"The ability to listen to a story," said the renowned Telugu litterateure Rachakonda Vishwanatha Shastri, "is as important as the genius for writing one." Similarly, if writing a book is one dimension of the effort, publishing is another. These days, it often takes courage to publish a controversial book. In the wake of the persecution of Salman Rushdie and the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, many publishers have become reluctant to bring out controversial books. They are particularly chary of publishing anything that is critical of Muslims, Prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islamic laws. In the circumstances, the courage shown by Prometheus Books of U.S.A. in bringing out Ibn Warraq's Why I am Not a Muslim is praiseworthy.
The author who calls himself Ibn Warraq (not his real name) was born into a Muslim family, but became a severe critic of Islam. There are many works critical of Islam written by non-Muslims. These are routinely ignored by most Muslims. But when such a book - as the one under review - authored by one of their own faith appears, the reaction is swift and inhuman, and may even mean death for the author. The late Ayotollah Khomeini, the 'spiritual leader' of Islam issued a fatwa of death sentence against Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. After the publication of her book Lajja ('Shame') Taslima Nasreen of Bangladesh was forced to leave the country and live in exile in Sweden. These are only two of the best known cases of authors persecuted in the name of Islam. And yet, all these countries are signatories to the Declaration of Human Rights!
The book under review, Ibn Warraq's Why I am Not a Muslim is a work of great depth, based on intensive study and analysis of a large number of scholarly works on Islam. After this research (and his own experience), the author has declared himself unable to continue as a Muslim. His willingness to share his findings and views on this highly combustible topic bears testimony to his extraordinary courage.
Sources: facts and fiction
When Bertrand Russell published his Why I am Not a Christian, it was wholeheartedly welcomed by adherents of other faiths. Ibn Warraq makes the insightful observation that if Allah were to be substituted for Jesus in Russell's work, it would still be substantially on the mark. The same in fact may applies to all religions. Recently, Ramendra Bihar has written a book called Why I am Not a Hindu which may be said to be in the same vein as the books of Russell and Ibn Warraq.2
In his book of 17 chapters, Ibn Warraq has examined every aspect of Islam - both its doctrine and its application. The book opens with the Rushdie affair. The details are well known: in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (religious decree) of death sentence against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses. As Ibn Warraq notes, almost as reprehensible was the conduct of some Western liberals some of whom even justified Khomeini's fatwa; no less a person than the French author Michel Foucault welcomed it. One can only speculate as to the causes: greed for favours, or fear perhaps.3
At a doctrinal level Christianity is as dogmatic as Islam. But as Ibn Warraq has noted, to some extent at least, Christians have begun to take notice of academic progress and the results of modern science and research, something which Muslims have yet to do. He has also observed that the Koran does not tolerate any academic examination of its claims. (Progress among 'Christians' is due to the rise of secular-humanism in the West, and not due to any inherent tolerance of dissent or the growth of scientific spirit within Christianity.)
The second chapter discusses at length the origins of Islam and also the influence of Christian and Jewish source books from which the Koran has heavily borrowed. The author points out that though supposedly opposed to idolatry, Muslims have installed and worship a Black Stone at Kaaba, their holiest shrine. (Astrophysicist Carl Sagan and others have identified it as a meteorite. Before Islam, Kaaba seems to have been known to Hindus of India as a place of pilgrimage.) According to Ibn Warraq, the choice of the spot of Kaaba was in all probability due to its proximity to the well of Zam Zam - a precious water source on the caravan route that passed through Mecca on its way to Yemen and Syria.
The third chapter examines the problems associated with the sources of Islam. It shows that many of the traditional beliefs about the Koran have little or no historical basis.
The fourth chapter takes a critical look at the message and teachings of Muhammad. The author highlights the fact that many who have criticized the Prophet were not necessarily non-believers, but sincere scholars who nonetheless stated simply as facts many things that the orthodox may find unpalatable. During the first period in Mecca, Muhammad appears to have been religiously motivated, sincerely seeking truth. His attitude seems to have undergone a sea change in subsequent years as he gained in power and influence.
The fifth chapter presents a critical overview of the Koran. For Muslims, the Koran is holy, wholly God-given, and of which every word is true to the letter. The author demonstrates that this has no basis in reality. On the other hand, the Koran is full of inconsistencies, with many contradictions, later textual additions, and variant readings. All this is supported with the help of profuse examples.
What is particularly telling is the author's observation that all Islamic countries are signatories to the Declaration of Human Rights, while their sacred book - the Koran - is filled with teachings that grossly violate human rights. In addition, like the Bible, the Koran too rejects the Theory of Evolution and other findings of science.
Islam and the state
The author next brings out the uncompromisingly totalitarian nature of the 'religion' of Islam; democracy and Islam are fundamentally incompatible. It is full of "do" and "don't" injunctions which it uses to regulate the whole of human life from birth to death. It is not just democracy which Islam is opposed to, Islam has no place for secularism. It does not separate religion from polity.4
The Islamic law or Sharia rests on four pillars: the Koran, the Sunna (sayings and traditions of the Prophet), the ljma or the consensus of orthodox scholars, and the Qiyas or reasoning through analogy. But according to the author, the Koran was written down over a period from the 7th to the 9th century AD, appropriating large portions from apocryphal Christian, Zoroastrian and Samaritan traditions. It is filled with countless irrationalities, grammatical errors and self-contradictions - hardly living up to the claim of the infallible word of God.
There are occasional homilies about the need for generosity and kindness towards parents and so forth, but these are greatly outnumbered by its voluminous negative outpourings - of extreme intolerance towards pagans and other nonbelievers, calls to violence and slaughter, gender inequality and other similarly inhuman teachings. The Prophet of Islam expresses his disgust at human reasoning - the enemy of blind faith.
Orthodox Muslim scholars stoutly deny the existence of a priestly order in Islam, but the reality is different. In the name of ulema its priesthood has held on to a monopoly over the interpretation of Islam and has for centuries been a barrier to progress. It is these mullahs who have turned back every attempt at progress, from the spread of rational thinking to the growth of science. The author is uncompromising in his indictment of Sharia; it was drawn up over a thousand years ago and can hardly be used as a panacea for every human situation today. Such obstinacy, he argues, can only retard moral and every other kind of progress.
Muslim countries have signed the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 while at the same time professing unwavering loyalty to Islam. They also continue to be members of the United Nations. But Islam violates human rights at every step. Men and women are treated as unequal in Islam, and the testimony of a woman in a court of law is worth only half of that of a man.
To begin with, the Declaration of Human Rights does not countenance gender inequality. But Islam restricts the freedom of women in almost every respect; the insistence on the veil (purdah) is only one example of it. For another, Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslims.
The Declaration of Human Rights is also against religious discrimination, but non-Muslims living in Muslim countries have almost no rights - sometimes not even the right to life. Persons belonging to other faiths are forbidden from offering their prayers, building temples and churches, or reciting their sacred texts. Slavery is legal (according to the Koran), and men are allowed to cohabit with any number of concubines.
Torture and degrading punishment are also against human rights, but they are commonplace in Islamic societies. Such savage punishments as public flogging, scores and even hundreds of lashes (in public) for women, amputation of limbs, and stoning to death are freely prescribed.
Human rights imply universal equality as a fundamental principle, but Islamic countries flagrantly violate this principle. For instance, conversion to Islam is permitted and even encouraged, but apostasy - or leaving Islam - is forbidden under pain of death. Islam does not recognize freedom of conscience; in fact, it sees it as a great evil.
The author has provided pages upon pages of testimony showing that human rights have no place in Islam. According to him secularist reform is unavoidable if Muslims are to keep pace with the rest of the world. This means religion and polity must be separated. (But if this happens Islam will collapse. Islam without the power to control and regulate the people is inconceivable.)
Women in Islam and other topics
The author devotes a whole chapter to the attitude of Islam towards woman. Islam like Christianity believes that the creation of man came before that of woman. (They both borrowed the idea from Judaism.) It gives precedence to man, and as the author shows with numerous examples, Islam has been savage in its treatment of women. Here are a few examples.
A women during the menstrual period is not. permitted to touch the Koran. She is not allowed to go anywhere near the Kaaba. She can neither pray nor fast. In all this, regarding woman as inferior to man is both axiomatic and mandatory (Koran 2.282). Even in matters of division of property, the daughter is entitled to only half of what a son is assigned. Pursuit of vengeance is also sanctioned in the Koran (Koran 2.178). Muslim jurists have declared that man possesses greater wisdom than woman. The author discusses the dominance of man in sexual mores and also how Muslim women themselves treat other women.
Regarding women as slaves, keeping them strictly confined to the home and treating them as inferiors are best exemplified in the practice of wearing the veil (purdah) by women. It is mandatory, women have no choice in the matter. In some countries Muslim women have discarded the veil, but both Islam and the clergy look down upon such a practice. Also, whenever the clergy manage to gain control of the state - as in Iran - they invariably reverse the trend by re-imposing the veil. The author provides many such instances.
The author has also dealt with the poetic tradition in Islam, and the role of women and wine found therein. Here also there are inconsistencies. In one place Prophet Muhammad refers to wine as of divine origin (Koran 16.69), while he prohibits it elsewhere (5.92). (The Prophet was himself said to enjoy a drink of wine once in a while as do many of his followers, especially in the West.)5
All religions impose certain restrictions in matters of food and drink. Hinduism and Christianity are no exceptions. Islam regards pigs as unclean and has banned pork in any form (again borrowing from Judaism). But Muslims in China consume pork while calling it mutton. Even in the staunchly Islamic Morocco, pork is eaten widely if clandestinely.
Personality of the Prophet
Ibn Warraq devotes a full chapter to the personality of Prophet Muhammad, including positive traits in his character which made him stand out in history. During the Mecca period, his conduct appears to have been marked by sincerity and even nobility. But his personality and attitudes seem to have undergone a radical change during the Medina period. He began to see himself as the infallible Messenger of God and intercessory. (In other words, he became a megalomaniac.)
Muslims hold that there is no salvation for non-Muslims - that is, for those who do not believe that Allah is the Only God and Muhammad is His (Last) Prophet. They also believe it is the sacred duty of Muslims to spread this message to the whole of humanity (by the sword if necessary). The author has convincingly argued that there can be no greater hallucination. Bertrand Russell bears testimony to the untenability of such a stand.
The author has also shown that the growth of fresh ideas and intellectual freedom have suffered grievously because of Prophet Muhammad's declaration that the Koran is divine in origin, the sole repository of ultimate truth to the exclusion of everything else. (His followers have ensured that this claim is not questioned by anyone concerned about one's life.)
Summary and warning
Why I am Not A Muslim is not a book of fantasy - or of veiled attack - like Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. It is a deeply felt intellectual tour de force by a great Muslim scholar whose heart bleeds for the fate of his fellow Muslims, and whose thirst for knowledge has led him on a path of incomparable research and study. Because of the well-known (and widely feared) Muslim proclivity to violence the book had to be brought out by an American humanist publisher rather than any of the major publishing houses. It is doubtful that there exists another work on the subject as scholarly, as detailed or as comprehensive, not to say as courageous.
Looking at the scene in India, the writings of Hamid Dalwai and A.B. Shah have set many people thinking about the nature of Islam. If Ibn Warraq's book were to be made widely available in India, it may serve to open the eyes of the people further. After placing before us the Koran in its true colours, the author has highlighted the danger of continuing the practice of dinning into the impressionable minds of innocent Muslim children the contents of the 6000 odd Suras making up the Koran, forcing them to commit them to memory to the exclusion of everything else.