Thursday, 20 May 2010
When Islamic atheism thrived
guardian.co.uk, Monday 10 May 2010 13.30 BST
It's astonishing to read about the freedom of expression afforded to Muslims in the 10th century, in contrast to our own times
Freethinking is perhaps not one of the strongest suits of modern Islam. For one thing, the list of books that have been banned for challenging prevalent religious orthodoxies and sensibilities during the past hundred years is disconcertingly long.
Modern Islamic clerics and scholars in various Muslim countries are often highly selective of which part of the Islamic heritage to emphasise and bring to light. Out of the countless and varied sources from centuries of vigorous debates, commentaries and controversies, they seem to dig out, and revel in, interpretations that are hopelessly conservative or frustratingly and grotesquely at odds with the life of modern Muslims.
It may therefore come as a surprise to many people that there is a long and vibrant intellectual tradition of dissidence and freethinking going back to the Middle Ages. The Islamic thinkers of the early medieval period expressed ideas and engaged in debates that would appear strangely enlightened in comparison with the attitudes and views adopted by modern Islamic scholarship.
This is the basic argument presented by From the History of Atheism in Islam by the renowned Egyptian thinker Abdel-Rahman Badawi. Published in Arabic in 1945, the book was reprinted only once in 1993. It discusses the work of the Islamic philosopher-scientists of the medieval period and the way they upheld reason, freedom of thought and humanist values, while questioning and often refuting some basic Islamic tenets.
Although many of those thinkers, according to Badawi, did not attempt to disprove the existence of God, they lashed out against the notion of prophethood and argued against the privileged position occupied by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.
Most prominent among those scholars was Abu Bakr al-Razi (865-925 CE) who believed in the supreme importance of reason. He argued that the mind had an innate capacity to distinguish between good and evil, and between what was useful and what was harmful. According to him, the mind did not need any guidance from outside it, and for this reason the presence of prophets was redundant and superfluous.
Al-Razi directed his most vehement attack against the holy books in general, including the Qur'an, because he saw them as illogical and self-contradictory. He also believed that all human beings were equal in their intellectual capacities as they were in all other things. It made no sense therefore that God should single out one individual from among them in order to reveal to him his divine wisdom and assign him the task of guiding other human beings. Furthermore, he found that prophets' pronouncements and stories often contradicted those of other prophets. If their source was divine revelation as is claimed, their views would have been identical. The idea of a divinely-appointed mediator was therefore a myth.
Al-Razi understood the hold of religious belief on society, which he attributed to several factors. Firstly, systems of beliefs spread mainly through the human propensity for imitating and copying others. Secondly, religion's popularity rested on the close alliance between clerics and political rulers. The clerics often used this alliance to impose their own personal beliefs on people by force whenever the power of persuasion failed. Thirdly, the lavish and imposing character of the attire of religious men contributed to the high regard in which they were held by common people. Lastly, with the passage of time religious ideas became so familiar that they turned almost into deep-seated instincts that were no longer questioned.
In examining this chapter of Islamic history, regardless of the validity or otherwise of the views expressed, one cannot help feel amazed at the fact that the Islamic thinkers of the 10th century had the freedom to discuss and publish their "unorthodox" ideas, while the Islamic world now cannot, or will not, deal with any form of intellectual dissent. It might be reasonable to suggest then that the problem of Islam does not lie in inherited texts and traditions, but in interpretation. The Islamic heritage, like its Christian counterpart, is made up of a huge body of commentaries and interpretations that were produced in various periods of history to address problems specific to their age. We need to remember that the Christian scriptures have not changed since the middle ages. It was in the name of these very texts that innumerable so-called heretics were burnt at the stake.
There is little doubt that Islamic scholars have the task and the responsibility to review tradition and re-emphasise the human values of tolerance and freedom of thought. They do not have to look far for these values. All they are required to do is to reach deep into their own cultural coffers to retrieve the pearls and discard the dregs.
Amira Nowaira obtained her PhD in English from Birmingham University. She is former chairperson of the department of English at Alexandria University and is currently professor of english literature in the same department