Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq, Prometheus Books, UK. ISBN 0 87975 984 4. £ 22. Rationalist Press Association members: £ 15, Including postage, from RPA, Bradlaugh House.
My own attempt to engage with Islam has, before reading this book, mainly been through talking with a group of Islamic students from Kings College, London, who regularly set up a lunchtime stall outside their college gates in The Strand, opposite the church of St. Mary Overy. Their views are extreme, but appear entirely within the mainstream Islamic tradition.
I have put it to them that it is ironic that they should be using such a platform to complain about the denial of "freedom of speech" for themselves inside the building (this after the college authorities had banned a debate they planned to hold on the execution of heretics and blasphemers) while admitting that they do not believe in freedom of speech for others. They agree with me that they would not be allowed to set up such a stall (even to promote Islam, let alone to criticise it) in Riyadh, Tehran, Islamabad or Dacca. But the irony that they should demand freedom of speech in order to denounce freedom of speech is entirely lost on them. They agree, that they despise "Western Democracy" and the freedoms it guarantees: but they are not above using those very freedoms to denounce and call for the abolition of freedom. They are as convinced as any Marxist, and perhaps with better reason, of the eventual triumph of their creed. At least Marxism is falsified by the failure of its prophecies concerning the withering of the state and the collapse of capitalism. Islam, for better or worse, admits of no falsification.
The Muslim students to whom I have recently been talking have not heard of Ibn Warraq or his book. If it came into their hands, they would probably want to burn it publicly, as their co-religionists in Bradford did with Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in 1989. Perhaps we should at least be grateful that there is no longer an Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against Why I am not a Muslim and its author, put a price on his head and incite the faithful to murder him. But the fanatical intolerance of those Islamic students who demand their right to criticise others, yet who accept no reciprocal rights of others to criticise their position, clearly shows that and why a book like the one under review is both timely and necessary, even if one can think of several ways in which it might have been improved.
Mr. Warraq was born and raised a Muslim, but is now a secular humanist, a freethinker and rationalist critic, not just of Islam but of all religions, regarding them, in David Hume's word, as "sick men's dreams." As an apostate, he is, in Muslim eyes, guilty of a crime far more heinous than murder or even genocide. Indeed, murder and genocide have traditionally been the preferred methods of rooting out dissent, heresy, unbelief and rival religions and philosophies in all Islamic cultures. And this is as true today as it was in the 7th or the 9th Centuries. So we must salute Why I am not a Muslim, as R. Joseph Hoffmann does in the Foreword, as a "courageous" work. The author has, quite literally, put his life on the line.
Mr. Warraq tells us in his Preface that it was the Rushdie affair which galvanised him into writing his book, though he also tells us later, that he is "not a scholar or a specialist." He has at any rate 'read widely and deeply, and succeeds in conveying a great deal of information about both the history and the tenets of Islam, and of its treatment of dissenters. I am unable to comment on the accuracy or balance of this part of the work, though it has every appearance of being thoroughly researched. I must, however, confess to finding some parts of the book rather tediously repetitive. It is surely enough to make a point well, without constantly quoting two or three other writers who essentially make the same point. Our author himself at one point observes (p. 133) that it may seem he is "belabouring the obvious." But he wishes "more people would belabour the obvious, and more often." The trouble is that those who most need it are unlikely to read the book, while for the rest of us, it causes avoidable longueurs. Skilful editing by the publishers could, in my opinion, have made the book tighter, sharper and of even greater value.
That being said, there is much here to provoke thought and the following-up of themes in the massive literature, most of it unknown to the general reader, with which Mr Warraq acquaints us. On some topics his comments are so pertinent and valuable that one would like to see them separately printed as a pamphlet. Particularly commendable is his critique of relativism, of the spinelessness of Western liberal intellectuals in the face of Islamic totalitarianism, and of our too-ready capitulation to extremely one-sided leftwing criticisms of the Western Democratic tradition. As one who currently lives in America but grew up in a country which now calls itself an Islamic republic, Mr Warraq is well placed to judge just how much is to be lost by the surrender of entirely justifiable pride in the real achievements of Western democracies. For this, he suggests, an insidious relativism and misplaced "political correctness" is largely responsible.
I shall quickly pass over the very extensive critical work on the Koran and other traditional sources of Islam which Mr. Warraq relates, and his detailed history of the banditry, bloodshed and terror which chiefly characterised the early centuries of Islam, and which are resurgent in our own. It may come as a surprise to most readers to learn that the Koran did not achieve anything like its present shape until about two centuries after the death of Muhammed - roughly the same time it took the Christian Church to finalise its New Testament canon. And many of the traditional, extra-koranic sources for the life and teachings of the Prophet have been shown by recent scholarship to be extremely unreliable. So much for the basic Islamic dogmas of an infallible Prophet and an inerrant God-authored holy book. What the traditional sources tell us of the Prophet, however, make him seem as unappealing as any other manipulative and power-hungry opportunist in history. It is good to know that opposition to the Prophet and his teachings, and the totalitarian religion which grew out of them, goes back to his own time and peoples, and has never been entirely silenced, even though so many gainsayers have paid with their lives, as they still are doing. While Christendom has much to be ashamed of, Mr Warraq suggests that Islam has been even more brutally culpable.2
Even today, the social teachings of Islam perpetuate the inferiority of women and their subjection to absolute control in all aspects of their lives - even as to whether and when they may leave the house - of their husbands (to whom they must remain constantly available, except when "unclean," as objects of unrestrained sexual gratification), or if unmarried, their male guardians. Such unequal treatment of the sexes is defended in the literature I have picked up outside Kings College as "elevating the situation of the people from the level of animals (as is the case in the west), to one where the dignity and honour of all human beings is preserved and respected (as would be the case in an Islamic State)."
George Orwell and Franz Kafka together could surely not have dreamed up a more terrifying perversion of the truth. I commend Ibn Warraq's book as a much needed antidote and corrective to such shameless propaganda. Even if some of its chapters can be safely passed over by the general reader, there are others which will amply repay careful study by virtually everyone.