Ridiculing and questioning Islam, Muhammad, the Quran and religion in general is an ancient tradition in Muslim countries.
The reaction to Salman Rushdie‘s sellout knighthood by the more reactionary elements of the Muslim world was somewhat to be expected. After all, Rushdie became a household name and object of notoriety when the fanatical Ayatollah Khomeini issued an apostasy fatwa condemning the Indian-born British author for his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses and calling for his death.
My objections to The Satanic Verses – which Katleen, my wife, “smuggled” into Egypt for me wrapped in the cover of another book, just in case it was banned – are purely literary. I find it to be one of his weaker efforts, given how it limps, crawls and staggers along in places, intentionally trying to be clever, obscure and confusing to the reader. Far superior, in my humble view, was Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh.
However, much of the Muslim world does not share my a-religious view. Although the vast majority of Muslims are uncomfortable with the Ayatollah's fatwa and do not wish death upon Rushdie, there is a strong sense of anger and offence, particularly among Pakistani Muslims. Ironically, despite his iconoclasticism, Rusdhie betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammad in the novel.
The Satanic Verses, for those unfamiliar with it, is an allegory employing magical realism. It is about two Indian Muslim actors who miraculously survive the explosion of a hijacked plane. The Bollywood superstar suffers apparent delusions and begins to have visions of being the angel Gabriel and encounters a thinly veiled prophet “Mahound” while he is spreading his message in Jahilia (the name commonly attributed to pre-Islamic Arabia). The most controversial part was the section dealing with the prophet's authorship of a series of verses – which he later expunged as “Satanic” – that sought to appease the pagan Querishis of Mecca by recognising two of their favourite goddesses, alongside their pre-Islamic father, also called Allah.
But, like other examples of book burnings – and cartoon rage – throughout history, the fury had little to do with Rushdie or his book, since none of the angry mobs have ever actually read it. It is a reaction to western hegemony, socio-economic stagnation, poverty, dictatorship and the slow death of the modern Muslim secular dream.
Islam being mocked by a “Muslim” may have been a novel achievement in the English language, but it followed in the footsteps of a well-established tradition in the Islamic world.
Three decades before Rushdie, the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, published an allegorical novel. Set in a poor imaginary Cairo suburb rather like the traditional one Mahfouz was born and grew up in, Awlad Haretna (Children of the Alley) traces the history of God, the Abrahamic faiths and their relationship with modern-day secularism by depicting them as neighbours in one alleyway.
Way before the conservative Islamic wave that began to sweep through the country in the late 1970s, the editors of Egypt's largest daily al-Ahram felt confident enough to serialise Mahfouz's as yet unpublished novel in 1959. Muslim conservatives were up in arms and – rather like their Christian cousins who managed to get Life of Brian banned in many parts of the West when it was first released – they bullied the government into banning the book version, forcing Mahfouz to go and publish it in liberal Beirut.
However, Arab secularism was still alive and kicking, Iran's fire and brimstone brand of revolutionary Islam had not yet emerged, Saudi Arabia had not yet successfully exported its reactionary form of Wahhabi Islam and no Egyptian youth had yet gone to fight the communists in Afghanistan – and so Mahfouz felt no fear or compulsion to go into hiding like Rushdie. In fact, the late novelist is still one of Egypt's best-loved sons.
So relaxed was he in generally placid Egypt that the exact movements of this creature of habit were known to millions of Egyptians. When I was at university in the early 1990s, a friend and I, after a late night out, decided to catch the newly crowned Nobel laureate at the downtown cafe where he went for his morning coffee to write. Approaching him sheepishly, we managed to exchange a few words with the great man. Sadly, in 1994, the 82-year-old was stabbed in the neck by two extremists, ironically spurred on by the call of an Egyptian firebrand cleric inspired by the Satanic Verses fatwa. As a journalist, I met Mahfouz once more some five years after the stabbing at a literary salon where – with his failing hearing and near-blind eyes – his presence was a ghostly symbol of a fading age.
Retroactive condemnation of published works is coming into vogue, as was demonstrated by the controversy stirred up by the republishing of the talented Syrian novelist Heidar Heidar's melancholy novel, A Banquet for Seaweed, which – besides its treatment of the dashed post-colonial dreams of independence and freedom as dictators replaced former colonial masters – deals with themes of atheism and religious scepticism.
Those Muslims who condemn such literature and views as un-Islamic and new-fangled western imports are obviously unaware of their own history. Some 12 centuries before these modern writers, Ibn al-Rawandi was establishing a controversial reputation for himself as the Richard Dawkins of ninth-century Baghdad (probably the wealthiest and most advanced city in the world at the time).
Belonging, as he did, to a more poetic age, his most famous work was not entitled The Allah Delusion, but had the more colourful title of The Emerald Book (Kitab al-Zumurrud). Nevertheless, he was no less sparing than Dawkins would be in his indictment and rejection of the divine authorship of the Qur'an, Muhammad's status as a prophet and organised religion. He argued that humans possess the gift of intellect, by which they can judge right and wrong, rendering the prophets and scripture superfluous.
According to Dawkins, most of the modern scientists who talk of “God” do so in the loosest possible sense of the word. Likewise, many of the greatest scientists of Islam's golden age sailed pretty close to the wind and, like their modern counterparts, were often deists rather than theists.
Like Einstein, the 10th century Persian scientist and philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), who established many of the logical principles upon which the modern scientific method is based, had such an abstract conception of “God” that it bore no resemblance to the one we know from scripture. His was a “big bang” kind of God who appears to have no will. Ibn Sina viewed existence not as the work of a capricious deity, but of a divine, self-causing thought process.
Islam's glory was a secular one based on knowledge and science. This is what makes the current drift towards scripture, ritual and conservatism in many Muslims so alarming. Just because dictators and foreign meddling spoiled the modern secular experiment, that does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Muslims could draw lessons from Europe's Renaissance and learn and embrace the “western” sciences while drawing pride from their own ancient heritage, rather like the Europeans did with the ancient Greeks.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 30 June 2007.