Muslim Reformers

By Ibn Warraq


  1. AHMAD AL-BAGHDADI [1950-2010]


        During the question and answer sessions at my talks to various Humanist groups ( most recently CFI Indianapolis, CFI Arizona, and CFI Los Angeles), I am often asked about the possibility of reform within Islam, and of the existence of moderate Muslims. These are not easy questions to answer. There are said to be 57 Islamic countries, and the situation obviously varies from country to country, from year to year. Even countries trumpeted as “moderate”, “liberal” or “tolerant” have, in reality, a mixed record as far as Human Rights are concerned. Criticism of Islam is well-nigh impossible in all fifty-seven countries. Nonetheless, some courageous individuals living in the latter have found a way of indirectly casting doubt on Islam as the solution to every problem in the modern world, namely, by advocating Secularism. In the next four of five blogs, I intend to look at some brave, intrepid, articulate champions of Human Rights in the Islamic World- often putting their lives in danger for that most noble of causes, Freedom.

        Kuwait is an Arab Emirate just north of Saudi Arabia and south of Iraq, with a population of just under three million. With its large oil reserves it is the considered the eleventh richest country in the world. Though Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy, with a parliamentary system of government, its Human Rights record is decidedly mixed, and this was made plain when in October 1999, Professor Dr. Ahmad al-Baghdadi-first of our three Kuwaiti secularists whom I shall be discussing here- was sentenced to one month in prison for allegedly defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a 1996 article that he wrote for the Kuwait University student magazine Al-Shoula. However, the emir of Kuwait pardoned him a few weeks later, and he was released.

       Ahmad Al-Baghdadi [not to be confused with Ayatollah Ahmad Al-Baghdadi], a political science lecturer at Kuwait University, was in trouble once again when he published several articles in November 2004 in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, dismissing religious thought as no longer relevant or adequate, and extolling the virtues of secularism. A few excerpts from his articles- superbly translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute [MEMRI, Special Dispatch 823]- will suffice to show the courage of al Baghdadi’s thorough critique of religion, and the need for a separation of state and mosque: “Muslims Have no Future as Long as They are Subjected to Religious Thought.”

         In his article, ‘Secularism and Life,’ Al-Baghdadi argued that only a society free of religion could make progress and develop; Islamic religious thought merely prevents progress and development:

        “… Secularism as a [world] view and as a way of life was not formed in a vacuum, but is the outcome of the painful life experience of human beings which has continued for close to a millennium and in the course of which the religious thought of the Church, devised by the religious clergy, was abolished… During this experience, Western man lived in intellectual darkness and [endured] devastating wars in a period called ‘the Dark Middle


         “For the person educated in sciences, industry, finances, politics, and culture there was only one solution, which constitutes a refuge for the poor societies. That [solution] is: distancing the man of the cloth from life…From that moment on, the Western world became the only world to develop, progress, and flourish in all spheres of life.

          “In order [to avoid] being accused of subjectivity against the religious way of thought, let us present examples from the reality of life in the Muslim and Arab countries:

         “1.  Religious thought is the only way of thought nowadays that refuses to accept the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ on religious grounds, and this constitutes an obstacle to [the realization of] these rights in the Islamic countries, not only in the matter of inheritance, but also in matters such as equality, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech.

        “2. Islamic religious thought is the only way of thought nowadays to persist in [accusations] of ridda [apostasy]… Unfortunately, this persistence [leads to] the killing of human beings, even without trial.

        “3. Religious thought objects to freedom of thought and freedom of speech when religion is criticized. Moreover, religious thought reveres things that religion itself does not instruct [us] to revere. Thus, for example, regarding [the immunity from criticism of] the Prophet’s companions, who are not considered part of the principles of religion or of the roots of belief.

Religious thought does not distinguish between religion and its believers.

         “4. Religious thought is still anti-woman even if the religious clerics

claim otherwise.

         “5. Religious thought is opposed to human health in matters of treatment and medicine. The prohibition of including alcohol in most medicines leads to their reduced effectiveness… [Moreover,] the Muslim doctor nowadays does not dare to instruct a patient not to fast [during the month of Ramadhan], and the hospitals therefore become full of patients who fasted.

         “6. Religious thought supports political tyranny, because it opposes democracy and the constitution. [For example,] in Kuwait [some] strive to destroy the constitution and the constitutional state, and in Saudi Arabia there is complete opposition to democracy.

          “7. If we were to imagine that an [Arab] regime adopted a certain religious school of thought, what could happen to the other schools of thought?

          “8. Religious thought opposes the Other, accuses him of heresy, and objects to living by his side. Proof of this are the supplications and appeals [to Allah] that we hear in the mosques to destroy all non-Muslims and harm them, rather than requesting guidance for them on the straight path, [as would have occurred] had there been an ounce of human tolerance.

            “9. Religious thought is the main reason for the production of terror, because of the negative interpretations of the [Quranic] verses regarding Jihad.

            “10. Religious thought opposes any kind of creativity and art…

             “The West did not make progress until it became free of this way of

thinking. This is the only solution facing the Muslims. They have no future

as long as they are subjected to religious thought.”


        Al-Baghdadi relentlessly pursued his theme in an article published two days later, on16 November 2004,  in Al-Siyassa,  [Memri, Special Dispatch 823] titled ‘The Good in Secularism and the Bad in You,’ and explained why the secular countries were successful and the Islamic countries manifest failures:

      “There is no Islamic country in which a Christian or a Jew could reveal a cross or a skullcap, and get away with it peacefully. In addition, members of [other] human religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, are prohibited from conducting their ceremonies in public, even with governmental approval, without people harming them, as happened at the Hindu place of worship in Kuwait. In contrast to this religious persecution [in Islamic countries,] ofwhich the [Islamic] religious stream boasts, there is no secular country that prohibits the construction of mosques, even in the event that the government does not finance them. Moreover, there is no secular country that prevents the Muslim from praying in public…

        “There is no church in the secular Christian world in which a priest stands and curses anyone who disagrees with his religion or prays for trouble and disaster to befall them, as do the preachers in our Friday sermons. [Moreover,] our religious thought has no parallel to the message recently pronounced by the present Pope regarding the importance of peace for all. Contrary to the ease with which a mosque is built in secular Europe and America, the construction of a church [in a Muslim country] is carried out only with the approval of the country’s president, [and even then] it is rare.

        “There is no non-Muslim religious institute that teaches its students to hate the Other, claiming that he is considered an infidel, doomed to hell, regardless of whether he was of any use to mankind. This hatred is present in the curricula of the Islamic religion.

          “Throughout [Muslim] history there has not been one Muslim judge who strived to attain justice for a non-Muslim who was wronged, whereas the U.S. and Europe have saved many peoples from oppression, while sacrificing human life and property in order to save other [peoples.] [In this context] one cannot but note the benevolence of the secular toward the Kuwaitis when they decided to liberate Kuwait and reinstate the honor of its government and its people.

            “In the secular world the author, the intellectual, and the journalist are not sent to jail for their opinions – with the exception of the European laws concerning the denial of the Holocaust that annihilated the Jews of Europe, because this is a fact from which the European conscience still suffers. [Even in such a case, the Holocaust denier] is not imprisoned, but is merely fined. They do not consider him a murtadd [ Arabic: apostate], and do not seek his death, try to assassinate him, harm his livelihood, or separate him from his wife and children. In contrast, the extremist Muslims and the Islamic clerics often adopt ideological terror, issuing calls for killing, and accusations of ridda [apostasy]…

           “Those in the religious stream cannot avoid admitting that all the good is in the secular thought, and all the evil is in the religious thought, for they take advantage of religion in order to harm not only people but religion itself, to the point that Muslims no longer respect their religion, and they start to exploit it for financial gain by selling Islamic books and drink.

           “Do you know why Allah helps the secular country? Because it is just. Why doesn’t He help countries that build mosques every day? Because these countries are oppressive…

          “The Muslim countries cannot adopt secularism for a simple reason: the principles of secularism contradict the outlook of these countries, which are based on tyranny, oppression, aggression, backwardness, and anarchy. Moreover, these countries exploit religious thought in order to impose their legitimacy.Thus you find that they are the most avid supporters of the religious groups, knowing that these groups include those who support terrorism and harm society. For the religious groups do not support rights and justice as much as they support oppression and tyranny, whereas secularism [acts] in the opposite manner.”


            One’s first reaction to Al-Baghdadi’s article is one of wonder at his courage in a much-needed act of self-criticism, something which is rare in the Islamic world. The second reaction is to worry for his safety. Unfortunately, one’s worries were justified when one read that al-Baghdadi on March 21, 2005 published a request for political asylum in the West “ in response to being sentenced by a Kuwaiti court to three years on probation on 2,000 dinars [$6800] bail, with violation punishable by a one-year prison sentence, on charges of contempt for Islam.”

               Here is the full text of al-Baghdadi’s request [Memri Special Dispatch 889]:

           “If you state your opinion about the teaching of a religious curriculum, and such action will lead to imprisonment and a ban from writing and a promise to pay bail to stop the prison sentence, which is the ruling that came out this week, then this means that the “knife had already reached the throat” even if it was done under the cover of law. Therefore, there is no escape from this problem, which was done under the cover of law, other than to request political asylum in one of the western countries. 

         “This is not only to protect my freedom, but also to protect “life” as well. What is it to gain by staying in a country that does not respect one’s dignity? What is it to gain by staying in a country where you cannot be certain about the protection of your life? What is to gain by staying in a country when such action brings trouble to members of your own family and distract you from your profession? The writer Abdullateef Alduaij did the right thing when he emigrated from Kuwait and settled in the United States. He now writes from there, and hence he saved his dignity and the dignity of his family. He also protected his freedom of expression, and saved himself from the humiliation of prison, which is quite possible, given the laws in Kuwait.

          “After this ruling, I am forced to request political asylum publicly, and through the internet, to a western country. This is not because I hate my country, but because I hate its tyrannical laws. Through those laws courts do not hesitate to imprison someone who stated an opinion that is not directly related to religion. This is so, because what I know is that Islam does not require a Muslim to memorize the Holy Qur’an. The proof is from the Holy Qur’an itself, when it says in what it means: “read what you can read from the Qur’an,” and also a saying that “Alikhlaas” verse is equivalent to a third of the Qur’an, when a Muslim recites it. 

          “I did not research one day in the subject of political asylum, since I thought that my dignity is respected in my country, and my life is safe. But now it is different. It is clear that the goal of every enemy of mine (and they are many in this country) to place me in prison. Since I do not know the right way to request the asylum, I request from anyone who knows how to request such asylum to provide me with the necessary information by Fax at (965) 4721840, or by using e-mail at ( I will be very thankful for the information. 

         “I have to admit that the religious movement has won in its battle against me. I congratulate them, and also congratulate our tyrannical country for this victory. Hence, I will stop writing about religious subjects. It is also important to note that the host country will not incur any expenses, since I can live on my retirement salary and on writing bonuses I receive from newspapers. Also, I would like to note that the first ruling in court regarding my case was “not guilty.” ”.


In the end al-Baghdadi did not need asylum; he was able to stay on as a lecturer at a college of Political Science in Kuwait, and continued to write for various liberal journals and newspapers in Kuwait, Bahrain, and other Middle Eastern countries. Al Baghdadi, 60, died after a long illness in the Shaikh Khalifa Hospital in Abu Dhabi. Right to the end al-Baghdadi called for secularising laws, and the need for rational thinking in addressing political and religious issues.

        Al Baghdadi held several degrees:  a BA in political science and economy from the University of Kuwait (1974), an MA in Western political thought from an American university (1977), and a PhD in Islamic philosophy from Edinburgh (1981).[1]



[1] Habib Toumi, « Prominent Kuwaiti liberal thinker Ahmad Al Baghdadi dies », Gulf News Kuwait, August 9, 2010.