A program of the Center for Inquiry
The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, by Ali A. Rizvi (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2016, ISBN 9781250094445). 239 pp. Hardcover, $26.99.
Atheism is rare in Muslim populations. Moreover, even more than among Christians, atheists are distrusted and associated with immorality. Public expressions of nonbelief often risk prosecution, and nonbelievers who escape blasphemy laws face severe social disapproval, risking livelihoods and family ties.
Still, there is a Muslim tradition of religious skepticism, particularly among intellectuals with a modern education. Most Western nonbelievers know little about Muslim atheists, who have typically been leftists or secular nationalists, fans of the European Enlightenment but critics of Western imperialism. Much of what they have said, therefore, has not been interesting or acceptable to a mainstream American audience.
Ali Rizvi’s The Atheist Muslim presents a more relatable version of dissent from Islam. Coming from an educated, prosperous, and liberal Pakistani Shia family, Rizvi grew up with the experience of being a religious minority both in his homeland and in Saudi Arabia, where his parents worked for some years. Both Shia and conservative Sunni practices shaped Rizvi’s perception of Islam. He eventually trained as a physician and settled in North America, and though many applied scientists gravitate toward religious nationalism or a mushy liberal spirituality, Rizvi went in a more skeptical direction.
Indeed, Rizvi’s well-written accounts of his personal experiences with more rigorous forms of Islam are a large part of why reading this book is enjoyable. Critics of conservative Islam often produce litanies of absurdities and outrages; Rizvi’s narrative gives both more context and makes it clear that there are a lot more than abstractions at stake. And since Rizvi is part of an international class of liberal professionals, his moral and political perspective very comfortably fits in with a typical secular humanist outlook. Sometimes this means that atheism in a Muslim environment looks like any other oppressed identity. But Rizvi’s main thrust is in a liberal universalist direction, in contrast to traditional and conservative forms of Islam that consistently appear as backward and antimodern.
If his outlook makes Rizvi one of us and hence easy to empathize with for secular Western readers, this also means the book has some limitations. The Atheist Muslim rarely challenges our conventional wisdom about Islam, even though the conventional wisdom is often superficial and frequently inaccurate. For example, like many liberal Muslims, Rizvi brings up the early sect of the Mutazilites as a reforming, rationalist current within Islam, portraying them as if they were proto-secularists ahead of their time. Such anachronisms have dangers: conservative Muslim intellectuals well remember that the Mutazilites were associated with the closest analogue to an Inquisition in Muslim history and that the forebears of today’s conservatives were on the receiving end of the persecution. Some will link the Mutazilite elitism and intolerance of over a thousand years ago with the repressive practices of modern secular regimes in Muslim lands. Now, for Western readers, such examples may seem like unimportant concerns about historical details. However, they illustrate how Rizvi is not very familiar with either serious conservative Muslim writings or the relevant scholarly literature. The references he cites are mainly journalistic or polemical in nature.
Rizvi’s embrace of the conventional wisdom is most jarring when he discusses events such as the Arab Spring, remixing liberal myths of progress and techno-optimism about social media. Rizvi has little to offer on the Arab Spring beyond journalistic superficialities such a fascination with iPhones, “innovation,” “crowd-sourcing,” and so forth, all wrapped up in those upper–middle-class grievances most celebrated by the Western media. Not only is this of limited use for analyzing the Arab Spring, it leaves Rizvi conspicuously silent in the face of the Arab Spring’s failure to advance secular causes.
A similar example is how Rizvi calls Turkey a “secular democracy” and briefly describes Turkey as a secular success story. This is a long-standing journalistic cliché, but it has lately been increasingly disconnected from reality. Economic and political neoliberalism has loosened up some constraints on individual freedom in Turkey, particularly for an elite stratum closest to Rizvi’s social background. But the overarching story of Turkey in recent decades has been re-Islamization. Far from a secular success, Turkey is an outstanding example of desecularization.
Criticizing Rizvi’s dependence on the conventional wisdom may be picky—after all, most of the book is about popular religion rather than history and political developments. Indeed, Rizvi is at his strongest when dissecting religious apologetics and exposing the tangled attempts at reinterpretation religious liberals often propose. It is refreshing to read a book where, unlike most secular Muslims, the author refuses to settle for some far-fetched reconciliation between traditional beliefs and a modern secular outlook. Nonetheless, Rizvi still sounds some false notes when discussing religion. Again, this may be attributable to his distance from the scholarly literature and overreliance on popular polemics.
Like many popular critics of Islam, Rizvi is invested in portraying the more rigorous and literalist expressions of Islam as the most authentic. Liberal Muslims, the heterodox, those who emphasize mystical practices, those who mediate their understanding of revelation through historical communities and charismatic leaders—everyone except the minority who thump the loudest on their Qur’ans—become deficient Muslims, inadequate reflections of a scripture-defined ideal type. This view of religion helps to sharply define a target to criticize, but it is also a curiously nonsecular notion of religion. A critic can set aside Islam as a messy social phenomenon and concentrate on the texts, the rules, and the orthodoxies. The result is an inverted fundamentalism that accepts the notion of Islam as an emanation from the sacred texts, only withholding belief.
Fortunately, Rizvi does not entirely confine himself to such an inverted fundamentalism. Many of the Muslims he knows best are liberals, and he expresses hope that liberal versions of Islam will take the edge off of some of the crazier and more dangerous aspects of traditional faith. After all, he argues, this is what has happened with Christianity and Judaism. On one hand, Rizvi has an intellectual distaste for tendentious reinterpretation that allows liberal Muslims to continue to affirm the Qur’an as the word of God. On the other hand, it seems that the most practical device for realizing Rizvi’s political hopes is just the sort of mushy liberal spirituality that he criticizes. He never resolves this tension.
Similar tensions also affect Rizvi’s extensive discussions of Islamic terrorism. Rizvi directly connects violence to the sacred texts. He points out that material deprivation or political grievances do not explain a lot of Islamic terrorism, and he indulges in psychological speculation about the motivations behind the violence. Then he picks a fight with some popular writers who highlight opposition to imperial intrusions as an explanation of Islamic terrorism, calling them apologists for Islam. This is not necessary. It is no surprise that liberal and leftist Western writers should emphasize how Western militarism fuels a radical Islamist reaction. After all, whatever influence and responsibility they have is centered on Western polities, not an Islamic community of which they are not a part. And in turn, many secular Muslim writers emphasize religious fanaticism—they still belong to the broadly defined community of Muslims, and that is where they might hope to change minds and behaviors. These are not mutually exclusive viewpoints: both can be correct. Most social phenomena have multiple, many-layered causes. Our ongoing polemics about Islamic terrorism as a response to imperial violence versus a religious pathology are not productive.
In the end, The Muslim Atheist is most reminiscent of the New Atheist literature. Its themes of rejecting religious immunity from criticism, exposing doctrinal absurdities, and rallying skeptics to an unapologetic affirmation of nonbelief are very familiar—as is its inverted fundamentalism, selective disregard of relevant scholarly literature, and casual assumption of the superiority of the moral prejudices of an educated professional class. However, while The Muslim Atheist is best described as a Muslim version of New Atheism, it is also an improvement. Rizvi is much better attuned to Muslim culture and avoids the ignorance and irrational hostility displayed by authors such as Sam Harris. Readers’ reactions to The Muslim Atheist will be similar to how they perceive the New Atheism. Many will find it fresh and transgressive. Others will be more ambivalent.
It is not surprising to run into Jewish atheists and cultural Christians who reject supernaturalism. Muslim atheists are still almost unheard of. Any flaws of The Muslim Atheist pale besides its demonstration that it is increasingly possible to identify with historically Muslim cultures while discarding traditional beliefs. If we are lucky, authors such as Rizvi will be successful, and they will help open up more space for liberal Muslims, the indifferent, and others who want to claim a Muslim identity without insisting that Islam is the One True Religion for everyone.
Taner Edis’s most recent book is Islam Evolving: Radicalism, Reformation, and the Uneasy Relationship with the Secular West (Prometheus Books, 2016).