An Atheist View on Islam


As we shall see, Islam is a very diverse religion. Its interpretations range from the extremist to the traditionalist and liberal. We will argue that it does not make sense for an atheist to try to determine which of these interpretations is the “true Islam”. More often than not, this question is a Red Herring that distracts from what usually matters for the atheist, namely what Muslims de facto believe and practice.

In this spirit, we will argue that none of the interpretations of Islam should be ignored, marginalized, or branded as unislamic. If one wants to understand Islam, then all of its interpretations (the liberal ones as well as the traditionalist and extremist ones) should be heard, understood, and analyzed. This is what we aim to do here.

Some people hesitate to discuss Islam, for example because they believe that such a discussion could hurt religious feelings, stir hatred, or unjustly single out a minority. We will argue that Islam deserves a critical analysis like all other ideologies. This is even more true since Islam is one of the largest religions on Earth, with an impact on millions of people — in Muslim-majority countries and elsewhere.

To simplify the discourse, we will refer to non-Muslims (religious or otherwise) collectively as “unbelievers”. We will use the notion of “Muslim lands” to refer to countries where Islam is the majority religion, and we will use “the West” to mean the countries of Europe, Northern America, and Australia and New Zealand. Arabic names will be given in their Romanization with diacritical marks at their first appearance, and, for ease of reading, without diacritical marks in further occurences. All polls mentioned here date from the 2010’s or 2020’s, unless otherwise mentioned. Unless otherwise specified, references with a colon refer to the Quran.

Islam is a very complex and controversial topic. Therefore, it is likely that the reader will not agree with everything that is said here, and may even spot errors or omissions. In these cases, the reader is kindly asked to bear in mind that an objection to one of the pages here does not invalidate the other 99 pages.

Islamic Beliefs


Islam was founded on the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE by a man called the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad reported that he had received revelations from God, and these revelations were written down in a book — the Qurʾān. Islam is an Abrahamic Religion, and worships a single god. Today, Islam has an estimated 1.9 billion adherents (one quarter of the world’s population).

For the purposes of this book, Islam is a belief system. It contains the following beliefs:

  1. There is exactly one god, called Allah or God.
  2. The Prophet Muhammad is the prophet of God, and God spoke to Muhammad.
  3. What God said to the Prophet Muhammad is written down in the Quran. The Quran is thus the word of God.
  4. God is the same god as the god of Judaism and Christianity (Quran/29:46). However, different from Christianity, Islam does not accept the divinity of Jesus, or the trinity of God.


Countries with a significant Muslim population are organized in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly “Organisation of the Islamic Conference”). It consists of 57 member states, with a collective population of over 1.9 billion. In particular, it contains all 50 Muslim-majority countries except Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in green, of which Muslim-majority countries in dark green. The organization has not taken a stance on whether Western Sahara is independent or belongs to Morocco 1. based on empty map CC0 Canuckguy
The organisation sees itself as the “collective voice of the Muslim world” 2. In this respect, Islam is unique: There is no organization of countries for a religion other than Islam.

Despite this global organization, the religious beliefs of Muslims vary widely, and we shall now present the spectrum of these beliefs.

Denominations of Islam

The following branches of Islam that can be thought of broadly as denominations of Islam:
Sunni is the largest denomination of Islam, followed by around 85% of the world’s Muslims. According to Sunni belief, the Prophet Muhammad designated Abu Bakr as his successor, whereas according to another view (the Shia view), Muhammad designated his son-in-law and cousin ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. This dispute was later accompanied by theological and political differences between the groups. A more conservative sub-denomination of Sunni Islam is Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism gave rise to Salafism, another conservative sub-denomination of Sunni Islam, which strives to go back to the traditions of the first generations of Muslims. Sufism is a branch of Islam that is today mainly Sunni, and that emphasizes a mystic approach to religion. Some sufis are organized in ṭarīqahs (orders or fraternities), and members of such orders are called Darwīsh (Dervish). Sufis are known for meditative practices such as Sufi whirling, in which the adherents spin in traditional dress to music.
Shia is the second-largest denomination of Islam, comprising 10%-15% of Muslims (called Shiites). Shia Islam holds that ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib was the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad. It has also developed other theological differences to Sunni Islam. Shias make up the majority of the population of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq. The largest sub-denomination of Shia Islam is Twelver Shia, which is also the state religion of Iran. Alawites form another sub-denomination of Shia Islam, which is prevalent in Syria. Ismailism is a sub-denomination that is scattered across several countries.
Kharijite is a smaller denomination of Islam, which likewise originated from the dispute about who should take the lead after the Prophet Muhammad. Today, the only surviving sub-denomination is Ibadi. It came to develop its own theological distinctiveness, one of which is the belief that the Quran was created (instead of having always existed). Today, less than 1% of Muslims are Ibadi. Oman is the only country where they form a sizable portion of the population, at around 45%.
This denomination was founded in the 19th century by the Indian Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. It holds that Ahmad was appointed by God to revive Islam. Today, roughly 1% of Muslims follow this denomination. They are called Ahmadis. The largest Ahmadi population is thought to be in Pakistan.
There are numerous other branches and sub-branches of Islam, including African-American movements, the Gülen / Hizmet movement, Islamic Modernism / Liberal Islam, Pure Islam, Alevism, and Quranism. Quranism holds that the Quran should be the sole religious guidance, and that other sources (most notably the Hadith) should be rejected.
Sunni (green), Shia (red), and Ibadi (blue)CC BY SA Baba66, legend removed
Modern political conflicts in the Muslim world often follow these denominational lines 3: In the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, Iraq was ruled by a Sunni (Saddam Hussein), while Iran is mainly Shia. To this day, the conflicts in Iraq happen mostly between Sunnis and Shias. In the civil war in Syria of the 2010’s, the president Bashar al-Assad was an Alawite (Shia), and supported by Iran, while the largest denomination among the population was Sunni. In Yemen, a civil war waged in the 2020’s between adherents of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (a Sunni, supported by Saudi Arabia), and the Houtis (who are mainly Shiite, and supported by Iran). In Lebanon, Hezbollah is a Shia militant group, which is supported by Shiite Iran, but opposed by most members of the Arab League, which are Sunni. The Kurds are possibly an exception to this rule: They perceive themselves as a cultural group, but host a variety of Muslim and non-Muslim creeds.

Islamic schools

Within each denomination of Islam, there are schools of thought (“Madhhab”). These can be thought of as interpretations of the religion. There are several widely acknowledged schools of thought, which date back to the 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad had his revelations. They have been catalogued by the Amman Message, a ruling ratified by the International Islamic Fiqh Academy of the OIC4:
Sunni denomination
  • Ḥanafī
  • Mālikī
  • Shāfiʿī
  • Ḥanbalī
Shia denomination
  • Jaʿfari
  • Zaidi
Kharijite denomination
  • Ibadi
In addition, the Amman Message recognizes the Thahiri/Ẓāhirī school, the Ashari creed, Sufism, and Salafism.

These schools differ to varying degrees in their theological and moral tenets, as we shall see later.

Variety of beliefs

In addition to (and largely independent of) the formal denominations and schools of Islam, there exist a variety of interpretations of the religion. These take different views in different issues. As an example, take the case of apostates, i.e., of people who want to leave Islam. Many Muslims believe that everyone has the right to leave Islam, because Islam guarantees the freedom of religion. However, large proportions of adherents in the Islamic countries believe that Islam requires the death penalty for apostasy. Consequently, several Muslim countries punish apostasy by death. In this case, different Muslims believe that Islam says different things.

In the same vein, there are different stances on women’s rights, homosexuality, blasphemy, the veil, stoning, domestic violence, child marriage, unbelievers, and female genital mutilation. There are even extremist interpretations of the faith, which assert that the religion has to be spread by conquest.

Other debates in Islam are:

Islam is thus not a monolithic religion. Rather, it harbors a wide variety of different views on different topics.
Don’t judge the Muslims that you know by Islam,
and don’t judge Islam by the Muslims that you know.

The true Islam

There are different denominations, schools, and interpretations of Islam. While all of these variations share the core tenets of the religion (the uniqueness of God, the prophethood of Muhammad, and the divinity of the Quran), the interpretations can vary as to whether apostasy should be punished, music is permitted, the Jinns exist, or, in extremis, whether Islamic rule should be spread by violence.

The Amman Message of 2006 declares that all Sunni and Shia schools are part of Islam4. This declaration was endorsed by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. There is also a saying that “variance in opinion among the scholars is a mercy”4, and a Hadith that suggests acceptance of plurality (Bukhari 64:163:4119). Nevertheless, many adherents of Islam are of the opinion that there is only one interpretation of the faith. In 32 of the 39 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, half or more Muslims say there is only one correct way to understand the teachings of Islam 7. Consequently, many Muslims consider that adherents of other interpretations of Islam are not really Muslims. For example, substantial minorities of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe that Shias are not Muslims 7. In Egypt and Morocco, more than 50% of respondents think that Shias are not Muslims. For the same reason, the Ahmadis are persecuted as heretics in much of the Muslim world. In Pakistan, the constitution declares Ahmadis non-Muslims. Ordinance XX bars them from using Islamic texts for praying. Alevism, likewise, is considered a culture rather than a religion by Turkey’s Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Directorate of Religious Affairs) 9. In the same spirit, the Quranists are considered heretics by many adherents, and threatened with death in many countries. Ibadi Islam, for its part, knows the doctrine that only Ibadi Muslims are Muslims, and that all other Muslims are ahl al-khilaf, “people of opposition”. The practice of declaring someone else a non-Muslim is called “takfīr”.

This view goes beyond the assertion that the other denominations are misled. It doubts whether the other denominations can be called Islam at all. Variations of the view even hold that adherents of other denominations should be punished. This distinguishes these Islamic systems from the Christian systems, which have, over time, come to accept their diversity.

The affirmation that there is only one Islam can also be found to varying degrees across different interpretations of the faith. For example, most interpretations of Islam assert that extremist interpretations of the faith (such as the one promoted by the Islamic State) have “nothing to do with Islam”. The Islamic State, for its part, considers that adherents of other interpretations are infidels, i.e., not Muslims at all.

Islam is what Muslims make of it.
Mouhanad Khorchide

What is the true Islam?

When it comes to a discussion about Islam, the first stumbling block is often the question of what constitutes the true Islam.

Why the question is difficult

Typically, several arguments from the scripture can be brought forward as to why one particular interpretation is “the true Islam”, and why the others must be wrong. However, it would be naïve to assume that equally convincing arguments could not be brought forward for the opposite position. This applies also (and in particular) to traditionalist and extremist interpretations of Islam. Some of these have religious institutions and centuries of theological debate in their favor. And indeed, Muslims have been debating about the correct interpretation of Islam for the past 1300 years, without reaching a definite conclusion. Furthermore, most of the conflicting hypotheses are unfalsifiable. Therefore, it is unlikely that the question of what the “true Islam” is can be settled conclusively. In particular, it cannot be settled if only one Muslim opinion is represented in the discussion, and not the opposing ones.

The question is further complicated by the fact that people do not always practice what they believe. Some adherents thus distinguish “the real Islam” (i.e., what they consider the true message from God as conveyed in the Quran) from what they actually practice. At the same time, many Muslims have not actually read the Quran, and may have an idealized concept of the “true Islam”.

Why the question does not matter to the unbeliever

The question of the “true Islam” usually does not matter to the unbeliever, because the unbeliever considers none of the interpretations of Islam true. Atheists, in particular, consider all interpretations of Islam non-factual. From the atheist perspective, religion is not a god-given system, but a man-made social construction.

Hence, what matters to the unbeliever in a discussion about Islam is usually not what “the true Islam” is, but what Muslims de facto believe. For example, a Humanist may wonder: What do different adherents of Islam think about freedom of speech? What do they think about apostasy? What do they think about Islamists? And how do they practice what they say they believe?

Why the question is counter-productive

Unfortunately, a discussion of what Muslims de facto believe and practice is often deflected into the question of the “true Islam”. The attempt to analyze Muslim beliefs is then drowned in endless elaborations of what the Prophet Muhammad really said, what the Quran really means, or what the essence of Islam really is. In these cases, the question of the “true Islam” acts as a Red Herring that distracts from a critical analysis of what Muslims de facto believe.

The discussion about the “true Islam” is not just obstructive, but also dangerous: if one resolves that the true Islam is an extremist interpretation of the faith, one lends further credibility to violent regimes such as the Islamic State. Furthermore, one unjustly stigmatizes the vast majority of Muslims who do not adhere to such an interpretation. If, vice verse, one resolves that “the true Islam” is a moderate or liberal interpretation of the faith (as several Muslim and non-Muslim voices in the West do), one neglects the millions of Muslims who adhere to more traditionalist or extremist interpretations of Islam. By brushing these aside as mistaken, one makes it more difficult to take these interpretations seriously, to understand them, and to accord them the attention that is necessary to counter them when they cause harm.

Hence, for this book, as for most non-Muslims, all belief systems that share the basic tenets of Islam are interpretations of Islam. These vary in their beliefs, just as different denominations of Christianity vary in their beliefs. For an atheist, it is not possible to decide which of these beliefs are “true” — nor is it necessary.

Don’t tell me what the true Islam is.
Tell the millions of Muslims who think otherwise.

Reasons for the Variety in Islam

Quran translations

We have seen that there are different denominations, schools, and interpretations of Islam. Let us now try to understand possible reasons for this diversity.

The first aspect that merits consideration is the Quran itself. The original Quran is written in classical Arabic, an older variant of today’s Modern Standard Arabic. There are several translations of the Quran into modern languages. However, there are different opinions as to which of these translations are correct, and whether the Quran can be translated accurately at all. As a testimony to this ongoing discussion, Wikipedia lists 58 English translations of the Quran as of 2020, 28 of which have been produced after the year 2000. Some translations are certified by religious authorities, although different authorities certify different translations. For example, “The Glorious Quran” by Syed Vickar Ahamed is approved by the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, an important institution for the study of Sunni theology. The “Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Quran” by Darussalam, in contrast, is the officially promoted translation of the Saudi Government.

To give an impression of the variety in the translations, we look here at the Verse 33:59M of the Quran, which talks about clothing requirements for women. In “The Glorious Quran”, it reads:

O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and the believing women, that they should wear their outer clothes over their bodies (when outside): That is most suitable (and appropriate), so that they should be known (as believing women) and not be annoyed (or attacked).
This translation already contains an interpretation (in brackets), which draws on the meaning of the words and their context by the translator. Other English translations with their interpretations arrive at the following conclusions10:

These translations have not been produced by foreigners, with a feeble knowledge of Arabic. Rather, they have been produced by native speakers of Arabic, who arrived at different understandings of the same verse. There are other examples: Verse 78:33 promises “full-breasted virgins” to male Muslims in Heaven (the “maidens” are also mentioned in 37:48, 55:56M, 37:48, 56:22-23, 52:20). These have also been translated as “youthful virgins” [Translation by Dr. Ghali]. They have also been replaced completely, by “white raisins” 12.

Another example is Verse 2:228, which reads “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable; but the men have a degree over them in responsibility and authority” in the English Sahih International translation. In French, it reads “And women have rights similar to those that men have over them”, according to the French Council of the Muslim Faith 13.

As another example, Verse 10:27 has been translated as “As for those who commit evil, the reward of an evil deed is its equivalent. Humiliation will cover them—with no one to protect them from Allah—as if their faces were covered with patches of the night’s deep darkness. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.”. The Ahmadiyya community, however, believes the verse says “For those who do good deeds, there shall be the best reward and yet more blessings” 14.

Verse 8:39M illustrates why the translation is so difficult. It calls on Muslims to “fight [...] until there is no more fitnah and until all religion is for Allah”. Here, the word “fitnah” has been translated as trial, probation, affliction, distress or hardship. In modern Arab, the word can also mean charm, charmingness, attractiveness; enchantment, captivation, fascination enticement, temptation; infatuation, intrigue; sedition, riot, discord, dissension, and civil strife .

We thus note that there are different translations of the Quran. This entails that the 80% of Muslims who are not native speakers of Arabic may arrive at different readings of the Quran. Native speakers of Arabic, too, may arrive at different readings of the text, as the above translations exemplify.

This problem is specific to the Quran. The “Tao Te Ching” of Taoism, e.g., is 1000 years older than the Quran, and still read in the original Classical Chinese. It has given rise to dozens of English translations. Yet, none of these translations has been construed to mean that adherents of Taoism shall fight other people.


One verse of the Quran may correct another, preceding verse of the Quran. This is a practice known as abrogation or Naskh15. The Quran details the practice in the following verses:
“We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” [2:106M]

“And when We substitute a verse in place of a verse - and Allah is most knowing of what He sends down - they say, “You, [O Muhammad], are but an inventor [of lies]”. But most of them do not know.” [16:101]

“Allah eliminates what He wills or confirms, and with Him is the Mother of the Book.” [13:39M]

The following verses have been proposed as examples for abrogation: In general, the earlier verses of the Quran were revealed in Mecca, while the movement of the Prophet Muhammad was still small. The acceptance of wine falls into this period. The later verses were revealed in Medina, where the Prophet was more powerful. Here, wine became prohibited. We mark the Medina verses explicitly by an “M”. However, the Surahs (sections) of the Quran are not sorted in chronological order. They are sorted roughly by their length. Thus, it is not easy to determine which verse overrides which other verse. The verses do not explicitly say whether they override another verse, and scholars of Islam have disagreed over which and how many verses are abrogated. Estimates vary from less than 10 to over 500. Abrogation is considered “indispensable” by the “Letter to Baghdadi”, a ruling signed by hundreds of Muslim scholars 16. However, not all interpretations of the faith agree with the concept in the first place.

In this way, the concept of abrogation contributes to different interpretations of the Quran.

Dependence on context

Some verses of the Quran are considered to be applicable only to the particular historical context in which they were revealed. As an example, we look here at Verse 9:123M:
O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty.
Some interpretations hold that this verse is valid only in the particular context of the war that the Prophet Muhammad fought against neighboring tribes. Others hold that this verse is a universal call to arms against non-Muslims.

Another example is Verse 2:256M:

There is no compulsion in religion. [...]
This verse seems to allow non-Muslims to keep their respective religion or non-religion. Here as well, some interpretations hold that this verse was valid only in the particular context where the Prophet Muhammad had already subdued the non-Muslims and installed an unbeliever-tax for them. Others hold that this verse is a universal acknowledgement for the freedom of religion.

Another example is Verse 61:9:

It is He Who has sent His Messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may make it prevail over all [other] religions.
Some interpretations assume that this means that Muslims should fight until the world has been made Muslim. Others assume that this verse applies only to the Arabic peninsula.

In some cases, the immediately following verse can relativize a message. For example, Verse 5:32M can be interpreted as a universal call for non-violence:

Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land — it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one — it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.
However, the verse that immediately follows appears to justify violence in some cases:
Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.

This dependence on context in the Quran contributes to the diversity in Muslim beliefs.


The Hadiths are collections of quotes of the Prophet Muhammad. These quotes were originally transmitted orally, by a chain of narrators. They were then written down roughly 200 years after Muhammad’s death 17. In these 200 years, some Hadiths may have been forged, and then simply attributed to Muhammad. For example, Al-Bukhārī (the collector of one of the books of Hadiths that are considered authentic by Sunni Islam) collected 600,000 sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of these, he considered only 7,275 sufficiently reliable to include them in his work, i.e., he considered 98.8% of the sayings unreliable 18. Indeed, different people consider different Hadith reliable, and not all interpretations of Islam hold all sources to be equally authoritative. Different denominations rely on different Hadith:

The Sunni denominations generally consider the “Six Books” canonical: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Sunan al-Sughra (also known as Sunan an-Nasāʾī), Sunan Abī Dāwūd, Sunan at-Tirmidhi, and Sunan Ibn Mājah. The Malikis, one of the five Sunni schools of thought, assert the canonical status of Muwaṭṭaʾ Imam Malik.
For the Twelver Shia denomination, the canonical hadith collections are the “Four Books”: Kitab al-Kāfī, Man Lā Yahḍuruhū al-Faqīh, Tahdhib al-Ahkam, and Al-Istibsar.
For the Ibadi denomination, the main canonical collection is the Tartib al-Musnad.

An additional source is the life of the Prophet Muhammad. One of the most established biographies is “Al-Sīrah Al-Nabawiyyah” written by Ibn Isḥāq and edited by Ibn Hisham. Based on these different sources, the denominations of Islam have built up slightly different belief systems.

Each of these churches accuses the other of disbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”

Interpretation of the Quran

Islamic jurisprudence relies on the Quran and on the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. This corpus has to be applied to concrete legal questions at hand. For this purpose, Islam has developed a tradition of interpretation: Relevant verses and sayings are identified, pondered for trustworthiness and intended meaning, and discussed for their applicability to a concrete question.

To give an example for how such a reasoning can go, we cite here from a treatise about the question of whether music is permitted in Islam. The treatise is taken from IslamQA, a popular Salafist Web site in the Arab world 19. This interpretation is not necessarily agreed upon by all Muslims; it serves just to illustrate a common way of reasoning. The basic structure is a verse from the Quran (“Allah says...”) with its interpretation in brackets, followed by sayings that support this interpretation (“XYZ said...”).

Allah says in Soorat Luqmaan (interpretation of the meaning): “And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks (i.e. music, singing) to mislead (men) from the path of Allah…” [31:6]

The scholar of the ummah, Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allah be pleased with him) said: this means singing. Mujaahid (may Allah have mercy on him) said: this means playing the drum (tabl). (Tafseer al-Tabari, 21/40).

Al-Sa’di (may Allah have mercy on him) said: this includes all manner of haraam speech, all idle talk and falsehood, and all nonsense that encourages kufr and disobedience; the words of those who say things to refute the truth and argue in support of falsehood to defeat the truth; and backbiting, slander, lies, insults and curses; the singing and musical instruments of the Shaytaan; and musical instruments which are of no spiritual or worldly benefit. (Tafseer al-Sa’di, 6/150)

Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allah have mercy on him) said: The interpretation of the Sahaabah and Taabi’in, that “idle talk” refers to singing, is sufficient. This was reported with saheeh isnaads from Ibn ‘Abbaas and Ibn Mas’ood. Abu’l-Sahbaa’ said: I asked Ibn Mas’ood about the aayah (interpretation of the meaning), “And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks” [Luqmaan 31:6]. He said: By Allah, besides Whom there is no other god, this means singing – and he repeated it three times. It was also reported with a saheeh isnaad from Ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with them both) that this means singing.

Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): “[Allah said to Iblees:] And befool them gradually those whom you can among them with your voice (i.e. songs, music, and any other call for Allah’s disobedience)…” [17:64]

It was narrated that Mujaahid (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “And befool them gradually those whom you can among them with your voice” – his voice [the voice of Iblees/Shaytaan] is singing and falsehood. Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allah have mercy on him) said: This idaafah [possessive or genitive construction, i.e., your voice] serves to make the meaning specific, as with the phrases [translated as] “your cavalry” and “your infantry” [later in the same aayah]. Everyone who speaks in any way that is not obedient to Allah, everyone who blows into a flute or other woodwind instrument, or who plays any haraam kind of drum, this is the voice of the Shaytaan.

(The treatise goes for 20 more citations, followed by a discussion of exceptions for military music, or young prepubescent girls.)

Such interpretations have led to different beliefs in the Muslim community. As the Quran states about itself, even though it makes “things clear” (44:2), “no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah” (3:7M).

For every text adducted to support a certain thesis,
half a dozen others can be produced to show the contrary.
Ibn Warraq in “Why I am not a Muslim”, adapted

Scholars and imams

Islam relies on the testimony of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, one of the central building blocks of Islam is the trust that Muhammad spoke the truth. Muhammad’s revelations are written down in the Quran. Since the Quran is not easily accessible to non-Arab speakers, and since it requires knowledge of the context of the verses, many adherents have to rely on translations and interpretations of the verses by others. An additional source of knowledge are the Hadiths. These have been transmitted orally, and their authority is based on the chain of narrators. Thus, in all three instances, the intermediary (either the Prophet Muhammad, or the translator, or the narrator) plays a fundamental role in the understanding of Islam. Hence, the trustworthiness of the intermediary is of utmost importance. Therefore, arguments about the “true Islam” often revolve exclusively around the trustworthiness of certain historical or contemporary figures or institutions.

At the same time, Islam has no universally accepted trustworthy figures — apart from the Prophet Muhammad himself. Each branch of Islam considers different Hadiths trustworthy. As for contemporary figures, there no hierarchy of power that would be acknowledged by all adherents. Islam has no means of formally appointing a preacher that would be universally accepted. It also has no formal requirements for teaching Islam that would be acknowledged by all adherents. Anybody can found a mosque and spread their version of Islam. Anybody can make a statement and call it a fatwā (legal ruling), as long as the person has the “requisite qualifications of knowledge”, adheres “to the methodology of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence”, and follows the “principles and certainties of the Shariah” 4. This is especially true in the West, where, unlike in Muslim countries, no licence is currently needed to become an imam 20.

It follows that different interpretations of Islam consider different authorities legitimate. Examples for such authorities are: the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt (an authority for many Sunnis), the Website IslamQA (the second most-popular Islamic Web site in the world 21), or the council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia (Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body). Each of these authorities considers the others non-authoritative (IslamQA, e.g., is blocked in Saudi Arabia). Some adherents consider them all non-authoritative, and rely yet on other scholars, on their personal readings, or on the readings of their friends.

We thus see that, on the one hand, Islam relies on trustworthy intermediaries for the understanding of the faith. On the other hand, Islam has no universally accepted system to designate these trustworthy intermediaries. Therefore, different people follow different intermediaries, thus contributing to the diversity of beliefs.

Each understands the faith differently
but each understands it best.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”

Political influence

Historically, Islam was not just a religion, but also a political system 22. In this spirit, different governmental and non-governmental actors combine religion and political ends. There are today 5 main strands of Muslim politics 22:
The Muslim Brotherhood
A Sunni group that was founded in Egypt, and is nowadays active in Morocco, Tunisia, and the Gaza Strip (through Hamas). It can be pragmatic and gradualist in its approach to Sharia.
Quietist Salafism
An ultra-conservative Sunni movement that seeks to emulate the Prophet Muhammad, financed by Saudi Arabia. It might support militant Jihad (war) abroad, but generally does not challenge Sunni Arab rulers.
A Sunni group that pursues violent Jihad, with prominent proponents being Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Rule of the Jurisprudent
A Shia doctrine that holds that supreme political leadership should be exercised by a senior Shia scholar. This system is implemented in Iran, and the country also sponsors aligned militia abroad, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A rival Shia trend, active in Iran, which backs democracy as the means to consolidate the Shias’ empowerment.

These different strands have slightly different interpretations of the faith, thereby contributing to the diversity of Muslim beliefs.

Furthermore, the governments of several countries actively steer the interpretation of the religion. They co-author the weekly sermons, and make sure that these reflect government policy. In Singapore, for example, the Friday sermons emphasize a healthy life style and social harmony. The governments of other countries, such as Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Arab Gulf States, also co-write the sermons23. The same is not true in Western countries, which do not interfere with religion because of the separation of church and state. In these countries, some imams are financed by other countries, and therefore convey the interpretation of Islam of these places24. These different influences contribute to the diversity of the interpretations of the faith.

Cultural influence

Like other religions, Islam has been influenced by the surrounding cultures. The following traditions are considered obligatory in most interpretations of Islam, even though they have no basis in the Quran:
Male circumcision is almost ubiquitous in the Muslim world, and considered obligatory by most interpretations of the faith. However, it is not mentioned in the Quran. It was most likely taken over from Pagan Arabian tribes and from Jewish tradition.
Halal Meat
Many interpretations of Islam prescribe Halal meat, i.e., meat from animals that have been slaughtered according to Muslim rite. In France, e.g., 70% of Muslims eat only Halal meet, and 40% (wrongly4) believe that it would be one of the 5 pillars of Islam 25. However, the Quran does not mention this rite. While it does prohibit pork meat, blood, carrion, and animals slaughtered for other gods (2:173M 5:3M 6:145, 16:115), as well as various forms of killing (5:3M), it does not prescribe any specific way of slaughtering. Even the verse that requires naming Allah over the animal (6:121) stands in contrast with the verse that allows meat slaughtered by Christians (5:5M). The Muslim slaughtering rite has thus developed independently of the Quran.
Most interpretations of Islam stipulate 5 prayers per day. Yet, the Quran established only 3 prayers, which corresponded to the Jewish shakharith, minkah, and arbith prayers. Hence, Quranists pray only 3 times a day. A possible reason for the 5 prayers may be the influence of Zoroastrianism. When the early Muslims came to Persia, they found that the Zoroastrians prayed 5 times a day. Not wishing to be outdone in religious devotion, the early Muslims then adopted their customs 17. This is then justified based on narrations and customs 26.

The influence of such traditions contributes to the diversity of beliefs in Islam.

Western influence

Throughout the times, Islam was influenced by Western thinking. For example, Arabs used to capture and trade slaves from the 8th century on until the 19th century, and no contradiction to Islam was found. The Quran assigns slaves an inferior status (24:32M, 16:71, 2:178M, 16:75), and contains no punishment for taking slaves. Hence, it was considered “the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave the nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet”, as Tripoli’s ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja explained to the American President Thomas Jefferson in 1786. For centuries, North African Barbary pirates raided European countries for slaves, mainly in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, but also in places as far as Iceland (giving rise to the Arab loanword “razzia”). This ceased only when France colonized Algeria in 1830 . Christian nations captured slaves as well, most notably for the Americas. Yet, Britain abolished slavery in 1833, France in 1848, and the US in 1865. These countries then pressured the Islamic countries to follow suit 2728: Tunis closed its slave market in 1847 under British pressure. Under Britain’s consul-general, Egypt’s legislative assembly abolished slavery at the end of the 19th century. Morocco abolished slavery in 1922 (after it became a French protectorate), Qatar in 1952 (after it became a British protectorate), Saudi Arabia (which was never colonized) in 1962, and Mauritania (where French rules against slavery expired after independence) in 1981. In 1990, the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” outlawed slavery 29. Today, all interpretations of Islam except for the most extremist ones prohibit slavery. Thus, the Islamic value system has changed in response to Western developments.

Another example is the UN declaration of the Human Rights in 1948. It has met criticism from Muslim countries, because it grants freedom of religion, freedom of marriage, and equal rights to men and women. Hence, the Muslim countries drafted their own declaration, the aforementioned “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” 29. It does not grant freedom of religion. In 2004, the League of Arab States adopted a slight variant of the UN declaration, the “Arab Charter on Human Rights” 30. It is explicitly based on “the noble Islamic religion”, and does grant freedom of religion. Again, the Islamic value system has apparently changed in response to Western values. Vice versa, the most conservative Muslim countries (Iran for Shia Islam, and Saudi Arabia for Sunni Islam) are those that were never colonized by the West 31.

Muslims who live in the West are also influenced by the surrounding culture. For example, Muslims in Britain are less likely to believe that apostates should be killed 32, while this opinion is prevalent in many Muslim countries. About half of Muslims in the US accept homosexuality 33, while this ratio is much lower in Muslim-majority lands. They are also more likely to accept multiple interpretations of the faith 34. Some Muslims in the West also develop their own reading of the religion to reconcile it with the values of the surrounding society. They may come to believe, e.g., that the Islam gives equal rights to women before the law, that any meat except pork is Halal, or that Islam prohibits child marriage. Such tendencies are opposed by adherents of Salafism and Pure Islam Movements, who want to rid the faith of cultural influences and Western influences in particular.

This varying degree of Western influence can explain part of the diversity of Muslim beliefs.

Proofs for Islam

An atheist view on Islam

In the Muslim view, the Prophet Muhammad received revelations from God (Allah), and these revelations were written down in the Quran. In the atheist view of things, Allah does not exist. He is, in atheist eyes, a fictional character, just like the other gods. This is because no-one has ever provably seen God, and there is, in atheist eyes, no evidence for his existence. It follows that, for atheists, the Quran is not divine. Rather, it is (for atheists) a collection of sayings by the Prophet Muhammad himself, which are incorrectly attributed to a divine source.

There are numerous abstract proofs for the supernatural, and numerous reasons why these do not convince atheists. In particular, atheists do not subscribe to the argument that God must be the ultimate reason for our existence. We shall now discuss arguments that are specific to Islam: Why does Islam not convince atheists?

We will present the classical arguments for Islam one by one. The first six of these arguments revolve around the Prophet Muhammad. The others relate to the beauty of the Quran, and the organization of Islam.

While a believer can always assert that a their religious conviction is not their opinion but that of a particular prophet, sage, or book, the assertion that we should listen to that source rather than another one is still their opinion.

Muhammad heard God

The most tangible argument for the truth of Islam is the testimony of the Prophet Muhammad. He reported revelations from God and has thereby, adherents argue, had direct contact with Allah.

Such arguments do not convince atheists: Several people have claimed that God has spoken to them, and thousands still do in our times. In many cases, such claims are induced by hyper-religiosity. In extreme cases, epilepsy, hallucinations, or schizophrenia can amplify such experiences. Temporal lobe epilepsy, in particular, is associated with hyper-religiosity, and with the desire to express oneself with many words. Dehydration in the desert, too, can contribute to such experiences. Therefore, we usually do not believe people who claim that God spoke to them.

It is a contradiction, in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that has come to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. I did not see the angel myself, and therefore, I have a right not to believe in it.
Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason”

Muhammad was a warner!

In Muslim eyes, the Prophet Muhammad was a warner: He was sent from God to warn us that if we do not follow the word of God, we will burn in Hell. This can be compared to a fireman, who rushes into a house that will be attacked by a wildfire, and tells the inhabitants to leave. Then why do unbelievers not follow the fireman?

The unbelievers do not follow the fireman, because there is no evidence of the wildfire. If someone storms into your house and tells you about the wildfire, would you go with him? Most likely you would go outside with him to see the fire. You would maybe quickly check out the news or turn on the radio. If there is no evidence whatsoever of the wildfire, you would just kick the man out. If, in addition, the man tells you to worship the arsonist who caused the wild fire, you would probably call the police.

Talking is cheap
The Tremeloes in “Silence Is Golden”

Muhammad was exceptional

Muslims argue that the Prophet Muhammad was a person of excellent moral character, and that, thus, he must have spoken the truth about his revelations from God.

Let us thus look into what we know about the Prophet Muhammad. It is hard to find any sources about his life other than religious sources, and it is thus hard to know how the Prophet really was. However, this does not impede the argument, which goes that the Prophet Muhammad, with what is commonly assumed about his life, is a reason to follow Islam.

Biography of the Prophet Muhammad

We follow here the biography of the Encyclopedia Britannica 35, with support from Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad. A Prophet for Our Time” 36. According to these, Muhammad is born in the year 570 as a member of the tribe of Quraysh in the desert town of Mecca (in today’s Saudi Arabia) . Muhammad’s father passes away before his birth, and he loses his mother at the age of 6, leaving him in the care of his uncle. At the age of 25, Muhammad is employed to oversee the transportation of merchandise to Syria. At the age of 40, Muhammad reports his first revelations from God. After three years of such experiences, he takes to preach his revelations in public. After the Quranic proclamations begin to deny the existence of gods other than Allah, thereby attacking the religious beliefs and practices of the Quraysh tribe, tensions arise between the adherents of Muhammad and the remaining inhabitants of Mecca. Muhammad and his followers then emigrate to the nearby town of Medina. From there, they begin robbing Meccan caravans 35, also under the lead of the Prophet himself, which becomes a routine they continue 36. This leads to several military encounters between the followers of Muhammad and the Meccans, each of which ousts another of the three main Jewish tribes of Medina. In the case of the last Jewish tribe, the Qurayẓah, the followers of Muhammad execute all adult males and sell the women and the children into slavery 35, even though they already surrendered 36. Muhammad then leads his forces against the Jewish oasis of Khaybar, north of Medina. In 630, Meccan allies attack Muhammad’s allies, and Muhammad submits Mecca with an army. He then leads several military expeditions, and submits other towns as well 35, reaching the border of Syria. He dies in the year 632 in Medina.

The Prophet Muhammad in the Quran

From the Quran, we learn that the Prophet Muhammad was an excellent model to follow (48:29M), a good example (33:21M), and of outstanding moral character (68:05). However, in unbelieving eye, the Prophet Muhammad just said these things about himself.

Let us therefore look at how his contemporaries saw him: Contemporaries said that he was a sorcerer (5:110M). They accused him of forgery when one commandment of the Quran was replaced by another one (16:101). According to them, Muhammad was a liar (26:186), and he did not actually produce the Quranic verses by himself (25:4). He just repeats old (biblical) stories (25:5, 83:13, 27:68, 16:24, 6:25, 26:137, 23:83). When the Meccans did not want to listen to him, Muhammad told them that the jinns (spirits) did listen to him and found his verses “amazing” (72:1ff). The Meccans replied that Muhammad was just obsessed by magic (25:8, 26:185) or insane (81:22). He was also illiterate (7:157, 158). Notwithstanding this, he led several wars. In these wars, he took war booty (8:1, 8:40), his enemies were killed (8:57M, 8:67M) and tortured (8:12M, 5:33M) and women were used as sex slaves (4:24M, also 23:5-6, 33:50, 4:3, 70:29-30).

The Prophet Muhammad in the Hadiths

The only other contemporary source that we have about the Prophet Muhammad are the Hadiths. These are of disputed authenticity.

Numerous Hadiths tell us that the Prophet Muhammad acted kindly — for example when he recommended his followers to free their slaves 28. Other Hadiths (listed, e.g., in 3738) tell us that the Prophet Muhammad

Excellent moral character is not a sum of positive and negative traits.

Muhammad had many followers

The Prophet Muhammad was a judge, a civil leader, and a military commander. He had thousands of followers. This can be seen as a proof that the Prophet must have spoken the truth about his revelations from God.

Many people certainly honestly believed in the divine message of the Prophet. However, we should also not forget that the Prophet Mohammed led his followers to war, and allowed them, by divine sanction, to keep the war booties, women, slaves, and land 17. They also saw that the Prophet Muhammad could organize very successful raids, and this made people of the time open to his message 36.

Furthermore, under Muslim rule, unbelievers had less political rights, and higher tax duties. Thus, many considered conversion to Islam their best option. Such a conversion was a one-way street: Converting from Islam back to another religion was punishable by death. In some countries, it still is. As Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, opinioned: If the Muslims had gotten rid of the punishment for apostasy, Islam would not exist today; it was the punishment of apostasy what kept Islam to this day 39.

Intellectually, Muhammad only persuaded a few thousand people — the rest have simply followed and copied one another. Until today, a large number of Muslims blindly follow the religion of their fathers as something given.
Ibn Warraq in “Why I am not a Muslim”

Muhammad was sincere

A common argument goes that the Prophet Muhammad was a sincere person. He had no other interest than speaking the truth.

At the same time, unbelievers can remark that the Prophet received a number of Quranic verses that give him (and only him) specific advantages. The following verses mention the Prophet by name:

Narrated Aisha: I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Apostle and I used to say, “Can a lady give herself to a man?” But when Allah revealed: “You, O Muhammad, can postpone the turn of whom you will of your wives, and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside temporarily.”, I said to the Prophet: “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad [Bukhari 6:60:311]

Muhammad was illiterate

Another argument for the truth of Islam goes that the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate, as the Quran states (7:157, 158). Therefore, the Prophet could not have produced the verses of the Quran by himself. Therefore, he must have had divine help, and the verses must have been dictated by God.

The Prophet did indeed not write down the verses himself. During his lifetime, the Quran did not exist. The Prophet died in the year 632 CE, and the verses were memorized by his followers. However, in a battle of 633 CE, many of those who had memorized the verses died. Therefore, people decided to collect the verses, and to write them into a book. If we are to believe the Hadith, the scribe Zayd “started locating the Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leafstalks of date palms and from the memories of men” (Bukhari 6:60:201 ). The Hadiths tell us that some verses were lost, such as one that was eaten by a sheep (Majah 3:9:1944), quite possibly the one that prescribed stoning (Muslim 17:4194). The final collection of verses was finished under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, about 20 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Ask yourself if God, the greatest conceivable being, would command our species to lash 100 times unmarried men and women for having sex, or if it is more likely that a 7th century desert person commanded this.

The Quran is divinely beautiful

Islam holds that the Quran is so beautiful and perfect that it cannot be of human origin. Therefore, it must be divine.

At the same time, the Quran is not read extensively by people outside the Muslim world. Let us try to understand why this is the case. A pseudo-random sample of 100 verses from the Quran shows the following distribution of topics:

Reference to Biblical stories20%
Greatness of Allah or the Allah listens16%
Unbelievers are bad / fight them15%
Arguments with unbelievers8%
Thus, a prevalent topic in the Quran are biblical stories. However, the Quran does not actually narrate or summarize these stories, but rather assumes that the reader is already familiar with them. The same goes for other topics: Events are referred to, but not narrated. Opponents are generally referred to as “unbelievers”, without providing more details on their identity or motivation. The Surahs are not in chronological order. Parts of the book are disconnected poetic passages that ressemble more a stream of consciousness. The text appears repetitive to the uninitiated, and has no apparent structure and no sustained argument or narrative 36. The greatness of Allah and the threat of hell, in particular, are a recurrent theme across the book. To illustrate the impression that the uniniated has when reading the Quran, we cite here the beginning of a Surah chosen at random (Surah 42):
  1. Ha. Mim.
  2. A'in. Sin. Qaf. [Various verses start with such opening letters, and their meaning was not revealed 40]
  3. Likewise Allah, the Omnipotent, the All-Wise sends Revelation unto you [O Muhammad] as [He sent Revelation to] those before you.
  4. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, and He is the Most High, the Most Great.
  5. Nearly the heavens [through the Greatness of Revelation] might be rent asunder from above them and the angels glorify the praises of their Lord [with gratitude], and ask for forgiveness for those on the earth. Truly, Allah is the Oft-Forgiving, the Most Merciful.
  6. And as for those who take as guardians others besides Him, Allah is Protector over them and you [O Muhammad] are not a guardian over them [to make them believe].
  7. And thus We have revealed unto you [O Muhammad], a Qur’an in Arabic that you may warn the Mother of the Town [Mecca] and all around it and warn [them] of the Day of Assembling [Resurrection] of which there is no doubt, when a party will be in Paradise and a party in the blazing Fire.
  8. And if Allah had willed, He could have made them one nation, but [He provides them with free choice and] admits whom He wills to His Mercy. And the wrong doers will have neither a protector nor a helper [on that Day].
  9. Or have they taken [for worship] guardians besides Him? But Allah, He Alone is the [True] Protector, and it is He Who gives life to the dead and He is Able to do all things.
  10. And in whatsoever you differ, the decision thereof is with Allah. Such is Allah, my Lord in Whom I put my trust and to Him I turn in repentance.
  11. The Creator of the heavens and the earth. He has made for you spouses from yourselves, and for the cattle [also] mates. By this means He creates you [in the wombs]. There is nothing like Him and He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer.
  12. To Him belongs the keys of the heavens and the earth. He enlarges provision for whom He wills, and straitens [it for whom He wills]. Verily, He is the All-Knower of everything [and His enlarging and straitening the provisions are based on His Omniscience and Wisdom].
The Quran contains 6,224 more verses in this style.
The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is.
Ursula Le Guin

Scientific miracles

One argument for the truth of Islam goes that the Quran contains scientific knowledge that was so ahead of its time that it could only have been dictated by God. This includes the prediction of embryo development, radar technology, ozone layers, quasars, radio receivers, the diameter of the earth, and the Big Bang theory.

And yet, these things have not been invented in the Muslim world. Believers have been studying and even memorizing the Quran for 1400 years. In some countries, such as Jordan and Tunisia, more than half of believers read the Quran every day 7. And yet, they did not discover radar technology, ozone layers, or the Big Bang theory in it. Only when these things were found in the Western world did Muslims find it in the Quran.

The Golden Age

The Ummayyad Caliphate at its greatest extent, c. AD 750.CC-BY-SA Gabagool, city names removed
The Islamic Golden Age was a period where the Muslim world experienced a scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing. It is dated roughly from the 8th century to the 14th century — a time during which the Muslim world comprised Northern Africa, Spain, the Middle East, Persia, and much of modern-day Pakistan. A common argument goes that the success of the Golden Age proves the superiority of Islam. This superiority vanished mainly, so the argument goes, because people no longer truly follow the word of God today.

We first note that the Islamic Empire was not achieved only by trade and peaceful means, as some people believe. The Arabs fought against the Romans, the Persians, the (Christian) Ethiopians, the Berbers, the Turks, the Visigoths, and the Franks. They conquered the Levant, Egypt, Persia, parts of India, the Maghreb, Hispania, Transoxiana (the region north-east of Iran), and Afghanistan. These lands were conquered against the will of their inhabitants, and this is the reason for the numerous battles. Unlike the Crusades, to which this expansion is often compared, the Islamic expansion conquered lands that were never Muslim in the first place 41. In this respect, the expansion was more akin to the colonialization by the European countries a few centuries later.

Second, the Golden Age was not as golden as it is portrayed, at least for non-Muslims. Non-Muslims lived in Islamic lands as “Dhimmi”: They had to pay special taxes for their “protection”. This is no different from a Mafia system, where the victims have to pay a Danegeld in order to be “protected” from the very agents that collect the money. Muslims paid a charity tax, too, but the Danegeld was a fee for protection provided by the Muslim ruler to non-Muslims, for the exemption from military service, for the permission to practice a non-Muslim faith, and as material proof of the non-Muslims’ submission(Quran 9:29). Furthermore, the Dhimmi had less political rights than Muslims: Display of religious symbols was forbidden; church bells were not allowed to ring; proselytism was prohibited; and Dhimmi men could not marry Muslim women. Non-Muslims were not allowed to enter the holy cities of Mecca or Medina (a restriction that is upheld until today). The Sharia further stipulated that Non-Muslims in conquered areas have to wear special signs on their clothing, may not build new churches, may not walk in the middle of the street, and are not greeted like Muslims. Jews, in particular, were required to wear distinctive clothing in the Islamic World since the 8th century — a practice later adopted by medieval Catholic Europe and more recently by the Nazis 42. These practices were codified in the Pact of Umar. In summary, the unbelievers were second-class citizens. Atheists had no place in the system at all; they were killed as apostates. Slavery was commonplace: men were used for labor, and women for labor and sexual gratification. Thus, while this model was in some aspects better than the treatment that non-Christians received in Europe, it can by no means be a model for today. On the contrary, today’s Muslims would (rightly) globally cry out if some country imposed on Muslims what the Muslim empire of the Golden Age imposed on non-Muslims.

In absolute terms, the Golden Age is thus nothing to strive for. In relative terms, however, the Golden Age did have advantages over medieval Europe: science flourished, the Greek philosophy was kept alive, and the times were relatively peaceful. However, if a civilization is successful, this does not necessarily mean that its force is divine. For example, in 1400 CE, Europe woke up under the Renaissance. It set out to conquer the majority of the rest of the world. It colonized for hundreds of years the very same Muslim countries that were once the forefront of the Islamic Golden Age. Europe led the industrial revolution. Later, the culture collectively known as “The West” led the scientific revolution, the social revolution, and the Internet revolution. Today, the West has more military, economic, cultural, and scientific impact on this world than any other culture ever had. This dominance lasts already much longer than the Islamic Golden Age. Does this make the West divine? Hardly so.

If we investigate the reasons for both cultural dominances, we find that they share several factors. Historically, one of them was the desire to dominate the world, and the willingness to use force to that end. However, we also find peaceful factors: scientific exploration flourished both during the Islamic Golden Age and in the European Renaissance, and translation and reading was prevalent in both cultures. Both is still true in the West, and less so in the Muslim world. These may thus be factors worth looking into.

Islam is so well organized

A popular argument for the truth of Islam goes that the Prophet Muhammad must have had revelations from God, because a lie could hardly have given rise to such a powerful and grand religion as Islam. The argument goes roughly as follows:
This particular man continued to talk about what he’d experienced, and started to convince people. In fact, he generated a religion that converted thousands of people in his life, many of them very solid and practical people. Can a crazy person do that? Perhaps, if he’s sufficiently charismatic. But most people who joined Islam did so without meeting the Prophet Muhammad. They were convinced. Can the ravings of a madman convince thousands of people, drive many of them to leave their homes and gather to this mission, and hold to it, even if it meant their own lives? Maybe, but that’s a pretty impressive insanity.

Then, when Muhammad died, Islam continued to survive and hold together and eventually convert millions. Can a crazy person build an organization that will last and prosper beyond his own death? We can assume that a lot of the building was done by Muhammad’s more sane followers, but you’d think that these intelligent, practically-minded and forward thinking people would have realized they were following a madman at some point. It strains credulity that all of this could have been done by a raving lunatic.

So, let’s assume that he wasn’t actually a gibbering loon, but was an intelligent, charismatic and pious man who just deluded himself into believing that God was talking to him. But that doesn’t work either. If he’d claimed to have had one heavenly visitation in his youth, we could mark that down as a one-off hallucination, but that’s not the case. He reported repeated heavenly visitations throughout his life. He reported continuing to receive doctrine and instruction from heavenly messengers. This wasn’t just wishful thinking, he was either hallucinating, or lying, or was actually visited by beings from outside of what we think of as the natural world.

I think the ultimate blow to this theory is the existence of the Quran. Muhammad produced a volume that can be held, read, examined and evaluated. Please, read a randomly selected page of this book and tell me if you think this sounds like the ravings of a madman, or the extemporaneous tales of a wild storyteller. The Quran is an exceedingly sober document that never breaks down into impenetrable gnomic statements, never loses the thread of it’s often complex narrative, never runs into contradictions. It purports to give an account of ancient prophets and their peoples and civilizations over the course of a thousand years, and it’s internally consistent (we can have a debate about the historical accuracy, but within the volume itself, everything makes sense). No one who’s ever written a book could possibly believe that such a feat could be accomplished at random, off the top of one’s head.

So, dismissing that entirely implausible claim, we’re left with only two options: liar or prophet. According to Muhammad himself, the Quranic verses are genuine. The alternative to that is that he made them up himself, or with the help of associates who’ve never been identified, it would have to be conceived, written, rewritten and edited entirely in secret.

There are many instances in history of people trying to forge or pass off their own writings as revelations. None that I have ever heard of is even remotely comparable to the length, complexity and beauty of the Quran. This is a volume that millions of people, many of them educated and intelligent, have studied their entire lives and continue to both be convinced by, and gather inspiration and instruction from. Nothing even vaguely similar has ever been acheived by any charlatan. So, from an objective perspective, we should either celebrate the Quran as the most elaborate and brilliant hoax in history, or accept it as scripture. There just aren’t any other reasonable alternatives.

This is one way in which we can argue for Islam. However, the argument can also be used for other religions. For example, Mormons argue that their prophet, Joseph Smith, must have had real divine revelations, because he founded such an organized religion (Mormonism). In fact, the above text comes from a Mormon. We have just replaced all references to Joseph Smith by “the Prophet Muhammad”, all references to the Church of Mormons by “Islam”, and all references to the Book of Mormons by “the Quran”; and we have removed some words that were specific to Joseph Smith 43.

This shows that Mormons use exactly the same argument as Muslims to prove the truth of their religion. However, whenever the same argument can be used to prove two contradictory stances, the argument is wrong.

It is easy to see why: Once the religion has enough adherents, it starts organizing itself. Adherents build up the cultural, ideological, and legal infrastructure. Those religions that did not do that simply did not survive. Hence, all religions that we see today are organized. This, however, does not make them true.

Moral Tenets in Islam

Analyzing Moral Tenets

In the following, we will embark on a moral evaluation of Islam. This is a challenging endeavor, because there is not only one Islamic belief system, but several. Therefore, we will not analyze Islam itself. Rather, we will analyze specific moral beliefs such as “Apostates should be killed”. With each such belief, we will list the sources that proponents and opponents of each tenet bring forward, quantify the proportion of adherents who believe in the tenet, and discuss its compatibility with Humanist values.

Before we do that, we shall introduce the Quran and the Sharia as sources of Islamic morality.

He who dares not offend cannot be honest.
Thomas Paine in “The Forester’s Letters”

The Quran as a legal source

The Quran has always played an important role in Islamic views on morality. The Quran affirms that it is perfect and complete (5:44, 6:38, 7:52, 10:37, 12:111, 6:114, 6:115), and that no one has power to legislate except Allah (12:40, 5:50). It asks in particular
Shall I seek other than God as a source of law, when He has revealed to you this book fully detailed? [...] You shall not harbor any doubt. The word of your Lord is complete, in truth and justice. Nothing shall abrogate His words. [6:114-115]
Based on these verses, all major interpretations of Islam see the Quran as a primary source of moral tenets.

This role is fundamental, since Islam traditionally does not separate religion and politics: the Prophet Muhammad was both a religious prophet and a temporal ruler and warrior. Thus, for many Muslims, Islam is not just a personal faith but also a blueprint for organising a perfect society. The Western notion of separating religion from politics is regarded as nonsensical 22. In this spirit, Islam tends to view any law not in harmony with its own as illegitimate (based on the Quranic verses 5:44, 5:50). This distinguishes it from Christianity, which differentiates between worldy and spiritual power (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”, Bible / Mark 12:17). There is another major difference: Christianity holds that the Bible was inspired by God, but written by men. This gives some leeway in its interpretation. Furthermore, the New Testament overrides the Old Testament in certain places (e.g., in what concerns the obligation of circumcision, or the prohibition of pork meat). There is thus a readiness to accept that certain parts of the Bible are obsolete. Finally, driven by the Age of Reason, scientific progress, and secularism, a large part of Christians (especially in Europe) no longer believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is also the position of the Catholic Church and a number of other churches. Even fundamentalist readings of Christianity no longer burn bulls on an altar or kill people who work on Sabbath, as the Bible requires . There is an implicit understanding that some aspects of the Bible no longer apply today.

In the case of Islam, no such departure has taken place: all major interpretations of Islam hold that the Quran is the actual word of God. The majority of Muslims (not just adherents of extremist ideologies) believe that the Quran was literally dictated by God 1722. Hence, the Quran is valid in eternity. For this reason, its verses are important source of moral advice in all interpretations of Islam, and they are regularly cited in moral and legal arguments.

We don’t have to debate which is worse (the Bible or the Quran); what matters is how literally their adherents take them.
Steven Pinker in “Enlightenment now”


A Sharia is a legal code that was derived from the Quran and the Hadiths. Technically speaking, a Sharia is thus a moral framework, i.e., a set of statements that define good and bad behavior, together with punishments. The derivation of the Sharia differs between the denominations of Islam, and between the schools of thought. Thus, there are different Sharias. One of them is the “Reliance of the Traveller” by the 14th century author Shihabuddin Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn an-Naqib al-Misri. It has been translated to English by Nuh Ha Mim Keller 44, and contains for example the following instructions:
  1. Women have to cover every part of their body except hands and face (f5.3), and it is generally recommended that they also cover their face (m2.3). They are not allowed to speak to men without necessity (r32.6).
  2. A woman has to bring 4 male witnesses in order to prove a rape (o13.1). If the woman cannot bring the witnesses, she can be charged herself first for false accusation (o13.1) against the rapist, and then for having sex outside of marriage (o12.0).
  3. Men may not look at women in general (m2.3), except for dealings in court or trade (m2.12)
  4. Female genital mutilation is required, as well as male (e4.3)
  5. If the victim of a murder is a woman, her family can only claim half of the indemnity for men (o4.9)
  6. Judges have to be male (o22.1 (a)).
  1. Child marriage is OK in general (n9.9)
  2. Fathers can marry their daughters to someone without her permission (m3.13 (2)) irrespective of age (m4.4)
  3. The husband “possesses the full right to enjoy his wive’s person” (m5.4), meaning to do anything that does not physically harm her.
  4. Husbands have the right to force sex on their wives (m5.1, e13.5).
  5. Wives have the right to sex every 4 days (m5.2, m10.5).
  6. Women may not travel (m10.3), and she has to stay at home if her husband wants her to (m10.4, m10.11).
  7. Marriage is a deal between the guardian of the future wife and the future husband (m3.2). The women cannot marry herself (m3.4, m3.7), even though she may ask her guardian to marry her to someone she chose (m3.9). Every woman has to have a guardian, and cannot choose that person herself (m3.3).
  8. An Arab woman may not marry a non-Arab man (m4.2 (1)), because “Allah has chosen the Arabs above others”.
  9. If the wife is rebellious (refuses sex, leaves the house without permission, stays with a non-family man), the husband should first warn her with words, and then beat her (m10.11), although not hit the face, wound her, break bones, or cause blood to flow.
  10. Thus husband has to pay all expenses for his wife (m11), if she obeys him (m11.9).
  11. The husband can divorce his wife (n1.1 (a)), but the wife can only divorce her husband with his agreement (n1.3).
  12. The husband can take his wife with him on travels (m5.4). If he has several wives, he has to draw lots to choose the wife who will come with him.
  13. Marriage to a non-monotheist or apostate is prohibited (m7.4)
  14. Husband and wife have to treat each other well, which includes fulfilling the sexual duties (m10.1).
Criminal law
  1. A Muslim who neglects prayer is to be killed (f1.4)
  2. Retaliation is obligatory (o.1.1), but can be replace by an indemnity (o3.8). The indemnity for killing a male Muslim is 100 Camels (o4.2), although any other payment can be made instead (o4.8). The indemnity for a female victim is half the indemnity for a male victim (o4.9), and one third for non-Muslims.
  3. Parents may kill their children (o1.2 (4))
  4. Adultery is punished by stoning to death or scourged with 100 stripes (o12.2). Accusing someone wrongly of adultery carries 80 lashes (o13.3).
  5. Theft is punished by amputation of the hand (o14.1).
  6. Drinking alcohol is punished by 40 lashes (o16.3).
  7. Obedience to the Calif is obligatory (o25.5).
  1. Volent Jihad is prescribed (o9.1, 2, 3) in order to spread Islam or subdue Christians and Jews (o9.8). The califate has to fight all people who are not “people of the book” (i.e., Muslims, Jews, or Christians) (o9.9).
  2. Children and women captured in war become slaves (o9.13), and the wives’ marriages are automatically annulled.
  3. All spoils of battle are divided among the combatants (o10.1).
  1. Non-Muslims can be killed (o1.2 (2)) without penalty.
  2. Apostates in particular can be killed (o8.1, o4.17, o8.4), and have to be (o8.1). Apostasy is basically anything that criticizes the Quran (o8.7 (1)-(20)), including from non-Muslims (o11.10 (5)).
  3. It is not permissible to give zakat (charity) to a non-Muslim (h8.24).
  4. Non-Muslims have to wear special signs on their clothing, may not build new churches, may not walk in the middle of the street, may not ring church bells, and may not build houses higher than those of Muslims, and they are not greeted like Muslims (o11.0-11).
  5. Non-Muslims may not convert a Muslim away from Islam (o11.11).
  1. Enslaving a person carries no penalty (k32.0).
  2. When a child or a woman is taken captive, they become slaves by the fact of capture, and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled (o9.13).
Art and Music
  1. Singing and dancing and music are prohibited (r40).
  2. Musical instruments are condemned (r40.1).
  3. Listening to singing is offensive (with the exception of songs that encourage piety) (r40.3).
  4. It is unlawful to decorate walls with pictures (generally interpreted as pictures of animate beings) (o17.9).

This Sharia, and this particular translation have been certified by the Imam of the Mosque of Darwish Pasha Damascus/Syria, the Mufti of the Jordanian Armed Forces, the International Institute of Islamic Thought, and the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt (the highest authority in Sunni theology) as “conforming to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”, which is the largest Muslim denomination. Therefore, we will call this Sharia simply “the Sharia”. However, not all Muslims agree with these authorities, and not all Muslims agree with the concept of Sharia in the first place.

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
Ida B. Wells

Attitudes towards the Sharia

DR Congo
Guinea Bissau
Percentage of Muslims who favor making Sharia the official law of their country 45
Different interpretations of Islam have different attitudes towards the Sharia. Liberal interpretations reject the Sharia outright as an archaic value system that has no place in a modern society. Conservative interpretations may idealize the Sharia, and hold that it gave women and minorities more rights than other contemporary systems. However, conservative interpretations hold that the Sharia should be implemented only in an ideal Caliphate, and/or do not want to re-introduce the Sharia today. Traditionalist interpretations of Islam support the Sharia, and want it to be implemented in Muslim lands. Extremist interpretations want the Sharia to be established by force everywhere in the world.

The traditionalist interpretation is quite widespread. The Sharia is a significant source of legislation in various Muslim countries. Some countries apply all or a majority of the Sharia code, and these include Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Yemen and Mauritania. In these countries, Sharia-prescribed punishments such as beheading, flogging, and stoning continue to be practiced judicially or extra-judicially. Overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many countries want a Sharia to be the official law of the land, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center 45 (see table). In France, 27% of Muslims want Sharia to replace secular law, a percentage that rises to 37% among adolescents, and to 41% among non-French-born people under the age of 35 46.

We can believe what we choose. Hence, we’re answerable for what we choose to believe.
John Henry Newman

The spectrum of interpretations

We have seen that support for the Sharia varies across the Muslim world. This is part of a broader variety of beliefs in Islam, which range from the liberal to the extremist. For the purposes of this book, we classify them by the tenets they adhere to:
Liberal Interpretations
Liberal interpretations adhere to the theological core tenets of Islam: the unity of God, the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad, and the divinity of the Quran. However, they usually do not condemn behavior that more traditionalist interpretations shun (homosexuality, apostasy, blasphemy, etc.). They also have no specific clothing requirements for women. The Sharia is considered outdated. These interpretations may also be permissive with alcohol. Such interpretations are followed, e.g., by some Muslims in the Western world. They sometimes border a religiousness that is merely cultural, or even agnosticism.
Conservative Interpretations
Conservative Interpretations adhere to the theological core tenets of Islam. In addition, they adhere to what we will call the mainstream tenets of Islam: tenets that are supported by a majority of the population in Muslim-majority countries and/or implemented in the law, and that are defended at the international level by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). These include male circumcision, the husband’s predominance in the family, and the shunning of homosexuality, apostasy, blasphemy, and interfaith marriage. Conservative interpretations of Islam shun these behaviors, but they do not approve of the punishments that the more traditionalist interpretations know, holding that these would apply only in a Caliphate. The conservative interpretations may idealize the Sharia, but do not want to see it implemented. A plurality of Muslims in the Western world appears to adhere to interpretations between the liberal and the conservative.
Traditionalist Interpretations
Traditionalist interpretations of Islam uphold the theological tenets and the mainstream tenets of the religion. In addition, they subscribe to one or more of the following more traditionalist tenets: a favorable view on female genital mutilation, the right of the husband to have sex with his wife, child marriage, or punishments for homosexuality, apostasy, blasphemy, or spousal disobedience. In these interpretations of the faith, the veil is often considered obligatory for women. The Sharia is considered a goal. As we will see, such traditionalist interpretations are held by large pluralities of Muslims in several Muslim countries. Adherents who seek the “Pure Islam”, freed from cultural influences, may also arrive at more traditionalist interpretations of the faith 47.
Extremist Interpretations
Extremist interpretations adhere to all core theological, mainstream, and traditionalist tenets, and believe that, in addition, Islamic rule has to be spread by violence in order to dominate the world, or at least be defended by violence. Most of these interpretations also approve of slavery and sex slavery. Women have to cover their entire body, and the Sharia is actively sought or implemented. These interpretations are followed by organizations such as the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and some Salafist groups.
The boundaries between these groups of interpretations are not crisp. Rather, the groups blend into each other, and individual believers may adhere to any combination of tenets, across the groups. Let us now look into the mainstream, traditionalist, and extremist tenets in more detail.
It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.
Thomas Paine, in “The complete political works”

Mainstream tenets

Interfaith marriage

Interfaith marriage is a marriage between people of different religions. For Islam, we are looking in particular at the question whether a Muslim may marry someone who does not adhere to an Abrahamic religion.

Sources cited to prohibit interfaith marriage

The Quran tells us that a man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but only if she is monotheistic (2:221M), while a woman has no such right (60:10M). This boils down to the following rule: Women may not marry non-Muslims, and men may marry only Muslim, Christian, or Jewish women. The intention was most likely to make sure that the offspring is Muslim.

Sources cited to permit interfaith marriage


Muslim Views

All mainstream interpretations of Islam hold that women may not marry non-Muslims, and that men may only marry Muslim, Jewish, or Christian women. In a survey of 19 Muslim-majority countries, Pew Reserach finds that the proportion of Muslims who would allow a different marriage is below 30% 48. The picture differs slightly in the ex-communist countries: 39% of Muslims in Russia, 75% of Muslims in Albania, and 32% of Muslims in Kazhakstan would allow an interfaith marriage. Muslims in Britain are split on the issue 32.

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) recognizes the right to marry without restrictions stemming from race, color, or nationality, but does not include religion 29.

The opposition in Muslim countries against interfaith marriage, as well as the omission of this freedom from the Cairo Declaration of the OIC, make the rejection of interfaith marriage a mainstream tenet in Islam.

Humanist View

Humanism holds (and the Human Rights assert) that people have the right to marry without limitation due to race, nationality or religion 49 (§ 16).

We can argue that Muslims are free to choose their partner, and thus to choose to marry only within their faith. They are. But a choice is only a choice if it can be otherwise. In Islam, the choice is predefined, and thus no longer a choice.

If Muslims marry only among themselves (or only with women of Abrahamic faiths), this has two effects: First, minority groups in Muslim majority countries cannot merge as easily into the majority as this would be the case without these restrictions. Second, Muslim minorities in Western countries cannot be absorbed as easily into the mainstream. The danger in both cases is a segregation of the minority.

The best proof of a successful integration of a foreign community into a host community is if members of both are ready to intermarry with the other.

Women’s rights

Here, we look into the question whether man and women should have equal rights before the law.

Sources cited against equal rights

The Quran tells us that a man can have 4 wives, while a woman can only have 1 husband (4:3M); that a man can marry a non-Muslim monotheist woman (2:221M), while a woman has no such right (60:10M); that a woman should be obedient to her husband (4:34M, 2:228); that a man inherits twice the share of a woman (4:11M); that the word of a man counts twice as much in court as that of a woman (2:282M); and that the women of the Prophet Muhammad, the role model, were not allowed to leave the house (33:33). The Prophet Muhammad reminds us in his Farewell Sermon to “treat women well, for they are like domestic animals with you and do not possess anything for themselves”. (The word “domestic animals” is disputed. Other reports use “captives” or “prisoners” instead, e.g., at-Tirmidhi:1163 and Majah:1851.) IslamQA agrees 50. Observers have argued that the Quran knows women only as objects of men: as wives, as minor daughters, and as slaves 5152 . Women who do not fall into these categories do not exist.

These rulings are echoed in the Sharia, which says that women cannot marry a non-Muslim (Sharia / m7.4), have to cover every part of their body except hands and face (Sharia / f5.3), while it is generally recommended that they also cover their face (ibid / m2.3). Women are not allowed to speak to men without necessity (ibid / r32.6). If the victim of a murder is a woman, her family can only claim half of the indemnity (ibid / o4.9). Husbands have full rights over their wives (ibid / m5.4, m10.11). Women may not travel (ibid / m10.3), and she has to stay at home if her husband wants her to (ibid / m10.4). The husband can divorce his wife (n1.1 (a)), but the wife can only divorce her husband with his agreement (n1.3). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”.

Sources cited for equal rights

The Quran says that men are only allowed to have several wives if they can treat them equally (4:129M). Since this is impossible, some interpretations of Islam argue that having 4 wives would really be the exception. Why would Allah procreate women and men at an equal rate if marriages were meant to have ratios of 4:1, these interpretations ask. The Quran also says that men and women should be a garment to each other (Quran 2:187). This has been extrapolated to imply that men and women should lead religious congregations in alternation 53. When Umm Salama Hind bint Abi Umayya (one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad) complained that women were so rarely mentioned in the Quran, the Prophet received Verse 33:35. It mentions men and women equally. This has been extrapolated to mean that there should be complete sexual equality in Islam 36.

Concerning inheritance, a man was expected to take care of his wife (4:34M, Farewell Sermon), and thus the woman did not need to inherit as much as the man. The Quran also emphasizes mutual respect between men and women (2:229M, 2:231M, 2:233M, 2:187M). Furthermore, the Quran tells us that men were created from a single soul (4:1). This has been extrapolated to mean that women shall be allowed to leave their homes (in defiance of 33:33), and that they are allowed to go to school 16. However, the unequal rights to marry (men may marry Christians, while women may not) is usually not challenged.

Muslim Views

The view that men may marry Christian women, while women may not marry Christian men enjoys near universal support in Islam. Beyond that, most Muslims in Muslim-majority countries approve of one form or another of legal discrimination against women, according to Pew Research: 87% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe that a woman must obey her husband, as do 70% of Muslims in Central Asia, and 93% of Muslims in Southeast Asia 54. 75% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa believe that a woman should not have an equal of inheritance (ibid). More than 40% of Muslims in Africa think that polygamy is moral (ibid). Less than 50% of Muslims in Africa believe that the woman should decide whether to wear the veil (ibid). In France, the number is 10% 55. Saudi schoolbooks teach that the “Blood money for a woman [is] Half of the blood money for a man” 56. Muslim legal scholars promote a notion of qiwamah (guardianship) that gives men authority over women. In traditionalist countries, such as Saudi Arabia, this is official policy. But the attitude persists even in relatively liberal parts of the Arab world, such as Morocco, where 77% of men believe it is their duty to exercise guardianship over female relatives, and most of the women surveyed say they support the idea of male guardianship 57. In Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, strong majorities of men believe it is their role to monitor and control the movements of the women and girls in their households, according to the UN; only half of men believe a married woman should have the same right to work as a man; and younger men’s views on gender equality do not differ substantially from those of older men; 60%-90% of men expect to control their wives’ personal freedoms, from what they wear and where they go to when the couple has sex; in Egypt, just 10% of wives work full time 58. In Salafism, the women can go to Paradise only if she does what her husband tells her to do5.

Discrimination in Family Law, according to the OECD 59
As for the state actors, most Muslim-majority countries do not grant women equal rights in the family law. The OECD has compiled an index that measures legal provisions against child marriage, and for equal rights in the household, inheritance laws, and divorce 59. In this index, the 33 worst-off countries are all members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Only 11 of the 59 OIC countries make it into the “medium discrimination” category (and none into the “low” category). Eleven Muslim-majority countries made reservations in their signing of the “UN Convention on the Elimiation of Discrimination against Women” in order to comply with Sharia law or their interpretation of Islam 60. The UN notes that, in most countries of the Arab world, “a woman needs a male guardian to marry, that is, women are not allowed to marry without the authorization of their father, elder brothers, or uncles”, and “personal status codes largely codify women’s status in terms of male guardianship and authority” 61. Family laws “tend to enshrine gender inequality by limiting women’s right to marry, divorce, obtain child custody and inherit”. To round off the picture, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, does not grant women equal rights, only equal “dignity” 29.

In the Arab world (which makes up roughly half of the Muslim-majority countries), this legal discrimination is complemented by social depreciation of women. A 2009 United Nations report finds that “many Arab women are still bound by patriarchal patterns of kinship, legalised discrimination, social subordination and ingrained male dominance. Because women find themselves in a lowly position in relation to decision-making within the family, their situation continuously exposes them to forms of family and institutionalised violence”62. This situation is improving: A 2016 report by the UN finds that progress has been made concerning women’s literacy, the education of girls, the involvement of women in politics, and the removal of discriminatory laws 61. However, the report still deplores a society that is “repressive of young women”, and notes a climate of “gender-specific injustices [that] are closely tied to wider forms of inequality and injustice”, where “conservative social and political forces form a rigid, insidious alliance against the empowerment of young women”, and “conservative Islamic parties promote a normative and discriminatory gender ideology [that treats] women as legal minors”. Across the Arab world, the society scrutinizes the sexuality of unmarried women, and violence against women is often socially tolerated. The problem is particularly pronounced in the Gulf States, where women “live without an elementary freedom of movement, of expression and of association”.

The large majorities in Muslim countries that oppose equal rights for women, the near-ubiquitous discrimination against women in family laws across the Muslim world, as well as the refusal of the OIC to grant women equal rights before the law make legal gender inequality a mainstream tenet in Islam. The most clear-cut and universal tenet of inequality in Islam is the prohibition for Muslim women to marry Christian men, whereas Muslim men may marry Christian women.

Humanist View

Humanism holds that everyone has to be equal before the law, no matter the gender. Inequality before the law is contrary to the Human Rights 49 (§ 1, § 2).

Women are discriminated against in nearly all countries in the world. They are often paid less than men for the same job, they have less chances for career, they are expected to do more domestic work and child care than men, and they face prejudice, harassment, and contempt at the workplace more so than men. What makes the situation in Muslim countries different from the situation in most other countries is that (1) discrimination is written down in the law and (2) it is openly supported by a large proportion of the population. For example, activists deplore the gender gap in the salary in the West (rightly so, from a Humanist perspective). However, women have the same rights as men before the law, they can marry freely, they are not legally required to obey their husbands, and they have the same rights to inheritance as men. That is not the case in most of the Muslim world. On the contrary, the law in Muslim countries explicitly gives women less rights than men, in particular in their right to marry freely. Furthermore, in the West, there is no major social movement that calls for the discrimination of women. In most of the Muslim world, in contrast, the mainstream opinion is openly against equal rights. Thus, while discrimination is a problem everywhere, it is not even acknowledged as such in mainstream Islam.

People argue that men and women should be allowed to take different roles in a relationship or in society. Indeed, in a liberal value system such as the Human Rights, husband and wife can assume whatever roles they wish. However, they can choose these roles freely, and they have to have equal rights before the law.

It is often argued that early Islam gave women more rights than they had at the time. While this may be true, the values that were progressive at the time are no longer progressive today. No major contemporary interpretation of Islam gives women equal rights.

I had to submit to the rules of the patriarchy, and to bend to the wishes of the men, since all men in my entourage had the right to inspection on each and everyone of my acts outside the domestic sphere. I had the impression of being punished for being a girl.
Kahina Bahloul in “Mon Islam, ma liberté”, translated

Hell for unbelievers

There are different opinions in Islam as to whether people who consciously refuse to become Muslim will burn in Hell.

Sources cited to indicate hell for unbelievers

According to the Quran, unbelievers will be tortured in the hereafter by Allah with boiling fluid (22:19-21M), burned alive over and over again (4:56M, 56:92-94), and made to suffer in various ways (3:4M, 4:160-161M, 5:10M, 5:36M, 6:49, 6:70, 6:113, 98:6M), while the believers can laugh at them (83:34). No religion will ever be accepted other than Islam (3:85M). In particular, no repentance will be accepted from those who die in denial of Islam (4:18M), and the sin of having other gods is unforgivable (4:116-117M, 4:48, 5:72, 9:113), as is switching back and forth in belief (4:137M). Since Allah is right and just, this means that an unbeliever deserves torture.

This threat includes the Christians (98:5-6, 4:18M in combination with 5:17M, 5:72M, 5:73M). They have invented a lie about Allah (10:68-69). Since inventing a lie about Allah is the worst of sins (7:37, 29:68), Christians are condemned to Hell (10:68-70). Several Hadiths support this thesis 63. Likewise, believing in other divine entities along with Allah is an unforgivable crime (4:48, 40:12).

Sources cited to indicate mercy

One liberal interpretation 36 holds that Verse 3:85 says that also non-Muslims can be saved. The verse reads: “Whoever seeks a way other than full submission to the Will of Allah, it will never be accepted from them, and in the Hereafter they will be among the losers.”.

In a somewhat more straightforward way, Verse 2:63M tells us that “Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (similar: 5:69, 2:111-112, all Medina). In this view, only atheists and adherents of non-Abrahamic religions (such as Hindus or Buddhists) go to hell.

A minority opinion holds that the word “believer” in the Quran does not actually refer to the Muslims (for whom the Quran has a different word), but to the adherents of any religion 11. In this reading, only atheists go to Hell.

The Ahmadiyya community translates Verse 10:27 as “For those who do good deeds, there shall be the best reward and yet more blessings”, and thus holds that even non-Muslims or atheists can go to Heaven 64. In more conservative translations, the verse reads “As for those who commit evil, the reward of an evil deed is its equivalent. Humiliation will cover them—with no one to protect them from Allah—as if their faces were covered with patches of the night’s deep darkness. It is they who will be the residents of the Fire. They will be there forever.”.

Muslim Views

In all but 4 of the 38 Muslim-majority countries surveyed by Pew Research, more than half of Muslims believe that Islam is the only way to Heaven 48. In the Middle East and North Africa, the majority is overwhelming, with percentages above 90% in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco. The tenet is also taught in Saudi Arabian schoolbooks 56 as well as in the schoolbooks of Saudi-controlled schools in the UK 65.

The prevalence of the belief in Muslim countries makes the condemnation of unbelievers to hell a mainstream tenet in Islam.

Humanist view

Humanism holds that anyone can hold the religious beliefs they wish. This is also anchored in the Human Rights 49 (§ 18). Thus, everyone is free to believe that unbelievers will burn in Hell. The belief becomes problematic only in combination with the belief that everything that God does is righteous (which is a ubiquitous belief in Islam, and also a dominant motif in the Quran). Together, these beliefs imply that unbelievers deserve to be burnt in Hell. If this belief is kept private, there is little offense taken. If it is voiced in public, however, or taught to children, it becomes an insult: it means that unbelievers are worth so little that they can be burnt like fire wood. This an attack on the dignity of non-Muslims, a legal good that is also protected by the Human Rights 49 (§1, §12). Any unbeliever has a right to take offense if someone tells their children that all unbelievers deserve to burn in hell.

The mainstream interpretations of Islam have not undergone the kind of reformation that Christianity has gone through. Thus, the prevalent interpretations hold that what is written in the Quran is literally the word of God. Unbelievers will really burn physically in Hell. Since Islam holds that all that Allah does is rightful, it follows that the unbelievers deserve being burnt alive.

How heineious that is became apparent when the Islamic State burnt a prisoner alive in 2015. This caused an outcry in the Muslim world and in the non-Muslim world alike. All interpretations of Islam (except the extremist variant pursued by the Islamic State) affirm that burning someone alive is not something that is to be carried out in this world by humans — it will be God’s work in the hereafter. However, all mainstream interpretations hold that this fate awaits the unbeliever indeed in the hereafter. Thus, the opposition to this punishment was mainly one of formality about who carried it out — not about the punishment itself. The majority of Muslims in the world agree that the prisoner deserves this fate, merely for being an unbeliever. They were just shocked to see how it looks when this punishment is actually carried out.

Humanism holds that burning someone alive, or threatening someone to be burnt alive, is one of the most atrocious acts that man can commit. Already approving of it, or implying that it is a rightful thing to do (no matter whether it is actually executed or not), is heinous from a Humanist perspective.

What I have against Islam?
That it worships a god who wants to burn me alive.


We look at the question whether homosexuality is acceptable.

Sources cited to prohibit homosexuality

The Quran refers to the “people of Lut” and talks about them “coming to males in lust besides females”, for which the punishment is turning them out of town (7:80-84). It argues “Do you approach the males of humanity, leaving the wives Allah has created for you? But you are a people who transgress” (165-166). The Quran also prescribes: “The woman and the man guilty of illegal sexual intercourse, flog each of them with a hundred stripes” (24:2). This is usually understood to mean sex outside marriage. Since homosexuals cannot marry in Islam, the punishment automatically applies to homosexuals.

The Hadith are a bit more explicit, and say “If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done” (Sunan Abu Dawood, 38:4447). The Sharia defines sodomy as what Lut’s people did, i.e., homosexuality (Sharia / 17.0). It requires stoning homosexuals to death (Sharia / o12.2). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA conforms 66.

Sources cited to permit homosexuality

Adherents of liberal interpretations of Islam point to Calpih Amin, the ruler of Baghdad in the early 9th century, who reportedly had a male lover. They can also point to the Ottoman Turks, who decriminalized homosexuality in the 19th century 67.

Muslim Views

Overwhelming majorities in the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed by Pew Research say homosexuality should be rejected, including 97% in Jordan, 95% in Egypt, 94% in Tunisia, 93% in Palestine, 93% in Indonesia, 87% in Pakistan, 86% in Malaysia, 80% in Lebanon and 78% in Turkey 68. In the German state of Lower Saxony, 27% of Muslim pupils favor a punishment of homosexuals 69. In France, 26% of Muslims believe that homosexuality should not be tolerated 46. In Britain, 61% of Muslims believe homosexuality should be illegal 32, and some religious schools require students to memorize the Hadith that advocate the stoning of homosexuals 70.

Death penality for homosexuality

Implemented countrywide
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan

Implemented provincially
Somalia, Nigeria

Implemented by local courts

In the law but not implemented
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Mauritania

Countries with capital punishment for homosexual acts, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association 71
As for the state actors, 33 out of 49 Muslim-majority nations legally prohibit homosexual activities 71. Thereby, Muslim countries make up roughly half of the 72 countries where homosexuality is forbidden. The laws in 12 countries punish homosexual acts by death, and all of them are Muslim-majority countries (see box). The schoolbooks of Saudi-controlled schools in the UK are more nuanced. They admit that there is “a difference of opinion about whether [the death penalty] should be carried out by stoning, burning with fire or throwing the person over a cliff.” 65. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents the Muslim-majority countries, opposes the decisions of the United Nations Human Rights Council on sexual orientation 72.

The overwhelming support in Muslim-majority countries for the punishment of homosexuality, as well as the lobbying of the OIC, make the rejection of homosexuality a mainstream tenet in Islam.

Humanist View

Humanism holds that people should be free to love and marry whom they please, no matter the gender. The Human Rights predate the LGBT movement, and thus do not discuss sexual orientation 49. However, they stipulate that rights and freedoms may only be curtailed “for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society”. In the Humanist view, homosexuality does not pose a problem for rights and freedoms of others, morality, public order or the general welfare.

Homosexuality is outlawed or shunned in wide parts of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. Thus, not all discrimination against homosexuals is rooted in Islam. However, vice versa, most interpretations of Islam shun homosexuality.


Blasphemy is the expression of contempt, disrespect, or lack of reverence for a religion. Here, we look in particular at the question whether Islam permits criticism.

Sources cited to permit blasphemy

The Quran tells us to be patient with the unbelievers (3:186M), and to forgive them (2:109M).

Sources cited to prohibit blasphemy

The Quran tells us that we are not allowed to question what Allah or the Prophet Muhammad have decided (33:36M, 5:101M). Questioning the existence of Allah is condemned as arrogant (25:21). The Prophet answered probing questions merely by telling the inquiring party that they would go to Hell if they didn’t believe him (Quran/ 36:49-64). Traditionalist interpretations of Islam then cite the following verses: “Those who annoy Allah and His Messenger — Allah has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter. Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not [...], whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy)” (33:57-61M) and “Those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land” have to be crucified (5:33-34M). Traditionalist interpretations hold that these verses apply also to blasphemers.

The Hadiths tell us that the Prophet Muhammad killed several poets and comedians who criticized him: Aṣmā bint Marwān (Ishaq:675, Ishaq:676), Abu ʾAfak (Ishaq:675), Naḍr ibn al-Ḥārith (who linked the Quran to fables, see Verse 8:31), and Kaʾb ibn al-Ashraf (Bukhari 4:52:270).

The Sharia explains that apostasy is basically anything that criticizes the Quran (Sharia / o8.7 (1)-(20)), including from non-Muslims (ibid / o11.10 (5)), and that apostasy is to be punished by death (ibid / o8.1). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA conforms 73.

Scholarly views

In all main four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, and Hanbali), as well as in the Shia Jafari school, blasphemy against God or the Prophet Muhammad is a capital crime. The only dispute is about whether the blasphemer ought to be saved from execution if he or she repents. Hanafis, Shafis, and Jafaris pardon the blasphemers who repent; the others do not 74.


In general, people in Muslim-majority countries are less supportive of free speech (particularly when it comes to offensive comments about religion) than those elsewhere 75. Several high-profile cases have shown that the criticism of Islam, or already the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, is considered unlawful by many adherents. Depictions of Muhammad or criticism of Islam sometimes draw large protests in Muslim lands, often with several casualities. In 2015, Muslim extremists killed the editors of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that featured caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In the sequel, protests against Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Muhammad on the cover of its “survivors’ issue” have caused the deaths of at least ten people and the burning of 45 churches in Niger. Hotels and bars have been razed to the ground. Protests also took place in Pakistan, Algeria and other countries; 800,000 attended a rally in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, a Russian republic with a Muslim majority 76. In Pakistan, it is so easy to claim blasphemy (and so hard to defend onseself against such an allegation), that claims of blasphemy are used to settle countless vendettas. After mobs burned down 100 Christian homes in 2012, the only person behind bars is the man whose alledges blasphemy caused the riots 77.

The violence that can ensue if one criticizes Islam has frightened people. In Pakistan, newspapers avoid giving the detail of blasphemy cases, for fear of repeating the crime. They talk instead of the crime of “uttering shameful words against holy personalities” 76. In Nigeria, journalists don’t even think of speaking about controversial religious issues, as they fear to get killed before they got to prosecution 76.

Muslim views

Countries where blasphemy is illegal 78. Yellow: local restrictions; Orange: restrictions and fines; red: prison; dark red: death CC-BY-SA Conquistador, antarctica removed
On the legal level, blasphemy is prohibited in the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries 78. It carries the death penalty in 8 of them, and all countries that punish blasphemy by death are Muslim-majority countries. Pakistan is one of them, and although no-one has been executed so far for blasphemy, 2000 people have been charged with it between 1980 and 2020, and 128 of them have been killed by angry mobs 7980. The five countries that practice the grossest violations of international standards in terms of punishment for blasphemy are all Muslim majority lands 81. People have been punished for blasphemy for finding fault with the Prophet Muhammad, for tossing out the business card of a man called Muhammad 82, or for saying that they are atheists 82.

This attitude is to some degree reflected in opinion polls. In all 9 Muslim-majority countries surveyed in 2021, more than 70% of people favor limits on free speech in order to protect religion, and no non-Muslim country except Russia has such high values 83. In Germany, 73% of citizens of Turkish origin say that books that insult religion should be prohibited 84. In this spirit, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has lobbied for a worldwide prohibition of insulting the Prophet Muhammad 85, and continues to condemn blasphemy 86, sometimes under the guise of fighting against islamophibia. Its “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” explicitly limits freedom of expression to conform with the Sharia 29 (§§ 22a, 22b), and prohibits violating the “sanctity of the Prophets” (§ 22c).

The lobbying by the OIC against blasphemy, the importance of blasphemy in the legal systems of Muslim-majority countries, and the support of Muslim populations make the prohibition of blasphemy a mainstream tenet of Islam.

Humanist view

The Human Rights guarantee freedom of speech 49 (§ 19). It has been hotly debated when freedom of speech starts to be a defamation of religion or its adherents. Humanism is clear on the question: it considers that freedom of speech includes the freedom to criticise a religion or ideology 78. Such criticism finds its limits in insults, i.e., personal attacks on living people that are (1) pejorative and (2) not provably true.

In this spirit, Humanism holds that it must be allowed to criticise Islamic beliefs, just like it must be possible to criticise any other beliefs. That is true in particular when these beliefs justify human suffering. Humanism does not know the right not to be offended. Humanism also observes that the abolition of freedom of thought risks being a one-way street: Once it has been abolished, there is no easy way back.

If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whomever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thorough silenced and concealed.
Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (Rhazes), Persian chemist, philosopher and physician, 865 – 925 AD.


Apostasy is the act of abandoning one’s religion — either for another religion or for atheism. Islam is a proselytising religion, and has thus never opposed people converting to Islam. Here, we look at the question whether a Muslim may leave Islam for another religion or atheism. There are different views on this question.

Sources cited to permit apostasy

The Quran tells us that there is no compulsion in religion (2:256M), that Muslims should leave people believe or not believe as they like (18:29, 109:1-6, 15:2-3), and that God did not make everybody a believer on purpose (10:99).

Sources cited to prohibit apostasy

Historically, the verse that proscribes “no compulsion in religion” (2:256) was not interpreted so as to give freedom of religion. Rather, the interpretations were as follows 87:
  1. the verse had been abrogated by the later verses that ask to kill the unbelievers (9:5M).
  2. the verse was tied to a unique historical situation.
  3. the verse was about “protected people”: Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims who had passed under Muslim rule and been allowed to retain their own religion in return for the payment of a special tax.
  4. when God says that there is no compulsion in the religion, he means that he does not practise compulsion. But we, as humans, can still force the unbelievers into the Muslim community in order to make it possible for them to see the truth.
  5. the verse did indeed prohibit forced conversion, but not of foreigners, but of Muslims.
  6. compulsion is prohibited. However, since Islam is the natural religion, a person is never “compelled” into it. He is merely freed to see the truth.
Other verses can then be adducted to support the punishment of apostasy: The Quran tells us to kill the unbelievers wherever we find them (2:191-193M), to strike off their heads (8:12M), and to fight until all religion is for the god of Islam (8:39M). It also tells us that those who abandon Islam are in sin (9:66M, 32:22). In general, “inventing a lie about Allah” is the worst possible crime (10:17, 11:18-19, 18:15). Disbelief is a crime (45:31). Rebellion is worse than killing (2:191M), and killing requires the death penalty (5:45M).

The Hadiths tell us that the Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to kill those who abandoned Islam, or did it himself (Bukhari 4:52:260, Bukhari 9:83:37, Bukhari 9:84:57, Bukhari 9:89:271, Bukhari 9:84:58, Bukhari 9:84:64-65, Malik 36.18.15, Sahih Muslim 16:4152; sources). The Sharia, likewise, requires the death penalty for apostates (Sharia / o8.1, o4.17, o8.4), and affirms that there is no penalty for killing an apostate (ibid / o8.4). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA conforms 88.

Scholarly Views

Historically, there was no separation between “church” and state in Islam. When Muhammad conquered Medina, and he became the religious as well as the worldly leader of the city. There was no state, in which the religion was founded (as the Roman State in Christianity). Rather the religion gave rise to the state, and the two are but one. For this reason, the Sharia defines the rituals of prayer as well as the duties of the citizen and the caliph. Still today, many Muslims regard the Western notion of separating religion from politics as nonsensical 22. When there is no separation between religion and state, then leaving the religion means turning against the state. Turning against the state is high treason, and deserves the death penalty. For this reason, the prevailing view in Islam was that apostates were to be killed. Scholars disagreed only on how soon apostates should be executed (in three days, one week or few months) 89. Still today, the main traditions of scholarship and jurisprudence in Islam (both Shia and the four main Sunni ones) support the death penalty for apostates 90. The Amman Message, a document of global scholarly consensus on apostasy, condemns exclusively the practice of declaring others apostates — not the punishment of apostasy4.

Muslim Views

Large proportions of Muslims worldwide support the death penalty for apostasy, according to Pew Research. These are 63% of Muslims in Egypt, 58% in Palestine, 58% in Jordan, 38% in Iraq, 78% in Afghanistan, 63% in Pakistan, 53% in Malaysia, 36% in Bangladesh, and 22% in Tajikistan, followed by more liberal opinions in Tunisia (16%), Lebanon (13%), Thailand (20%), Indonesia (18%), and Southeast Europe and Central Asia (4%-20%) 91. In Britain, Muslims are split on the issue 32.

These numbers are lower bounds on the proportion of Muslims who oppose apostasy, as they do not include the people who oppose apostasy without advocating the death penalty. In many Muslim countries, the law or social pressure makes it almost impossible to leave the faith 92. Even in places where laws are lenient, religious authorities and social attitudes can be harsh, with vigilantes inflicting beatings or beheadings upon apostates. Only in a handful of majority-Muslim countries atheists can live safely, and only as long as they stay quiet 93.

This social stigma also applies in the West. Conservative Muslims may see apostasy not necessarily as a crime punishable per se, but as a slippery slope towards alcohol consumption, pre-marital sexual relationships, dishonesty, and moral hazard in general. Thus, Muslims in the West who leave Islam risk being shunned or disowned from their loved ones, friends, and the wider community of believers 94. In the US, 25% of Muslims have left their faith. However, the vast majority, whether young or old, are silent about their faithlessness, afraid to put at risk their relationships with their parents, siblings, and friends 95. Muslim apostates in the West are more likely than Christian apostates to face abuses in the form of psychological abuse, assault, or being physically hurt by family members and members of their local community 96. They also face ostracism, beatings, harassment, and threats from their families and communities 97. In France, “an overwhelming majority of people leaving Islam to join Christianity undergo family and community persecutions”, including contempt, verbal or physical aggression, threats, harassment and rejection, according to a study by a Christian advocacy think tank 98.

As for state actors, several Islamic countries punish apostasy by death: Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen 99. In practice, death sentences are rarely carried out. Apostates are merely thrown in jail and tortured 100. Other countries, such as Malaysia, imprison people who publicly profess their own atheism (ibid). Again other countries restrict rights for atheists, for example by limiting marriage rights or public service (ibid). The “Arab Charter on Human Rights”, which grants freedom of religion, is not implemented here 30. Where laws against apostasy do not exist, blasphemy laws are often applied instead, and these are ubiquitous in the Muslim world. The Council of Ex-Muslims of North America collects such cases 101.

In France, the French Council of the Muslim Faith in France refuses to sign a charter that would allow Muslims to leave their religion, because it holds that Islam knows no way of letting go a believer 102. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the “collective voice of the Muslim world”, does not defend freedom of religion either. Its “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” does not grant people the right to leave Islam 29.

The high support in Muslim-majority countries for the punishment of apostasy, the omnipresent ostracisim of apostates in both Muslim and Western countries, as well as the refusal of the OIC and other state actors to grant freedom of religion, make the shunning of apostasy (albeit not the call for the death penalty) a mainstream tenet of Islam.

Humanist View

Humanism defends the freedom of religion, and holds that anyone should be allowed to adhere to or to abandon a religious belief. This tenet is also enshrined in the Human Rights, which demand the freedom to change and to leave one’s religion 49 (§ 18).
Why is my life worth less?
Sarah Haider, ex-Muslim


Male circumcision is the removal of the foreskin of the penis. The practice is near-ubiquitous in Islam.

Sources cited against circumcision

Circumcision is not mentioned in the Quran. The Quran mentions that it is perfect and complete (5:44, 6:38, 7:52, 10:37, 12:111, 6:114, 6:115), and that no one has power to legislate except Allah (12:40, 6:114-115). Thus, Quranists argue, there is no room for a law that could require circumcision.

The Quran also says that “Allah perfected everything He created” (32:7), that his design of the human in particular is perfect (40:64, 64:3, 67:3), and that “He did not create all of this in vain” (3:191). These verses can be interpreted to mean that the human body should not be mutilated 103.

Sources cited in favor of circumcision

Several hadiths recommend circumcision (Bukhaari 5939, Muslim 257, Abi Dawood 2.183). The Sharia agrees, and considers male circumcision obligatory, along with female genital mutilation (Sharia / e4.3). IslamQA conforms 104.

It is further argued that circumcision follows the tradition of Abraham, that it protects against illnesses, and that the foreskin would be an excess part of the body 105.

Muslim View

Islam is the largest single religious group to circumcise boys. All Muslims (devouts, liberals or seculars) observe this ritual 106.

Humanist View

Humanism holds that no-one should be subjected to injury or amputation against their will. Humanists derive their standpoint from the Human Rights, which prohibit cruel treatment 49 (§ 5). Circumcision is cruel in particular if it is carried out without anesthesia. But even with anesthesia, circumcision is cruel. To see this, imagine that it is carried out on an adult who does not want to be circumcised. That would be prosecuted as criminal assault. Humanists see no reason why children or babies should be exempt from this protection by the law 107.

It can be argued that circumcision is considered a religious duty, and that the Human Rights also protect the freedom of religious belief. That is indeed the case 49 (§ 18). However, for Humanism, religious freedom only ever guarantees the freedom to believe, never the freedom to harm others. Furthermore, by circumcising a boy, one forces a permanent religious symbol on him, thereby infringing his own religious freedom.

Today, circumcision is ubiquitous in Muslim lands. It is also part of the Jewish faith. Finally, it is carried out routinely in the US on infants. It is thus a very common procedure. That does not make it any less objectionable from a Humanist perspective. There are few things that constitute personal injury as obviously as the amputation of a part of the body.

Several medical arguments can be brought forward in favor of male circumcision. However, apart from individual cases, there is no medical reason to perform a general male circumcision on every man 108. The World Health Organization recommends the procedure to protect against HIV 109. Then again, it conditions this recommendation on the “absence of coercion” and “informed consent”. This is something an infant cannot give. Surrogate parental consent is not valid for an operation with no clinical indication and with the potential to cause serious harm 107. Adults, in turn, are of course free in Humanism to consent to a circumcision. However, such consent is rare. There is a reason why the recommended age for circumcision is traditionally placed in the age of childhood.

Religion is like circumcision.
If you wait until someone is 21 to tell them about it, they probably won’t be interested.

Traditionalist tenets

Spousal rape

Spousal rape is forced sex inside a married couple, especially when the husband imposes himself on the wife. Islam harbors different views on the topic.

Sources cited to prohibit spousal rape

The Quran urges men and women to live in mutual respect (2:229M, 2:231M, 2:233M, 2:187M). It also commands men to deal with their wives in a “fair” way (4:19), and with “mercy” (30:21).

Sources cited to permit spousal rape

Traditional interpretations of the verses of “mutual respect” hold that this respect includes the obligation of the wife to submit sexually to the husband 110. In this spirit, the Quran says: “When they [i.e. wives] have cleansed themselves [after menstruation], you go into them as Allah has commanded/ Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will” (2:222-223M). There is no verse in the Quran that explicitly prohibits forced sex. In other words: if we take the Quran as our sole guidance, and if we see a man raping his wife, then there is no verse that we could use to punish the man.

The Sharia agrees, saying that husbands have full rights over their wives (Sharia / m5.4, m10.11, m10.1), including the right to force sex on them (ibid / m5.1, e13.5). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA concurs 111.

Scholarly Views

The majority of Muslim jurists are of the opinion that forcing sex upon one’s wife is not rape 112.

Muslim Views

In red: countries where marital rape is legal CC-BY-SA Nederlandse Leeuw
In around half of Muslim countries (23 of 49), spousal rape is not a crime, according to various sources 113. In particular, none of the Arab countries except Tunisia explicitly recognizes marital rape as a crime, according to the UN Arab Human Development Report of 2016 61. On the contrary, the report concluded that the penal code in Arab countries “is usually indulgent towards male perpetrators of crimes of violence against women, notably spousal violence” 61.

The scholarly view of spousal rape, in combination with the legality of spousal rape in a number of Muslim-majority countries, makes the acceptance of spousal rape a popular tenet in Islam. At the same time, there is no evidence that a majority of Muslims would support marital rape, and the laws in half of the Muslim countries forbid it. Thus, the acceptance of spousal rape is not a mainstream tenet in Islam.

Humanist view

Humanism abhors violence, no matter whether it occurs between spouses or not. The Human Rights request security of person 49 (§ 3) and condemn cruel treatment (§ 5). The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights clarified explicitly that this includes rape and marital rape 114 (§ 2).

Brutal punishments

Amputation and stoning are brutal punishments, because they not only inflict excruciating pain, but also have irreversable effects. Islam harbors different attitudes on the matter.

Sources cited for brutal punishment

The Quran prescribes the amputation of hand and feet for anybody who makes “mischief in the land” (5:33M), or who steals (5:38M), and flogging for adulterers (24:2M). The Quran also mentions the punishment of kinship, saying that “the law of equality is prescribed in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman” (Quran 2:178). This basically means that if someone was murdered, an innocent person has to be killed in return. In this aspect, the Quran is thus the follow-up of the Old Testament, not the New Testament.

The Sharia knows stoning for adultery (Sharia / o12.2), amputation for theft (ibid / o14.1), and 40 lashes for drinking alcohol (ibid / o16.3). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA concurs 115116.

Sources cited against brutal punishment

The Quran does not actually mention stoning at all (possibly because the corresponding verse was lost). As for the other punishments, reformist scholars point to Quranic verses and hadith in favour of mercy, and the strict conditions set for the harshest punishments 117.

A minority opinion holds that the word “hudud” in the Quran does not actually mean “punishment”, but “limit” 11. In this reading, what has been thought of as prescribed punishments are just upper limits for the allowed punishments.

Muslim Views

Corporal punishment for thieves is supported by 28%-88% of Sharia-adherents in 20 Muslim countries, according to Pew Research 118, which means 32% of Muslims in Indonesia, 74% of Muslims in Pakistan, 80% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 41% of Muslims in Bangladesh, 51% of Muslims in Egypt, 50% of Muslims in Iraq, and 21% of Muslims in Tunisia, and 14% of Muslims in Lebanon. Stoning for adultery is supported by 34% of Muslims in Indonesia, 75% of Muslims in Pakistan, 84% of Muslims in Afghanistan, 45% of Muslims in Bangladesh, 60% of Muslims in Egypt, 53% of Muslims in Iraq, 13% of Muslims in Lebanon, and 25% of Muslims in Tunisia. In France, too, some Muslim pupils defend amputation for theft 119.

As for state actors, nine countries have stoning as a judicial sentence, and five have amputation. All are Islamic 117. Stoning is used in Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, among others. Amputation is used in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and some parts of Nigeria, among others. Until 2016, the Moroccan school system taught children that lying will lead to an amputation of the hand 120. Schoolbooks in Saudi-controlled schools in the UK contain “detailed diagrams about how hands and feet of thieves are amputated” 65.

The high support for corporal punishments in the population of some Muslim countries for religious reasons, as well as its implementation by a number of Muslim-majority countries in deference to the Sharia, makes corporal punishment a prevalent tenet of Islam. However, this belief is limited to certain countries, and cannot be considered a mainstream tenet of Islam.

Humanist view

Humanism abhors violence, and is thus staunchly opposed to corporal punishments. The Human Rights, likewise, prohibit cruel punishment 49 (§ 5).

Domestic violence

Domestic violence is violence within the family. In the context of Islam, we are looking in particular at physical punishments of a wife by her husband.

Sources cited in favor of punishments

The Quran tells us that a woman should be obedient to her husband, and that if she is not, the man can beat her as a last resort (4:34M).

According to the Hadiths, the Prophet Muhammad beat his wife (Sahih Muslim 4:2127), or approves of others doing it (Bukhari 72:715, Muslim 9:3506, Abu Dawud 2141, Ishaq 969; sources). In his Farewell Sermon, he tells Muslims again “to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely”, if they commit an open indecency. The Sharia explains that if the wife is rebellious (refuses sex, leaves the house without permission, stays with a non-family man), the husband should first warn her with words, and then beat her (Sharia / m10.11), although not hit the face, wound her, break bones, or cause blood to flow. In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA concurs 121.

Sources cited in opposition to punishments

Opponents of such punishments point out that beating the wife is only the last resort, and that, according to various translations, the wife can only be beaten “lightly”. The Quran also talks of mutual respect between men and women (2:229M, 2:231M, 2:233M, 2:187M).

Muslim Views

50% of men in Egypt, 30% of men in Morocco, 20% of men in Lebanon, and 30% of men in Palestine believe that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten, notes a UN report 58. The agreement among women is 30%, 20%, 5%, and 25%, respectively. Accordingly, 10% to 45% of men in these countries who have ever been married have beaten their wives. In the Arab countries, physical abuse is generally prohibited by law, but special protection against domestic violence is rare, notes another UN report 61. On the contrary, a husband’s violence towards his wife can be considered a form of tadib (correction or discipline) 61.

That said, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the “collective voice of the Muslim world”, opposes domestic violence 122. Furthermore, domestic violence is as prevalent in Muslim lands as it is in non-Muslim lands, according to the World Health Organization 123. There is even some evidence that women in poor Muslim countries suffer less domestic violence than women with otherwise similar background in poor Christian countries. That may be because Muslim men do not drink alcohol 124. With this, the tenet that wives can be punished by their husbands does enjoy some popularity, and it can be linked to religious authorities and sources, but it cannot be considered a mainstream tenet of Islam.

Humanist view

Humanism abhors violence, and is thus opposed to any type of physical resolution of conflicts.

Disdain for unbelievers

The mainstream interpretations of Islam prohibits unbelievers from marrying Muslim women, and condemns them to hell. Here, we look at the question whether Islam sees unbelievers as less worthy than believers in general.

Sources that indicate inferiority

Notice at the Bencoolen Mosque in Singapore
According to the Quran, Muslims shall be merciful among themselves, and “severe” towards the disbelievers (48:29). Non-Muslims are “guilty” of disbelief (45:31, 83:29, 6:157), the worst crime. Allah is their enemy (2:98M), and they may not be taken as friends (3:28M, 4:89M, 5:51M, 5:57M, 5:80M, 6:106, 4:144M). They are against Allah (25:55); on the side of the Satan and are fighting for him (4:76-77M); “evil” (16:27, 2:91M, 2:99M); “enemies” (4:101); the “wrong-doers” (2:254M, 5:45M); the “enemy” and “perverted” (63:4M); “wicked” (80:42, 9:125M); hypocrites (4:61M); “unclean” (9:28M), deaf and dumb (6:39). The disbelievers are the “worst of created beings” (98:6M); “miscreants” (2:99M, 24:55M); “the worst beasts in Allah’s sight”(8:55M); and associated with “apes” and/or “pigs” (2:64-66M, 5:58-60M, 7:166; sources). Allah has blinded the disbelievers and takes way their light (2:17-18), without any apparent reason.

Jews and Christians are “perverse” (56:92-94), and “cursed” (4:52M), and Allah has created enmity between the Christians and the Muslims (5:14). The Quran also speaks of God’s love (85:14, 2:222, 3:146, 2:195). However, this love only ever applies to Muslims, and not to unbelievers (30:45, 3:32, 2:98M).

These verses are not isolated. 15% of the verses in the Quran snub unbelievers. An additional 14% describe how those who do not follow Allah’s commands (disobedient Muslims and non-Muslims alike) will burn in Hell. Thus, more than a quarter of the Quran is concerned with scorning and threatening those who do not follow Allah’s commands. This ubiquity defies the argument that these verses were limited to a specific context. Thilo Sarrazin argues that unbelievers are accepted as human beings in the Quran only if they are subdued, converted to Islam, or killed 51.

The Sharia shares this philosophy: Non-Muslims can be killed without penalty (o1.2 (2)). In Muslim lands, the unbelievers have to wear special signs on their clothing, may not build new churches, may not walk in the middle of the street, and are not greeted like Muslims (Sharia / o11.0-11). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”.

Based on the above verses, IslamQA opinions that Islam calls on Muslims to forsake the unbelievers and to disavow them 126127.

Sources cited in opposition

The Quran calls for peace (8:61M, 2:193M, 2:224M), and tells Muslims not to start hostilities (2:190M). Jews and Christians would have nothing to fear (5:69M). They should be overlooked and forgiven (2:109M, 109:1-6). It is not prohibited to be kind to them (60:8-9M). In fact, according to the Quran, it is the Arabs who are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy (9:97M).

The verses of hatred against the unbelievers have to be seen in the context that the Jews an Christians broke their oaths and started wars (5:64M, 5:82M, 60:8-9M). The Quran also urges us not to generalize Christians and Muslims (3:113-114M; sources).

A minority opinion holds that the word “believer” in the Quran does not actually refer to the Muslims (for whom the Quran has a different word), but to the adherents of any religion 11. This reading reduces any type of discrimination to atheists.

Scholarly View

Historically, non-Muslims in Islamic lands formed separate communities with less rights. Within the classical tradition, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is assumed to be one of segregation and enmity 128. Ahmad Mansour argues that this is part of a broader dichotomic view of the world, in which things are divided into good and bad, or haram and halal, with no area for compromise 129.

Muslim View

According to the leader of the largest Muslim organization of Indonesia, too many Muslims still see the peaceful co-existence of people of different faiths as something they must combat 128. In Europe, researchers spot a “group-based conformity, and a dissociation [of Muslims] from the areligious mainstream culture” 130, a development that has been seen in particular in the UK, Germany, and Sweden 70131132133134.

In Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, such sentiment of dissociation is reinforced by school curricula. Morocco decided only in 2016 to remove from school books all content that incites discrimination of religious minorities 135. In Egypt, extremist messages directed against the Coptic Christian minority still appear in school lessons and sermons as of 2016 136. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities admitted that the kingdom’s religious studies curriculum “encourages violence toward others, and misguides the pupils into believing that in order to safeguard their own religion, they must violently repress and even physically eliminate the “other”.” 56. The texts have since been cleaned up, and now only say things like “It is forbidden for a Muslim to be a loyal friend to someone who does not believe in God and His Prophet” or “The apes are Jews, the people of the Sabbath; while the swine are the Christians, the infidels of the communion of Jesus”. They go on to teach about “the Jews, whom God has cursed”, saying “It is part of God’s wisdom that the struggle between the Muslim and the Jews should continue until the hour [of judgment]” [ibid]. In Saudi Arabia, atheists in particular are considered terrorists 137.

In several Muslim countries, non-Muslims are legally discriminated against. We have already seen that converts from Islam are actively persecuted in a number of countries. But also non-convert non-Muslims face legal discrimination and persecution. Christians, in particular, have been harassed in more countries than any other religious group, in particular in many of the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa 138. Forms of persecution range from routine discrimination in education, employment, and social life to violent attacks against Christian communities and the bombing of churches. Wikipedia maintains a list of such attacks 139. The Christian NGO “Open Doors” lists 50 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith — and 34 of them are Muslim-majority countries 140. In Iran, almost all Christian activity is illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages — from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books or preaching in Farsi. In Libya, Christian proselytism is illegal, and those who share their Christian faith with others risk violent opposition and arrest. In Algeria, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar, Comoros, and Mauritania, likewise, Christian proselytism is illegal. In Tajikistan, church leaders and Christians can be detained if they are found to have any Christian materials that aren’t government-approved. In Nigeria, more Christians are murdered for their faith than in any other country. In Oman, all Omani citizens are assumed to be Muslim. In Iraq, the government discriminates against Christians in various contexts, and blasphemy laws can be used against those who proselytise. In Maldives, politicians profile themselves by claiming to keep the Maldives 100% Muslim. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws can be used against Christians. In Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, it is practically impossible to live openly as a Christian. In Saudi Arabia, the public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal 141. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa region has the highest government and social restrictions on religion 142. In Egypt, the Coptic Christians are subject to attacks, looting, and killings, with no help from the government 143136. In general, Christian life in the Middle East is not easy, and large numbers of Christians emigrate 144.

The legal restrictions that most Muslim-majority countries place on non-Muslims, in combination with the historical depreciation of non-Muslims that still has adherents today, make the disdain for unbelievers a popular tenet in Islam. However, there is no evidence that this disdain would be universally accepted as part of the religion, and thus it cannot be considered a mainstream tenet of the religion.

Humanist View

Humanism grants equal dignity and equal rights to all individuals as individuals — no matter what community they might belong to. This is also stipulated by the Human Rights 49 (§§ 1, 11 (2), 12). In particular, Humanism and the Human Rights prohibit any persecution based on faith (§ 18). This applies to Muslim and non-Muslim states alike, and makes Humanism oppose the persecution of Christians in Muslim lands in the same way as their persecution in China or North Korea, or as the persecution of Muslims in other countries.

Christians and atheists are of course not the only groups that face discrimination. Most notably, Muslims themselves face discrimination in Western lands. The difference to the discrimination in Muslim lands is that the discrimination in Western lands is considered a problem. In most Muslim countries, in contrast, the discrimination against unbelievers is not only not recognized as a problem, but written down in the law and actively pursued by the government. One can only imagine the outcry that would result if a Western country imposed the restrictions on Muslims that most Muslim countries impose on Christians or atheists.

Humanism defends the freedom of speech, and holds that anybody can critique religions or atheism. This freedom finds its limits in calls for violence, or in insults against people. These behaviors are commonly called hate speech. There are different opinions on whether the Quranic verses about non-Muslims constitute hate speech 145, or whether they should rather be understood as historical accounts in the context of war times. However, if these verses were about Muslims, they would for sure be considered offensive. When Pope Benedict XVI quoted a medieval critique of the Prophet Muhammad in his 2006 Regensburg Lecture, this sparked violent protests across the Muslim world. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation was “outraged” 146. Little interest was paid to the context in which the critique was quoted, or its purpose. One can only imagine the mayhem that would have resulted if the Pope had addressed Muslims in the same way as the Quran addresses unbelievers. And while a well-meaning unbeliever might not read the Quranic verses as a call for discrimination, many Islamic governments do.

To fix something you have to acknowledge that it’s broken — not that it looks broken, or is being falsely portrayed as broken by the wrong people, but that it’s broken. That is your first step to reformation.

Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the cutting of the female genitalia without medical reason, usually when the woman is still a child. Here, we look at the links between FGM and Islam.

Sources cited in favor of FGM

The Quran does not forbid genital mutilation in general, because male circumcision is the norm in the Muslim world. It does not forbid female genital mutilation in particular either.

The Hadith mention female genital circumcision favorably (Abu Dawood 41:5251 and 5271, Muslim 3:684, Al-Muwatta 2 19.75, al-Bukhari 7:72:779). The Sharia recommends it (Sharia / e4.3).

Sources cited in opposition to FGM

The sources cited against FGM are the same sources that are cited also against male circumcision: The Quran allows no laws besides it (5:44, 6:38, 7:52, 10:37, 12:111, 6:114, 6:115, 12:40, 6:114-115), and thus, Quranists argue, there is no room for a law that could require FGM. The Quran also talks of the perfection of the creation (32:7, 3:191), which can be read so as to prohibit FGM 103.

Several Hadith and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad can also be read so as to prohibit FGM, most notably one that prohibits inflicting harm and one that curses those who change Allah’s creation 105147 (although these arguments are not used to prohibit male circumcision). The hadiths that mention FGM favorably are considered weak 105147.

Scholarly views

The Sharia mandates FGM (Sharia / e4.3), and the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt endorsed this Sharia. The head of the university upheld this opinion in 1994 103. However, in 1998, scholars in Al-Azhar decided that the practice is non-mandatory 105. In 2007, the university issued a statement saying that FGM is harmful and should not be practiced 148. IslamQA has not undergone such a change of heart, and considers the practice mandatory 149.

The Shafii school of Islamic jurisprudence considers female circumcision obligatory. The Hanbali, Maliki, and Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence consider FGM an honorable act. None of the schools prohibits FGM 147. However, Muslim jurists have not reached consent on FGM 105 and several jurists now condemn the practice 147.

Muslim Views

Female genital mutilation is prevalent many countries in Africa and South-East Asia, as an association of NGOs observes 150. According to UNICEF, the highest rates are found in Somalia (98%), Guinea (95%), Djibouti (94%), Mali (89%), Egypt (87%), and Sudan (87%) 151. As for the West, the European Parliament notes that “hand in hand with migration from Muslim countries and African states in general, the rate of FGM has increased in Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand” 152.
Female Genital Mutilation rates according to an alliance of NGOs 150 CC BY-SA Nederlandse Leeuw, slightly re-arranged

It is debated whether FGM is a “Muslim Practice”. It is not, in the sense that it is also prevalent in non-Muslim countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea (with rates of 65% and 83%, respectively). And it is, whenever the practice is believed to be part of Islam. This is indeed often the case: Many Muslims regard FGM as part of their faith 153152. Of the 31 countries that practice it (at rates above 5%), 21 are Muslim-majority countries 150. In Malaysia, 87% of Muslims believe that FGM is a religious obligation 150154. In Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, women tend to say that FGM is a non-religious tradition, while men tend to believe it is based on religion 150. In Oman, religious conservatives, likewise, see FGM as an Islamic practice 150. In Brunei, the government holds that FGM is compulsory in Islam 150. In Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand, FGM exists mainly in the Muslim communities, further indicating that religious belief plays a role 150. In Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) considers FGM not mandatory, but recommended 155150. Muslim communities in the country perceive FGM as both a societal custom and a religious duty, and Muslim leaders want the practice to continue 156. The majority of mothers support the practice, too, seeing it as a religious duty. A significant proportion of mothers (20%) also suggested that social sanctions should be imposed on uncircumcised girls. In Egypt, FGM was banned only in 2007 157.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the “collective voice of the Muslim world”, in contrast, condemns FGM as a “hazardous practice” and argues that Islam does not support it 158. Furthermore, more than half of the Muslim-majority countries do not know the practice.

The absence of FGM in more than half of the Muslim-majority countries, the opposition of the OIC, and the change of mind of the Al-Azhar University make clear that FGM is not a tenet of mainstream Islam. At the same time, majorities of Muslims in several countries believe that FGM is a religious duty, the Islamic schools do not forbid it, and scholars are ambivalent on the matter. With this, FGM is still a popular tenet in Islam.

When my genitals were cut, something was taken away from me that is part of what makes me a woman. It was taken from me without my consent and I can never get it back. This is fundamental - it was my right to have as a human being, they took it away and they didn’t see it as harm.

Humanist view

Humanism acknowledges the right to one’s own body. Thus, it cannot oppose FGM if it is carried out on an adult woman upon her wish. Recent studies indicate that FGM is indeed often seen positively by both men and women, including the patients159.

That said, Humanism is staunchly opposed to female genital mutilation if it is carried out against the patient’s will. This is because Humanism abhors cruelty — a position that is also repeated in the Human Rights 49 (§ 5). Female genital mutilation has, according to the UN, severe physical and psychological consequences for the patients 160. This is even more true since, in 82% of the cases, FGM is carried out by non-medical experts, according to the WHO 161. Thus, whoever approves of the procedure against the will of the patient, no matter whether Muslim or not, and no matter whether out of religious motives or not, and no matter whether this is the true interpretation of Islam or not, infringes Human Rights.

The Quran contains roughly 1000 verses that praise the greatness of Allah. How much harm could have been avoided, if just one of these verses had been sacrificed to condemn FGM.

Child marriage

Child marriage is a marriage where one of the partners (usually the woman) is less than 18 years of age.

Sources cited in favor of child marriage

The Quran does not forbid marrying children. It also explains how to divorce girls who have not yet menstruated, which is read so as to permit child marriage (65:1-4M). The Prophet Muhammad is cited as inspiration, because he is the perfect role model to follow (48:29M), and he married his second wife, Aisha, when she was 6 years old.

Accordingly, the Sharia also allows child marriage (Sharia / m3.13 (2), m4.4). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA concurs 162.

Sources cited in opposition to child marriage

Verse 4:21M of the Quran is read so as to require consent from both partners, which would exclude child marriage. The verse reads “How can ye take it (back) after one of you hath gone in unto the other, and they have taken a strong pledge from you?”. Verse 2:232M says that people cannot be prevented from marrying if they want to, which can also be read so as to imply consent by the partners. Other interpretations question the meaning of the words “girls” and “menstruating” in Verses 65:1-4, and argue that women who have not menstruated are not necessarily children 163.

Scholarly views

Under the laws of all Sunni schools, the legal guardians of a prepubescent girl can force her to marry the person of his (!) choice. The Hanafi school specifies that females can confirm or dissolve the union when they reach puberty, but this is not applicable to a marriage imposed by the guardian 164.

Muslim Views

Child marriage is prevalent in many less economically developed countries 165. In some regions, families “sell” their daughters into marriage at a young age, because then (1) the family does not have to feed the daughter and (2) the family does not have to guard the virginity of the daughter for too long 166.

Child marriage is thus a priori not linked to Islam. It is linked to Islam only when religious arguments are brought forward to support it. In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, Muslim groups oppose a minimum age of 18 years for marriage for religious reasons 167. In Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s grand mufti also maintains that it is permissible for a girl of 10 years of age to marry 168 (but Saudi Arabia banned child marriages in 2019). In Pakistan, the Council of Islamic Ideology likewise opposes a ban on child marriages 169. Overall, Muslim countries have the highest rate of child marriage when compared with developed countries and with non-Muslim developing countries, according to the Organization of Islamic Countries 170.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the “collective voice of the Muslin world”, opinions that more education for women and the resultant rising age at first marriage poses as a risk for family values 170. Nevertheless, it opposes child marriages 171.

The opposition of the OIC to child marriage, and the change of mind of Saudi Arabia (one of the most traditionalist Muslim countries) on the matter indicate that the permissibility of child marriage is not a tenet of mainstream Islam. At the same time, the support from scholarly sources and high-ranking Muslim councils or scholars, as well as the prevalence of child marriage in many Muslim-majority countries indicate that the tenet is popular in Islam.

Girls married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF 165

Humanist View

The Human Rights require “free and full consent of the intending spouses” for marriage 49 (§ 16 (2)), which a child cannot give. Furthermore, child marriage is a harmful practice. A UNICEF report explains that medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. Compared with women ages 20 to 24, girls ages 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die from childbirth, and girls 15 to 19 are up to twice as likely, worldwide. 172. Another UNICEF report explains that early marriage is also associated with adverse health effects for her children, such as low birthweight. Furthermore, it has an adverse effect on the education and employment opportunities of girls 173. Last but not least, sexual intercourse between an aged man and a premature girl can be traumatic for the girl. For all these reasons, Humanism is opposed to child marriage.
Islam froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century.
Ayaan Hirsi

Women’s Clothing

The head cover for women has become a symbol of Islam. And yet, there are different opinions as to whether the head cover is obligatory, and different opinions on whether just the hair or the entire body should be covered.

Sources cited in favor of an obligation to cover

There are two Quranic verses that speak of the head cover. Verse 33:59 reads: “O Prophet! Ask your wives, daughters, and believing women to draw their cloaks over their bodies. In this way it is more likely that they will be recognized as virtuous and not be harassed.” This verse is read so as to instruct women to veil their body in order to avoid harassment by men. The Salafist reading is indeed that should a man feel tempted by a woman, and aggress her, the fault is on the woman 5.

The second verse is Verse 24:31, which reads: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and not to reveal their adornments except what normally appears. Let them draw their veils over their chests, and not reveal their hidden adornments.” Here, traditionalist interpretations of Islam take “their adornments” to mean hair and body shape and “what normally appears” to mean parts of the face and hands 174.

The Sharia interprets the verses in this sense, and asks women to cover every part of their body except hands and face (f5.3), and if possible also their face (m2.3). IslamQA concurs 175.

Sources cited against an obligation to cover

Opponents of an obligation to veil cite the verse that follows Verse 33:59. It says that “if the hypocrites [...] in Medina do not desist, We will certainly incite you against them”. Thus, the reasoning goes, the instruction to cover up was given in the specific context of Medina, where “the hypocrites” aggressed Muslim women. It is no longer valid today 53. Besides, the translations of the verse vary considerably, and can mean anything from full body cover to no obligation at all.

As for the second verse (24:31), liberal interpretations omit the part “not reveal their adornments”, and concentrate only on the instruction to cover the breasts 53.

Muslim Views

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many women in Muslim countries dressed in a Western way 176. In a video from the 1950’s, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser famously laughted at the request of the Muslim Brotherhood to impose the head cover 177. Yet, with the liberation from colonialism, the rise of more conservative interpretations of Islam, and the coming into power of more conservative rulers, the head cover became more common. It is difficult to have statistics on this question, but the head cover appears prevalent in most Muslim countries today, according to various sources 178.

The same goes for the West. In Germany, 31% of citizens of Turkish origin believe that the veil should be worn, and 33% of women wear it 84. In France, 65% of Muslims have a favorable opinion of the veil, and 35% of Muslim women wear it 25. 20% of Muslims favor the full-body niqab, a percentage that increases to 40% among the young people. In the US, 60% of women wear a headcover some or most of the time 179.

These statistics just show that women wear a veil — but not whether they do so out of their own choice or because of social pressure. Henda Ayari, from the French-Tunisian community, explains that some women wear the veil to show their piety and to be recognized as part of the Muslim community5. She also explains that she ditched the veil in order to show her piety just to God, and not to the world. Lale Gül, from the Dutch Muslim community, in contrast, argues that the veil is almost always imposed, asking “When it’s hot outside and everybody wants to go to the beach, which woman would wear a veil out of her own desire?” 180. Indeed, in Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan, religious attire is obligatory for women by law 181. Even in countries that do not officially regulate women’s attire, women may face social pressure to conform to local customs or societal norms concerning religious dress. A UN report confirms this for the Arab world, where non-conservative clothings “visibly separate young women and help target them for disapproval” 61. Women may also veil in order to avoid being harrassed by men: 35% of French women who wear the veil do so “for security reasons” 25. 75% of Egyptian men think that women who dress provocatively deserve to be harrassed 182183. In Palestine and Morocco, too, more women than men say that women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed 57. And indeed, in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine, between 31% and 64% of men admitted that they had harassed women in the street 57.

With this, the head cover is a common feature of Islam. However, it is difficult to judge to what degree the veil is imposed.

Humanist View

Humanism follows a liberal ethics, in which people are allowed to dress largely as they please. It is, therefore, not compatible with Humanist values to impose a veil, headscarf, face cover, or indeed any other type of dress. In particular, the idea that a woman has to dress in a certain way in order not to be harassed is revolting to Humanism. The harassment of women constitutes harm, and it is the perpetrator who has to change his habits, not the woman. Furthermore, traditional interpretations of Verse 33:59 of the Quran assert that women have to dress conservatively in order to be recognized as “virtuous”. This is, in Humanist terms, an affront to all those women who choose to dress differently: Everybody has the right to be recognized as virtuous, no matter whether they wear a veil or not.

At the same time, it is also incompatible with Humanist values to forbid religious clothing including the veil. Western countries typically limit this freedom in two ways: First, face covers are not allowed where they would pose a security risk or complicate law enforcement. For example, face covers have to be removed to identify a citizen. This is, from a Humanist perspective, justifiable, as law enforcement benefits all citizens. Second, too liberal clothing is prohibited when it would disturb others. This typically covers indecent exposure, with varying definitions and attitudes across countries. Recently, several European countries have taken to prohibit face covers in general, and the burqa in particular 184. Such prohibitions are no longer easily reconcilable with Humanist values. They appear to stem mainly from an opposition against the ideology that such clothing represents. In this view, the veil is a symbol for the traditionalist forms of Islam, and its prohibition is a symbol for the opposition against these forms of Islam.

Don’t tell women what to wear.
Tell men not to rape.


Rape is non-consensual forced sex, usually by a man imposed on a woman. Here we look at rape outside marriage (as spousal rape has been covered before), and outside slavery (which we will cover below). The question is whether the victim of a rape incurs punishment.

Sources cited in favor of punishment

There is no verse in the Quran that punishes explicitly rape. However, Verse 24:2M prescribes flogging as punishment for adultery, to both parties. No exemption for rape is made in the surrounding verses. By these verses, a rape outside wedlock constitutes adultery, and both the perpetrator and the victim incur a penalty.

The verse requires 4 male witnesses who have seen the act. If the woman cannot bring 4 male witnesses for an act of rape, then the perpetrator goes free. She herself, in contrast, is guilty of adultery by her own admission, and is punished by the flogging prescribed by the verse 17.

Sources cited against a penalty

Some interpretations hold that if a woman is raped, Verse 24:2 does not apply, and she cannot be punished 185. This view is shared by a number of Hadiths (among which Al-Muwatta 2:734 is part of the Six Books).

These interpretations of Islam use not Verse 24:2 to punish rape, but Verse 5:33M. It prescribes crucifixion and amputation for “waging war against Allah and His Messenger” or for “bringing mischief through the land”. The interpretations hold that rape qualifies as “mischief through the land”185, in the same way as highway robbery, war, apostasy, homosexuality 117, or blasphemy. In this way, no blame falls on the woman.

Muslim Views

In a large part of the developing world, women face social stigma, physical punishment, or death if they report a rape, finds WomenStats, an NGO 186. In some countries, this bias against rape victims shows also in the law. The UN have documented the situation for the Arab countries in particular: In some Arab countries, family law conflates rape with adultery or premarital sex so that, if a woman cannot prove rape, she is liable to be tried for zina (fornication) 61. In general, “laws on rape are either equivocal or actively biased against women, and family and society join to deny occurrences, preserve the image of virginity and downplay the crime [...]. Thus, one of the most violent, intrusive and traumatic threats to women’s personal safety continues while society averts its eyes.” 62. In some Arab countries, “the mere discussion of violence against women arouses strong resistance ” 187.

At the same time, the idea that the victim of a rape should be penalized can be found across the developing countries, and is not limited to the Muslim world. Furthermore, even some of the most traditionalist opinions in Islam oppose it 185. It thus cannot be considered a prevalent Muslim view point.

A related issue are “honor killings”. These are cases where a victim (usually a girl) is killed (usually by a member of her family) because the victim is perceived to have breached the honor code of the society — for example by becoming “too westernized”, by going out with a boy, or by having been raped. Honor killings appear predominantly in Islamic countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan 188. They find support among considerable portions of the population in Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, and Sudan 189. They also correlate with Muslim immigration in Europe, notes the European Parliament 190. In some Arab countries the penalties for assaults against women, even lethal assaults, are reduced if it can be established that the perpetrator committed a so-called “crime of honour”, notes the UN 62. Nevertheless, the pratice appears all over the developing world, and even some of the most traditionalist opinions in Islam oppose it 191. Honor killings thus cannot be considered a prevalent Muslim view point.

Humanist View

Humanism abhors all cruelty against people, and counts rape as such cruelty. The Human Rights, likewise, request security of person 49 (§ 3) and condemn cruel treatment (§ 5). The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights clarified explicitly that this includes rape and marital rape 114 (§ 2). The perpetrator of such a crime thus has to be penalized. The idea to penalize also the victim is abhorrent to Humanism.
If it’s OK to burn a woman, but heresy to burn a book, then something is wrong with your priorities.

Extremist Tenets


Historically, Islam spread not just by proselytism, but also by war. Here, we look at the question whether Islamic rule should be extended to the entire world.

Sources cited in favor of violent expansion

The Quran tells us to fight until there is no more disbelief, and until all religion is for Allah (8:39M, 61:9M, 9:33M, 48:28-29M, 2:193M), to fight until all non-Muslims have been subdued and pay special taxes (9:29M), to fight in the name of Allah (2:244M), to not make peace when one can win the war (47:35), to be ruthless against the non-believers (48:29M, 66:9M), that fighting is prescribed for Muslims (2:216M, 4:76M, 4:95M, 8:59-60M, 8:65M, 9:14M, 9:88M, 9:111M, 9:123M, 25:52, 61:4M), and that those who fight for Allah will be rewarded in the hereafter (4:74M, 9:20M). There is considerable debate whether the word “jihad” means “holy war” or “struggle with oneself for spiritual betterment”. However, the Quran specifically exempts the disabled and weak from Jihad (4:95, 9:91), which would make no sense if the word is being used in the sense of spiritual struggle.

The Quran also tells us that the Prophet Muhammed is the perfect role model to follow (48:29M, 33:21M), and it is known that he was a warrior who led several wars. The Hadiths detail how the Prophet Muhammed fought and how he killed or enslaved his opponents. Already 10 years after his death in 632, Muslim armies conquered then-Christian Syria, Palestine, and Jerusalem. In the following century, Muslim rule was extended to much of North Africa and South Asia. Islamists see this as a campaign to conquer the world for Islam, and want to follow that example.

The Sharia condenses these sources into the following: Violent Jihad is required (Sharia / o9.1, 2, 3), until (1) people are generally Muslims, (2) People of the Scripture (i.e., Christians and Jews) pay special taxes (ibid / o9.8), and (3) all other people are exterminated (ibid / o9.9). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA concurs 192.

Sources cited in opposition to violent expansion

Quranic verses forbid murder (6:151, 5:53M), except for just cause (25:68-69), and guarantee freedom of religion (2:256M, see the discussion above. The Quran calls for peace (8:61M, 2:193M, 2:224M), and tells Muslims not to start hostilities (2:190M) or pursue a people who seeks peace (4:90, 8:61), because Allah made different peoples so that they shall get to know each other (49:13). War is allowed only in self-defence (22:39), and to defend Islam (22:40), and to protect the innocent who are being oppressed (4:75) 193. Jews and Christians would have nothing to fear (5:69M).

The open letter of Islamic scholars to the Islamic State condemns war against infidels 16 (§ 8), based on Verse 2:190 cited above. The letter also gives a more peaceful interpretation to 13 other Quranic verses that call for war. In particular, it argues that the call to “make [Islam] prevail over all [other] religions” (61:9) applies only on the Arabian Peninsula 16 (§ 8 c). To condemn the killing of Yazidis by the Islamic State, the letter resorts to declaring the Yazidis “People of the Scripture” 16 (§ 11), who, different from polytheists and atheists, may not be killed but only subdued.

A minority opinion holds that the Quran uses different words for Muhammad, depending on whether it instructs “Muhammad the contemporary person” or “Muhammad the messenger for mankind” 11. This reading restricts the conquest to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Historical Views

Historically, Islamic rule spread by conquest, or, as The Economist puts it “by the word and by the sword” 194. Classical jurists divided the world into dar al-Harb (the Abode of War) and dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam), with exceptions for states with which the Muslim world had a treaty. The jurists viewed the world as a battlefield between Islam and the forces of disbelief, authorizing warfare to expand the dar al-Islam if there were “a reasonable prospect of success” 195. In the dar al-Islam, Christians and Jews were free to practice their religion. However, the taxes and restrictions on them provided strong incentives to convert to Islam.

Contemporary Muslim Views

Today, the vast majority of Muslims do not want to spread Islamic rule by violence. In this view, the old distinction of dar al-Harb and dar al-Islam has become obsolete with the treaties of the United Nations 195.

Still, Saudi schoolbooks teach a dualistic vision of the world, dividing the world into true believers of Islam (the “monotheists”) and unbelievers (the “polytheists” and “infidels”). They instruct students that their religious obligation includes waging jihad against the infidel to “spread the faith” 56. In Morocco, Sura 48 (which talks of conquest until the world is Muslim) was part of the school curriculum until 2016. It was then replaced by Sura 59, which talks of the expulsion of Jewish tribes instead 120. In Germany, 30% of Muslim pupils in the state of Lower Saxony can imagine fighting for their religion and risking their life for it, and 18% see it as the religious duty to fight infidels and spread Islam all over the world 69 (Table 10). The Islamic State , too, wants to spread Islam by violence. It argues that the Quran legitimizes warfare when Muslims are attacked. Since the international community does attack the Muslims of the Islamic State, they see it as their right to fight.

Despite its considerable number of adherents, the idea that Islamic rule should be spread by violence is nowadays an extremist tenet with little support in the global Muslim community.

Humanist view

Humanism abhors violence, believes in freedom of religion, and adheres to the self-determination of the peoples. Thus, it opposes the expansion of power by violence, and the submission of people who adhere to a different religion. The Human Rights, likewise, forbid killing 49 (§ 3), forced religious conversion (§ 18), and taxes that depend on religion (§ 2, § 7).

Today, most interpretations of Islam no longer see the Quranic verses of war as a call to violence against unbelievers. That said, it is debated whether the description of violence alone already poses a problem. Several authorities consider that a medium that contains violence is problematic by itself, in particular if the violence is belittled or proclaimed as something rightful. In Germany, the distribution of such material is illegal as “glorification of violence” 196. In Europe, the European Court of Justice ruled that glorifying violence is not covered by freedom of expression 197. In the US, the glorification of violence is not illegal per se, but the major Internet companies prohibit the distribution of such material 198199200. The reason for these judgements is that the description of violence alone can already cause discomfort for the recipient. If violence is presented to children on TV, they may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, more fearful of the world around them, and more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others 201. This is because as children begin to accept the persistent images of violence as standard form of behavior, they become desensitized and may view violence as an acceptable way to solve problems 202. It is not clear how this translates to the case where violence is presented as the way God solves problems.

When you recite to a child still in his early years the verse “They will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternative sides cut off,” regardless of this verse’s interpretation, and regardless of the reasons it was conveyed, or its time, you have made the first step towards creating a terrorist.
Wafa Sultan


A slave is a person who is owned by someone. This implies that the slave (1) is physically prevented from leaving, (2) has to work under penalty of corporal punishment, (3) can be sold and bought, and (4) has their children also be slaves. Islam has historically held different opinions on whether slavery is allowed.

Sources cited in favor of slavery

The Quran refers to slaves as “people whom your right hand possesses”, and assigns them an inferior status (24:32M, 16:71, 2:178M, 16:75). The Quran does not contain a punishment for capturing slaves, or for keeping slaves. Therefore, extremist views argue, slavery remains permitted. If the Islamic State invades Iraq, and takes slaves, then there is no verse in the Quran that we could use to punish them.

The Hadith tell us that the Prophet Muhammad also bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves 27 (Hisham:693, Hisham:511, Bukhari 3:34:351, Bukhari 9:85:80, Bukhari 3:41:588, Bukhari 3:46:711, Bukhari 9:89:296, Muslim 3901, Bukhari 3:43:648, Bukhari 5:59:541, Bukhari 8:73:182, Bukhari 1:8:367; sources) or had them sold or distributed (Hisham 878, Bukhari 1:8:367, Hisham 693, Bukhari 8:82:823; sources). According to the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad is an excellent model to follow (48:29M, 33:21M, 68:05).

The Sharia contains a section on slavery, but this was not translated as it was considered obsolete. The remaining sections explain that children and women captured in war become slaves (o9.13), and the wives marriages are automatically annulled (Sharia / o9.13). In the view of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo/Egypt, this Sharia “conforms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni Community”. IslamQA concurs 203.

Sources cited in opposition to slavery

Modern interpretations point out that had Islam abolished slavery, it would probably not have been so successful 27. In this view, the acceptance of slavery was a means to strengthen Islam, so that the religion could then, once established, work more efficiently towards the abolition of slavery.

This works as follows: The Quran urges kindness towards slaves (4:36M, 9:60M, 24:58M), and rewards the freeing of a slave (90:13, 4:92M, 5:92M, 58:3M). The Prophet Muhammad recommended freeing slaves 28. The Sharia also prescribes freeing a slave to make up for crimes such as invalidating a fast (i1.20), killing (o5.2), or breaking an oath (o20.2). Furthermore, the traditional interpretation of Islam allows capturing slaves only in war 203. The idea is that if the conditions for justified war no longer apply, and if people free their slaves as recommended by the Quran and the Sharia, then slavery would eventually peter out 27.

According to Muslim scholars, Islam and the Sharia have been working “tirelessly” against slavery ever since their inception 16 (§ 12). This effort culminated in the human consensus of the 20th century to abolish slavery altogether.

Historical Views

Historically, slavery was widely accepted in Eurasia since at least Greek and Roman times. Slavery was also widespread in the Muslim world. Arabs used to trade slaves from the 8th century on until the 19th century, and no contradiction to Islam was found. On the contrary, it was considered the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave the nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet.

In general, Islam improved the conditions of slaves, barred Muslims from enslaving other Muslims, and recommended the manumission of slaves. However, it did not abolish slavery. Paradoxically, the rules that recommended the manumission of slaves created a demand for new slaves that could only be supplied by war and new enslavery. The impetus for the abolition of slavery came largely from the colonial powers 2728, and Islamic countries abolished slavery only after the European countries did so, in the 20th century.

Contemporary Muslim Views

Slavery still exists in several African countries. Mauritania (a Muslim-majority country) was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981, and holding a slave did not become a crime until 2007. Still today, an estimated 90,000 people live in slavery in the country204.

The Islamic State, too, engages in slavery. In 2015, it kept thousands of people as slaves. It maintains that this is permitted in Islam, since the slaves were captured in wars. These wars are, from their standpoint, legitimate, because they are defending the Islamic State against their opponents. Thus, also the slaves are legally obtained. The Islamic State holds that it is not bound by the human convention that abolished slavery, because it never acceeded. Non-extremist interpretations of Islam argue that some rules of early Islam no longer apply today, as there is no caliphate. However, the Islamic State considers itself a caliphate, and thereby all the ancient rules become effective again. As the Economist argues, “the fastidious theologicians of IS are right in some aspects” 205.

However, the overwhelming majority of Muslims today hold that slavery is prohibited in Islam.

Humanist view

Humanism opposes slavery. Slavery is incompatible with the Human Rights 49 (§ 4).

Like all major religions that were born before the enlightenment, Islam has at first accepted slavery. Since its religious sources stem from that period, they do contain a punishment for capturing people as slaves. That makes them deficient as a moral yardstick from a Humanist point of view. However, today, nearly the entire world (Muslim or not) is united in the belief that slavery is immoral.

Sex slavery

We have seen that only extremist interpretations of Islam permit slavery today. Here, we look at the question whether a man can have sex with his female slaves.

Sources cited in favor

The Quran allows men to have sex with their wifes (up to 4) and with an unlimited number of female slaves (23:5-6, 70:29-30, 4:24M).

The Hadith tell us that the Prophet Muhammad oversaw women being abused (Bukhari 5:59:459, Muslim 8:3432, Muslim 8:3433, Muslim 8:3371, Abu Dawud 2:2150 , Abu Dawud 11:2153, Abu Dawud 8:3383 , Muslim 8:3371, Abu Dawud 2150, Muslim 8:3433, Bukhari 34:432, Bukhari 8:77:600; sources), and he is, according to the Quran, the perfect role model to follow.

IslamQA also answers the question to the positive 206. The Sharia contains a section on slavery, but it was not translated as it was considered obsolete.

Sources cited in opposition

The sources cited against sex slavery are the same as those cited against slavery in general.

For the cases where slavery was allowed, sex slavery was likewise allowed, and no source affirms the contrary. The Quran says that slave girls should not be forced into prostitution (24:33M). This, however, does not prohibit sex with the owner, which is different from prostitution with other men 27.

The open letter of Islamic scholars to the Islamic State does condemn the capturing of slaves 16 (§ 12). However, it brings forward no sources to condemn the sexual violence in particular.

Historical Views

Historically, female slaves in Muslim societies were used not just for economic purposes, but also for sexual gratification 27. A concubine was a slave woman who was sexually available to her master, but not married to him. A man could have as many concubines as he could afford. These made up his harem. Such sex slavery was intended to avoid “debauchery” 205 (although it is hard for a Humanist to imagine anything more debauched than sexual slavery).

Muslim Views

Today, only extremist Muslim groups support slavery . Those who do agree that the slaves can be used for sex, based on the above verses. In the 2010’s, the Islamic State exploited thousands of women as sex slaves. Indeed, this may be one of the factors that made the organization attractive for young men.

However, slavery as such, and thus sex slavery in particular, is nowadays shunned by the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

Humanist view

Slavery is incompatible with the Human Rights 49 (§ 4) and thus with Humanism.

Furthermore, the permission to have sex with a slave amounts to the permission to rape. This is because the slave woman has no means in her hands to oppose the sexual advances by her master, if (1) he is allowed to have sex with her, (2) her consent is not required, and (3) she is physically delivered to him. The practice thus amounts to compulsory non-consensual sex, which is commonly called rape 27.

Rape is incompatible with the prohibition of cruel treatment in the Human Rights 49 (§ 5) 114 (§ 2), and with Humanism more generally. Thus, according to Humanism, the permission to rape makes slavery even worse than it is per se already.

Reactions to Islam

Islam and the Human Rights

Islam encompasses wide spectrum of moral tenets, from mainstream tenets to traditionalist tenets to extremist tenets.

Several of the mainstream tenets, if taken at face value, are incompatible with the Human Rights or Humanist values. This concerns the prohibition of interfaith marriage, the refusal of equal rights for men and women, the shunning (or punishment) of homosexuality, the circumcision of infants, the shunning (or punishment) of criticism of religion, and the shunning (or punishment) of apostasy. These tenets are not universally accepted as part of Islam. Most notably, they are rejected by more liberal interpretations of the faith. However, the tenets are accepted as part of Islam by the overwhelming majority of believers. Many of the tenets are also implemented in the law in Muslim-majority countries, and they are defended at the international level by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Then there are the tenets that we categorize as traditionalist: the imposition of the veil, the permission of spousal rape, brutal punishments, the permission to beat one’s wife, a stirring of hatred against unbelievers, female genital mutilation, and child marriage. These tenets are also incompatible with the Human Rights, and they are supported by large shares of adherents. However, they are not as widely adhered to as the mainstream tenets.

Islam has led to very diverse reactions in the West
Finally, there are the extremist tenets: the military expansion of Islamist rule, slavery, and sex slavery. These tenets are most obviously incompatible with the Human Rights (and with all forms of non-extremist Islam as well). They find support only by extremist minorities within Islam.

These incompatibilities between Islamic tenets and the Human Rights are at the core of a wider perceived incompatibility between Islam and the West in general. This perceived incompatibility has led to different reactions in the West and in other parts of the world — ranging from neglect of these differences to an open acknowledgement, from criticism to violence. We will now look at stances towards Islam by different actors and ideologies.


Islam spans a wide spectrum of interpretations, and these can contain liberal tenets as well as traditionalist ones. Humanism is an atheist philosophy. As such, a Humanist cannot decide which tenets are part of the “true Islam” and which are not. This is a theological question in which unbelievers have no say. Atheists cannot decide what Muslims have not solved in 1300 years. Therefore, Humanist objection to tenets of Islam cannot be directed against Islam as a whole. That would only invite endless discussion about what Islam is or is not. Even less so, objections can be directed against “all Muslims”. Islam harbors a wide variety of beliefs, and any generalization about a harmful Islam would unjustly stigmatize all those Muslims who adhere to more liberal interpretations of the faith.

Rather, Humanist objections are usually directed against individual beliefs. What matters for Humanism is that there are beliefs that are (1) incompatible with Humanist values and (2) popular, i.e., upheld by large numbers of people, legally enforced in some countries, and propagated at the international level. Humanism can react to such beliefs on three levels:

Humanism adheres to a liberal ethics, which allows what does not harm others. Thus, in Humanism, everyone is free to marry only within their religion, to believe in hell, to veil, or to submit to their husband — or not. Humanism also grants freedom of belief, and thus allows people to adhere to religious beliefs even if they run counter to Humanist values. This is one of the main distinctive features of Humanism. It is thus against Humanist values to legally discriminate against people because of their faith, and even more so to harass or attack them. Humanism accords the right to non-violence to everyone, no matter their faith. Humanism also stands by the right to asylum for people from Muslim-majority countries, in particular also to protect apostates, liberalists, and reformers of Islam who are persecuted in their home countries.
At the same time, Humanism holds that beliefs that are incompatible with the Human Rights deserve to be identified, exposed, and discussed — in the West and elsewhere. This is indeed what Humanists International and other Humanist organisations do 99 — often against social sensibilities. Only when we openly discuss these tenets can we help those who suffer from them.
Protection of others
Humanist tolerance ends where the rights of others are affected. In a Humanist society, nobody can deny someone else the right to criticize a religion, to leave a religion, or to marry freely. Nobody can impose a religion on others, tell others that they are less worthy because of their religion or their sexual orientation, or physically harm others against their will. This latter point applies in particular to children, since they cannot give legal consent. Humanism also opposes any initiatives to establish such rules at the international level (e.g., 207).
No idea is above scrutiny, and no person is below dignity.
Maajid Nawaz

Liberal interpretations

Liberal interpretations of Islam are usually not in conflict with the Human Rights or Humanist values. Apostasy, blasphemy, marriage out of one’s religion, and homosexuality are less of an issue in these systems. One may think that adherents of these interpretations would feel embarassed when the majority interpretations of Islam, religious sources, and Islamic history all seem to point to a more traditionalist interpretation of the faith.

This is, however, not the case. Liberal interpretations usually hold that conservative and traditional interpretations of Islam are either erroneous or outdated (e.g., 53). They may also argue that what really counts in Islam is a good heart (a “white heart” in Arabic), that God loves us as we are, and that, therefore, many traditionalist concepts of the faith can be ignored 5. Liberal interpretations adhere to this view with the same conviction as traditionalist interpretations adhere to the view that the liberal interpretations are erroneous. Therefore, liberal interpretations of Islam generally do not question the religion itself 20853.

There is a large amount of evidence that demonstrates that misogyny, bad attitudes towards homosexuals and apostasy [are] supported by the law and widely accepted by the people in the Muslim world. [Now] Muslim countries share almost nothing between them all (not socio-economic status, not education or literacy levels, not GDP, not cultural background or history, not race or ethnicity, not language, not political system, not the history of Western colonization) — except the predominant religion.

Non-liberal interpretations

Extremist interpretations of Islam consider the Human Rights an aberration, and are thus not perturbed by the incompatibility between their view of Islam and the Human Rights.

But also conservative and traditionalist interpretations of Islam are in conflict with the Human Rights, in what concerns women’s rights, gay rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. One may think that this embarasses adherents of these interpretations.

This is, however, not the case. These interpretations of Islam commonly hold that Islam is not only the precursor to the Human Rights, but to this day their guarantor, and in some aspects their superior. As an example, let us look at women’s rights. The conservative and traditionalist interpretations argue that Islam protects women as follows 209210:

Improvement wrt. pre-Islamic times.
Islam gave women rights that they did not have in the pre-Islamic society: a legal standing, a right to life, a right to inheritance, a right to refuse marriage, a right to education, the right to participate in society and politics, and protection from physical abuse outside marriage.
Liberation from financial burden
Islam puts the burden of financial family support plainly on the husband. Thereby, it liberates women from an obligation that they have in some Western families.
Clear roles
Islam defines clear roles for husbands and wives. These roles are not identical, but complementary (hence the unequal rights in what concerns marriage and inheritance). With these roles comes appreciation: Islamic societies appreciate women as mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters.
Islam gives women equal dignity and respect — something they would be missing in Western societies. The veil forces people to concentrate on what a woman has to say rather than on how she looks. Thereby, the veil would liberate women from the sexual role that society assigns to them.
These arguments do not hold water from a Humanist point of view, because the pre-Islamic society is a rather low bar to clear. The Human Rights give women not just more rights than the pre-Islamic society did, but the same rights as men. Traditionalist interpretations of Islam do not give women equal rights, no matter the insistence on the “respect”, “dignity”, and “protection” of women. As for the other items, the Human Rights give women and men the choice to distribute the financial burden, follow certain roles, or wear a veil or not — a freedom that women do not have in the traditionalist interpretations of Islam. Thus, the Human Rights grant these possibilities to whoever considers them advantageous, but does not impose them on those who consider them restrictive. Nevertheless, adherents of these interpretations seriously believe that their version of Islam is compatible with, if not superior to, the Human Rights.

In this vein, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) holds that Islam is “wrongly associated with Human Rights violations” 211 — while the OIC is arguably the largest organization on Earth that that openly opposes the Human Rights. The OIC also proposed Resolution 16/8 of the UN Human Rights Council 212, which condemns all forms of discrimination for religious reasons — while the OIC countries are the largest group of countries that legally discriminate against people of other faiths. All of this is to say that the conservative and traditionalist interpretations of Islam do not see themselves in opposition to the Human Rights.

Brother, you can believe in stones, as long as you don’t throw them at me.

Islamic governments

We have seen that several mainstream tenets of Islam are incompatible with the Human Rights. The Muslim-majority countries have a mixed history of dealing with this incompatibility. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was voted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, none of the UN members at the time voted against. South Africa abstained, possibly because it considered the declaration incompatible with its system of apartheid. Six communist countries also abstained, possibly because the declaration stipulated the right of citizens to leave their country, or because the declaration enshrined also civil and political rights. Many of today’s Muslim-majority countries were colonies of Western powers at the time, and thus not given the chance to vote. Other Muslim-majority countries, such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria voted in favor. Saudi Arabia abstained.

In 1969, the Muslim-majority countries organized themselves in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Today, the organization comprises 57 member states, and considers itself the “collective voice of the Muslim world”. In 1990, the OIC signed the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam” 29, which is widely regarded as the Muslim response to the UN Human Rights Declaration. The Cairo Declaration takes over many of the principles of the UN declaration, but limits them so as to conform to the Sharia. In particular, it does not grant equality before the law for men and women, freedom of religion, freedom of marriage, and freedom of expression when it comes to criticising Islam. And indeed, many Islamic countries continue to punish blasphemy and apostasy, and do not allow mixed marriages. Even the aforementioned “Arab Charter on Human Rights”, which grants freedom of religion and expression, does not grant equality before the law for men and women, or freedom of marriage 30.

It is thus no secret that the value systems of the Muslim-majority countries today are incompatible with the Human Rights. This distinguishes them from other countries with Human Rights issues, such as the United States or, indeed, most other countries: These countries acknowledge the Human Rights as a goal, but fail to implement them. The OIC countries, in contrast, do not agree on the Human Rights in the first place.

The issue is also different from other pressing concerns such as poverty or global warming: On these issues, most countries agree that they are problems that need to be solved 213. On Human Rights, in contrast, the OIC countries do not believe that they have a problem. They are openly liberticide, in the sense that they oppose some of the basic civil liberties.

No one is suffering under the doctrine of Islam more than Muslims are.
Sam Harris

European governments

Europe has a long history of interaction with the Muslim world 214: In 711, a century after Islam was founded, Muslim conquerers sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa to Spain, and established a caliphate there. This caliphate remained in place for more than 700 years, until the Christian “reconquista” reconquered the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. While one caliphate waned in western Europe, another rose in the east. The Ottoman empire started in what is now Turkey and at its height dominated parts of central and south-eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul), the seat of eastern Christianity. The Ottomans twice laid siege to Vienna, in 1529 and 1683, and lost both times. Thereafter, Christian forces reconquered the balkans. Greece, its southernmost point, became independent in 1830. These times then saw the rise of colonialism, and much of Africa and the Middle East was conquered by European nations. Colonialism, in turn, waned after the Second World War, and since the 1960’s, most Muslim majority countries are independent.

Percentage of Muslim population, according to Pew Research 215
In the coming decades, Europe became a destination for migrants. France saw immigration from its colonies in North Africa, and today around 9% of the population is Muslim. Some 20,000 of the immigrants in the years 1991-2000 were Algerian Islamists, who sought asylum in France because they were persecuted by the Algerian dictatorship 5. The UK saw immigration from its ex-colonies Pakistan and India, and today 6% of its population is Muslim. Germany invited immigration from Turkey to help is economic recovery after the Second World War, and today around 6% of its population is Muslim 215. None of these countries had a strategy for integrating the Muslim population into the mainstream society. This did not hinder large parts of the immigrant society to integrate into the host society, in professions ranging from waiters to mayors. However, some cities also saw the rise of Muslim-only neighborhoods, where Muslim customs predominate, and non-Muslims feel unwelcome 70131132133134. To this date, countries such as Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia sponsor Islamic organizations, and thereby propagate a traditionalist interpretation of Islam 24.

Partly in reaction to these developments, the Council of Europe recognized in 1991 that Europe “is becoming increasingly subject to influences from Islam” 216. It decided that the incompatibility between Islam and human rights is “not representative of Islam as a whole”, and therefore sees “valuable contribution that Islamic values can make” to European culture. The council thus tried to see mainly the liberal interpretations of Islam. Based on this view, it recommended the production of television programmes on Islamic culture, the inclusion of Islam in mainstream studies (e.g., Islamic philosophy should be taught in philosophy departments and Islamic law in law departments), the catering to religious requirements for Muslims (concerning holy days, prayer rules, dress and food), and the production of television programmes on Islamic culture.

The 2010’s saw two developments: First, Europe fell victim to several deadly Islamist terrorism attacks, including the attacks in Paris in 2015 on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the 2016 Brussels bombings. Second, Europe saw a new influx of Muslim migrants, mainly due to the war in Syria and the general situation in Arab countries. This process was not without social tensions. A particularly marking event were large-scale sexual assaults in Germany on New Year’s Eve 2015, perpetrated mostly by men of non-European origin 217. Predictably, the far right gathered adherents: Germany saw the rise of the anti-immigrant party “Alternative für Deutschland”. In France, the far-right “Front National” party saw a revival in the 2010’s. Hungary and Poland, likewise, saw their political landscape tilt to the right. In these years, several European governments started seeing traditionalist and extremist interpretations of Islam as a threat, most notably France 218, the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria 184. The Council of Europe, likewise, asked governments to counteract Sharia-inspired interpretations of Islam 219. A European interpretation of Islam has not worked out 220. To this date, governments face a delicate balance between counteracting Islamism, avoiding the aleniation of local Muslim populations (and voters), assuaging people (and voters) who are afraid of Islam, protecting its Muslim population against discrimination, counteracting foreign influence, and containing the far right.

We are neither in the general naïveté of the extreme left, nor in the extreme caricature of the extreme right. We judge foreigners not by what they are, but by what they do.
Gérald Darmanin, French minister of the interior, 2022

The Far-Right in the West

Far-right politics center on the importance of the nation, government authority, and cultural homogeinity. Far-right politics in the West usually portrays Islam as a danger to Western culture, values, and people. A prevalent fear is that Islam would replace Western culture in the West, a theory known as the “Great Replacement”. Europe would be culturally invaded by the Arab world, a hypothesis called “Eurabia”. This would come about by the establishment of Muslim parallel societies with Sharia-like laws 70131132133134, the financing of religious organizations in the West by Muslim countries such as Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia 24, a positive depiction of Islam in the media 217 and in education 216, increasingly Muslim-friendly legislation, and finally by the take-over of regions and countries through immigration, higher fertility rates 221, government positions, and potentially war. The mainstream politics and media would turn a blind eye to the dangers of Islam. Therefore, the far right would have to be ever more vocal about its opposition to Islam.

Such views are propagated by several organizations: PEGIDA and the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AFD) in Germany, the English Defence League in the UK, the Fortress Europe coalition in Europe, and the groups Stop Islamisation of Europe, and Stop Islamization of America. Such groups typically argue that if Muslim countries impose their culture on Westerners who go there (concerning the veil 222, prohibition of blasphemy, and restrictions on non-Muslim religions), then the West should impose its culture on Muslim immigrants as well. Adherents or sympathisers of such groups range from “concerned citizens” (who are afraid of a growing influence of Islam in their country) to nationalists (who want to rid their culture of foreign influence) to far-right extremists (who want to expell or physically harm members of other cultures). They may also include people who feel left behind by society, and see Muslim immigration as a chief reason.

Such views resonate in the general population in the West. Over 40% of Germans and French and over 30% of Britons and Americans think that Islam and Western values are incompatible 223. Books that allude to the “Great Replacement” are bestsellers 22451225226. Several media outlets cater to such audiences, including Fox News in the US.

Such view points are usually dismissed as islamophobic by the major political parties in the West. This, in turn, adds fuel to the flames of the far-right, which feels confirmed in its view that the public, the government, and the media would not take the dangers of Islam seriously.

As we have seen, the most popular interpretations of Islam are indeed incompatible with the Human Rights. Any denial of this will only push more people into the thinking of the far-right. That said, it is a mistake to see Islam as a monolithic ideology. Islam covers a wide variety of interpretations, from the extremist to the traditionalist to the liberal. By lumping together all of these, one does not just brush aside the more liberal-minded interpretations of Islam (such as 53208), but one also closes the door to one of the most effective means of changing Islam: its liberal adherents. For every traditionalist tenet in Islam, there is a sizeable minority of adherents who think differently. As Maajid Nawaz has argued: If we want to oppose Islamic extremism, then the Humanist, Christian, and liberal Muslim voices have to work together 208.

Furthermore, far-right criticism of Islam often blends into generalizations about Muslims: Muslims would be rapists, criminals, terrorists, and jihadists. Such generalizations are obviously not just false, but also constitute an insult for the vast majority of Muslims who are not rapists, terrorists, or jihadists. It is not an individual Muslim’s fault if some other adherent of the same religion commits a crime. And yet, in a survey in 2017, 42% of Muslim schoolchildren in America said they were bullied because of their faith. One in five Americans would deny Muslim citizens the right to vote 227. Such ideas are absurd from a Humanist stand point: A democracy has to guarantee the same rights and legal standing to everyone, no matter their faith.

In its extreme, far-right criticism of Islam turns to violence. There are regularly assaults in Western lands on Muslims because of their faith. In the US, Pew Research registered 363 assaults on Muslims, including cases of intimidation (threat of physical harm) and destruction of property in 2016 228 (Jews, who are roughly twice as many as Muslims in the US, also suffered, with 684 such crimes). The numbers have been particularly high after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. They have then decreased in 2002, only to increase again over the following years. Europe shows a similar pattern: after the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Pew Research registered a rise in anti-Muslim social hostilities, i.e., hostile rhetoric, vandalism and physical assaults 229. The mosques in Le Mans and Narbonne in France were attacked by grenades and gunshots. In Norway, the anti-Muslim attacks in 2011 left at least 50 people dead or injured. The same is true of the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 in New Zealand.

Such attacks are partly the result of an increasing radicalization of far-right hatred against Islam and Muslims.

The “Regressive Left”

Left-wing politics generally supports social equality and egalitarianism, and is concerned for the well-being of people who are disadvantaged by society. In many Western societies, Muslims are perceived to be in that disadvantaged group, because they suffer disproportionally from discrimination. For this reason, left-wing politics nowadays often defends the rights of Muslims in the West.

In some cases, this means that criticism of Islam is interpreted as an attack on a disadvantaged minority. Such criticism would further marginalize Muslims, and is thus considered inappropriate, humiliating, or even racist. The Islam-critical publications of Charlie Hebdo, e.g., were criticised as material that “intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world” 230 (similar: 231).

This exemplifies a left wing where people hesitate to look into differences between Islamic values and Western values. As Yahya Cholil Staquf, the leader of the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, comments, “there is a left wing whose adherents reflexively denounce any and all talk about the connections between traditional Islam, fundamentalism and violence as de facto proof of Islamophobia” 232. While there is a right wing that believes that Islam personifies evil, Sarah Haider observed, there is a left wing that refuses to even look into it as a source of harm 31. For this left wing, any criticism of Islam is foremost an unjustified attack on a disadvantaged minority.

And yet, there is a difference between criticism of an idea and an attack on its adherents. To see that, witness that the Left has no issues in criticizing the Catholic Church for mysogy or cover-up of child abuse. In fact, the Left has historically been one of the largest critics of Christianity. This criticism of Christianity was rarely interpreted as hatred against 2.1 billion Christians — even though Christians are among the largest persecuted minorities in the world. And in the same way, it must be possible to criticize Islam without being accused of attacking its adherents.

Furthermore, while Muslims can indeed fall victim to discrimination and sometimes even violence because of their religion, that does not invalidate criticism of Islam. The fact that Muslims are marginalized in Western countries justifies in no way the harm that the less liberal interpretations of Islam cause, e.g., to women, homsexuals, and apostates. An ideology can have adherents that are victimized, but that does not make that ideology right 31. On the contrary, we know today that the support from liberals and left-leaning ideologists is actively used by Islamist groups to shield their ideology from criticism 208.

One may argue that the focus on Islam constitutes an unjust singling out of one particular religion. At the same time, Islam is the second largest religion on Earth. Its mainstream tenets, which are upheld by conservative, traditionalist, and extremist interpretations alike, have more than a billion adherents. These tenets thus form the largest ideology on Earth that openly advocates unequal rights for men and women before the law (a tenet that even the Catholic Church does not advocate). There is no other ideology of this size that openly denies gay people an existence in society, and that opposes freedom of religion. It is thus the largest ideology that is openly opposed to the values that the Left defends.

Indeed, large numbers of people are currently suffering in the name of this ideology from the injustices that the Left opposes 233: from misogyny , homophobia , discrimination of apostates , and the persecution of religious minorities . The primary victims of these tenets are Muslims themselves 31 — the very people that the Left seeks to protect. Thus, by ignoring criticism of Islam in order to protect a minority in the West from discrimination, this political Left effectively protects the world’s largest inegalitarian ideology instead. In this sense, the Left betrays its own values 97. This effect has been called “Islamo-leftism” or the “regressive left” 208.

The phenomenon discomforts Muslim and ex-Muslim activists, who campaign for the rights of apostates, gay people, or women in the Muslim world. They feel abandoned by the Left 208234 in a struggle for values that the Left supposedly supports. As Sarah Haider asks 31: if one-quarter of Western nations had legalized the murder of Muslims, how appalled would the Left be? And then why is the Left not equally appalled when one-quarter of Muslim countries legalize the murder of ex-Muslims?

Western people would be appalled if the repression, misogyny, homophobia, and political violence that are common in the Islamic world were found in their own societies. And yet, many Western intellectuals have become strange apologists when these practices are carried out in the name of Islam.
Stephen Pinker in “Enlightenment Now”

Political Conflicts

Struggles for recognition

In several regions in the world, local Muslim communities strive for more rights, automomy, or independence from their host country, often violently. From the perspective of the Muslim communities, this strive is a legitimate endeavor against a repressive government, and the violence is mainly the consequence of all other options having been exhausted. From the perspective of the government, the violence is terrorism, which has to be suppressed.

This book is about religion, not politics. However, no discussion about Islam would be complete without mentioning these conflicts. The conflicts have little to do with Islam itself, and stem mainly from a perceived or real suppression of the Muslim community by the host country. This distinguishes these conflicts from the wars conducted by extremist groups, which strive for world dominance in the name of Islam. The conflicts are also different from the suppression of liberal-minded people in authoritarian Islamic regimes (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran), which we only allude to. Finally, these conflicts are different from acts of terrorism outside the disputed territory, which we discuss further down.

We will discuss the struggle of Palestinians in Israel, of Uyghurs in China, and of Rohingyas in Myanmar. These conflicts have elicited different reactions from different actors in the world, which do not follow a simple pattern of “Islam” versus “the West”. On the contrary: In the case of Palestinians, the US approves of Israeli settlements in the region — while the rest of the world condemns them, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the UN, and Humanists International. In the case of the Uyghurs, Humanists International, Western governments, and the US condemn China’s treatment of this minority — while the OIC praises China. In the case of Rohingyas, in contrast, the UN, Humanists International, and the OIC stand with this Muslim minority — while China and India support the host country, Myanmar.

It is interesting to note that in all these cases (Palestinians, Uyghurs, Rohingyas), Humanists International stands with the Muslim minority. This is not because Humanism would be for Muslims in general or against someone else in general, but because Humanism stands by its values.


United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (1947). Green: Arab state. Blue border: Jewish state.
Armistice lines after the Arab-Israeli war (1949). Light green: Annexed by Jordan. Dark Green: Occupied by Egypt. Blue border: Israel.
Situation after the Six Days War (1967), the Oslo Accords (1994), and the Israeli disengagement from Gaza (2005). Light green: Hamas. Dark green: Palestinian Authority. Blue border: Israel.All maps CC-BY-SA Onceinawhile, scaled
The most prominent example of a conflict between a local Muslim population and a dominating country is the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Before World War 1, the region was inhabited mainly by Muslim Palestinians, and had only a small Jewish population. However, the Zionist movement considered the region the traditional home of Jews, and called for Jews to immigrate there. An increased Jewish population in the region led the UN in 1947 to propose a partition of the region into a Jewish state and an Arab state. This led to the first Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1949, and the expulsion of around 700,000 Palestinians from the new state. In 1967, a dispute about the Straits of Tiran culminated in the Six-Day war between Israel and the neighboring countries. Israel conquered (and subsequently kept) the Gaza strip (a small Palestinian territory between Israel and Egypt), the West Bank (a Palestinian territory between the original state of Israel and the country of Jordan to the East), and the Golan Heights (a small territory captured from Syria). Ever since, Israel has kept a tight grip on the Palestinian regions, and supported settlements of Jewish settlers in these areas, declaring them a “national interest” in its basic law235. Palestinians, for their part, have issued a series of violent attacks on Israel and Israeli citizens. The Oslo Accords of 1994 partitioned the West Bank into areas of Palestinian, Israeli, and shared control. As of 2021, there are about 9 million inhabitants of Israel proper (75% of whom are Jewish), several hundred thousand Jewish Israeli settlers in the Palestinian territories, about 5 million Palestinians in the Palestinian territories, and several million Palestinian refugees in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria, and Israel proper.

The conflict is one of the world’s most enduring conflicts, and decades of attempts to bring peace to the region have failed. At stake are several sites that are considerd holy by both world religions, the fate of the Palestinians who have been expelled from the region as well as their descendants, the role of groups that are considered Islamist, the creation of a state of Palestine, and the security concerns of Israel. As Humanists International summarizes, “the history of Israel’s founding, prior war by other states on Israel, occupation and blockading of Palestinian territories by Israel, and the violence and threat to civilian life on both sides, means there is no simple blame game” 236. Nevertheless, the settlement of Israelis in Palestinian territories is considered illegal not just by Humanists International 237 but also by the international community238 — with the notable exception of the United States 239.


The Uyghurs are an ethnic group in Xinjiang, a region in North-Western China. They number roughly 13 million people, and are mostly Muslim. Tensions between Uyghurs, on one side, and the government and the region’s Han Chinese population, on the other, have sometimes turned violent. In 2009, Uighurs rioted in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, killing nearly 200 people, most of them Han Chinese. Beginning in 2013, Uighurs committed a series of deadly attacks on civilians in several Chinese cities, killing dozens. A Uighur Islamist group claimed responsibility for at least one of the attacks. Reports also emerged of dozens of Uighurs abroad joining the Islamic State. Beijing has responded with increasing ferocity. Blaming Uighur separatism and Islamic extremism, it imposed increasingly restrictive measures: up to 1m Uyghurs are thought to have been interned in “re-education camps” aimed at changing the political thinking of detainees, their identities, and their religious beliefs 240241242. The inmates cannot leave these camps, which makes them de facto prisons 243. The remaining population is tightly surveilled: Vehicles of Uyghurs have been equipped satellite tracking-devices. As part of regional authorities’ intrusive “Becoming Families” surveillance, development, and indoctrination campaign, officials impose themselves for overnight stays at the homes of Uyghurs. Many residents have been told to hand over their passports. “Abnormal” beards (including the one associated with traditionalist Islam) have been banned. Children named Muhammad can be denied free schooling and health care 244245. Uyghurs who live abroad reported being warned that family members would be detained if they did not return to Xinjiang or that they would not be able to see their family again if they refused to provide information about other Uyghurs living in their communities 246.

Humanists International has condemned this treatment as incompatible with the Human Rights 247. So have Western governments 248. The US, in particular, considers it genocide and has issued sanctions. Several Muslim-majority countries, in contrast, including Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria, support China’s policy 249. The Organization of Islamic Coordination does not criticize China either, and talks instead of the “programmes of the Chinese Government for the promotion and betterment of various ethnic communities and particularly for the Uighur and other Muslim communities in China” 250.

At that time, it was terror among people. When we saw each other, people were terrified. The only thing we were talking about was saying, “Ah, you’re still here!” In all the families there was someone arrested. Some, the whole family. In February 2018, they arrested my older brother. Ten days later my little brother. I thought, it’ll be my turn soon.


The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority of 1-2 million people, who orginally resided in Myanmar. During World War 2, Rohingya Muslims were allied with the British, and fought against the local Buddhists, who were allied with the Japanese. When Myanmar became an independent Buddhist-majority country in 1948 (under the name of Burma), it denied the Rohingyas citizenship. Ever since, there have been armed insurrections by Rohingyas to obtain more self-determination within Myanmar. The government has responded with military crackdowns. Starting from 2016, the military launched a campaign of killings, arson, rape, and torture against the Rohingyas 251252. Most of the Rohingya population was driven out of Myanmar, into neighboring Bangladesh 253.

The UN has condemned the treatment of the Rohingyas as genocide 252. Humanists International, likewise, condemns it 254. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, too, supports the Rohingyas' cause 255. China and India, in contrast, back Myanmar 256.

Islamist Terrorism


Terrorism is the use of violence to achieve political ends. We use the term “Islamist terrorism” for violent acts that are committed by adherents of the extremist interpretations of Islam. Common objectives of Islamist terrorism are:
The establishment of an Islamic state
Several Islamist groups believe that existing Muslim-majority countries do not represent the “true Islam”, because they are too Westernized, do not fully implement the Sharia, or are puppet regimes of Western powers. Therefore, these groups see the necessity to create a caliphate, i.e., a Muslim country for Muslims. This country would implement Sharia law, and follow the customs of the early Muslim caliphates. To this end, some of these groups aim to weaken or overthrow existing governments through violence.
Retaliation for government acts against Muslim populations
Several Western governments have waged war against Muslim countries. This includes the invasions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq in the late 20th and early 21st century. In Iraq alone, hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed in search of weapons of mass destruction that did not even exist. Western countries have also hurt Muslim populations in other ways, e.g., by imposing sanctions or by exerting post-colonial power. The occupation of Palestine by Israel, too, is widely seen as an unjust oppression of a Muslim people, as are the other conflicts. Another example is the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which the Bosnian Serb Army killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys, while the UN failed to protect them. Such events generate hatred and the desire to retaliate 208. They also help build an identity of “Muslims vs. everyone else”. The Western attacks on the Islamic State, likewise, are seen as an illicit war against Muslims, and as a reason for counter-attacks on Western institutions 257.
Retaliation for blasphemy against Islam
In the mainstream, traditionalist, and extremist interpretations of Islam alike, blasphemy against God or the Prophet Muhammad is a grave offense. It besmirches what is most holy in Islam. Many adherents thus see blasphemy also as an insult against themselves. In traditionalist and extremist interpretations, blasphemy has to be sanctioned by death. Hence, some Islamists vow to revenge Islam and the Muslim community, and murder people who criticise or ridicule Islam.
Islamist terrorists adhere to the extremist interpretations of Islam, i.e., they share not just the traditionalist tenets of the religion and the Sharia, but also hold that Islam should rule the world.

A prevalent opinion in the West is that Islamists would be lunatics, driven by a lack of other perspectives. Yet, many Islamists are well-educated people. The pilots of the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Centers in New York, for example, studied English, architecture, shipbuilding, and aerospace engineering in the West. The ideology of Islamists is not an inconsistent drivel that appeals to the mentally unstable. Rather, it is an elaborate theology based on a literal reading of the Quran and an interpretation of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. To see this, it suffices to discuss with an Islamist, or to follow any of the Islamist sermons on Youtube. Their ideology convinces a large number of people. Therefore, Islamist interpretations of Islam deserve to be studied as well. This is even more true since they have a considerable physical impact.

In response to Islamist attacks, we don’t need a minute of silence.
We need years of debate.

Extremist groups

As of 2021, the main Islamist organizations are the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Ḥizb at-Taḥrīr, and Boko Haram. The Islamic State (also known as IS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/ISIS, or Dāʿish/Daesh) is a Muslim extremist militant group. It aims to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria, and establish an Islamic Caliphate. In 2015, it controlled a territory with 10 million people. Al Qaeda is a militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization, which wants to remove all foreign influence from Muslim countries. For this purpose, it has carried out a number of terrorist attacks, most notably the one on the World Trade Centers in New York on September 11, 2001. Boko Haram is a Nigerian Muslim extremist group, which claims alliance to the Islamic State. It has killed tens of thousands of people. Ḥizb at-Taḥrīr is an international Islamist organization that aims to establish an Islamic caliphate 258208. It does so mainly by political means, although it supports violent jihad (war) against what it sees as enemies of Islam. There are other Islamist groups, and some of them have carried out suicide attacks outside their region of origin.

All of these groups share the basic tenets of Islam. Their adherents are thus technically Muslims. At the same time, these groups are probably best understood as a sect: A minority that split away from the mainstream interpretations of the faith. Furthermore, as Maajid Nawaz has noted, the groups are not so much religious movements with political consequences, but rather political movements with religious consequences 208.

I joined Ḥizb at-Taḥrīr because of the fire that injustice had lit inside me.
Maajid Nawaz in “Radical - My journey out of Islamic Extremism”

How extremist groups work

Extremist groups are usually well organised, beause otherwise they would simply disappear. Hamed Abdel-Samad and others have argued that Islamist groups use similar strategies as fascism to this end 259: Furthermore, in a world where a person’s identity is increasingly complex, Islamist groups offer a simple and all-embracing definition of their members’ identity: What matters is not their gender, ethnicity, or provenance. What matters is their adherence to Islam (read: their adherence to Islamism). This definition of identity is basically about “Islam versus everything else” 208. In this spirit, Islamist groups have developed precanned answers to critical questions, thought-out arguments, and a coherent ideology, which gives them an upper hand in debates with adherents, interested people, and opponents 208. Armed with this ideology, they have infiltrated universities in European countries, created student bodies, attracted public funding, and trained members 208.
You could easily spot any Religion of Peace. Its extremist members would be extremely peaceful.
Ricky Gervais

Terrorist acts

Islamist groups have launched several terrorist attacks in Western countries and Muslim countries alike. This happens usually in retaliation for government acts against Muslim populations, in retaliation for blasphemy against Islam, or to affirm the presence of the group.

The most prevalent Islamist terrorist attacks, each more with 50 dead or injured, were the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, the 2002 Bali bombings, the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the Beslan school hostage crisis in Russia in 2004, the 2005 London bombings, the 2005 Tentena market bombings in Indonesia, the 2005 Amman bombings in Yemen, the bombings in Mumbai in 2005 and 2006, the 2008 Ahmedabad bombings in India, the bombings in the Moscow Metro in 2010, the 2010 Lahore bombings in Pakistan, the Christmas Day bombings in Nigeria in 2011, the Makhachkala attack in Russia in 2011, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2012, the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya in 2013, the Borno Massacre and the Kano bombing in Nigeria in 2014, the attacks in Paris in 2015 on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theatre, the 2016 Brussels bombings, the 2016 Lahore suicide bombing in Pakistan, the July 2016 Baghdad bombings, the Bastille day attack in Nice/France in 2016, the 2017 Sehwan suicide bombing in Pakistan, the Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt in 2017, the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 in the UK, the 2017 Barcelona attacks in Spain, the 2017 Sinai mosque attack in Egypt, and the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings.

These are just the Islamist attacks that are most visible in the West. In parallel, Jihadism burns continuously in the Sahel, where it has claimed thousands of lives so far 260.

Mayhem comes when medieval unreason is combined with modern weaponary.

Support for terrorism

Islamists have carried out several terrorist attacks. Sizable minorities of Muslims support suicide bombs to defend Islam, according to a global poll by Pew Research 45: 15% in Turkey, 18% in Malaysia, 13% in Pakistan, 26% in Bangladesh, 39% in Afghanistan, 7% in Iraq, 12% in Tunisia, 29% in Egypt, and 40% in Palestine. In the Western world, sizable proportions of Muslims sympathize with terrorist attacks, according to various polls261262. Suicide bombing can be justified in some cases according to 17% of Muslims in Germany, 22% of Muslims in the US, 30% of Muslims in Britain, and 36% of Muslims in France, according to Pew Reserach 263. 13% of Muslims in 11 Muslim-majority countries sympathize with Al-Qaeda 264, and 21% of Turks believe that the Islamic State represents Islam 265.
If you refuse to acknowledge the existence of a problem, you can’t begin to solve it.
Yahya Cholil Staquf

Factors that favor terrorism

Several factors can contribute to the radicalization of Islamists, and can motivate people to support or join extremist groups:
Social and political factors in Muslim societies
  • The economic situation in most Muslim-majority countries is difficult. Some people come to see colonialism, neo-colonialism, or more generally the West as a primary reason for this situation. They may then resolve to fight the West, and to reinstall Islam as it was before colonization 208.
  • Many dictators in Muslim lands were secular people: Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Iran, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. To many people, it is thus religion (and in particular its extremist interpretations) that are the most credible alternative.
  • In several countries, Muslim minorities struggle for recognition or independence. These struggles are perceived as just causes for which Islamists are ready to fight.
  • In several Muslim societies, legal discrimination against non-Muslims is the norm. This may set the ground for an understanding that non-Muslims are worth less than Muslims. This may then allow extremist thought to florish.
Social and political factors in Western societies
  • Some Muslims in Western societies are marginalized and socially disadvantaged. This may generate hatred against the host society 223208.
  • The mainstream interpretation of Islam prohibits Muslims from marrying freely with non-Muslims. This means that Muslims in the West cannot merge into the host population, and remain a separated community.
  • Blasphemy, i.e., criticizing Islam, is an offensive act for many adherents. Thus, if Western media question or criticize Islam, these Muslims feel offended. This may create environments where violence against Western media is tacitly seen as justified.
Historical and theological factors
  • Islam has a history of conquest. Consequently, the Quran contains numerous verses of war and violence. The Prophet Muhammad himself submitted several towns for his cause 35, and he is, according to the Quran, the perfect role model to follow. Extremists take inspiration from this, and want to emulate their role model in this sense 223257.
  • Most interpretations of Islam hold that unbelievers will burn in Hell, and that they deserve this fate for their unbelief alone. If children are taught from an early age on that that unbelievers are worthy of hell (as it happened in some countries), then they may come to look at unbelievers with different eyes.
  • Despite the variety in Islamic belief systems, most Muslims believe that there is only one correct interpretation of Islam. Questioning the Quran is not allowed. This mindset of allowing only one correct interpretation and of categorically ruling out criticism may contribute to the closed-mindedness and determination of terrorists.
  • The Quran promises martyrs a life in paradise with virgins at their disposal. If a person is no longer afraid to die (but on the contrary eager to die), then this person will be more open to the idea of sacrificing their life for a supposedly greater good.
Just because you're offended, doesn’t mean you're right.
Ricky Gervais


One reason for people to join or support Islamist organizations may be a general unhappiness with the general economic situation. Let us elaborate on this hypothesis.

The state of Muslim countries

As of the 2010’s, Muslim countries generally belong to the developing nations. They fare lower than Western countries on most socio-economic measures. With the exception of the oil-exporting nations, the GDP per capita is generally lower in the Muslim world than in the Western world. Some Muslim countries, such as Brunei, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuweit, and Saudi Arabia, have a comparatively high Human Development Index. The others, however, are not among the top 50 countries. Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Morocco fare particularly bad. In terms of corruption, the Muslim countries share the plight of the other developing countries, and fare among the most corrupt countries in the world. Life expectancy is low as well, with the exception of Saudia Arabia and Libya.

The situation in the Arab world is particularly disheartening. According to a UN report of 2009 266, “in the Arab region, human insecurity [...] inhibits human development. It is revealed in the impacts of military occupation and armed conflict in Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Occupied Palestinian Territory. It is found in countries that enjoy relative stability where the authoritarian state, buttressed by flawed constitutions and unjust laws, often denies citizens their rights. Human insecurity is heightened by swift climatic changes, which threaten the livelihoods, income and access to food and water of millions of Arabs in future. It is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want. Human insecurity is palpable and present in the alienation of the region’s rising cohort of unemployed youth and in the predicaments of its subordinated women, and dispossessed refugees”. Furthermore, “many Arab countries’ constitutions adopt ideological or doctrinal formulas that empty stipulations of general rights and freedoms of any content and which allow individual rights to be violated in the name of the official ideology or faith” [ibid]. The situation of women is particularly worrying 62. As for the economy, “the types of services found in most Arab countries fall at the low end of the value adding chain, contribute little to local knowledge development and lock countries into inferior positions in global markets. [...] Overall, the Arab countries were less industrialized in 2007 than in 1970. [...] The overall average unemployment rate for the Arab countries was about 14.4% of the labour force compared to 6.3% for the world at large” [ibid]. The Arab world is “one of two world regions — the other being sub-Saharan Africa — where the number of undernourished has risen since the beginning of the 1990s. [...] The health status of Arabs, in general, is lower than that enjoyed by citizens of industrialized countries” [ibid] This may have improved since. However, a UN report of 2017 notes that, in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine, 35%-52% of women met a screening standard for depressive symptoms, as well as 26%-38% of men — mainly due to war, occupation, displacement, and unemployment 58.

Thus, by and large, Muslim countries are less developed than Western countries. They share this fate with the other developing countries. The reasons for this status are manifold, and include bad governance, foreign intervention, military conflict, climate change, changing demographics, and many other factors.

Muslim belief of supremacy

What makes the position of Muslim countries particular is that the Quran tells us that Islam is the only true faith (3:19, 3:85). Unbelievers, in contrast, are, in a literal reading of some verses, dumb and deaf. Muslims are “the best of peoples” (3:110). This matters because the Quran is usually taken more literally than, e.g., the Bible. And yet, Muslim countries fall behind unbeliever countries on nearly all socio-economic measures.

The Quran also tells us that Allah is with those who do good (6:128), and that he guides those whom he will (22:16) — in particular Muslims (26:78-81, 29:68). He is of loving kindness (85:14). And yet, we find, in comparison, few Muslim scientists, politicians, (non-religious) book writers, or military leaders who seem to be guided by Allah.

The Quran tells us that Muslims shall not take the unbelievers as friends and protectors in preference over believers (3:28, 5:51). And yet, in the Syrian civil war of the 2010’s, the vast majority of Muslim refugees did not aim towards the rich Muslim Gulf States or towards Mecca 267. Rather, they were pushed into the neighboring countries of the war zone. Large pluralities then aimed for Europe, where the unbelievers live. The same is true for the general direction of immigration: More people emigrate from Muslim countries to Western countries than vice versa.

In a literal reading, the Quran also tells believers to “fight until all religion is for Allah”. Allah can give them victory (48:24). However, most Muslims live in some of the economically most backward countries on Earth, and are far from conquering the world. Islam may be a useful ideology to unite desert tribes, but it does not seem to provide the concepts to organize a modern state of law, educate the masses in literacy, science, and technology, fight unemployment, or build up a functioning and diversified economy.

The comparison to Israel is particularly frustrating. In a literal reading, the Quran tells us that Jews are “perverse” (56:92-94), and “cursed” (4:52M). And yet, with the help of America, the cursed have established the only country in the Middle East that fares high on all development measures, including education, economic stability, life standard, and health. The country has defied the entire Arab world in several wars. Ever since, Israel occupies neighboring Palestine. Among the Nobel Prizes, 22% were awarded to Jews, although Jews comprise less than 0.2% of the world’s population. In the meantime, the Muslim nations around it are torn in war and chaos, much to Israel’s advantage.


Based on the above Quranic verses, some adherents come to believe that their religion, and, by extension, they themselves, are superior to the unbelievers 268. At the same time, the unbelievers visibly have a better life in socio-economic terms. If a person believes that she or he is superior to the others, but the others continue to perform better, this leads to frustration: It is hard to understand why the people who are guided by Allah, and who are equipped with the only true religion, are dominated in in so many aspects by the unbelievers.

This combination of underperformance with chauvinism can build up emotional pressure. Some people then channel this frustration into the belief that a radical revolution is needed 208: Muslims would have to get back to the original interpretation of the Quran, which brought them prosperity and power in the centuries after the founding of the religion. Muslims would have to overthrow the current governments, which are corrupt, dependent on the West, and un-Islamic. And Muslims would have to destroy the West, which brings immorality, corruption, harmful individualism, and depreciation of Islam. This thinking can then lead, together with other factors, to a support for (or even membership in) Islamist groups.

You must learn to protect yourself with the pen, and not the gun.
Josephine Baker


The prevalent interpretations of Islam forbid sex before and outside marriage. The problem is that the age of marriage is nowadays later than it was in the early days of Islam. Men are often expected to study and earn money before they can marry. Without a good salary, however, a man cannot buy a flat; without his own home he cannot marry; and without marriage, he cannot have sex 26961. Even just touching or kissing before marriage is a taboo in many Muslim societies8425.

This leads to cohorts of men where a significant portion did not have physical contact with a woman until their late twenties. This deprivation is deeply felt, as is testified by the Internet searches in Muslim countries. Among the top 20 countries where the query “sex” is proportionally most prevalent, 10 are Muslim-majority nations 270 (Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Tunisia, Lebanon, Bolivia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Kenya, Syria, Nigeria, Malaysia, Algeria, Egypt, Qatar). Searches related to gay sex, likewise, are most prevalent in Muslim countries 271.

The Islamic State benefits from this deprivation: It promises young men submissive wives (known as the “good wives of jihad” 272). It can even promise them a supply of sex slaves, because it holds that women in conquered areas can be used for sexual gratification27361. Indeed, the fighters of the Islamic state enslaved, forcibly married, and/or sexually abused thousands of women during the height of its caliphate in the 2010’s. Even people who do not physically join the caliphate can be lured with the promise of sex: the extremist interpretations of Islam hold that the martyr will have 72 virgins at his disposal.

For the Islamist terrorist, the path to orgasm runs through death, not love.

Dissociation from terrorism

The majority of Muslims are appalled by Islamist terrorist acts — and even more so because these acts are committed in the name of their religion. In their view, this not only does injustice to Islam, but it also wrongly associates Muslims with terrorism, and fuels stereotypes and discrimination against them.

A primary interest is thus to break the association between Islam and Islamic terrorism. The main argument goes that Islam is orginally a peaceful religion, and that it is being misinterpreted and instrumentalized by Islamists to instill fear and hatred. Islamism, the argument goes, is not the true Islam. On the contrary, any association of Islam with Islamism is, according to the argument, an illicit amalgam of two distinct ideologies.

The main interest of this argument is thus to defend Islam — rather than to combat Islamism. Interestingly, the argument can actually inhibit the combat against Islamism. This is because, if one wants to combat an ideology, one has to take its arguments seriously. In the case of Islamism, one has to understand the reasons that motivate members to join the movement. In particular, one has to understand whether or where traditionalist interpretations pander to the extremist ones. This, however, is exactly what the argument prevents.

If it’s not Islam, then why are there Millions of Christians in the Middle East and yet none of them has ever blown themselves up to become a martyr, even though they live under the same economic and political circumstances, and even worse?
Ayaan Hirsi

The Success of Islam

Factors of success

Islam is the second largest religion on Earth by number of adherents. Much of this is due to historical factors: The early Muslims conquered large parts of land, and many of the inhabitants of the conquered lands converted to Islam. Since then, the religion has perpetuated itself. Still, the reach of Islam now goes now far beyond its original heartlands. Its number of adherents is growing fast, and it does not show a high loss of adherents.

Several factors contribute to this success. Like all religions, Islam provides a meaning of life, an answer to the great questions of humanity, a moral framework, a community, social services, and personal strength. Other factors are specific to Islam. The theology of Islam, for one, is perceived as a convincing and coherent theory, purged of some of the absurdities of Christianity: there is no god that is one and three at the same time, no son of that god, no people who came back from death, no rules that became obsolete, and in general less adaptation of ancient texts to modern values. There are other factors for the success of Islam, which we shall discuss now.

Memes of success

We start our analysis of the success of Islam with the discussion of memes. Memes are strategies that the major religions have developed, intentionally or not, to keep their adherents attached. Islam is the latest major pre-Enlightenment religion. As such, it could take over (and perfect) these strategies from the older religions. At the same time, it was not impeded by the Humanist ideals of the Enlightenment, which came only later. For this reason, Islam implements several of these strategies with more rigor than the other major religions.

Demographic Growth

Demographic strategies are concerned with maximizing the number of children who grow up in the religion.
All else being equal, a religion that encourages its adherents to have more children will have more adherents than a religion that does not. While most religions have a positive view of parentship, the sources of Islam explicitly encourage having many children. To this date, the fertility rate among Muslim women stands higher than the global average, at 2.9 compared to 2.2 among non-Muslims 221.
Interfaith Marriage
Most major religions prohibit marrying out of one’s faith, with the effect that the adherents and their descendants cannot drift off easily into the sphere of influence of other faiths. Islam has further perfected this strategy by permitting marriage of Muslim men with women of other faiths — with the expectation that the children will still be Muslim.
Most major religions traditionally prohibit homosexual relations, presumably with the goal to encourage men and women to found families and have children. At the same time, most religions have historically harbored different views on the topic, or have recently become more open to homosexual adherents. Islam has not: the mainstream interpretations of Islam remain hostile to homosexuality, and all countries in which homosexual relationships are a capital offense are Muslim.
Sex only for procreation
Most major religions reserve sex to married couples, with the effect that sexual activity is channeled into procreation. Traditionalist interpretations of Islam further push in this direction by erasing any female physical temptation from public life.
Child Marriage
The earlier a woman marries, the earlier she can have children, and the more children she can have. Hence, the major religions have traditionally encouraged women to marry in early age. Today, child marriage is prevalent mainly in Catholic, Hindu, and Muslim lands. For Islam in particular, the Prophet Muhammad is cited as a role model, as he married a girl when she was 6 years old.


The following strategies nudge the individual believer into compliance with the norms of the religion.
All major religions promise some better life after the current life for those who deserve it, as a means to keep adherents in line. Islam has arguably one of the most concrete and attractive heavens: A garden with wine and honey, where (in many readings) large-breasted virgins await the male Muslim. 10% of the Quran is concerned with the promise of Heaven. The idea of hassanaths (points gained for the afterlife) attaches the concept of Heaven to every action in life5.
All major religions know some form of punishment after death for those who do not adhere to its commands. In the Abrahamic religion, this punishment takes the form of hell, and this concept was refined over the centuries: In Judaism, hell lasted at most one year. Christianity increased it to an infinite duration. In Islam, hell became an ubiquitous concept: The Quran mentions the concept in total around 500 times (in roughly every 7th verse) with detailed brutality. The next abrahamic religions, the Bahai Faith and Spiritism, were born after the Enlightenment. Hence, their hells have lost the graphic detail of their predecessor, and have become an abstract state of a distance to God — much less frightening to the casual observer than Islam’s hell.
Push for perfection
Several major religions work with guilt and shame to produce a powerful link between the adherent and the religion. Islam in particular has developed a system of norms that penetrates everyday life from marriage to prayer to daily hygiene. These norms are enforced by a culture of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” 268, in which adherents ensure the compliance of the others.


The following strategies concern the recruitment of new adherents, and the attachment of current adherents.
Apostasy means that an adherent leaves the faith. Hence, all major religions (except the Chinese ones) have historically shunned or punished apostasy. However, all major religions have since nuanced their stance, and none of them officially calls for punishment. Not so Islam: The mainstream interpretations still object to apostasy, and it remains a capital offense in a number of countries, all of them Muslim. Pressure from powerful social structures, such as families, keeps apostasy a taboo.
Criticism of a religion can make believers doubt their faith. Hence, most major religions have tried to silence critics. Again, mainstream Islam stands out as the religion where blasphemy is opposed most intensively: The Organisation of Islamic Countries lobbies for the prohibition of blasphemy on the international level, sometimes under the guise of fighting against islamophobia. Blasphemy remains a capital offense in a number of countries, all of which are Muslim. In these societies, it is thus harder to share critical thoughts on Islam via newspapers, books, or social media.
Literacy and education typically correlate with less religiousness. Catholicism and Islam have historically tended to avoid literacy of the masses. Catholicism has since changed its opinion, and now wants adherents to read the Bible, which presumes literacy. Few public Muslim voices call for illiteracy either. However, Islam is the only major religion whose prophet was illiterate, and made no effort to become literate, while being the perfect role model to follow. Some traditionalist interpretations of the faith consider reading haram (illicit) altogether5. To this date, literacy rates in the Muslim world are among the lowest in the world.
Rituals can serve to show adherence to a religion. The more costly these are, the stronger is the display of commitment. Hence, most major religions have some types of costly rituals. Again, Islam takes a prominent role: Traditionalist interpretations require rituals that are so visible that they have entailed changes in the law in Western countries or posed constitutional challenges159. These are circumcision, the burqa, and halal killing of animals. Other traditionally foreign religions in Western lands, such as Hinduism, Orthodox Christianity, and Buddhism have not generated such a high visibility there. The veil, in particular, has as a main effect the visual separation from the mainstream culture.


One factor that makes people more open to religion in general is a lack of education, in the sense that people who have less access to education have to depend more on what other people tell them for their world view.

The first factor in this field is literacy. Illiteracy is generally high in Muslim-majority countries. According to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), 25% of people in Muslim-majority countries cannot read — compared to 13% in the rest of the developing world and 2% in the developed world 274. The discrepancy between male and female literacy rates stands at 12 percentage points — much higher than the 7 percentage points in non-OIC developing countries or the 2 percentage points in the developed world. In Iraq, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea, the illiteracy rate is higher than 50% according to UNESCO 275. In the Arab world, 60% of 10 year olds struggle to struggle to read and understand a basic text 276. In India, Muslims are the religious group with the highest illiteracy rate, at 20% — on par with members of the “Untouchable Caste” of Dalits 277. If people cannot read, they cannot inform themselves about alternative views on Islam, read about other religions, or discuss different view points on social media. Thus, they may be more inclined to stick with their religion.

Computer Engineering Curriculum
at an Iranian university (BSc.)

English Language
Physics 1
Islamic Ethic
Calculus 1
Computer Programming
Physics 2
The Human in Islam
Calculus 2
Advanced Programming
Islamic Thoughts 1
Physics Laboratory

Muslims also tend to have lower levels of education globally. Pew Research found that 32% of Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region receive no formal education (compared to 19% among non-Muslims). That figure is 42% in the Middle East and North Africa (compared to 19% among non-Muslims), and 62% in Sub-Saharan Africa (compared to 31% among non-Muslims) 278. People who have less access to education have less means to rethink their world view and their adherence to religion.

Where a formal education takes place, it can be ideologically tainted. In Iran, e.g., university curricula include courses on Islamic Philosophy, Islamic Ethics, or Islamic Sciences — no matter the subject that the student chooses. In this way, students are primed towards a positive view of their religion, and are not invited to question it.

In the Arab world, for its part, the education emphasizes obedience over criticism in general. The Arab Human Development Report of 2003 by the United Nations explains 279:

Studies indicate that the most widespread style of child rearing in Arab families is the authoritarian mode accompanied by the overprotective. This reduces children’s independence, self-confidence and social efficiency, and fosters passive attitudes and hesitant decision-making skills. Most of all, it affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative.
This report describes the school system in the year 2003. The pupils of that time are the citizens of today. The education that they received did not encourage critical thinking. Thus, these generations may be less well positioned to question their religion.
Most Muslims did not choose their religion.

Peer pressure

In many Muslim societies, there is a strong pressure on people who consider leaving Islam. First, in some countries, leaving Islam is punishable by death. In other countries, unbelievers can be denied access to basic services and suffer legal discrimination. In some places, unbelievers risk being persecuted, beaten, or killed. In any case, the unbeliever will be prohibited to marry a Muslim. These are obvious reasons for people to remain in Islam.

But there is also softer pressure. Ex-Muslims may be ejected from their families, and may never see their parents again. The testimonies of ex-Muslims tell us how difficult their life is (try a Web search). Press reports suggest that it is not only extremist Muslim families who believe it is their religious duty to threaten, and even kill, members who renounce the religion 280. Quite possibly, part of the reason for the pressure from the family is the belief that a misendeamor by the children will block the entrance to paradise for the parents 281. Even in non-Muslim lands, ex-believers are scared of being open 282180. The biggest risk ex-Muslims face in the West is not the baying mob, but the loneliness and isolation of ostracism from loved ones. It is stigma and rejection that causes many ex-Muslims to conceal their apostasy 283. Some ex-Muslims suffer threats, intimidation, ostracisation by their communities and, in some cases, serious physical abuse when they tell their families they have left the faith 284. Thousands of ex-Muslims in Britain are living in fear of violent revenge for abandoning the Islamic faith while others are afraid to admit they no longer believe, a support group for ex-Muslims has said 285. In France, many maghrebian families have a clan-like functioning, and do not tolerate any deviation286. Even if parents do not want to reject their children, they may be forced to: Should the village or community learn that they tolerate their apostate child, they may face harassment themselves. Moroccan school children, e.g., learn that “whoever pronounces a word contrary to the beliefs of Islam is excluded from the Muslim community” 120.

All of these factors are strong incentives for doubters to keep in line. Interestingly, it does not really matter for the survival of a religion if people really believe or not. As long as people teach the faith, the rites, and the values to the next generation, the religion continues — even if there were doubters in the chain.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.
Barack Obama

Peace of Mind

Some adherents of Islam prefer not to dig too deep into their religion. They rather rely on what they have learned about Islam, and conform to this framework.

The reasons for such a stance can be manifold: First, not every adherent may consider a deeper study of Islam necessary in the first place. Many people are just content with their belief, and see no reason to dig into it. Second, a deeper study of one’s religion is an effort: It requires finding sources (written or oral), studying these sources, and weighing them against each other. Not everyone can find time for this. Third, one’s religious position is usually not a written set of assertions, but a delicate balance of beliefs that was learned, adapted, and developed over the years of life. Such a balance is not easily questioned rationally. Fourth, a systematic study may bring to light inconsistencies, divergences with one’s values, or alternative view points. This may be inconvenient, as one’s religious position can be an important constituent of one’s identity. There is also the problem of sunk cost. Fifth and finally, such questioning may bring about conflicts with one’s environment.

These factors are to some degree shared by adherents of other religions. What is different in the case of Islam is that this religion has what it considers the direct message from God (the Quran). This is the case in no other major world religion, which only have messages from human intermediaries. Thus, one might expect that Muslims rush to read this message. And yet, this is not the case. The above factors entail that many Muslims have not read the Quran — at least not in a language they understand. They prefer to stick with their own interpretation of the faith and to believe that this is the correct way of seeing their religion.

This hesitance to read and to question may contribute to the strength of the religion.

When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.
Thomas Paine in “Reflections on Titles”

Allah’s love

Another factor for the force that Islam commands over its adherents may be the concept of Allah’s love. Much like in the New Testament of the Bible, Allah is presented as every-loving in the Quran (85:14, 2:222, 3:146, 2:195). Yet, this love finds an abrupt end if a person decides not to follow Allah’s commands (30:45, 3:32, 22:38, 18:103-106). If someone questions what Allah has said, or no longer believes in him, Allah has reserved the most abhorrent tortures for them in the afterlife. Statistically, every 7th verse of the Quran threatens the adherent with hell. This threat explicitly excludes the possibility for mercy. Thus, in the Quran, Allah’s love always goes hand in hand with the threat of physical punishments in case of disobedience. In the interpretations of Islam that take these threats literally, there is no love without obedience.

Talking about love on the one hand, but threatening with violence on the other hand may seem paradoxical from a Christian perspective. And yet, this combination applies not just to the relationship with Allah. In the more traditional interpretations of the faith, it also applies to the relationship between husband and wife. According to the Quran, the spouses are to respect and help each other (2:229M, 2:231M, 2:233M, 2:187M). However, in the traditionalist interpretations of the faith, if the wife does not obey her husband, she can be rejected and, as last resort, beaten (4:34) .

The same is true for the relationship between parents and children. According to the Quran, children are the adornment of life (18:46). At the same time, children have to be dutiful and submissive to their parents (17:23-24). If they are not, they might be beaten. UNICEF finds that countries or areas with the highest levels of severe physical punishment for children are generally concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa 287. The situation is worse for children who decide to leave Islam, or to marry a non-Muslim. Depending on the interpretation of the faith that the family follows, these children run the risk of being expelled from the family or even being killed.

In all of these cases, the assertion of love is accompanied by a threat of physical violence in case of disobedience. Love and obedience go hand in hand. Those people who experience the combination of love and threat also from their parents and from their husbands may find it normal that also Allah loves them this way. Thus, they may be more ready to accept the threat of punishment from Allah. This threat of punishment, in turn, may be an incentive to stay in line.

Islam means “submission”. In the traditional view of the faith, Muslims submit to Allah, women submit to men, and non-Muslims submit to Islamic rule.

Relationship with Allah

An abusive relationship is a relation where one partner emotionally, verbally, or physically abuses the other. This is most often imagined as a husband who abuses his wife, but it can also be a father who abuses his children, a boss who abuses his employees, or a girlfriend who abuses her boyfriend. The central property of such a relationship is that the abused person feels a strong attachment and obligation towards the partner — despite the abuse. The abused person is unable to see that she is suffering an injustice. She insists that the abusive partner loves her. She assumes that her suffering is her own fault.

Common indicators for such an abusive relationship (taken from the links on the first result page of a Web search) are positive answers to the following questions:

Let us now look at the relationship between Allah and the believer: According to the Quran, Allah is jealous when people worship other gods; he never takes the blame; he cannot stand people mocking him; he controls his believers' thinking; and he threatens his followers in case of disobedience and departure. At the same time, believers reject the idea that they are being kept in psychological bondage. They believe that Allah loves them, that he is always right, that they have to be thankful to him, and that they are themselves to blame for everything that goes wrong. In this way, they justify that Allah threatens them continuously.

Dysfunctional Families

In the Western idealist view of a family, two people who love each other go on to marry and to found a family. That is, however, not always the case in more conservative societies, including in traditionalist East-Asian, Indian, Latin American, and Muslim 5 families. In such systems, the society places a high value on the virginity of girls. Should the suspicion arise that the girl is no longer a virgin, the family is considered dishonored, and the girl is considered unmarriable. Therefore, some families do their best to prevent the girl from meeting with boys. If the girl falls in love with another boy, this love has to be kept secret, and will most likely not be fulfilled. In such a system, the prospective partners of a marriage cannot get to know themselves extensively before marriage as is the case in liberal societies. Rather, the prospective partners are referred to each other by family or friends. They then get to meet a few times (always in the presence of a chaperon), and are then conducted to agree to marry each other. Such a marriage is then not founded on mutual attraction, but on factors such as convenience, agreement by the families, perseverence of the suitor, expectations by society, economic calculus, a match of social criteria (such as religion, social class, ethnicity, or nationality), the desire to become independent of one’s own family, and the absence or exclusion of other options.

Love may certainly come (a saying has it that in traditional Islam, love comes after marriage). But it may also not appear. Nevertheless, the wife may wish to have children, and the husband may long for sexual fulfilment. Once children are on the way, there is no time to look back. Society dictates the procedure: the husband has to work, and the wife has to take care of the home and the children. In traditional strains of Islam, the wife has to submit to the sexual desires of her husband. All of this may lead to a relationship that is founded on convenience, habit, expectation, and obligation, but empty of the love that the partners searched for. This may make the wife unhappy, and the husband anxious that she is looking elsewhere. If violence happens, it is a taboo that one does not talk about. If the wife considers divorce, or if the husband divorces her, she risks being left alone with the children and no income. All of this can lead to an accumulation of frustration and despair.

In such a situation, religion can provide support: Religion can give a sense to it all, and promise a reward in the hereafter. Prayer can help to accept or pardon a situation that would otherwise appear unjust. A pious husband can convince the wife that her marriage was not such a bad choice: for all his faults, he is a good Muslim. Vice versa, a pious wife (with the veil) can reassure her husband that she is faithful. Piousness can also bring appreciation from the family in law and society as a whole5. In this way, the religious beliefs that induced the loveless marriage in the first place are perpetuated in the next generation.

Madame, you have the key to your own prison.
Henda Ayari’s psychologist

Discussing Islam


In the Humanist view, Islam is a religion like the others. Thus, it deserves critical analysis just like all other ideologies. This is true in particular because Islam is one of the largest religions on Earth, it is in some interpretations in conflict with the Human Rights, and it has an impact on believers and unbelievers alike.

And yet, it is not always easy to discuss about Islam, let alone to criticise it. In much of the Muslim world, a debate is made difficult by censorship, book banning, blasphemy laws, and social pressure. But even outside Muslim world, it is difficult to criticise Islam. There are a number of barriers in place, which we will discuss now.

I had to change school because I offended a fictional being. Those who offend and threaten me, in contrast, live in tranquility — even though I am a real being.
Mila in “Je suis le prix de votre liberté”, paraphrased

Hesitance from believers

Usually, adherents of a philosophy are free to point out shortcomings of that philosophy or its sources. For example, atheists can say that there is no proof that atheism is true, or that atheism without a moral system is unethical. Human Right defenders can say that they regret that the UN declaration of Human Rights did not mention gay rights or animal rights. Christians can say that there are parts of the Bible that no longer apply today.

The same is not true for Islam. It is difficult for an adherent of the religion to say that there is a problem in the Quran. In a discussion with a critic, a Muslim cannot easily say “Yes, you are right, the Quran has a weakness here”. This is because the Quran is either entirely the word of God or it is not. If Muslims were to question a verse in the Quran, they would basically say that the Quran is not entirely the perfect word of God. This, in turn, would call into question a basic tenet of Islam. Thus, criticising the Quran is, more often than not, seen as akin to apostasy. Since the Quran sees the Prophet Muhammad as the perfect human (48:29M, 33:21M, 68:05), this entails that a Muslim cannot find fault with the Prophet Muhammad.

This may seem a purely theoretical problem. Yet, it is not. Calling into question Islam carries penalties. First, Allah promised Hell to all those who abandon their faith. Thus, if a Muslim is not ready to give up belief in Allah altogether, then doubting the Quran is the worst possible state: it leaves her or him inside the religious system, but promises eternal tortures. One ex-Muslim tells us that his sleep was punctured by nightmares of the gates of hell opening for him, and his days were drowned in visions of devils and demons out to punish him 288. But the punishment is not just in the afterlife. Should other people learn that a Muslim doubted the Quran, peer pressure, exclusion, rejection, or worse may follow.

In the same vein, it is not easy for an adherent to say: “Hey, this is interesting: on the one side, we have a problem with Islamic terrorism. On the other side, we have a holy book that talks of brutal punishments and wars of conquest. Maybe there is a link between the two?” Any such thought would count as doubt, and could bring that person to the edge of heresy. And thus, Muslims are not really free to critically debate their religion. They have to find that the Quran and the Prophet are perfect, and that any problems with the religion stem from human implementation alone. Common targets are issues of context, translation, human interpretation, the hadiths, or external influences. However, a Muslim cannot find that there would be a fault with the Quran itself or the Prophet. This, however, is already an upfront restriction of the space of debate.

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
Thomas Paine

Hesitance from unbelievers

We have argued that adherents of Islam are often not free to criticise their religion, for a variety of reasons. But also non-Muslims do not always find it easy to discuss about Islam. Several reasons can be hypothesized:
Criticising Islam sounds racist
In the West, Islam is often associated with an Arab or African ethnicity. This makes it look as if criticism of Islam was tantamount to prejudice against these ethnicities, i.e., to racism. However, this association is not correct: People from any ethnicity can be Muslim, and vice versa there is no ethnicity that would be entirely Muslim. Islam is not a race, but an ideology. It is not an immutable trait that people are born with (and that it makes no sense to criticise). Rather, it is a way of thinking and acting. From a Humanist perspective, ways of thinking and acting have to be open to criticism, because they can affect other people. In fact, we know today that Islamist groups actively use the reproach of islamophobia, neo-colonialism, and racism to deflect criticism of their ideology 208.
Criticising Islam unjustly singles out one group of people
There are many other misogynic ideologies, cultures, and people in this world, the argument goes, so why single out Islam? One answer is that the mainstream tenets of Islam (which are upheld by conservative, traditionalist, and extremist interpretations alike) have more than a billion adherents. Taken together, these tenets are the largest ideology on Earth that openly advocates unequal rights for men and women before the law, that openly denies gay people an existence in society, and that opposes freedom of religion. This ideology is implemented in the law in several countries, and defended at the international level by the largest religious association of countries that exists (the OIC). Thus, if one is interested in these values in the world, then one cannot get around discussing Islam.
Criticising Islam offends Muslim people
There is always the danger that criticial words about a religion offend its adherents. Indeed, it is only natural that people dislike it when their beliefs are challenged. And yet, Humanists believe that we cannot take offense as a reason to silence critical analysis. If offense were a reason to stop critical analysis, we would never have established equal rights for men and women, abandoned slavery, or, on a lighter note, reduced smoking in public buildings.
Criticising Islam causes riots
When Islam is criticized in public, or if just the Prophet Muhammad is drawn, a minority of Muslims reacts with anger, violence, and death threats. Depictions of Muhammad or criticism of Islam can draw large protests in Muslim lands, which usually kill more people than were harmed by the original depiction. While this is deplorable, Humanists believe that we cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage by such violence. Indeed, the values that deserve criticism (from a Humanist perspective) are themselves the reason for this violence.
Criticising Islam draws applause from the far-right
In the West, the far-right tends to have an over-generalized view of Islam and Muslims. Any criticism of Islam runs the risk of being associated with this view. Now interestingly, the far-right may find new adherents also because of a perceived inability of the Western mainstream culture to acknowledge disparities with some Islamic values. If the mainstream was more capable of a nuanced judgement of problematic tendencies in Islam, it could possibly better prevent people from drifting into the far-right.
For this, however, such nuanced judgement has to steer clear of the xenophobic and degrading generalizations of the far-right. It has to target ideologies instead of people, and criticise individual tenets instead of Islam as a whole. Otherwise, it becomes guilty of the same mistakes that the far-right commits.
Criticising Islam unjustly targets “the poor”
Most adherents of Islam live in economically disadvantaged regions of the world, and it seems thus unjust to ask these people, who have a hard life anyway, to change their ways. And indeed, it does not make much sense to condemn millions of people for adhering to an ideology that not all of them were able to choose freely under fair consideration of the alternatives. However, a criticism of Islam does not have to be directed against these people. From a Humanist perspective, the criticism should first and foremost be directed against an ideology. It can then also be directed against those who promote this ideology: state actors, religious authorities, imams, Islamist ideologists, educational institutions, and governments. These are by no means “poor” entities needy of forbearance.
There are more important problems (e.g., climate change)
Another argument goes that there are more important problems to tackle than traditionalist Islam. Climate change, e.g., unlike Islam, concerns all of us. Indeed, there is, for a Humanist, no denying of the importance of global warming. However, the importance of one problem should not be used to hinder the discussion of another one. In what concerns climate change, most countries actually agree that it is a problem that needs to be solved 213. By acknowledging the existence of the problem, humanity has made the first step that is necessary for solving it. The same cannot be said on Human Rights: in what concerns punishment of apostates or misogynic laws, the OIC countries do not even agree that these are problems in the first place. On these issues, humanity has not even made the first step that it has made for climate change.
Criticising Islam is hypocritical
This argument goes that it is hypocritical to care about issues such as women’s rights when it comes to Islam, but to ignore such issues when it comes to one’s own society. In much of the Western world, e.g., women encounter a variety of obstacles in society that men do not encounter. Why then criticise Islam, when something very similar happens at home? Indeed, there is no reason to limit one’s criticism of misogyny to Islam. From a Humanist perspective, all gender-based discrimination deserves exposure and opposition, be it in the West or elsewhere. Then again, the argument works both ways: if one cares about women’s rights, then it would be hypocritical to focus exclusively on the West, and refuse to discuss women’s rights in Islam. In the West, women have the same rights before the law as men, they can marry freely, they are not legally required to obey their husbands, and they have the same rights to inheritance as men. Women in most of the Muslim world do not. Thus, if one cares about women’s rights, the legal discrimination against one quarter of the world’s female population is a worthy starting point, and it would be hypocritical to suggest otherwise.
Islam is just a variant of Christianity
Some people with a Christian upbringing assume that Islam is not so different from Christianity. The Bible is as violent as the Quran, the argument goes. Therefore, Islam would not need specific consideration. However, what matters for the Humanist is not how violent a book is, but how literally adherents take it 233. The Quran has a different role in Islam than the Bible has in Christianity, and consequently the value systems of their adherents differ.
Not all Muslims adhere to the traditionalist forms of Islam
Islam is a very diverse religion, whose interpretations span from the liberal to the extremist. It is thus wrong to generalize a critique of Islam to all Muslims. However, while not all Muslims adhere to traditionalist interpretations of the faith, this does not change the fact that these interpretations still have millions of adherents.
Muslims suffer from discrimination
Muslims are often discriminated against in Western societies. This is a problem in its own right. However, tackling one problem should not prevent us from addressing also another one. The fact that there are prejudices against Muslims in the West does not justify the harm that is done to women, apostates, blasphemers, or homosexuals elsewhere.
Non-Muslims cannot judge Islam
It is indeed difficult, and usually wrong, to judge Islam as a whole. Notwithstanding this difficulty, we can ascertain that a large number of people uphold tenets that are contrary to the Human Rights, and believe that they are doing so in the name of Islam. From a Humanist perspective, this is a problem no matter whether these tenets are the true Islam or not.

All of these concerns can lead to a tabooisation of the discussion about Islam, meaning that people shy away from a critical analysis of the religion for fear of hurting sensitivities. However, from a Humanist perspective, Islam deserves critical analysis in the same way as other ideologies deserve critical analysis. This is even more true when an interpretation of Islam impacts the life of others or goes against Humanist values. Such criticism is possible when one targets ideas instead of people, and when one knows about the foundations and the diversity of the faith.

Silence is not neutrality.
Silence is an approval of the status quo.
Yuval N. Harari in “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, paraphrased

Red herrings

Several factors can make people hesitant to discuss the value systems in Islam. When it comes to a discussion, there can be impediments as well. One of them can be a distraction by other topics:
The True Islam
A discussion about the moral values in Islam almost inevitably gravitates towards the question about what Islam “really” is, and what of current beliefs is cultural rather than religious. This is an interesting theological question. However, it is unlikely to be decided conclusively — in particular if there are dozens of interpretations of Islam, and only one of them is represented in the conversation. Such discussions then prevent the interlocutors from recognizing the elephant in the room: There exist interpretations of the faith that are incompatible with the Human Rights, and these interpretations have a large number of adherents. This is true no matter what Islam is or is not. The fact that harmful interpretations of Islam exist is a point that liberal Muslims and unbelievers could easily agree on. They could even address this problem together, if they stopped getting caught up in the theological questions 208.
Early Islam
When discussing women’s rights in Islam, the discussion quickly turns towards the idea that early Islam gave women more rights than they had at the time. However, for the discussion of women’s rights, it does not matter what early Islam did or did not do. What matters is that most contemporary interpretations of the faith do not give equal rights to women, no matter how we turn it. The same goes for the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim lands or brutal punishments: while Islam may have made conditions more humane when it arrived, these tenets are no longer compatible with Human Rights today.
Another point of distraction is Israel. The country occupies and builds settlements in neighboring Palestine, which is widely regarded as illegal. This is a topic on which most Muslims agree, and in fact many unbelievers agree, too. However, even if a discussion of the Israeli-Palestine conflict is necessary, it should not be used to stifle a discussion about the compatibility of Islam with the Human Rights.
The Others
When a discussion turns towards problems in the Muslim world, people are quick to blame external forces: The Islamic State is strong because America removed the government of Iraq; people get killed in demonstrations because they are stirred up by a comment by the Pope; the less developed countries in the world suffer mainly because they are being exploited by the richer world. These theses require careful consideration. At the same time, not all ills of the Muslim world can be blamed on the West. The situation of Women and intolerance torwards unbelievers, for example, cannot.

All of these topics deserve discussion. However, all too often, they act as a “Red Herring”, and hijack a discussion about Islamic beliefs. This has two effects: First, it can prevent a discussion of Islamic beliefs between Muslims and non-Muslims. Second, it can prevent Muslims themselves from critically analyzing their own belief or other Muslim beliefs, because the thinking quickly diverges to these red herrings.

Anyone who has begun to think
places some portion of the world in jeopardy.
John Dewey

Empty words

A discussion about Islam is sometimes impeded by very subtle factors. One of these is the use of words that have been emptied of their conventional meaning. Examples are as follows:
“Respect for women”
Traditionalist interpretations of Islam tend to emphasize the “respect for women” and “the rights of women” in Islam. At the same time, women have to be obedient to their husbands in these interpretations, and can be beaten if they are not. This does not fit well with the Western meaning of the word “respect”.
“Liberation of Women”
Some women call the burkini or the veil a “liberation” because it allows them to freely participate in public life 289. From a Humanist perspective, this is absurd, because the veil liberates women from a restriction that traditionalist Islam imposed in the first place. In any case, the imposition of a constraint cannot be considered a liberation in the common understanding of the word.
“Allah’s love”
The Quran talks of Allah’s love. And yet, believers who do not follow God’s commandments are thrown into eternal hellfire without any possibility of redress. This contrasts with contemporary Christian and Western interpretations of the word, where “love” deserves that name only when it is accompanied by mercy.
“The beauty of the Quran”
The Quran is held to be the supremely beautiful work of God. And yet, although all Muslims have heard and read excerpts of it, not all Muslims have read it. It is contradictory to claim that a book is divinely beautiful but does not evoke the desire to read it. To many non-Muslims, the text appears to revolve mainly around the grandness of Allah, the terror of hell, and the despicableness of unbelievers.
“Islam strived to abolish slavery”
Some people are convinced that Islam and the Quran set out to abolish slavery. Yet, it is not clear what it means that the Quran strives to abolish slavery when it allows sex with slaves, tells slaves to obey their masters, and installs no punishment for taking slaves.
“Protecting non-Muslims”
Admirers of the Golden Age of Islam argue that Islam protects non-Muslims. To the Humanist, that is surprising: there is no reason why non-Muslim would require protection any more than Muslims. In the Humanist society, all people are equally protected from harm, no matter their religion. Furthermore, non-Muslims were actually not protected under early Islamic rule, in that they had less rights than the Muslims. Finally, this protection extended only to Abrahamic non-Muslims, and not to atheists. To this day, all of this is still true in a number of countries.
“Valueing education”
Some adherents are convinced that Islam values education. However, if Islam really valued education, then the Quran would contain instructions to become literate, read books, and learn about science. It does not. If Islam valued education, then the Prophet Mohammed (the perfect role model to follow) would have learned to read. He did not. Saying that one values education while one remains illiterate is like saying one is vegetarian while one eats meat.

These are examples of a deceptive use of words. They suggest that the respective concepts are compatible with Western notions of love, respect, beauty, and equality — while they are actually not.

The more that is known about this 7th century religion,
the less appeal it will have in today’s world.


Empty words are one way in which a discussion of Islam can be made difficult. Another way are equalizations between mainstream Islamic beliefs and Western beliefs:
Free speech
One argument goes that, while free speech is restricted in many Muslim lands, there is no free speech in the West either. In the West, for example, one cannot say that men and women should not have equal rights without attracting hatred. Hence, both the West and the Islamic world impose restrictions on free speech. While that is true, these two are in no way comparable: In the West, one can attract hatred for an opinion about an ideology, but one cannot be jailed for it, or executed for it, as is the case in several Muslim countries.
The same goes for blasphemy: Muslim lands have laws against blasphemy, and so do several Western countries 78. Humanists criticize both 78. Then again, the implementations differ widely: There is no death penalty for blasphemy in the West — as there is in several Muslim countries. The bar is also higher in Western countries: In Germany, one has to disturb the public peace in order to be jailed. In the United Arab Emirates, already the disrespect for a religion is punishable.
Women’s clothing
Women in Islamic countries are expected to wear a veil. However, in much the same way, women in Western countries are expected to dress up sexy, the argument goes. Thus, both societies pose similar restrictions on women’s clothing. That is obviously false: In the West, one cannot be jailed for not dressing sexy, as is the case in several Muslim countries for women who do not veil.
Women’s rights
In most interpretations of Islam, women have less rights than men. However, in the Western world, too, women are discriminated against: they generally earn less than men, they are expected more than men to take care of the children, and they they suffer from a male-dominated society in general. Thus, the West aims for equal rights, but does not achieve them. The Muslim world, in contrast, does not even aim for equal rights in the first place. All mainstream interpretations of Islam give women less rights than men. In most of the Muslim world, women do not just earn less than men, but do not even have the same rights as men before the law, cannot marry freely, are legally required to obey their husbands, and do not have the same rights to inheritance as men. The challenges that women face in most Islamic systems are thus much more fundamental than in the Western world. What is more, it would be outrageous if someone in the West argued that women should be happy with what they have, because they only have “equal dignity” and not “equal rights”. This is the stance that Muslim countries defend at the international level through the OIC.
Historically, Islam has known the concept of slavery. However (so the argument goes), people in the West also live in a kind of slavery: they have to work from morning to evening, conform to societal expectations, and indulge in consumerism to maintain their social status. This, the argument goes, is like a kind of slavery as well. This equalization, too, is obviously mistaken: Unlike in real slavery, one cannot be beaten, killed, raped, or sold if one does not conform, as was the case in the Muslim system.

All of these comparisons trivialize the harsh punishments that were traditionally associated to these behaviors in Muslim lands.


A discussion about Islam is sometimes made difficult by controversial words alone. The prime example of this phenomenon is arguably the word “islamophobia”. In the common understanding, islamophobia is the fear of, hatred of, or prejudice against the religion of Islam or Muslims in general.

With this definition, the term mixes two things: One is the criticism of religion, and the other is discrimination against its adherents. It is laudable (from a Humanist perspective) to protect people against unjustified accusations or prejudices. Most generalizations about Muslims are simply false. A claim that Muslims in general would be violent, e.g., is not just factually false, but also insulting to the vast majority of Muslims. Any discrimination before the law, likewise, runs contrary to the Human Rights and Humanist values. In a Humanist society, everyone has the right to exercise their religion, as long as they leave everyone else in peace. Finally, and most importantly, violence against Muslims (or, for that matter, against any other people) is never justified.

However, a Humanist value system protects people, not ideologies. Thus, the protection of people does not extend to their religion. As Sarah Haider put it: A religion is just an idea; it does not have rights. On the contrary, if that idea is in stark contradiction to Humanist values, then Humanism holds that it deserves to be opposed. This is ever more true if that idea impacts hundreds of millions of people.

Thus, the word “Islamophobia” mixes criticism of an ideology with prejudice against its adherents. With this, the word seeks to protect an ideology by hiding it behind its adherents. The word is an amalgam that, we can argue 29029131292180, should not even exist. It discredits a critique of Islam as something akin to racism, and makes debate about Islam near-impossible. If the word is used in this sense, it is nothing more than an attempt to shield Islam from criticism.

We can even argue 293 that Islam is the only ideology, religious or otherwise, in which critics are bullied into silence and told they have a phobia. This not only fuels the flames of the far-right, but also makes it even more difficult to help those who suffer from the harmful interpretations of Islam.

Literally, Islamophobia means “fear of Islam”.
In that sense, those who criticize Islam are actually the least islamophobic.

Fear of Islamism

One of the most visible obstacles to a discussion about Islam is arguably the threat of violence from Islamist groups. Islamist terrorists have launched a series of terrorist attacks in the West against people who mocked or criticised Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. While such attacks are regularly condemned by governments and the general public, these condemnations remain lip service: people defend the right to offend Islamists, but would never dare doing it themselves in order to show their defiance. This has led to a series of “silent surrenders” to the demands of the Islamists, where the mere mention of Islam, let alone its criticism, is avoided: Furthermore, the most prominent people in the West who criticize Islam live under police protection, if they are still alive: Sabatina James, Mina Ahadi, Ayaan Hirsi, Hamed Abdel-Samad, Zineb El Rhazoui, Theo Van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, and others. Mila, a young French woman who criticized Islam in more vulgar terms in 2020, continues to receive thousands of death threats305. This lingering threat of violence can contribute to a tabooisation of a debate about the religion . However, as Gérard Biard put it: Everybody who had to do with the Mafia knows that, as soon as the money that was requested is paid, the price rises.
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
Hypatia of Alexandria


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