Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out
Edited by Ibn Warraq. New York: Prometheus Books, 2003. 471 pp. $28.
Reviewed by Salim Mansur
University of Western Ontario
Middle East Quarterly
In Leaving Islam, Ibn Warraq has assembled a compelling list of writings from individuals of Muslim birth who renounced their faith. It serves as a companion of sorts to his own personal statement, Why I Am Not a Muslim, and opens a window into a usually hushed topic, revealing internal Muslim debates concerning history, faith, and culture.
The problem of dissent within Islam has been a troubling issue from the earliest moments of Muslim history. Although the Qur'an famously declares at 2:256 that "There is no compulsion in religion," apostasy (meaning, adopting another belief or non-belief) is a capital offence. Hence, Muslims' fear that dissent might be viewed as apostasy serves as an insidious weapon for political leaders. Often in collaboration with religious scholars, leaders use this tool to silence free thinkers and spread a blanket of totalitarian control over Muslim communities.
Despite the crucial importance of apostasy, it has not seriously been documented or investigated. Ibn Warraq's breakthrough collection of essays offers a compelling and vivid insight into the minds of those individuals who have struggled with the faith tradition into which they were born, eventually departing from the belief of their parents and ancestors to become free of what they considered as oppressive or demeaning to living as rational and independent individuals.
The phenomenon of Muslims leaving Islam is about as old as Islam itself. Ibn Warraq handily summarizes some of the most notable cases from the early centuries of Islam, such as those eminent freethinkers Ar-Rawandi (c. 820-830) and Ar-Razi (865-925), or skeptical poets such as Omar Khayyam (c. 1048-1131) and Hafiz (c. 1320-89), or Sufi (mystic) practitioners among whom the most notable victims of orthodoxy were Mansur ibn Hallaj (executed in 922) and As-Suhrawardi (executed in 1191).
But the testimonies Ibn Warraq collects of contemporary individuals from across the Muslim world make for particularly fascinating reading. They offer insight into the biography and psychology of Muslims contending with a faith that they find irreconcilable with the requirements of modernity. The voices are those of men and women from Bangladesh and Pakistan, India and Iran, Tunisia and Turkey, Malaysia and Morocco. They are intelligent, aware of their past and tormented by present realities of obscurantism, dogmatism, and intolerance within Muslim societies.
Ibn Warraq is a courageous writer on Islam and a passionate defender of reason who continues to struggle on behalf of reason with a culture that seems to be at odds with reason. In this respect, his work, as in the preparation of this edited volume, is an indispensable tool for Muslims themselves so they can wage their struggle for enlightenment and reform of their faith tradition.
And here, therefore, lies the conundrum for those, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, who are concerned about the world of Islam and its relationship with others: the act of leaving Islam, however courageous on an individual basis, amounts to abandoning the reformist struggle needed within Islam.
 Prometheus Books, 1995. See, "Brief Reviews," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1996, p. 86. Writings of other Muslims and non-Muslims who either share Ibn Warraq's perspective or have contributed to his work in general can be found at http://www.islam-watch.org
Related Topics: Islam | Salim Mansur | Spring 2006 MEQ
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