The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason

The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason

by Ali A. Rizvi


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In much of the Muslim world, religion is the central foundation upon which family, community, morality, and identity are built. The inextricable embedment of religion in Muslim culture has forced a new generation of non-believing Muslims to face the heavy costs of abandoning their parents’ religion: disowned by their families, marginalized from their communities, imprisoned, or even sentenced to death by their governments.

Struggling to reconcile the Muslim society he was living in as a scientist and physician and the religion he was being raised in, Ali A. Rizvi eventually loses his faith. Discovering that he is not alone, he moves to North America and promises to use his new freedom of speech to represent the voices that are usually quashed before reaching the mainstream media—the Atheist Muslim.

In The Atheist Muslim, we follow Rizvi as he finds himself caught between two narrative voices he cannot relate to: extreme Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry in a post-9/11 world. The Atheist Muslim recounts the journey that allows Rizvi to criticize Islam—as one should be able to criticize any set of ideas—without demonizing his entire people. Emotionally and intellectually compelling, his personal story outlines the challenges of modern Islam and the factors that could help lead it toward a substantive, progressive reformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250094445
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/22/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 799,010
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ali A. Rizvi grew up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan before moving to Canada and the United States when he was 24. He has been writing extensively about secularism in the Muslim world for several years, working as a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and being published on major media outlets like CNN.

Neil Shah is an Audie Award-nominated narrator and AudioFile Earphones Award winner who has recorded over one hundred audiobooks. A classically trained actor with an MFA from the Old Globe/University of San Diego program, Neil has appeared off-Broadway and on regional stages, as well as in film and television.

Read an Excerpt

The atheist Muslim

A Journey from Religion to Reason

By Ali A. Rizvi

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Ali A. Rizvi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09445-2


Smoke Break

I'm in the fifth grade at the American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and our teacher wants us to make paper snowflakes. Brimming with excitement, we all fold up our pieces of paper, cut into them, open them up, decorate them using glue and glitter, and label them with our names. They will be displayed on the bulletin board in the hall, after which we get to take them home to show our parents.

Thing is, it doesn't snow in Riyadh. I've never even seen snow — and I won't until I move to Canada, well into my twenties. But this is an American school, and it's two weeks to Christmas break. Trees with handmade ornaments are up everywhere. Music teachers are busy preparing students for the winter recital. And classroom walls are adorned with cutouts of elves, snowmen, and reindeer.

My school has over two thousand students of about eighty nationalities, all from expatriate families, mostly American and Canadian. The Saudis aren't allowed by law to attend it. This is more or less consistent with the generally minimal interaction foreigners have with the locals anyway — and the government seems to like it that way. Consequently, our exposure to the Saudis' culture and customs is limited, as is theirs to ours. So it makes sense that Westerners who find themselves isolated in this cultural desert halfway across the world would want something to keep their kids connected to the way things are back home.

Well, almost.

You have to say "winter" or "holiday" instead of "Christmas" — winter break, winter recital, holiday party, and so on — and you can't display anything religious like crosses or images of Jesus. But the rest of it's pretty legit.

From time to time, government officials drop by to see if our school is in compliance with their rules. And today — on snowflake day — an officer from the ministry just happens to be dropping in for an inspection.

He approaches our snowflakes on the bulletin board, and he doesn't look happy. Scowling, he turns around to say something to our teacher. She hands him a pair of scissors, at his request. Then, he proceeds to snip one of the points off each of the paper snowflakes, leaving the disfigured, asymmetrical five-pointed figures on the board, not even bothering to pick up the amputated scraps of paper that have fallen to the floor.

As you'd expect, it isn't long before my teacher finds herself staring into the faces of twenty confused kids trying to make sense of what they've just witnessed. What could possibly be so threatening about snowflakes? Why are five points okay but not six?

"What is the Star of David?" we ask her, after she has finally — and hesitantly — given us the real answer to a long string of persistent "whys" characteristic of children our age. And what's so repugnant about it that a grown, literate man, presumably of sound intellectual faculty (he's from the Ministry of Education, after all), can't even stand the sight of paper snowflakes made by a bunch of eleven-year-olds just because both structures happen to have the same number of points?

"It's their symbol," the kid sitting next to me tells us, practically whispering.

I'm puzzled, disoriented, and slightly traumatized about having my creativity mauled. But most of all, I've just been given my first ever introduction to the Jews — and I am terrified.

I get home, itching to ask my father, a geography and history whiz, about the Jews. He asks me to get my illuminated plastic globe of the world that we bought earlier this year from both his and my favorite place in the city — the Jarir Bookstore in Riyadh's Al Akariyah Mall. He tells me a little bit about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and guides me to find Israel on the globe. I look, and it isn't there. He then brings down a world atlas, also from the same store. Again, no Israel. It isn't on either map. Strangely, the maps haven't just ignored its existence and called all of it Palestine like they do on TV; instead, it appears as a blue, nameless notch in the Middle East, blending into the Mediterranean — literally wiped off the map.

* * *

I'm not telling you this to assert one position or another on the Middle East. Of course, I know today that Israel isn't synonymous with "all Jews" and vice versa. But I want you to understand how people often grow to believe things the way that they do, and how fear can entrench those beliefs so deeply in one's mind — especially a child's mind — that they become all but intractable.

What happened with me was actually the best-case scenario, considering the circumstances. I was a Pakistani child going to an international school. Both of my parents were highly educated university professors. My father had earned his doctorate in Canada, and my mother earned hers in the United States. They were progressive, rational, and well traveled. Both had lived and taught in several countries before they got married and had me. Like the other expatriates in Saudi, they had very little interaction with the locals outside of their places of work. They were liberal Muslims who valued pluralism and quality education that went beyond the textbook — and they wanted to instill that in us, their four children. This was a key reason they sent us to this expensive, private school.

Now, imagine the experience of an average Saudi child who will live in Saudi Arabia most or all of his life, like his parents did. He attends public Saudi schools — which the children of expatriates are not allowed to attend. Officials from the Ministry of Education — like the one who visited my classroom that day — don't just do spot-checks in his school to see if everything's running as it should. They actually write his school's curriculum, and significantly influence what goes in his textbooks.

We got a peek into the content of these textbooks shortly after the 9/11 attacks, after an investigation into the factors that may have led the hijackers — fifteen of whom were Saudi out of a total of nineteen — to do what they did. For example, a textbook for tenth-graders entitled Monotheism, published in 2000, featured passages like, "The Hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill all the Jews." Students weren't just asked to learn these ideas — they were required to memorize the passages verbatim.

Concerned, the United States put pressure on the Saudis to reform their education system. The author of several of these books, a deeply revered religious scholar named Saleh Al-Fawzan, was furious. In an interview with Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah, he said,

The Jews and Christians and the polytheists have shown their heartfelt hatred and try to prevent us from the true path of God. They want to change our religion and our teaching to disconnect us from Islam so they can come and occupy us with their armies. It is bad enough when it comes from the infidels, but worse when they are of our skin. They say we create parrots, but they are the real parrots repeating what our enemies say of Islam.

Other Saudi officials, however, were more conciliatory. Over the next four years, they kept insisting repeatedly that the system had been reformed and the textbooks changed. And then Freedom House, a human rights think tank, got hold of some of these "reformed" books published in 2005 and 2006 and put out a report. Its findings were astonishing.

A fill-in-the-blank question in a first-grade textbook read, "Every religion other than Islam is ___________. Whoever dies outside of Islam enters ___________."

The correct answers: "false" and "hellfire," respectively.

A fifth-grade textbook taught lessons on friendship and loyalty: "It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet, or someone who fights the religion of Islam," and, "A Muslim, even if he lives far away, is your brother in religion. Someone who opposes God, even if he is your brother by family tie, is your enemy in religion."

In the eighth grade, students learned about dealings with Jews and Christians. "The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus."

By the twelfth grade, the students were ready to graduate and go out to face the world. "Jihad in the path of God — which consists of battling against unbelief, oppression, injustice, and those who perpetrate it — is the summit of Islam. This religion arose through jihad and through jihad was its banner raised high. It is one of the noblest acts, which brings one closer to God, and one of the most magnificent acts of obedience to God."

Let me reiterate here — these were the reformed textbooks, printed several years after 9/11.

My experience on snowflake day really shook me up at the time. My memory of it is crystal clear to this day. Eventually, though, I was convinced that I'd moved on from all that backward silliness and prejudice. I was educated. Enlightened. I'd grown up with friends from all over the world. My parents had raised me right. I was smart enough to realize, if I'd been born in a Jewish or Christian or Hindu family, I would be raised in those religions. Being Muslim was just an accident of birth. Being good or bad is about your actions and deeds — not where you're from or what your parents happen to believe. That's just common sense.


* * *

Ten years later, I'm sitting in a convenience store in Mississauga, Ontario — a city just west of Toronto that first started up as one of its suburbs. My parents have now moved permanently to Canada. I'm still attending medical school in Karachi, Pakistan, but I've got the summer off and I've come here to spend it with them.

I'm working at the store to make a bit of cash, completely oblivious to the South-Asian-working-at-a-convenience-store stereotype here in the West, despite being a fan of Apu's character in The Simpsons. Either way, I wouldn't really care. It's 1996, and one Canadian dollar equals almost thirty rupees, which goes a long way back in Karachi. It's not too busy, the weather is amazing, and I've got a lot of time to study. (In medical school, you're always studying.)

It's after lunch, and I'm walking back from the record store two shops away, where I've just picked up the new Metallica tape, Load. Their last album, eponymously named Metallica, had all of my high school anthems on it. This is their first album after that. It's been five years.

I've always loved metal. It's aggressive, rebellious, smart, and it pisses off all the right people — teachers, preachers, and the mutawwahs, the religious policemen who used to go around the malls back in Saudi and hit your mom on the head with a stick if her headscarf slipped too far off her forehead. They hated the music. They said it was the Shaitaan, the devil, putting his word into our ears. But all the kids were listening to it. Riyadh had lots of tape and CD stores, and the mutawwahs didn't like it one bit. My favorite was a place called 747, right at the corner of the Olaya and Talateen streets, located at the base of the Green Towers apartment buildings that some of my friends lived in. The store was huge, had virtually everything, and was cheap because all the tapes were pirated. It was also a favorite of the mutawwahs, but for completely different reasons. They targeted it frequently because it had become a popular secret meeting spot for young boys and girls. Ultimately, it became men-only.

I had a dual-tape Sanyo system that I'd brought along to my university hostel room in Karachi. It was almost always at full volume, blasting out angry voices drenched in a massive wall of rich, distorted guitars, screaming hope and possibility.

"Don't damn me when I speak a piece of mind."

An irrepressible, growling Axl Rose from Guns N' Roses, speaking truth to power.

"'Cause silence isn't golden when I'm holding it inside."

Fuck yeah.

But back here in Canada, it all feels different. It's comfortable, it's open, everything seems to work, and you can say whatever you want without someone whisking you off to the mutawwah station or following you to your house. I pop in the new Metallica tape, and it seems they just don't have it anymore. There's no tension, no hunger, no urgency. There's an impalpable but tangible feel of complacency in the air. It's almost ... boring.

It's fantastic.

A Middle Eastern–looking man walks in. I know he's been here before, but I've never spoken with him. He wants a pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket, and a soda (they call it "pop" here, but at this point in my life, I've spent more years at an American school than in any Canadian city).

"What is that you're reading?"

I'm pretty sure that's an Arabic accent.

"Oh, this?" I smile. "Medical Microbiology, by Jawetz." I show him the cover. "I didn't do too well on my micro finals this year, so I have to redo the exam before starting the next year."

"So you're a doctor?"

"Ha, no, not yet. Hopefully in two more years, if I don't screw up any more of my exams."

He laughs, warmly. "Oh, I'm sure you'll do fine."

Then, the question that almost every medical student has been asked by almost every parent with a child in high school or college.

"My son is studying science in university. He's very smart, and also wants to go into medicine. What can he do to increase his chances of getting in?"

I rattle off my usual answer — that there's no real shortcut, you have to study hard, get good grades, research experience, and so on.

"Where is he thinking of applying?" I ask.

"It is still early," he replies. "I would like him to come to Canada for medical school."

"And where is he now?"

"Back home, in Israel."

And, suddenly, he looks different.

I start to feel a little cold. I feel my heartbeat, racing, in my throat. My palms are clammy and my muscles tense up. I'm sitting on a stool in a narrow space behind the cash register. My ambulatory ability is restricted, and I feel vulnerable. I'm in full fight-or-flight mode, and it shows on my face — I'm sure of it. I'm surprised at my reaction, and puzzled by my inability to control it. I am embarrassed — and a little angry.

This isn't me.

I'm a reasonable person. I'm not even religious at this point. Bizarre thoughts are darting through my mind. Hey, Seinfeld is Jewish, and I love Seinfeld! And Einstein, Woody Allen — they're my heroes. Wait, one in five people in Israel are Arabs. Maybe this guy's not Jewish at all — maybe he's an Arab. But no, why should that matter? What if he isn't an Arab? What if he is a Jew? Why should that even make a difference? I wonder if he supports the settlements. Has his son served with the Israel Defense Forces? Or maybe he's like Chomsky or Tony Judt — one of us. Huh? What does that even mean? "One of us?" Are you serious?

"Oh, yes, for sure. He should definitely try here," I tell him, awkwardly.

"And where are you studying?"

"In Karachi, Pakistan. Before that, I lived in Riyadh — also the Middle East." I offer a forced smile. It doesn't help. In this particular context, highlighting our prior geographical proximity doesn't exactly evoke warm, fuzzy feelings of neighborliness. He's not quite as convivial as he was before my twenty-second mental meltdown. But despite having read my reaction perfectly, he remains polite — a quality that briefly makes me think he's more Canadian than Jewish — until I promptly tell my brain to shut up.

"Well, good luck, and thank you." He takes the cigarettes out of the bag and starts walking away, rapping them firmly on his palm twice before starting to open the pack. I call out as he pushes open the door.

"Hey, mind if I join you? I have my own."

"Sure," he says. "Come on out."

After a few short, quintessentially Canadian exchanges about the weather, I come clean.

"You're the first person from Israel I've ever met."

I tell him what they think about people like him in Saudi Arabia. He knows, but he hasn't heard the stories. He's laughing and shaking his head, more entertained than outraged. And when it comes to religious beliefs, it turns out we're not so different after all.

We're both atheists.

* * *

It's 2001, a little over two years since I graduated from medical school and moved permanently to Canada. I've done my U.S. licensing exams (transferring your qualifications to Canada as a foreign medical graduate isn't a simple process, unfortunately), and I have just enrolled in graduate school.

I think clinical medicine is an incredibly noble profession, but I've always had an avid interest in — and a knack for — science. Whenever science students ask me about going into medicine, I advise them to first understand what it really entails. For the most part, medicine is more public service than science. In medicine, you have to follow protocols. In science, you help create them. In science, trying out new things and being creative is encouraged. In medicine, getting too creative could get you sued, or worse.


Excerpted from The atheist Muslim by Ali A. Rizvi. Copyright © 2016 Ali A. Rizvi. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Smoke Break 1

2 Root Causes 17

3 Letting Go (Part I): The Born-Again Skeptic 58

4 A Tale of Two Identities 83

5 Choosing Atheism 99

6 Islamophobia-Phobia and the "Regressive Left" 130

7 The Quran: Misinterpretation, Metaphor, and Misunderstanding 161

8 Reformation and Secularism 190

9 Letting Go (Part II): The Silver Lining 215

Acknowledgments 225

Notes 227

Index 241

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