Intellectual Apostasy

One often hears Islam described as the fastest growing religion, hailed as such by some Muslim preachers or expressed in the form of hysterical outcry by those who want to stir up political tensions. From a global perceptive, this claim seems highly unlikely given the millions of converts to Christianity through well-funded missionary work in Africa and China. However, the more pertinent question one should ask, is what particular type or brand of Islam is growing? Based on my own observations, a particular brand of Islam, with a disproportionate influence compared to its followers, seems to have hegemony. Lacking the faithfulness to the Islamic message, it is at odds with its rich and diverse intellectual heritage. Such a brand of Islam propagated by ‘Dawah’ originators, who have a significant presence within university campuses, seeks to educate by arguing that Islam is a rational religion supported by intellectual and logical arguments. This argumentation often takes the form of contemporary religious philosophy, drawing on Western Christian philosophers, and specifically arguments for the existence of God. It is argued that with unfettered reason and logic one will be led to believing in God. Such arguments when presented adequately, although in most cases crudely understood and expressed, provide Muslims with the intellectual grounding for their belief, avoiding the frivolity of blind faith, which incidentally is against the teaching of the Quran. Thus, the effect of rational grounding is to provide Muslims with a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence in their religion. When I spoke at the American university of Beirut several years ago, I encountered many Muslims who were confused and insecure about their faith. But once familiar with rational arguments of this nature, I noticed a renewal of confidence. My own journey was in fact quite similar. When I first encountered this approach many years ago, the fact that Islam could be an intellectual endeavor had a resounding effect on me, which was itself an impetus to commit and practice Islam more diligently.

So where is the problem? The issue is that the intellectual rigor that is effective in providing the intellectual basis for Islamic belief is immediately stifled once someone accepts the Islamic faith, and that is where I part intellectual ways with these preachers. It is expected that the perfectly sound reasoning once used to establish grounds for becoming Muslim, should then be abandoned once within, in internal discussions pertaining to Islamic thought, theology, law and politics. Once you enter Islam you have to leave your brain and intellect at the door in an act I describe as a form of intellectual apostasy. Intellectual consistency and precision in thinking within the faith is currently virtually non-existent, which has had disastrous effects on our community. Such a state of affairs leads to the belief and practice of absurd views and the adoption of morally reprehensible laws, driven by a blind obedience, which is deemed virtuous and honorable.   When the intellect is killed by overstating the notion of obedience propped up by puritanical aphorisms, such as “The rule is for God only “ or in similar vain “human minds are limited, thus only God can decide on law”, this leads us to a religion of simplism. Traditional Islam understood that there is a great degree of personal agency involved in determining Islamic law which is drastically understated today due to its over simplification. Let us not forget that similar voices criticised and assassinated Imam Ali, the cousin of the prophet for allegedly not following God’s word! The conflict between Imam Ali and the Khawarij mirrors the struggle that exists in our time, between those who understand correctly the indeterminable nature of scripture which gives a significant role to human agency (the realm of the intellectual engagement), and those who deny human agency in the application of laws, with a fanatical and unduly literal application of scripture. As Khalid Abou El Fadl argues, the traditional premises upon which Islamic law was constructed, and which significantly contributed to the flourishing of Islamic civilization, have since been disintegrated and discarded. What we have now is a puritanical Islam, whereby Muslims who are engaged in complex, subtle ethical discussions are reduced to what he calls “Hadith hurlers”. Muslim preachers, ignorant of the discipline of ethics, speak on ethical matters by merely regurgitating a plethora of decontextualised hadiths, which ultimately amounts to them spouting views, which cannot be morally or rationally defended. The hallmark of a true ‘scholar’ then becomes the absurdity of his views.   No better example of this is current gender related issues, which demonstrate the unintelligibility and unethical nature of this particular brand of Islam.   In this area as well as others, such an Islam is completely intellectually handicapped with an intellectual gap which prevents contemporary Islamic thought from being part of any credible debate on ethics, in fields ranging from philosophy, sociology, psychology and biology.

Recently a number of academics and experts from Saudi Arabia underlined the need for serious efforts to contain atheism within the Kingdom. Perhaps those who are leaving the faith are those who experience conflict between their faith and moral imperatives, lacking sound ethical answers, this results in them leaving the faith.

A further point worth considering – although Islam may be the fastest growing religion, how many new converts actually retain their faith? Given the overly restrictive brand of Islam that new converts are exposed to, I would not be surprised if the numbers were considerably low. There are reasons to believe that apostasy is a growing phenomenon, but it is important to acknowledge that a greater concern is intellectual apostasy committed within the faith, which itself provides grounds for apostasy from the faith.

Surely, the application of intellectual rigor must be consistent throughout the Islamic faith and not be discarded once one enters the fold. If we claim to seek truth then regardless of whether it involves external or internal discussions, truth should prime over everything. Without such integrity, we leave ourselves open to accepting all sorts of things. The famous aphorism by Samuel Taylor Coleridge aptly conveys this, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end loving himself better than all.”

Regrettably, there are Muslim preachers who act as intellectual front men, recruiting for a brand of Islam that demands intellectual apostasy when entering the faith, a faith far removed from its past, and which is void of intellectual coherence, intelligence and ethical credibility.


15 thoughts on “Intellectual Apostasy

  1. Great article. I believe that as Muslims we should always be asking questions; especially those that relate to our faith and it’s implementation. This is the only way we can be better believers and human beings. We should always criticise, especially our own selves so that we can improve. Having said this we need to bear in mind that our religion has been made complete and we should try our best to follow the way of our blessed Prophet saws.

  2. Poignant. Personally I never understood why anybody would waste their times becoming a Muslim or anything else for that matter if there was not a cognizant intellectual dialectics program going on in their own brains.

  3. This piece could benefit from some concrete examples of conclusions the author perceives to be erroneous which are arrived at by those representing the dominant strand of Islam as a result of what is understood to be their attitude towards the role of the intellect.

  4. It is argued that with unfettered reason and logic one will be led to believing in God. Such arguments when presented adequately, although in most cases crudely understood and expressed, provide Muslims with the intellectual grounding for their belief, avoiding the frivolity of blind faith, which incidentally is against the teaching of the Quran.

    One important point that was missed in this article is the lack of grounding that many preachers seem to have in Islamic intellectual tradition. I almost never hear modern muslims (apart from a few like the mentioned Prof Abou El Fadl) talk about the different schools of Islamic theology and philosophy that existed historically. They don’t seem to have any awareness about any of the historic debates that existed among muslim thinkers. The way these things are discussed nowadays is too generic and totally unscholarly.

    1. I do not think that they do not know about it, Ortega, they just refuse to accept it. These are the times when people refuse the madhabs, they all say, let’s just follow the example of the prophet, without being aware that without these schools and the intellectual, jurisprudent work they have done to gather those examples, to discern through them, to erect a structure and framework through which to differentiate true from false from likely, there would be more fracturing and diverging. Any of those imams was well rounded in most areas of Islamic science, on top of knowing both the overt and the hidden, and used that knowledge, inspiration and logic to derive conclusions that not only allowed for the diversity inherent to anything that targets humanity, but also the goodwill and temperament to allow those divergences.
      The irony of them saying do not follow a person telling you how to pray, while following a person telling them how to pray. The books of hadith contain quotes that sometimes disagree, how is one to pick through and choose which one to go with? The Imams have already done that work and reached the conclusions, and here we are reinventing the wheels without the patience or the knowledge. And yet even them were subjects of their era and cultures, and we must process their legacy through the light of our times. Just don’t tell me to challenge their conclusions but not yours.
      The whole of Islam, from the time of the Prophet up to until recently, is an intellectual process, and when we refuse ourselves that process, is when we kill in the name of a Merciful Lord, and oppress in the name of his gentle Prophet (SAS).
      My imam who calls for a return to the prophetic example shared a booklet by Al Albani which contains the Prophetic prescription to fight someone who crosses your line of prayer. I need no hadith to tell me that it goes against both the essence of the prophetic character, and the logic process of the prayer. Obviously, I still research the hadith, and still inquire to the learned, and that is the intellectual part.

  5. It is very difficult to function in a seemingly meaningless world so when a ‘rationally’ acceptable meaning is proposed many ‘intellectuals’ will think it ‘intellectual’ to be part of it. Man will never see the universe from without, and will always be at a fork in the road between faith and disbelief, therefore we must accept moments when we choose our direction not on intellect but on faith. The way of Abraham and his progeny (saw) is the best path in life, there are many signs that show this to be factual to those who ponder. However, there are many events in life that will cause us to doubt the facts we have supposedly established especially during trials. Sometimes it is necessary to momentarily abandon reason in favour of faith in order to stay on the path, and then later look back and give thanks that you are still on the path and have probably resolved the reason . The Quran tells that ‘even if a host of angels descended upon them they would still not believe’. The reverse applies also. No matter if a host of physicists descended with ‘evidence’ to the contrary, Muhammad can never be doubted, because the overarching reasoning must be the maintaining of the straight path even if intellect is challenged. In this case there is a trust that scholars will develop explanations to satisfy intellectual curiosity but ultimately he who believes in Allah and His Messenger, whether blindly or intellectually, is on the right path. Imagine A bus is boarded because the sign says it is going to the destination wanted. There is no other bus, so why some passengers seek confirmation from the driver and the other passengers throughout the journey? Most people don’t need answers, they just get on with it, in complete trust. They are lucky ones.

  6. This article seems to hint at a lot of issues but doesn’t quite clearly describes them. I’m left confused as to what exactly is the author trying to get at. Is it that using logic to confirm your beliefs wrong? Or is it using blind faith the way to go for Islam?

  7. the missing link in this article is the definition of ‘reason’ after one enters into Islam. Our reasoning becomes the authentic sources of knowledge (the book of God and the method of His Prophet). if these sources of knowledge leave a gap for our human-reasoning, then this may be exercised.

    God mentions throughout the Qur’an the ‘belief of the unseen’ and ‘putting trust in Allah’ as a core aspect of a Muslims reasoning (e.g. 67:12)

  8. I think the difficulty many muslims have is knowing when and how to combine their religion with rational thinking…paradoxically too many of us issue “fatwas” and opinions we should not be rendering and there are obvious dangers.

    Generally we muslim’s have lost the art of debate and often react angrily when in a defensive posture was one of the main backbones to our academic discourse …from memory Hazrat Umar (ra) was said to prefer people disagreeing over topics and debating so that a better solution and learning would take place including debating over Quranic Ayahs and interpretations.The Prophet Muhammad (saw) was also heard saying something similar I believe.Simply we must have the knowledge of our magnificent Quran and Sunna so we never have to feel doubtful or lack a response to people who attack our religion.

    The other issue is adapting to modern society and moving forward…Islam is a way of life that is a complete package unlike other religions. Thus all aspects of a traditional Islamic society are governed by Islamic laws including politics, economy, government, legal, etc unlike Christianity whereby affairs of church and state have been separated .The Western world has made peace with this and has also had tremendous advances in technology and wealth.

    We do not have to copy the Western way but need an Islamic solution or an enlightened version…certainly we need to learn from the West in their fierce protection of freedom of expression, their strong institutions and great technological progress….the Ottoman empire faltered in its apathy towards modern technology becoming hugely reliant on England and getting steamrolled eventually …the muslim world must not make these mistakes again and must embrace technology in a big way…just as the West utilized our best scientists and schools of learning to start their renaissance .

    Our decline stemmed from conservatism vs rational thinking, the Ascetic aspects of sufiism and the invasion of the Mongols who suppressed all forms of rational thinking…as a result the muslim world produced mediocre scholars…the spirit of independent reasoning ,rationalizing and reason ( Ijtihad) was doused and we need to fan those flames…the imams,moulanas and other muslim leaders need a new mandate and more modern emphasis…studies of humanities,anthropology, philosophy should be encouraged. Similarly Sharia Law has to be interpreted in lieu of modern society and consensus to be reached amongst Islamic scholars that can result in a spiritual and progressive society.

    The muslim world needs Sunni and Shias to be united…certain differences will be there but the wanton hatred that exists has to be ended…quickly.Of course all of the above requires progressive governments which don’t exist in the Middle East with the plethora of phony puppet governments ….in the meantime we as muslims must utilize the best weapon available to us.. knowledge…the cloak of conservatism needs to be shed aside and the emergence of a modern, more enlightened vision can emerge …there will always be enemies…we do not have to be our own worse enemies though! Time to stop feeling sorry for ourselves,take responsibility for the Ummah as it is and move forward.

  9. This is a truly excellent article Adam. If I didn’t know it was you I could easily have believed Sam Harris wrote it.

  10. I think the most incredible part of this is that many Islamic leaders are completely oblivious to the fact that they’ve thrown all intellect and rationality out the door. It seems that they believe that their thoughts and beliefs are intellectually motivated.

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