A Syrian Muslim’s Retreat into Unbelief
On 21 June, 2005, the reformist Kuwaiti website kwtanweer posted the 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 him to become a Murtad (an apostate.)
Five years later, comments on the autobiographic testimony continued to appear, indicating the interest it had generated among the wide readership of kwtanweer. To be precise, by 26 October, 2010, 4,691 people had read Shehab’s “Confession of Unbelief.” It should be noted that most of the topics discussed on the kwtanweer website dealt with the modernization, renewal, and reform of Islam; seldom did they touch on the outright rejection of Islam.
Shehab, (which is his pseudonym) was born in Damascus, in 1971. One day, he hopes to disclose his true identity. Judging by my personal experience, having studied at a Syrian academy in the late 1940s, he might have finished his primary and secondary education around 1988.
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. He played a major role in the organization of “The Union of Arab Rationalists”. On 23 October, 2003, he created a website, www.ahewar.org, “Al-Hiwar al-Mutamadden,” (Civilized Dialogue.) Following are excerpts from his essay: “From Religion to No Religion”:
“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 all 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, 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 didn’t work. In fact my doubts remained embedded in some dark corners of my mind waiting for an appropriate moment to reappear with intensity and to confront me anew.
“One day, I decided to play 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 Law. 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, 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,’ http://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.”
Shehab’s account of his journey from belief to 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 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 portion of the inheritance half of a man’s share since 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?
When reflecting on the Qur’anic account of the fall of Iblees, he questioned why Allah would even create the Devil. Of additional concern was why Iblees refused the Lord’s ordering him to worship Adam. He is not alone in his concern. This topic had 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 Iblees. This got him into trouble with the Lebanese authorities, who imprisoned for one week, for his crime of “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. 1
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.
The account for the fall of Iblis (spelled also, Iblees) is found in the Second Chapter of the Qur’an:
Surat al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:34
And behold, We said to the angels: "Bow down to Adam" and they bowed down. Not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: He was of those who reject Faith.
A fuller account is found Surat Al-Ĥijr (Stoneland, Rock City) 15:28-35
Behold! Thy Lord said to the angels: "I am about to create man, from sounding clay from mud moulded into shape; When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him." 30. So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together:
Not so Iblis: he refused to be among those who prostrated themselves. ((Allah)) said: "O Iblis! What is your reason for not being among those who prostrated themselves?" (Iblis) said: "I am not one to prostrate myself to man, whom Thou didst create from sounding clay, from mud moulded into shape."
((Allah)) said: "Then get thee out from here; for thou art rejected, accursed. "And the curse shall be on thee till the Day of Judgment."
The website of kwtanweer has stopped functioning; no reason was given. Perhaps the Kuwaiti authorities did not appreciate its postings!
The URL for the Arabic text of “Why I am Non-Religious” is available on this website: