Islamism is the illusion

By Khaled Diab

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


“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 asks of the world and the Shari'a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country's Islamic ,” 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

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 ?

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 “”, 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 , 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 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, 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 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, , 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.


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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12 thoughts on “Islamism is the illusion

  • How long did the “Constitution of Medina” last before Muhammad drove out two Jewish tribes and then massacred the men of the third and last, selling their women and children into slavery? This article is dishonest propaganda; truth is Muhammad and his invention Islam are based on violence and lies.


  • Why should any Muslim take seriously the claims of an avowed atheist who is hostile to Islam regarding what is best for Islam? It just comes of as disingenuous concern trolling.

    • Truth is truth, regardless of who is saying it. It is disingenous to ignore the argument and attack the speaker. Character assassination is the ultimate in trolling. If you want to be credible, challenge my ideas, not my person.

      • Really, would you accept an Imam saying “the best way to serve the noble faith of atheism and rationalism would be to keep it in the private sphere and far away from politics and general society.” at face value?

        Oh, and you might try not equating your own views with “The Truth”.

  • Pingback: A Christopher Hitchens dream: Atheism on the rise in Egypt - | Mobile Atheist

  • Pingback: Islamist deceptions… according to brilliant Khaled Diab. | Al-Must'arib (the vocational Mossarab)

  • There might be misunderstandings and misconcenceptions about God’s will and governance of Muslim societies. However, “liberals” have also failed in engaging in dialogue and the presentation of facts while resorting to tyranny and collusion with foreign powers to their label co religionists as backward and delusional. This has polarized the society and created deep divisions that hold Muslim societies back.

    • Khaled Diab

      Indeed, too many secular rulers have proven tyrannical. Still, the results speak for themselves. The most successful Muslim states now and in history are the more secular ones.

      • Too many? Try all of them. There has never been a single “secular” Arab leader in modern history who hasn’t also been a brutal tyrant. Not a single one

  • Great piece. So important to rectify the prevalent yet inaccurate historical perspective on the source of Islam’s past glory and the causes of its subsequent decline. Incidentally, a similar illusion marks the insular worldview and inaccurate historical perception of Jewish haredi (ultra-orthodox) society. The rabbis of the Golden Age, subjects of the caliphate, were well-versed in the humanities and sciences as compared to those today who engage exclusively in religious texts.

  • “I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa”

    This type of arrogance is the reason why Egypt is in the state that it’s in, self-appointed experts claiming to speak for the entire nation, forcibly blanketing everyone under the dark shroud of Islam and shariaa under which there is little to no room for any freedom, personal or otherwise.

    • Khaled Diab

      Only partly. There are many, many other reasons.


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