Sunday, July 27, 2003

Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, edited by Ibn Warraq

[Note] I tell myself that the best thing is to be satisfied with your fate and get on with it. For example, if you’re a Superhero, it doesn’t do to bitch that you are an off-brand superhero. True, I’m not as strong as the Hulk, as mysterious as the Shadow, or even as stretchy as Plasticman, but I do read a lot. Think of me as what would have happened if the guy in the Twilight Zone episode hadn’t broken his glasses. In that spirit, the first of innumerable very brief notices of mostly unnoticed books:

Ibn Warraq is probably the most prominent anti-Muslim writer who comes from the Muslim world. Leaving Islam and his earlier book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, are effective if unoriginal polemic. You don’t have to be a great shot when you’re shooting an elephant at close range but you do have to keep your nerve—Ibn Warraq, whose real identity is understandably kept secret, is under a death sentence for apostasy as are all male apostates under Muslim law as interpreted by all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In any case, as the narratives in Leaving Islam make clear, criticisms of religion that have been commonplace in the West since the Enlightenment are still news in Pakistan and Egypt. Indeed, one of the benefits of reading these first-person accounts is to recover the force of the old arguments. Other themes are perhaps more surprising: many male and female apostates cite the deep hostility of traditional Islam to women and many non-Arabs see Islam as an Arabic imperial ideology. I was also interested to read that many ex-Muslims are as unimpressed with the literary quality of the Koran as I am.

While works like Leaving Islam may have a more immediate impact, I expect that Ibn Warraq’s more academic books will turn out to more important in the long haul. In his What the Koran Really Says, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and The Origins of the Koran, all anthologies of serious scholarship, Ibn Warraq examines the remarkably thin evidence that lies behind the official story of how Islam and the Koran came to be. Sympathetic Western accounts of Islam have left many people with the impression that, unlike Moses or Jesus, Muhammad’s career unfolded in the light of history. In fact, contemporary Byzantine accounts of the Arab invasion of Syria and Egypt don’t even mention Muhammad, and the familiar just-so story of his activities is based on biographies and histories written down two centuries after the death of the Prophet. It is also quite impossible to squeeze a coherent narrative out of the Koran itself, surely the worst edited as well as the worst written of the major scriptures. In any case, while Jewish and Christian writings have been subjected to four hundred years of serious philological research, the corresponding process has barely been initiated for the Koran. Ibn Warraq’s own conjectures about the origins of Islam may not prove to be accurate or even on the right track—he is perfectly well aware of how tentative all such reconstructions must be given the state of the evidence—but the effort itself is a vital precedent and a huge improvement on the thinly disguised apologetics (Watt!) that often pass for serious scholarship on Islam.

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