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Looking at the trajectories of people of Muslim origin in Egypt who express religious doubts, I argue in this article that doubt and nonreligiosity are not necessarily a child of a Christian genealogy of the secular and definitely not alien to Muslims. Instead, we have to understand them as an intimate moral discontent with the contemporary age of Islamic revival, even if their shape and some of their positive claims are borrowed from notions of Western origin and global currency—most notably, human rights and feminism. There are reasons and ways to become a nonbeliever in a society profoundly affected by a religious revival, and these reasons and ways can be telling about the nature of doubt and certainty in general. They also offer a perspective on the problematic of secularism that focuses on issues of belief and existential trust rather than governmentality and discursive power.

Corresponding author
Samuli Schielke is a Research Fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany; e-mail:
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Author's note: An earlier version of this article was presented under the title “Doubt and Unbelief in Time of a Religious Revival” at the workshop “Moral Communities, Moral Ambiguities” at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies on 9 October 2008. The research on which the article is based was made possible by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Academy of Finland for the research project “What Makes a Good Muslim: Contested Fields of Religious Normativity in the Age of Global Islam” at the University of Joensuu in 2008. Thanks are due to Annelies Moors, Jennifer Peterson, Kevin Eisenstadt, Henri Onodera, Joyce Dalsheim, Doreen Teumer, and the anonymous reviewers of IJMES for their ideas, critiques, and assistance in the course of researching, writing, and revising this article.

1 But see Bloch Ernst, Atheismus im Christentum. Zur Religion des Exodus und des Reichs (Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1985 [1968]).

2 Berger Peter, “Secularism in Retreat,” in Islam and Secularism in the Middle East, ed. Esposito John and Tamimi Azzam (New York: New York University Press, 2000 [1996]), 38.

3 Asad Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003); Taylor Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007); Starrett Gregory, “The Varieties of Secular Experience,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (2010): 626–51.

4 For an example of new atheism, see Dawkins Richard, The God Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); for new atheism taking issue with Islam, see Onfray Michel, Traité d'athéologie (Paris: Éditions Grasset, 2005); Warraq Ibn, Why I Am Not a Muslim (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995); and idem, ed., Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

5 Mahmood Saba, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation,” Public Culture 18 (2006): 323–47; idem, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, ed. Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Townsend Papers in Humanities, no. 2 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009),, 64–100.

6 Said Edward, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

7 See Badawi ʿAbd al-Rahman, Dirasat Islamiyya min Taʾrikh al-Ilhad fi al-Islam (Cairo: n.p., 1945); al-ʿAzm Sadiq Jalal, Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini (Beirut: Dar al-Taliʿa, 1969); Wasella Jürgen, Vom Fundamentalisten zum Atheisten: Die Dissidentenkarriere des ʿAbdallah al-Qasimi (Gotha, Germany: Perthes, 1997); and al-Khatib Muhammad Kamil, ed., Hurriyyat al-Iʿtiqad al-Dini: Musajalat al-Iman wa-l-Ilhad mundhu ʿAsr al-Nahda ila al-Yawm (Damascus: Dar Petra, 2005).

8 For example, Ibn Warraq, Leaving Islam; and Ali Ayan Hirsi, Infidel: My Life (New York: Free Press, 2007).

9 See, for example, Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire”; idem, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect”; Bowen John R., Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006); Fadil Nadia, “Managing Affects and Sensibilities: The Case of Not-handshaking and Not-fasting,” Social Anthropology 17 (2009): 439–54; Ahmad Irfan, Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009); Asad et al., Is Critique Secular?; and Bangstad Sindre, Sekularismens Ansikter (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2009).

10 See, for example, Febvre Lucien, Le problème de l'incroyance au XVIe ciècle: La religion de Rabelais (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1942); Badawi, Dirasat; Budd Susan, Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850–1960 (London: Heinemann, 1977); Buckley Michael J., At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1987); Hunter Michael and Wootton David, Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Popkin Richard H. and Vanderjagt Arjo, Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993); Schröder Winfried, Ursprünge des Atheismus. Untersuchungen zur Metaphysik-und Religionskritik des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Germany: Fromman-Holzboog, 1998); Gärtner Christel, Pollack Detlef and Wohlrab-Sahr Monika, eds., Atheismus und religiöse indifferenz (Opladen, Germany: Leske & Budrich, 2003); al-Khatib, Hurriyyat al-Iʿtiqad al-Dini; and Wasella, Vom Fundamentalisten zum Atheisten.

11 But see Les Beldo, “Atheism and Orthodoxy: An Analysis of Moral Reasoning in the American Culture Wars” (master's thesis, University of Chicago, 2008); Gregory Simon, Maintaining Islamic Certainty in Minangkabau, Indonesia (manuscript); and Fadil, “Managing Affects and Sensibilities.”

12 The people quoted in this article do not appear with their own names.

13 While actual activists in Islamist or piety movements are relatively few, their vision of a religious life has become commonplace in Egypt. The increasing practice of regular prayer, especially among men, the very wide-scale shift in women's dress toward a covering style deemed Islamic, and the shift in ritual practice from Islamic mysticism and saint veneration toward an emphasis on textually correct ritual with the aim of moral perfection are some of the everyday expressions of the societal extent of the Islamic revival. A 2011 poll of Egyptians’ views of the relationship between religion and politics gives some quantitative indication: while 71 percent of the respondents supported democracy, a vast majority agreed that Egypt's laws should either be based on the Qur'an or be in accordance with Islamic values and principles, and 95 percent of the respondents said that Islam should play an important role in politics. For figures and interpretation, see Yasmin Moll, “Special Report: What the Pew Poll on Egypt Really Means,” Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 17 May 2011, (accessed 8 September 2011).

14 Due to a hegemonic Muslim understanding that only the three oldest Abrahamic religions, or “heavenly religions” in Islamic parlance, count as “real” religions, other religious traditions are not formally recognized in Egypt. This has practical consequences, especially for members of Egypt's small but established Bahaʾi community, who are denied ID cards and with it citizenship rights unless they consent to be registered as either Muslims or Christians. See Cantini Daniele, “Being Bahaʾi in Contemporary Egypt: An Ethnographic Analysis of Everyday Challenges,” Anthropology in the Middle East 4 (2009): 3451.

15 Williams Raymond, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 128–35.

16 Mir Mustansir, “Polytheism and Atheism,” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾan, vol. 6 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2006): 158–62; Olsson Susanne, “Apostasy in Egypt: Contemporary Cases of Hisbah,” The Muslim World 98 (2008): 95115; Thielmann Jörn, “La jurisprudence égyptienne sur la requête en hisba,” Égypte/Monde arabe 34 (1998): 8198. There is a difference between kufr (unbelief) and ilḥād (non-belief, atheism), the first being such a dramatic accusation that most Muslims would be very hesitant to seriously make it of a fellow Muslim, while the latter is somewhat more ambiguous and less dramatic as an accusation.

17 For the Muslim legal problematic of apostasy in the contemporary practice of law, see Olsson, “Apostasy in Egypt”; and Thielmann, “La jurisprudence égyptienne.”

18 To avoid using what is considered to be foul language, Ismaʿil does not fully pronounce the expressions yikhrib dīnak (may your religion be destroyed) and dīn ummak ([may] your mother's religion [be destroyed]).

19 See also Budd, Varieties of Unbelief.

20 See, for example, Ibn Warraq, Leaving Islam; al-ʿAzm, Naqd al-Fikr al-Diīni; al-Sabur ʿAbbas ʿAbd, Mihnati maʿa al-Qurʾan wa-llah fi al-Qurʾan (Damanhūr, 2004); and al-Karim Halil ʿAbd, al-Juzur al-Taʾrikhiyya li-l-Shariʿ al-Islamiyya (Cairo: Dar Sina li-l-Nashr and Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Intishar al-ʿArabi, 1997).

21 See, for example, Zayd Nasr Hamid Abu, Mafhum al-Nass: Dirasa fi ʿUlum al-Qurʾan (Cairo: Egyptian General Book Organization, 1993); Barlas Asma, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qurʾan (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2002); and idem, Re-Understanding Islam: A Double Critique (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam and Assen: Van Gorcum, 2008).

22 See, for example, the court case against Nasar Hamid Abu Zayd, whose marriage was declared void in 1995 on the grounds of his alleged apostasy, an accusation that he rejected (“Jurisprudence Abû Zayd,” trans. Dupret Baudouin and Berger M. S., Égypte/Monde arabe 34 [1998]: 169201); the story recounted by Salah in this article about his temporary loss of job; the imprisonment of the blogger Karim ʿAmir from 2007 to 2010 on the grounds of his writings about al-Azhar and confessional clashes ( [accessed 8 September 2011]); and the assassination of Farag Foda, a leading secularist intellectual, in 1992 (Soage Ana Belén, “Faraj Fawda, or the Cost of Freedom of Expression,” Middle East Review of International Affairs 11 [2007], [accessed 8 September 2011]).

23 Ewing Catherine, “The Illusion of Wholeness: Culture, Self, and the Experience of Inconsistency,” Ethos 18 (1990): 251–78; Schielke Samuli, “Ambivalent Commitments: Troubles of Morality, Religiosity and Aspiration among Young Egyptians,” Journal of Religion in Africa 39 (2009): 158–85; Simon, Maintaining Islamic Certainty.

24 See, for example, (accessed 24 February 2012).

25 See, for example, and (accessed 24 February 2012).

26 See, for example, the online action of ʿAliyaʾ al-Mahdi, a feminist activist and professed non-believer who in November 2011 published nude images of herself on her blog as a provocation against the covering of women, which is seen both by al-Mahdi and the majority of Egyptians as sanctioned by Islam. (accessed 31 December 2011).

27 Hirsi Ali, Infidel.

28 See, for example, al-ʿAziz Magdi ʿAbd, al-Mut fi al-Gharb (Cairo: Afaq, 2009); see also Fadil, “Managing Affects and Sensibilities.”

29 This relation between suicide and the collapse of religious faith is very clear in the interviews by Nadia Taysir Dabbagh of Palestinian men who had attempted suicide. Dabbagh Nadia Taysir, Suicide in Palestine: Narratives of Despair (Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press, 2005), 223–29. See also Pandolfo Stefania, “‘The Burning’: Finitude and the Politico-theological Imagination of Illegal Migration,” Anthropological Theory 7 (2007): 329–63.

30 My use of capital and lowercase in god/God in translated interviews reflects the difference in Arabic between ilāh (a god) and Allāh (God).

31 See Ibn Warraq, Leaving Islam.

32 Wittgenstein Ludwig, On Certainty, ed. Anscombe G. E. M. and von Wright Georg Henrik, trans. Paul Denis and Anscombe G. E. M. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969).

33 Ibid., sentence 341, emphases in original.

34 See Febvre, Le problème de l'incroyance; Badawi, Dirasat.

35 Budd, Varieties of Unbelief, 107.

36 I am indebted to one of the IJMES anonymous reviewers for this point, about which little or no research has yet been conducted, to my knowledge. It is congruent, however, with Budd's observation that English freethinkers’ organizations in the 19th and 20th centuries were typically dominated by first-generation freethinkers hailing from socially mobile but religiously conservative backgrounds: Anglican in the 19th century, but Catholic in the 20th century, after the increasing secularization of Anglican Christians made struggling with religion a less urgent issue in that milieu.

37 Notably, Russell's Bertrand Why I Am Not a Christian (London: Watts, 1927) (see al-Khatib, Hurriyyat al-Iʿtiqad al-Dini, 101) and the works of Marx, Nietzsche, and French existentialists.

38 Badawi, Dirasat.

39 See, for example, MacIntyre Alasdair and Ricoeur Paul, The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969), 1415; and Löwith Karl, Wissen, Glaube, Skepsis: Zur Kritik von Religion und Theologie, Sämtliche Schriften 3 (Stuttgart, Germany: Metzler Löwith, 1985), 335.

40 Al-Khatib, Hurriyyat al-Iʿtiqad al-Dini, 10–11.

41 Of course, Marxism and Darwinism do not necessarily conflict with a Muslim faith, just as human rights and egalitarian justice do not. Rather, Marxism and Darwinism provided a ground from which to possibly think about a non-intentional world, and this different ground of doubt also provided positive non-belief with a different thrust—one of the consequences being that while an earlier generation of Marxist atheists could afford a condescending view of religion as something that would slowly give way to the light of science, contemporary non-believers usually take religion much more seriously as a powerful and lasting fact of human existence.

42 Schielke, “Ambivalent Commitments.” The group of people about whom that article tells does not overlap with my interlocutors in the present article. There are, however, many cases of people whose biographies include both periods of activist religiosity as well as periods of non-religiosity and atheism in different combinations. Makkawi's trajectory from the Muslim Brotherhood to socialist cultural circles is one example.

43 In practice, universal justice is a very elusive and historically and culturally specific matter. However, I am not concerned here with the truth or falsehood of the belief in universal justice but rather with what kind of life experience it relies on and what it accomplishes.

44 Jackson Michael, Life within Limits: Well-Being in a World of Want (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2011).

45 Starrett, “The Varieties of Secular Experience”; Bangstad, Sekularismens Ansikter.

46 Asad, Formations of the Secular; idem et al., Is Critique Secular?; Mahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire”; idem, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect”; Fadil, “Managing Affects and Sensibilities”; Agrama Husssein Ali, “Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or Religious State?Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (2010): 495523.

47 Charles Hirschkind, “Is There a Secular Body?” post on The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, (accessed 10 January 2011).

48 Hirschkind, “Is There a Secular Body?”

49 Evidently, the same would apply with trying to find a common chord between such “religious” sites of ethical cultivation as ancestor worship, inquisition, spirit possession, textual scholarship, and blessing the food.

50 On the notions of lifeworld and being in the world, see Jackson Michael, ed., Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996); Gadamer Hans-Georg, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, 4th ed. (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1975), 229–50; and Merleau-Ponty Maurice, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Galimard, 1945), 493–94.

51 So stated on a sticker distributed in Alexandria in March 2011.

52 Because of the bad reputation the word “secularism” has gained, supporters of a secular form of government have in recent years replaced “secular” with “civil” (madanī), implying a distinction from theocracy and military rule but not from religiosity.

53 Febvre, Le probleme de l'incroyance.

54 Badawi, Dirasat, xii–xiii. Badawi argues that Arab non-belief (ilḥād) in the age of early Islam was directed against prophecy because of its absolute centrality to humans’ connection with God in Arab culture and that after the rejection of prophecy no relationship between the human and divine remained, so that the issue of God's existence did not arise. Given the engagement of Hellenistic-Arabic philosophy with divinity separately from prophecy, however, it seems that the two issues were distinct to some degree and that the theological rejection of prophets remained embedded in a metaphysical affirmation of an intentional universe. See al-Ghazali Abu Hamid, Tahafut al-Falasifa=The Incoherence of the Philosophers: Parallel English–Arabic Text, trans. Marmura Michael E. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1997).

55 Soloveitchik Haym, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28 (1994): 64130.

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