Islamic Apostates' Tales

By Andrew G. Bostom | July 21, 2003

A review of "Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out," edited by Ibn Warraq.


Shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous "fatwa" (decree) sentencing Salman Rushdie to death for the novel The Satanic Verses, in March 1989, London's Observer newspaper published a letter from a Pakistani Muslim. The writer, who remained anonymous, stated, "Salman Rushdie speaks for me," and continued by explaining:


"(M)ine is a voice that has not yet found expression in newspaper columns. It is the voice of those who are born Muslims but wish to recant in adulthood, yet are not permitted to on pain of death. Someone who does not live in an Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions, both self-imposed and external, that militate against expressing religious disbelief. ‘I don't believe in God’ is an impossible public utterance even among family and friends...So we hold our tongues, those of us who doubt."


The Khomeini decree so outraged "Ibn Warraq" that he wrote a book, Why I Am Not A Muslim that far transcended Rushdie's lyrical The Satanic Verses as a trenchant critique of Islamic dogmas and myths. Warraq subsequently went on to edit two scholarly works on Qur'anic exegesis ("The Origins of the Koran" and "What the Koran Really Says") and a widely praised historiography on the life of Muhammad, "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad." In addition to being the editor, Warraq contributed original, insightful essays to each of these three critically acclaimed essay collections.


It is profoundly disturbing that the author's reasoned, scholarly writings are viewed as so incendiary that he must continue to write under a pseudonym ("Ibn Warraq") to preserve his physical safety.  This prudent security measure is perhaps most warranted now, following the publication of his latest work, Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out, a compilation of Warraq's own brilliant essays, and harrowing, poignant testimonials from other ex-Muslim "apostates."


An “apostate” is someone who renounces or abandons his religious faith. As Warraq notes, apostasy is a rather banal, innocuous phenomenon in Western societies because:


"The very notion of apostasy has vanished from the West, where one talks of being a 'lapsed Catholic' or 'nonpracticing Christian' rather than an 'apostate.' There are certainly no penal sanctions for converting from Christianity to any…superstitious flavor of the month, from New Ageism to Islam."


However, in stark contrast, as Warraq's Preface makes clear:


"All the testimonies here are witnesses to the authors' courage, for a free discussion of Islam remains rare and dangerous, certainly in the Islamic world and even in our politically correct times in the West. A surprising number of the apostates decided to write under their real names, a triumphant gesture of defiance and freedom. Many, on the other hand have chosen to write pseudonymously, and since this is a fact that seems to irritate many in the secular West, I shall briefly indicate the reasons why. Apostasy is still punishable by long prison sentences and even death in many Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Iran, and as many of our authors have relatives in those countries, whom they regularly visit, it is common sense and simple prudence not to use their real names. "


Warraq begins Leaving Islam with a detailed survey of the theological-juridical underpinnings of apostasy based upon verses from the Qur’an and hadith (words or deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) and written opinions from all four classical schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. He then includes two modern written pronouncements of Islamic jurists on apostasy from the Office of the Sunni Mufti of Lebanon (1989), and the Shi’ite clerical hierarchy in Iran (1986). All these authoritative writings are uniform in confirming the severe punishments inflicted upon “unrepentant” Muslim apostates under Muhammad’s aegis: death for men, indefinite imprisonment for women.


This survey is followed by Warraq's five brief chapters (essays) outlining the thoughts and experiences of significant Muslim apostates throughout Islamic history. During a June 26, 2003, Australian radio interview, Warraq summarized the key themes developed in these chapters thus:


"I think I tried to make clear in the first part of my book…that the situation really varied from century to century, ruler to ruler, country to country. And there were some remarkably tolerant rulers; others were incredibly intolerant. I give the example of the works of al-Razi, who was a great physician, well known in the West as Raziz in medieval Europe, or Razis in Geoffrey Chaucer’s work. He was a deist, he was certainly very anti-Islamic, and yet he survived, he was not assassinated, which is a witness to the fact that he must have lived in a fairly tolerant culture and society. But unfortunately, of course, that wasn’t true always. You had the period of the Inquisition – the Muslim Inquisition, the Minha, under al Mahdi, that’s the 8th century Christian era or Common Era, when many people were executed. There was a great intolerance in general of various kinds of Sufism, because Sufis were considered really beyond the pale.


“I hope that (the history of apostasy in Islam) does somehow add to – it might sound paradoxical – to the climate of tolerance, to show that Islamic culture wasn’t always so monolithic and so on, that there were periods when people spoke up and defended their rights to question and to doubt. The poet Almari, or the poems of Omar Khayyam, one hopes that believing Muslims will also accept these freethinkers as part of their culture."


Two short succeeding chapters, also written by Warraq, examine the historical background, including modern trends and case studies, of conversion from Islam to Christianity, Hinduism, Deism/gnosticism and atheism/Humanism. And Warraq uncovers some surprising contemporary developments. He reports the work of an Australian academic, Dr Thomas Reuter, of Melbourne University, who has documented mass conversion (or more accurately, "reversion") to Hinduism on the Island of Java in Indonesia, where tens of thousands have been leaving Islam for Hinduism over the past twenty years. Warraq cautions, "Up to now there has been no systematic persecution of the Hindus, but unfortunately the signs are that the situation is changing for the worse."


However, even in Algeria, a country currently ravaged by brutal Islamist violence (for example in the Kabylie), Warraq writes that one particular church recently recorded fifty baptisms a year. Despite these very modest sounding numbers, this open avowal of apostasy is quite a striking phenomenon, he observes, "in a country where a woman wearing lipstick could result in an entire family, elderly women and children included, having their throats cut."


Elsewhere, Warraq makes the disturbing observation: "The absence of any mention of apostasy in some penal codes of Islamic countries, of course, in no way implies that a Muslim in the country concerned is free to leave his religion. In reality, the lacunae in the penal codes are filled by Islamic law. Mahmud Mahammad Taha was hanged for apostasy in Sudan in 1985, even though the Sudanese Penal Code of 1983 did not mention such a crime."


The remainder of Leaving Islam is largely devoted to the apostates' testimonies. Who are the apostates testifying in this collection? Warraq elaborates:


“No quick portrait of the typical apostate is likely to appear - some are young (students in their teens), some are middle-aged with children; some are scientists, while others are economists, businesspeople, or journalists; some are from Bangladesh, others from Pakistan, India, Morocco, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. Our witnesses, nonetheless, do have certain moral and intellectual qualities in common: for instance, they are all comparatively well educated, computer literate with access to the Internet, and rational, with the ability to think for themselves. However, what is most striking is the fearlessness, their moral courage, and their moral commitment to telling the truth. They all face social ostracism, the loss of friends and family, a deep inner spiritual anguish and loneliness - and occasionally the death penalty if discovered. Their decisions are not frivolously taken, but the ineluctable result of rational thinking.”


And it is the searing testimonies themselves that grip the reader. Apostate Muhammad bin Abdullah’s eloquent, wrenching reflections on the genocidal massacres committed in Bangladesh in 1971 capture the sentiments expressed by many of the contributors:


“I saw a well-equipped invading army indiscriminately killing millions of civilians and raping 200,000 women. Eight million uprooted people walked barefoot to take refuge in a neighboring country. The institution of Islamic leadership supported the invading army actively, in capturing and killing freedom fighters and non-Muslims, and raping women on a massive scale. Each of 4,000 mosques became the ideological powerhouses of the mass killers and mass rapists, and these killers and rapists – these Islamists – were the same people of the same land as the freedom fighters and raped women. That was the civilians of Bangladesh and the killer army of Pakistan in 1971. All the Muslim countries and communities of the world either stood idle, or actively sided with the killers and rapists in the name of Islam…The message was clear: something was very wrong – either with all the Islamic leaders, or with Islam itself (emphasis in original).


”Again and again, Islam was mortgaged in the hands of killer leadership, while the rest of the Muslim world only said “this is not real Islam…All those sweet peace talks of Islam relate to the time and place of weak Islam in early years. But whenever and wherever Muslims were and are strong, they have another set of cruel laws and conduct. Tell me why the national flags of many Muslim countries have swords on them – a sword is not for shaving beards, it’s only for killing….”


Two especially courageous and articulate female apostates, who chose not to write under pseudonyms - the Iranian Azam Kamguian, and the Tunisian Samia Labidi - focus their testimonies on the blatant abuse of women’s rights in Islamic societies, abetted, Kamguian suggests, by confused (or disingenuous) Western “cultural relativists.” Both women also argue vociferously for complete removal of Islam from the governmental/political domain.


Azam Kamguian notes that the Koran (in section IV.34) encourages husbands to admonish their wives, then leave them, and finally to physically beat them. She further describes the brutal “sexual apartheid” Iranian women suffer under when subjected to Shari’a law:


· - Women are stoned to death for engaging in voluntary sexual relations


     · - Women do not have the right to choose their clothing; hijab is mandatory


     · - Women are segregated from men in every aspect of public life. The penalty for breaking the rules of segregation and hijab is insult, cash fines, expulsion, deprivation of education, unwanted marriage, arrest, imprisonment, beating, and flogging. I call this sexual apartheid


    · - Women are barred from taking employment in a large number of occupations simply because these jobs would compromise their chastity. A married woman can be employed only if she has the consent of her husband. The main duty of women is considered to be taking care of home and children and serving their husbands.


    · - Woman are not free to choose their own academic or vocational fields of study


    · - The legal age of marriage for girls is nine years. Women have no right to choose a husband without consent of their father, or in the absence of their father, the paternal grandfather


    · - Women do not have equal rights to divorce. Only under extreme conditions such as insanity of their spouse can they file for divorce. In the event of divorce, the father has legal custody of boys after the age of two, and girls after the age of seven. The mother loses this minimal right as soon as she remarries


   · - Women do not have the right to acquire passports and travel without the written permission of their husbands/fathers


    · - Women have no rights to the common property of the family


    ·- Women are officially declared temperamental. Their decisions are considered to be based not on reason but on sentiments. They are, on these grounds, barred from the profession of law, and deprived of the opportunity to become judges


    ·- In the courts of law the testimony of two women counts as that of one man, and the testimony of any number of women is invalidated in the absence of a minimum of one male


She also points out the role of left-wing multiculturalists in enabling this anti-woman agenda, which subjected many (including the author herself) to imprisonment and torture:


“When I came to the West in the early 1990s, I was faced with the fact that the majority of intellectuals, mainstream media, academics, and feminists, in the name of respecting ‘other cultures,’ were trying to justify Islam by dividing it into fundamentalist and moderate, progressive and reactionary, Medina’s and Mecca’s, Muhammad’s and Kholafa’s, folksy and nonfolksy. For people like me, the victims of Islam in power, it was suffocating to listen to and to have to refute endless tales to justify the terror and bloodshed committed by Islamic movements and Islamic governments in Iran and in the region.


“…particularly after the Iranian experience, the 1979 revolution, I believe that the demand for secularism must be comprehensive and maximalist.”


The “apostate” Samia Labidi reiterates her view:


“Ultimately the solution lies in separating religion from politics, particularly in that part of the globe that is still suffering from this amalgam between the temporal power and the spiritual power. I know that our task smacks of the impossible since in Arabo-Muslim countries the word ‘secularism’ is hardly pronounced.”


Within Warraq’s summary “taxonomy” of the apostates’ reasons for abandoning Islam, reading the Qur’an for the first time in an understandable translation figures most prominently. The nexus between apostasy and reading (with understanding) the full text of the Qur’an described in many of the testimonies, is legitimated by a section Warraq wrote entitled, “Islam on Trial: The Textual Evidence.” Here Warraq provides overwhelming evidence that Islam’s sacred texts, including the Qur’an, are unfortunately, rife with verses that embrace cruelty, religious intolerance, misogyny, and the concept of global jihad: war against non-Muslims. One witty, trenchant essay (“Out of Context”) skewers apologists for the Qur’an’s darker sentiments. For example, this key excerpt:


“(T)his argument (of taking verses “out of context”) could be turned against Muslims themselves. When they produce a verse preaching tolerance we can also say that they have quoted out of context, or more pertinently (1) that such a verse has been cancelled by a more belligerent and intolerant one; (2) that in the overall context of the Koran and the whole theological construct that we call Islam (i.e., in the widest possible context), the tolerant verses are anomalous, or have no meaning, since Muslim theologians ignored them completely in developing Islamic law; or (3) that the verses do not say what they seem to say.


“For instance, after September 11, 2001, many Muslims and apologists of Islam glibly came out with the following Koranic quote to show that Islam and the Koran disapproved of violence and killing: ‘Whoever killed a human being shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind’ (V.32).


“Unfortunately, these wonderful sounding words are being quoted out of context. Here is the entire quote:


‘That was why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as a punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a life shall be regarded as though he saved all mankind. Our apostles brought them veritable proofs; yet it was not long before many of them committed great evils in the land. Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the country.’


“The supposedly noble sentiments are in fact a warning to Jews. ‘Behave, or else’ is the message. Far from abjuring violence, these verses aggressively point out that anyone opposing the Prophet will be killed, crucified, mutilated, and banished!”


The overall presentation in Leaving Islam is remarkably informative, and deeply moving. Mr. Warraq’s best attributes are evident. He is an astute editor and translator, and dogged compiler of the apostates’ testimonies. His scholarly, critical analysis of Muslim sacred texts adds much. He is also an insightful observer of the sociopolitical history of the Islamic world, past and present and, perhaps most endearing of all, he is an elegant and witty writer. His sound scholarship and keen original analyses also validate the apostates’ testimonies.


Bertrand Russell, in his prescient 1921 analysis of Bolshevism (Communism), “Theory and Practice of Bolshevism,” maintained:


"Among religions, Bolshevism [Communism] is to be reckoned with Muhammadanism [Islam] rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Muhammadanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world." 


Thirty years later, warnings about the all-encompassing oppression of body and spirit intrinsic to Soviet-style Communism appeared in "The God That Failed," a collection of testimonial essays by ex-Communist intellectuals, including Arthur Koestler. As revealed by Richard Crossman, who edited this essay collection (originally published in 1950), it was inspired by Koestler’s comment, “You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies, but when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it is all about.”


In Leaving Islam Ibn Warraq writes, that the testimony of these ex-Communist “Cassandras” appears eerily similar to the ex-Muslim apostates whose testimonies he has compiled. He concludes:


“Communism has been defeated, at least for the moment; Islamism has not, thus far, and unless a reformed, tolerant, liberal kind of Islam emerges soon, perhaps the final battle will be between Islam and Western democracy. And these ex-Muslims, to echo Koestler’s words, on the side of Western Democracy, are the only ones who know what it is all about, and we would do well to listen to their Cassandra cries.”


As Warraq astutely observed a month after the September 11, 2001 attacks, such a transformation cannot take place in the vacuum of leftist dialogue:


It is perverse for the western media to lament the lack of an Islamic reformation and willfully ignore…rational discussion of Islam… what will emerge [then] will be the very thing that political correctness and the government seek to avoid: virulent, racist populism. If there are further terrorist acts then irrational xenophobia will be the only means of expression available. We also cannot allow Muslims subjectively to decide what constitutes "incitement to religious hatred", since any legitimate criticism of Islam will then be shouted down as religious hatred.”


Ibn Warraq writes as an intrepid ex-Muslim “apostate” man, which affords him unique, important perspectives. Clearly, Warraq's writings and the apostate testimonials he has compiled are unsparing in their frank criticism of Islamic dogmas and jurisdictions. However, these passionate critiques also reveal the deep, unbroken affection Warraq and his fellow apostates maintain for the individual men and women in their former societies. These brave apostates should never be associated, disingenuously, with shrill, non-Muslim xenophobes who have surfaced in the West.


Warraq speaks for truly courageous Muslim intellectuals who support profound reforms of Islamic institutions. These individuals openly acknowledge the ugly living historical legacy of jihad and its corollary institution, dhimmitude, as well as the incompatibility of Islamic Shari’a law with the principles of Western democracy. Sadly, the voices of sincere men and women like Ibn Warraq, who at great personal risk are promoting meaningful reform of Islamic societies, are being ignored in favor of those of disingenuous, politically correct Islamic "revisionists." This is a dangerous phenomenon, which will indefinitely retard any genuine reform of Islamic societies, with potentially catastrophic consequences for tens of millions of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Andrew G. Bostom, MD, MS is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University Medical School, and occasional contributor to Frontpage Magazine. He is the editor of a forthcoming essay collection entitled, "The Legacy of Jihad".