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