Sceptics of Islam

Revisionist Religion, Agnosticism and Disbelief in the Modern Arab World

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Ralph M. Coury
Middle East Studies
  • London, England: 
    I. B. Tauris
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. Betul Yavuz is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ralph M. Coury is Emeritus Professor of History at Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut. R Kevin Lacey is Associate Professor and Director of Arabic and Near Eastern Studies at Binghamton University, New York.


Ralph M. Coury

F. Betul Yavuz makes two major unfounded criticisms of Sceptics of Islam: Revisionist Religion, Agnosticism and Disbelief in the Modern Arab World, my anthology of selections from seventeen critical Arab thinkers on religion from the late 19th century to the present, criticisms that are all the more notable in light of her praise of the book as "pleasingly diverse,"as distinguished by "the scope and novelty of its presentation", and as "a great way to showcase the … wide-ranging Arab intellectual landscape with its different geographic centers."

1. She writes that the introduction does not "synthesize the connections between the various texts," that it is "largely given over to a polemic in which the editor does battle with imagined academic opponents, whom he identifies as 'orientalists' in his efforts to establish his own 'anti-orientalism'."

2. She writes that the book lacks explanatory materials "on the social and intellectual contexts" in which the writings were produced and, more particularly, "the disciplinary context" from which the authors emerged, including, in some cases, their "backgrounds in Islamic studies, with ties to the Azhar University in Egypt".

In relation to the first charge: the general introduction (of twenty pages) is hardly "largely a polemic".  It seeks, primarily, to provide a mapping of some of the key questions relevant to a reading of the selections: how is the "modernity" that informs the thought of the various thinker to be defined?; what are the primary categories into which modern Arab religious thinkers fall, including, and yet apart from, those found within the anthology?; what is meant by "sceptic", "Islam", and "Arab", as used in the anthology?; how is religion to be defined, and what accounts for the various ways in which it has been constructed and deconstructed in the modern period in both the West and East?; what influences - personal, national, international, cultural, socio-economic, and political - account for the appearances of the religious critiques under discussion, their differences and similarities, and the varied responses (hostility and support, censorship, dismissal from office, threats and violence, including execution, and heated but peaceful debate), experienced by the authors?; to what extent have modern Arab religious reconstructionists adopted arguments that are common to many of their foreign counterparts, and especially those of the Christian West? Are our modernist Arabs, for example, as prone (the words of Adorno) to "put every modern theological content to the test of migrating to the realm of the secular and profane?; are the works of the authors manifestations of a long trajectory of secularization and religious transformation, or are they, given the opposition to which some of them have been subject, exceptions that prove the rule, elite productions separated from the persisting and growing traditional religion of the larger culture?

A variety of responses are considered, including those with which I agree or disagree, and a number of themes receive special attention, including the modern popularity of apophatism and (drawing my examples from Muhammad Abduh, Habermas, and Pope Benedict) the promotion of religion on the basis of something other than its own truth content.  What Yavuz describes as a polemic is what I would call a trenchant critique of the assumption that the Arab Nahda (the Arab 19th century cultural renaissance), and the intrinsic Arab nationalist dimension with which it was associated, have been total and abject failures, and that this is also true of the kind of radical modern religious critiques which they helped to generate.  It is a critique directed to those Arabs (liberals, disappointed nationalists, and former leftist theorists and activists) who, in the words of Samir Kasir, believe that the Nahda was by its very nature an impossibility from the outset, and that any attempt to free the Arabs from their predicaments, particularly through nationalism, have only made their problems worse.  It is a critique of those Arabs who seem to have gone so far as to internalize the idea that there are essential and inherent distinctions between West and East, distinctions that were first posited by a long line of Western scholars and which have served as a legitimization of imperial domination.

In relation to the second charge: concern for disciplinary context, including Islamic studies and ties to the Azhar when relevant, is far from lacking.  It is found throughout the book, in the general introduction, as I have just indicated, and, more particularly, in the shorter introductions to the various selections.

The introduction to the selection from the Saudi Abdallah al-Qusaymi (d. 1996), who began as a Wahhabi Islamist and ended as a kind of Nietzschean atheist, offers a telling example.  I discuss al-Qusaymi as a student at the Azhar (in the late 1920s, following religious studies in Oman, Iraq, and India) who found himself in the forefront of a battle between Azhari ulama who favored or opposed certain Sufi practices.  I treat, more particularly, his expulsion from the Azhar in 1931, resulting from his publication of a critique of a pro-Sufi Azhari shaykh which was deemed to be personally offensive to the shaykh.  I proceed to consider al-Qusaymi's work These Are the Chains (Hadhi hiya al-aghlal), published in 1948, which is regarded as one of the fiercest radical critiques of Muslims within the modern period.  Al-Qusaymi, still very much a believer at this time, argued that Muslims were fatalistic and overly ascetic, that they lacked energy, that the prevailing Orthodox belief that God is the only agent is false, and that Jews and Christians in the Muslim world were more prosperous than Muslims because they had not been corrupted.  After dealing with this book and its reception (considerable hostility, but not uniformly so, even among Azharites).  I turn to the works that he began to publish in Paris and Beirut in the 1960s, in which his disbelief in a theistic god is expressed with brutal honesty and fervor.  I seek, within this context, to answer the question as to why these later writings did not produce, relatively speaking, as much of a cause celebre as These Are the Chains.  I find an answer, at least in part, in the fact that these works were not produced within an Azhari milieu and under the surveillance of its ulama and, also, that the Beirut of the 60s and 70s possessed what has been called a prominent literary and journalistic "communion of doubt and radicalism".

As I have indicated, my treatment of al-Qusaymi is only one manifestation of my concern for context.  I might here add that 35% of the text, not including many discursive footnotes, are given over to contextualizing the selections.


Ralph M. Coury

Professor Emeritus of History

Fairfield University


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