What are Atheists' Criticisms of Islam?

Decaoration of the Friday mosque in Yazd, Iran

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It should go without saying that you must understand a thing to effectively criticize it. Indeed, the more you understand, the more you may be able to critique. Unfortunately, this principle isn't always followed when it comes to criticizing Islam. Too many atheists and Christians base their criticisms of Islam on superficial understandings and assumptions derived from experience with Christianity. You don't need to know a lot about Islam to reject its basic assertions, but the more you know, the more substantive, effective, and useful your critiques will be.

Five Pillars of Islam

The Five Pillars of Islam are the cornerstones of Islam. These are obligations which are required of every Muslim and thus should also be the starting point of any serious, substantive criticism of Islam, Muslims, and Muslim beliefs. They are shahadah (statement of faith), salat (prayers), zakat (alms), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). The statement of faith, that there is one god and that Muhammad is his prophet, is the most susceptible to criticism because of the absence of any empirical or reasonable basis. The others can also be critiqued in various ways as well.

Basic Muslim Beliefs

In addition to the Five Pillars, there are other principles which are important to understanding Islamic law, tradition, history, and even Islamic extremism. Not only must any criticism of Islam take these principles into account, but these principles themselves can be the foundation of a serious, effective challenge. They include strict monotheism, continued revelation, submission, community, purity, a day of judgment, angels, belief in God’s scriptures, pre-destination, and resurrection after death.

Muslim Holy Days & Holidays

A religion's holidays, or holy days, tell us what adherents value most. A day is holy because it marks something that must be set aside for special reverence by all believers. Islam is thus defined in part by what Muslims consider holy; understanding Islam means understanding how and why it sets certain objects, days, or times aside as holy. Criticism of Islam thus depends on understanding what is holy in Islam and can often be directed specifically at Islam's conception of holiness. 

Muslim Holy Sites & Holy Cities

Establishing a sacred site which only some have privileged access to also establishes an illusory “scarcity” which causes people to fight. We can see this in the context of Islam with its holy sites and cities: Mecca, Medina, the Dome of the Rock, Hebron, and so on. The holiness of each site is associated with violence against other religions or against other Muslims, and their importance has been as dependent on politics as religion, a sign of the degree to which political ideologies and parties make use of the religious concept of "holiness" to further their agendas. 

Muslims & the Qur’an

The Qur’an is believed to be the direct Word of God and must be obeyed without question. In part, because there is no identifiable authoritative edition of a book so important as the Qur'an even as late as the ninth century, some scholars reject the idea that Islam had an Arabian origin. Muslim tradition holds the nature and source of the Qur'an to be well established and well understood. It is remarkable just how little can be reasonably claimed about either its nature or its origin, though. Scholarship over the last few decades has undermined many of the traditional beliefs regarding the Qur'an. 

Muslims & the Hadith:

Hadith means “tradition,” and it constitutes for most Muslims the second set of religious scriptures—almost, but not quite as important as the Qur’an. They are supposed to be reports about the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate followers while he was alive, but the Hadith did not apparently exist in the earliest days of Islam. Even early Muslim scholars showed a great deal of skepticism towards many of the records in the Hadith, but some Western scholars believe that nothing in the collections is reliable or authentic.

Muslims & Muhammad

Not very much is known about Muhammad’s early life, although he is widely believed to have been born in 570 C.E. in Mecca. The earliest accounts we have of him date back to 750 C.E. with the book Life by Ibn Ishaq, more than one hundred years after Muhammad’s death. Although this is the first and most basic source of information about the life of Muhammad for all Muslims, it does not present a very flattering portrait of him. 

Mosque & State in Islam

For Christians, there has always been a distinction between church and state, but this is not the case in Islam. Muhammad was his own Constantine. This history of mosque/state relationships has always been complex, but for most Muslims, mosque and state have ideally always been much the same thing. Muhammad did not simply found a religious movement—he founded a community, the ummah of believers. He was the arbiter, judge, military commander, political leader, and more.

Islam, Jihad, and Violence

The nature of jihad is hotly debated in the press and even among Muslim theologians. Many apologists for liberal and moderate Muslims in the West argue that jihad has nothing to do with violence, but history says something very different. Two days before the September 11th attacks, Hamza Yusuf was outside the White House giving a speech in which he said that the U.S. “stands condemned,” and that “this country has a great, great tribulation coming to it.” Islam, Jihad, and Violence