Essays from Free Inquiry magazine (#4)

Date: Mon 11 Nov 2002 - 00:55:34 GMT

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    Why Critical Scrutiny of Islam Is an Utmost Necessity Can reason blunt fanaticism? by Syed Kamran Mirza

    The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 2.

    Islam faces unprecedented scrutiny worldwide. This is appropriate”indeed, an utmost necessity. Westerners demand to know the source of Muslim hatred towards them. After September 11, Qur™ans sold vigorously across the West to readers wondering what it contained that could incite such murderous zealotry.

    Muslims could benefit even more from critical scrutiny of Islam. Yet many react violently when Islam is criticized, whether by Muslim or non-Muslim critics. Defenders claim that Islam is the most tolerant and peaceful of religions, perhaps quoting the only unequivocally tolerant Qur™anic verse they can recall: śThere is no compulsion in religionť (Qur™an, sura 2, verse 256). Others try to rationalize: śEvery religion is equally culpable, so let™s not criticize any of them.ť Some vehemently cite the fallacies of Hinduism, Christianity, and other religions, then denounce the critic of Islam for failing to censure those religions equally. In angry tones they demand to know why the critic targets Islam alone.

    I cannot accept this notion. To me, all diseases are bad”yet some are more acute, more lethal than others. Likewise all religions may be bad, but in my view Islam is the most harmful as regards its negative effects on the individual and on society in general.

    Consider that most religions other than Islam are at least partly dysfunctional today. Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism are nearly dormant as political and social forces, though they still function at the personal level. Most historically Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist countries have relatively democratic and secular governments. We can say that the world religions other than Islam are like diseases that have run their course, leaving behind old scars and little else.

    The Fever of Islam Far from being an old scar, Islam is a raging fever in its most acute phase. It currently enjoys worldwide rejuvenation as an all- encompassing religious, political, and social system. In every Muslim country, fundamentalists grasp for power, if they do not already possess it. No Muslim country has a secular government; almost a dozen strictly enforce the 1,400-year-old Sharia law. In all the rest governments are more or less strongly influenced by Sharia. In consequence of Islam™s resurgence, Muslim societies are going backward all over the world.

    Islam is the only major world religion today in which claims such as these remain śmainstreamť:

    ˘ Islam is the only purely God-given religion.

    ˘ Every word of the Qur™an is God™s word.

    ˘ The Qur™an contains all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, that humankind will ever need.

    ˘ The Qur™an has authoritative answers to all human problems.

    Orthodox Muslims go one step further, claiming that, after God gave humanity the Qur™an, he declared all previous religions null and void. From this it follows that every human should eventually embrace Islam. Reflecting that agenda, Islam divides the world into two parts: Dar-al-Harb (the land of war) and Dar-al-Islam (the land of Islam). Dar-al-Harb is the land of the infidels. On the orthodox Islamic view, Muslims are obliged to infiltrate that land, proselytize, and procreate until their numbers increase, and finally engage in warfare to conquer the original inhabitants and impose Islam upon them. Thus shall they convert Dar-al-Harb into Dar-al- Islam.

    Taliban fanatics told Western reporters that they dreamed of converting the whole world into Dar-al-Islam after establishing their now-fallen model regime in Afghanistan. Indeed, the belief is widespread among both educated and illiterate Muslims that, one day, all inhabitants of the world will convert to Islam.

    In all these things Islam differs little from other world religions at the periods in their own histories when most adherents believed their teachings literally and considered them the only truth. The problem for”and with”Islam is that one of its periods of literalism, exclusivism, and violent zeal is occurring now.

    Religious Zeal and Societal Blight History shows clearly that culture and the individual suffer whenever any religion acquires overwhelming social power. From the fourth to the thirteenth centuries c.e., Europe was dominated by strict Christianity”first under the Holy Roman Empire, then under contending feudal kings, each of whom claimed to represent God on Earth. Over them all loomed the authority of the church. Not surprisingly, dogmatism, intolerance, inhumanity, and backwardness blighted Europe. Because the Bible was thought to answer all human questions, theological autocrats held that freethinking, scientific inquiry, and technical innovation were not only unnecessary but dangerous. Europe™s condition remained desperate until religious control began to weaken in the thirteenth century.

    Religious absolutism holds similar sway in many Islam-ic countries today, with equivalent results. Certainly in Bangladesh, from which I emigrated, social conditions are no better than those during Europe™s Dark Ages. Belying claims that religious zeal makes human beings pure and honest, the most zealously religious Muslim nations are almost invariably the most corrupt.

    If the reader finds my position harsh, please answer this question: Which world religion or religions proclaim strict dress codes for men as well as women; command crimes such as thievery to be punished by the whip or by chopping off appendages; ordain adulterous women to be stoned and blasphemers to be put to death; encourage believers to look upon adherents of all other religions as worthy of subjugation or death; and inspire fanatics to seek to overthrow secular governments in hopes of establishing religious states in numerous countries worldwide? If I want to write a declaration that Jesus Christ was the son of a Roman soldier, or even call him śa son of a bitch,ť I can do so in the West without fear of the death penalty. Could I say the same in any Muslim nation about the prophet Muhammad?

    I have studied most religions thoroughly and entirely. I have yet to find another world religion that gives so many scriptural instructions of hate and subjugation towards other creeds. As far as I know, Islam is the only religion that forbids its adherents to offer so much as a funeral prayer for non-Muslims. Let the Qur™an speak for itself: śNor do thou ever pray for any of them that dies, Nor stand at his grave, for they rejected Allah and His Apostle, and died in a state of perverse rebellionť (9:54).

    Again, Islam™s potential for harm is magnified by the fact that we live in a secular age in which, over most of the world, God and religion exert dwindling power over public life. Only in the Islamic world are God and religion still standing so tall”not only among a largely illiterate general public but also among far too many Muslim intellectuals.

    A Call for Reformation I am not anti-religious, nor I am an atheist. I am an agnostic, and my belief in supernatural power is not that of conventional religions. I do not believe, as many Muslims do, that anyone who does not accept the Qur™an as God™s word is necessarily an atheist. To question the proof or authenticity of what is put forth as God™s word is not to question the existence of God. Even so, my reason prompts me not to believe in any personal God who rewards for good deeds and punishes for bad deeds. Nor do I hope to see any religion destroyed or abolished. What I can and do demand is reformation.

    To my knowledge, no major historical religion ever has been abolished. But most of them underwent reformation as a result of sustained critical scrutiny. Their myths have been exposed, their claims to divine sanction and sole possession of truth sharply undercut. These reformations took place through the continuous education of believers, achieved by making better translations of scriptures readily available to the public, and by the practice of continuous historical inquiry, analysis, and criticism. In much of the world this process brought forth an ideal of secularism under which most believers embrace their religion for emotional support but no longer grant it the power to inspire acts of hatred and exclusion.

    It took several centuries to subdue the power of fanaticism in Christianity and Hinduism in this way. Islam needs the same treatment”and needs it very badly, if today™s third-world Muslim countries are ever to prosper.

    We don™t need to abolish Islam, as if that could be done. What we need is to educate Muslims about the real Islam, about its historical sources and the limits of its wisdom”just as adherents of other world religions have been educated in the last few centuries.

    Unfortunately the prospect for such a Muslim reformation is currently remote, for several reasons. For thirteen centuries the Qur™an has remained untranslated into the languages many Muslims speak. Common Muslims revere and recite it, but not knowing Arabic, they have no idea what it says. Compare this to the historical experience of Christianity, whose Reformation depended on the wide availability of Bibles in vernacular translations. Many Muslim intellectuals can read the Qur™an in its original Arabic, but, unlike in Christianity or Hinduism, whose intellectuals have tended to be skeptical inquirers, most Muslim intellectuals remain blindfolded by dogma. Only in Islam is the intellectual class generally more religiously zealous than the common people and still actively involved in preaching to the masses. For this reason, fundamentalist Islam may succeed in deflecting the impact of science, which exerted such powerful demythologizing and secularizing influence upon Christianity and Hinduism. Indeed, today Muslim intellectuals popularize a disingenuous Qur™anic interpretation of science that helps promote the rejuvenation of fanaticism, and is far more mainstream than is so-called scientific creationism in contemporary Christianity.

    In sum, we Muslim expatriates who yearn to bring about an Islamic reformation face a vast and dangerous challenge. But it is a challenge that secularists must meet if we ever hope to bring Muslim world once more to the fore of civilization and prosperity. In order to achieve a true secularism, we must help the common people of the Muslim world to learn that everything in the Qur™an and the Hadith is not necessarily God™s word. And we must help them learn so much more. Only a reformation in thought and belief driven by unwavering critical scrutiny can hope to establish secularism and drive back the darkness in third-world Muslim countries like Bangladesh.


    1. The Holy Qur™an, trans. by A. Yousuf Ali (Brentwood, Md.: Amana Corporation, 1983).

    2. Buchari Sharif, Bengali translation by Maulana Muhammad Mustafizur Rahman, 2nd ed. (Dhaka: Sulemani Printers and Publishers, 2nd ed., 1999).

    3. The World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago, London, Toronto: World Book Inc.”a Scott Fetzer Company, 1991).

    Syed Kamran Mirza is active with the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society (ISIS).

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