Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I Am Not A Muslim

Muslim apostate Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not A Muslim is self-consciously titled in honour of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian.

There are some obvious differences. Death was not a possible risk to Russell from publishing his book (so he had no need of a nom-de-plume) and, in modern Western intellectual and academic circles, criticising Christianity gets you many more “cool kid” points than does criticising Islam.

In his Introduction, Ibn Warraq differentiates between Islam 1 (what the Prophet taught as contained in the Qur’an), Islam 2 (the religion as expounded, interpreted, and developed: Islam of the hadith and Shar’ia) and Islam 3 (what Muslims actually do and achieved—Islamic civilisation). His contention is that Islam 3
often reached magnificent heights despite Islam 1 and 2, not because of them (p.1).
Ibn Warraq begins with the Rushdie Affair. Many Islamic intellectuals understood, as so many Western intellectuals (who see West v Rest as the big divide: some, such as Fred Halliday, being honourable exceptions) did not, that the fatwa against Rushdie was aimed at them. But it is a consistent problem with multiculturalism that—by supporting traditionalist claims of cultural authority—it defends traditional oppressions. Ibn Warraq places the fatwa within a long-existing Islamic context of hostility to critical writing and critiques the tendency among contemporary Western intellectuals to whitewash, obfusticate or generally “go soft” on Islam and the consequent failure to support Rushdie. Not that said failures are all that surprising: such implicit celebration of the achievements of their own culture would undermine a status strategy which is based on critiquing the West (and thus sympathising with non-Westerners who do the same)—imagine the storm of criticism which would have erupted if a prominent Christian religious leader had called for the killing of an author.

There are also, as Ibn Warrag points out, those who defend Islam because, as Christians, they do not like the idea that any major religion be debunked.
The next four chapters—The Origins of Islam, The Problem of Sources, Muhammad and His Message, The Koran—apply the type of critical reading of religious and scriptural history to Islam which has long been standard in the West regarding Christianity but is almost entirely absent in Islam. That Christianity and Judaism have generally regarded the creation of Scripture as (at least in part) a process embedded in, and a product of, history gives more of an “in” to such activity than an Islam where the Qur’an is uncreated (that is, has always existed) so is, in a crucial sense, “outside” history.

Chapter 6, The Totalitarian Nature of Islam, starts with quotes from Bertrand Russell noting the similarities of Bolshevism and Islam. Ibn Warraq’s larger point is that there is no separation of Church and State in Islam and its strictures cover all areas of life—Shar’ia is political, civil and criminal law as well as basic morality, courtesy, food taboos, etc. There is no area of life, no realm of social action, it does not purport to cover (hence the enormous number of fatwas Islamic religious authorities issue).

Chapter 7, Is Islam Compatible with Democracy and Human Rights?, is an extended argument for the virtues of secularism. The next two chapters, Arab Imperialism, Arab Colonialism and The Arab Conquests and the Position of Non-Muslim Subjects consider the record of Islamic imperialism and rule. The myth of “tolerant Islam” does not survive critical examination: yes, there were periods when dhimmi were merely treated as the thoroughly second-class subjects Shar’ia set out. And there were also massacres and repressions, even in al-Andalus. (Of course, the enduring myth that there is some morally superior Other is a longstanding weapon of critique.)

There are repeated patterns: the three days of slaughter, rape and pillage that Constantinople was subjected to when it fell in 1453 was the same as that handed out to the port of Debail during the Arab conquest of Sindh in 712. The systematic slaughters of men of military age during the conquest of Sindh was the same as the Prophet’s murder of all the males of the Jewish Banu Qurayzah tribe in Medina, the women and children being sold into slavery.

In terms of killing and cultural destruction, Muslim (particularly Arab) rule was, in fact, generally much more destructive, oppressive (and longer lasting) than later Western imperialism. Ibn Warraq goes into considerable detail just how very second-class the status of non-Muslims was—as per the religious injunctions of Islam. Throughout the book, Ibn Warraq relies on lengthy quotes from scholars and they are much cited in this section.

In Chapter 10, Heretics and Heterodoxy, Atheism and Freethought, Reason and Revelation, Ibn Warraq examines the rather fraught history of philosophical and theological debate in Islam. In Chapter 11, Greek Philosophy and Science and Their Influence on Islam, he examines the huge influence Greek thought had on Islamic civilisation, the intellectual flowering that occurred in early Islam and the slow strangling of science by religious orthodoxy. He concludes that Islamic science flourished despite Islam and was eventually killed by it. In Chapter 12, Sufism or Islamic Mysticism, he notes the very latitudinarian strains in Sufism, contrasting that with the rather broader use of accusations of heresy to suppress dissent.

Chapter 13 is a celebration of the work and life of al-Ma’arri, a sceptical poet and rationalist thinker who managed to navigate the perils of such scepticism quite successfully. Chapter 14, Women in Islam finds, unsurprisingly, the treatment of women in Islam to have been much less than satisfactory. He does note various Westerners (such as Sir Richard Burton) who argued that erotic works and the sex-positive nature of Islam shows a high regard for women. Ibn Warraq disagrees strongly, holding such views to be more about male sexual fantasies than the actual circumstances of women in Islam. Ibn Warraq argues that it is far from clear that Islam improved the situation of women compared to that in pagan Arabia. He then systematically delineates all the ways women are put in inferior roles in Islam. He concludes by using Pakistan as a case study of how “Islamization” made the situation of women worse. He particularly singles out how the Shar’ia requirement for four (male) witnesses to prove an accusation of rape becomes a license to rape, since, not only does it make rape near impossible to prove, it also means that any woman making an accusation of rape that does not fulfill this requirement is deemed to have confessed to adultery, particularly if she becomes pregnant: adultery being a punishable offense. He backs up his analysis with a series of short, grim, case studies.

Chapter 15, Taboos: Wines, Pigs and Homosexuality, examines both the onerous burden Islam’s system of taboos puts on people and how widely said burden is evaded. Indeed, apart from under the early “Rightly Guided” Caliphs and the contemporary era, homosexuality was far more tolerated in Islam than in the Christian West. In Chapter 16, Final Assessment of Muhammad, Ibn Warraq assesses Muhammad as being a mixture of very attractive traits and very unattractive ones, not to be put on the same moral plane as Buddha, Socrates, Confucius or Jesus. He particularly singles out the Prophet’s insistence that the Qur’an was the literal word of God, true once and for all, as profoundly inimical to free thought and intellectual progress.

In the final chapter, Islam in the West, Ibn Warraq critiques what he sees as various betrayals of liberal and democratic values by those pandering to very illiberal and anti-democratic Muslim demands. But, Western civilisation is always an acceptable “Other” for those whose sense of status is based on critiquing their own societies: who are therefore far more likely to pander to convergent critiques (such as those from Muslims) than to critically examine the implications of such. Hence, the notion that one should criticise one’s own society (or culture) first—as that is where one has most influence—strangely does not get demanded, or even suggested, of intellectuals in non-Western societies and cultures. Such gives Muslim claims a level of acceptance among the conspicuously compassionate that, for example, Christian claims do not.

Ibn Warraq, by contrast, thinks the same moral and epistemic principles for all is much preferable. That Islam and Islamic claims should be subject to the same critical scrutiny as Christianity and Christian claims. Why I Am Not A Muslim is an informed and useful corrective to the obfustication and condescending pandering that seems so prevalent within contemporary Western intellectual circles.

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