Ex-Muslims Attracted to Western Secularism

by Rev. Bassam M. Madany

From my earliest days, I noticed a certain fascination with Western secularism that was exhibited by Arab authors who dealt with modern history. For example, they showed a high regard and admiration for the French Revolution of 1789, notwithstanding the unbelievable bloodshed and turmoil that resulted from it.

During the past century, that attraction has manifested itself specifically in the rapid spread of Marxist ideology throughout the Middle East. In the 1960s, a Muslim professor at the American University of Beirut, Dr. Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm, published, “A Critique of Religious Thought.”(Naqd al-Fikr Al-Deeni.) This book was critical, not only of the Qur’an, but of all theistic religions. His approach and methodology were thoroughly Marxist. He got into trouble with the Lebanese authorities, but was exonerated from the charge of inciting divisions among the Lebanese religious communities. Al-Adhm stuck tenaciously to his secular ideology. The last sentence in a revised and expanded version of his “Critique” was this: “It is beyond doubt that Dialectical Materialism is the best known attempt to formulate a complete and universal worldview that can be reconciled with the spirit of this age and its sciences. I believe that this is exactly what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said: ‘Marxism is the philosophy for our times.’”

We now have unassailable proof that Marxism has been an utter failure, both ideologically and practically. We need only to read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” to see that Sartre, Albert Camus, and all their Middle Eastern disciples, were wrong in their prophecies.

Having said that, I don’t want to imply that Western Secularism has ceased to attract Arab and Muslim intellectuals. For example, early in 2006, I came across a relatively new Arabic-language website, www.kwtanweer.com, serving as a forum for dialog among Arab intellectuals who are concerned about tajdeed (renewal), tahdeeth (modernization), and Islah (reformation.) As I glance daily at their contributions, I can’t help but notice how most of them manifest the impact of Western secular worldviews on their thoughts. This is clearly seen by their repeated references to such philosophers as Nietzsche, Kant, Descartes, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In May 2006, a Syrian Muslim contributed an unusual article to the Tanweer (Enlightenment) site, in which he related his painful spiritual journey that ended with his leaving Islam. Its title was, “From Religion to No Religion: The Confession of a Muslim who has renounced Islam.”

Here are excerpts from this article, followed by my analysis and comments:

“No one chooses his religion or his beliefs. Religion is similar to the names we bear; they are given to us without our participation in the choice. I was born and grew up in a Muslim society, and within a Muslim family. If I had ever been asked whether I would one day be without any religious commitment, my answer would have been: never! Like people around me, I believed that Islam was the true and eternal religion.

“And yet, I couldn’t help that, inwardly, I had to contend with many doubts. The more I read Islamic thought, the more my doubts increased. My mind became filled with questions that had no answers. So, I embarked on a spiritual quest for Allah. I convinced myself that all my doubts originated with Satan. It was my duty as a believer, when assailed by doubts and questions, simply to implore Allah for forgiveness, and seek to forget them. However, this method didn’t work; I couldn’t eradicate my doubts. In fact they remained firmly embedded in my mind.

“One day I decided to assume the role of an atheist and engage a group of believers, with arguments that stemmed from unbelief. My real aim was to discover areas of weakness in the position of atheists through such an encounter. I found a group of men at the Shari’ah School that was adjacent to the Law School where I was studying. I set forth my arguments for the position of unbelief. Surprisingly, they were unable to properly handle them.

“My old doubts increased. This led me to read more, and my critique of religion increased. For the first time, I began to read Islam from the standpoint of a critic. Finally I decided to adopt the position of having no allegiance to any religion, which meant my forsaking Islam.

“I believe that it is extremely difficult for a person to be at the same time both religious and rational. The logic of faith forces one to accept teachings as absolute, and that must not be questioned. Thus, you’ll find yourself either forsaking your mind and denying it any function, or continuing on the path of religion. The other choice requires a person to follow the directives of his mind, thus leading him eventually to forsake his religious beliefs.


I don’t claim to possess a complete knowledge of the spiritual and intellectual background of this ex-Muslim; but I can surmise that he was not immune from the influences of the modern world upon him. Early in the Twentieth-Century, Syria was already experiencing the impact of Western thought. As a result, Arab nationalism was born. And when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI, nationalism became a powerful factor in the resistance to French colonialism that was imposed on the country by the League of Nations. Eventually Syria gained its independence in 1946. After an attempt to unite with Egypt failed in the early 1960s, successive Syrian regimes claimed attachment to the ideology of Ba’ath Arab Socialism. Then, as a result of the Arabs’ debacle in the Six-Day war of June 1967, the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement re-appeared as a political force in Syria. It attempted to offer an alternative to the hegemony of Hafedh al-Assad over Syria, but was crushed violently by his military forces in the city of Hama.

Now while some of this young Muslim’s doubts may have originated in his own mind, they could not have been unaffected by the intellectual climate where several competing secular ideologies were at work. This may be noticed in the paragraph where he questioned the compatibility of faith with reason. “It is my conviction that it is extremely difficult for a person to be at the same time both religious and rational. The logic of faith forces one to accept teachings as absolute, and that must not be questioned. Thus, you’ll find yourself either forsaking your mind and denying it any function, or continuing on the path of religion. The other choice requires a person to follow the directives of his mind, thus leading him eventually to forsake his religious beliefs.”

His thesis asserted that no one could be a religious believer, and rational at the same time. However, this claim, in its turn, was based on a presupposition showing his adherence to a secular worldview. As a secularist, he rejected, a priori, all religious beliefs, claiming they are incompatible with reason. But is human reason ever neutral?

It so happens that this ex-Muslim, ever since his leaving Islam, has been very busy in spreading his ideas on other Arabic-language web sites, one operated by a group of Arab intellectuals advocating “irreligion,” or “no-religious faith,” (la-Deen, in Arabic). They are waging a secular da’wa that finds in the Internet, a safe and convenient forum for their defence of atheism. The many titles of his contributions (all in Arabic) indicate that, now that he has made his decisive choice for “la-Deen,” he must go on as an ardent da’iya (missionary), proclaiming and defending his new found secular faith!

Thus far my analysis. Here are my comments.

When reflecting on the attraction that Western secular worldviews have had for Arab and Muslim intellectuals, I’ve often asked myself, is there “a common denominator” between Islam and secularism? This question may appear rather preposterous! What commonality can exist between a deeply religious worldview such as Islam exhibits, and the variety of secular worldviews that have appeared in the West for the last several centuries?

The answer is that there exists a common thread between Islam and secular worldviews. It lies in the doctrine of man. To put it theologically, it is found in the area of anthropology. Both Islam and Western secularism teach the inherent goodness of man. While the Qur’an acknowledges the historicity of Adam’s fall, it does not teach a doctrine of Original Sin. In fact, the Islamic teaching about the condition of man is not that much different from the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the “fathers” of Western secularism. He wrote: "L’homme est naturellement bon, mais la société a corrompu cette bonté. » Man is naturally good, but it is society that has corrupted this goodness.”

At this point, I quote from Chapter Six of my book, The Bible and Islam, where I dealt with the Islamic doctrine of man.

“In 1957, a group of Muslim and Roman Catholic scholars met in a monastery at Toumliline, a small Berber town near Meknes, in Morocco. One of the main speakers was Dr. Uthman Yahya, a scholar from Al-Azhar University (Seminary) in Cairo, Egypt. “The title of his paper was: "Man and His Perfection in Muslim Theology”. These are some excerpts from an English translation published by the quarterly journal, THE MUSLIM WORLD, Volume 49, No. 1, January 1959:

“The Qur’an confronts us with man in two distinct states: the first in his original constitution, the prototype created in the image of God, the second man in his actual condition. In the primordial state man was created in entire harmony. He was perfectly constituted. The Qur’an gives us this description: "We created man in the most noble form” As contrasted with his ideal prototype man in his actual state is feeble (Surah 4:28), despairing (11:9), unjust (14:34), quarrelsome (16:4), tyrannical (96:6), lost (105:2), etc. It is true that Muslim theology does not speak of original sin and of its transmission from generation to generation. But we see clearly in the light of these quotations that there are two distinct states of man: that of his original nature and that of his actual fall ... The possibility of man's deliverance and the way to follow have been indicated by the Qur’an in its address to sinners, fathers of the human race: "Go forth all of you from hence and if there comes to you guidance from Me then he who follows my guidance shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they know distress” ( 2:38) By this solemn affirmation God Himself takes action (entre en acte) for the salvation of man in the path of right. Islamic tradition then has the means to lead man to final perfection, the effect of which is liberation from the fear and from the sadness that prevent man from attaining that eternal blessedness which is life in God and for God.”

In commenting on the paper of Dr. Yahya, the editor of The Muslim World wrote:

“Dr. Yahya’s exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raise several deep questions. The Christian must always be perplexed about its ready confidence that 'to know is to do,' that man’s salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices and that through the law given in the Divine communication is the path that man will follow once he knows and sees it. The whole mystery of human recalcitrance and ‘hardness of heart’ seems to be overlooked.” [Emphasis is mine]

The similarity between the anthropology of Islam and that advocated by Western secularism is striking. It causes Muslims to be attracted to Western secular teachings about man and his present condition. So that when they are assailed by religious doubts, due to their encounter with Western secularism, they can move more easily from “Deen” to the new-found “la-Deen.” In either commitment, they don’t have to basically change their anthropology. Of course, the fundamental difference between Islam and secularism remains; the first proclaims a supernatural worldview, while the other advocates a purely this worldly-view.

The phenomenon of Muslims becoming ex-Muslims and promoting their new-found secular faith presents the Christian with serious challenges.

First, it is obvious that when Muslims forsake their religious tradition and become non-religious persons, it implies that they have not sought or considered the alternative, i.e. moving from Islam (a heavenly religion, in their parlance) to Christianity, another heavenly religion. One reason for that is that Western secularism has been greatly at work spreading its worldview ever since the end of the Eighteenth-Century. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he came not only with a military force, but was accompanied by scientists, archeologists and other tokens of Western civilization. Middle Easterners were dazzled by their presence. They welcomed and absorbed many aspects of Western culture after they were stripped of any Christian meaning or connection. For their part, during their imperialist presence, neither the French, nor the British, had other ambitions than to expand and defend their colonial interests. They did not seek to promote Christianity, for that would have gravely disturbed the status quo of Mideastern societies.

So, Arab intellectuals, when absorbing various aspects of Western secular views, heartily welcomed the notion of the inherent goodness or neutrality of man. And when things turned sour for them in their elaboration and application of their political plans, they could always blame the colonialists, or the local autocratic rulers. They never considered that the real problem resided fundamentally within the fallen nature of man.

Taking the above into consideration, we may point to the urgent challenge that faces the Christian nowadays, namely to present the Biblical view of man, and the divine remedy for reclaiming man from his fallen condition. In the past, it was very difficult to communicate this Biblical diagnosis, coupled with the claims of Jesus Christ to the followers of Islam. In fact, one of the last essays that Samuel Zwemer wrote on this subject was entitled, “The Glory of the Impossible.” Not long after he penned that tract, Christian radio came in as a wonderful tool for the spread the Christian message in the Muslim World. I had the privilege of being on the air for thirty-six years, broadcasting daily the message of the Word of God in Arabic to the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. It was not a one-way ministry, as a great amount of response came to these daily messages. The letters received from Muslims indicated a thirst and an eagerness to learn more about the Kitab (the Bible,) its contents, and its basic message.

There are also Christian organizations that use satellite television to spread the knowledge of the Gospel among Muslims. We give thanks to God for all these wonderful means. One of the latest advances in communication is the Internet and its use for spreading the message of the Bible among the followers of Islam. The benefits of the Internet are enormous and can hardly be fully gauged. One of its greatest advantages is that the Gospel becomes present and available to anyone who has access to the Internet, and at anytime that is convenient to the seeker.

Let me give an example. After my retirement from my radio and literature ministry in 1994, a goodly number of my broadcast messages have been placed on a web site that would allow anyone who understands Arabic, to listen to a Bible-based sermon or lesson. This is its URL: www.audio.arabicbible.com

Furthermore, all the printed materials I produced over the years are also available on a website, not only to read, but also to download and print for further study. The URL for this site is: www.kalimatalhayat.com (In Arabic it means: Word of Life)

And thanks to the tremendous advances in the capacity of storing digital materials on compact disks, the above-mentioned materials (both audio and in script) are also available on a CD for free distribution. This is very important for those who, while possessing a computer, are unable to access the Internet.

I would like to close by stating that great as these improvements in the means of communications are, the most important factor remains the message. What are the basics of the message that should be made known to Muslims, who are considering leaving Islam?

The basics of the message are found and taught in that Magnum Opus of Paul, his Letter to the Romans. Realizing that the Good News he proclaimed was foolishness to the Rationalists of his days, and an offense to the contemporaneous Legalists, he nevertheless taught and defended the thesis of man’s fallen condition, and the mighty grace of God that saves man from his plight, based on the redemptive work of the Messiah, the Son of God. The Law of God, imprinted on the conscience of man, and clearly revealed in the Ten Commandments, far from being the Savior of man, reveals the utter hopelessness of his condition. Man’s salvation does not happen under purely revelatory auspices, or according to the Utopian schemes of rationalist ideologues. Man’s salvation occurs when he surrenders to the Messiah who died on the cross, and rose again on the third day. This must be our answer to the questions that are going on in the minds of many Muslims today. What a pity that so many who leave Islam behind imagine that they have found their solace in the arid speculations of Western secularists!

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