Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not A Muslim

why-i-am-not-a-muslimThe catalyst for the writing of Ibn Warraq’s dissident critique, Why I Am Not A Muslim, came in 1988, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of British novelist Salman Rushdie. What has since euphemistically become known as “the Rushdie affair” revealed a fatal flaw in Western liberalism: when a foreign radical openly suborned the murder of a British citizen, Western politicians, media personalities and religious leaders did not unite in solidarity against this barbaric threat; many, in fact, found fault with the novelist: for daring to offend, for his deliberate provocation, for blasphemy. Bookstores in America and the United Kingdom were bombed, either for stocking the book or for vocalizing their support for Rushdie. Western hostages were taken in the Middle East; the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death, and the Italian translator gravely wounded. Rushdie has lived in hiding ever since, never disclosing his public appearances far in advance, checking into hotels under pseudonyms and traveling with bodyguards.

If any good can be said to have come from this hideous affair, it is this: battle lines were drawn, and for the very first time it became perfectly clear, to those with eyes to see, where everyone stood. Ibn Warraq, an Indian-born Pakistani educated in Scotland, penned Why I Am Not A Muslim to add his voice to the causes of secularism and free thought, self-consciously modeling his treatise on Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “Why I Am Not A Christian.” Thus, after a short introduction in which he notes that Islam has been largely spared from the critical writings that eroded Christian and Jewish dogmas, he launches into a systematic dismantling of the Islamic faith, beginning by poking holes in its historical narrative. Consider the central figure in Islam, the prophet Mohammad, said to have died in 632 A.D. The earliest biography of him did not appear until 120 years after his death, and this survives not in its original form but in revisions written more than 200 years after his death. The dubious biography of Mohammad is particularly inconvenient for the Muslim faithful, because their entire religious instruction is derived from both the Quran, considered to be the word of god, and the hadith, the teachings and example of the Prophet. Because of the belated biography of Mohammad, and the immense power that control over that biography bestows, numerous competing traditions exist, and even the Muslim faithful accept that many of these are fraudulent. But what of the handful of traditions treated as authoritative, from which stem the most fundamental edicts of Islam? Drawing on the scholarship of Ignaz Goldziher, considered the founder of the modern study of Islam, and Joseph Schacht, a former Islamic legal scholar and Columbia University professor, Warraq demonstrates that many of these are simple forgeries, tools for the rulers of the time to indirectly exercise their authority.

The Quran itself, the Islamic miracle incarnate, is next to undergo scrutiny. Warraq begins by pointing out that, for a document considered to be the literal word of god, there are a frighteningly high number of versions and variants. As Warraq puts it, “there is no such thing as the Koran; there never has been a definitive text of this holy book. When a Muslim dogmatically asserts that the Koran is the word of God, we need only ask ‘Which Koran?’ to undermine his certainty.” Charles Joseph Adams, an Islamic scholar at McGill University, emphasizes that “literally thousands of variant readings of particular verses” existed. What today is considered the definitive text was cobbled together from an oral tradition that spanned at least a century, further undermining the text’s authority. Some of the problems with the Quran are, frankly, comical. For example, though it is purported to be the word of god, many of the phrases are clearly directed to god, by some unspecified person (likely Mohammad). Later scholars, eager to cover up this embarrassing oversight, introduced the imperative “say” before each sura to modify the grammar enough to disguise the speaker, but this has left some passages in which God is made to swear by himself.

There are also passages within the Quran that are contradictory: one verse will compel the faithful to a certain behavior, and a subsequent verse will demand the opposite. Mohammad, made aware of this inconsistency, supplied a solution in sura 2.105: “Whatever verses we [ie, God] cancel or cause you to forget, we bring a better or its like.” Later verses have therefore been given precedence over earlier verses, though what this says about the eternal word of god it is best not to ask. There is something else noteworthy about the ordering of the Quran: the verses are not given in chronological order, but appear according to their length, with longer ones preceding shorter ones. Thus it is often the case that a verse that appears early in the Quran is said to cancel out a verse that appears later, on the grounds that the earlier verse is dated to a later period in Mohammad’s life. More troubling, still, for would-be reformers, is the fact that the verses preaching tolerance and non-violence are largely dated to the earlier, Meccan period, while the verses that advocate killing, maiming and decapitating are dated to the later, Medinan period.

But Warraq’s larger quarrel is with the faith itself, not its claims to legitimacy. In one particularly provocative chapter, he quotes from the 1948 Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, article by article, and follows each passage with an example of how Islamic law undermines or opposes each individual human right. His larger argument, in fact, is that morality, as it is understood in the West, does not exist under Islam; that to the Muslim faithful, “good” and “bad” are measured in terms of adherence to the faith above all other metrics. In the book’s later chapters, he leaves history and theology behind, training his sights on life in Muslim countries, where he finds the status of women, of religious minorities and of unbelievers hopelessly wanting. Honour killings, male and female genital mutilation, child marriages, polygamy, “dowry deaths,” the murder of homosexuals – each is given a full exposition. Warraq, at all times, is particularly critical of those who aspire to reform Islam from within. On this point, he has a message we would do well to take to heart: “Yet to do battle with the orthodox, the fanatics, and the mullas in the interpretation of these texts is to do battle on their (the fanatics’) terms, on their ground. For every text that you produce, they will adduce a dozen others contradicting yours. The reformists cannot win on these terms.” In other words, genuine reform cannot come from within the faith, only through an erosion of that faith.