Book Review of Ali Rizvi's "The Atheist Muslim"

03/19/2017 12:08 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2017

It was the title of the book, “The Atheist Muslim”, which struck me first. The title apparently is an oxymoron and yet after reading the book, I don’t think any other title would have done justice to this well argued book.

Although I am an academic in making ( a PhD student) and my job is to go through a lot of non fiction stuff, I still find it tough to finish such books in two days. However, Ali Rizvi’s book, proved to be a page turner and I finished it in two days, which is a testimony to not only his argumentative powers but also his prose.

Rizvi considers himself an ex Muslim in a theological sense but also claims to espouse certain cultural aspects of Islam. This distinction is the central theme of his book and becomes the basis for his most persuasive argument that Muslims are people and Islam is a religion. According to this argument one can be critical of the religious text without indulging in anti-Muslim bigotry.

This perhaps is the most important contribution of Rizvi to the ongoing discourse which largely conflates the two, a practice which has resulted in stereotyping Muslims by the right wing and apologetic defense by the left wing of the political spectrum. Every time an extremist act happens, some in the liberal left bend over backwards to deflect attention from Islamic extremism. In their lexicon, even mentioning Islamic extremism equates anti- Muslim bigotry.

Rizvi sums it well by noting“ In countries where Muslims are in a minority, Islam is an identity. In countries where Muslims are a majority, Islam is a religion. This dichotomy has consequences for liberals on either side.”

Rizvi’s case against Western liberals is that too often in order to protect Muslim minority living in the West, they start bracketing criticism on Islamic religion, as Islamophobia. To quote the term coined by Maajid Nawaz, this Left is “Regressive Left” as it has ended up siding with the reactionaries.

On the other hand, some rightwing circles go overboard and paint all Muslims as terrorists and followers of a violent faith. Moreover, they expect entire community to apologize for the act of a tiny fringe.

According to Rizvi, these polarized reactions do not depict the complex reality and hamper serious critique on religious extremism while concomitantly increasing bigotry against Muslims. The distinction between Islam as an idea and Muslims as a set of people is critical as it can facilitate introspection without painting everyone with the same brush. There are after all more than a billion Muslims, who vary substantially in the way they practice faith. To equate all of them just because they follow a faith ( which itself is not monolithic) is grossly unfair.

After creating this essential distinction, Rizvi moves on to the criticism of the religious text. In order to show that he is fair, he does not merely criticize Islamic scripture but shows that other Abrahamic religions also suffer from the same problems. Rizvi’s case against religion in general and Islam in particular rests on the actual content of the holy scriptures. He tries to show that the scriptures actually contain content which is not in line with the modern day ideals of humanity, freedom and above all gender equality. In his point of view, religion is the prime reason behind the recent surge in violence and growing Jihadist tendencies. Here Rizvi counters the narrative, that the violence in Muslim countries is merely an outcome of lack of economic opportunities or some injustice.

Further he argues that the common defense that many verses have been “misinterpreted” is not sustainable because at numerous places, there could only be one interpretation. In other words, the harsh interpretation by the clergy is so pervasive, because it is perhaps the “correct” interpretation. In his opinion, there is therefore a limit to which one can reinterpret and the problems with religion is not because of any misinterpretation but due to its very nature.

The book also narrates his personal story of evolution from a believing but skeptical Muslim to an atheist. He has talked about the questions which he raised and arguments which he had with his peers and family members. His voyage towards atheism was not sudden but a slow process spanning decades consisting of stages where he first became a skeptic Muslim, then an agnostic and finally an atheist. Some of the intellectual arguments given are the same which Bertrand Russel, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have given.

Despite being extremely critical of religion, particularly Islam, Rizvi maintains a remarkably humane approach towards ordinary Muslims. Unlike some Muslim reformers who have ended up in joining the far right of the other side, and now regularly spew hatred against Muslims (Tarek Fatah is a prime example), Rizvi come across as remarkably understanding and humane. It is his kindness and empathy, which sets him apart from others.

Most of the Muslims in response to global spotlight due to extremism claim that the problem is not with their faith but themselves. In contrast, Rizvi takes an opposite view as he places the blame largely on the religion. In his opinion this allows criticism on the religion without unfairly penalizing the Muslims who mostly are not even aware of former’s harsher aspects. For him Muslims are just like all other humans and should not be judged exclusively by the faith in which they are born. Many Muslims remain moderate and either do not know the harsher aspects, or adopt a pick and choose approach to gel with the modern times.

Although Rizvi has argued his case well but as an academic I do have some differences with him. Where I fully I agree with him is the linkage of religious orthodoxy with gender gap in Muslim societies. Facts do support his assertion. In fact Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) compiled by World Economic Forum ranked 144 countries in 2016, out of which not even a single Muslim-majority country made it into the top 50. Kazakhstan was the top among Muslim countries (51st), and out of the 30 Islamic countries which were ranked, 25 were in the last 50 (90-144). In fact, the last 15 countries (130-144) were all Muslim -majority countries. This is an astonishing figure and clearly points to an across the board problem in the Muslim world. The gender issue is prominent, though with varying degrees, in most of the sects. It is a problem in Shiite Iran (ranked 139th) and also Wahhabi Saudi Arabia (ranked 141st). Of all the factors, the fact that a country has a Muslim majority is perhaps the strongest predictor of a country’s position in this index.

However, where I have differences with him is the way he has causally linked terrorism with Islam. To be fair to Rizvi, he acknowledges the complications and does not openly say that religion is the sole cause of the recent surge of extremism in the Muslim, particularly Arab world. However, the mechanism needed to be fleshed out more in his book. Let’s not forget that current form of extremism is a very recent phenomenon. During 1960s and 1970s, most of the Arab Muslim countries had Pan Arabism as the dominant ideology. Islam was more of a unifying factor and a sub part of broader Arab culture. The dominance of Islamic theological fundamentalism of the current era started from 1980s and has a lot to do with various structural and international factors also. For example emergence of Taliban, Al-Qaida and now ISIS has also do with interaction between religion and other factors such as Afghan and Iraq wars and the resulting state failures.

These extremist ideologies gained appeal when external environment became conducive. What I am suggesting is that religion interacted with other factors to account for the emergence of these ideologies. Religion though important , was not the sole factor. Moreover, terrorism is more of a characteristic of a certain form of Islam ( Wahabi/Salafi) and not an across the board problem. What perhaps is correct is that a certain kind of religious school of thought is more amenable to this kind of extremism. After all one does not see Shiite or even Barelvi ( A mainstream Sunni sect) suicide bombers. They may have their own problems including extremism but this kind of extremism ( Taliban, Al-Qaida and ISIS) which is transnational, freely adopts suicide bombings for indiscriminate killings, and aims to create an Islamic Caliphate is not one of them.

Second, I think that some ( not all) of the extremism is also an outcome of the way religion is revered. This has less to do with the content of the holy scriptures and more with the instinctive veneration, many Muslims have for their religion. When a Muslim reacts violently on burning of Holy Quran , often his violent reaction is not due to a certain verse in the holy book, but because of instinctive reverence developed through upbringing. This actually complicates the task, because real reformation in religion would entail not only targeting the way scripture is interpreted but also the way children are raised up in Muslim households.

Third, I do think that he underestimates the potential of reinterpretation. An overwhelming majority of Muslims are not going to become atheists. They will stay as Muslims and to ensure that they remain moderate, reinterpretation has to play a key role. And despite Rizvi’s contention that reinterpretation has very limited potential, I do think it has a very important role to play through building an alternative effective narrative. Let’s not forget the differences between sects ( some are extreme and some are not) is mainly due to differences in interpretation and traditions. I therefore do think that interpretation does have a potentially important role.

But my disagreements apart, I would like to reiterate that this is one of the most important books to come out recently. In these polarized times, where our discourse has become dominated by stupid binaries, this book treats a complicated subject with much needed nuance. Above all this book is for everyone. It is for Muslims who need to rethink the way they approach these issues. It is for the right wingers who have indulged in anti-Muslim bigotry by painting every Muslim with the same brush. It is for the liberals who have often come up with apologetic defense of extremism and at times even called Muslim reformers as anti-Muslim extremists. Everyone would benefit from reading this book.

I will give it a five star which by the way it is averaging at Amazon also!

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