Apostates of Islam II: Converts to Hinduism, Humanism, Deism, Atheism, and Agnosticism


There is a certain amount of anecdotal evidence that many Muslims in India are reverting to the religion of their ancestors, Hinduism. More scientific evidence comes from the work of the Australian anthropologist Dr. Thomas Reuter, of the University of Melbourne, who conducted ethnographic fieldwork among the indigenous people of highland Bali, Indonesia.' Reuter's research into Hindu revivalism and religious conflict in Javanese society has shown that Hinduism has been reclaiming parts of the Indonesia archipelago it once dominated for a millennium: "Even Java, the island at the heart of what is now the world's largest Muslim nation, is witnessing mass conversions from Islam to Hinduism. Expectations of a new golden age among followers of this revival movement are an expression of utopian prophesies and political hopes more widely shared among contemporary Indonesians."2

Though the number of conversions in Java are hard to quantify, according to Reuter's own estimates there have been tens of thousands over the last twenty years, more in some years than others.- There is also a return to Hinduism in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Sumatra. Up to now there has been no systematic persecution of the Hindus, but unfortunately the signs are that the situation is changing for the worse.


In L'Islam en Questions, published in France in 1986, twenty-four Arab writers replied to the following five questions:

(1) Does Islam retain its universal vocation?

(2) Could Islam be a system of government for a modern state?

(3) Is an Islamic system of government an obligatory step in the evolution of the Islamic and Arab peoples?

(4) Is the phenomenon of the "return to Islam" that is observable in the last ten years in the majority of Muslim countries something positive?

(5) What is today the principal enemy of Islam?

It is clear from their replies that a majority of these Arab intellectuals do not see Islam as the answer to the social, economic, and political problems besetting the Islamic world. The majority are the fervent advocates of a secular state. Nine writers give an emphatic and categoric "no" to the question 2, "Could Islam be a system of government for a modern state?" while another six are equally emphatically for a secular state. Even those writers who give "yes" as an answer to question 2 do so in a very tentative way, hedged with qualifications such as "provided rights are respected" or "as long as we have a modern interpretation of Islam." Almost all of them find the "return to Islam" a negative phenomenon and consider religious fanaticism as the greatest danger facing all Muslims.4

One of the writers in the book is Rachid Boudjedra, a novelist, playwright, essayist, communist, and self-confessed atheist. He is scathing about religion in Algeria-the hypocrisy of the majority (80 percent is his figure) of the "believers" who pray or pretend to pray only in the month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting; who go on pilgrimage for the social prestige; who drink and fornicate and still claim to be good Muslims. As to the question, Could Islam be a system of government for a modern state? Boudjedra unequivocally replies:

No, absolutely not, it's impossible; that is not just a personal opinion, it's something objective. We saw that when Nemeiri [head of the Sudan] wanted to apply the Sharia: it didn't work. The experiment ended abruptly after some hands and feet were chopped off.... There is a reaction even amongst the mass of Muslims against this sort of thing-stoning women, for example, is hardly carried out, except in Saudi Arabia, and extremely rarely.... Islam is absolutely incompatible with a modem state.... No, I don't see how Islam could be a system of government.'

It is generally not known that Boudjedra has had afatwa pronounced against him since 1983 and that he remains in Algeria despite death threats, trying to carry on as normally as possible, moving from place to place heavily disguised. To compound his "errors," in 1992 Boudjedra wrote a ferocious attack on the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), the Islamicist party that was all set to win the elections in 1992, exposing it for what it is: an extremist undemocratic party, even comparing it to the Nazi party of the 1930s. Boudjedra has nothing but contempt for those who remain silent and those who are not only uncritical of the Islamicists, but who pretend to see something "fertile" in this regression to medieval times.

The number of atheists in Algeria, I suspect, is high, but for obvious reasons we do not have reliable statistics. We do have them for young men of Algerian descent living in France. They make for very startling reading. In 1995 the French daily Liberation conducted a thorough survey. Here are some of its findings:

Thirty percent of those men born in France and both of whose parents were born in Algeria declared themselves to be without any religion. This percentage is higher than the national average; 27 percent of all Frenchmen describe themselves as without any religion. Sixty percent of those men born in France with only one parent born in Algeria declared themselves to be without religion, more than double the national average! The figures for women remain almost unchanged: 30 percent women born in France and both of whose parents were born in Algeria said they were without religion. This percentage is even higher than the national average: 20 percent of all Frenchwomen say they are without religion. Fifty-eight percent of women with one parent born in Algeria said they were without any religion, almost three times the national average'



In 1933 a student of Cambridge University organized a dinner at London's Waldorf Hotel. The menu included oysters and good wine. Out of this convivial and certainly un-Islamic setting was born the idea of Pakistan, a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. There is further irony in that the man revered in present-day Pakistan as the Great Leader and founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an atheist. Religion never played an important role in Jinnah's private life' and, according to one historian, had Jinnah been alive today "he would have to be flogged publicly for his personal habits. Mr Jinnah not only chained-smoked Craven-A cigarettes but also liked his whisky and was not averse to pork."' At a press conference on July 4, 1947, a journalist asked Jinnah if Pakistan would be a religious state. Jinnah replied, "You are asking a question that is absurd. I do not know what a theocratic state means."9 Then, on August 11, the day he was elected president of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, Jinnah gave a moving speech that included the following sentiments: "We are starting the state with no discrimination ... we should keep that in front of us as our ideal, and you will find that in course of time Hindus will cease to be Hindus and Muslims will cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as the citizens of the nation."10

Far from being a theocratic state, with over 135 million Muslim fundamentalists, Pakistan has a large, liberal, secular-minded middle class, in whose lives religion does not play an important part. Here is how one British journalist and novelist of Pakistani origin described the social milieu in Lahore (Pakistan), where he grew up:

I never believed in God, not even between the ages of six and ten, when I was an agnostic. This unbelief was instinctive. I was sure there was nothing else out there but space. It could have been my lack of imagination. In the jasminescented summer nights, long before mosques were allowed to use loudspeakers, it was enough to savour the silence, look up at the exquisitely lit sky, count the shooting stars and fall asleep. The early morning call of the muezzin was a pleasant alarm-clock.

There were many advantages in being an unbeliever. Threatened with divine sanctions by family retainers, cousins or elderly relatives-"If you do that Allah will be angry" or "If you don't do this Allah will punish you"-I was unmoved. Let him do his worst, I used to tell myself, but he never did, and that reinforced my belief in his non-existence.

My parents, too, were non-believers. So were most of their close friends. Religion played a tiny part in our Lahore household. In the second half of the last century, a large proportion of educated Muslims had embraced modernity. Old habits persisted, nonetheless: the would-be virtuous made their ablutions and sloped off to Friday prayers. Some fasted for a few days each year, usually just before the new moon marking the end of Ramadan. I doubt whether more than a quarter of the population in the cities fasted for a whole month. Cafe life continued unabated. Many claimed that they had fasted so as to take advantage of the free food doled out at the end of each fasting day by the mosques or the kitchens of the wealthy. In the countryside fewer still fasted, since outdoor work was difficult without sustenance, and especially without water when Ramadan fell during the summer months. Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, was celebrated by everyone."


I suspect Iran is also a country where the majority of the population is totally disillusioned with Islam. In chapter 6 I adumbrated the freethinking tradition in Iranian culture. There is enough evidence to suggest that this tradition is alive and well in the twenty-first century. I have given talks to large groups of agnostic and anti-Islamic Iranians in Washington, D.C.; Paris; and Los Angeles in the last five years. Further anecdotal evidence comes from Dr. Ali Sina, the Iranian-born former Muslim who runs the Web site for Faith Freedom International.''- An Iranian scholar once wrote to Sina saying that a census carried out in the 1980s among Iranian exiles in the Netherlands showed that 50 percent declared themselves agnostics or atheists. Indeed, one has only to visit a few Iranian Web sites to verify that a comfortable majority are anti-Islamic.' Many are communist,' as is the following writer found on the Web:

A mainstay of cultural backwardness and sexist in Iranian society is Islam. If we want to fight sexist we have to lock up Islam. We have to launch a massive antireligious and secularist campaign; something that began somewhat with the Constitutional Revolution. The cultural and ideological barrier in Iranian society to women's liberation is Easternism and Islam. The struggle against both requires in the first step a powerful struggle against the Islamic Republic, which is the main protector of this culture and ideology.

But things have changed-sadly, though, at the cost of the blood of hundreds of thousands of people, the destruction of the lives of millions, and the displacement of millions. Never before has the movement for secularism and atheism, for modern thought and culture, for free relationships, for women's liberation, been so massive. Things have changed. Hatred of religion and backward and Easternist culture is very widespread. The youth and women in Iran are the champions of this struggle; a growing struggle that has already shaken the ground under the feet of the Islamic system.

As advocates of freedom and equality, as defenders of equal rights for women, we have to settle accounts with Eastemism and religion. Only a secular system that ensures unconditional freedom of expression and organisation can also ensure triumph over sexist culture. In the 21st century it is high time that women were free and equal, decided their own fate, had their own independent identity, enjoyed sexual freedom and, in one word, had full and independent status. Today worker-communism is a force that is unequivocally fighting Islam and backwardness, for women's full equality and liberation.15

Salaheddin Mohsen

On June 18, 2000, an Egyptian writer on trial for atheism and blasphemy against Islam rooted his defense in the right to free speech. "I have an opinion and I expressed my opinion in these books," Salaheddin Mohsen, in detention since April 2000, told a state security court when his trial opened. Prosecutors put him on trial after he admitted under questioning in 2000 that he did not believe in Islam and sought to promote secular thought in four recent books. Mohsen "is sick in the heart and an example of atheism," prosecuting lawyer Ashraf al- Ashmawi told the court. "He mocked Islam and its rites and duties and was proud of his insolence against religion under the slogan of enlightenment and freedom of creativity." Mohsen "claimed that Islam is the reason for the nation's backwardness, that Muhammad is not a prophet but wrote the Koran and that the Koran is full of strife and contradictions," Ashmawi said. Mohsen is charged with "using religion to promote, by writing, extremist ideas to denigrate the Islamic religion, provoke and damage national unity." Mohsen, age fifty-two, promoted rationalism in four books and tried to establish an atheist organization in Egypt.

The court found him guilty in August 2000. Explaining that it did not want to turn him a hero, the court then gave him a suspended sentence of six months' imprisonment. The court's decision was appealed by the prosecution to the office for the ratification of court sentences, which is attached to the presidency. Following abrogation of the sentence and an order for retrial, Salaheddin faced a second trial and has now been given three years' hard labor for "deriding religion."16


In April 1967, just before the Six Day War, an issue of the Syrian army magazine Jayash al-Shah [The People's Army] contained an article attacking not just Islam but God and religion in general as "mummies which should be transferred to the museums of historical remains." It is worth quoting at length.

The author argued that the only way to build Arab society and civilization was to create

a new Arab socialist man, who believes that God, religions, feudalism, capital, and all the values which prevailed in the pre-existing society were no more than mummies in the museums of history.... There is only one value: absolute faith in the new man of destiny ... who relies only on himself and on his own contribution to humanity ... because he knows that his inescapable end is death and nothing beyond death ... no heaven and no hell.... We have no need of men who kneel and beg for grace and pity. 17

Mobs took to the streets in many of the major cities of Syria leading to violence, strikes, and arrests. When the old ruse of blaming everything on a ZionistAmerican conspiracy failed to quell the violence, the article's author, Ibrahim Khalas, and two of his editors on the magazine were court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. Happily, they were released after a short period in prison.

In 1969, after the disatrous defeat of the Arabs by Israel in 1967, a Syrian Marxist intellectual produced a brilliant critique of religious thought. Sadiq alAzm was educated at the American University of Beirut, received his doctorate in philosophy from Yale University, and has published a study of the British philoso pher Bishop Berkeley. His devastating criticisms of Islam and religion were not appreciated by the Sunni establishment in Beirut, and he was brought to trial on charges of provoking religious troubles. He was acquitted, perhaps because of his political connections since he came from a distinguished Syrian political family. Nonetheless, al-Azm thought it prudent to live abroad for a while.

Sadiq al-Azm takes to task the Arab leaders for not developing the critical faculties in their people, and for their own uncritical attitude toward Islam and its outmoded ways of thought. Arab reactionaries used religious thought as an ideological weapon, yet no one submitted their thought to

a critical, scientific analysis to reveal the forgeries they employ to exploit the Arab man.... [The leaders refrained from any criticism of the Arab intellectual and social heritage.... Under the cover of protecting the people's traditions, values, art, religion, and morals, the cultural effort of the Arab liberation movement was used to protect the backward institutions and the medieval culture and thought of obscurantist ideology.)8

Every Muslim has to face the challenge of the scientific developments of the last 150 years. Scientific knowledge is in direct conflict with Muslim religious beliefs on a number of issues. But, more fundamentally, it is a question of methodology-Islam relies on blind faith and the uncritical acceptance of texts on which it is based; whereas science depends on critical thought, observation, deduction, and results that are internally coherent and correspond to reality. We can no longer leave religious thought uncriticized; all the sacred texts must be scrutinized in a scientific manner. Only then will we stop gazing back and only then will religion stop being an obscurantist justification for the intellectual and political status quo.


1. Thomas Reuter, "Great Expectations: Hindu Revival Movements in Java," Australian Journal of Anthropology 12, no. 3 (2001): 327-338.

2. See Dr. Reuter's Web page on the University of Melbourne Web site: www. geography. uni melb.edu.au/staft/reuter.htm1.

3. Personal communication with Thomas Reuter, March 4, 2002.

4. Luc Barbulesco and Philippe Cardinale, L'Islarn en questions (Paris: Grasset, 1986).

5. Ibid., pp. 213-14.

6. Immigration Supplement, La Liberation, Paris, March 22, 1995, p. 5.

7. Stanley Wolpert, Jinnah of Pakistan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 18.

8. M. J. Akbar, India: The Siege Within (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1985), p. 32.

9. Ibid., p. 34.

10. Ibid.

11. Tariq Ali, "Mullahs and Heretics," London Review of Books 24, no. 3, February 7, 2002.

12. Online at www.faithfreedom.org.

13. A few examples are: www.geocities.com/hammihaniarani and www.geocities. com/frydon47/mazdak.html.

14. For example, the Worker-Communist Party of Iran, online at www.wpiran.org/ english.htm.

15. Azar Majedi, "Future Is Ours" [online], www.medusa2000.com/azaspeech.htm.

16. Fatemah Farag, "Re-drawing the Line," Al-Ahram [online], August 3-9, 2000, weekly. ahram. org.eg/2000/493/eg9.htm.

17. Quoted in B. Lewis, Islam in History (Chicago: Open Court, 1993), p. 5.

18. Sadiq al-Azm's book is important and deserves to be better known, but as far as I know it remains untranslated from the original Arabic. More recently, Sadiq al-Azm has very courageously defended Salman Rushdie in an article in Die Welt des Islams 31 (1991): 1-49. See Sadiq al-Azm, Critique of Religious Thought (Damascus, 1969).

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