Intellectual Apostasy


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.





Renewal and reform are important dimensions of the historical experience of the Islamic world. Within this historical experience we can see a lengthy tradition of reform, which takes the form of a special focus on the purification and the revival of the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. An essential part of this renewal requires going against the tide and taking on the Goliath of the dominant views within a community.  Someone once said that the trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.   When I read this quote it resonated with me. Throughout my experience with the Muslim community, spanning over a decade, I have noticed those who excel within the community are those who massage the ego of the community and who often perpetuate its ignorance. But those who recognize its short falls and see worrying fringe elements within the community are treated with scorn and ostracized. There currently exists a particular brand of Islam that dominates the ‘practicing’ Muslim spectrum. On being criticized, it seeks to isolate individuals by promoting identity politics and the politics of the “other” in order to keep people from recognizing just how bereft of substance the said group actually is. Labels such as, “Modernist”, “Sellout”, “deviant” have always been a powerful tool to suppress alternative voices. Such delineations serve to undermine the willingness to challenge the Muslim status quo, as individuals fear being termed “other” and banished from the group.

Some view the call for introspection and reflection with suspicion and resentment. In light of rising anti Muslim sentiments, calls for introspection are often seen as attempts to appease the West or bend Islam to fit with ‘Western values’. It’s quite easy to empathize with the concern given the undeniable anti Muslim rhetoric that has permeated every aspect of society. However, the knee jerk insular reaction to such a threat is costing the Muslims greatly. Our current reaction might be dubbed a form of Muslim-tribalism. A classic example of such a mentality is when news reached about Boko Haram kidnapping over 200 girls and some prominent Muslims responded with condemnation. Those Muslims were treated as Western appeasers by some Muslim hardliners, who sought to point out that West was also guilty of crimes i.e drone attacks killing civilians. On social media you will notice an unspoken policy among puritanical Muslims who will not openly criticise or condemn Muslims, not matter how badly they may have behaved or how at odds their actions might be with Islamic ideals.   I recall one person saying “I wont condemn Boko Haram until Obama condemns drone attacks in Pakistan” or on another occasion a blogger stated, “I don’t usually condemn the actions of Muslims given the current situation Muslims are in, but on this occasion I have to condemn the actions of Boko Haram”. Now, I’m not suggesting the Muslims who argue in this way necessarily believe that the actions of the likes of Boko Haram are justified because of the actions of the US, however, whether intentionally or not, these counter examples of Western war crimes are somehow used in an attempt to vindicate the community. Ask yourself this, why should it make a difference to our perception of events whether Obama lives by moral standards or not, in what way should that affect our own moral integrity? Why would it make a difference what situation Muslims are in, whether Muslims are under fire or not? Isn’t right, right and wrong, wrong? Our moral compass isn’t determined by how other people live and whether they subscribe to moral standards. Does not the Quran command that we do not transgress even when we are angry? Worryingly, there seems to be this notion of unwavering support for ‘my community whether right or wrong’ developing. But this strikes at the heart of the Islamic message. Islam came at a time where tribalism was the structure of the society, with bonding based on the value of the tribe and the primary focus being on loyalty and identity. Each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group and fight to the death if necessary, to ensure survival. If a person was killed or injured by members of another tribe regardless of whether they were innocent or not, any member of that tribe could be killed or injured in retribution. The act of retribution is a form of reclaiming or leveling the honour of the tribe. The late Ayn Rand described tribalism as an anti-conceptual mentality. Quite an apt description I would say. Where is the rationale in taking revenge on a random person simply because of an affiliation to a particular tribe? Simply said, there is none at all. One can identify current similarities with Muslim-tribal mentalities.   What is the rational link between US drone attacks killing innocent civilians, and the actions of Muslim extremists like Boko Haram? The answer is none, its basis isn’t conceptual, but tribal.   This juxtaposition of western war crimes with crimes by extremist Muslims, simply functions in a tribal vein, much like the arbitrary and non conceptual basis for taking revenge on a random member of a tribe to seek revenge. It’s a subtle attempt to redeem the honor of the Muslim community and establish loyalty to the group. The danger here is that we lose sight of Islamic principles in an attempt to ‘defend’ Muslims and lose any ethical credibility. This blind identification with one’s Islamic identity or brotherhood is fundamentally at odds with a major tradition in moral philosophy, which understands morality as essentially universal and impartial, which rules out local, partial attachment and loyalty. This type of Muslim-tribalism thinking is a type of group egoism, a morally arbitrary partiality to “one’s own”, at odds with demands of justice, which is by nature, universal. The Quran commands that we stand out firmly for justice emphatically stating “even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…”. The message here was revolutionary at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Mercy, generosity and justice were not just for your tribe, but for all. The greatest challenge for our community is to live by the standards of this very verse.

One other powerful tool to thwart criticism is the appeal to “Muslim unity”. Often Muslims, many of them unaware of the schisms that exist within, try to quash critical discussions of the community, which are seen as divisive, by appealing to the concept of Ummah. Embedded within this term is the notion of the unity of Muslims. What I would argue is that this obligation of unity is misplaced. It seems to be unity for the sake of unity at the expense of truth and justice. Unity should never supersede one’s integrity. After the death of the prophet , a dispute arose concerning the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman. Two camps were formed in response. Ali, the cousin of the prophet, was on one side and on the other, two of the prophet’s prominent companions Talha and al-Zubayr who were supported by ‘A’isha, the prophet’s wife. This conflict divided the community and resulted in Islam’s first civil war. Were the companions, cousin and wife of the prophet not aware of this blind unity that we hear some Muslims calling for today? The answer is that if it had existed the companions of the prophet would have lived by it. It is clear that their understanding of Muslim unity was that unity is never at the expense of what one believes to be true or just. The Quran says that our Ummah is underpinned not simply by Muslim affiliation, but by its ideals. The Quran describes the Ummah as “the best community ever brought forth for mankind (in that) you command the proper and forbid the improper and believe in God.”

It’s easy to lose sight of one’s moral standards in adversity. But if we lose our moral integrity, as a community we lose ethical credibility internally and externally. As Ralph W Emerson quite poignantly said “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”