“Atheist Muslim” – Is that as meaningless as “meat-eating vegetarian”?


1419103506_Atheism_answer_5_xlargeAli A. Rizvi, the Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician, and musician who resides in Toronto, has been writing in the HuffPo once again. Not too long ago he wrote a great article about the term “Islamophobia” where he drew a clear line between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry: the first is fact-based criticism of bad ideas, and the second is a breach of basic human rights by discriminating against human beings because of their belief.

One is fine, the other is not. While many devoted believers might indeed take offence that cherished beliefs are facing criticism, that is not “Islamophobia”. However, discrimination against people on the sole basis that they just happen to hold a specific belief, even if it is obvious that the belief is not actually true, is not appropriate.

So anyway, what does a term such as “Atheist Muslim” actually mean, how can you be a Muslim, and yet not believe that Allah exists, is this even possible? Mr Rizvi is one and he explains it quite well …

… all religious people are selective in their religiosity. This cherry-picking is almost universal, and even inevitable considering the frequency with which contradictions appear in religious texts.

… So who decides how far the cherry-picking can go? If everyone cherry-picks, is it possible to do it all the way to non-belief status?

…So my first point is simply this: If the rest of you can cherry-pick, why can’t I?

The second aspect revolves around the question of whether Islam a culture or a religion.

For me, the answer is that Islam is a religion, but the experience of being Muslim, practicing or not, is much more nuanced and complex.

The line here is that “Islam” is the belief system, but the term “Muslim” is simply cultural.

It has been my experience with most believers that when you point out the reality … that a vast diversity of thought exists within belief system … then the most common response is, “Ah, but ‘they’ are not true believes, only ‘we’ are”.

  • Baptists look upon Catholics and say; “Ah, but they are not true Christians”
  • Sunni Muslims look upon the ahmadiyya and say; “Ah, but they are not true Muslims”

So when faced with the term, “Atheist Muslim”, one rather common response will be, “But the word ‘Muslim’ means somebody who submits to Allah, therefore an ‘atheist Muslim’ is not a true Muslim”. If indeed you define the word as understood by one narrow view, then sure, that might be true, but who exactly are the dictionary police, who gets to define what a word means. As commonly used, because that same word can also refer to a specific culture.

Mr Rizvi explains this quite well …

…some elements of Muslim culture are universal.

The festival of Eid is celebrated across all Muslim societies. The celebratory iftar (fast-breaking) feasts of Ramadan are common to all Muslims. These rituals are among several that I enjoy immensely as someone raised in a Muslim family and society.

As a songwriter, the rich musicality and poetry of the nohas recited and sung at Shia Muslim mourning rituals, with a light beating of the chest providing the rhythm, have had a strong influence on my own music. Like many singers attribute their musical education to singing in church growing up, I learned singing and music from my upbringing in a Shiite Muslim household.

Richard Dawkins has referred to himself as a “cultural Christian”, with an admitted fondness for Christianity-inspired art, literature and Christmas carols. “I’m not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history,” he once told the BBC.

This is probably why he hit the nail on the head when he described me as a “cultural Muslim with no imaginary friend.” He understood that this is precisely what I meant when I called myself an “atheist Muslim.”

Some may reply, “hang on a moment, just because one single chap uses the term “Atheist Muslim” does not necessarily imply it is real”. True indeed, but he is not alone, there are many Muslims who are not actually religious, as many as 1 in every 4

… I am not the only one who identifies this way. Another atheist Muslim blogger who writes under the name “Re-Enlightenment” also makes the case by drawing a comparison with Christians

… “Certainly it’s not perfect,” writes Saif Rahman, another fellow secular Muslim who has posted a thought-provoking piece explaining what it means to be a “cultural” Muslim.

In the end, the key point is not the labels we adhere to, but the reality of the belief itself and how the bad ideas within it are embraced by some…

Let us be clear why Christianity and Judaism, in the twenty-first century, generally lend themselves to a pick-and-mix treatment: it’s because they have more or less been wrenched through a two-part grinder called ‘Secularism and the Enlightenment’. That metaphor might be a violent one but what has emerged from the other end of the machine is far more peaceful and humane than what was fed in: religions which can be picked apart, consumed and discarded as an individual human sees fit.

And that is what is required of Islam, urgently.

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