But helpless pieces in the game He plays,
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days,
He hither and thither moves, and checks… and slays,
Then one by one, back in the Closet lays.
Islam, with its cruel and inhuman rules against all dissent, has by and large shielded itself from criticism, at least from questioning Muslims and ex-Muslims. And an extra “benefit” of this attitude has been the ability of Islamists to dismiss criticism of their religion as “Islamophobia”, supposedly a form of racism, and hence discrediting their critics through an ad hominem argument. It has been only recently that even ex-Muslims emigres have had the opportunity to speak up.
And yet, skepticism and downright rejection of orthodoxy has a long (if obscure, for obvious reasons) history among Muslim-majority nations. Specifically, there are two names that stand out: Omar Khayyam and Al-Ma’arri.
Omar Khayyam, an 11th century Persian poet, astronomer and mathematician, is known best in the Western world for his Rubayiat, or quatrains, translated into English time and again. His greatest achievement, though, was coming up with a highly accurate calendar, centuries before the Gregorian calendar. (Remember, this was in the days before the notorious Al-Ghazali’s popular Islamic orthodoxy shut the door to scientific progress in Islamic world.) In his poetry, Khayyam makes no secret of his contempt for Islamic orthodoxy, and is even quoted by the late Christopher Hitchens.
Further, in his book “The Portable Atheist”, Hitchens dedicates a whole chapter to the works of Khayyam.
Abul-Ala Al-Ma’arri, a blind Arab poet and philosopher from what is now Syria, can perhaps be called the Richard Dawkins of his day.
His religious skepticism and positively anti-religious views are expressed in a poem which states, “The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.” He was equally sarcastic towards the religion of Islam as he was towards Judaism and Christianity. Al-Ma’arri remarked that monks in their cloisters or devotees in their mosques were blindly following the beliefs of their locality: if they were born among Magians or Sabians they would have become Magians or Sabians.
And hence, it is no surprise that the Islamist rebels in 2013 beheaded his bust, almost a thousand years after his death.
Omar Khayyam and Al-Ma’arri will forever be a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. They questioned the pervasive orthodoxy all around them, at a time when it likely meant having to appear before an Islamic inquisitor (and in their places of birth, it still does). Their lives were likely spared because they put their ideas into poetry, as opposed to prose, which is often better tolerated in Islamic world (that is my personal anecdote). They came up with such ideas as dismissal of an omniscient God or the afterlife centuries before the European Enlightenment, but for social reasons they were not able to revolutionize their societies they way the Enlightenment did.