The Journey of a Saudi Intellectual
My interest in the lives of Muslim reformers began in my student days, when I took a course in Arabic on “The History of the Arab-Islamic Civilization.” It grew after my Arabic-language radio ministry began in 1958, as I needed to remain abreast of the reform movements in the Arab world. That led me to acquire more books dealing with the subject of “Reformation” and “Renewal” in Islam.
Not long after the Islamic Caliphate moved from Syria to Iraq in 750 A.D, the Mu’tazilites1 appeared on the scene. They may be considered as the first reformers in Islam. They lived predominantly in Baghdad and Basra during the early years of the Abbasid Caliphate. Major concepts like “Predestination and Free Will,” “The Attributes of God” and the “Nature of the Qur’anic Revelation” were being scrutinized by Islamic philosophers at the time. The Mu’tazilites were noteworthy for bringing Greek philosophical thought into these discussions. Initially some Abbasid caliphs even supported Mu’tazilites’ attempts to correct the teachings of Imam Hanbal, which they claimed were antithetical to the strict monotheism of Islam.
Unfortunately for the Mu’tazilites, their movement remained within the confines of elite intellectual circles, and eventually, Imam Hanbal’s views triumphed and became the standard Islamic orthodoxy, especially with respect to the doctrine of the “Uncreatedness of the Qur’an.” Around two hundred years later, Imam al-Ghazzali (d. 1111 A.D.) is credited with “closing the door of Ijtihad,” which brought an end to the theological discussions among Muslim scholars. The door remained closed for several centuries, during which juridical and theological subjects were reduced to numbingly repetitious writings of the themes and positions of traditional Sunni Islam.
Napoleon’s expedition into Egypt in the early 1800s, and the subsequent British involvement in the affairs of the country, stimulated Arab intellectuals to seriously reflect on the progress that had been taking place in Europe, in contrast with their own Islamic world, which was in a state of “Inhitat” (stagnation and decline). Early reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and his disciple Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) were among the pioneers attempting to reform Islam.
In the 20th century, Taha Hussein was a leading reformer. In spite of being afflicted with blindness, he was able to secure higher education degrees at al-Azhar University in Cairo, and also in France. His critical work on pre-Islamic Arabic literature brought him into conflict with the religious authorities in Egypt who saw his work as a threat to the integrity of the Qur’an.
In more recent years, Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud has become a powerful reformer of Arab-Islamic culture. He has authored several books dealing with Tajdeed (Renewal) and Tahdeeth (Modernization) of the Arab-Muslim mind.
A more radical genre of Muslim writings also began to appear attacking the very idea of a theistic faith. Men like Jalal Sadeq al-Adhm, influenced by radical Western thought, authored “Naqd al-Fikr al-Deeni” (A Critique of Religious Thought). It was like a bombshell, and brought him into conflict with both religious and governmental circles in Lebanon during the 1960s.
During the 1990s, would-be reformers and critics of Islam began using the Internet to propagate their ideas. On websites such as, www.kwtanweer.com, www.alawan.org and www.aafaq.org both reformers and apostates defended their thoughts with vigor and passion. For example, in 2008, kwtanweer published two articles by a lady journalist from Kuwait that dealt with the topic of “Why Do Our Young People Become Apostates?”
With that very limited historical background as an introduction, I refer to an article that appeared on 17 March, 2010, in kwtanweer entitled “From Faith to Unbelief.” It relates the journey of a Saudi intellectual from Islam to unbelief. Here are excerpts, followed by my analysis and comments.
“How wonderful it would be, to have men like Abdallah al-Quseimi! At first, he was noted for his defence of Islam, its beliefs and practices. On the other hand, he also wrote in defence of those who have chosen unbelief, thus demonstrating his firm attachment to freedom of religion!
In one of his books, al-Quseimi wrote: ‘Ours is a scary and backward society. You are afraid lest someone charges you with unbelief; or you may become the source of fear, should you point to other men and say that they have embraced unbelief. Our society grants any hypocrite, ignorant or stupid person, the freedom to accuse others as having departed from the right path!’
“Al-Quseimi did not change his skin the way snakes do theirs, as some religious leaders have charged, when he forsook his Islamic faith and adopted Ilhad (unbelief). In fact, his journey from faith to unbelief was a long one; several ‘traffic’ signs appeared on the road warning him of difficult and tortuous curves lying ahead. However, he persisted in his journey, and managed to finish it peacefully and resolutely.
“Al-Quseimi’s journey has baffled many Muslim scholars who tried to find a cause for his radda (apostasy). Some claimed it was due to the influence of the devil that targets human beings, and especially Muslim religious scholars. Others attributed his fall to the reading of too many philosophical works! Still others were content to pray for his re-conversion, hoping it would take place before his death. He died in 1996, without having returned to Islam!
“What surprised many critics was the fact that when he crossed from the side of faith to the other side, he was not going through any radical personal crisis. Al-Quseimi passed away confirmed in his Ilhad. Many people hoped they would find some document he may have left behind, indicating his repentance at the eleventh hour! Sad to say, nothing of the sort was discovered. On the contrary, several people in his own country (Saudi Arabia) now respect his decision to apostatize!
“One wonders whether the events of 9/11 might have contributed to a revival of interest in
Al-Quseimi’s life! A daily newspaper, al-Riyadh has begun publishing a series of articles by Saudi intellectuals about this ‘apostate.’ In the first article, he was praised for his noble character, as a person who preferred to be called a ‘zindeeq’ (heretic), keeping company with free-thinking intellectuals, rather than to live as a hypocrite, among the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia. The article added, ‘After his passing, very few newspapers published the news of his death. Now however, his stature is growing; he is being regarded as a modern intellectual on par with some of the well-known Western intellectuals.’
“Before al-Quseimi’s Ilhad, he had contributed several works in defence of orthodox Islam. He was well-known for responding to critics of the faith. One of his books dealt with ‘the Wahhabi Revolution;’ another dealt with ‘the Struggle between Islam and Paganism.’ He had finished the first two volumes of this magnum opus, with the promise of a third and final volume to follow. However, that was not to take place, since his journey on the path of faith stopped, being replaced by his journey on the new path of Ilhad!
“How did al-Quseimi change from being a man of religion (Rajol deen) into becoming a propagandist (Da’iya) for Ilhad? Some have attempted to give a convincing answer. They couldn’t find anything in his gentle personality that would explain the change from obeying to disobeying al-Haq (the Truth) of the Islamic revelation. Neither could they find any external factors that might have played a decisive role in his apostasy. On the other hand, no one has sought to look for a convincing answer by investigating al-Quseimi’s internal religious experience, as if unbelief occurs due to simply external factors. This is a serious error resulting from a misunderstanding of the spirit and essence of Islam.
“We cannot understand the gradual and quiet change that took place in al-Quseimi’s life, unless we subscribe to the proposition that Islam itself facilitates the transition from religion to unbelief, more so even than most other religions do. [Emphasis mine]
“The essence of the religious works of al-Quseimi, including the unpublished Volume III, ‘the Struggle between Islam and Paganism,’ revolved around Islam’s rebellion against all attempts to posit a likeness or similarity between the Creator and his creatures, as well as all aspects of love, and immanence. In other words, this Islamic penchant for negativity manifests itself in the very first word of the Shahadah: “La2 According to the French intellectual Jacques Attali3, this transforms Islam into the most abstract of religions, thus facilitating its faith to turn into Ilhad!
“Indeed, Islam possesses a unique impulse that makes it the most likely religion to cause unbelief. For several other religions contain the promise of an eschatological salvation at the end of time, as in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. However, in Islam, there is no place or room for a Savior, or for salvation (except in Shi’ite Islam). In lieu of salvation, there is the contrary principle of annihilation, al-Fana’. It is this very principle that led Ibn Jahm4, long ago to the extreme position that in the End, both Heaven and Hell will be annihilated!
“The centrality of annihilationism in Islamic thought over against the centrality of salvation in most other religions is the point of weakness in Islam. However, it could become its point of strength, if Islam became an open religion, open to the possibility of being liberated from the illusion of immortality, and the delusion of an eternal existence, which is the source of all delusions!”
Al-Quseimi’s apostasy, according to the author of the article, was probably due to certain Islamic doctrines that referred to God in a totally negative way. In contrast with the Christian doctrine of the transcendence and immanence of God, Islam simply asserts and teaches that man can know the will of God, but cannot know Him as a Person. In fact, the Arabic word for person is shakhs, but it may not be used in reference to God, because it connotes a finite and fallible human being!
The way the author of the article summed up the probable reason for al-Quseimi’s defection from the faith he first set out to defend, indicates that he has grasped a very important and fundamental weakness in Islamic theology and anthropology. As he put it, “Islam’s rebellion against all attempts to posit a likeness or similarity between the Creator and the creatures, as well as all aspects of love, and immanence, transforms Islam into the most abstract of religions, thus facilitating its faith to turn into Ilhad!” In Islam, God remains the unknown Supreme Being. He is and remains, bila tashbeeh, (he cannot be similar to, or likened, to anyone). Search as you might in the Suras of the Qur’an, you will find nothing that approximates these words of Genesis 1:26a “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…’ or of Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (NIV)
Added to the traditional Islamic doctrine of God as the “Wholly Other” is the absence of the hope of salvation. The article correctly pointed out that “Islam possesses a unique impulse that makes it the most likely religion to cause unbelief. For several other religions contain the promise of an eschatological salvation, as in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. However, in Islam, there is no place or room for a Savior, or for salvation (except in Shi’ite Islam).” A Muslim, having confessed the “Shahadah,” is left with many duties to perform, and evil acts to avoid, in order to enter Paradise.
The discussion about al-Quseimi’s apostasy rightly pointed to a serious deficiency in Islamic theology, thus allowing the Christian missionary to offer, in contrast, the Biblical doctrine of God, as a heavenly Father who sent the Messiah on a mission of redemption. It is sad that the author ended his essay by manifesting a strong criticism not only of Islam, but of all theistic religions; and he looked forward “to the possibility of being liberated from the illusion of immortality, and the delusion of an eternal existence, which is the source of all delusions!”
His preference for a type of nirvana, i.e. the end of all individual and personal existence, is indeed a shocking dénouement of an otherwise very instructive article that attempted to explain the radda of a well-known Saudi intellectual whose journey began in complete faith, but ended in total unbelief!
For too long, perhaps since the publishing of “Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions” by Eugene A. Nida (Harper & Brothers, 1954), missionary theory has been dominated by the discipline of cultural anthropology, rather than by Christian theology. In “Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture,” edited by John R. Stott and Robert Coote, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1980, the editors wrote:
“Although different answers are given to these questions, they are basically cultural. The major challenge to the world-wide Christian mission today is whether we are willing to pay the cost of following in the footsteps of our incarnate Lord in order to contextualize the Gospel. Our failure of communication is a failure of contextualization. (P. viii)”
These words constitute an inaccurate assessment for the lack of “results” in missions among Muslims. Stott and Coote did not consider the formidable difficulties encountered when presenting the Gospel to Muslims. Neither did they focus on the inadequacy of the Islamic doctrine of God, as a way for presenting the Christian view of God, as both Creator and Redeemer.
This explains why I was very pleased with an article that was posted on a Kuwaiti reformist website about a Saudi intellectual’s defection from Islam. It pointed to those inherent deficiencies in the Islamic doctrine of God, as well as to the lack of a hope of salvation, as a possible motif for al-Quseimi's “Ilhad” (unbelief).
Missiologists should pay more attention to the critique of Islam by Muslims and ex-Muslims, now that it has become rather widespread and can be easily accessed, thanks to the Internet. It would facilitate the “re-theologizing of missiology” and the emergence of a Biblical theology of missions, and a renewed emphasis on the unique role of the Holy Spirit in conversions.
The website of kwtanweer has stopped functioning; no reason was given. Perhaps the Kuwaiti authorities did not appreciate its postings!
Abdullah al-Quseimi (1907, January 9, 1996) (Arabic: عبدالله القصيمي) was a 20th-century writer and intellectual. He is one of the most controversial intellectuals in the Arab world because of his radical change from defending Salafism to defending atheism, and for his sceptical and secular writings. He denied the existence of God and criticized Islam, and his books were banned all over the Arab world. After surviving assassination attempts in Egypt and Lebanon, he died of cancer in Ain-Shams Hospital in Cairo, Egypt on September 1, 1996
1 “[The Mu’tazilites’] outstanding service to Islamic thought was the assimilation of a large number of Greek ideas and methods of arguments … The Greek ideas thus introduced by the Mu’tazilites came to dominate one great wing of Islamic theology, namely, rational or philosophical theology. Since the Mu’tazilites were regarded as heretics, however, by the Sunnites, their ideas and doctrines could not simply be taken over, but exercised an influence indirectly.”
The Formative Period of Islamic Thought by W. Montgomery Watt. Edinburgh University Press, 1973,
pp. 249, 250)
2 The Islamic creed: “La Ilaha illa’l Allah, Muhammad Rasool Allah. No God but Allah, Muhammad is Apostle of Allah”
3 Jacques Attali, Le Sens des Choses, Robert Laffont, Paris 2009, p. 36. Jacques Attali was born in 1943 in Algiers, Algeria. He is a French economist and scholar. From 1981 to 1991, he was an advisor to President François Mitterrand.
4 Ibn Jahm was born in Kufah, Iraq. He was the first major propagator of the Createdness of the Qur'ān. He believed that the Speech of God is created, since all attributes that are ascribed to God and which are shared by the creation, are created too. There can be no sharing in name or attribute, according to Ibn Jahm, for that would necessitate assimilation, al-Tashbeeh. He therefore denied each and every attribute mentioned in the scriptures, for fear of anthropomorphism. The only attributes he accepted and described God with were two: creating and power. He based his theology upon the early Greek philosophers.