Islam’s freedom of expression… and insult

 
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Muhammad’s self-appointed defenders take offence on his behalf, but the prophet would’ve tolerated Charlie Hebdo and condemned the savage murders.

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Tuesday 20 January 2015

After the brutal assassination of eight of its staff members and two visitors, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has vowed to continue its trademark irreverence and secular iconoclasm, which critics have accused, in turn, of being Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.

Its first issue since the tragic massacre, which came out on Wednesday 14 January, features a cartoon of a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding a sign which reads “Je suis Charlie”, the famous twitter hashtag. The turbaned figure stands under the slogan “All is forgiven”. If the murderers had hoped to repress representations of their beloved prophet, their actions backfired spectacularly: 5 million copies were circulated of the latest edition, and its cover went viral.

As a staunch advocate of freedom of expression, I believe they have every right to run such a cartoon, even if it has upset the religious sensibilities of some Muslims. Egypt’s grand mufti, Shawqi Allam, who blasted the cartoon as racist, while a number of protests took place in various Muslim-majority lands, with the largest occurring in Chechnya.

In France, many Muslims attended the anti-extremism marches held across the country to mourn the deaths at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish kosher supermarket where four were killed. Further afield, Arabs and Muslims have also held vigils in support of the victims at Charlie Hebdo, and numerous Arab cartoonists have paid tribute to their slain peers with hard-hitting and moving cartoons.

These contrasting reactions got me wondering about a hypothetical question: what would Muhammad make of this? Would the prophet forgive Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of him and his religion, and would he, if he were alive today, tweet his solidarity with the slain cartoonists?

My own reading of history and of Muhammad’s life leads me to the conclusion that, were he around in the 21st century, the prophet may not have tweeted “#JeSuisCharlie”, but he would have condemned these savage murders and forgiven whatever insult was directed his way by French satirists.

Some will find my assertion hard to believe, but Muhammad’s own actions and convictions back me up on this. Although the prophet’s self-appointed contemporary defenders take offence on his behalf and believe they are doing his will when they protest perceived insults or punish those who commit them, this could not be further from the truth.

During the vulnerable early years of Islam, the Islamic prophet endured and tolerated mockery and disdain. Even in victory, Muhammad choose wisely to exercise tolerance. Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, he forgave the inhabitants of the city which had been home to his fiercest enemies, even pardoning Abdullah Ibn Saad who had been a member of his inner circle but later denounced the prophet as a charlatan.

More importantly, the Islam Muhammad preached recognised the pluralistic nature of society and guaranteed freedom of belief. Surat al-Baqara of the Quran reminds Muslims that “there shall be no compulsion in religion”.

Significantly, the constitution Muhammad drew up in Yathrib (Medina) included in its definition of the “Umma” all the oasis’s inhabitants, not just Muslims. These included both the “People of the Book”, i.e. Christians and Jews, but also, perhaps surprisingly, pagans, all of whom were granted equal political, cultural and religious rights as Muslims.

And in the early centuries of Islam there was so much freedom of thought and expression that it would put much of the current Muslim world to shame. Although many contemporary Muslims are convinced that ridiculing Islam and rejecting religion are Western innovations, this is more wishful thinking than historical fact.

In Christendom, Muhammad and Islam was derided from a rival religious vantage point: that the prophet of Islam was believed to be the false prophet of a fake religion. He was even condemned  to the ninth circle of Dante’s inferno where he supposedly stands “rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind”.

In contrast, within the Islamic world itself, Muhammad and Islam were criticised and mocked from a secular, rationalist, anti-religious perspective. One example is the religious sceptic and scholar Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911) who, despite his rejection of religion and Islam, lived a long life in the 8th-9th centuries.

Ibn al-Rawandi, who spent a significant part of his life in Baghdad, believed that the intellect and science supersede all else, that prophets were unnecessary, that religion was irrational, that Islamic tradition was illogical and that miracles were a hoax.

In neighbouring Syria, a few decades later, the Richard Dawkins of the Abbasid era was born. Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1058) was so contemptuous of religion that he divided the world into two types of people: “those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains”.

Al-Ma’ari also lived to a ripe age. And rather than being visited by assassins, he attracted many students and engaged with scholars of various persuasions, even when he decided to return to his hometown of Ma’arra to life ascetically in seclusion.

Although this tradition of free thought and scepticism has shrunk over the centuries, it still exists, and even witnessed a resurgence in the 20th century – and included the “dean of Arab literature” Taha Hussein – until the conservative Islamist current started to block it starting from the late 1970s/1980s.

The years since the revolutionary wave erupted in 2011 have seen secularists, sceptics and atheists mounting a comeback. But with some countries equating non-belief to terrorism and arresting atheists, theirs is a risky venture.

But these efforts are essential. Freedom of thought and expression were vital components of Islam’s golden age and lifting Arab and Muslim countries out of their current plight will require a return to that era of free inquiry.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 14 January 2015.

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إعترافات ملحد مصري

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

رغم عدم الإعتراف بهم، الملحدين ايضاً اولاد بلد ويجب على الدولة والمجتمع ان يعطوهم حقوقهم. 

الأحد 20 اكتوبر 2013

English version

صدق أو لا تصدق، أنا أحد أعضاء أكثر أقلية غير معترف بها فى مصر. لا، لست قبطيا و لا بهائيا. أنا آجنوستى-ملحد أو ملحد-أجنوستى. باختصار، أنا لا أدرى أذا كان الله موجود لكن الدين، من وجهة نظرى المتواضعة، من صنع الإنسان و ليس مرسلاً من السماء.

أذا كان هناك أله، فقد أحدث “الأنفجار العظيم” ثم أختبأ ليشاهد نتيجة عمل القوانين المبهرة التى صنعها لتحكم الكون. هو لا يتدخل في ادارة تفاصيل حياتنا التافهة على رقعة الأرض الحقيرة هذه. نحن لسنا فى مركز مخططه.

هذه أول مرة أعلن فيها عن عدم إيمانى فى جريدة مصرية و سيغضب ذلك بعض القراء وسيجرح مشاعر البعض الأخر. وذلك ليس فى نيتى. مع أنى لا أريد أن أسئ لمعتقدات اى أحد، أعتقد أنه من حقى أيضا أن أعبر عن أعمق قناعاتى التى وصلت أليها بعد سنين من الشك و التساؤل والتردد والتفكير.

عندما يجد الناس الإيمان، نسمع عن تلقي وحي أو عن لحظات تصحو فيها وترى نورا. لا أعلم أن كان هذا صحيحا حيث أنى لم أختبر أى صحوة دينية أبدا. ولكن عندما تفقد دينك، هو شئ أقرب لنزيف بطئ أو الوصول لحالة مزمنة من الوهن قد يتخللها بعض الفترات من التحسن ولكن النهاية قريبة، بما فيها البحث في النفس و تدمير للنفس.

لعلنى شعرت بأقوى حالات الإيمان (والأكثر طفولة) فى بلد غير مسلم ثم فقدته في بلد مسلم، مع أنى لم أهجره تماما ألا بعد رحيلى عن مصر للمرة الثانية. كانت البداية عبارة عن شكوك طفولية حول سبب عدم دخول أصدقائى الإنجليز للجنة عندما يموتون، ثم تطور الأمر لأسئلة حول وضع المرأة والجنس بالإضافة للتناقضات والأخطاء العلمية فى القرآن.

 كما راودتني أسئلة ميتافيزيقية  وفلسفية مثل: لماذا يخلق إله عادل ومحب كائن معيب ثم يضعه تحت اختبار يعرف هذا الإله الغير محدود  نتيجته مقدما؟ بالطبع لا أدعى أن الإسلام ينفرد بذلك، بل تنطبق نفس الأسئلة وأسئلة مشابهة على باقي الأديان.

 أعتقد أن الكثير من المؤمنين سينتابهم الفزع والقلق عند قراءة المقال هذا. ربما سيحزنوا على ضلالي ويتعجبوا من نفسي الجوفاء والفراغ العميق بها. لكن على العكس أنا لا أشعر أن الحادى ترك ثقباً بحجم الله فى قلبى. ولا أنى لاجئ روحاني هائم في مخيمات الأرواح المنفية.

هناك الكثير من الأشياء حولنا التي تملأ مشاعري بالدهشة والغموض. من العلوم والتكنولوجيا التي تقوم “بمعجزات” حديثة ولا نهائية الى النظريات الفيزيائية التي تتسم بجمال في ميتافيزيقيتها. ومن “جزيئات الله” للاعتقاد المجنون بوجود شلال من الأكوان حولنا.

البعض الأخر يعتقد أن الملحد يفقد بوصلته الأخلاقية عندما يتجرد من الدين وأنه يعانى من وجوده في متاهة من العدمية نتيجة استئصال أخلاقه. فى الواقع هذه الفكرة مهينة للإنسانية لأنها مبنية على افتراض أننا أطفال أشقياء لابد من إجبارنا على عمل الصواب والبعد عن الخطأ. الفارق الاساسى بين القواعد الأخلاقية للمؤمن والملحد أن الملحد لديه حرية أكثر لاستخدام العقل فى اختياره للأخلاقيات التي يقرر التمسك بها أو تركها.

اعتقاداتي بأكملها هى ملكي وحدي ولا أنتظر من أحد أن يعتنقها، لأن إيماني ليس دعويا. أنا أعتقد أن كل شخص يجب أن يجد طريقه ويقرر بنفسه ما يريد أن يؤمن به. كل ما أطلبه أن يكف الآخرين عن الدفع بمعتقداتهم فى حلقى أو أن يحاولوا إلغاء معتقداتي، كما فعل العديد من الإسلاميين طوال السنوات الماضية.

 بينما أحترم المعتقدات الدينية للآخرين وأعجب بهؤلاء الذين يملكون التدين والخلق المحب، هناك الكثيرين ممن لا يفعلون مثلى ولا يعطوني نفس الحقوق. ومع أن القانون المصري لا يجرم الإلحاد بوضوح، هناك آليات لملاحقة الملحدين. منمها القانونان المبهمان والمبتكران والمرعبان في نفس الوقت الخاصين بازدراء الأديان والحسبة، ويستخدمهما المحامين الإسلاميين والدولة لملاحقة الملحدين بل أيضا لملاحقة المسلمين المختلفين معهم فى الرأي.

ما لم أتمكن من استيعابه هو كيفية “شعور” دين عمره قرون بالازدراء ولماذا يحتاج الإسلام ناس يوكلوا انفسهم مدافعين عنه في حين أن القرآن نقسه يطالب غير المسلمين بالشك والتساؤل وحتى بالسخرية. في الواقع أي دين يعتقد أن حقائقه دالة وقاطعة الثبوت في حد ذاتها لا يحتاج أيا من أتباعه أن يجبروا الآخرين على اعتناقه.

هناك من سينبذ كلامي على أنه إدعاءات شخص أبتعد كثيرا عن أصوله وعاش بالخارج لمدة طويلة. ومع أني لا أشك أن المراحل التى قضيتها في أوروبا عرضتني لأساليب تفكير مختلفة، لكن أبتعادى عن الدين حدث معظمه أثناء وجودي بمصر على الرغم من جمال المظاهر الدينية العديدة التي أعجبت بها هنا، من الأجواء الإحتفالية المفرطة فى رمضان لنسك الرهبنة في الصحراء.

 من حسن حظي أنه كان بإمكاني قطع صلاتي بالدين فى وسط أقل حدة وورع. حيث أن البعض لم تتوفر له تلك الرفاهية وأنا أعرف العديد من الملحدين والأجنوستيين الذين يخفون حقيقة معتقداتهم عن عائلاتهم خشية من فقدانهم لأحبابهم.

قد يكون من المغرى للبعض أن يرونى شاذا أوحتى مكروها، لكنى أؤكد لهم أنى لست الوحيد. مع أنى كنت صوتا نادرا حينما خرجت من القمقم لأول مرة، لكن الثورة شجعت العديد من الملحدين أن يعبروا عن أفكارهم، حتى وأن كان ذلك محفوفاً بمخاطر فادحة مثل النفي أو النبذ والملاحقة القضائية – مخاطر أصبحت محصنا منها حيث أنى فقط أزور مصر ولا اقيم هناك.

 أما الذين ستغريهم فكرة أن الثورة جائت بأفكار منحلة، أؤكد لهم أن الملحدين كانوا دائما متواجدين بمصر – وفى العلن – و لعبوا أيضا دورا مهما فى تكوين هوية مصر. في الواقع، حتى سبعينات القرن الماضى لعبوا الملحدين ومن أبحروا في تيارات عدم الإيمان دوراً بارزاً في الفكر والثقافة في مصر.

على سبيل المثال، كان رائد الاشتراكية فى مصر سلامة موسى يؤمن أن الناس يجب أن تعتمد فقط على عقولها وأن كل منا يجب أن يأخذ مصيره بيديه. ومن المعروف أن مصطفى محمود، مقدم البرامج التليفزيونية الشهير الذي مزج بين الدين والعلم، كان أيضا ملحدا ثم وجد طريقه للإيمان مرة أخرى، مع انه صرح بأن أعماله الأولى التي أنتقد فبها الدين كانت هي طريقته لاختبار إيمانه.

أحد أعظم فلاسفة مصر الوجوديين في القرن العشرين، عبد الرحمن بدوى، كتب في الأربعينات من القرن الماضي موسوعة عن الملحدين على مر التاريخ الإسلامى. وكان هناك الكثير منهم مثل “داوكنز” الدولة العباسية ابن الراوندى.

يشير البعض إلى أن عدد الملحدين في مصر يفوق عدد المسيحيين. أن صح ذلك يصبح الإلحاد ثاني أكبر معتقد في المجتمع. لن نعرف في المستقبل القريب عددهم، حيث لا يعترف بالملحدين أو يحصيهم أحد. والتمييز الذي يتعرضون له دفع الكثير منهم أن يخفوا وجودهم. لكن من المؤكد أن بجانب الإيمان كان دائما الإلحاد جزء أساسي من نسيج مصر الإجتماعى وإنكار ذلك لا يولد سوى النفاق.

 حان الوقت لنعترف بكامل حقوق الملحدين بما في ذلك حقهم في حرية الإعتقاد بما يشاؤا وحقهم فى ألا يصنفوا على أنهم أتباع أيا من الأديان السماوية الثلاثة وكافة حقوقهم المدنية مثل باقى المصريين.

 فوق كل شئ، نريد أن ينظر لنا بمساواة كمواطنين وليس كأهداف للملاحقة القضائية والأسوأ من ذلك… للاضطهاد.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

نشر هذا المقال في The Daily News Egypt في 15 اغسطس 2013. الترجمة العربية من خلال باسم رؤوف

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Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though never officially recognised, atheists and agnostics have always been part of Egypt. Society now needs to grant us our right not to believe.

Monday 19 August 2013

إقراء بالعربي

Believe it or not, I am a member of Egypt’s least-recognised minority. No, I’m not a Copt or a convert or a Bahá’í even. I am an agnostic atheist, or an atheistic agnostic. Basically, I don’t know whether or not God exists, but religion, in my humble view, is clearly manmade and not heaven-sent.

If there is a god, he set off the Big Bang and then took cover to view the handiwork of the magnificent laws he set in motion to govern the universe. He is not an interventionist micro-manager who, for some unfathomable reason, decided to place us, insignificant flecks on the back of an insignificant speck that we are, at the centre of his entire scheme.

This is the first time I’ve made such a declaration of faith, or faithlessness, in an Egyptian newspaper, and it is bound to outrage some readers and cause offence to others. That is not my intention. Although I do not wish to insult people’s most intimate beliefs, I believe I also have a right to express my heartfelt convictions, and ones which I arrived at after years of doubt, questioning, hesitation and thought.

When it comes to finding religion, we hear of epiphanies, moments when someone suddenly wakes up and sees the light. I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve never experienced a religious awakening. When it comes to losing your religion, as REM might put it, it’s more like a slow bleed or a debilitating terminal condition in which there can be periods of recovery but the end is not far off; it involves soul-searching and soul-destruction.

I felt perhaps my strongest (and youngest) faith in a non-Muslim country and lost it in a Muslim country, though I did not fully abandon it until I left Egypt again. It began with childhood doubts over why all my English friends would be going to hell when they eventually died, which matured into questions over the status of women and sexuality, as well as the contradictions and scientific errors in the Quran.

That’s not to mention the more metaphysical and philosophical questions, such as why a just and loving God would intentionally create a flawed being whom he places in a test which the omnipresent, omniscient deity already knows the outcome? Of course, I’m not singling out Islam – the same and similar questions apply to other religions.

Many believers, I imagine, will read the above with a mix of horror and even concern. They will perhaps grieve for my lost soul and wonder what emptiness and hollowness lie inside. But, on the contrary, I don’t feel that my loss of faith has left me with a God-sized hole in my heart. Nor am I like a spiritual refugee slumming it out in some frontier camp for exiled souls.

There is so much around us to instil a sense of wonder and mystique, from the science and technology that can perform endless modern-day “miracles” to the physics theories that are metaphysical in their beauty, from the God particle to the zany notion that a cascade of multiverses exists.

Others assume that deprived of religion, the non-believer loses his or her moral compass, suffers a lobotomy of his morals and exists in an ethics-free nihilistic haze. But this notion is frankly insulting to humanity as it is built on the assumption that we are errant children who have to be coerced into doing right and avoiding wrong. The main difference between the morality of the faithful and faithless is that the non-believer is much freer to exercise reason to decide which ethics to uphold and which to jettison.

My convictions are entirely my own and I don’t expect others to adopt them. Mine is not a proselytising “faith”. I believe that everyone should find their own path and decide for themselves what they wish to believe in. All I ask is that others refrain from shoving their beliefs down my throat or try nullifying mine, as numerous Islamists have done over the years.

While I respect people’s religious beliefs and admire those of a forgiving and loving spiritual disposition, there are many who do not, or would not accord me the same right. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly outlaw atheism, there are other mechanisms for targeting non-believers. These include the vague, innovative and frightening legal concepts of “insulting” and “ridiculing” religion, as well as hisbah, which have been used by crusading Islamist lawyers and the state to target non-believers but far more often believers with a different interpretation of their faith.

What I’ve never been able to get my head around is how any centuries-old religion could feel insult, and why Islam would need self-appointed defenders when the Quran itself challenges non-Muslims to doubt, question and even mock. In fact, any faith which believes its truths are self-evident does not need any of its followers to coerce and intimidate others into obedience.

There are those who will dismiss what I say as the ranting of someone who has moved too far away from his roots and lived abroad for too long. Although I do not doubt that the phases I have spent in Europe have exposed me to alternative way of thinking, most of my drift away from religion occurred in Egypt, despite the numerous beautiful aspects I admire about faith here, from the festive excesses of Ramadan to the monastic frugalities of the desert.

Fortunately for me, I was able to sever my ties with religion in a less intense, demanding and pious environment. Others have not had that luxury, and I know quite a few atheists and agnostics who hide their true beliefs from their families or are discreet about them out of fear of losing their loved ones.

It might be tempting for some to view me as an aberration, even an abomination, but I can assure them I am by far not alone.  Although I was a rare voice when I first came out of the closet, the revolution has emboldened many more non-believers to speak their  mind, even when it comes at the great personal risk of ostracism and prosecution, risks I am relatively immune to now that I only visit Egypt.

For those who may be tempted to think that the revolution has brought with it decadent ideas, let me stress that non-believers have always been around in Egypt – often openly – and have played important roles in shaping the country’s identity. In fact, up until the 1970s, atheists and those who sailed close to the wind of non-belief were prominent in the country’s intelligentsia.

For example, the pioneer of socialism in Egypt, Salama Moussa, believed that people must depend only on their minds and that each of us must “take his destiny into his own hands.” It is widely reputed that Mustafa Mahmoud, the popular TV presenter who blended religion with science, was an atheist who found God, though he himself claimed that his earlier works criticising religion were his way of testing his faith.

One of Egypt’s greatest philosophers of the 20th century, the existentialist Abdel Rahman Badawi, wrote, in the 1940s, an encyclopaedia of atheists throughout Islamic history. And there have been plenty of those, such as the Dawkins of the Abbasid era Ibn Al-Rawandi.

There are even atheists who speculate that the number of non-believers in Egypt could potentially exceed the number of Christians. If true, that would make non-belief the second largest faith community.

For the foreseeable future, we will not know as nobody has bothered to recognise or count them, and the discrimination they face has led many to lead an underground existence. But what is certain is that, alongside belief, non-belief has always been an integral part of Egypt’s social fabric, and denying they exist only breeds hypocrisy.

It is time that atheists and agnostics have their rights recognised in full, including their right to freely believe what they want, their right not to be described as a member of one of the three heavenly faiths, and their right, along with other Egyptians, to access civil courts.

Above all, we need to be regarded as equal citizens and not as targets for prosecution… or worse, persecution.

 

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 15 August 2013.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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