The Totalitarian Nature of Islam

August 11, 2020

Presented is an extensive look into Islam, democracy, and human rights from Ibn Warraq’s book, Why I Am Not a Muslim published in 2003.
Secular Islam was a collaboration between Ibn Warraq and the Center for Inquiry started in 2004 to collect the writings, thoughts, and speeches of secular Muslims, Ex-Muslims, believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.
The Totalitarian Nature of Islam was originally published through Secular Islam in 2004.

“Bolshevism combines the characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam.” “Marx has taught that Communism is fatally predestined to come about; this produces a state of mind not unlike that of the early successors of Mahommet.” Among religions, Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity and Buddhism are primarily personal religions, with mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation. Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world.  

                               Russell [114]

Perhaps it was Charles Watson who first described Islam as totalitarian in 1937, and proceeded to show how: “By a million roots, penetrating every phase of life, all of them with religious significance, it is able to maintain its hold upon the life of Moslem peoples.” Bousquet, one of the foremost authorities on Islamic Law, distinguishes two aspects of Islam that he considers totalitarian: Islamic Law and the Islamic notion of jihad, which has for its ultimate aim the conquest of the entire world to submit it to one single authority. We shall consider jihad in the next chapter, here we shall confine ourselves to Islamic Law.

Islamic Law has certainly aimed at “controlling the religious, social and political life of mankind in all its aspects, the life of its followers without qualification, and the life of those who follow tolerated religions to a degree that prevents their activities from hampering Islam in any way” (Hurgronje 264).The all-embracing nature of Islamic Law can be seen from the fact that it doesn’t distinguish between ritual, law (in the European sense of the word), ethics, and good manners. In principle, this legislation controls the entire life of the believer and the Islamic community; it intrudes into every nook and cranny—everything. To give a random sample, from the pilgrim tax, agricultural contracts, the board and lodging of slaves, the invitation to a wedding, the use of tooth-picks, the ritual fashion in which one’s natural needs are to be accomplished, the prohibition for men to wear gold or silver rings to the proper treatment of animals is covered. Islamic Law is a doctrine of duties, external duties, that is to say, those duties that are susceptible to control by a human authority instituted by God. However, these duties are, without exception, duties toward God and founded on the inscrutable will of God himself. All duties that men can envisage being carried out are dealt with; we find treated therein all the duties of man in any circumstance whatsoever and in their connections with anyone whatsoever (Hurgronje 261).

Before looking at Islamic Law in detail, we need to know why it developed in the way it did.


Jesus Christ himself laid down a principle which was fundamental to later Christian thought: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s” (Matthew 22:17). These two authorities, God and Caesar, dealt with different matters, ruled different realms, had its own laws, and had its own institutions.  This separation of church and state is nonexistent in Islam; indeed there are no words in classical Arabic for the distinctions lay and ecclesiastical, sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal. Once again, we must look to the founder of Islam to understand why there was never any separation of state and church. Muhammad was not only a prophet but also a statesman; he founded not only a community but also a state and a society. He was a military leader, making war and peace, and a lawgiver, dispensing justice. Right from the beginning, Muslims formed a community that was at once political and religious, with the Prophet himself as head of state. For the early Muslims, their spectacular victories were a proof that God was on their side. Thus right from the start, in Islam, there was no question of a separation between sacred history and secular history, between political power and faith, unlike Christianity that had to undergo three centuries of persecution before being adopted by “Caesar.”


The Sharia or Islamic Law is based on four principles or roots (in Arabic usul, plural of asl): the Qur’an; the Sunna of the Prophet that is incorporated in the recognized traditions; the consensus (ijma) of the scholars of the orthodox community; the method of reasoning by analogy (qiyas or kiyas).


The Qur’an, as we saw earlier, is, for Muslims, the very words of God himself. Though it contains rules and regulations for the early community on such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, the Qur’an does not lay down general principles. Many matters are dealt with in a confusing and perfunctory manner; and a far greater number of vital questions are not treated at all.


The Sunna (literally, a path or way; a manner of life) expresses the custom or manner of life of Muslims based on the deeds and words of the Prophet and even that which was done or said in his presence as well what was not forbidden by him. The Sunna was recorded in the traditions, the hadith, but these, as we saw earlier, are largely later forgeries. Nonetheless, for Muslims the Sunna complements the Qur’an and is essential for its proper understanding; to clarify the Qur’anic vaguenesses and fill in the Qur’anic silences. Without the Sunna, they would be at a loss for details necessary for their daily lives.

The Qur’an and the Sunna are the expressions of God’s command, the definitive and inscrutable will of Allah, which must be obeyed absolutely, without doubts, questions, and qualifications. But we still need some kind of interpretation of the Sunna and the Qur’an,with all their attendant obscurities, and this is the task of the science of Sharia (fiqh). The specialists on law were called faqih. The result was the founding of many “schools” of interpretation, four of which have survived to the present day and divide between them the whole of orthodox (sunni) Islam. Oddly, all four are considered equally valid.

[1] Malik ibn Abbas (died 795)

Abbas developed his ideas in Medina where he is said to have known one of the last survivors of the Companions of the Prophet. His doctrine is recorded in the work Muwatta, which has been adopted by most Muslims in Africa with the exception of Lower Egypt, Zanzibar, and South Africa.

[2] Abu Hanifa (died 767)

The founder of the Hanifi school, Hanifa was born in Iraq. His school is said to have given more scope to reason and logic than the other schools. The Muslims of India and Turkey follow this school.

[3] Al – Shafi’i (died 820) 

Shafi’i was considered a moderate in most of his positions, taught in Iraq and then in Egypt. The adherents of his school are to be found in Indonesia, Lower Egypt, Malaysia and Yemen. He laid great stress on the Sunna of the Prophet as embodied in the hadith as a source of the sharia.

[4] Ahmad ibn Hanbal (died 855)

Ibn Hanbal was born in Baghdad. He attended the lectures of Al Shafi’i, who also instructed him in the traditions. Despite persecution, ibn Hanbal stuck to the doctrine that the Qur’an was uncreated. The modern Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia are supposed to follow the teachings of ibn Hanbal.

When the various schools came under criticism for introducing innovations without justification, for adapting religious law to suit worldly interests and for tolerating abuses, the learned doctors of the law developed the doctrine of the infallibility of the consensus (ijma), which forms the third foundation of Islamic Law or sharia.


The saying “My community will never agree on an error” was ascribed to the Prophet, and in effect, was to make an infallible Church of the recognized doctors of the community as a whole. As Hurgronje says, “This is the Muslim counterpart of the Christian Catholic doctrine of ecclesiastical tradition: ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est.'” The notion of consensus has nothing democratic about it, the masses are expressly excluded; it is the consensus of suitably qualified and learned authorities. However, there were still disputes as to whose ijma was to be accepted: some only accepted the ijma of the Companions of the Prophet, while others only accepted the ijma of the descendants of the Prophet, and so on. The doctrine of the infallibility of the consensus of the scholars, far from allowing some liberty of reasoning, as one might have expected, worked “in favour of a progressive narrowing and hardening of doctrine; and, a little later, the doctrine which denied the further possibility of ‘independent reasoning’ sanctioned officially a state of things which had come to prevail in fact” (Schacht 69). By the beginning of 900 CE, Islamic Law became rigidly and inflexibly fixed because, to quote Schacht, “The point had been reached when the scholars of all schools felt that all essential questions had been thoroughly discussed and finally settled, and a consensus gradually established itself to the effect that from that time onwards no one might be deemed to have the necessary qualifications for independent reasoning in law, and that all future activity would have to be confined to the explanation, application, and, at most, interpretation of the doctrine as it had been laid down once and for all” (Schacht 70,71). This closing of the gate of independent reasoning, in effect, meant the unquestioning acceptance of the doctrines of established schools and authorities. Islamic Law until then had been adaptable and growing, but henceforth, “became increasingly rigid and set in its final mould. This essential rigidity of Islamic law helped it to maintain its stability over the centuries which saw the decay of the political institutions of Islam. It was not altogether immutable, but the changes which did take place were concerned more with legal theory and the systematic superstructure than with positive law. Taken as a whole, Islamic law reflects and fits the social and economic conditions of the early Abbasid period, but has grown more and more out of touch with later developments of state and society” (Schacht 75).


Kiyas or analogical reasoning is considered by many learned doctors to be subordinate and hence less important than the other three foundations of Islamic Law. Its inclusion may well have been a compromise between unrestricted liberty of opinion and the rejection of all human reasoning in religious law.


[1 ] All human acts and relationships are assessed from the point of view of the concepts obligatory, recommended, indifferent, reprehensible, and forbidden. Islamic Law is part of a system of religious duties, blended with nonlegal elements (Schacht 201).

[2] The irrational side of Islamic Law comes from two of its official bases, the Qur’an and the Sunna, which are expressions of God’s commands. It follows from the irrational side of Islamic Law that its rules are valid by virtue of their mere existence and not because of their rationality. The irrational side of Islamic Law also calls for the observance of the letter rather than of the spirit, this fact has historically facilitated the vast development and acceptance of legal devices, such as legal fictions. For example, the Qur’an explicitly prohibits the taking of interest, and to quote Schacht, “This religious prohibition was strong enough to make popular opinion unwilling to transgress it openly and directly, while at the same time there was an imperative demand for the giving and taking of interest in commercial life. In order to satisfy this need, and at same time to observe the letter of the religious prohibition, a number of devices were developed. One consisted of giving real property as a security for the debt and allowing the creditor to use it, so that its use represented the interest … Another … device consisted of a double sale … For instance, the (prospective) debtor sells to the (prospective) creditor a slave for cash, and immediately buys the slave back from him for a greater amount payable at a future date; this amounts to a loan with the slave as security, and the difference between the two prices represents the interest” (Schacht 79).

How can we characterise the above practices? Legal fictions is too kind an expression. Moral evasiveness? Moral hypocrisy? Moral dishonesty?

[3] “Although Islamic law is a sacred law, it is by no means essentially irrational; it was created not by an irrational process of continuous revelation … but by a rational method of interpretation, in this way it acquired its intellectualist and scholastic exterior. But whereas Islamic law presents itself as a rational system on the basis of material considerations, its formal juridical character is little developed. Its aim is to provide concrete and material standards, and not to impose formal rules on the play of contending interests [which is the aim of secular laws]. This leads to the result that considerations of good faith, fairness, justice, truth, and so on play only a subordinate part in the system” (Schacht 397).

[4] Unlike Roman law, Islamic Law brings legal subject matter into a system by the analogical method, by parataxis and association. Closely linked to this method is the casuistical way of thinking, which is one of the striking aspects of traditional Islamic Law. “Islamic law concentrates not so much on disengaging the legally relevant elements of each case and subsuming it under general rules—as on establishing graded series of cases” (Schacht 205). For example, in the question of succession, we find discussions of the case of an individual who leaves as sole inheritors his thirty-two great-great-grandparents; the rights of succession of hermaphrodites (because the two sexes do not have the same rights), the inheritance of an individual who has been changed into an animal, and in particular, when only half the individual has been transformed, either horizontally or vertically.

Thus a soul-destroying pedantry, a spirit of casuistry took over. As Goldziher says: 

The task of interpreting God’s word and of regulating life in conformity to God’s word became lost in absurd sophistry and dreary exegetical trifling: in thinking up contingencies that will never arise and debating riddling questions in which extreme sophistry and hair-splitting are joined with the boldest and most reckless flights of fancy. People debate far-fetched legal cases, casuistic constructs quite independent of the real world … Popular superstition, too, furnishes the jurists with material for such exercises. Since … demons frequently assume human shape, the jurists assess the consequences of such transformations for religious law; serious arguments and counterarguments are urged, for example, whether such beings can be numbered among the participants necessary for the Friday service. Another problematic case that the divine law must clarify: how is one to deal with progeny from a marriage between a human being and a demon in human form … What are the consequences in family law of such marriages? Indeed, the problem of (marriages with the jinn) is treated in such circles with the same seriousness as an important point of the religious law. 

[5] In what we would call penal law, Islamic Law distinguishes between the rights of God and the rights of humans. “Only the rights of god have the character of a penal law proper, of a law which imposes penal sanctions on the guilty. Even here, in the center of penal law, the idea of a claim on the part of God predominates, just as if it were a claim on the part of human plaintiff. This real penal law is derived exclusively from the Koran and the traditions [hadith], the alleged reports of the acts and sayings of the Prophet and of his Companions. The second great division of what we should call penal law belongs to the category of ‘redress of torts,’ a category straddling civil and penal law which Islamic law has retained from the law of pre-Islamic Arabia where it was an archaic but by no means unique phenomenon. Whatever liability is incurred here, be it retaliation or blood -money or damages, is subject of a private claim, pertaining to the rights of humans. In this field, the idea of criminal guilt is practically non-existent, and where it exists it has been introduced by considerations of religious responsibility. So there is no fixed penalty for any infringement of the rights of a human to the inviolability of his person and property, only exact reparation of the damage caused. This leads to retaliation for homicide and wounds on one hand, and to the absence of fines on the other” (Schacht 399).


Sharia is the total collection of theoretical laws that apply in an ideal Muslim community that has surrendered to the will of God. It is based on divine authority, which must be accepted without criticism. Islamic Law is thus not a product of human intelligence and in no way reflects a constantly changing or evolving social reality (as in European law).  It is immutable, and the fiqh or the science of the Sharia constitutes the infallible and definitive interpretation of the Sacred Texts; infallible because the group of Doctors of Law have been granted the power to deduce from the Qur’an and the Traditions authoritative solutions; and definitive because after three centuries, all the solutions have been given. While European law is human and changing, the Sharia is divine and immutable. It depends on the inscrutable will of Allah, which cannot be grasped by human intelligence; it must be accepted without doubts and questions.The work of the learned doctors of the Sharia is but a simple application of the words of Allah or his prophet; it is only in certain narrowly defined limits, fixed by God himself, that one can use a kind of reasoning known as qiyas, reasoning by analogy. The decisions of the learned having the force of law rest on the infallibility of the community, an infallibility that God himself conferred through Muhammed on his community (Bousquet, Hurgronje, Schacht).


(i) Two of the roots of Islam are the Qur’an and the Sunna recorded in the Hadith. First, the Qur’an. We have already given reasons as to why it cannot be considered of divine origin—it was composed sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries, full of borrowings from Talmudic Judaism, Apocryphal Christianity, Samaritans, Zoroastrianism, and Pre-Islamic Arabia. It contains historical anachronisms and errors, scientific mistakes, contradictions, grammatical errors, etc. Second, the doctrines contained therein are incoherent and contradictory and not worthy of a compassionate deity. Nowhere is there any proof for the existence of any deity. On the other hand, the Qur’an also contains praiseworthy moral principles, even if not particularly original—the need for generosity, respect for parents, and so on. But these are outweighed by unworthy principles: intolerance of pagans, the call to violence and murder, the lack of equality for women and non-Muslims, the acceptance of slavery, barbaric punishments, and the contempt for human reason.

(2) Goldziher, Schacht, and others have convincingly shown that most, and perhaps, all the traditions (Hadith) were forgeries put into circulation in the first few Muslim centuries. If once this fact is allowed, then the entire foundation of Islamic Law is seen to be very shaky indeed. The whole of Islamic Law is but a fantastic creation founded on forgeries and pious fictions. And because Islamic Law is seen by many as “the epitome of Islamic thought, the most typical manifestation of the Islamic way of life, the core and kernel of Islam itself,” the consequences of Goldziher’s and Schacht ‘s conclusions are, to say the least, shattering.

(3) Priestly Power

That there is a will of God, once and for all, as to what man is to do and what he is not to do; that the value of a people, of an individual, is to be measured according to how much or how little the will of God is obeyed; that the will of God manifests itself in the destinies of a people, of an individual, as the ruling factor, that is to say, as punishing and rewarding according to the degree of obedience. One step further: the “will of God” (that is, the conditions for the preservation of priestly power) must be known: to this end a “revelation” is required. In plain language: a great literary forgery becomes necessary, a “holy scripture” is discovered; it is made public with full hieratic pomp. With severity and pedantry, the priest formulates once and for all, what he wants to have, “what the will of God is.” From now on all things in life are so ordered that the priest is indispensable” (Nietzsche 596, 597).

Muslim apologists and Muslims themselves have always claimed that there were no clergy in Islam; but in reality, there was something like a clerical class, which eventually acquired precisely the same kind of social and religious authority as the Christian clergy. This is the class I have been referring to throughout this chapter as “the learned doctors” or the “doctors of law,” otherwise known as the ulama. Given the importance attached to the Qur’an and the Sunna (and Hadith), there grew a need to have a professional class of people competent enough to interpret the Sacred Texts. As their authority grew among the community, they grew more confident and claimed absolute authority in all matters relating to faith and law. The doctrine of ijma merely consolidated their absolute power. As Gibb says: 

It was … only after the general recognition of ijma as a source of law and doctrine that a definite legal test of heresy was possible and applied. Any attempt to raise the question of the import of a text in such a way as to deny the validity of the solution already given and accepted by consensus became a “bid’a”, an act of “innovation, that is to say, heresy.” (Gibb 67)

The continuing influence of the ulama is the major factor why there has been so little intellectual progress in Muslim societies, why critical thought has not developed. Throughout Islamic history, but especially in recent times, the ulama have actively hindered attempts to introduce the idea of human rights, freedom, individualism and liberal democracy. For example, the ulama reacted violently to Iran’s 1906–1907 constitution, regarding it as “unIslamic, they were totally opposed to the idea of freedom contained within it. The ulama have been involved in the process of Islamization in modern times in three countries in particular, Iran, the Sudan and Pakistan. In each of these latter countries, ‘Islamization’ has effectively meant the elimination of human rights, or their restrictions by reference to “Islamic criteria.”

(4) Is the Sharia still valid?

We may well ask how a law whose elements were first laid down over a thousands years ago, and whose substance has not evolved with the times, can possibly be relevant in the twentieth century. The Sharia only reflects the social and economic conditions of the time of the early Abbasids and has simply grown out of touch with all the later developments—social, economic and moral. It seems improbable but we have progressed morally—we no longer regard women as chattel, which we can dispose of how we will; we no longer believe that those who do not share our religious beliefs are not worthy of equal respect; we even accord children and animals rights. But as long as we continue to regard the Qur’an as eternally true, with an answer for all the problems of the modern world, we will have no progress. The principles enshrined in the Qur’an are inimical to moral progress. 

Selected Bibliography

Bousquet, G. H. [1] L‘Ethique sexuelle de l’Islam. Paris, 1966.

———. [2] “Voltaire et Islam.” In Studia Islamica 38 (1968).

———. [3] “Une explication marxiste de l’Islam.” In Hesperis, 1 (1954).

———[4] “Loi musulmane et droit européen.” In Revue psychologique des peuples 3 (1950).

Gibb, H. A. R. Islam. Oxford, 1953.

Nietzsche. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. W. Kaufmann. New York, 1974.

Shacht, Joseph. [1] An Introduction to Islamic Law. Oxford, 1964.

————. [2] “Islamic Religious Law.” In The Legacy of Islam, Schacht and Bosworth, eds. Oxford, 1974.

————. [3] “Law and Justice.” In The Cambridge History of Islam. 4 vols. Cambridge, 1970.

————. [4] The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. Oxford, 1950.

Shacht, Joseph, and C. E. Bosworth. The Legacy of Islam. Oxford, 1974.

Snouck Hurgronje, C. [1] Selected Works. G. H. Bousquet and J. Schacht, eds. Leiden, 1957

———. [2] Mohammedanism New York, 1916.

————. [3] “La Légende qoranique d’Abraham et la politique religieuse du prophète Mohammad.” In Revue Africaine, vol. 5 [1951], 273—88, translated by G. H. Bousquet.