In Christendom, Muhammad and Islam was derided from a rival religious vantage point; that the prophet of Islam was believed to be the false prophet of a fake religion. He was even condemned to the ninth circle of Dante’s inferno where he supposedly stands “rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind”.
Within the Islamic world itself, Muhammad and Islam were criticised and mocked from a secular, rationalist, anti-religious perspective.
One example is the religious sceptic and scholar Ibn al-Rawandi (827-911) who, despite his rejection of religion and Islam, lived a long life in the 8th-9th centuries.
Rawandi, who spent a significant part of his life in Baghdad, believed that intellect and science supersede all else, that prophets were unnecessary, that religion was irrational, that Islamic tradition was illogical and that miracles were a hoax.
In neighbouring Syria, a few decades later, the Richard Dawkins of the Abbasid era was born. Abu al-Ala’ al-Maarri (973-1058) was so contemptuous of religion that he divided the world into two types of people: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”
Maarri also lived to a ripe age. Rather than being visited by assassins, he attracted many students and engaged with scholars of various persuasions, even when he decided to return to his hometown of Maarra to live ascetically in seclusion.
Although this tradition of free thought and scepticism has shrunk over the centuries, it still exists. It even witnessed resurgence in the 20th century – and included the “Dean of Arab Literature”, Taha Hussein – until the conservative Islamist current started to block it in the late 1970s/1980s.
The years since the revolutionary wave in 2011 have seen secularists, sceptics and atheists mounting a comeback. But with some countries equating non-belief to terrorism and arresting atheists, theirs is a risky venture.