Sceptics of Islam
Revisionist Religion, Agnosticism and Disbelief in the Modern Arab World
- ISBN: 9781784533373
- Published By: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited
- Published: May 2018
This book is an anthology of essays on religion written by various Arab thinkers of the last century. Contrary to what you might expect given the collection’s focus on “sceptics of Islam,” the book is pleasingly diverse and even includes two Christian thinkers, Shibli Shumayyil (d. 1917) and Ameen Rihani (d.1940). In fact, it can really be viewed as an introduction to the criticism of religion in Arabic-speaking lands, which were influenced by the discussions around religion that were taking place in modern Western societies. The book consists of seventeen sections, each of which introduces a modern thinker (1850s onwards) with a few pages of information on their family and educational background, writings, and the reception of their work. This is followed by an exemplary sample of their writing on religion. These excerpts, most of which have been translated from Arabic for the first time, are about ten pages long. The book does not seem to have been intended for specialists, making it a valuable source for introducing undergraduate students to original writings in Arabic. It also serves as a great way to showcase the diverse and wide-ranging modern Arab intellectual landscape with its different geographic centers.
While Ralph M. Coury underlines this diversity in his introduction, he does not make an effort to classify the approaches and communities around which religion is usually discussed in modern Arab societies. Given that the book is intended for those who are not deeply versed in the social and intellectual life in Arabic-speaking countries, it might have benefited from some explanatory remarks on the issue. This could take many forms, but some notes on the disciplinary context of the authors might be useful in this sense. For instance, some of the collected authors came from a background in Islamic studies, with ties to the Azhar University in Egypt. These included Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), Muhammad Ahmad Khalaf (d. 1998), Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010), and Abdallah al-Qusaymi (d. 1996). These figures typically engaged with the fundamental texts of Islam, trying to develop a more progressive interpretation of religion based on a closer reading of the Quran and the hadith. Many of these authors had to endure tribulations as a result of their interpretations of theology and jurisprudence—most notably, Abu Zayd lost his position at the university and was charged with apostasy.
The book also includes samples of writings by Shibli Shumayyil, Ismail Mazhar (d.1962), and Ismail Adham (d.1940) that criticize religion from a specifically scientific point of view, influenced especially by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Still other unique and fascinating contributions were made by poets of neo-classical Arabic poetry, such as Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (d. 1936), Maruf al-Rusafi (d. 1945), and Ali Ahmad Said (Adunis). Finally, Taha Husayn (d. 1973) and Mohammed Arkoun (d. 2010) were both trained in Arab linguistics in French institutions, and although they were concerned with different aspects of the Quranic text and held differing opinions on religion, the difference in their approaches might be taken as indicative of the overall transformation in Western thinking on religion.
While the book includes public intellectuals whose writings became well known, namely Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (d. 2016) and Muhammad Shahrur, it also draws on more isolated figures such as Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (d. 1985) and Nawal al-Saadawi, whose respective struggles, as a revolutionary in Sudan and as an activist against female circumcision in Egypt, provide a glimpse of the social issues with which religion is entangled in different Arab locations.
These authors’s positions with regard to religion run the gamut from a complete denial of any transcendent entity to the reinterpretation of religious texts based on rationality and modern scientific developments. Others seek to understand the prophet as a human who was bound by the conditions of his time, thereby underlining the limitations of the Quranic text and the hadith especially with regard to social practices. Some authors draw on the Sufi tradition, proposing an understanding of God that lies “within.” One common thread that ties them all together is the plea for more open discussions of religion in their societies, along with a melancholic remembrance of the early medieval Muslim-Arab philosophical tradition (5).
As a researcher who studies religion in other historical contexts, I deeply appreciated this book for the scope and novelty of its presentation. However, while the introduction could have been used to synthesize the connections between the various texts as suggested above, instead it is largely given over to a polemic in which the editor does battle with imagined academic opponents, whom he identifies as “orientalist,” in an effort to establish his own “anti-orientalism.” The main thrust of this argument is that the modern Arab context produced its own intellectuals who were able to articulate critical views on religion. It is a pity that such an extensive editorial effort, not to mention the sincere intellectual struggles of these authors, should be reduced to this basic argument. The general reader would be quick to recognize that modern Western discussions on religion had ramifications in the Arab world, just as they did elsewhere. These critical Western approaches, however, were not able to gather as much social support or inspire social movements on the scale of Islamist or Salafi thinking, traditions which are also deeply revisionist and critical towards prior Islamic practices. It would have been a welcome addition if Coury had chosen to reflect on this point and provide some insight into why that might have been the case. One thing that the reader will certainly take away is the impression that it is a highly political and polemical endeavor to write on Islam nowadays, not only in Muslim or Arab lands but in the US and Europe as well.
F. Betul Yavuz is an Independent Scholar.F. Betul YavuzDate Of Review:December 18, 2018