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Islam and apostasy

An interview with Ibn Warraq


For Muslims, apostasy - the renunciation of one's religious faith - is a sin punishable by death in many parts of the Islamic world. We discuss apostasy with Ibn Warraq, critic of Islamic fundamentalism and author of a recent book "Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out".

Details or Transcript:

Stephen Crittenden: The word “apostate” refers to someone who renounces or abandons their faith, either to take up a new faith, or return to an old one, or to become an atheist.

In the earliest days of Christianity, apostasy was regarded as an unpardonable sin, and in many parts of the Islamic world, apostasy is still a capital offence. Well, Islamic apostasy is the new book by secularist Muslim author Ibn Warraq. It’s the subject of his new book; you may remember when we interviewed Ibn Warraq a few weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack. He’s the author of Why I am Not a Muslim, one of the most forceful and least politically correct presentations on Islam you’ll ever read – and the name Ibn Warraq is a pseudonym for obvious reasons.

His new book is called Leaving Islam. It’s part history of dissent and apostasy in Islam, and part collection of testimonials from former Muslims from all around the world, some writing anonymously, others willing to risk their lives by using their real names, and all writing about what it was about the Islamic faith that made them want to leave it.

They include Muhammad bin Abdullah, who writes an extraordinary essay about how his movement away from Islam began with the nightmare of Bangladesh in 1971.


Reader: I saw a well-equipped invading army indiscriminately killing millions of civilians and raping 200,000 women. Eight million uprooted people walked barefoot to take refuge in a neighbouring country. The institution of Islamic leadership supported the invading army actively, in capturing and killing freedom fighters and non-Muslims, and raping women on a massive scale. Each of 4,000 mosques became the ideological powerhouses of the mass killers and mass rapists, and these killers and rapists – these Islamists – were the same people of the same land as the freedom fighters and raped women. That was the civilians of Bangladesh and the killer army of Pakistan in 1971. All the Muslim countries and communities of the world either stood idle, or actively sided with the killers and rapists in the name of Islam.

The message was clear: something was very wrong – either with all the Islamic leaders, or with Islam itself.

I faced the truth of the mess of the Koran and hadith. The Koran does not contain a single humane teaching that was not here before Islam. Mankind will not lose a single moral precept if Islam is not there tomorrow. After consulting the Koran, the hadith, the Prophet’s biography, and Islamic history for years, with a guarded, open mind, I related the past to the present. People tried reforming Islam; it never worked. Again and again, Islam was mortgaged in the hands of killer leadership, while the rest of the Muslim world only said “this is not real Islam”.

It is indeed dangerous to humankind that nothing can stop Islam from breeding cruel killers time and time again. That is because many of the Prophet’s deeds and Koranic instruction are always alive there to act as fertile ground for breeding killers. Things happened in Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The catastrophe of September 11th shook the whole world. I expected conflicting decisions of Islamic leadership in favour and against bin Laden, based on geographic region. And how true my intuition was. Major Islamic leadership in North America and Europe “Islamically” denounced the cruelty of killing thousands by bin Laden. And the same leadership of the same Islam, in Pakistan, England and Muslim majority countries, “Islamically” supported him as a hero.

Once again, the dual character of Islam became clear. Islam has two sets of teeth, like elephants. One is ivory, which makes it elegant and majestic; the other set of teeth is hidden inside its jaws, and is used to chew and crush. All those sweet peace talks of Islam relate to the time and place of weak Islam in early years. But whenever and wherever Muslims were and are strong, they have another set of cruel laws and conduct. Tell me why the national flags of many Muslim countries have swords on them – a sword is not for shaving beards, it’s only for killing.

Stephen Crittenden: The searing words of Muslim apostate Muhammad bin Abdullah, from Bangladesh, writing in a new book Leaving Islam, edited by Ibn Warraq.

Now, I want to assure our listeners that we haven’t included that extract in our program in order to be offensive to Muslims, rather to give a sense of just how incendiary this new book is – it’s like plutonium – and what it is that some of these dissident writers in the Islamic world are risking their lives in order to say.

And that’s the point. In the West, if a Jesuit wrote a book detailing the shameful behaviour of German or Croatian Christians during the Second World War, there would be no death threats and no fatwas, indeed the author would find himself running from television interview to television interview.

Well, earlier this week I spoke to a very tired-sounding Ibn Warraq, in America. And I asked him about what had motivated Leaving Islam.

Ibn Warraq: Well, I wanted to point out that there were a large number of ex-Muslims, and I wanted to hold them up as examples to ex-Muslims to come out of the closet. I want people from Islamic countries to breathe a freer air because of the courage of the particular apostates. I wanted to open up the debate on Islam – and after all, freedom of conscience is a very basic human right which is denied many people in Islamic countries.

Stephen Crittenden: Is it meant for a Muslim readership?

Ibn Warraq: It’s meant for everyone, to show people who are dithering, those who are on the fence, those who are scared to speak out. One mustn’t forget the climate of fear in which many Muslims, even in the West – may I read you a letter that was sent to the Observer in London at the time of the Rushdie affair? The writer from Pakistan wrote anonymously, stated that “Salman Rushdie speaks for me. 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”. And this climate of fear continues even into the West. There was a remarkable article in The Washington Times by Julia Duin on October 13th 2002, where she talks of something like twenty thousand Muslims who convert to Christianity, but who are absolutely terrified of revealing this to friends and neighbours. And she gives examples of those who do reveal it, but who are then faced with ostracism, death threats, physical violence of various kinds. As far as I know, no-one’s been killed in the United States for example for their decision to leave Islam, but life is not particularly easy for them.

Stephen Crittenden: Well, it’s a book of testimonials, many of them like the one you just read. But if the book lacks anything, it seems to me it lacks the kind of demographic information – we know that Islam often describes itself as the fastest-growing religion in the world, but there’s not much information about how much leakage there is. Is that because there is no such information, is it because that information’s very hard to come by? What’s the story there?

Ibn Warraq: Yes indeed, for obvious reasons. Those who do leave Islam, those who become apostates, keep it quiet. And churches who baptise ex-Muslims are very reluctant to release the figures, they don’t want to create a sensation and so on. But we do have – according to the figures in this article in The Washington Times, you do have at least twenty thousand in the United States converting to Christianity. And then you have some figures that I do quote: people in Algeria, for example in the Qabili, converting to Christianity. One particular church recorded fifty baptisms in one year, which is quite remarkable in that it doesn’t sound a lot, but in a country where you can have your throat cut just for wearing lipstick, this open avowal of apostasy is quite remarkable.

Stephen Crittenden: You also talk about apostasy in West Africa, in Nigeria, in India, and in Indonesia, where you quote the work of an Australian academic – Dr Thomas Reuter, of Melbourne University – who talks about (and I had no idea about this) mass conversion to Hinduism on the Island of Java, tens of thousands leaving Islam for Hinduism in Indonesia over the past twenty years.

Ibn Warraq: Yes, many of these Muslims who converted back to Hinduism, of course, were originally Hindus. So they were sort of going back, as it were, to their ancestral faith.

Stephen Crittenden: But it does seem like an enormous divide, a cultural divide, to move from the absolute monotheism of Islam back to a religion of many gods like Hinduism.

Ibn Warraq: Yes indeed, but I suspect that their Islam, while they were nominally Muslim, must have been of a very syncretic sort of kind.

Stephen Crittenden: There is this history in Islam, isn’t there, of killing apostates?

Ibn Warraq: Yes indeed, but of course this varied throughout the centuries. I think I tried to make clear in the first part of my book – the early history of apostasy in Islam – that the situation really varied from century to century, ruler to ruler, country to country. And there were some remarkably tolerant rulers; others were incredibly intolerant. I give the example of the works of al-Razi, who was a great physician, well-known in the West as Raziz in mediaeval Europe, or Razis in Geoffrey Chaucer’s work. He was a deist, he was certainly very anti-Islamic, and yet he survived, he was not assassinated, which is a witness to the fact that he must have lived in a fairly tolerant culture and society. But unfortunately, of course, that wasn’t true always. You had the period of the Inquisition – the Muslim Inquisition, the Minha, under al Mahdi, that’s the 8th century Christian era or Common Era, when many people were executed. There was a great intolerance in general of various kinds of Sufism, because Sufis were considered really beyond the pale.

Stephen Crittenden: Gnostics, even. I can imagine many practising Muslims who have no intention of leaving Islam, that they might actually find it interesting to read this book, because it’s a history of dissident Islam.

Ibn Warraq: Yes, I hope that it does somehow add to – it might sound paradoxical – to the climate of tolerance, to show that Islamic culture wasn’t always so monolithic and so on, that there were periods when people spoke up and defended their rights to question and to doubt. The poet Almari, or the poems of Omar Khayyam, one hopes that believing Muslims will also accept these freethinkers as part of their culture.

Stephen Crittenden: In the contemporary Islamic world, to what extent is the death penalty against apostates actually enforced, and where is it most enforced?

Ibn Warraq: The most intolerant country at the moment is Iran, where people of the Baha’i faith are persecuted and accused of apostasy because they don’t accept that prophet Mohammed was the last of the prophets, they believe that their own Baha’u’llah was their last prophet. Since they do not accept one of the main tenets of Islam, they’re considered apostates, and some have been executed. Sudan is another intolerant country where people have been executed for apostasy; the most famous of course was Mahmoud Taha. Egypt on the whole has been a bit more tolerant. There was a case in recent years of Mr Saladin Mosen, who was accused of apostasy because he wrote a book criticising Islam, saying that all the ills of Egypt came from Islam. He nonetheless, he was not executed, he nonetheless is still in prison for having insulted Islam.

Stephen Crittenden: There’s a very interesting inconsistency right at the heart of Islam. One of the documents that you include in your book is a Shi’ite pronouncement on apostasy published in a Tehran newspaper in 1986, that actually deals with this inconsistency head-on, and that is that the Koran says there is no compulsion in religion.

Ibn Warraq: Yes, they tried to get round that by saying it doesn’t apply to apostasy, but Muslims have always been inconsistent on this issue. The right to change one’s religion has always troubled Islamic countries, and when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being written, drafted and discussed in the 1940s, Saudi Arabia objected to this very clause, this Article 18 of the Universal Declaration about the right to change one’s religion, and in subsequent UN declarations, many Islamic countries have been very uncomfortable with this clause about changing one’s religion. Although of course they’re totally inconsistent in that they are very happy when somebody converts to Islam.

Stephen Crittenden: And when Muslims leave Islam, why do they leave? A lot of the people who give testimonials in your book talk about reading the Qur’an being the thing that led them to leave, reading it seriously, or reading it differently. There’s somebody who talks about reading Maxim Rodenson’s famous biography of the Prophet Mohammed, but what are the reasons?

Ibn Warraq: There are all sorts of different reasons. I have tried to compile a taxonomy of the reasons for leaving Islam, but as you’ve just noted, one of the main reasons for many of them was that they read the Koran for the first time in translation. Of course, you must realise that the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabic-speaking, and the Koran is written in rather difficult classical Arabic. And it’s not even accessible to Muslims in Arabic countries, in fact, because of the difficulty of this classical language, and the colloquial language, the language of everyday life, is different.

Stephen Crittenden: That’s very interesting, because in the Christian West, when the bible began to be translated and to become widely available in the vernacular, you got the Reformation, and you got an enormous upsurge in interest in religion, and interest in Christianity. You got more fervour, not less. It seems that the opposite may be the case in Islam.

Ibn Warraq: Well, yes and no. I think one of the paradoxical results of greater education – in fact, if you look at the composition of the various Islamic fundamentalist groups in modern times, you will see that the most tolerant Muslims are not the ones who are educated, but the uneducated people in the countryside, the rural poor, who don’t actually know precisely what is in the Koran, since they cannot read the difficult Arabic. Islamic fundamentalism is very much an urban phenomenon of people who are educated, or able to read the Koran and take it very literally.

Stephen Crittenden: Ibn Warraq, and his book Leaving Islam is published by Prometheus Books.


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