The status of the Koran is a particularly important issue for both followers and opponents of Islam. Whereas Christians usually consider the Bible as divinely inspired but written by humans, the Koran is claimed to be the actual words of God, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic).
For atheists from a Muslim background, disputing the authenticity of the Koran and the Prophet often seems more relevant than questioning God – and there is a long tradition of doing so. Two notable figures of the ninth and tenth centuries, Ibn al-Rawandi and Abu Bakr al-Razi (both Persian), have often been labelled as atheists, though it would be more accurate to describe them as anti-prophetic rationalists.
They were not concerned with whether God exists (and had little scientific knowledge on which to build a case) but they were very sceptical about prophets, including Muhammad. With various people claiming to be prophets and often contradicting each other, logic suggested they couldn’t all have a hotline to God. So the question was which of them – if any – were genuine.
Then, as now, the arguments of non-believers tended to rely on irrationality in religious doctrine rather than questioning the evidence for God’s existence. This is where atheist reactions to Islam and to Christianity diverge.
Although there is a long history of conflicts between science and Christianity, Muslims have not generally regarded scientific discoveries as a threat. The famous occasion in 1633 when Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant his “heretical” belief that the earth revolves around the sun has no Islamic equivalent. Muslims’ historical eagerness to engage with science was connected to their faith. Astronomy was of particular interest since they used a lunar calendar and needed to ascertain the direction of Mecca when praying.
Darwin′s theory of evolution under lock and key
Publication of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859 drew a mixed response from Muslims. Some, including the Grand Mufti of Egypt, relished the problems that Darwin’s theory caused for Christianity, arguing that Islam was relatively free from conflicts over science and thus more capable of taking things in its stride.
Today, Muslim opposition to Darwinism is growing, probably due to the trend towards religious conservatism and literal interpretations of scripture since the 1970s. As a result, evolution is an area where Arab schools, universities and media tread warily for fear of provoking complaints.
In the Middle East the God question is far more than a matter for intellectual debate. Because politics and religion are so closely entwined, challenging religion can mean challenging the politics too. Most Arab regimes use religious credentials to compensate for their lack of electoral legitimacy, adopting and promoting whatever version of Islam assists their self-preservation.
Brian Whitaker is a British journalist and former Middle East editor of the Guardian.