Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reviews Ali Rizvi’s “The Atheist Muslim” in the NYT (and a new book by Omar Saif Ghobash)

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 NowHere’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.


  1. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    if it [accomodationism] helped tame Islam the way Christianity was tamed by the Enlightenment and its sequelae.

    I think you’re going to need armour plate both front and back after that. you’re going to get hate from both the outraged Muslim and the Xtian outraged by the idea of having been de-fanged.
    I never understood those god-squaddies who claim there are no atheists in foxholes, while simultaneously launching a bombardment that ensures that anyone with two baincells to rub together would be diving for their fox hole and digging it deeper.

  2. Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Whether Islam be literalistic or metaphorical, it still rests on fiction,……. Why not jettison the whole enterprise?

    The Religious become more reasonable as they become more like atheists. So they effort to get Muslims to reject larger and larger swaths of their religious book is a move in the right direction

  3. zoolady
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    “And I hope both men stay safe.” As do I…this is SUCH a risky thing for them!

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I like that term “extra-scriptural”.

    There is, I think, a feeling of having walked into an empty elevator shaft, when a believer of religion – or more precisely, a victim of religion – since even non-religious people still figure it’s all for the good – faces challenges to faith. I can understand that. If there were some way to show that it’s safe to fall down that shaft,…

    … why doesn’t my damned auto-correct work here?!

    • Larry
      Posted January 12, 2017 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      Good change of phrase you made there:
      from “believer of religion” to “victim of religion.”

  5. Kevin
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Fewer centuries than Christianity. Like Peter Gabriel alluded to: “The only constant I am sure of is this accelerating rate of change”. It is this change that Islam must and will not be able to endure.

    I am optimistic, but it’s not because of hope, it’s because the world is mostly grown up more than the tenets of Islam would like and that tension is likely to dissolve with slow but unabated internal reform.

    • Ken Elliott
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      That is a very encouraging observation.

  6. Cate Plys
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I can see why the NYT chose Jabbar to review these books, both being a practicing and apparently moderate Muslim as well as a good thinker and writer. But what would be really interesting is to see his review next to a review by an atheist. It’s impossible to say whether someone religious or atheist would be the more objective reviewer of such books, so I’d love to see both.

  7. garthdaisy
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    “Choosing to demonstrate faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness, despite all the evidence to the contrary”

    This is just flat wrong. The only reason to have faith in “humanity’s ultimate goodness” would be if there were evidence of such a thing and there is. No faith necessary.

    Moreover there is not ample “evidence to the contrary.” Humans do bad things because of bad ideas not because of inherent badness.

    We should only have faith in human goodness if there is evidence of such a thing. Fortunately there is.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      That struck me as flat wrong too, but for a slightly different reason. None of the desert dogmas can reasonably be described as demonstrating faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness. That is absurd. To come to that liberal of an interpretation you have to discard so much of the religion that it is ridiculous to continue believing any of it. This is my main argument against liberal religious believers.

      • garthdaisy
        Posted January 12, 2017 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

        Hear hear.

      • Ken Elliott
        Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        I second the ‘hear, hear’. I am delighted to find others of similar mind to my own on this topic. If we have to determine which part of the book is good vs bad, what good is the book?

    • Sastra
      Posted January 12, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      What if, instead of having faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness, I have hope that, with enough reason and effort, the good in humanity will begin to outstrip its capacity for evil?

      The whole idea of “ultimate goodness” smacks of some sort of transcendent essential nature. And I’m not sure how choosing to demonstrate faith in that, would differ from just choosing to work towards the possibility of improvement. One is grandiose, one more pragmatic — and the behavior might cash out the same.

      Might. I do worry about what might come along with a thirst for utopian perfection.

      • garthdaisy
        Posted January 12, 2017 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. Having faith in humanity’s ultimate goodness is like having faith in the ultimate goodness of wolves. I have faith (of the non-religious kind) that we can co-exist peacefully with other humans and wolves, through reason and intellect and the moral instincts we evolved. This non-religious faith comes from there being evidence that we are capable of doing so.

        • Mark Reaume
          Posted January 13, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          And for the genetic causes of bad behaviour we can put our faith in those that are studying CRISPR.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    We can take exception to his accommodationism, but it’s nice to see Kareem bring to the written word the same clean, no-bullshit style he had during his playing days, on and off the hardcourt. That attitude didn’t always endear him to management, or even to fans, but the guy could play — man, could he play.

  9. Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    It makes sense that Jabbar favors Skyhook explanations.

  10. eric
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    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

    Sounds like he’s confusing religious faith with optimism. I can be optimistic about people, and more importantly act on that feeling by trusting them more, giving them more responsibility, working with them when I otherwise might be suspicious of them, etc… without religion. Its neither the case that optimism -> religion nor religion -> optimism.

    Sure, that sort of optimism doesn’t preclude logic. But that sort of optimism also doesn’t have religion as either a needed foundation (“allows us to…”) or outcome.

  11. revelator60
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Cherry-picking helped defang Christianity, and I think it will eventually do the same for the Islam (the alternative, that Muslims will drop the faith altogether, is less plausible). There have long been competing philosophies of Islam–not just Shia and Sunni but also the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence—and a humanist-in-disguise version will eventually graft itself onto an existing variety. I think many in the Islamic world are getting sick of ISIS and sanctimonious theocrats—in a few decades the middle east might resemble Europe after the 30 Years War, when the continent was finally fed up with fighting over religion.

    On the subject of defanging Christianity, here is an excellent quote by Clive James:

    “Where do you fit Christ in when a pack of peanut-brained Nazis who believe in the divinity of Hitler start exterminating whole populations that don’t believe in Christ? You can’t. It’s my belief that you have to throw away the book, keeping only a few homilies and parables, such as the bits about loving your neighbor and not chucking rocks at the local whore. Not much to go on, but better than nothing.”

  12. Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve long been a fan of Rizvi’s online work. A few years back he was the first one to open my eyes about the ironies regressive leftism. In summary, Vlad Chituc (part of Chris Stedman’s menagerie) called Rizvi an islamophobic racism for no reason other than that he’s an atheist who criticizes Islam, and that might give comfort to white people who hate Muslims. Rizvi pointed out that Chituc is a rich white ivy league atheist who enjoys the privilege of unrestrained speech against christianity (the dominant religion in his culture). Non-white people like Rizvi are apparently not entitled to the same privilege, but bear a special responsibility to watch what they say around white people. Therefore Chituc’s argument sounds pretty racist. Chituc responded that Rizvi’s counterpoint is “boring”. And the islamophobia debate has gone round-and-round this same argument ever since. Kudos to Rizvi for pushing past those spoiled white kids who think they know what’s best for brown people.

  13. Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I assume Kareen in the title is supposed to be Kareem.

  14. GBJames
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink


  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Barbaric religious teachings fall into both the one group of bizarre readings of the text and the other group of being genuinely sanctioned by the text.

    I give one of each from Jerry Falwell.

    Early in his career Falwell said the capitalist economic system was clearly set forth in the Book of Proverbs. Now this is just basically false.
    Proverbs has a (pre-Protestant) work ethic, but capitalism is heavily premised on money-lending which is actually forbidden by the Bible and didn’t really develop into a full economic system until the 18th and 17th century.

    However, there IS some Biblical warrant for the notion that invasion of a country is divine punishment for the wrong-doings of the country. When claiming that 9/11 was God’s punishment for a variety of American malefactions, Falwell was on firmer Biblical ground than he was in his statements about capitalism. (Of course, some left-wingers have a similar notion, but don’t agree on which sins are evoking the wrath of heaven.)

    It’s a tad easier for some forms of Christianity to lose the notion that the whole text of the Bible is the inspired Word of God than for Islam, IMO.
    Still, it is promising to hear “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.”

  16. Merilee
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Saw Ghobash interview recently ( Charlie Rose?). He seemed quite reasonable.

  17. Sastra
    Posted January 12, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Faith is the belief in something for which there is no conclusive evidence.

    That’s a sly, sneaking little bit of equivocation — though so common I won’t blame Kareem for making use of it. We OFTEN believe, tentatively, in all sorts of things for which there is no ‘conclusive’ evidence or concrete proof. That’s not the sort of faith religion deals in. Religious faith imports a moral value into both the fact which is believed AND the believing of that fact.

    If I find out that something I thought was true isn’t — say I think I remember overhearing that Jerry’s middle name is Robert but one day he tells me no, it’s John, then I wasn’t practicing faith the entire time I believed it was “Robert.”

    If I believed his middle name was “Robert” on faith, then not only would I resist his correction, but I’d attach some sort of virtue to the fact that I resist it. It MUST be resisted, or the world and I are less than I hope they are. It’s not even a matter of demanding to see a birth certificate. NO evidence would or could be conclusive enough for me and I’d admit that. If it appears that Jerry’s middle name really is “John” — then Robert is his spiritual name, given to him on the astral plane. If it wasn’t, then something horrible would also be true.

    Jesus H. Christ, but I get tired of religious folk trying to make belief in God sound as reasonable and rational as believing what someone’s middle name is.

    • Larry
      Posted January 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      “Faith is the belief in something for which there is no conclusive evidence.”

      Religious faith is more than what is stated in the quote. It includes faith in e mythology of supernatural beings, hell, heaven, angels, saints, rituals, in-group vs out-group dynamics, sacred books of nonsense, etc.

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I think the word Faith is being properly used here, your faith that his middle name is Robert is equivalent to someones faith that God exists in the sense that you both believe something that is not evidenced. The problem is that there is an unstated adjective ‘unshakeable’ when the topic is God / Religion.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 13, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        I don’t agree. We both believe something which isn’t true because we’re relying on poor evidence, not no evidence. It doesn’t matter that we’re both wrong: what matters is how we deal with what we think we know.

        The religious add an additional moral element to their epistemology. In the face of uncertainty, instead of recognizing that this would make one’s position weaker, the religious see it as making the believer stronger.

    • phil
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Your faith is clearly unfounded. His middle initial is A which clearly stands for Algernon.

  18. Davey
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    I had a page pop up as a suggestion in Facebook called My Ordeal with the Quran.
    The guy who runs the page is the translator into English of a book of this name. It was pseudonymously written by man who was a believer all his life until he finally couldn’t anymore. Coming from a long line of Quranic scholars he goes into detail about the contradictions and just plain nonsense that show it can’t be the product of divine revelation it is held to be in Islam.
    The translator writes that the book is not a refutation of Islam but rather a refutation of the infallibility of the Qur’an.

    It was refused publication in Egypt, if I recall correctly. I’m hoping it will offer good material for argument. Rather that expecting Muslims to just abandon the religion, getting them to accept it isn’t infallible might be the more achievable goal.

    He offers a free pdf download on the page if anyone is interested.

  19. Ken Elliott
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    THANK YOU!!! This particular aspect of religion has been weighing heavily on me and I could find no way to have a discourse on it with anyone not emotionally tied to the religions themselves. Both the Bible and Koran/Haddiths supposedly have ‘good parts’ and ‘bad parts’. But how are those passages deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As Jerry points out, it is secular humanism that is the guide for those of us that do, indeed, cherry pick. Does this not invalidate those two horrible tomes? The WEIT Commentariat knows that it does. I wish the rest of the world would come to that conclusion sooner than the several centuries it’s likely to take.

  20. phil
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    A bit late but still…

    Coincidentally I started reading Rizvi’s book just a couple of hours before I first read this post. “The Atheist Muslim” is an excellent book and I heartily recommend it.

    Rizvi writes with understanding and compassion of the plight of atheist Muslims, and believing Muslims. In particular he notes that Muslim believers that he knows (family and friends) are more moral than their holy books.

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