“Augustine of Hippo Refuting Heretic,” (Illuminated manuscript, thirteenth century, from Morgan Library, New York, M. 92, ©Morgan Library)

The history of Islam, like that of any religion, is littered with heretics. When you start with a divine revelation, revealed only in an Arabic dialect understandable to a seventh century illiterate Prophet alone in a cave with an archangel, add a cult of personality adoration for this Prophet and then acknowledge a cycle of violence and assassinations within the emerging Muslim community, heresy is inevitable. So who were the heretics over the fourteen centuries of the Islamic ummah? In a sense, everybody. Certainly every single sect calling itself Muslim has been attacked by some other sect. It is not just the majority Sunni vs. the marginalized Shi’a, nor the rational Mutazilites vs. the hardline literalists, nor the Arabs vs. the non-Arab converts, nor the trained clerics vs. the itinerant dervishes, nor simply the women-can’t drive Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the Buddha-bashing Taliban or those brave souls who pursue Queer Jihad. Simply put, the heretic is the person who does not take your truth as his or her own.

When Islam first appeared, Christians had good reason to brand it a heresy, just as devout Jews before the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem saw Christ as another false messiah. The Quran, after all, did not say Christians and Jews were infidels; these People of the Book worshipped the same one true God, but had been led astray. The prophets in the earlier sacred writings were not the heretics. Abraham and Jesus were good Muslims, as Muhammad saw for himself in his Night Journey to the heavens; it was precisely because the Islamic dimension of sacred history as carried on by Jews and Christians had become “heretical” that God sent a final revelation and last prophet. Muhammad’s triumph signaled an end to heresy, a starting point that all Muslims would no doubt agree upon, but the minute Muhammad died, heresy was born again. How else can you explain the rebellion of the pacified tribes, the murder of caliphs Umar, Uthman and Ali and the killing of Muhammad’s grandson on the plain of Karbala? How else can anyone, Muslim or not, come to terms with the continued violence and internal strife between individuals and peoples claiming to be the true Muslims?

But if every Muslim is potentially a heretic for some other Muslim, in another sense it becomes problematic to call any particular Muslim or any specific difference in interpretation heretical. Were Muhammad to return to earth today (which is, of course, a heretical thought for most Muslims), what particular kind of Islam would he approve? Would he dine with the Ayatollahs in Qum or break the fast with the royal sons of Ibn Saud in Taif? Would he say “Salam aleikum” to Salman Rushdie or would he help strap on the suicide bomb to the muhajibah-fashion waist of a retarded Iraqi girl so she could blow up a Shi’a shrine? What would the Prophet do? And what if, heaven forbid, no one recognized him as the Prophet? What if he was clean shaven and wore no turban? What if Muhammad came back and he was branded a heretic?

Obviously, heresy is dangerous. Some Muslims reading the paragraphs above would no doubt stop here and brand me a heretic. But wait. I have in front of me a book by a Moroccan Muslim intellectual, Anouar Majid; the title is A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America. And I just spent the last two days in Atlanta at a conference of Muslims titled “A Celebration of Heresy Conference: Critical Thinking for Islamic Reform.” I say “wait,” because the subtitles carry the message. The problem facing Muslims today is not the proliferation of heretics within the faith, but the assumption that only one kind of Islam is not heretical. The problem is confusing dissent and debate with apostasy and unbelief. The problem is failing to think critically. “It was not for no reason,” argues Majid (p. 16) with sound logic overriding a double negative, “ that Al-Jahidh, the great ninth-century Arab philosopher, remarked that ‘the piety of theologians consists of hastening to denounce dissidents as unbelievers.’” Thus, there is good reason to reject the Sysiphean treadmill of perpetual blame. Thinking critically means thinking before criticizing, seeking knowledge rather than advocating superiority. If that mote in your brother’s or sister’s eye strikes you as heretical, then what do you think they will think of the beam in your own?

Heresy is not something to celebrate, at least not the way the Inquisitors spin it. Overcoming the tendency to condemn someone you do not agree with as a heretic is well worth celebrating. Over the past two days I heard a number of different voices, male and female, Egyptian, Iranian, Pakistani, Sudanese, Turkish, Dutch, American, shaykh and shabab. Some of what they were saying would indeed be considered heretical in some mosques or even at a distinguished center of learning like al-Azhar? There was debate and there was disagreement. Quranic verses were quoted from memory, history was spun, passionate concerns about problems facing Muslims today were raised. Yet there were no fist fights, no hurling of hate speech, no outbursts of intolerant rants, and no restrictions placed on free speech. If this kind of forum is a nest of heresy, let God be the judge.

So what did the heretics say? The Quran-only enthusiasts, suspicious of the self-serving duplicity of those who cite hadiths to haram and halal virtually every imaginable act a Muslim could do, would sound heretical to most Muslims I know. One of the speakers spent time in an Egyptian prison for daring to think outside the approved clerical box, even though he had a shaykhly diploma from al-Azhar. As several speakers noted, the thoughts expressed in this forum could not be made openly in virtually any Muslim majority country in the world (certainly with a few exceptions). Other issues would not shock reform-minded Muslims, such as the call for equality of Muslim women and men; not forcing Muslim women and men into a single mode, but allowing each to be independent agents of worshipping Allah without imposed cultural constraints. As one sister eloquently phrased it, why should women be forced to pray behind the men and look at their bottoms?

Among those present was Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam, a widely read book that has brought her a lot of trouble among most Muslims in America. As a self-styled “refusenik,” Irshad’s frequent appearances in the media have made her a prime target for heretic-bashing. But as Irshad explained, the trouble she has is not with Islam as such, not with what she sincerely hopes Islam can become, but with what often passes for Islam today, the intolerance that is widespread and furthers the gap between the aspirations of Muslims and the global concerns for human rights. I did not hear one person at the conference attack Islam. Any stray Islamophobe would have walked out, shaking his or her head at such a misnomer of a name for a conference of Muslims talking theology and trying to find ways to be more socially responsible citizens and family members.

Simply speaking one’s mind, as personally cathartic and communally therapeutic as such an opportunity provides, is not critical just because it is open-ended. While there were differences in interpreting the Quran and assessing the Middle Eastern origin rules for Muslims living in contemporary America, this was a conference that would have made the French philosopher Descartes proud. Similar to many of the participants, and certainly to the organizers of the conference, there was a distinct interest in using “reason” to advance the faith. In his famous Meditiations, Descartes attempted to use natural reason to prove that God and the human soul exist. He was willing to doubt everything his senses told him, even his own existence independent of his ability to think, but Descartes as a self-proclaimed Catholic refused to be a skeptic of the very thing he was trying to prove existed to the satisfaction of the atheists of his day. For Descartes, proto-Deist and timeworn philosopher that he was, God had to exist in order for him to exist as a finite thinking being. And that God had to be good. None of the Muslim heretics, if you can believe conference labels, I heard or talked with would disagree with Descartes. If there was an unbeliever, infidel, or atheist in the room, he or she kept very still.

And this brings me to a heretical thought of my own. Unlike Descartes, I do not think that human reason can ever prove in a meaningful way that God, however defined, exists. All human beings I know about have something any rational person would have to call “religion.” Not every society believes in an all-powerful God (Descartes was wrong about that, but then he never had the opportunity to take an anthropology of religion course); nor is there any religion where everyone is in total agreement on who and what God is. Most believers, no matter what the religion, believe they have the true religion. There is no rational way to line up all the prophets, document all the doctrines, and weigh all the good deeds against the bad and calculate the one true religion. Most of us practice the religion we are brought up in. Even when a person converts, the mother religion is never totally extinguished. So ultimately the only viable way to accept a revelation is by faith, not the ordinary means of proof we manage our daily affairs by, but an emotional and inner directed willingness to, as Muslims says. submit.

There were no real heretics at the conference. I doubt there have ever been any heretics willing to accept the brand of heretic as a sign of not knowing the truth. Yes, there was thinking, and much of it was critical. But thinking is like opening a door. Whether or not there is really something on the other side of that door is the critical question. I suspect that everyone present already had an idea of what they would see by opening the door. That is very much the stuff truth is made out of, at least the kind of truth individuals can grasp. What if there is nothing to see, once the door is opened? Closing it would be closing your mind. Staring into the unknown may just be the most blinding light of all. Now isn’t that a heretical thought?

Daniel Martin Varisco