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
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: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, sura 2,
verse 256). Others try to rationalize: “Every religion is equally culpable, so
let’s not criticize any of them.” 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 “mainstream”:
• 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
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 “a son of a bitch,” 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: “Nor 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 rebellion”
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
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).