Leaving Islam




Gilding the Nettle 

By James Byrne

Discussing with a Muslim lady the true nature of Allah, I was interested to hear her say: ‘Allah has no need of form, no need of attributes.’ This, the orthodox Sunni approach, I found very thoughtful, very instructive. Considering Allah as maker, His hands are, metaphorically, the agents He uses to shape and maintain all that is. His will, metaphorically, has evolved the consciousness of man, and has allowed man to contemplate the wonder of creation. It is hard to speak of these things without invoking something akin to anthropomorphism, but, provided we understand the dangers, we are not at risk of adopting an anthropic image of the divine. My friend and I had a number of discussions along these lines; it is a metaphysic which I can understand; Allah is above nature, above consciousness, perhaps above being: but all is, simply because He is.

Yet, as I sat down to read the Qur’an, in English translations by Pickthall and Yusufali, it was not long before I realized that my Muslim friend, well-meaning and intelligent, had gilded a text with a metaphysic of her own making, and one not intrinsic to the thought of the book. To be frank, I found that the Qur’an contained little philosophy other than that borrowed from prior religions.  The revelations of the book clearly serve the need of the Prophet.  Allah comes across as demanding and vengeful; those who disbelieve the words Mohammed recited are cast into his hell and remain in that hell for eternity. And what a hell it is.  

4:56 — Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise.  

The terror is ratcheted up another notch when we find that the torments actually start in the grave, even before judgement, while the mourners are still walking away, re-assembling their own lives once more. The more I reflected on the psychological pressure towards conformity, the more I saw that Allah was an external projection of Mohammed’s own ego. I became convinced of this when I found that the distinction between Allah and his prophet was not always certain. There are passages in the Qur’an and Hadiths where one is unsure who is speaking — Allah or his Prophet?  

The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Not one of you has faith unless I become dearer to him than his son and father and all mankind.” (Bukhari)


There is a passage where Allah tells the Prophet’s companions to speak quietly in front of the Prophet:  

49:1-4 — O ye who believe! Put not yourselves forward before Allah and His Messenger; but fear Allah: for Allah is He Who hears and knows all things. O ye who believe! Raise not your voices above the voice of the Prophet, nor speak aloud to him in talk, as ye may speak aloud to one another, lest your deeds become vain and ye perceive not. Those that lower their voices in the presence of Allah's Messenger, — their hearts has Allah tested for piety: for them is Forgiveness and a great Reward. Those who shout out to thee from without the inner apartments - most of them lack understanding.  

It is difficult to tell Allah and his Prophet apart. Or is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe really telling people to behave respectfully in front of the Prophet, a strange (but oddly pragmatic) reversal of roles? (And, as an aside, we get an impression of what a tumultuous and noisy establishment the Prophet’s camp was.) In the Hadiths this becomes darker, not least because these works are certainly intended literally. A battle has just been won:  

Al-Bukhaari (4234) and Muslim (115) narrated that Abu Hurayrah said: "We went out with the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) to Khaybar, and Allah granted us victory. We did not take gold or silver as booty, but we seized goods, food and clothes, then we set out for the valley. Along with the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) there was a slave called Rifaa'ah ibn Zayd. When we camped in the valley, the slave of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) stood up and began to unpack his saddlebag, when he was struck by a (stray) arrow which proved fatal. We said, 'Congratulations to him, for he is a martyr, O Messenger of Allah.' The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: 'Not so, by the One in Whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, for the small garment that he stole from the booty on the day of Khaybar and which was not part of his share is burning like fire on him.' The people were very distressed by this. Then a man brought one or two shoelaces and said, 'O Messenger of Allah, I found (them) on the day of Khaybar.' The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: 'A lace of fire' or 'Two laces of fire.'"  

What is going on here? Let’s not shy away from what is happening. The country is not uncivilized; Khaybar was an oasis peopled by Jews. Mohammed and his men have taken Khaybar. Blood has been shed. Mohammed now presides over the sharing-out of the plundered property.   And Mohammed has double values: it is fine for him and his men to steal the property of others, but for another to steal from the stolen hoard means hell-fire. There’s not much of a metaphysic in this.  

If we read the Qur’an coolly and dispassionately, with the mind of reason rather than of blind belief, we realize that Allah has a very keen understanding of human weakness.  And he exploits this understanding to its final limits for his own evolving purposes.  This is not the nature of a deity.  It is the nature of a human ego.  

We now know something of the purpose of the Qur’an’s insistence on hell. It is to keep illiterate people in line by threatening them. The equally banal heaven, with its cooling streams, shade and physical pleasures is also to keep illiterate people on side in a time of uncertainty and hardship. But perhaps the most worrying finding is that the Prophet, through Allah, commanded his people to live a life of violence. This was recited on the eve of the battle of  Tabuk: 

9:38 — O Ye who believe! What is the matter with you, then, when ye are asked to go forth in the Cause of Allah, ye cling heavily to the earth? Do ye prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the Hereafter. Unless ye go forth, he will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; but Him ye would not harm in the least. For Allah hath power over all things.  


2:216 — Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not.  

The context of this passage indicates that this is no metaphor for an inner struggle. As I read on I became aware that Allah’s Ummah is his only  executive; Allah is able only to will the believer to victory. The suspicion comes that Allah exists only within the mind of the believer. We are in the realm, not of a religion, but a cult. The signs are quite clear — belief comes before understanding, or, to put it another way, one must believe to understand. There is exclusivity: those beyond the belief-system are important only if they can be made to join it, and there is severe punishment for those who leave. There is harshness for those who exercise their own point of view, from which we may infer a fear of any democratic process. There is the establishment of an immutable and often arbitrary rule-based system of government based on belief rather than reason.  

But my Muslim friends are not members of a cult; they are kind individuals who share meals and conversation with me; I certainly prefer their company to that of those who hanker after status and wealth. They have exercised discrimination, selecting the innocent and generous portions of the Qur’an and adding their own metaphysic to understand Allah in a way which is more cognate with their own intelligence. They have, if you like, managed to transcend the spirit of the original text. Not, of course, that they would ever think like this.  

Muslim thinkers exercise selectivity, too. Abdal-Hakim Murad, in a lecture given in 2000, says  

When we take on the Sunna, and reject flawed patterns of behaviour which have been shaped and guided by the ego and by fantasies of self-imagining, we declare to our Creator that we accept and revere the profound revelation of human flourishing exampled by the Best of Creation. Every act of the Sunna which we may successfully emulate declares that our role model is the man who had no ego, and to whom Allah had given a definitive victory over the forces of darkness.  

This is fine writing; there is no doubt of it. But it is the direct antithesis of Qur’anic thought.  It is directed to a Sunna which does not exist.  And yet the Prophet is strangely ego-less in that his ego has been thrown beyond himself and is projected as the form of a deity. If this can be made believable by others it is the most dangerous form of egotism a man can hold: it will result in a spiritual dictatorship.  

George Orwell, in his book 1984 imagined a community ruled by an all-embracing and imposed system of belief, justice and government. This system was at war with all other systems. Thinking for oneself was dangerous.  Apostates perished. However, two laudable virtues warded off secret personal rebellion; blackwhite, the ability to argue that a truth was simultaneously its converse, and, beyond this,  doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time while denying their contradiction. We all do this to some extent — it’s a human way of surviving in a contradictory world — but for a Muslim to hold onto the Sunna and at the same time to be a thinking, humane, individually responsible person requires constant mental manoeuvering.  In the end this mental fugue wastes the resources of the mind.  This is the tragedy of Islam, a belief-system long lost outside its time.  

I must create my own system or else be the slave of  another man - William Blake  





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