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Arabs and atheism

The shock of disbelief

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It’s hard to be an Arab and an atheist. As far as Arab society is concerned, openly declaring a disbelief in God is a shocking and sometimes dangerous thing to do. It can lead to being ostracised by family, friends and the local community – as well as charges of apostasy which in some countries carry the death penalty.

Linguistically, too, there are problems since Arabic has no precise equivalent of the English word “atheist”. The dictionary suggests mulhid, a general term which certainly includes atheists but lumps them together with other kinds of religious “deviants” and heretics.

Despite that, according to a recent report by Kamran Jebreili for The Associated Press, Arab atheists are becoming increasingly visible. Whether this is because their numbers are growing or because online media have given them a voice is unclear, though it’s probably a mixture of both. 

Jebreili writes:

One 40-year-old Egyptian engineer, born a Muslim, told The Associated Press he had long been an atheist but kept it a deep secret. The 2011 uprising in Egypt and its calls for radical change encouraged him to look online for others like himself.

“Before the revolution, I was living a life in total solitude. I didn’t know anybody who believed like me,” he said. “Now we have more courage than we used to have.”

His case illustrates the limits on how far an atheist can go. Like most others interviewed by The Associated Press, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, harassment or troubles with his family. His “going public” is strictly online.

One who did agree to be named was 23-year-old Rafat Awad, a Palestinian-born pharmacist who now lives in the UAE. Both his parents are devout Muslims and when he finally plucked up the courage to tell them about his atheism their response was to summon clerics who tried to get him to change his mind. 

In Tunisia, 18-year-old Fadwa switched from agnosticism to atheism as a result of the revolution and the subsequent rise of Islamists:

“Before the revolution, people didn’t see Islam as the problem, but after the revolution, they saw what political Islam was – and what Islam is,” she said.

She says she is now involved in online groups and talks to her friends at university about being an atheist. Because of her beliefs, rumours have been spread around campus that she’s promiscuous, she said. But she worries worse could happen, such as being targeted as an apostate.

Fadwa’s fears are not unfounded. In 2012, two other Tunisian atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail and fined 1,200 dinars ($800) for "disturbing the public order" and "transgressing morality" after posting their anti-religious views on the internet.

Also in 2012, Alber Saber, an Egyptian from a Coptic Christian family who describes himself as an atheist was sentenced to three years in jail for "defamation of Islam and Christianity, insulting the divine and satirising religious rituals and sanctities and the prophets”.

In 2010, Palestinian blogger Waleed al-Husseini was arrested for allegedly blaspheming against Islam on the internet. After being detained for 10 months he was released on bail and fled to France.

Atheism itself is not necessarily a crime but, as these recent cases show, other charges can be brought against people expressing anti-religious views that are deemed to have offended believers. Muslims who abandon their faith also risk being accused of apostasy – and this applies to people who are considered Muslims simply as a result of being born into a Muslim family.


In the Arab atheists series ...

Arabs and atheism: the shock of disbelief

Email from an Arab atheist (1)

Email from an Arab atheist (2)

Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

Email from an Arab atheist (3)


In Saudi Arabia, where apostasy is a capital offence, relatively trivial actions can lead to serious trouble. In July 2013, Raif Badawi, editor of a website called "Saudi Arabian Liberals" was sentenced to 600 lashes and seven years in jail for violating Saudi Arabia's cybercrime law, insulting Islam and – bizarrely – disobeying his father (even though he was in his early thirties at the time).

Badawi, who does not identify as an atheist, appears to have been arrested for ridiculing the kingdom’s religious police and (among other things) suggesting that al-Imam Mohamed ibn Saud University had become "a den for terrorists".

During one of several court appearances, a judge ordered Badawi to "repent to God". When he refused, the judge sought to add apostasy to the list of charges. Part of the evidence for his supposed apostasy was that he had clicked the "Like" button on a Facebook page for Arab Christians.

A prominent Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak, had also been pressing the authorities to charge him with apostasy. Badawi was alleged to have said “that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal” – a statement that is impermissible according to Barrak. In the cleric’s view, even if Badawi had merely been quoting the opinion of others about equality, he was not allowed to do so “unless accompanied by a repudiation” of such words.

Historically, fear of atheists seems to have far exceeded their actual numbers. Though known atheists are rather scarce, there’s an abundance of polemical treatises in Arabic attacking those who deny God’s existence.

The earliest surviving work of this kind is thought to be Radd 'ala al-Mulhid (“Reply to the Heretic”) by al-Qasim bin Ibrahim, a Zaydi theologian of the ninth century CE. Al-Qasim was so anxious to keep Muslims on the straight path that he wrote two more books on the same subject – "The Small Book of Proof" and "The Great Book of Proof" – advising readers “"what to answer the heretics and unbelievers when they ask for a proof of the existence of God".

In her book, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam, Sarah Stroumsa writes:

One would naturally be inclined to infer from these facts that the "heretics and unbelievers" intended by al-Qasim were people who denied, or at least questioned, the existence of God, and that al-Qasim was concerned about the persuasive power of such contemporaneous atheists.

An examination of the theological literature written in Arabic from the ninth century onwards would seem to corroborate such a conclusion ... Again, one would be inclined to infer that these theologians were arguing against known atheists …

Nevertheless, in the discussions of God's existence the actual opponents are not identified as individuals. As a group, they are sometimes referred to as heretics, unbelievers, materialists, or sceptics. These designations often appear together, and they do not always seem to be clearly distinguished in the authors' mind ...

And yet we can search these texts in vain for a specific contemporaneous individual accused of denying the existence of God … The atheists themselves always remain faceless and nameless. When a name does appear, it is always that of a person accused of some specific heretical doctrine which, the theologians say, is as bad as atheism or may lead to atheism – never of somebody the core of whose heresy is actually identified as atheism.

In more recent times, though, there have been a few prominent individuals who publicly identified as atheists. During the twentieth century, before the rise of Islamist movements, a relatively secular climate allowed them more of a voice. One was Ismail Madhdhar, an Egyptian who wrote in 1930s about "Why am I an Atheist" (though he later recanted).

Perhaps the best known of the modern Arab atheists was Abdullah al-Qasimi (1907-1996) who started off as a fairly typical – and, by some accounts, excellent – Saudi religious scholar before turning to atheism. During his religious phase he was even likened to Ibn Taymiyyah.

A note posted on the Islamic Awakening website by someone who is clearly not an admirer describes Qasimi's loss of faith:

He jumped into books of philosophy and a few years later, wrote some weird modernist books. When the Saudi shuyukh tried to shut him up, he complained to Sheikh Sayyid Qutb. Qutb at first defended Qasimi's right to speak, but when Qasimi sent Qutb a copy of his (Qasimi's) new books and articles, Qutb freaked and accused Qasimi – rightfully – of trying to destroy Islam.

Qasimi bailed and I know at least one of his sons apostated with him, and he lived in Egypt. He tried to form an atheist political movement there, but Gamal Abdel Nasser found it to be too far and Qasimi was jailed, more than once I believe. 

He spent some time in Lebanon where he was involved with the Literary Society and they treated him like a VIP. Eventually, Sheikh Ibn Aqil al-Zahiri who himself is/was a man of many specialties met Qasimi in Garden City [in Cairo]. They argued back and forth into the night ...

Basically, Qasimi was verbally copy-pasting from Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, and when Sheikh Ibn Aqil would quote the kuffar's own secular philosophers ripping those guys up, Qasimi would just change the subject. Basically he would make accusations regarding the existence of Allah based verbatim on the books of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers, and any time Sheihk Ibn Aqil brought the hammer down on him Qasimi would just look for another topic where he could possibly make a point. 

The note adds:

He was an arrogant beast the entire time and unrepentant to the very end. He died from cancer in Cairo in a death which one hopes was long and slow.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 9 August 2013

Note to readers: I hope to return to this topic in some future blog posts. In the meantime, I would be interested to hear from Arab atheists. Send me an email (brian@al-bab.com) describing how you became an atheist – any particular books, etc, that influenced your decision – and, if you have told people about it, how they reacted. You can remain anonymous if you wish.  

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Last revised on 16 August, 2013