For many Muslims, the terms “dissent”, “humanism” and “secularism” are often tied with atheism and colonialism. Many Muslims believe that secularism—defined as a separation between the mosque and state—is a product of the West along with Coke. Fundamentalist Muslims claim that their version of Islam is the authentic version and that dissent came about from a deep feeling of inferiority caused by the West since the time of Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. However, Islam in itself has produced many great critics, humanists, and doubters in its own ranks over the centuries without the West and since the very beginning of the new religion. There were probably dissenters and doubters since the beginning of Islam, but we do not know much of their thoughts since Arabic did not have a written language at the time of Muhammad and the earliest writings in Arabic that we not suitable to Muslims—including various versions of the Qur’an and writings denouncing the Caliphs—were burned by the second successor of Muhammad, Caliph Uthman.
One of the earliest known critics was Isaaq Ibn al-Rawandi, an Afghan philosopher who lived around 827 (or roughly two hundred years after Muhammad). In his most famous work, Kitab al-Zumurrud (The Book of the Emerald), al-Rawandi slammed Muslim traditions beginning with Muhammad. The Muslim traditions in particular he found offensive was faith in tombs, prayers to saints, imams, mythmaking, and elevating Muhammad to a man-god. Al-Rawandi said the Prophet performed everything, including his miracles, conveniently around only small groups of his followers and wives. Small groups of followers can easily lie or exaggerate the truth, he argued. In particular, one miracle known to Muslims as the Isra and Mi’raj—the Prophet’s claim of flight to Jerusalem on a magical creature and to describe Jerusalem in detail as a miracle—is simply fraud (makhraq) considering that the distance between Mecca and Jerusalem is not very great. It is conceivable, according to al-Rawandi, that a person could go from one of these cities to the other and back in one night by horseback and besides, there were no witnesses who were not already a follower of or married to Muhammad. In addition, it is known that Muhammad did travel in caravans as far as Damascus in his youth so again, it is not inconceivable that he knew the area very well.
One of the most celebrated doubters was Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (sometimes spelled as Rhases or Rhazes in the West), who is considered the father of modern pediatrics as well as the inventor of rubbing alcohol. He was a Persian doctor who lived around 865. Relatively early on in Islamic history his major works were: The Prophets’ Fraudulent Tricks , The Stratagems of Those Who Claim to Be Prophets, and On the Refutation of Revealed Religions. Al-Razi’s criticisms went deeper than al-Rawandi . He believed that all religions were man-made and any one who calls himself a prophet is either delusional or in need of medical attention. What is attributed to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were nothing new—including their miracles. Anyone could be a prophet and most of the prophets claim the exact same experiences—visitations by angels or some sort of other divine manifestation only seen by them. Indeed, not even the idea of monotheism was new as that idea existed in Egypt before the time of Moses. Religions, according to al-Razi, simply rehash old tribal myths and ideas and claim it as a new revelation while
…[if] the people of this [or that] religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed…
Eventually the common people came to accept these myths as “truth without questions” because “being long accustomed to their religious denomination, as days passed it became a habit. Because they were deluded by the beards of the goats, who sit in ranks in their councils, straining their throats in recounting lies, senseless myths…[and preaching] so-and-so told us in the name of so-and-so…”
Al-Razi also believed that the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an elitist God since:
On what ground do you deem it necessary that God should single out certain individuals, that he should set them up above other people, that he should appoint them to be the people’s guides, and make people [permanently] dependent upon them?
If God is divine, al-Razi argues, could he not simply reveal himself directly to the people or at the very least write down his own revelations clearly instead of constantly depending on illiterate disciples and books that contradict each other. In speaking about the Qur’an itself, al-Razi writes that
You [imams] claim that the evidentiary miracle is present and available, namely, the Koran. You say: ‘Whoever denies it [the Qur’an], let him produce a similar one [Verse 2:23-25].’ Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter… You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: ‘Produce something like it’?!
Al-Razi goes on to say that a person does not need religion to be a good person and “[a] gentility of character, friendliness and purity of mind, are found in those who are capable of thinking profoundly on abstruse matters and scientific minutiae.”
A century later, an Arab poet by the name of Abu al-‘Alā Ahmad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sulaimān al-Tanūkhī al-Ma’arri wrote over 400 poems dedicated to rebuking religion in general. Al-Ma’ari lived in a very dangerous time. Caliph of Baghdad had established an office called the “arif al-zanadiqa” – the Islamic equivalent of the Grand Inquisitor. The new Inquisitor had a book called the Zanadiqa (“Heresies”) where he would walk around and stop people to ask them religious questions. If a person answered in a way that sounded like anything written in the Zanadiqa, they would be stoned or beheaded. This naturally annoyed people and caused al-Ma’arri to criticize Arab culture which lead in turn to writing poetry against all religions. Al-Ma’arri wrote that:
“Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true; they are all fabrications. Men lived comfortably till they came and spoiled life. The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”
One of al-Ma’arri’s most famous poems, “The Cheat of Sacred Rites” describes his general feelings towards religion:
O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness—and their law is dust.
And his “A Spoken Lie Enforced by Blood” succinctly critiques conversions:
Had they been left alone with reason,
they would not have accepted a spoken lie;
but the whips were raised to strike them.
Traditions were brought to them,
and they were ordered to say,
‘We have been told the truth’;
If they refused, the sword was drenched with their blood.
They were terrified by scabbards of calamities,
and tempted by great bowls of food,
Offered in a lofty and condescending manner.
The poetry of al-Ma’arri was so striking yet eloquent that authorities decided not to go directly after him. The irony of al-Ma’arri is that his works on Arab culture are also considered one of the first anthropological works about Arabs as well as the first dissent against Arab monoculturalism being imposed on all Muslims.
The legacy of the Arif al-Zanadiqa of al-Ma’arri’s time can still be seen today in the lack of openness to intellectual ideas in the Middle East. It is from the Arif al-Zanadiqa that conversions into other religions became illegal and intellectuals, as well as artists and musicians, were prosecuted for heresy. The Inquisition sought to return Islam to its “Golden Age” in the 7th century during what era of the first four successors of Muhammad also known as the “Four Rightly Guided Caliphs.” This time period where supposedly all Muslims were pious, happy, well-fed, singing songs to Allah (in a cappella, of course, since musical instruments are the Devil’s), obedient to rulers, and modest. This is the same myth that fundamentalist sects like the Taliban as well as the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia preach about and try to emulate. These are the same types of people that chain children in Islamic schools until they memorize the Qur’an (i.e. as in Bangladesh), gluing the anus of homosexuals (i.e. Iraq), imprisoning rape victims (i.e. as in Saudi Arabia), and marrying off nine year old girls (i.e. as in Egypt).
That is not the way any religion should be. It is not the way any human should behave. The creed of the Arif and all future fundamentalist followers was man talaba al-din bil kalam tazandaqa (“Anyone who seeks to know faith or religion by reason is already a heretic”). This “Golden Age” myth has more to do with the politics and privilege than religion and reality. Besides, one of the problems with that Golden Age myth is that it ignores the little things like, oh say, facts. For example, three of the four “Rightly Guided Caliphs” were assassinated by Muslims.
In addition, as mentioned earlier, dissent appeared early on. In spite of the Arif al-Zanadiqa dissenters continued to write notably al-Farabi, al-Jahidh, and al-Hamadhani and continue to produce modern thinkers such as Anouar Majid, al-Jabri, Irshad Manji, Ayatollah Taleghani, Reza Aslan, Soroush, Shabbir Ahmed, and many others. No matter what Islamic fundamentalists–and for that matter what Christians perceive of Muslims–think, dissent has always been present, will always be present, and is not simply an import of the West.