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ROLL OVER, RUSHIDIE

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 1996 • By DANIEL PIPES
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In March 1989, shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his .decree sentencing Salman Rushdie to death for his novel The Satanic Verses, London's Observer newspaper published an anonymous letter from Pakistan. "Salman Rushdie speaks for me," wrote its author, who explained: "Mine is a voice that has not yet found expression in newspaper columns. It is the voice of those who are born Muslims but wish to recant in adulthood, yet are not permitted to on pain of death. Someone who does not live in an Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions, both self-imposed and external, that militate against expressing religious disbelief. "I don't believe in God" is an impossible public utterance even among family and friends. . . . So we hold our tongues, those of us who doubt."


Seven years later, the author of that letter is joined in his heterodoxy by the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq -- a man who is identified only as a native of a country that is now an "Islamic republic" and who lives and teaches in Ohio. He too, was outraged by the Khomeini decree, so much so that he wrote a book called Why I Am Not a Muslim (Prometheus Books, 402 pages, $ 25.95) that transcends The Satanic Verses in terms of sacrilege. Where Rushdie offered an elusive critique of Islam in an airy tale of magical realism, Ibn Warraq brings a scholarly sledgehammer to the task of demolishing Islam. Such an act, especially for an author of Muslim birth, is so incendiary that the author must write under a pseudonym; not to do so would be an act of suicide.


And what does Ibn Warraq have to show for this unheard-of defiance? A well- researched and quite brilliant, if somewhat disorganized, indictment of one of the world's great religions. While the author disclaims any pretense to originality, he has read widely enough to write an essay that offers a startlingly novel rendering of the faith he has left.


To begin with, Ibn Warraq draws on current Western scholarship to make the as tonishing claim that Muhammad never existed, or if he did, had nothing to do wi th the Koran. Rather, that holy book was fabricated a century or two later in P alestine, then "projected back onto an invented Arabian point of origin." If th e Koran is a fraud, it's not surprising to learn that the author finds little a uthenticity in other parts of the Islamic tradition. For example, he dispatches Isl amic law as "a fantastic creation founded on forgeries and pious fictions." The whole of Islam, in short, he portrays as a concoction of lies.


Having thus dispensed with religion, Ibn Warraq takes up history and culture. Turning political correctness exactly on its head, he condemns the early Islamic conquests and condones European colonialism. "Bowing toward Arabia five times a day," he writes, "must surely be the ultimate symbol of... cultural imperialism." In contrast, European rule, "with all its shortcomings, ultimately benefited the ruled as much as the rulers. Despite certain infamous incidents, the European powers conducted themselves, on the whole, very humane.


To the conventional argument that the achievements of Islamic civilization in the medieval period are proof of Islam's greatness, Ibn Warraq revives the Victorian argument that Islamic civilization came into existence not because of the Koran and Islamic law but despite them. The stimulus in science and the arts came from outside the Muslim world; where Islam reigned, these accomplishments took place only where the dead hand of Islamic authority could be avoided. Crediting Islam for the medieval cultural glories, he believes, would be like crediting the Inquisition for Galileo's discoveries.


Turning to the present, Ibn Warraq argues that Muslims have experienced great travails trying to modernize because Islam stands foursquare in their way. Its regressive orientation makes change difficult: "All innovations are discouraged in Islam -- every problem is seen as a religious problem rather than a social or economic one." This religion would seem to have nothing functional to offer. "Islam, in particular political Islam, has totally failed to cope with the modern world and all its attendant problems -- social, economic, and philosophical." Nor does the author hold out hope for improvernment. Take the matter of protecting individuals from the state: "The major obstacle in Islam to any move toward international human rights is God, or to put it more precisely . . . the reverence for the sources, the Koran and the Sunna."