He will not specify where, for security reasons.) Thanks to a stipend from an anonymous donor arranged by the philosopher Paul Kurtz, owner of the secular-humanist publishing house Prometheus Books, he is able to live as an independent scholar.
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``Why I Am Not a Muslim'' is a sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddeningly repetitive broadside. In it, Warraq takes pains to distinguish religious Islam from ``Islamic civilization,'' which, he says, ``often reached magnificent heights despite [the Koran and the theologians] and not because of them.'' (While few fundamentalists would admit as much, freethinkers have been signal figures of Islamic civilization. Consider the well-known 11th-century Syrian-born poet Abu al-Ala al-Maarri, who wrote: ``The earth has people of two kinds:/The ones who think have no religion,/the others do and have no minds.'')
Warraq's book cuts against the ecumenical, feel-good vision of Islam as a ``religion of peace'' found everywhere from President Bush's speeches to popular books such as Karen Armstrong's ``Islam: A Short History.'' Indeed, anyone who's read Armstrong's book may think that she and Warraq are discussing two entirely different belief systems. Armstrong, for example, says that it's impossible to judge the prophet Muhammad's assassinations of his political enemies and wholesale slaughter of a Jewish tribe against our present-day mores. But if we cannot condemn his faults according to contemporary standards, Warraq argues, then neither can we hold him up as the wise and tolerant lawgiver whom contemporary moderates praise.
Warraq also contends that Islam's apologists are so eager to perpetuate the ``myth'' of a tolerant Islam that accorded liberty to its non-Muslim subjects that they concentrate almost exclusively on the relatively decent treatment of Christians and Jews, the so-called fellow People of the Book, while ignoring the harsher fate of Arab pagans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists. ``Are they not human?'' he asks.
While some evangelical Christians have embraced his work, Warraq has been critical of that faith as well. Still, Warraq says he much prefers Christianity's philosophy, which ``teaches God's love, a far cry from Islam's wrathful image of God.'' In ``Why I Am Not a Muslim,'' he adds that while ``most Christians'' have moved away from a ``literal interpretation of the Bible,'' Muslims have not. ``All Muslims–not just the group we have called fundamentalists–believe that the Koran is literally the word of God,'' delivered directly, word for word, to his prophet Muhammad, he says.
It is certainly possible to reject literal interpretations of the Koran. Warraq's books discuss many who have tried to do so, from Sufis like the heretical philosopher al-Hallaj (executed in 922) to the early 20th-century Egyptian liberal Ali Abd al-Raziq, who argued for a separation of religion and politics. But these are exceptional figures in Islamic history and Warraq doubts that contemporary Islamic theologians who call for adjusting the Koran to modern times–``opening the door of ijtihad,'' or interpretation, as they like to say–are pointing the way toward a genuinely free society.
For the most part, Warraq tells me, ``Muslims have a horror of putting the Koran to critical scrutiny as a human document. The layman is not permitted to question the Koran. This is why there's no progress in Islamic society.''
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With any ``religious institution that is beyond doubt,'' he writes in ``Why I Am Not a Muslim, ``you have tyranny, thought police, and an absence of the critical sense that includes intellectual and moral progress.'' And for Warraq the current test of moral progress is democracy, which he believes is incompatible with Islam as it now stands. ``Muslims have yet to appreciate that democracy is not merely `majority rule,''' he writes, but a social system that also guarantees the right to religious and political dissent.
Warraq is particularly critical of Noah Feldman, the NYU law professor whom the US government has enlisted to assist in the drafting of Iraq's new constitution. If Feldman's new book ``After Jihad'' is any indication of what that document will look like, Warraq is concerned.
``How can Feldman believe there is any compatibility at all between Islamist movements and democratic principles?'' he asks. ``They are democrats only in that they will use elections to take power. One man, one vote, one time. The first people who suffer are women, and after that non-Muslims. The level of denial from Western liberals renders me speechless.''
Khaled Abou El Fadl, who attempts to use traditional canons of interpretation to bring out the tolerant and democratic aspects of the Koran, contends that democracy and Islam are both ``defined in the first instance by their underlying moral values.''
One can only hope that El Fadl is right. But Warraq emphasizes that essential aspects of democracy, such as freedom of speech and freedom of belief, are best exemplified in Islam by those thinkers and writers it calls apostates.
Though he has little regard for Warraq's work, El Fadl himself recognizes the crucial importance of apostates and other religious dissidents. ``The freethinkers pushed the limits of orthodoxy, and they were a point of attachment for many Muslims later on,'' he says. ``If all you had was orthodoxy all the time, Islamic civilization wouldn't have existed over 1,000 years. They dragged people along kicking and screaming.''
Lee Smith is writing a book on Arab culture for Scribners.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.