Critical Review

Ibn Warraq, WHY I AM NOT A MUSLIM, Prometheus Books : Amherst, N.Y. 1995.

French translation,
Ibn Warraq, Pourquoi Je ne suis pas Musulman, Preface : Taslima Nasrin et du Général J.C.Salvan, Lausanne L’Age d’Homme, 1999, pp440.

By MAXIME RODINSON February, 2000.

Are you for Islam? Against Islam? You say neither one nor the other? That is inconceivable! That is like saying, in Sarajevo, that you are neither pro-Serb nor pro-Albanian ! How can you justify this unnatural attitude? Perhaps because you were born Muslim? In that case, no problem. Our society finds in general that that is a valid reason. One is Muslim because one is born of Muslim parents. One point that is all. All at once everything is understandable and everything follows naturally. But what does it mean to be Muslim? The Muslim dogma is expressed without equivocation . To believe and affirm that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his prophet, that he brings a fundamental message from God that is recorded in a book in the Arabic language and which we call the Koran.

There exist however, all over the world, people who have the bad taste to submit to a rigorous examination the belief that was handed on to them by their parents; who even draw negatives conclusions from their examination and who, worse of all, say it, publish it! This belief consists of dogmas that is to say, assertions about the universe and man, as well as the supreme value accorded to certain rites, and practices. A small proportion of people born of Muslim parents risk publishing their unbelief regarding the dogmas and practices of Islam. But nonetheless they do exist and have existed since the beginning of Muhammad’s preaching. One of the latter, living today, is a man originally from the Indian sub-continent, who disguises his identity under the pseudonym of Ibn Warraq, son of a stationer, a name taken during the Middle Ages by several Muslim intellectuals, more or less non-believers and of unorthodox opinions. He has written in English and was inspired by the well-known book by Bertrand Russell « Why I am not a Christian  », a provocative book that expresses Russell’s rupture with the religion into which he was born. Needless to say, if he thus scandalized a number of traditional Christians, Catholics or Protestant, no one dreamt of applying to the illustrious philosopher and a peer in the House of Lords the punishments reserved in earlier days for Christian apostates.

The belonging, hereditary or personal and voluntary to an ideological organisation which imposes an orthodoxy given under pain of more or less severe sanctions – the rupture with his original community, his parents and his friends not being the least – would often be too testing to seem possible. If he who is tempted by it is more and more convinced however of his intellectual and moral necessity, the auto-censorship to which he sees himself confined can end by rendering him positively enraged. He flies into a rage against the belief that they want to impose on him and could go as far as to expose himself to martyrdom and /or to words (blasphemous) or acts of violent revolt, sometimes excessive.

It is that road that the rebellious of the past and present have taken to their great disadvantage. This is what is happening to a growing number of «  Muslims » in the « sociological  » sense, though in absolute terms their number remains feeble. For a long time those who took this direction did not express themselves. It was less the cruelty of the sanctions that the apostate exposed himself to (above all in theory) than the reprobation of their entire society. Such a large consensus of opinion against oneself ends by affecting one. As someone said (in a Christian context, if I am not mistaken) «  It is a great folly to wish to be wise all alone  ».Doubt itself seemed so often to conceal in itself some vice. It is also a great sin, a crime for many Christian consciences. Many of our classical authors treat it as such. And the hypocritical remedies such as those proposed by a believer as determined and as pleasant as our Blaise Pascal were not lacking.

The enormous weight of the anti-rationalist discourse in fashion today is very discouraging for many. So many people are agreed on proclaiming that there is no truth.

From that we get the argument: why defend one truth against another which sustains a whole civilization. All that is enough to discourage one. The fact is that that has been discouraging to a large extent.. The multi-hammering that has lasted since the birth of the current religious orthodoxies (monotheist or other it does not matter) has grown even more with a kind of hype specific to our times, political hype directly taken over from the politico-ideological currents of today and the recent past..

The Islam of today presents itself, more than a message of truth, like an ideological party attacked from all sides, like a bloc of the «  damned of the earth  », like a besieged fortress, or a threatened fatherland. Those who doubt its message are not, from that moment, minds in error. They are essentially enemies and traitors. From that moment we can understand the terrors of our «  Ibn Warraq  ». More than his homologues like Salman Rushdie, he is endowed with a rational spirit. He also began by studying. He has discovered the immense literature which has been consecrated in Europe to Islam of former times, an enormous sum of meticulous research pursued for four centuries and ignored by the massive majority of « Muslims ».

The book, «  Why I am Not a Muslim «, first published in the USA in 1995, translated into French and published in Lausanne in 1999 is the result of his studies and the report of his passionate dissidence. The work is very learned and organised in a rather chaotic fashion. In addition to the reflections and reactions of the author, it is a kind of compilation and encyclopaedia of all the objections raised on the vision of the world and assertions contained in the Koran, on the errors, faults, crimes of which the authorities and Muslim masses have been guilty of during fourteen centuries. Voltaire had compiled a catalogue of this kind accusing the Christians. Our Ibn Warraq goes beyond Islam. He accumulates quotes from works criticising religion in general, the idea of God, the notion of a miracle etc….in brief he summarises all the traditional polemic in Europe and America against the established religions. In this domain, the European reader will not learn a great deal. All that has been well-known, commonplace in the West for a long time. But the public in the Islamic world (if it dares to to acknowledge it) will be astonished, stupefied, shocked, offended.

The feelings thus provoked, very dangerous, in the long run, for the author, should not be obstacles to the taking into consideration of the critical (to be sure) study of the facts or descriptions put forward. One cannot reject without further study a fact for the sole reason that it shocks a certain individual, a certain public. Obviously every idea expressed ought not to be accepted right away. But it must not come up against an irrational taboo or a taboo which erects a concept, an individual, a human group, a people into a sacred object against which no critical observation can be applied. For example (this seems to be the most frequent case to-day) from the fact that he himself had earlier unjustly been attacked, vilified, bullied, despised, even physically tormented. If there is a lesson of universal history, it is that the victims of one period or situation become very easily the executioners in another period, another situation. Having suffered persecution does not absolutely guarantee a people against the tendency to eventually persecute. Nor is it a guarantee of rectitude of judgment or moral conduct.

Thus one must not reject the criticisms of Ibn Warraq a priori under the pretext that the individuals who are his targets have been or are still in great part the object of unjustified contempt. A crime is a crime even if the one who commits the crime is the target of another criminal. Likewise, an error. One is ashamed to express oneself with such obviousness. But it must be done and much more than once. For this is largely unknown . Fashionable intellectuals are besides the most relentless in their failure to recognize it. In wishing too much to argue in one sense, we risk giving arms to adversaries that we are fighting. That is the lot of all polemics. It is of little importance if we overstep by a certain amount. But, more serious, we risk losing our way. Ibn Warraq revolts against Islam that one had taught him, that one wished to impose on him. One cannot, rationally, hold that against him. But – I have already seen that happen – one often attributes to Islam that which comes out of the entire culture where the Islamic religion is often a label that covers under its green mantle all a culture linked to a given social state, even to its laws, the universal laws of social functioning proper to all human society …I have seen this with an Iranian author who became virulently anti-Islam – he ended by being assassinated -denouncing the hardness of Muslim adults towards children as one of the odious consequences of the Muslim religion. When often we witness in certain Muslim societies an indulgence towards them which can be taken to be excessive. The inferior position of women, the misogyny is often denounced in the same way. There you have a good example . In effect, the institutional situation of women largely justifies these criticisms and there again, it cannot be thought of without referring to a whole range of societies where one observes the same attitudes and behaviour.

It is here that one can experience at first hand the specificities of Islam. Islam is characterised above all by its rendering intensely sacred the most banal acts or at least the most general ones, present in all humanity. It is not enough then, to liberate oneself of it, to reject Islam. To criticize Islam is insufficient. Above all in our days, the Muslims have come to constitute for a number of Europo-Americans a population of «  maximal victims  », of «  damned of the earth », condemned by nature. Consequently, to criticize their resolve, their attitudes, their beliefs is forbidden to well-meaning souls. Shame on he who adds his pebble to the rain of stones which overwhelms the unhappy reprobate.

Thus with the best of intentions, one recreates a taboo. One regards with complacency the very comportment, the very idea that one attacks unsparingly in one’s own society.. I have seen so many anti-clerical individuals, militant atheists becoming indignant if the criticisms no longer bore on Jesus or the Virgin Mary but reached as far as Muhammad and those close to him ! Thus one must read Ibn Warraq and make his work known very widely. Even if we do not always take him literally. Sometimes he puts his trust in authors who have made anti-Islam their battle cry for reasons of political hostility to which we are free not to subscribe. Sometimes also (but this is rare) he does not see the inner-most depth of an idea or practice in the Islamic World. The French translation (often incorrect) is preceded by two prefaces, laudatory and interesting in themselves. One is from a women whom we can consider a heroine, a Bengali ( from Bangla Desh ) who in order to express herself, like Ibn Warraq is exposed to a permanent threat of assassination and must live in hiding, preferably outside her motherland, Taslima Nasrin. The other is a French general, Jean Salvan who has served a great deal in Islamic countries.

Maxime Rodinson.