Most people probably do not know that Arab and Islamic history has its fair share of atheists and skeptics of Abrahamic religions. The official narrative was only concerned with documenting the history of Islamic civilization as a history of faith, while ignoring the skeptics at times, or defaming them at others. Consequently, the majority of their writings were either burned or disappeared.
In his book The History of Atheism in Islam, author Abdel Rahman Badawi has attempted to gather the stories and thoughts of atheists in Islamic history from different sources. Concerned neither with defending nor attacking these thinkers, the book attempts instead to document their existence as agents within this rich civilization. These were people who both affected and were affected by this civilization, having formed a movement within it that influenced even those who defended religion. These thinkers pushed clerics and public speakers to develop their discursive tools in order to suit modern science and philosophies, and be up to date with the spirit of the age. This was ultimately beneficial to these religious figures, and enriched the civilization.
The atheism to which Abdel Rahman Badawi refers is different from the prevalent definition of atheism: i.e. denying the existence of a deity. He distinguishes between the atheist movement as it exists in this part of the world from that which developed in the West, wherein Western atheist thinkers sought to undermine the central tenet upon which religiosity is built, which is the existence of a god. Conversely, Badawi postulates that Arab atheists sought to question and discredit the idea of prophethood, on the basis that religiosity in the East is primarily built on this principle.
So what was it that drove these thinkers to critique religions in general, to the point that they would not submit to a single one of the beliefs prevalent in this part of the world? And what were their objections to them? These are the most vital beliefs that they held, with no attempt to place judgment on their validity or lack thereof.
Perhaps the most renowned of these thinkers was Ibn al-Rawandi, who questioned prophethood, rejected the Abrahamic religions, and sharply criticized the Quran and the Sunnah. He is considered the most famous atheist in Islamic history, specifically because his ideas reached us through books in which the authors sought to refute these very ideas. We have dedicated an entire article to al-Rawandi here on Raseef22.
Ibn al-Muqaffa’ was not an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of god or the resurrection, and nearly everything that was attributed to him in this regard can be found in a single chapter of the renowned collection of tales Kalila wa Dimnah, which he translated himself from Farsi to Arabic. Much of the speculation around this particular chapter, known as “Borzuya, as translated by Ibn Khalkan,” contends that Ibn al-Muqaffa’ wrote this chapter himself and attributed it as part of the book in order to clandestinely put forth his skeptical thoughts towards religions.
It is said that the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mahdi (158 - 169 AH) claimed that there is no disbelief that cannot be traced to this chapter that was written by Ibn al-Muqaffa’. It is this same chapter that led to the accusation of Ibn al-Muqaffa of infidelity (or political intrigue), and then to the amputation of his limbs and the burning of his body parts in front of his eyes until he died.
In a segment of this chapter, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ tells the tale of Persian physician Borzuya’s journey with religions, wherein he begins with doubting the religion he has inherited from his parents, and so tries to find a replacement. He reaches the point of condemning all religious people who are born with their parents’ religion, without considering the veracity of their beliefs or its lack thereof. Above all, he condemned inter-religious disputes with each party claiming the truth of their beliefs. He insisted that there is no inherent reason to submit to one religion over another, concluding that it is sufficient to treat people well and withhold from harming anyone.
Abu Bakr Muhammad Bin Zakaria al-Razi
There is perhaps more room here to discuss al-Razi’s philosophy rather than reciting his achievements in medicine and physics. Among the most important of his philosophical works are On Divine Science and The Miracles of the Prophets. However, most of what we know about him came through the books of those who responded to his claims.
Al-Razi did not believe in prophethood, and took it upon himself to prove the contradictions within holy books, beginning with the Torah, and moving on to the Bible and then the Quran. He soon moved on to dealing blows to the remaining oriental religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism.
Al-Razi believed that the role of prophethood and the prophets is confined to the value of the mind, contending that as long as God had granted people minds and distinguished them from the rest of creation by providing them with the ability to discover good and evil, people did not need prophets to teach them laws and morals. Al-Razi believed that the human mind was capable of comprehending the existence of God through creation, and as such there is no need to send a prophet to teach people the way to God.
He attempted presented counter-arguments to his own claims, for instance, in light of God’s wisdom and justice, which religious people believe in, it is imperative to provide his creation with equal capacity to discover good and evil. This same argument states that if God were to distinguish between people in this regard, this would create discord between them, which is what we witness between those of different religions and sects, with dispute, conflict, and bloodshed.
In al-Razi’s opinion, the cause of this is not a lack of understanding among religious people, but rather a problem within the idea of prophethood itself. In his opinion, prophets preach laws and ideas that are not open for discussion on the basis that they are divine in nature, and as such are sanctified. He considered that much of the messages relayed by prophets contradict human nature, and the ideal of peace between humanity. The idea that each religion claims to the only one who has the truth, naturally led to discord and sparring between sides attempting to monopolize the concept of truth.
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He also argued that religious people see people within a hierarchy, where some are more favored than others. Within this hierarchy, prophets are the most noble and are entitled to their place above all others. However, in al-Razi’s eyes, this did not evince prophethood, as he viewed people as equal in their capacity for knowledge, with the only thing distinguishing them being their diligence in seeking knowledge, as well as their personal capacity in utilizing their minds.
Al-Razi also explored the differences between the prophets themselves in terms of the beliefs they hold, whereby some deify Christ, while others believe him to be human, and others, such as jews, see him as an infidel. As such, al-Razi questions how God could send prophets with such contradictory messages. Finally, al-Razi did not see any justification in the attempt to explain people’s beliefs through prophecy to validate them. People submit to their inherited beliefs and do not bother to examine them. They submit to those beliefs out of habit, until these beliefs become instinctual and second-nature to people with the passing of generations. People fear the assault of religious figures and their authority, or are deceived by the attractive appearance of preachers. For Al-Razi the large numbers of believers does not validate the belief.
Among al-Razi’s objections to the holy books was his opposition to the passages in the Torah in which God commands the Jews to kill and legitimates the bloodshed of other peoples. He also expresses objection to drawing comparisons between the divine figure of God with a person who enjoys the smell of grilled meats and sacrifices, or the comparison to an old man with greying hair, stating that this contradicts the Prophet Moses’ affirmations that God is older than time, was not created, and can neither be benefited nor harmed.
Al-Razi further objects to Christ’s statement: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” [Matthew 5:17] in which he refers to Moses’ Torah. Al-Razi observes that Jesus Christ then goes on to negate most of the laws that came in the Torah, from the sanctification of the Sabbath, to the act of vengeance, and so on. Through this, he attempts to prove the contradictions of the Bible, and does not stop there, but also attacks the Doctrine of Trinity and Unity in Christianity, considering them to be incoherent and contradictory.
He then criticizes Islam, for what he perceives to be the personification of the divine figure in verses such as “The Most Merciful sat on His Throne,” and “eight angels will, that day, bear the Throne of your Lord above them.”
He also denied the linguistic inimitability of the Quran, responding to these claims by questioning whether anybody could find works comparable to those of Galen and Ptolemy. In doing so, he attempted to draw forth the idea that a person’s linguistic style is like a fingerprint, and differs according to the speaker or writer.
Abdel Rahman Badawi believes that al-Razi disregarded the claims of the Mu’tazila school of theology who argued that these verses had esoteric interpretations different from their apparent meanings, thereby denying the idea of personification or comparison. Al-Razi believed these to be merely attempts to rectify the status of these verses. He also critiqued the abundance of stories about the Prophet Muhammad in the Hadiths, hypothesizing that if a single person in the long chain of the Prophet’s storytellers were to make one slip of the tongue, the entire story would in turn fall apart. As such, he believes that this led to a large degree of contradiction in the stories about the prophet, exempting himself from taking the Hadiths at face value.
Abu Alaa al-Ma’arri
Described as the poet of the mind in the history of Arab literature, he was known for upholding the value of the mind over customs and traditions, and his faith in people’s ability to distinguish between good and evil, without the need for religion.
But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice
Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.
An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,
To point the morning and the evening ways.
He went as far as to deny the holy books of the Abrahamic religions:
Religion and disbelief; news enlightens
Amid testaments of the Torah and the Bible,
Each generation condemned by untruths,
Will guidance one day find a generation?
He appears to have wavered between doubt and faith in numerous stages. Yet, he never doubted the existence of God, and always spoke of his blessings and characteristics. Taha Hussein wrote in his book ,“together with Abi El Alaa in his Prison” that al-Ma’arri believed in God’s existence and spoke of him in the manner of an observant, ascetic, and truthful believer.
Jaber bin Hayyan
Jaber bin Hayyan was a great chemist. Abdel Rahman Badawi mentions that Orientalist historian Paul Kraus recognized bin Hayyan’s great contributions to the study of chemistry in Greece, having formulated a scientific methodology comparable to those developed by modern scientists in Europe. Based on his achievements in this field, he arrived at the belief that chemistry is capable of creating lifelike creatures, almost as a forbearer of modern attempts at artificial intelligence. His belief caused him to be perceived as a non-believer and an atheist.
The Ribald (Mujaan) Poets
This group of poets came to be known as the Ribald, or Mujaan Poets. The most notorious of whom was Abu Nawas. They lived under the second caliphate of the Abbasid Empire, and do not seem to espouse a clear ideology toward religion. The majority of the literature on them suggested a disdain for religious commandments among these poets, and that they attached human happiness to material things, rather than spirituality and divine concepts.