A Muslim Version of New Atheism

Nov 21, 2016

By Taner Edis

Atheism is rare in Muslim populations. Moreover, even more than among Christians, atheists are distrusted and associated with immorality. Public expressions of non­belief often risk prosecution, and nonbelievers who escape blasphemy laws face severe social disapproval, risking livelihoods and family ties.

Still, there is a Muslim tradition of religious skepticism, particularly among intellectuals with a modern education. Most Western nonbelievers know little about Muslim atheists, who have typically been leftists or secular nationalists, fans of the European Enlightenment but critics of Western imperialism. Much of what they have said, therefore, has not been interesting or acceptable to a mainstream American audience.

Ali Rizvi’s The Atheist Muslim presents a more relatable version of dissent from Islam. Coming from an educated, prosperous, and liberal Pakistani Shia family, Rizvi grew up with the experience of being a religious minority both in his homeland and in Saudi Arabia, where his parents worked for some years. Both Shia and conservative Sunni practices shaped Rizvi’s perception of Islam. He eventually trained as a physician and settled in North America, and though many applied scientists gravitate toward religious nationalism or a mushy liberal spirituality, Rizvi went in a more skeptical direction.

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2 comments on “A Muslim Version of New Atheism

  • … he expresses hope that liberal versions of Islam will take the edge off of some of the crazier and more dangerous aspects of traditional faith. After all, he argues, this is what has happened with Christianity and Judaism.

    Strange, I don’t seem to have encountered this in my fairly wide historical readings. Leaving aside the current manifestations of Christian violence, crusades in the Middle East, attacks on women’s rights, suppression of LGBTs, and the general nastiness of the religious right; there’s the question of the historical accuracy of Rizvi’s contention.

    The history of Christianity is characterised by blood-letting. All during the middle ages there were wars against the unorthodox. The burning by Constantine of Priscillian and six of his followers started the ball rolling in 386 AD; in Byzantine times Jews and pagans were persecuted, and this continued into medieval Europe, where proto Protestant movements Albigensian, Lollards et al were violently suppressed. Zwinglians, Lutherans and Calvinists were both persecuted and persecutors, Calvin burned one of his erstwhile mates for heresy, in spite of being told that the punishment did not defend a doctrine, but merely burned a man.

    After Zwingli, Luther and Calvin had done their work, incidentally forcing a far stronger morally suppressive code than Catholicism, Europe descended into 250 years of pretty well continuous religious war. All this time the Enlightenment was going on, though it didn’t seem to have much effect on people’s behaviour. It reached its apogee when the mobs stormed into la Madeline and installed the goddess Reason on the high altar. The Napoleonic wars followed. Do I need to say more?

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    fadeordraw says:

    Actually, Taner Edis’s article on Ali Rizvi’s The Atheist Muslim isn’t complimentary and doesn’t encourage pursuing the book: you can only spend so much time with your nose in scripture to support secular and liberal approaches. Now the idea of Jewish atheism, the benefits of the culture and community, that of belonging, everybody now knows about that. The Christian atheists – hard to visualize. The Muslin atheist, not a chance.

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