Mullahs and Heretics: A Secular History of Islam, by Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali is a brilliantly skilled writer who has a unique ability to weave his narrative through the fabric of time and history in a manner that allows the reader to be immersed in the picture being painted.

This is an excellent and highly recommended read for those who wish to understand Islam from a secular point of view. A point of view which actually brings out a rational discussion of the religion, its achievements, its decline, subsequent hijacking and relevance in todays world.

Through the prism of history, politics, economics and society one can begin to understand how this once enlightened social movement emerged out of the Arabian dessert, conquered vast swathes of land, contributed to human development and then, like other empires, eventually lost its power.



I never believed in God, not even between the ages of six and ten, when I was an agnostic. This unbelief was instinctive. I was sure there was nothing else out there but space. It could have been my lack of imagination. In the jasmine-scented summer nights, long before mosques were allowed to use loudspeakers, it was enough to savour the silence, look up at the exquisitely lit sky, count the shooting stars and fall asleep. The early morning call of the muezzin was a pleasant alarm-clock.

There were many advantages in being an unbeliever. Threatened with divine sanctions by family retainers, cousins or elderly relatives – ‘If you do that Allah will be angry’ or ‘If you don’t do this Allah will punish you’ – I was unmoved. Let him do his worst, I used to tell myself, but he never did, and that reinforced my belief in his non-existence.

My parents, too, were non-believers. So were most of their close friends. Religion played a tiny part in our Lahore household. In the second half of the last century, a large proportion of educated Muslims had embraced modernity. Old habits persisted, nonetheless: the would-be virtuous made their ablutions and sloped off to Friday prayers. Some fasted for a few days each year, usually just before the new moon marking the end of Ramadan. I doubt whether more than a quarter of the population in the cities fasted for a whole month. Café life continued unabated. Many claimed that they had fasted so as to take advantage of the free food doled out at the end of each fasting day by the mosques or the kitchens of the wealthy. In the countryside fewer still fasted, since outdoor work was difficult without sustenance, and especially without water when Ramadan fell during the summer months. Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, was celebrated by everyone.

One day, I think in the autumn of 1956 when I was 12, I was eavesdropping on an after-dinner conversation at home. My sister, assorted cousins and I had been asked nicely to occupy ourselves elsewhere. Obediently, we moved to an adjoining room, but then listened, giggling, to a particularly raucous, wooden-headed aunt and a bony uncle berating my parents in loud whispers: ‘We know what you’re like . . . we know you’re unbelievers, but these children should be given a chance . . . They must be taught their religion.’

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