An Islam of manufactured dogma

Ziauddin Sardar says Islam has a history full of freethinkers.

“This has nothing to do with Islam,” say the imams. “These callous and fanatic murders have nothing to do with us,” say the mullahs. “Islam means peace,” say the worshippers. These disclaimers, and variations on them, have been repeated countless times by Muslim commentators since the Charlie Hebdo killings. They are designed to distance people from guilt by association with those who kill and maim in the name of Islam.

But what about the sentence recently handed down to the (mildly) liberal blogger Raif Badawi in the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia? Ten years in jail, a massive fine, 1,000 lashes over 20 weeks (currently suspended because the first 50 lashes have rendered him “medically unfit”)? Does this have “nothing to do with Islam”? Does the hashtag “Je suis un couteau” – referring to this week’s stabbing of 11 Israelis on a bus – have “nothing to do with Islam”? Not to mention the 10 Christians killed during Charlie protests in Niger last week, or the ongoing depredations of al-Qaeda, Isis, Boko Haram, the Taliban and the Laskar Jihad of Indonesia?

Not to mention all the non-violent Muslims who nevertheless say it’s not permissible to draw cartoons of Mohammed.

The psychotic followers of these organisations all think that they are Muslims, and their Islam is based on beliefs that millions who subscribe to Wahhabism, the Saudi version of the religion – and its kin, Salafism – accept as essential ingredients of their faith. For example, that sharia, or Islamic law, is divinely ordained and immutable; that apostates and blasphemers should be killed; that women should be shrouded and confined to four walls and that men are their guardians.

This is a widespread version of Islam, made more so by modern communications; increasingly gaining followers in Europe, it can be, and is, used to justify all manner of atrocities. Yet this is an Islam of manufactured dogma which relies on neither the Koran nor the example of the Prophet Mohamed.

It’s something people invent as a method of social control, he says. But then he also says it goes way back.

But tightening the screws has long been the way in the Muslim heartlands. For example, in a highly influential decree from the 10th century CE, the Abbasid caliph Abdul Qadir, denounced critical thought as “counter to Islam” and ordered his subjects to dissociate from philosophers and freethinkers, who were required “to repent”, despite the fact that numerous verses in the Koran exhort believers to think, reflect and raise questions.

Right, so…the denunications and forbiddings have a long history too.

Four hundred years later, when power had shifted from Abbasid Baghdad to Mamaluk Cairo, religious scholars banned independent reasoning on issues of faith – or as the formula has it, “closed the gates of ijtihad”. In doing so, they laid claim to have solved all the problems of humanity. In fact, they shut the door on the Enlightenment, which already-established Arab scholarship would do so much to kick-start.

Theocrats always want to stamp out free thinking as a method of social control.

Today, as in history, all attempts to rethink our understanding and relationship with God, to interrogate orthodox belief, to bring reason back to Islam, are shunned – not just by the fanatics but by the vast majority of Muslims. The manufactured articles of faith seem to have an unassailable hold on Muslim minds. And so the moderate free thinkers’ legacy, so vital at this time of sectarian warfare within Islam, is swept collectively under the carpet of accepted, if artificial, doctrine.

This phenomenon is the central problem in all varieties of Islam. In the absence of reason and criticism, the heritage has become toxic. At best, it promotes intolerance and bigotry; at worse, it manifests itself as fanaticism and violent jihadism. And until more Muslims question it, they cannot claim that its manifestations have “nothing to do with Islam”.

For the first time, I agree with Ziauddin Sardar about something. I think he’s shifted.


  1. Ex-Muslims Forum (@CEMB_forum) says

    Its a very romantic, partial view of Islamic history, and the ‘essence’ of Islam.

    But its infinitely better than what is on offer from the literalists now, and so it may be the best we have right now, for the time being, despite the whitewashing and dressing up.

  2. Eric MacDonald says

    Surely, though, the problem (however hopeful we regard the symptoms) is that it is whitewashed a dressed up. It is a romantic view of the Islamic past, and can be seen to be so. Reform will not come by refusing to look at the black spots, and pretending that free-thinking is somehow the heritage of contemporary Islam overlaid by Wahhabi extremism. Historically, if we take Ibn Warraq’s word for it, freedom to think, criticise, and reform was, in Islam, suppressed very early, with the result that we see today. It does no good to single out a few thinkers who criticised Islam. We have examples of that today, though they are everywhere threatened. It is merely a subterfuge to suppose that Islamic culture anywhere encouraged free thought about the religion itself, about the Qur’an, or about the Hadith (once the corpus of millions of sayings of the prophet had been whittled down to manageable proportions. I may agree with Sardar so far as the necessity for critical thought in contemporary Islam is concerned. My fear is that, by suggesting something that is completely unhistorical to back it up, such critical thought is less, rather than more, likely to prosper.

  3. ludicrous says

    Religious apologists go into a zone where they are barely conscious. Sometimes, if you make a sudden loud noise behind them, you can wake them up for few seconds.

  4. quixote says

    “Theocrats always want to stamp out free thinking as a method of social control.”

    *That* is the point. Islam may currently be the most widespread religion telling people how to run their societies, =be a government, and inflict the most widespread harm, but it’s far from the only one. If the world solved the “Muslim Problem,” it would resurrect within minutes as the “extreme Russian Orthodox Problem,” the “Haredi Problem,” the “Hindutva Problem,” the “Crazier Southern Baptists Problem,” and so on forever.

    The real problem is people who want other people to live by the rules of some religion. The real quest is to get all the theocrats to see one simple thing: either they all survive or they all bleed themselves dead in eternal war (taking the rest of us with them). Those horrible things in society, secularism and tolerance, are the only things that can guarantee the ability to be personally crazy for as long as one likes.

  5. says

    You’ll hear christians say, “_____ is not a TRUE christian!” after one of their own commits a crime. And when violence is perpetrated by extremist christians, the response of “moderates” is to blame the victim rather than to blame the violence (e.g. “If that doctor hadn’t been doing abortions, he’d be alive”). Many people are willing to turn a blind eye to crimes committed by their own (and even support them in private or with code talk) because they their side as “winning”.

    The exact same can be said about muslims and other religious groups. Too many are gainsayers, willing to ignore immorality for short term gain, willing to lie and deny and be revisionists to things that hurt their cause, willing to blame those who suffer the violence rather than their own who perpetrate it. I could take religious people more seriously and respect them if they weren’t so duplicitous.

    “Let’s not have a double standard here, one standard will do just fine.”
    – George Carlin

  6. johnthedrunkard says

    Ibn Warraq also includes some blistering criticism of Wahhabism in ‘Why I am not a Muslim.’

    I don’t have the book at hand for citation, but without oil, and the link to the Saud ‘family’ (in the same sense as the Gambino or Manson ‘families’) Wahhabism would be an obscure footnote.

    Of course the other forms of Salafism would still be rampant!

  7. John Morales says


    busterggi, Ayn Rand and Mary Baker Eddy weren’t men, though I take your pun*.

    * Of course, etymologically, ‘manufactured’ is ‘hand-made’, not ‘man-made’.

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