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Muslim Heretics Conference

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A Celebration of Heresy: Critical Thinking for Islamic Reform was an Islamic conference organised in Atlanta, USA, on 28 till 30 March 2008. The conference was organized to promote and present Islamic reformist ideas. The organizers were several Muslim activists of the Atlanta area, especially Fereydoun Taslimi, and several known Islamic scholars as Law professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Philosophy professor Edip Yuksel and professor of Islam at Florida International University, Aisha Musa who graduated from Harvard university.

Participants next to the organizers themselves were author Irshad Manji, author Melody Moezzi, professor Ahmed Subhy Mansour, professor Amina Wadud, author Sandra Mackey and several others. The conference was attended by around 80 people and viewed through webcast by a worldwide audience. The audience consisted mostly out of Muslims from all different backgrounds, but also included Western professors, Christians and Jews who were interested in the debates.


The title of the conference had created controversy as it stated the participants presented themselves as heretics, seen by the majority of Muslims as in the negative sense, but the organizers used the term in the positive. Their website explains:

"Any dissenting idea against the prevailing religious traditions is generally considered heresy. Jesus was accused of heresy by the Jewish high council and was handed over to the occupying Romans to be executed. Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace for heresy however saved by God. Muhammad who criticized traditions and “the way of their fathers”, slavery, aggression, financial exploitation, racism, and xenophobia, was a dangerous heretic according to the tribal courts of Meccan.

Many great philosophers and religious leaders, such as Ibn Sina and Martin Luther, were accused of heresy and others, such as Hallaj and Giordano Bruno, gave up their lives for their cause and beliefs. Socrates questioned the polytheistic dogmas and was a condemned heretic in the courts of Athenian establishment. Tyndall who translated the Bible was condemned to the blazing fire of the Church. Galileo who removed the earth from the center of the Christian universe and Darwin who meticulously studied the origin of life were both declared heretics by the Church. Heretical ideas have tested the tolerance of a society and in many cases have created the fuel of progress particularly in the area of religion."

The conference grew out of the recognition that often, dissenting ideas against the prevailing religious traditions are written off as heresy. Nearly all the prophets and great thinkers throughout history have been accused of being heretics. Furthermore, the stereotypical image of Muslims seems to be, as Fereydoun Taslimi, conference organizer, puts it, "an intolerance of a seemingly vain re-action to a cartoon or film and a tolerance for tyranny or oppression by some Muslims and Islamic governments. However, throughout Islam's history dissenting ideas have been prevalent and tolerated more than they have in many other religions."

Some Muslims have criticized them for using the title Muslim Heretics Conference, organizer Taslimi said:

"But we decided to stick with it, in that we feel we are against the kind of actions that are being committed in the name of Islam, such as violence and repression. Some of the same critics a few years back complained about the use of the words "Islamic reform," but have adopted the phrase when discussing issues where their religion and the modern world intersect."[1]

But new discussion about the title has emerged, and the organizers are planning to changing it as the focus must be on Islamic reform and critical thinking, not on a misunderstood label.[2]


The conference was meant as a gathering of Muslims and other interested people who would like to network and share ideas with those who agree with the following principles:

  • Freedom of religion and worship
  • Freedom of Speech with no conditions
  • Rejection of all acts of aggression in the name of religion
  • Tolerance of criticism
  • Agree to disagree about our understanding of Islam
  • Work towards peace and a better future for mankind


The conference had panels on several topics, including critical looks at Sharia and related concerns, ways of Islamic reformation, the role and position of Hadith and Sunnah, the absence of democracy in many Muslim countries and how Islam views Democracy, and women's issues. The panels were headed by 3 or 4 participants:

The Future of Shari`a: This panel examined such questions as: What is the nature of Shari`a, and how did it evolve in historical context? Can Shari`a be divine? Whose understanding of Shari`a and to what ends? Can Shari`a principles be codified as law enforced by the state? What should be the role of Shari`a in present Islamic societies and communities? Participants were: professor Abdullahi A. An-Na`im, Alia Hogben who is the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and Iftikhar Ahmed Mehar who is an independent scholar, author and advocate on Islamic issues in the USA.

Critical Thinking in Islam: Vigilant critical thinking is necessary, they say, if Muslims are to get to the root of our problems and develop reasonable solutions to reform our current corrupt system. The panel discussed ways of critical thinking to explore the best way for an Islamic reform. Participants were: professor Edip Yuksel who is a known activist in Islamic reform and author of a Quran translation, bestselling author and activist Irshad Manji who created several projects on Itjihad, Islamic right for free interpretation, and also has produced a documentaire about Islamic reform at PBS, professor Richard Voss who has engaged and written on Quranic studies and Arnold Mol, a convert from the Netherlands who has written articles on Quranic subjects.

Hadith and Sunna a critical evaluation: What are Hadith and Sunna, what have they played in the definition and understanding of what Islam is and what it means to be Muslim? A objective critical analysis of the early sources. Participants were: professor shaykh Ahmed Subhy Mansour from al-Azhar university in Cairo now living in the USA, author and scholar of Islam with expertise in Islamic history, culture, theology, and politics and professor Aisha Y. Musa, author of “Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam”.

Islam and Democracy: Intolerance for vain and tolerance for tyranny and oppression. Why there is no democratic Muslim country? Does Islam have a problem with democracy and freedom? Participants were: author Sandra Mackey, an award winning and highly regarded expert on Middle Eastern culture and politics, Dr. Ali Behzadnia who is a socio-political activist and founder of several Islamic organisations and again professor Edip Yuksel.

Women’s issues: Since gender inequality is not unique to Islam and Muslims, what in particular are the issues that need to be addressed because they are labeled “Islamic”? What can Muslim women and men do and what are Muslim women and men doing to promote and sustain gender equality in the context of Muslim minorities, like North America? Participants were: professor Amina Wadud author of many books including Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, Melissa Robinson an activist and writer who has co-founded the American Islamic Fellowship (AIF) and has been actively working to promote interfaith efforts, social justice, and reform in mosques and Islamic communities, author Melody Moezzi who has a regular column in Muslim Girl Magazine and also has written the book War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims.

Each panelist gave their opinion on the subjects discussed and then the audience could engage with questions and arguments.

The topics were discussed from Saturday morning till evening and on Sunday morning. On Friday evening, the first day of the conference, the award-winning Egyptian documentaire Salata Baladi, which means 'mixed salade' was shown. The movie was made by Nadia Kamel who the personal history of the filmmaker’s grandmother, Mary, as told to her grandson, Nabeel. Like many Egyptians born at the end of a century filled with multiple waves of immigration, religious conversions, and mixed marriages, Nabeel is a mix of Egyptian, Italian, Palestinian, and Lebanese identities, with some Russian, Caucasian, Turkish, and Spanish inherited from Muslim, Christian and Jewish ancestors.


Next to the title, also some of its participants were the cause of some controversy. An Arabian article had translated the term 'heretics' as 'kafirun', mainly understood and translated as 'unbelievers'. The article's main focus was professor shaykh Ahmed Subhy Mansour who was a professor at the famous Al-Azhar university in Cairo, which is seen by many as the main authority on Islam in the Muslim world.[3] Shaykh Mansour had to leave the university and Egypt because of his criticism on the country's oppression of minorities and for his criticism on Hadith and Sunna, historical sources that have authority next to the Quran in traditional Islam.

To prevent misunderstandings, the organizers wrote an explanation of the conference goals in Arabic.[4] Not to defend themselves they said, but to give information themselves in the language so the conference would not be misunderstood and unjustifiedly be misrepresented.


Anthropology professor Daniel Martin Varisco of Hofstra university was present at the conference and has written a review of the conference.

In it he also discusses the title:

"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 had become “heretical” that God sent a final revelation and last prophet. Muhammad’s triumph signaled an end to heresy, a doctrine that all Muslims would no doubt agree upon, but the minute Muhammad died, heresy was born again."

Then he describes the conference:

"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?

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?"[5]

Errin Haines of AOL news writes:

"During the three-day Celebration of Heresy Conference, panelists debated such issues as sharia, critical thinking and democracy and Islam - issues organizers of the conference say are central to Islamic reform, but which Muslims are not free to discuss within many contemporary Islamic societies.[...] The topic of democracy and Islam was debated for more than an hour on Saturday. An-Na'im pointed to factors like poverty, a lack of education and underdevelopment as reasons why democracy has not taken root in more Muslim-based societies around the world. "Islam is not the problem," he said. "If Islam is consistent with Democracy, why are most Muslim societies not Democratic? The religion is not opposed to it." Fereydoun Taslimi, a Muslim activist in Atlanta, said that not many Middle Eastern countries can claim that they are operating under a representative form of government, with theocracy or less inclusive elections being the order of the day. Ensuring certain rights - like equality between the sexes and freedom of speech - can be attained through democracy. An-Na'im said that Muslims must figure out how to legitimize and reinforce Democratic values from an Islamic perspective."[6]


The organizers hope to make this an annual event. The conference can be held again in Atlanta, but also places as Canada and even Istanbul in Turkey were heard as possible places for future conferences.

Organizer Fereydoun Taslimi said: "We plan to do it every year, a gathering of people who like to discuss issues and keep the momentum and networking of Muslims going."[7]

See also[edit]

Other articles of the topic Islam : Amir al-Mu'minin, Nasheed, God in Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Rūḥ, Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, Alhamdulillah
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Further reading[edit]

  • The Trouble with Islam Today, 2004, ISBN 1-84018-837-5 by Irshad Manji
  • Hadith as Scripture: Discussions on the Authority of Prophetic Traditions in Islam, 2008 by Aisha Y. Musa
  • Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a, 2008 by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im
  • Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights) by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im
  • War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims by Melody Moezzi
  • Quran: A Reformist Translation, 2007, ISBN 978-0-9796715-0-0 by Edip Yuksel
  • A Call for Heresy; Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America by Anouar Majid ISBN 978-0-8166-5128-3
  • Defenders of Reason In Islam: Mu'tazilism and Rational Theology from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, 2003, ISBN 1-85168-147-7 by Richard Martin
  • Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, 1998, ISBN 978-0-19-511622-9 by Charles Kurzman
  • Faith without Fear a 2007 PBS documentary produced by Irshad Manji that documents the pervasive Islamism she finds during her travels through Muslim communities in Yemen, Europe and North America and the personal risk she has taken in her life as her result of her calls for reform and human rights in the Muslim world.
  • Salata Baladi Golden Conch award for best Long Documentary - Mumbai International Film Festival 2008, Special Prize from the International Critics Jury Fipresci - Mumbai film festival 2008- "Outstanding Documentary" Noor Award at the The Arab Film Festival San Francisco 2007

External links[edit]

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