One often hears Islam described as the fastest growing religion, hailed as such by some Muslim preachers or expressed in the form of hysterical outcry by those who want to stir up political tensions. From a global perceptive, this claim seems highly unlikely given the millions of converts to Christianity through well-funded missionary work in Africa and China. However, the more pertinent question one should ask, is what particular type or brand of Islam is growing? Based on my own observations, a particular brand of Islam, with a disproportionate influence compared to its followers, seems to have hegemony. Lacking the faithfulness to the Islamic message, it is at odds with its rich and diverse intellectual heritage. Such a brand of Islam propagated by ‘Dawah’ originators, who have a significant presence within university campuses, seeks to educate by arguing that Islam is a rational religion supported by intellectual and logical arguments. This argumentation often takes the form of contemporary religious philosophy, drawing on Western Christian philosophers, and specifically arguments for the existence of God. It is argued that with unfettered reason and logic one will be led to believing in God. Such arguments when presented adequately, although in most cases crudely understood and expressed, provide Muslims with the intellectual grounding for their belief, avoiding the frivolity of blind faith, which incidentally is against the teaching of the Quran. Thus, the effect of rational grounding is to provide Muslims with a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence in their religion. When I spoke at the American university of Beirut several years ago, I encountered many Muslims who were confused and insecure about their faith. But once familiar with rational arguments of this nature, I noticed a renewal of confidence. My own journey was in fact quite similar. When I first encountered this approach many years ago, the fact that Islam could be an intellectual endeavor had a resounding effect on me, which was itself an impetus to commit and practice Islam more diligently.
So where is the problem? The issue is that the intellectual rigor that is effective in providing the intellectual basis for Islamic belief is immediately stifled once someone accepts the Islamic faith, and that is where I part intellectual ways with these preachers. It is expected that the perfectly sound reasoning once used to establish grounds for becoming Muslim, should then be abandoned once within, in internal discussions pertaining to Islamic thought, theology, law and politics. Once you enter Islam you have to leave your brain and intellect at the door in an act I describe as a form of intellectual apostasy. Intellectual consistency and precision in thinking within the faith is currently virtually non-existent, which has had disastrous effects on our community. Such a state of affairs leads to the belief and practice of absurd views and the adoption of morally reprehensible laws, driven by a blind obedience, which is deemed virtuous and honorable. When the intellect is killed by overstating the notion of obedience propped up by puritanical aphorisms, such as “The rule is for God only “ or in similar vain “human minds are limited, thus only God can decide on law”, this leads us to a religion of simplism. Traditional Islam understood that there is a great degree of personal agency involved in determining Islamic law which is drastically understated today due to its over simplification. Let us not forget that similar voices criticised and assassinated Imam Ali, the cousin of the prophet for allegedly not following God’s word! The conflict between Imam Ali and the Khawarij mirrors the struggle that exists in our time, between those who understand correctly the indeterminable nature of scripture which gives a significant role to human agency (the realm of the intellectual engagement), and those who deny human agency in the application of laws, with a fanatical and unduly literal application of scripture. As Khalid Abou El Fadl argues, the traditional premises upon which Islamic law was constructed, and which significantly contributed to the flourishing of Islamic civilization, have since been disintegrated and discarded. What we have now is a puritanical Islam, whereby Muslims who are engaged in complex, subtle ethical discussions are reduced to what he calls “Hadith hurlers”. Muslim preachers, ignorant of the discipline of ethics, speak on ethical matters by merely regurgitating a plethora of decontextualised hadiths, which ultimately amounts to them spouting views, which cannot be morally or rationally defended. The hallmark of a true ‘scholar’ then becomes the absurdity of his views. No better example of this is current gender related issues, which demonstrate the unintelligibility and unethical nature of this particular brand of Islam. In this area as well as others, such an Islam is completely intellectually handicapped with an intellectual gap which prevents contemporary Islamic thought from being part of any credible debate on ethics, in fields ranging from philosophy, sociology, psychology and biology.
Recently a number of academics and experts from Saudi Arabia underlined the need for serious efforts to contain atheism within the Kingdom. Perhaps those who are leaving the faith are those who experience conflict between their faith and moral imperatives, lacking sound ethical answers, this results in them leaving the faith.
A further point worth considering – although Islam may be the fastest growing religion, how many new converts actually retain their faith? Given the overly restrictive brand of Islam that new converts are exposed to, I would not be surprised if the numbers were considerably low. There are reasons to believe that apostasy is a growing phenomenon, but it is important to acknowledge that a greater concern is intellectual apostasy committed within the faith, which itself provides grounds for apostasy from the faith.
Surely, the application of intellectual rigor must be consistent throughout the Islamic faith and not be discarded once one enters the fold. If we claim to seek truth then regardless of whether it involves external or internal discussions, truth should prime over everything. Without such integrity, we leave ourselves open to accepting all sorts of things. The famous aphorism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge aptly conveys this, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself better than all.”
Regrettably, there are Muslim preachers who act as intellectual front men, recruiting for a brand of Islam that demands intellectual apostasy when entering the faith, a faith far removed from its past, and which is void of intellectual coherence, intelligence and ethical credibility.