The Atheist Muslim – Book Review

Editor’s Note: This thoughtful and comprehensive review kept my attention throughout with its careful explanations of Islam and incisive comparisons to Christianity. Enjoy.

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By Alexis Record

The Atheist Muslim: A Journey From Religion to Reason by Ali A. Rizvi is a treasure of compelling logical arguments and gripping personal stories housed under a beautifully uncomfortable title. The author’s inclusion of history, his exhaustive study of the Quran, and his first-hand experience in Saudi Arabia as part of a devout Shia family makes The Atheist Muslim an absorbing read.

Atheist Muslim cover

This book is an important piece in the discussion on the diversity and direction of the Muslim world, and Rizvi has the unique sagacity of both insider and outsider. Because this book is so well written, I believe it will resonate with those who have been inside Islam without losing the rest of us.

The Contradictory Title

The Atheist Muslim grabs for attention with a provocative, seemingly oxymoronic title. The Quran orders the death of atheists (2:191), so how can a person be both atheist and Muslim? It reminded me of that scene from The Mummy circa 1999 where, in the face of death, Beni pulls out a comically-long chain from around his neck with a slew of religious symbols from mutually exclusive faiths. I wanted to say,

“Atheist or Muslim? Pick one, Rizvi.”

The obvious counter to my incredulity, however, is the example of the Jewish atheist. I intuitively understand that Jewish culture and identity may incorporate religious traditions, but it is no longer reliant upon belief, just as my American Christmas is no longer bound to Christian theology. Could Muslim be an identity divorced from Islam?

“In countries where Muslims are a minority, Islam is an identity. In countries where Muslims are a majority, Islam is a religion.” (Page 133)

I learned that Islam is not as mono-form as I once thought. Rizvi asks rhetorically,

“If one can be a feminist Muslim, or an LGBT Muslim, can one not be a secular or even an atheist Muslim?” (Page 94)

He then goes on to show numerous examples of Muslims distancing themselves from the words of the Quran to live full, complete lives. The benefits of this are clear: full community with other Muslims while retaining a clear conscience.

“Imagine if, as a Muslim, you could keep your family and community traditions, enjoy those Ramadan iftar parties, and celebrate the Eid holidays with your family and friends as always—but without the burden of belief, or having to defend every line in your scripture.” (Page 96)

Although my background is Christianity, I found a lot of familiarity in Rizvi’s experiences with Islam:

  • A primitive loyalty to belief
  • The agonizing tug-of-war with prayer
  • The tendency to defend something only my religious group did as if it were not religious in nature
  • The torturing of Occam’s razor to make my holy book feminist
  • Losing friends or baffling family members who often saw my doubts as an attack on them.

Of course, many ex Muslims also face the additional threat of prison and acts of violence against them that is unparalleled to anything I encountered in my deconversion.

Whenever Muslims are in the news, I practice saying the Muslim greeting, “as-salamu-alaykum” in the mirror and research how to be a safe person. I also recognize an even more marginalized group: ex Muslims—a minority within the minority. These brave few have inspired me to lift my self-imposed moratorium on discussing the harm of Islam—a gag I am grateful those who exposed the harms in my own faith tradition never put in their own mouths.

“It is more important now than ever to challenge and criticize the doctrine of Islam. And it is more important now than ever to protect and defend the rights of Muslims. Both of these must go together.” (Page 135)

The Problem with Islam

One could get the impression from Rizvi’s break down of Quran-based belief that there is a need for, precedence for, and at the same time strong antipathy toward a Quran-free Islam. Many macabre passages within the Quran work to hold Muslims back. Christopher Hitchens once wrote off the Quran as an “obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms.” While that may be true, Rizvi warns us to be cautious for exactly that reason:

“What makes the Quran so boring to Hitchens is also precisely what makes it so dangerous. It combines the violence of the worldly life in the Old Testament with the violence of the afterlife in the New. It combines the militarism and warmongering in the Old Testament with the New Testament ideas like submission (‘Accept Jesus as your savior!’) and martyrdom (‘Jesus died for your sins!’), effectively birthing the concept of jihad.” (Page 85)

The Atheist Muslim acknowledges that many parts of the Quran are good, like encouraging helping the poor, yet even these ideas are diminished by sharing space with the most evil of verses.

“A few good ideas in Mein Kampf don’t make the whole book good.” (Page 189)

Rizvi goes on to say that the most plausible reading is that these good verses only apply to other Muslims who follow the commands of the Quran, not to outsiders. The Quran commands maiming (5:33), beheading (8:12), killing (9:5), fighting Jews and Christians (9:30), making war on neighbors (9:123), melting unbelievers’ skin (22:19), and rejecting peace (47:4).

Rizvi lived in Saudi Arabia where laws are based on these teachings and acts of brutality are commonplace. Surprisingly he was told,

“This land—the land that had first brought Islam into the world […]—had Islam all wrong.” (Page 30)

Not All Muslims

“If you can tell the difference between the typical Christian and a member of the Westboro Baptist hate group or KKK,” then you can tell the difference between the typical Muslim and a terrorist.” [Anonymous on-line commenter]

This general truth is complicated by the fact that Muslims make up less than 1% of US citizens, meaning many people have no experience or context when seeing a Muslim neighbor.

Rizvi emphasizes the importance of separating religious ideas from religious people, for instance the example he uses of the difference between saying, “Smoking is a filthy habit” and “Smokers are filthy people.” All the smokers I know are lovely people, with otherwise high hygiene standards. That doesn’t mean I am for smoking or credit smoking for anything good smokers otherwise do.

Matt Dillahunty once told a Muslim caller, in response to being asked if he thought it was fair to lump a whole group of people in with terrorists:

“Part of the problem here is that you have a whole bunch of people who are identifying with the same label and the same holy book […] they don’t get to complain that they got a little paint on them when we’re painting the problem.”

Rizvi acknowledges that most Muslims, like his family, are good people who would never allow violence. For them, the Quran acts like a totem—it is representative of who they are without requiring an orthopraxy based upon the prescriptive violence within. Anti-human surah can be ignored outright or interpreted through a filter of the believer’s own morality.

I know this dance of embracing a scripture as God’s truth while at the same time taking several quick steps to the side, using an array of exegetical tools to keep my faith, and by extension my God, moral. Just like Christians with the Bible, Muslims should not be held to task for the writings in their holy book unless they themselves apply it to their practice. When a believer calls an immoral act “not true Islam,” despite that act being ordered by their holy book, they are proof there is more than one approach to the Quran.

However, Islam is still problematic even though most Muslims are not. Alli Kirkham, in response to “not all men” arguments, demonstrates how English uses generalizations as conversational shorthand such as, “Parents are concerned with rising college costs,” and it is understood that technically not every parent has this worry even if it’s primarily a parental concern. The very real exceptions of human decency that exist are not a compelling argument against the core of a corrupt faith. In other words, the undeniable goodness of Muslims does not negate the fact that Islam has bad teachings that have inspired gruesome acts.

Theoretically, a version of Islam could exist that I would find delightful. But the moment a follower of that sect called their book “divine” or practiced wudu (ritual purification) before touching the very pages that order my death, they are left covered in specks of Dillahunty’s proverbial paint.

“Infallibility changes everything. If there were even a single, small fly in a glass of otherwise pristine water, would you drink it?” (Page 189)

But the Bible is Also Bad

Fun fact: the Bible has also ordered my death and was used as justification for the years of physical abuse I endured as a child. The New Testament also has many misogynistic verses, including a command for women to wear the hijab (1 Corinthians 11:5-6).

Rizvi was right to predict that I would burst at the seams or turn blue if I did not give in to my progressive compulsion to loudly point out the equally abhorrent passages in the Bible. He also forced me recognize my kneejerk reaction of bringing up the Bible whenever a minority religion like Islam is under scrutiny.

I would argue that putting the Quran into a Christian context that more people in the US would understand is sometimes okay. The Quran may allow a man to beat his wife (4:34), but the Bible says God’s people can beat their slaves, man or woman, without penalty as long as the “property” can get up again after a day or two (Exodus 21:20-21). The Christian who immediately starts to argue how that part of their sacred text does not represent them already knows how the average Muslim feels. And any argument that Christians don’t practice these atrocities today is only right by degrees. It may not happen as frequently, but just this year, slaves who had been brought from Brazil were being beaten in a Christian church in North Carolina. Christianity is only better by comparison if we do not flip back in our history books too far.

Christians should also instantly recognize the “not true Islam” rebuttal. After White evangelical Christian US voters came out in large numbers to elect Donald Trump to the presidency, Stephen Mattson, writing for a faith-based magazine, responded that “American Christendom isn’t Christianity.”

This is the kind of reaction from believers I got when leaving the religion:

You have judged the dangerous freeway by the wrong lane. Accidents never happen in our lane.

After reading The Atheist Muslim, I was left envisioning a beautiful post-theistic world where we could join our grandparents in Clondalkin to encounter the Fair Folk, circle the fishing hole in Alabama for a baptism or leave rice for an ancestor in Guangzhou.  We’d do all this with an understanding of how lore works.  Thus, we’d know the faeries were butterflies, expect no transformation when cousin George came out of the water, and figure the rice will rot.

Cultural and religious traditions can be beneficial to show us where we came from, thus grounding us to our family and communities. In this fantasy, extremists don’t exist, or are far fewer in number. People do not defend their unique lane on the freeway, because we all fly above it.

Can we reach that despite our gruesome “holy” books?

People like Ali A. Rizvi make me think that maybe one day we can.

Alexis recordBio: Alexis Record is a feminist, humanist, special needs adoptive mom and former Bible student and teacher. She devoted the first 30 years of her life to living and teaching the Bible both in the US and abroad. Nowadays she is volunteering at Sunday Assembly San Diego, pouring her heart out on The Clergy Project forums, advocating against Accelerated Christian Education, spreading awareness for her children’s condition of arthrogryposis and contributing to The Radical Notion where she is a senior writer.

>>>> Photo Credits: https://www.amazon.com/Atheist-Muslim-Journey-Religion-Reason-ebook/dp/B01F1YC64M/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1505229182&sr=8-1&keywords=muslim+atheist

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  • alwayspuzzled

    “Islam has bad teachings that have inspired gruesome acts”

    Inspired? Or have unscrupulous, ambitious men and women corrupted Islamic teaching and used the bad teachings to justify the gruesome acts performed by their obedient followers?
    More generally, for instance. Does religion cause the cruelty in human psychology, or does human psychology cause the cruelty in religion?

  • ElizabetB.

    “the most plausible reading is that these good verses only apply to other Muslims who follow the commands of the Quran, not to outsiders”

    There’s an interesting Islamic scholar who argues in “The Great Theft” that the benign interpretation is more authentic than the virulent Wahabbi version that’s prevelant in Saudi Arabia, home of Osama bin Ladin:

    “For most of my life, I have been a student of Islamic theology and law, and at different times I have moved along the spectrum of ideas presented in this book, and have experienced them both as an activist and as an academic. At this point I must confess that after years of reading Islamic sources on theology and jurisprudence, I have become convinced that the puritan end of the spectrum empties Islam of its moral and ethical content. And I have become convinced that a nonhumanistic Islam is a false Islam — that Islam is a message of compassion, mercy, love, and beauty and that these values represent the core of the faith. Nevertheless, my training as an Islamic jurist, a secular academic, and a lawyer has taught me to represent positions and points of view I do not agree with. I will strive to do justice to both ends of the spectrum, even if I not only disagree with one of those ends but also find it morally repugnant. [25]….

    ” ‘Abd al-Wahhab…did not realize or did not acknowledge that he was confusing the Arab culture — more precisely, the Bedouin culture of Arabia — and the universal precepts of Islam. Effectively, ‘Abd al-Wahhab was declaring the particulars of Bedouin culture to be the one and only true Islam and then universalizing these particulars by making them obligatory upon all Muslims. [52]…

    “In fact, ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers interpreted texts in a selective matter in order to bolster their preconceived notions on a variety of issues. This selective reading of the textual evidence was greatly facilitated by the fact that the Wahhabis had liberated themselves from a considerable part of the Islamic juristic heritage. Not having to contend with the interpretations of the past made it much easier to read Islamic sources in such a way as to support Wahhabi cultural understandings and biases. Legal precedents that did not support Wahhabi positions were simply ignored, and past generations of jurists who did not share ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s understandings of Islam were treated as heretics.” [53-4]

    Dr. Khaled Abou el Fadl is a professor at the UCLA School of Law and sees this as a fierce battle for the soul of Islam. I’m very glad to learn about Ali Rizvi — thanks for another great review, Alexis!

  • ElizabetB.

    p.s. A great discussion between Sam Harris and Fareed Zakaria about 1) whether the religion is inherently violent, and 2) no matter how one answers that, what is the most effective way to counter the violence. Even if the topic weren’t vital, it does your mind good to hear 2 people engage vigorously and respectfully. Kudos!!
    https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/the-politics-of-emergency