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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sweeping survey that calls for toleration and freedom, 23 Nov 2009
This review is from: Why I Am Not a Muslim (Paperback)
Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm not a Christian" was a short set of essays, starting with a rather civilized debate about proving the existence of God. Though taken from that title, Warraq's book is an altogether larger exposition that is hardly a tea time discussion given that thousands of people have been killed and continue to be killed in the name of Islam, and that there are serious issues to explore including layers of history and the growth of learning and the intellect in the Islamic world, up until today. The book describes several historical schools of the faith and also chronicles the lives of several poets, free thinkers and philosophers from the Islamic world. It culminates in the thorny issue of what Islam represents in the West as well as in its heartlands such as Pakistan, where a woman is raped every three hours. Warraq himself originated in Pakistan and has had enough exposure to an Islamic education to tease out what is effectively a polemic against dogmatic religion of any form, monotheism in particular, with his ire focussed against Islam. The book is often a literature review with passages from several authors, mostly from sources that are out of copyright. Not all the sources are unimpeachable, though there is enough material to create a body of evidence to make his points. The book indicates that the word Islam is complex and one ought to distinguish between what Muslims are and do as against the set of teachings they are expected to practice. This book is not an attack on Muslims but a treatise that investigates the origins of Islam, the creation of a politicized empire building creed and its consequences in history.

This book is suitable for Muslims to understand their history and faith and non-Muslims alike. So long and comprehensive was the book (c. 360p) with ample sources and references, that I feel I have learned all I wish to with regards to Islam and the Koran (for the time being) in a critical light. It encompasses history, geography and biographies of notable Middle Eastern Intellectuals, many of who suffered for their heretical positions. It also offers trenchant researches on the origins of Islam and Koran. Since this book, Warraq has made tremendous contributions to Islamic scholarship and study, stimulating debate and reform movements. Readers can follow up the leads and references offered to draw their own conclusions. I found the book a very interesting read and have made a meal of reviewing it by chapters given there was much that was new in it. I think that Warraq writes impartially unlike Robert Spencer and his treatment overall is more scholarly, though Warraq states that he is not a scholar as such, and his is as much a literature review as much as a polemic.

At the introduction the book states that Islam can be classified three ways. It is what the prophet of Islam and the Koran taught. It is what was made of this teaching in terms of commentaries, interpretations and Sharia law. Finally it is Islamic culture and civilization in general. Islam 3 has many good points that sometimes contradict Islam 1 and 2. E.g., art and music are features of Islamic civilization although art is frowned on in Islamic texts. Female circumcision on the other hand and the wearing of veils for all Muslim women is not in the Koran, though they have been historically applied as Islamic.

Chapter 1 - The Rushdie Affair; Chapter 2 - The Origins of Islam; Chapter 3 - the Problem of Sources; Chapter 4 - Muhammad and his message; Chapter 5 - The Koran

A Jew Ibn Kammuna in Bagdad wrote a book in 1284 critical of Muhammad. This caused so much uproar, that he was smuggled out in a box and his career was over. Having being condemned to death, his life in exile was short. This compares well with events in 1989 when Muslims were in uproar about a chapter in Salman Rushdie's book and wanted it banned for blasphemy, a grave Islamic sin. Several people were killed in the process and history repeated itself (not for the second time). The Rushdie affair spurred Warraq as an ex Muslim to speak out about Islam and reveal to most of us, why such a fuss was created and justifications behind this. There was generally and still remains a climate of ignorance about Islam and Warraq has set out to expose the myths, hypocrisy and provide a context to account for the hurt displayed by some Muslims.

Warraq catalogues a number of ancient and modern scholars who dared to question, criticize or try and liberalise Islam and the sorry fate that awaited many of them, from losing their jobs, their lives or having to flee their homeland. Warraq poses the problem as a serious threat to scholarly and intellectual freedoms in the Arab world and asks sincerely as other scholars have, whether Islam has any place as a system of truth or a workable political system in the modern world. He tries to ask if Islam can represent moderation quoting from the late Ayatollah Khomeni:

"Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those [who say this] are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! ... Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! ..."

Apparently, here is a dictionary definition of Jihad or holy war. Warraq then explains that several Iranian intellectuals were highly supportive of Rushdie (understandable in the context of Khomeni's bile) and wrote letters in his support. Ironically, it was Western intellectuals and commentators who seemed to support the fatwa on Rushdie's life as opposed to intellectuals in the Islamic world.

Chapter 1 summarises the rise of Islamic scholarship in the West with serious attempts made to understand the faith, from the 17th century to early 20th century explorations, including the views of Voltaire, Carlisle, Gibbon, Schopenhauer, Popper and (later on) romantics like Burton who translated the Arabian Nights. Warraq explores several views concerned with Islamic tolerance or lack, teasing out historical and scientific criticisms, particularly in contrasting and comparing Islam against Christianity.

Warraq starts by exploring the relationship between Islam and pre-Islamic cultures. Islam is seen as syncretistic in the light of allied Semitic and Aryan influences. Pre Islamic Arabic deities, associated rituals and customs are explored including the pilgrimage at Mecca. Warraq reveals connections between these and other elements such as Zoroastrianism, the Sabians, Indian religions with a brief exploration of prevailing traditions. The Jinns in the Islamic tradition still represent an undercurrent of poly or pantheism, a tradition that Muhammad seems to have accepted. Islam is particularly indebted to Christianity and most solidly Judaism, with which an extensive comparison is made. It transpires that the Koran contains much that is in the Jewish tradition and the more authoritative tradition (with regards to certain passages) rests on Jewish sources of which the Koran is an incomplete, disjointed facsimile, e.g., Jesus's mother Miriam is conflated in the Koran with Miriam, the sister of Moses.

The sources of Islam starting with the Koran are explored, together with a listing of its commentaries and dates. The available sources for the life of prophet Muhammad are also listed with dates, along with the names of the compilers of the Hadith such as Al-Tabari and Ibn Ishaq. There follows a review of critical Western scholarship of Islam that concludes that much of the Islamic canon was still in evolution as late as the eleventh century with its roots in the eighth or ninth century, around two centuries following the prophet. There is a great deal of interesting history and geography here with some radical reassessments on the prophet's biography.

The theses of Cook, Crone and Hinds from the 1970s is picked up that traces the origins of Muhammad not to Mecca but to the area around Palestine. Non-Muslim sources reveal a radically different if sketchier Muhammad who was effectively linked with Samaritans, united Jewish tribes and may have proclaimed the coming of a Messiah. He split off a new movement from traditional Jewry, in a parallel move to the traditional Muhammad's alleged shift from Jerusalem to Mecca. This Muhammad probably lived a little later than the Arab Muhammad, indicating the theoretical possibility of a false tradition and ideology emerging in the Hejaz later.

Warraq begins by contending that the Non-Muslim Muhammad may be more complimentary to Muslim interests given "the picture that emerges [from Muslim sources] is not at all flattering. Furthermore, Muslims cannot complain that this is a portrait drawn by an enemy." Chapter 4 explores the history of Muhammad based on Islamic sources.

Once more, Western historical studies are analysed and the traditional life of Muhammad is scrutinised in the light of the state of pre-Islamic Arabs, in contrast with the post-Islamic hegemony. Several sources point out to the emergence of Muhammad as a relatively peaceful monotheist, eventually turning into powerful, intolerant despot. His battles, assassinations and treatment of Jewish tribes is recounted, representing an unprepossessive portrayal with very little to admire in his treatment of opponents or even mild critics. He seems to have exulted at receiving the heads of his enemies. Muhammad's fallibility at times is exposed with a serious questioning of the revelations he pulled out to justify much of what he did in love/lust, war and punishment. No other warrior seems to have had recourse to so much divine sanctions to justify his every action that seemed questionable, even to his followers at the time.

The Koran (Chapter 5) is almost certainly one of many alternative versions that must have existed and perhaps an incomplete rendition of a fuller set of books. Muslim and scholarly narratives are compared. There is some unnecessary commentary contrasting Koranic revelation with science putting to the test that the Koran is regarded as the immutable final word of God for all time. Given that several verses in the Koran were later abrogated with alternative verses, it is clear that Allah could change his mind, often from a softer message later abrogated to a more vituperative tone. It consists of about 80,000 words and some 6,200 verses divided into 114 chapters.

Scholarly explorations into the origins of the New Testament are compared with Koranic studies and the dogmas and values espoused in the Koran are explored. Apparently there is little that is original in the Koran except poetic diction, but there appear to be Arabic linguistic errors that could be improved or corrected. Most of the doctrines of the Koran such as the unity of God, divine punishments, judgement day and its largely Jewish characters such as Abraham/Ibrahim are explored.

Chapter 6 - the totalitarian Nature of Islam; Chapter 7 - Is Islam compatible with Democracy and Human rights? Chapter 8 - Arab Imperialism, Islamic colonialism; Chapter 9 - The Arab Conquests and the Position of Non-Muslim subjects

The above chapters are relatively harrowing descriptions that explore Islamic doctrines, laws and their historical consequences. This applies not merely in the treatment of Jews and Christians and other unbelievers but to within subsections of Muslims themselves including women. Sunni Islam looks down on Shia Islam and Arab Islam dominates much of global Islam in general (non Arab Muslims are in some ways less equal to Arab Muslims, e.g., the Berbers of Algeria and their culture has been eclipsed and by Arab culture).

Chapter 6 explores Islam as a form of political rule with its attendant laws. Chapter 7 takes the arguments further comparing Islamic principles against the codes of Human rights. Women and Non-Muslims are not equal to Muslim men within strict Islamic legal systems. In Sharia, women's movements are restricted and they are not permitted to marry non-Muslims. Muslims in general are condemned to death for choosing to leave the faith. Non-muslims or atheists do not have the right to life and may be killed freely. Unbelief is worse than murder, theft or adultery.

Examples are given of these strictures in practice. The Ahmadis, a sect of Islam within Pakistan historically, have effectively been banned by recent legislation. A Shia Muslim was beheaded for apostacy in Arabia in 1992. Non-muslim objects of faith or open practice of religion are banned in Arabia.

On the other hand, a quote by Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) seems pretty out of place and jingoistic: "Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox Cultures."

Warraq's faith in Western methodology and Science is sometimes sycophantic, though his tone is measured and he brings in several sources of which Huntington's is the most ill judged. Chapter 7 continues with a critique of Human Rights vs islam along with Democracy, Western and secular free thinking in general.

It is clear that non-Muslims would have a very hard time if Islamic laws were enforced at pain of slavery, taxation, intimidation or even death given they have no rights whatever under Sharia. Waraq makes a plea for secularism in government.

Chapters 8-9 are the most painful to read for non-Muslims exposing historical bloodbaths, enslavement, destruction and general and cultural demolition in the name of Islam. These seem to have been just as bad if not worse at times than Western imperialism:
"When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives." Koran 47.4

Several early Muslim conquerors were not persuaded by Islam or its doctrines, though they exploited and embraced the doctrine of Jihad to expand their empires. Much of the Christian, Jewish and Zorastrian Middle East including other traditions were effectively erased with a horrific loss of life and associated destructions including the loss of entire libraries of books and manuscripts, particularly in Egypt and Persia. This treatment was similarly meted out to Hindus and Buddhists in Islam's Eastern expansion.

Only Akbar the Great, the sixteenth century Mughal emperor and some of his descendants excluding Aurangzeb stand as beacons of tolerance though not necessarily as examples of what it means to be a proper Muslim. There is a vast amount of literally bloody history to get through that sometimes makes compelling reading.

Chapter 10 - Heretics and Heterodoxy, Atheism and Freethought, Reason and Revelation; Chapter 11 - Greek Philosophy and Science and Their Influence on Islam; Chapter 12 - Sufism or Islamic Mysticism; Chapter 13 - Al-Ma'arri

These chapters are of historical interest tracing the development of schools of Islamic thought, its contacts with classical civilisation and the free thinkers and poets in the Muslim world, many of whom were killed or avoided this through luck or artifice. Chapter 10 considers the historical lineages in Islam and the attendant splits from the first Caliphs, the Umayyads around 661, through to the Abbasids who overthrew them around 750. The Kharijites were an early lineage within Islam that was vindictive but tolerant of infidels. They helped Muslims to consider their faith rationally. Even more advanced in progressing Islamic liberalism were the Qadarites and Mu'tazilites ("fifty doubts are better than one certainty") who eventually began to question the sanctity of the prophet. Some of these reformers rejected revelation as necessarily good and preferred the notion of absolute standards of morality, dictated by reason. They moved to the position that the Koran was created, i.e., man made (Muslims tend to believe that the Koran is uncreated, with an identical copy in heaven). This was sadly turned into a dogma used to eliminate dissenters, which probably unravelled a movement towards tolerance. Unfortunately, these unorthodox movements were heavily proscribed later and do not seem to have established themselves to be of lasting influence.

The life of Mani (216-276) is discussed, founder of Manichaeism, perhaps heavily influenced by Indian ideas. Mani promoted asceticism and being vegetarian. Mani continued to influence some "heretical" movements within Islam.

Zindiqs and Zandaquas represent free thinkers who often feigned to be believers but were followers of pre-islamic or other religions (such as Manichaeism) or were outright atheists. Several of them are listed, many executed upon discovery.

Amongst them were Ibn Al-Muqaffa, a Manichaen who dared to attack Islam. He made several translations of books from Persian and Sanskrit to Arabic. He was executed in c. 760. Al-Mutanabbi (915-965) is considered the greatest Arabic poet but expressed heretical views but escaped with his life. Ibn Al-Rawandi (c. 820 ...) was a scholar and author who eventually became an atheist and attacked all religions. Such figures reveal that there were rational humans here after all who dared to dissent.

In Chapter 11 Warraq contends that much of Islamic civilization owes heavily to Greek thought and Byzantine architecture, especially the domes on Mosques that would have been unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia. There is a similar listing of Islamic and non-Islamic scholars and philosophers who were instrumental in transmitting and translating Greek thought and ideas to Caliphate dynasties and eventually to the West. Some of these individuals once again were executed for heresy. Despite innovative thinkers like Avicenna (Ibn Sina), later scholars like Al-Ghazali seemed to despise philosophy as a source of "infidelity". Warraq contends that Al-Ghazali was detrimental to Islamic thought and learning eventually.

A subsequent wave of Islamic philosophers such as Averroes (1126-1198) are discussed, many of them advocating views against traditional dogma. Averroes was taken up in the West but forgotten in the Islamic world. Warraq expands on the contribution of Muslims to Western science, particularly in areas like trigonometry and a lexicon of new words and substances like alkali, zircon, talc, Altair, zero and coffee. Much of the scholarship came from Christian and Jewish individuals as well as Muslims. It is clear that the subsequent rise of orthodox Islam choked further evolution in scientific learning in the Middle East until recently.

Chapter 12 dwells on Sufism, representing the mystical side of Islam. Sufis evolved independently of the Koranic tradition and broke away from Sharia enforcement. "I'm neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Muslim" sings one mystic - the status between belief and non-belief became less important. Unfortunately, many Sufi mystics were executed for heresy. Warraq concludes that early Islam was fundamentally intolerant of heresy, analysing the concept of bida or innovation. Whereas Islamic texts offer much ambiguity for interpretation, their enforcement as a political creed could not bear dissent. State and Church were not separated that led to a prosecution of heresy and an attack on dissent, unless royal patronage was in favour of certain individuals who lived off their wits, learning or talent. Examples are given of thousands being executed for heresy.

Chapter 13 explores the life of Al-Ma'arri (973-1057), a Syrian free thinker who was a great poet and something of a nihilist. "This wrong was by my father done, To me, but never by me to one." In other words, procreation. He was a critic of religions as "noxious weeds". Several examples of his poetry are given and amongst his sins were parodying the Koran. This remarkable individual believed in kindness to animals and became a vegetarian at 30. He managed to escape prosecution for heresy despite being charged with it. Warraq is a fan.

Chapter 14 - Women and Islam; Chapter 15 - Taboos: Wine, Pigs and Homosexuality

Chapter 14 is a long treatise debunking the notion that Islam raised the position of women in Arabia. Prophet Muhammad's main innovation was the prevention of female infanticide that took place before his time. Whereas women have been characterised as guilty or sinful in such books such as the Perfumed Garden translated by Richard Burton (19th century), I don't think Warraq has compared such texts against similar texts in other religions. Textual criticism of women, composed by men is very common in history. The real damage is represented by the sanction of rape, female slavery, mutilation, honor killings and the treatment of women to be often confined in houses or stifling garments. As Warraq points out, women now spearhead most Islamic reform.

The chapter explores the position of women in Islamic texts, laws and history. Towards the end, there are galling conclusions coming from his native country Pakistan. Its founder, Jinna, never intended Pakistan to be a Muslim state but a secular one. General Zia-al-Huq Islamicized the country in his bid to consolidate dictatorial control. The mullahs and landowners benefited tremendously and acted in tandem, and the position of women fell to below that of pets or servants in some instances. Warraq is critical of Benhazir Bhutto's appeasement of the Muslim fundamentalists in a narrative composed well before her assassination. One woman gets raped every three hours in Pakistan and the men get off scot-free given the woman needs four witnesses to obtain any justice, otherwise, she would be guilty of adultery and theoretically subject to lapidation or imprisonment. Consequently, most rape victims could even be raped again by the police as happens regularly if they attempt to launch any allegations for the sake of justice. Thanks to Islamic tradition there is no lower limit in age for marriage and young girls may be forced to marry against their will. A man may divorce his wife on a whim and may have as many women as he chooses (if he can afford it). Firstly, he can marry four wives, and can divorce them freely to marry again. Secondly, he could have sex with as many slaves as he liked. A woman on the other hand is restricted in her movements and is effectively the property of her husband. She should give in even on the back of a camel at the risk of going to hell at death. Women in Saudi Arabia apparently tend to be quite insecure, in fear of divorce. Several related topics such as the hijab and female circumcision are explored. Many Muslim women would obviously argue with Warraq's stance but many of these would not be living in Sharia controlled countries and would be free to argue.

In Chapter 15 we learn that drunkenness and alcoholism were often tolerated (praised by poets) in Islamic cultures as was homosexuality, more so than in Europe in a historical context. There is a detailed examination on the restrictions against eating pork amongst other animals and exceptions are examined. Judaism and Islam are held up as backwards in the treatment of animals, particularly during slaughter where the animal must be fully conscious during death. Irrational aspects associated with certain taboos are explored such as the consideration of dogs as unclean animals.

Chapter 16 - Final Assessment of Muhammad; Chapter 17 - Islam in the West

Whereas Muhammad's strengths are assessed, his eventual impact on history is analysed in the light of the historical consequences of Islam. Chapter 17 dwelling mostly on the UK, contains some telling passages of modern Muslim supremacist ideology that many politicians tend to overlook, along with an analysis of multiculturalism and several legal concessions made to Muslims with regards to the slaughter of animals and alteration of dress codes.

This final chapter makes clear that there is no war between Muslims and the West but rather between secular free thinking based on pluralism verses a politically correct, stifling multiculturalism that would open the gates to dogmatic groups to take over and assert themselves. This chapter represents a warning about what would happen if too many concessions are made to organisations like the Muslim Parliament in the UK that is effectively bent on spreading Islam with a strain of intolerance to other creeds and Western civilisation and science, democracy and human rights in general. "Therefore, [Warraq concludes] the final battle will not necessarily be between Islam and the West, but between those who value freedom and those who do not."
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 19 Jan 2011 18:01:16 GMT
Not a bad review although a little long perhaps?

Just on Sarkani's comment that "in its [Islam's] heartlands such as Pakistan, where a woman is raped every three hours"

to be fair, before drawing any conclusion about this specific to Islam, one might have compared the figure (adjusted for size of population) for western countries, and also warned that the sources of all such statistics may be incomplete.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Feb 2011 21:14:58 GMT
[Deleted by the author on 26 Feb 2011 09:26:07 GMT]

Posted on 13 Jul 2014 21:44:18 BDT
WoW some solid review. Just on the back if your review I'm buying this book.
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