Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

From Defender of the Faith
To Defector from the Faith

من الاعتقاد إلى الإلحاد

By Jacob Thomas in Collaboration with June Engdahl

Abdallah al-Quseimi

In mid-March, 2010, an article appeared in the online Arabic-language website, kwtanweer entitled “From Defender of the Faith to Defector from the Faith.” It was written by a Sa’eed Nasheed, a reformist Moroccan intellectual, who discussed how a well-known Saudi scholar named Abdallah al-Quseimi came to be an unbeliever. While most people in the secular-drenched West would generally give little attention to a discussion about a fall from belief to apostasy by a Muslim intellectual, others might actually be intrigued. Believers from other religious traditions know the seriousness of apostasy in any religion and, therefore, a Muslim apostate’s story is of considerable interest. This is especially so when the apostate hails from Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law and intolerance toward all other faiths, as well as outright apostasy, reign supreme. 

One wonders whether al-Quseimi actually resided in Saudi Arabia while his flight from Islamic faith to utter apostasy was progressing.  The chronicler doesn’t report that he suffered any persecution from fellow Muslim scholars for expressing his heterodox opinions. You can almost see them musing over their teacups calmly digressing on the pros and cons, and the false and true, in their religion in a very academic manner. But could that be possible in Saudi Arabia?  Internet resources indicate al-Quseimi experienced two assassination attempts on his life, one in Egypt and the other in Lebanon. On 12 December 1995, he was admitted to “Palestine” hospital in Heliopolis, Cairo, and passed away on 19 January 1996. Rumors circulated after his death about his repentance, however, a close friend who was with him at the hospital, denied that claim calling it a “beautiful” lie! 

Rather than giving us excerpts from al-Quseimi’s writing, Sa’eed Nasheed was more interested in finding a rationale for his apostasy. And the snippets of information he has given us in this outline of the Saudi’s journey from faith to unbelief is worthy of our attention and reflection. 

Here then is the story, in translation from the Arabic:

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!’

This man [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 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 his Ilhad that took place during the middle of the twentieth century, al-Quseimi had already enriched the religious library with several books defending orthodox Islam, and the writings of the early Muslims known as ‘the righteous salaf.’ He took upon himself to respond vigorously to Muslim heretics and sectarians. Among these works were, “the Wahhabi Revolution,” and “the Light of Nejd, Chasing the Darkness of the Dajawiyyah.” (Reference is to the Wahhabi movement that arose in Nejd, the heartland of the Arabian Peninsula.) 

Finally, when he published the first two volumes of his magnum opus, “The Struggle between Islam and Paganism,” it was expected that the third and final volume would soon follow. In fact, at the end of wrote: Here ends Volume II; Volume III will follow, inshallah.” However, that was not to take place, since his journey on the path of faith stopped, and was replaced by his journey on the new path of Ilhad as manifested in his thoughts, his behavior, and  his writings, causing many people a great deal of  perplexity about this radical turn in sirat al-Quseimi!

How did al-Quseimi change from being a man of religion (Rajol deen) to becoming a propagandist (Dai’ya) 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 by the translator]

The essence of the religious works of al-Quseimi, including the unpublished Volume III of ‘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: La.1 According to the French intellectual Jacques Attali2 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’. (Arabic Source; translation mine)

Sa’eed Nasheed’s attempt to explain al-Quseimi’s apostasy in light of his own understanding about Islam and its weaknesses has interesting facets.  He believes those who claim the apostasy was only the result of external forces (the devil or too much philosophy) are wrong.  Rather, it was important to understand al-Quseimi’s “internal religious experience.” And Nasheed claims he can interpret that experience through the study of al-Quseimi’s last work the Struggle between Islam and Paganism.” He boldly asserts that “Islam itself facilitates the transition from religion to unbelief…”   Its creed is too “abstract” and has no place for “a Savior, or for salvation.”

Islam is a religion of almost pure will, and absolute submission to Allah and the Prophet is required by all its adherents.  But when one thinks rationally about truth claims, in this instance between Islam and Christianity, why should anyone believe Muhammad’s claims to having direct communication from heaven, on his mere saying that he did?  Christianity, at least, has a firm foundation in historical fact for its truth claims, and many witnesses and documents to prove it.  If Muhammad could accept Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, how can the revelation he claims to have received from his Allah, be said to supersede Christianity when it has no comparable mighty acts and miracles? Why should Muhammad be considered a more authoritative prophet than Jesus? He did not rise from the dead as Jesus did.  No, the rise and spread of Islam occurred for other reasons and by other means.  

Nasheed says that al-Quseimi believed “that Islam had a penchant for negativity” which contributed to his apostasy...  He boldly asserts this is obvious in the very creed of Islam: La Ilaha illa’l Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah. No God but Allah, Muhammad is Apostle of Allah”. He traced the negativity to “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.” To him, then the Islamic creed is a simplistic reductionism of God to an abstraction of the ‘wholly other”. Islam simply asserts that man can know the will of God from Muhammad’s spurious revelation, the Qur’an, but cannot know him as a person, as Christians can in their theology. The Arabic word for person is shakhs, but may not be used in reference to God, because it connotes a finite and fallible human being! Allah 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 from the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1:26a “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…’”

Nasheed is cognizant of these conundrums when he concludes (as he thinks al-Quseimi does) 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 certain outward duties to perform, and evil acts to avoid, but this is mere vapid ritualism.

In 1972, al-Quseimi authored a major book of 429 pages with this provocative title: “Al-Insan Ya’sa… Lihatha Yasna’ al-Hadarat,” “Man Rebels … Therefore he Creates Civilizations.” It is not easy to read this book written in an unusual Arabic prose reminiscent of a genre used years ago, by the Lebanese-American writer, Gibran Khalil Gibran.3

To get a flavor of how Al-Quseimi wrote, here are two excerpts from that book:

Are prophets to be considered as teachers or as scholars? Are they actually prophets or followers? Are they leaders or just followers who managed to become leaders due to their ability to express themselves better than others? Are prophets men who instruct the common people in a logical fashion, or do they learn from them how to be illogical? Do prophets, religions and revealed books originate from nowhere, or are they the products of old ideas being simply repeated? Isn’t the prophet that person who addresses people’s sorrows, banalities, and dreams, having first heard them talking about these very subjects? If the prophet is a teacher of mankind, who is the one who had taught him? If his wisdom originates from the wisdom of ordinary people, then who had taught them first? Isn’t the one who teaches us how to pray and love, the same teacher who instructs us how to curse and hate? (Page 42 from the Arabic text)

Here are a few lines from page 75, where al-Quseimi directs his attention to the doctrine of God. The title of the chapter is: “They Lie, Those Who See the Beauty of God.”

Now when you say: the universe is beautiful or merciful, or friendly, or logical, or moral, are you not actually defending God and forgiving him? When you indulge in this kind of reasoning aren’t you like those children who describe their parents in a way that contradicts the truth? Lying is encountered everywhere: in religion, in sects, in education, and in morals. Isn’t lying one of the most intelligent inventions of man when he faces nature, himself, his lords, his prophets, and his bosses?

These cynical, effervescent words sound even more shocking in the original Arabic. One gets the feeling that somehow, perhaps quite early in his life al-Quseimi rebelled against everything in his Wahhabi-controlled environment. He was not able to offer as an alternative, a more humane form of Islam. His rebellion was total and absolute. I couldn’t help thinking while going through the torrents of criticisms directed not only against Islam, but against all religions, and all notions of the supernatural, that his mind was “bubbling” with revolt. The very title of his book implied that, “Man Rebels … Therefore he Creates Civilizations.” He promulgated a radical philosophical paradigm, similar to René Descartes’ “Je pense, donc, je suis.” (I think, therefore, I am.”)

This article caused quite a stir among the readers of the website. While some consigned the Saudi intellectual to hell, others affirmed their solidarity with him. They applauded his honesty. As one reader put it, “An Yakoona al-Mar’u Mulhidan Sadiqan, khairon min Mutadayyinen Munafiqen. It’s far better to be an honest apostate, than a hypocritical believer.”

It is good to see Muslims with questioning minds giving their religion a critical look.  Those who run websites that post such essays as the one here discussed, are certainly to be thanked for making these thoughts public. One can only hope that Western leaders and intellectuals would give attention to such criticisms, rather than viewing Islam through the “rose-colored glasses” of their politically correct notions that it is just another harmless, benign religion!



1 The Islamic creed:  La Ilaha illa’l Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah. No God but Allah, Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah.”

2 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.

3 Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) came to the United States as a young man. He studied art and began his literary career. He is chiefly known for his 1923 book, The Prophet, a series of philosophical essays written in English prose. The book sold well despite a cool critical reception, and became extremely popular in the 1960s; see Wikipedia.

Articles by Jacob Thomas
Answering Islam Home Page