Hassan Radwan: From Faith to Faithless and Back Again

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Hassan Radwan is an agnostic Muslim writer and activist and the founder of the Facebook discussion group Agnostic Muslims and Friends. He was brought up as in a traditional Muslim family and underwent his own personal journey through faith. He now sees Islam and the Quran in a new light, understanding and relating to it as a powerful force but one unconstrained by dogma.

His blog can be found at http://agnosticmuslimkhutbahs.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1

He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Researcher and Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about how he sees Islam and his vision for tackling Islamist extremism.

The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Clarion Project. 



Clarion Project: For much of its history Islam has not had a separation between religion and state and Islamists now believe there should be no such thing. How has your view on this separation changed over time? Based on that, how do you think contemporary Muslims can productively relate to religion and politics?

Hassan Radwan: I grew up accepting the traditional view of no separation between church and state. I believed Islam sees no division between religion and politics. No “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” I saw from history that prophet Muhammad was a military and political leader as well as a spiritual leader and Quran & Sunna were full of details that appeared to apply to every part of my life, both the public and the private and as one hadith explained, Muslims were like one body; “If one part of the body feels pain, then the whole body suffers."

As I became more devout and keen to implement every aspect of Islam in my life I felt it was my duty to work towards this ideal of applying Islam to every part of my life, so that it guided all my actions. I believed it provided an all-encompassing solution to life's problems and this included politics, economics, public life as well as private life. But I was never attracted to highly politicized groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir  or their more radical spin off Al-Muhajiroun now led by Anjem Chaudhury under one of its ever changing aliases.

Even though I believed in concepts such as an Islamic State and Islamic Law I was always quick to distant myself from such radical groups. I would argue that transforming society should be done through peaceful dialogue, good example and education and I was always keen to point out that we Muslims were so far from reflecting the noble ideals of Islam, that there was no way we even think about such things as an Islamic State or applying Islamic Law.

Like many Muslims, to me if an Islamic state was implemented correctly it would result in peace, harmony and love where everyone would be happy and fulfilled, an idealistic and utopian view. I didn't like to think too much about exactly how that would happen in practice and shoved it pretty much to the back of my mind. When examples of Islamic states and laws were cited, such as in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and so on… I would of course say: "Oh but those are not TRUE Islamic States and they are not practicing TRUE Islamic Law." It is of course a very convenient way of avoiding the real life implications of my beliefs.

The major turning point for me was when I suffered a deep crisis of faith in my later years (at the age of 48) that led me to lose my faith entirely.



Ironically, it was only then that I discovered a much deeper and more profound level of faith. I was able to take a step back from futile arguments over what this or that verse means and see the bigger picture of man's relationship with God.

It became clear that man himself has always been the vessel through which revelation passes and as a result it is inevitably shaped and formed according to that person and environment. The inspiration Prophet Muhammad received came though his being, his character and his mind. So although divine wisdom is infinite and unbound by human language or context – it must nevertheless be conveyed through the limits of human language and context. It must come through a human being that is fallible, of finite wisdom and limited vision.

No matter how great the source of inspiration it is nevertheless inextricably tied to the time and place of the person who received it and subject to his flaws, limitations & context.

This realization has helped me to understand that when the Quran commands us; "To judge by what God has revealed", it is not referring to a divine set of rules nor a divine government, but simply to rule with justice, goodness & righteousness, using all the resources God gave us – which as the Quran constantly reminds us, includes our heart and mind – our conscience and our reason. To abide by the universal values revealed in all the wise teachings man has been inspired with down the ages.

There is no such thing as an "Islamic State" nor a "Perfect Divine Law" for all times and places – there never has been. The scholars and jurists of the Middle Ages invented this myth. All laws and governments are human laws and governments. They are fallible and flawed.



Clarion: What do you think is the best way for the Muslim community to defeat extremism within the community?

Radwan: The only way to defeat extremism is to get to the root cause. Groups like ISIS are merely a symptom. The root cause in my opinion is the belief in the infallibility of the Quran. Yes, of course I am aware there are many other factors such as the often foolish and misguided policy of some Western governments towards the Middle East as well as many other social and political factors such as the rise of the Salafi form of Islam. But they alone cannot account for the existence of the harsh puritanical and supremacist form of Islam that seeks to impose political and religious authority throughout the world.

In my view this type of Islam has its root cause in the long held belief by Muslims that by imitating laws and behaviors from 1,400 years ago in 7th-Century Arabia, humanity will find salvation and create a perfect utopian society. Of course solving political problems and solving genuine grievances and inequalities will help, as will education and so on.

But as long as we don’t tackle the belief that the Quran is the infallible words of God then no matter how many problems are solved or inequalities righted there will always be another group seeking to impose the word of God against reason and conscience.

This is why when you defeat one group another even more desperate rises from their ashes. The idea that the Quran is fallible will of course come as a terrible shock to most Muslims brought up as we are to believe the Quran is the perfect and infallible word of God, but I firmly believe that once we Muslims get passed this shock and emotional reaction and begin to reflect more rationally we will see that in fact this is the only way to save the real soul of Islam from the extremists who are in fact the ones destroying it.

In actual fact the Qur'an never uses words like infallible, perfect nor miraculous. The reason this belief seems to have gained ground is because of the challenge the Quran makes to "bring something like it." Though being unable to imitate something doesn't of course mean it is either perfect or infallible. The Quran does say it is from God, but then again what I'm saying doesn't contradict that. I accept the Quran was inspired by God. It's just not verbatim his actual speech.

Revelation and inspiration is a mystery. I believe that to a lesser or greater extent we can all be inspired in different ways. How we express this inspiration is determined by our environment, personality and limitations. Whatever inspiration Prophet Muhammad received, it had to be expressed though his language, his person, his character and his culture. This must be borne in mind when reading the Quran. They are human words attempting to convey spiritual experiences beyond human language and conceptualization.

Thus we as Muslims can draw wisdom and benefit from the Quran as long as we apply our reason and conscience. Yes, of course our reason and conscience are fallible, but so is the Quran, particularly when one appreciates that it was formed by a human being in a very different time and context as our own today.



Clarion: You head a Facebook group for agnostic Muslims. What is the primary purpose of the group?

Radwan: I created the group because of the interest I got when I posted some of my thoughts on my own personal Facebook timeline. I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances shared similar thoughts.

However they were hesitant to discuss these things openly so I thought it would be good to create a safe place for those Muslims like myself who are seeking to express their views and opinions without being attacked by extremists and hardliners. 

As we have stated in the FAQs: “The group is first and foremost for Agnostic Muslims & Friends to discuss ideas for Islamic reform and how to work toward a more universalistic and inclusive view of Islam where people of all religions and none are treated equally and with respect. Where reason and humanistic values can take precedence over dogma and blind faith.”

We have gained 1,700 members in little over three months since starting and more Muslims are joining every day, so our message has clearly struck a chord with ordinary Muslims.



Clarion:  You've said that the Islamic societies you became involved with in the late 70s and 80s were initially broad minded and inclusive, but became increasingly intolerant and sectarian over time. Why? Can we draw any lessons from what enabled pluralism at that time to help us encourage pluralism now?

Radwan: Yes, I experienced that change and I remember well growing up in the 60s and 70s. Muslim communities both in the UK and in Muslim countries were quite secular and you rarely saw a hijab or long beard. In fact one was more likely to see miniskirts or jeans. Yet, that's not to say they were not religious in their own way. But it was much more of a personal spirituality. It was simply about being a good person. Giving charity. Helping others. Prayer and seeking help from God. No one interfered with anyone else or told them they had to do X, Y or Z.

But things began to change in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember attending an Islamic conference with my father in 1979 at Earls Court, London, where I saw the transformation happening before my very eyes. I had been to conferences like this before. Men in suits and women without hijab talked about Islam and providing ways to collect charity and provide prayer rooms etc. But this one was now divided. The old guard in their suits and dresses were now opposed by a vocal new group in jilbabs and hijabs who wanted much more of an international and political agenda. The meeting erupted into arguments and accusations. Then as one man was giving a speech a man in a white jilbab and cap began giving the Azan loudly in front of him. Some then got up and began praying in the aisles. It was utter mayhem.

Three of the major causes of this change at the time were the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the ongoing situation in Palestine that was highlighted in the early 80s by such things as the Sabra and Chatila massacre of Palestinian refugees. All these events had the effect of politicizing many Muslims around the world.



The next major event was the influx of Saudi Arabia's oil money financing the spread of Salafi doctrine throughout the 80s. They subsidized Salafi books which began flooding Muslim bookshops. They set up offices such as the Muslim World League that gave financial help to Islamic organizations, mosques, schools, students and individuals who were willing to adopt their Salafi views.

At the same time, a relatively new group called Hizb ut-Tahrir (founded 1953) and their spin off Al-Muhajiroun (1986) began winning over young Muslims on university campuses. Their overriding obsession was political, the creation of an “Islamic State” (Khilafah) and they endlessly lectured Muslims about how democracy is completely against Islam and that an Islamic State run by the Khalifah is the only form of government acceptable to a Muslim.

Of course I accept that these groups and movements owe a lot to things like the legacies of colonialism, political conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the rise of Salafi and Jihadist forms of Islam. But to blame them for all our ills is frankly either ignorant or dishonest. It's time we Muslims faced up to the hard truth that these groups would never have gained ground if there were not authentic evidence within the Quran and Sunna that supported them.

Now don't get me wrong, I am certainly not saying that these extremist groups represent true Islam. They don't. They don't because there is no single true Islam despite what many Muslims claim. The truth is, there are many and varied traditions within Islam, each with evidence and interpretations to support their view.

The problem for the Liberals and Progressives is that their interpretations often tend to be tenuous at best, or they rely on nuanced readings or forcing new meanings out of ancient words. Far from defeating the extremists, they merely give a semblance of legitimacy to them, while making their own case appear weak and dishonest in the eyes of many Muslims.

It's time we were honest that the Quran and Sunna can indeed lend itself to very harsh and violent interpretations and that the solution is not to try and twist the texts to come up with a counter-interpretation but to face the fact that the Quran and Sunna is not perfect. It is not infallible. It can be wrong. The answer is to allow human reason to determine what should or should not be applied in this day and age.

We must stop protecting the Quran on the basis that “God said it” because he didn't. Muhammad said it, albeit inspired by God. Only in this way can Islam truly become a universalistic, inclusive and pluralistic religion.



Clarion: You've been involved in Islam from a lot of different angles: disbelief, devout religiosity, sufism, politically and now agnostically. Many others will be going on similar personal journeys of faith. How do you think community leaders can guide people searching for spirituality to keep them from straying into supremacist and potentially violent beliefs without shutting off exploration?

Radwan: I'm sorry to keep repeating this point but the answer is to realize the Quran is not infallible. We must open the door to human reason and conscience.

This in one simple stroke will solve so many of our problems as Muslims. As long as Muslim leaders keep insisting to our youngsters that the Quran is infallible and one cannot argue or contradict the word of God, then you will have youngsters being lured by hate preachers into extremism. That is because, as I have said, the bitter truth is that the Quran can be interpreted in a violent way and so there will always be some Muslims who will read it in this harsh literalist way and since they are told it's God's literal word, they will suppress their own reason, their own heart and mind in the mistaken belief that these are the infallible words of God and they must obey them no matter if they think it's wrong.

So Muslims are taught to mistrust their own heart and mind if it conflicts with the Quran. But once Muslims realise the Quran is not infallible, that it is not the perfect word of a Divine Being, but rather the inspired but fallible words of a human being, this frees the heart and mind from the prison we placed it in. It no longer gives the harsh and violent passages a free pass but subjects them to human reason and conscience – the heart and mind God gave us.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org