Last November I wrote about Ali Rizvi‘s new book, The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, and recommended it. I had read it in galleys and provided a cover blurb, which is below:
“In this timely and important book, Ali Rizvi deftly weaves together two narratives: the abandonment of his Muslim faith, and a critique of those doctrines of Islam that create terrorism and oppression. It turns out that these are connected, for the very reasons Rizvi became an apostate are the reasons why it’s no longer possible to see Islam as a “religion of peace.” ––Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, author of Faith Versus Fact and the New York Times bestseller Why Evolution is True
As I said, the book is an engrossing interweaving of Rizvi’s personal story as an apostate Muslim and the teachings of Islam that he finds reprehensible and oppressive. I was thus pleased to hear from reader Bryan that the New York Times reviewed that book in its Sunday Book Review section, and that the reviewer was none other than Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, once a basketball great and now a public intellectual. Jabbar is also a practicing and moderate Muslim.
Jabbar actually reviewed not only Rizvi’s book, but also the related book Letters to a Young Muslim, by Omar Saif Ghobash, the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia and a promoter of moderate Islam and a prominent writer and speaker on the topic. While Rizvi is an atheist, and readily admits it, Ghobash, like Jabbar, is a practicing Muslim. The letters in question are directed to his son, and explicitly at the younger generation of Muslims.
While Ghobash’s book, according to Jabbar, is accommodationist, I wouldn’t beef about that if it helped tame Islam the way Christianity was tamed by the Enlightenment and its sequelae. That, by the way, is also the goal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. Here’s Jabbar on Ghobash’s book:
Ghobash is not an apologist for Islam because there is no need. He argues that reason and religion can coexist because we are meant to use our intelligence to reject manipulative and myopic interpretations of the scriptures. In essence, he is suggesting a compromise between blind faith and nibbling on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There are certain heavenly ordained teachings, but followers must be ever-vigilant that these not be perverted by people with personal or political ambitions. He writes: “I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right to think and decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith. It is their burden to bear whatever decision they make.”
. . . In the end, Ghobash encourages the reader to accept a modern, enlightened path that embraces diversity, not just within Islam but among all religions: “If you begin to accept the individual diversity of your fellow Muslims, you are likely to do the same for those of other faiths as well.” It is this sort of wisdom that creates hope for a world in which people are smart enough to work together toward a common good rather than claw at one another while slowly sinking in quicksand.
Well, I don’t agree that reason and religion can coexist, not even in the way Jabbar notes, for the “heavenly ordained teachings” that are said to be followed are either based on pure fiction or are likely the product of a secular humanist philosophy. To tell extremist Muslims that their faith is “perverted” is not a tactic that will win them over, nor appeal to many of the world’s Muslims who adhere to the general and literalistic view of the Qur’an (or at least follow its oppressive teachings). I welcome a call for the de-fanging of Islam, but given the Pew data in the survey I just linked to, it seems unlikely. I had the same view of Hirsi Ali’s book: its calls for reform were good, but not likely to be effective. Right now Islam doesn’t seem ripe for a reformation, if for no other reason that those who promote it live under fear of death (I do worry about Ghobash and Rizvi).
Rizvi’s book also garners high praise from Jabbar:
The oncologic pathologist Ali A. Rizvi is in the unenviable position of being in the two religious groups that are, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, ranked lowest by Americans: atheists and Muslims. His book, “The Atheist Muslim: A Journey From Religion to Reason,” is just what the title promises: a close look at Rizvi’s journey from his Muslim upbringing to his rejection of Islam as well as all religion. The arguments presented are thoughtful, articulate, well documented, logical and made accessible by many personal anecdotes and pop culture references.
. . . Rizvi’s specific criticisms of the Muslim orthodoxy as stated in the Quran are surgically accurate. He cites various passages that are either contradictory or seemingly absurd in the modern world. But this is not a moving target. For centuries we have known that the holy books of most religions have the same weaknesses. The older they are, the more they are the product of their specific time and fraught with the misinformation of that era. Rizvi’s descriptions of historical sects of Islam and their conflicts with one another are especially illuminating. He concludes that a current disagreement “would never be an issue if its consequences weren’t so deadly. In effect, it is similar to two groups fighting about whether the green or the blue unicorn is the right one.”
And here Rizvi is right on the mark. Whether Islam be literalistic or metaphorical, it still rests on fiction, and if you are to promote a moderate Islam, you are in effect cherry-picking those parts of the Qur’an that promote a humanistic philosophy while ignoring the many parts that call for the death of infidels, gays, and apostates, as well as for the subjugation of women. Why not jettison the whole enterprise?
Jabbar doesn’t agree, for in the end he emphasizes a comity between reason and faith:
How would a person of faith, like Ghobash, respond? Faith is the belief in something for which there is no conclusive evidence. To demand concrete proof of God’s existence contradicts the very notion of faith, which requires a person to examine their interior world rather than anything on the outside. But faith does not preclude logic. Choosing to demonstrate faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness, despite all the evidence to the contrary, allows us to embrace certain religious teachings. But it does not relieve us of the responsibility of choosing which teachings express that faith and dismissing those that do not. Both authors would agree to that. And that should give us all hope.
What Jabbar is saying here is that we should simply believe something based on revelation or personal feelings rather than evidence. Yes, you can use logic to show that, say, female genital mutilation is not good for the women themselves or society in general. But if you’re picking and choosing as Jabbar suggests we do, and making those choices based on “humanity’s ultimate goodness,” then you are not practicing Islam but secular humanism. That is the problem with telling Muslims to reject some teaching of the Qur’an or hadith and rejecting others. On what basis do we do so? It can only be humanism itself: a philosophy that is extra-scriptural.
I don’t share Jabbar’s accommodationism, of course, nor do I share his optimism. But I would be glad to be proven wrong. My money, however, is on the proposition that it will take centuries to tame Islam in the way the world has tamed Christianity.
In the meantime, I highly recommend Rizvi’s book, and though I haven’t read Ghobash’s, it may be worth a look. And I hope both men stay safe.