Response to Anti-Muslim Writings: Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim: Part I


1. There is a failure to recognize that Islam emerges out of a past that is then integrated into Islam. Or rather, this is considered to be some kind of a flaw, rather than a simple fact of all human reality. Everything and everyone comes out of, is influenced by, and incorporates a cultural past. This would appear to be a simple fact of all reality, but seems to be a problem for anti-Muslims.

Islam, like anything in human experience, comes out of a very specific historical and cultural milieu. Thus, the word "Allah" was known and used before the Qur'anic revelation. Rituals and pilgrimages to the Ka'ba were practiced before the onset of the Qur'anic revelation and were then adapted for Muslim use. Muhammad (saws) knew of and interacted with the Jews and Christians and hanifs of the times-- he was aware of their theologies. Arabic, like all languages, incorporated words from other languages which are then in the Qur'an. This is all accepted in Islam, and causes no problems. It seems strange to me that it would. Be that as it may, it is common in anti-Muslim writings to use the above points as some kind of a negative proof against our claim that the Qur'an is a revelation from God and Muhammad is a messenger from God. Warraq is no exception, though the logic of such a position escapes me. Indeed, it seems absurd and in denial of simple reality. He also, like others hostile to (or just grossly ignorant of) Islam portrays Muhammad as a power-hungry hedonist-- perhaps not realizing that he is only repeating wartime propaganda from the Crusades?

2. There is a failure to treat the Qur'an and sunnah as a whole. Muslims themselves make this mistake, and so cannot be too upset when those hostile to Islam do it too. So, for instance, people will take ayats from the Qur'an with no reference to other qualifying ideas in the Qur'an and with no reference to the historical situation at the time of the incident of revelation. (And I didn't even mention the centuries of commentary on the Qur'an and sunnah!) We often see this in Muslims who are possessed of an inordinate hatred for our Jewish cousins, or an inordinate hatred of non-Muslims, or who are harshly judgmental towards their Muslim brothers and sisters who may understand the Qur'an and sunnah a bit differently than they do. Such people will cite verses related to times of war, take them out of context, and disconnect them from the ethos presented by the Qur'an and sunnah as a whole. This same error is then used by those hostile to Islam in order to portray the Qur'an as advocating things such as aggressive violence and abuse of women.

This error can be a manipulative technique used by both violent and sexist Muslims, and by anti-Muslims trying to prove that Islam teaches and encourages violence and sexism.

We must always remember, and confront anti-Muslims with the idea that the Qur'an and sunnah present to us a whole, a gestalt, a total world-view, and an élan. Islam presents a unified, integrated, consonant portrait of all aspects of human reality. It denies nothing about actual human behavior and experience and so discusses all aspects of it and how the parts interrelate and, most importantly, how it can be ennobled and improved. The Qur'an acknowledges human behavior as it is, and seeks to ennoble it.

Islam presents what we might call the tawheedian world-view. Anti-Muslims do not grasp this, or realize what it means, or ignore it. Many Muslims who have been influenced by other types of world-view such as the ethnocentric, nationalist or Newtonian-Cartesian also fail to truly grasp this.

What this means in this context is that we cannot even accurately discuss Islamic views on topics such as gender relations or warfare without also, at the same time, discussing Islamic views on economics, social justice, sexuality, political relations, etc. In Islam, the whole illustrates the parts, and the parts, in turn, illustrate the whole. Any discussion of particular ayats that may appear to countenance aggressive violence or sexism must also, at the same time, refer to other seemingly unrelated topics. In Islam, many topics that may seem unrelated to some people are in fact related and shed light on each other and cannot be discussed apart from each other.

In the US we have a saying: "He misses the forest for the trees". That is, the person is so caught up in details he misses the totality of what is in front of him or her, and so misunderstands that at which he or she is looking. A forest is a total ecosystem. Will the person who looks only at individual trees understand the dynamic system that is the whole forest? Of course not. So too, we have to "grasp the ethos" of the Qur'an and sunnah-- the tawheedian world-view-- attempt to communicate it to non-Muslims, and use it to rebut the misrepresentations of Islam put forth by anti-Muslims such as Ibn Warraq.

3. There is a failure to recognize Muslim self-criticism. The ummah as a whole knows this generation's practice of our religion is, at best, poor. (Though we certainly debate the causes and cures of this test from God and pray we are the generation to establish an Islamic Renaissance.) I know of no Muslim who would argue that we today exemplify-- by any stretch of the imagination-- the principles and ideals of Islam. Anti-Muslims (including Warraq) ignore this. They will then hold up to us a mirror that does indeed reflect back our poor submission to the will of God, but they attempt to then portray this as normative, exemplary Islam.

When we acknowledge our own faults and defects and poor practice we are freed to respond effectively to those who would turn our faults into a weapon against the Qur'an and sunnah. Our collective and individual sins and defects do not indict the Qur'an and sunnah, they indict us.

4. There is a confusion of Arab or others' cultural practices and customs with Islam. Again, this is something that many Muslims do themselves. Anti-Muslims such as Warraq will present unique ethnic cultural practices and beliefs that may appear negative or even repulsive to those from other cultural backgrounds. The manipulative technique is to then equate issues related that cultural practice to Islamic teaching, or to Islam's effect upon that particular culture. Such attitudes ignore the incredible cultural and ethnic variety of the ummah and the simple demographic fact that most Muslims are not Arab, but Indonesian. This cultural and ethnic variety is rather apparent in the United States and seems difficult to ignore.

Islam presents the unique idea of a community that we might call post-ethnic and post-nationalist. Islam calls humanity to a community based upon shared belief in tawheedian monotheism-- not upon blood, nor genetics, nor nationalist identity. Many people, however, express their ethnic and nationalist pride, identity or yearning in the name of Islam and use Islamic language and Islamic sounding rationalizations to cover up their true ethnocentric and nationalistic desires. We thus provide ammunition for anti-Muslim propagandists.

Muslims have failed to truly begin to disentangle Islamic ideals from socio-cultural expressions, and have not yet truly wrestled with the relation between Islamic principles-- applicable to all times and people-- and specific ethnic/cultural/nationalist realities that challenge today's ummah.

5. Perhaps the greatest general error in Warraq's writing, and in similar writings, is yet another error also practiced by many contemporary Muslims. It is a failure to recognize the importance of literary genre when approaching the Qur'an, or any text, for that matter. That is, what "type of book" is the Qur'an? The Qur'an is not a history book, nor is it a science text. At its most basic it is a book that addresses the issue of that Who (or which) transcends humanity-- and it uses stories to do so. More specifically, it uses parables: stories meant not just for entertainment, but for teaching. Any specific legal injunctions in the Qur'an can only be understood with reference to the stories of the Qur'an. No anti-Muslim even attempts such a thing. Many Muslims seem to forget to do this.

Muslims set themselves up for problems when they try to convince non-Muslims of the truth of the Qur'an by resorting to the "scientific facts" approach to the Qur'an, or by portraying the Qur'an as some kind of a history book. It is not. It is a type of literature we call "scripture" and needs to be read properly as a scripture. (Indeed, does not the Qur'an itself mention something of how to read it?)

We do not read a book of poetry in the same way that we read a book on the science of botany. They are two different literary genres. Interestingly, both types can communicate truth about reality, but by using different methods of communication and styles of literature. We can read a poem about a tree and say "Yes, that is true of trees". We can also read a scientific paper about a tree and say the exact same thing, but if we treated the poem like a scientific paper, or expect poetic beauty from a scientific paper we are going to be in big trouble rather quickly! So too, when Muslims treat the Qur'an as something it is not. We then have only ourselves to blame when anti-Muslims ridicule us by turning this against us.

When we understand the dynamics of literary genre and how that effects our understanding of any book whatsoever we are armed with a powerful weapon to refute the false statements of anti-Muslims.


The above five general points seem to be present in any type of anti-Muslim writing and Warraq's book is no exception. And yet, at the same time, Warraq does point out problems with contemporary Muslim practice and with contemporary Muslim theology that are, in my opinion, right on target. For instance, he writes on page 149 that "Blind dogmatism has shut Muslims off from the intellectually challenging and exhilarating research, debate, and discussion of the last century and a half." This appears to me to be true and at the heart of the issue. It is my opinion that Muslims are, in general, stuck within a Medieval theological mindset. In my opinion it is this collective failure to grow and develop theologically-- represented by the phrase "closing the doors to ijtihad"-- that gives birth to today's poor practice of Islam and thus anti-Muslim books. If we were known for our piety, as we are to be known, who but the insane would be hostile towards us?

In addition, Warraq, and similar writers, will list atrocities done by Muslims, or done in the name of Islam, as if this somehow necessarily reflects upon the actual teachings of the Qur'an in light of the sunnah. The illogic of such a move is obvious to any thinking person and can be easily dismissed.

These books, though ostensibly about Islam per se, are in actuality about the poor state of contemporary Muslim practice and religious education. At the same time, this lack of theological sophistication that helps fuel anti-Muslim polemic also leaves the vast majority of Muslims without the intellectual tools needed to respond appropriately to anti-Muslim polemic such as Warraq's.



Part II

Jeremiah D. McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D.
© 1997 May be reproduced for non-profit purposes only, in its entirety, with proper attribution, and with notification to the author. Edited versions must be approved in writing by the author. All other rights reserved.


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