Standing up to scrutinize Islam

by G. A. Well
Free Inquiry 
Winter 1995/96

(Why I Am Not a Muslim, By Ibn Warraq (Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1995) 402 pp., $25.95 cloth.)

The reviewer is a Professor at the University of London, a member of the Academy of Humanism, and the author of Did Jesus Exist?)

Why I Am Not a Muslim certainly deserves the epithet "courageous" with which R. J. Hoffmann introduces it in his Foreword, not so much because of its thesis that Islamic civilization often reached magnificent heights despite the religion of Islam, as because almost all the fundamental tents of Islam are here scrutinized uncompromisingly. Moreover, Ibn Warraq's criticisms are no idiosyncrasies, but supported with very extensive references to scholarly works. His book is particularly valuable as a means of acquainting oneself with this scholarship.

Not surprisingly, he devotes a chapter to the inferior position of women in Islam, and another to the undemocratic pressures applied by Islamic immigrants in the West today. He is appalled by the willingness of British authorities to allow incitement to murder a British citizen (Salman Rushdie) from a public platform in Britain; and he finds the French authorities refreshingly less permissive on such matters.

Warraq begins by showing how often politeness to less-civilized countries has been a whip with which to lash the shortcomings of one's own society. It was on this basis that Tacitus boosted the Germans and that eighteenth-century Europeans looked up to "the noble savage." In the present century, European malaise about colonialism and imperialism has prompted belief in the superior virtue of subject nations. Attitudes to Islam and to its history have been affected by such sentiments, although there have of course been dissenting voices. (Schopenhauer declared, in an essay on man's metaphysical needs, that he could not find a single valuable idea in the whole of the Koran.) The uncompromising monotheism of Islam has been particularly admired. It is true that Christianity is monotheistic only in virtue of an unintelligible fiction (the Trinity), and the Judaism's allegiance to one god was not the same as belief in only one god. But Ibn Warraq reminds us that monotheism can readily join with exclusive intolerance.

The religion of one day is largely a reshuffling of ideas of a yesterday, and to this Islam is no exception. It has taken a great deal from both Jewish and Christian traditions, but I doubt whether many Christians are aware of in what strange guise Christianity figures in the Koran. According to Sura 4, Jesus was not crucified: the Jews "Killed him not, they did not crucify him, but it was made to appear that way to them." This strikes at the heart of what is now established as Christian doctrine. If there was no atoning death, there is no redemption, through such a death. But this was the kind of Christian teaching that reached Muhammad; for a number of second-century Christians had regarded suffering, which implies change and imperfection, as foreign to the divine nature. As our author says, "what is in the Koran about Christianity derives from heretical sects" (p. 62).

Something else made clear in this book that will probably surprise many is how much of what has long passed for the early history of Islam has been put in question by serious scholars. I had always believed that the swift rise of Muhammad's religion to power - overrunning the whole of Arabia in his lifetime and defeating Christian armies in Syria soon after his death - meant that the evidence for its origin will have been critically sifted at a far-earlier stage than could have occurred in the case of Christianity, which Ion. remained a jumble of insignificant sects and took three hundred years to attain state recognition. Also, the Koran looks much more authentic than the Gospels, in that its author works no miracles and makes no claim to divinity. Only in later traditions do his features become implausibly magnified. Ibn Warraq's chapter on "The Problem of the Sources" must give us pause here. There is not only disparate material in the Koran, but also repetition of whole passages in variant versions; and this looks more like belated and imperfect editing of materials from a plurality of traditions than a collection of a single author's sayings. Also, there are so many variant readings that it is misleading to speak of the Koran: "The definitive text still had not been achieved as late as the ninth century" (p. 154). As with the New Testament, the faithful are familiar with a uniform text and know little or nothing of the variants given in any apparatus criticus. (To take but one New Testament example, whether Luke has a doctrine of atonement depends on which manuscripts of his account of the Last Supper are to be taken as giving the original reading.)

As for the Koran's contradictions, some are quite normal in a single, individual religious writer and need not be put down to multiple authorship. An instance is the alteration between predestination passages ("God misleads whom He will, and whom He will he guides") and others that give mankind some kind of free will. If what happens has been predetermined, it is futile to urge people to change their ways. Yet Muhammad and his followers have always done this, as did St. Paul, who combined the idea that God blinds people with the doctrine that their errors are all their own fault. Similarly, Marxists believe that persons in a certain economic condition will inevitably behave in a certain way, but nevertheless abuse them for doing so.

Another striking contradiction quite normal in religious writing is that the God of the Koran is merciful and compassionate, yet consigns those who do not believe in him to everlasting torment. Our author notes that "Muhammad really lets his otherwise limited imagination go wild when describing, in revolting detail, the torments of hell" (p. 125).

Muslim commentators deal with some of the contradictions by claiming that latter verses in the Koran may cancel earlier ones. What is early or late is, however, largely conjecture, as the Suras are arranged in order of length, not chronologically.

The biographies of the prophet have always been known to be relatively late; and the traditions about the early history of Islam grow, in characteristic legendary fashion, from one writer to the next: "If one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next one would tell its exact date, and the third one would furnish even more details" (p. 84). Ibn Warraq sums this up with: either we conclude with a number of recent scholars that we do not know a great deal about Muhammad, or we make do with the traditional sources. He adds: "Muslims would perhaps be better off accepting the former alternative," since the picture that emerges of the Prophet from the latter is "not at all flattering. Furthermore, Muslims cannot complain that this is a portrait drawn by an enemy" (p. 86).

There are of course morally acceptable teachings in the Koran, but there is also much intolerance. One of its worst legacies is the notion of a Holy War, developed "with the help of the idea of rewards in paradise for the holy martyrs who died fighting for Islam" (p. 156). Ibn Warraq deplores the fact that, although imperialism is now discredited, "hardly anyone bothers to criticize the Islamic variety that resulted in such death and destruction" (p. 346). Bernard Lewis, an Islamic scholar whom our author rightly treats with respect, has argued that, there were indeed "exaltation and dogmatism on both sides," yet "greater tolerance on the Turkish." Spanish Jews after the Inquisition found refuge in Turkey, and "when Ottoman rule in Europe came to an end, the Christian nations they had ruled for centuries were still there, with their languages, their cultures, their religions, even to some extent their institutions, intact," whereas "there are no Muslims today in Spain or Sicily and no speakers of Arabic" (See Lewis's chapter in the symposium The Legacy of Islam, Oxford University Press, 1974). Ibn Warraq finds this stress on Islamic pluralism and tolerance quite misplaced: Turkey was "no inter-faith utopia" (p. 187). He emphasizes atrocities (including recent ones) in Muslim history "as a counter to sentimental nonsense about the 'spiritual Fast', which, we are constantly told, is so much superior to the decadent and atheistic West" (p. 161).

Islam certainly keeps a firm grip on its people by making apostasy a capital offense, as is also blasphemy towards God and the Prophet. "In modem times blasphemy has simply become a tool for Muslim governments to silence opposition, or for individuals to settle personal scores" (p. 176). It is of course quite generally the case that religions that inculcate obedience and submission to established authority tend to be supported by established governments. Bernard Lewis himself has noted, in a recent essay, how Khomeini dealt with groups and individuals opposing the Islamic revolution: for him, insistence on open trials, defense lawyers, and proper procedures was no more than a reflection of "the Western sickness among us." Those on trial, he insisted, were criminals, and criminals should be executed, not tried. Warraq notes that it was this hatred and loathing of the West that led Arab countries to sympathize in the Gulf War even with Saddam Hussein: he is a tyrant, but he "stood up to the West."

When Warraq speaks of science, he allows that it is in this domain that "we come at last to the true greatness of Islamic civilization" (p. 272). I have recently come across an illustration of this in the 1984 Princeton University Press edition of Galen: On Respiration and the Arteries by British scholars David J. Furley and J. S. Wilkie, who offer a greatly improved Greek text by utilizing an Arab translation better than any of the surviving Greek manuscripts. But Warraq argues that it was despite Islam that Islamic science developed. He quotes Earnest Renan's verdict:

To give Islam the credit of Averroes and so many other illustrious thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the Inquisition the discoveries of Galileo, and a whole scientific development which it was not able to prevent.

The older scholars on whom Warraq draws include D. S. Margoliouth, whose "Mohammedanism" in the series Home University Library of Modern Knowledge is still a useful introduction. Warraq's recent authorities include of course Bernard Lewis, and also W. Montgomery Watt, whom he calls "by common consent the greatest and one of the most influential living Islamic scholars in Britain." Like Warraq, I have found Watt informative, yet infuriating, in that he repeatedly recast traditional doctrines - Christian as well as Muslim - into impressive-sounding formulas that are really no more than solemn-faced nonsense. For instance, his version of "O Lamb of god that takes away the sins of the world" is that "Jesus wag deliberately living out an archetypal synthesis." The then Bishop of Edinburgh quoted this in his Foreword to Watt's 1959 book (pretentiously entitled The Cure of Human Troubles) and opined that it may "be difficult to think and express ourselves in these new terms." There is in fact no difficulty at all in thus "expressing ourselves." Whether we are thereby thinking of anything other than the words is another matter.

One truth that Warraq's book brings home very forcibly is that religion has so often been made the basis for perpetuating social injustices. Napoleon was but voicing an almost universal attitude when he saw in Christianity "not the mystery of the Incarnation, but the mystery of social order," in that inequality of property can be maintained only by convincing the poor that it is God's will and that they will be better off in kingdom-come. Warraq allows that it may well be inhuman to tell an individual who is suffering irredeemably that his belief in God and in an after-life when all will be righted is sheer delusion; but he sees that the systematic inculcation of highly suspect doctrine is quite another matter, and certainly not to be made an excuse for storing nothing to ameliorate man's lot (p. 162). He remains "convinced that despite all the shortcomings of Western liberal democracy, it is far preferable to the authoritarian, mind-numbing certitudes of Islamic theocracy" (p. 359).

Scriptures and creeds make a religion vulnerable, in that they supply the critic and the skeptic with a hold. Nevertheless, many Christians have managed to transcend elements in their sacred books that have been impugned. Can we not expect the same of Muslims? Liberal Christians will say, for instance, that God's revelation is presented in the Bible through miracle stories because miracles were believed in at that time, whereas we who do not believe in them are free to interpret the miracle stories in a different way. Can we not expect Muslims to say, sooner or later, that persecution of "infidels" is enjoined in the Koran because in Islam's earl days only an aggressive to outsiders ensured its survival, whereas modern believers can be open to divine counsel of moderation and tolerance? A serious obstacle to any such development is the hatred of the West that Muslim leaders inculcate. Leaders get the support of followers by persuading them that they are threatened by a common enemy. Their argument is not "Support me, because I wish for power," but "Support me to save yourselves from these hated imperialists." Without such a basis of hatred, the support for a leader is apt to become lukewarm; and so he must be continually striking at the supposed enemy. This it is that militates so strongly against any compromise. Altogether, in political argument even in democracies, it is the appeal to moral principles that gives rise to most of the hate, and it would be much better to talk frankly about interests. One who resists a moral principle must necessarily be immoral, and therefore not to be argued with but coerced. On the other hand, when an opposition of interests is frankly faced, there is a possibility of reaching some kind of compromise and understanding, without abuse and anger.

Warraq's book shows that the world today is very far from such a situation and is not moving towards it.