Freethinking in Arab and Islamic History

There is a good deal of research in this field, both in Arabic and in European languages. This research output concerning the medieval period has generally concentrated on two fairly obvious fields, philosophy and literature, especially poetry, from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. Both fields are replete with scepticism towards religion, the former in a lofty tone, the latter generally in a tone of libertine (and, on occasion, rather glum and pessimistic) irreverence comparable to some manifestations of this mood in Enlightenment Europe. The overall interpretative mode of Arab and Muslim freethinking has generally been restricted to considering the texts, often without context, and has generally been counterposed to an allegedly Muslim pietistic, systemic resistance towards manifestations of disbelief or indeed to milder forms of deviation from religion. Contemporary Arab authors, on the other hand, have sought genealogical support from these phenomena, and have generally conjugated religious with political dissidence. In all, we have a picture which, though in many ways highly informative (and one might refer to books by Dominique Urvoy and Sarah Stroumsa on philosophy, to philological and historical investigations of Muslim theology by Josef van Ess, to publications of major texts in Arabic by Abdulrahman Badawi, as well as to older works), is yet wanting analytically, not least as it does not incorporate systematically the cultural contexts in which freethinking and disbelief made their appearance. The only partial exceptions to this verdict would be some studies of medieval Arabic literature. With regard to modern, there is much more research on themes of modernity and modernism, and on their contexts, but little that takes up specifically questions related to religious disbelief. In all, and is in studies of the medieval period, interpretation seems to be caught up in fairly simple polarities between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, pietism and freethinking, and related tropes.


The project treats of freethinking among the Arabs from the beginning of Islam until today. It will discuss briefly the cultural, social and political conditions favoring or hampering such freethinking in various historical periods. It will then discuss the various locations of such freethinking in the Muslim Middle Ages and the discursive genres in which it is expressed, chiefly poetry, philosophy, and belles-lettres. It will then move on to the modern period , discussing developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the impact of positivism, Darwinism, and freemasonry in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth, dealing with the impact of social transformations, the emergence of secularism, literary modernism (including surrealism), Marxism, and further currents of cognitive modernism with impact upon religious belief.


The primary objectives of work planned is to present to the reader a connected interpretative narrative of the phenomena of religious scepticism and disbelief in medieval and modern Arab culture which attempts to scan its extent, its socio-cultural and political settings, and the content of its conceptions. It aims to connect philosophical, theological, and literary expressions of freethinking and present them together as a bundle with clear social and cultural moorings, and to bring to bear upon their interpretation material deriving from the voluminous Arabic anecdotal literature that relates to expression of irreverence and scepticism regarding religion in everyday life.

Affiliated Persons


Prof. Dr. Aziz Al-Azmeh

Individual Researcher