A Syrian Muslim’s Retreat into Unbelief
By Rev. Bassam M. Madany
On 21 June, 2005, the reformist Kuwaiti website kwtanweer  posted a very short, but important, autobiography of a Syrian intellectual by the name of Shehab al-Dimashqi (Shehab of Damascus). In this personal history the reader is given an account of a man’s gradual alienation from Islam and the factors leading to it. In the end he became a murtad (an apostate).
Five years later, comments on the autobiographic testimony are still appearing, indicating the interest it has generated among the wide readership of kwtanweer. To be precise, as of 26 October, 2010, 4,691 people have read Shehab’s “Confession of Unbelief.” It should be noted that the majority of the topics discussed on the kwtanweer website deal with the modernization, renewal, and reform of Islam; seldom do they touch on the outright rejection of Islam. So this fairly large number of readers is of some interest.
Who is Shehab al-Dimashqi? My research on Arab reformist websites garnered the following information about this Syrian intellectual:
Shehab, (which is his pseudonym) was born in Damascus, in 1971. He hopes one day to disclose his true identity. Judging by my own personal experience, having studied at a Syrian academy in the late 1940s, I calculate that he probably finished his primary and secondary education around 1988. He has a Law Degree from the University of Damascus. Again my calculations are that he probably enrolled at the College of Law at the University of Damascus around 1989. So he would have earned his law degree in 1993, and started practicing law shortly thereafter .
His alienation from Islam became public on 28 September, 2003, when he published, “Al-Naz’a al-Tabaqiyya fi’l-Islam” The Class Impulse in Islam,” in which he castigated the practice of slavery and concubinage in Islam, which have become institutionalized. He played a major role in the organization of “The Union of Arab Rationalists”. On 23 October, 2003, the website he created, www.ahewar.org, went public. The full name of the website is: “Al-Hewar al-Mutamadden,” means “Civilized Dialogue.” From 2003 to 2010 Shehab posted on this website 29 of his essays. Kwtanweer in turn has posted seven of them. The one receiving the greatest attention is “From Religion to No Religion”. Following are excerpts from this essay:
No one chooses his religion or his beliefs. Religion is similar to the names that are imposed upon us without our participation in the choice. I, like other Muslims, was born and grew up in a Muslim society, within a Muslim milieu, and in a Muslim family. I was a Muslim as a matter of tradition. Had I ever been asked: “do you expect that some day you might become a person without religion?” such a question would have been beyond consideration! During my days of commitment to Islam, I used to repeat the words of the late Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazzali: “Unbelief is stupidity! All that is in the universe proclaims loudly the existence of God.” People around me kept reinforcing my faith by telling me: “Islam is the true and eternal religion; Islam performs miracles; Islam opens minds and hearts; etc.”
I grew up with Islamic illusions. I belonged to a religious family; and was totally committed to Islamic teachings, and faithful in the performance of all the duties of my faith. I defended my faith emotionally, and with great zeal. But at the same time, I began to contend with doubts and questions without finding any convincing answers.
The ‘Ulemas, (the religious authorities,) kept telling me: “Everything in the Qur’an is true, and anything that did not agree with its teachings, was wrong and false. As for your doubts and suspicions, they proceed from Satan. When these doubts assail you, seek refuge in Allah and implore Him to defend you from the wiles of Satan.”
I believed, and I grew up. The intensity of my clinging to Islam led me to read all kinds of Islamic books, ancient and modern, ultra conservative as well as reformist. The more I read Islamic thought, the more my doubts increased. My mind became filled with questions that had no answers.
At this point in my life, I found refuge, in the idea that I would embark on a spiritual quest for Allah. I convinced myself that all my doubts had originated from Satan. It was my duty as a believer, when assailed by doubts and questions, to implore Allah for forgiveness, and seek to forget them. In fact, I forced myself to ignore these questions as if they did not exist. After all, no human being is capable of understanding the deep secrets of religion! And as a committed believer, I kept forcing my mind to surrender to this line of reasoning and to accept the simplistic answers of the ‘ulema. However, this method did not work. In fact, my doubts remained embedded in some dark corners of my mind waiting for an appropriate moment to reappear with vigor and to confront me anew.
One day, I decided to assume the role of an atheist and confront a group of religious men with my arguments. Actually, my real aim was to strengthen my ability to engage in apologetics, and to discover areas of weakness in the position of the atheists through such encounter. I went to the College for the study of Shari’ah which was close to the University of Damascus where I was studying. I chose a bunch of bearded men and sat among them. I engaged them in discussion, setting forth my arguments for unbelief, waxing eloquent with all kinds of proofs for my position. To my surprise, they were unable to deal with my arguments! I repeated this experiment several times with other people who were wiser than the first group, but the result was the same.
My old doubts increased. For the first time, I began to study Islam as a critic, and not as a believer. I started to neglect my ritual prayers, all the while feeling guilty for doing so. I haltingly adopted the position of irreligion, but finally decided to leave Islam and all religion. I have been asked, “What were those doubts and questions that occasioned your intellectual crisis and forced you to forsake religion?”
It is very difficult to summarize the multitude of my readings and reflections in a few lines. That would require several pages. Some samples of my critique of religion can be found in my articles that are posted on a network of ‘Non-Religious Arabs’ (www.ladeeni.net).
It is rather too early to expect that any critique of religious thought would get published in the Arab world. I am convinced that the Internet has tremendous value as it allows anyone with an idea to defend, a place to do so. It has opened for us, ‘Non-Religious’ Arabs, a limitless space to openly and freely express our views. In fact, if it were not for the Internet, no one would have been aware of our existence, let alone our literary products! Perhaps the day is coming when I will be able to speak openly and boldly using my real name, and declare: “Yes, I am a non-religious person, and here are my reasons.” (Translation mine)
Shehab’s account of his journey from belief into unbelief is quite riveting, especially when one reads it in the original Arabic text. While his experience is not unique in the contemporary Arab world, still publicizing his radda required an unusual boldness. His inability to accept the Islamic faith as a modern, educated Arab, led him ultimately to become a leader in a secularist group of young intellectuals.
Shehab ended his article with these words: “Yes, I am a non-religious person, and here are my reasons.” It is puzzling that he refrained from spelling out in more detail those reasons in his article on kwtanweer, of June of 2005. Researching the website “Al-Hewar al-Mutamadden” led to an earlier contribution of Shehab’s dealing with the same topic. It was dated 12 November, 2003, and was titled: “Why I Am Non-Religious?” In this article he listed a number of doctrinal questions which have haunted him and for which he has found no answers.
Why did Allah create Iblis (the Devil)? And why did Iblis refuse to worship Adam when the Lord ordered him to do so?
Why does Islam oppress women and treat them as inferior creatures? Why is a woman’s share of the inheritance half of a man’s share, when she works just as hard as he does? Also, why is an educated woman’s testimony worth only half of the testimony of an illiterate man? Why does a man have the right to marry two, three, and even four wives, as well as a number of concubines, while a woman is deprived of all that?
If it is indispensable for man to embrace a religion, why does it have to be Islam?
Why should my obedience to Allah be motivated by fear, or by the attractions of the sensual pleasures provided by the Houriyyat of Paradise? (Arabic source, translation mine)
When reflecting on the Qur’anic account of the fall of Iblis, he questioned why Allah would even create the Devil. Of additional concern was why Iblis refused the Lord’s ordering him to worship Adam. He is not alone in his concern. This topic has been an embarrassing doctrinal problem to Muslim intellectuals for some time. In 1969, Dr. Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm, a member of a prominent Sunni family from Damascus, published in Beirut his, “Naqd al-Fikr al-Deeni” (A Critique of Religious Thought) questioning the reasonableness of the Qur’anic account of the Fall of Iblis. This got him into trouble with the Lebanese authorities, who ordered him to prison for one week. His crime was “defaming” Islam!
Both Sadeq and Shehab couldn’t fathom why the Creator would order a creature (who was an angel before his fall) to prostrate himself and worship Adam! It was and remains an illogical request from a supposedly wise Creator. 
Another subject that troubled the young intellectual was the status of women in Islam. It is enshrined in the Qur’an that women are definitely inferior to men. A woman is considered as half the worth of a man. Her very humanity is questioned. The sensitive young lawyer was appalled at such a concept and found it intolerable. He believed in the equality of men and women.
The practice of polygamy troubled him as well it should. Many a Muslim wife, once she has reached her forties or fifties has experienced its humiliation. Many are cast aside by husbands who take up with young dirras (an Arabic term for a second wife). Such young women are conceivably the same age as some of their own children!
Another vexing subject was disturbing Shehab’s mind. Why the absence of freedom of religion, or as he put it, “If it is indispensable for man to embrace a religion, why does it have to be Islam?”
These were just a couple of the reasons that led Shehab to break with his past and adopt an entirely non-religious worldview. From time to time, he contributes essays of a critical nature on websites. The last one was dated 1 July, 2010 and dealt with the subject of “Mythologies in Islam and Christianity.” He and his colleagues have awakened to the importance of freedom of expression. They are diligently attempting to bring their contemporaries in the Muslim world to recognize the futility of accepting blindly or uncritically the claims of Islam, or any other faith. The status and treatment of women in Islam appears to have been one of the turning points in their intellectual journey as well. They are definitely questioning everything in their tradition.
Christian missionaries and lay people who encounter Muslims at work or in institutions of higher education need to be aware of the turmoil that is going on in the minds and lives of young Muslim intellectuals, both men and women. The Internet, globalization, and migration, have opened their minds to see the utter contrast between their closed and antiquated culture, and that of the rest of the world. To understand and sympathize with their plight and turmoil is of utmost importance. Being cognizant of a story like “Shehab’s Retreat into Unbelief” should make us compassionate and eager to witness to Muslims, fully armed with the belief that our Gospel remains the only hope in our confused and complex world.
1. The website kwtanweer.com with this page was available at least until 28 October 2010. During the editorial process for this article, we realized that this site apparently disappeared at the beginning of November (because they forgot to pay their domain name fees?).
2. The account for the fall of Iblis is found in three chapters of the Qur’an, I have used only two references taken from Surat al-Baqara, and Surat Al-?ijr, and the translations of Sahih International and Muhsin Khan (source).
Surat al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:34
And [mention] when We said to the angels, "Prostrate before Adam"; so they prostrated, except for Iblees. He refused and was arrogant and became of the disbelievers. Sahih International
And (remember) when We said to the angels: "Prostrate yourselves before Adam.” And they prostrated except Iblis (Satan), he refused and was proud and was one of the disbelievers (disobedient to Allah). Muhsin Khan
Surat Al-Hijr (The Rocky Tract) 15:30-34
"And when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My [created] soul, then fall down to him in prostration. So the angels prostrated - all of them entirely. Except Iblees, he refused to be with those who prostrated. [Allah] said, O Iblees, what is [the matter] with you that you are not with those who prostrate?" He said, "Never would I prostrate to a human whom You created out of clay from an altered black mud." [Allah] said, "Then get out of it, for indeed, you are expelled. And indeed, upon you is the curse until the Day of Recompense." Sahih International
"So, when I have fashioned him completely and breathed into him (Adam) the soul which I created for him, then fall (you) down prostrating yourselves unto him. So, the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together. Except Iblis (Satan), - he refused to be among the prostrators. (Allah) said: "O Iblis (Satan)! What is your reason for not being among the prostrators?" [Iblis (Satan)] said: "I am not the one to prostrate myself to a human being, whom You created from sounding clay of altered black smooth mud." (Allah) said: "Then, get out from here, for verily, you are Rajim (an outcast or a cursed one)." [Tafsir At-Tabari] "And verily, the curse shall be upon you till the Day of Recompense (i.e. the Day of Resurrection)." Muhsin Khan