Saturday, November 19, 2011

“I am an Atheist and a Muslim”

How can these identities coexist?  I’ll tell you my tentative conclusions at the end of the post.  (Please note that many Atheist Muslims are not postmodern.)

First, read this excerpt interview of Hamed Abdel-Samad in Spiegel Online (HT: JS William):

SPIEGEL: You advocate a milder form of Islam. What remains of the core of the religion?

Abdel-Samad: My dream, in fact, is an enlightened Islam, without Sharia law and without jihad, without gender apartheid, proselytizing and the mentality of entitlement. A religion that is open to criticism and questions. As far as I'm concerned, I converted from faith to knowledge some time ago.

SPIEGEL: You became an atheist.

Abdel-Samad: No.

SPIEGEL: You might as well admit it. Being an atheist is nothing to be ashamed of.

Abdel-Samad: But it isn't true.

SPIEGEL: Not a single imam, Catholic priest or rabbi would believe you. Believing in God means accepting that something exists beyond knowledge. If you don't share this belief, why do you insist on calling yourself a Muslim?

Abdel-Samad: Believing in God can also mean being at odds with him. I don't pray regularly, and I don't fast during Ramadan. In that sense, I'm not religious. But I perceive myself as a Muslim. It's my cultural community. For me, Islam is also my homeland and my language, and my Arabic can't be separated from all of that. You can distance yourself from Islam but remain within the heart of Islam. I don't want to yield to the fundamentalists who preach violence. They are on the rise.

Next, see these quotes from a very interesting paper from Paul Froese called “I am an Atheist and a Muslim: Ideological Competition and Accommodation in Central Asia.”  The study shows how Central Asian Muslims retained and accommodated their Islamic beliefs and identity during the era of Soviet Communism.  During this era:

“Muslims were not willing to disown their religious members for publicly advocating atheism. As one committed Kazakh communist explained, “I am an atheist but also a Muslim, because all Kazakhs are Muslims and I cannot deny my forefathers”” (25).

“Muslims… differ from Christians in terms of how they understand their religion and their religious identities. The doctrine of Islam is more flexible in terms of how it defines true believers than most Christian churches” (31).

Finally, Malise Ruthven also notes the existence of Atheist Muslims:

The label Muslim indicates their ethnicity and group allegiance, but not necessarily their religious beliefs. In this limited context (which may apply to other Muslim minorities in Europe and Asia), there may be no contradiction between being Muslim and being atheist or agnostic…

So what does it means to be a Muslim?  Islam allows a lot of diversity.  It seems to me that Western Christians think of the terms “Islam” or “Muslim” primarily in theological categories, but many Muslims themselves understand the terms primarily in cultural categories.

So what?


Abu Daoud said...

However one wants to address this issue I think it certainly indicates something important about the English language (and German)--the word 'religion' is simply not sufficient to explain what Islam is or is not.

seanb said...

An experience that I think reflects what you're saying: Last weekend I went to an Eid festival in Sydney, Australia with a group wanting to explore Islam. One task I gave them was to find out what 'Eid' is about (what it celebrates, what people believe about it etc).
Of the numbers of Muslims that my group spoke to, not one of them discussed Abraham's sacrifice - reasons given included 'The end of hajj', 'Mohmmad's birthday', and 'no idea'.

Having said that, if you were to go to a church fete at Christmas time, the meaning of Christmas may not be reflected in the views of those attending (depending on who you asked) - and many Aussies may title themself 'Christian'.

Warrick Farah said...

Abu Daoud, I don't understand your reasoning and I don't think language has anything to do with this issue. The quote from the article was probably in Kazak, and there are Muslim Athiests (or Athiest Muslims?) in the Arab world, using Arabic.

A simple observable fact is that many Muslims use the term "Muslim" to relate to their culture or ideology, not theology. Who am I to tell them that they're wrong? It's not up to me to decide what Islam is or is not.