Middle East Resources

The Rise and Spread of Ilhad (Atheism) in the Arab World

A Serious and Troubling Phenomenon

By Bassam Michael Madany

The Wall Street Journal of 7 June, 2015 reported that the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “upheld the verdict against Raif Badawi, a Saudi human rights activist and a blogger, who had insulted Islam.” He had been imprisoned since 2012; in January, 2015, he received the first session of lashings outside a mosque in the port city of Jeddah, with subsequent floggings to come later.

The Raif Badawi “affair” is receiving world attention with demonstrations in Western cities showing solidarity with this young Saudi, whose wife and family have already found shelter in Montreal, Quebec. The reports about this case in the Western Media have failed to place it in a broader context, namely, “The Rise and Spread of Ilhad (Arabic for Atheism) throughout the Arab world.”

In fact, the topic of Ilhad is receiving a great deal of attention in the Arab world. The following is my translation of a report about this phenomenon posted on the online daily Elaph, on Thursday, 4 June, 2015. It dealt with the case of a well-known Algerian intellectual who had publicly made known his Ilhad. Here follows a summary of the article, followed by my analysis and comments.

“The Algerian playwright, Rachid Bou Jadra, who announced his unbelief on a television station, claimed that Muhammad was not a Prophet, but a revolutionary! That made him the object of severe criticisms; on the other hand, some bloggers came to his defence, claiming that freedom of belief in Algeria, entitled him to make known his position.

“The Society of Algerian ‘Ulema (Religious Authorities) announced ‘that a public declaration about his Ilhad must be regarded as a very serious matter. It added, ‘Bou Jadra should be deprived of the privileges accorded to Muslims at their death. [Thus being excommunicated] it would be unlawful, upon his passing, to give him the ritual washing; no sermon should be given at his funeral, and in no way may he be buried in an Islamic cemetery. Furthermore, the ‘Ulema called on Rachid Bou Jadra to repent and return to the fold of Islam.’

Bou Jadra’s public declaration on the television screen precipitated a good deal of discussions on the social media. Specifically shocking was his renouncing of faith in Allah and his Messenger. ‘Had he not become an atheist,’ he declared, ‘he would have embraced Buddhism as his religion.’

“Comments on Bou Jadra’s statements varied. Some Algerian activists hurled their curses on him; others opined that the Algerian Authorities were the real beneficiaries from this controversy, since it diverted the attention of Algerians from the severe political, economic, and social problems that plague them!

“The Interviewer, Ms. Madiha ‘Alalou asked him: ‘Do you believe in Allah?’ He answered, ‘No! ‘Do you accept Islam as your religion?’ He said, No! ‘Do you believe that Muhammad was a Prophet? ‘No, he said, ‘I consider him as a revolutionary man.’”

“Several viewers were puzzled by Bou Jadra’s claim that many Algerians had actually embraced atheism, but are reluctant to make that public.

“The playwright was born in 1941; he writes both in Arabic and in French, and is considered one of the most prominent authors in Algeria. He studied in Tunisia, before going to France where he majored in philosophy at the Sorbonne, in Paris. He serves as General Secretary of the Human Rights Organization, and as General Secretary of the Union of Algerian Writers. He has lectured at well-known Western Universities, and has received literary prizes from Spain, Germany, and Italy.”


For some time, Arabic-language media have been reporting on the necessity of reform, especially the need for the adoption of an “Enlightened Hermeneutics” of the Qur’an as a pre-requisite for warding off the spread of atheism among the rising generation. I have already referred to the subject in several articles that were posted on this website.

What’s worth noticing is the rapid growth of the number of Arab youth who are opting for Ilhad; and who advertise their new “faith” on the social media. Prior to the Internet era, I remember reading one major book, authored by the Syrian intellectual, Jalal Sadeq al-Adhm who manifested his Ilhad in his “A Critique of Religious Thought” published in Beirut, Lebanon, in the late 1960s. As a confirmed Marxist, he attacked all theistic faiths, including Islam!

The 21st century ushered in Globalization, precipitating the disappearance of intellectual frontiers, and the rapid spread of ideologies that challenge old beliefs. Most shocking was the declaration of the well-known Rachid Bou Jadra of his Ilhad on TV.


In the same, Elaph, posted links to related topics such as, “Egypt suffers equally from Islamic radicalism as well as from Ilhad!”; “To Announce one’s Ilhad in Egypt would lead to prison.”

There was the story of “Karim el-Banna, an engineering student in Cairo, who was sentenced to a three-year prison term, for announcing his Ilhad on Facebook. Egyptian Law forbids criticism of the three ‘heavenly’ religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

Another report on Elaph highlighted the measures taken by the Saudi authorities to combat the spread of Ilhad among the young generation! Even in an ultra-conservative Saudi culture, some youth are getting “infected” with the “virus” of Ilhad!  “Saudi Arabia has launched a website to “immunize” the young generation against Ilhad whose propagandists attract unsuspecting youth via Facebook and Twitter. The website is known by the name of ‘Yaqeen’ (Conviction) where arguments defending Islamic beliefs are offered, and the fallacies of atheism are exposed.”

Responsible authorities in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been reflecting on the factors that may have contributed to the defection of some of their youth from Islam. A spokesman for the authoritative center of Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, blamed the rise of religious extremism as manifested in Irhab (terrorism), the ruthless and barbaric actions of Islamists such as beheadings, and the persecution and expulsions of religious and ethnic minorities from their homelands.”

Another report referred to a poll conducted by the Arabic Division of the BBC on Twitter. It dealt with the topic “The Reasons We Reject the Application of Shariah.” On the very first day, 5000 young people from Egypt and Saudi Arabia responded; they stated that “the Shariah was neither suitable, nor relevant to modern life!”

What becomes evident from these reports on Arabic-language sources is that the Arab world faces both the spread of violent movements such as ISIS, as well as the rise of unbelief among the youth. Western news media keep us well-informed about conflicts in the Middle East: the advances of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Yemeni Civil War now spilling into southern Saudi Arabia. But there is hardly any reporting on American or European media about the phenomenon of “The Rise and Spread of Ilhad in the Arab world.” Indeed, the plight of Raif Badawi has been well-covered, but his case is not unique; other Arab young men and women suffer on account of forsaking their Islamic faith. To make known their plight becomes the responsibility of the Western Press!


The publication and comments on this report must not be construed as my endorsement, or approval of any “flight” into atheism. My work during the last two decades has consisted of translating and commenting on themes and issues that appear on online reformist Arabic-language sources. The past century witnessed the most shocking and unimaginable atrocities committed by atheistic regimes in Nazi Germany, the USSR, People’s Republic of China, Cambodia, and North Korea; where millions of innocent men, women, and children were sacrificed on the altar of atheistic ideologies. Atheistic worldviews do not solve problems, but exacerbate them. It is my hope that the emergence of this crisis of faith among the youth of the Arab world, would act as an incentive for the ‘Ulema’ and the political leaders to consider seriously the subject of reform. They need to take measures that would lead to the spread of a tolerant spirit in society.