On the Edge: Debating Atheism in the Arab Middle East

The presentation explores the complex modes of interface between religion, secularism, and atheism (ilhad) in the Arab Middle East of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This period was associated with the Arab renaissance (Nahda) — a cultural movement that flourished in the Arab-provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which sought to join the modern world by invigorating Arab heritage and aligning it with scientific analysis, rationalism, humanism, progress, and nationalism. To a large extent the Nahda took its cue from the campaigns for government reforms and Westernization launched in Istanbul, Cairo, and Tunis, as well as the encounter with European economic and cultural norms spurred by the colonial presence in the region. In the past two decades the Nahda received extensive treatment in scholarship. Still, even though there are some works that focused on the transformation to secularism, only few works have touched the phenomena of religious skepticism, its proponents, or its ideological insights. By delineating the history of atheism in the Arab Middle East, this paper fills a major lacuna in the field of Nahda studies, as well as in the field of comparative religion.