Irreligion in the Middle East

Though atheists in the Middle East are rarely public about their lack of belief, as they are persecuted in many countries, including Saudi Arabia where they were classified as terrorists,[1] there are some atheist organizations in the Middle East. In the Middle East, one branch of religion dominates the geographical demographics which is Islam. Within these populations, nonetheless, reside the small margin of those who are without faith, and who often face serious formal, and in some cases informal, legal and social consequences.

In terms of atheism and apostasy, Islam does condemn the practice while the Quran does not explicitly criminalize or pronounce a hadd (a specific criminal punishment) for apostasy, Muslim scholars have traditionally believed, by consensus (ijma), that it should be penalized with execution, as per the hadiths on the matter.[2][3]

Middle Eastern nations with some form of Sharia law in court punish non-believers in varying ways, however, many outspoken humanitarians and especially atheists argue that these punishments are unreasonable and severe.


In the World Values Survey conducted from 2010 to 2014, results show that in Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq fewer than 0.5% of those surveyed self-defined themselves as atheists; meanwhile, the highest percentage of self-defined atheists within the Middle East was in Kuwait, at 0.8%.[4] Kuwait's comparatively high ratio can also be explained by the fact that when Kuwait Parliament passed a legislative amendment in 2011 that would have made it a capital crime to commit blasphemy, it was subsequently rejected by the Court of Ministers. However, it is still a punishable crime to commit blasphemy in Kuwait, especially for journalists.[5] Despite the relatively low number of publicly atheist individuals in the Middle East, some media platforms have claimed that the Middle East is witnessing a new rise of outspoken secular and irreligious citizens. In a BBC News article that highlights a recent Arab Barometer survey on Middle East and North African citizens, Egypt was shown to have a comparatively significant increase in the proportion of people who say they are not actively religious from 2013 to 2019.[6]

Some of these citizens who come from a state with severe punishments for atheists, like the death penalty, have reported to living in fear.

Regardless, transparent data on how many citizens in the Middle East are atheists, apostates, or of other form of irreligious identity have been challenging for researchers to discover. In one report by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, atheists residing in Kurdish region of Iraq also have difficulties expressing their disbelief publicly—despite the Kurdish government generally considered to be secular.[7]

Rise of the "New Atheists"

One of the rising form of non-religious sectors within the Middle East have been labeled as the new atheists. This organization essentially retaliates against religious institutions by claiming they are violent and unnecessary, though some argue that they are mostly criticizing the Islamic faith and community.[8] The new atheism popularly rose from the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks and widespread coverage on Islamic extremists, and it found a number of followers within the Middle East.[9]

Ismail Mohammed, from Egypt, is a new atheist who utilizes social media platforms to vocalize atheism. An Egyptian newspaper Al-Sabah claimed 3 million of Egypt's 84 million population have no religion, citing an unnamed US survey but no such survey exists.[10][11] However, the exact number of apostates or atheists in Egypt has not been accurately measured, and the validity of this estimate has not been proven.

Persecution of Non-Believers in the Middle East

Like other non-Muslims, atheists suffer persecution in the Middle East.[12] 64 percent of Muslims in Egypt reportedly approve of the death penalty for those who leave Islam.[12] In one report by the International Humanists, in Article 121 of Iranian law, homosexuality is punishable up to death for a non-Muslim subject, while the Muslim active party is punished through 100 lashes.[13]

Though persecution of blasphemous atheists are often carried out by law in the Middle East, some states like Turkey and Lebanon do allow atheists to live rather safely though withstanding any promise of legal form of safety.[14]

Meanwhile, some scholars have been opposing the death penalty for apostasy in the Islamic realm. Writers Abdullah Saeed and Hassan Saeed published a book claiming the history and fundamentals of Islam support freedom of religion, and that since the Quran does not explicitly state to punish apostasy with death it is unethical to support capital punishment for non-religious individuals.[15] And although the Quran does not state exactly how apostasy should be punished, it has historically been debated among the Islamic communities. Scholars Rudolph Peters and Gret J.J. De Vries document that some, like the Hanafite lawyers, did argue that under the penal law an Imam should execute the apostate by a sword; meanwhile women and children have been seen as uniformly by the community as the exceptions to execution.[16]


Though still uncommon, public acknowledgement of atheism is widely considered to be growing in the Middle East. Though data on how prevalent atheism is can be difficult to measure where social desirability bias may obscure survey answers, there have been attempts to record potential trends. Youth in the Persian Gulf countries have increasingly been expressing their atheism on the Internet in recent years, despite residing in heavily religious societies.[17] The Web and the Internet have been a popular tool where more than 50 atheist Facebook groups and pages, some with more than 8,000 followers,[18] have formed especially since the Arab spring.[19]

Relevant Data

In a 2012 Global Religious based survey conducted by Gallup showed the percentage of people who identify as religious, with the highest being 96, Iraq came in at 88 and Saudi Arabia at 75. Meanwhile, the Global Atheism Index for the same year shows the percent of self-identified atheist in Iraq at 0 and in Saudi Arabia at 5. In comparison, the Global Distribution of self-identified atheist was at 13 percent.[20]

In another aspect of BBC News' survey conducted by Arab Barometer in 2013, which was shortly after the Arab Spring, Lebanese citizens have significantly declined in religious beliefs. According to a summary by Arab Weekly, the survey indicates that less than 25 percent of Lebanese identify as religious, but it is not clear how many are atheists.[21]

A 2020 Online Survey by Gamaan found a much larger percentage of Iranians identifying as atheist (8.8%), Zoroastrian (8%), a large fraction (22.2%) identifying as not following an organized religion and only 40% self-identifying as Muslims[22][23][24][25]

In 2010, a Pew Research study found that in Jordan and Egypt, where 58 percent and 74 percent respectively believe that Sharia law should be imposed on both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of their nation, had a high number of people who believe in the death penalty for those who abandon their Islamic faith. The study found 86 percent of Egyptians, 82 percent Jordanians, as well as 66 percent from Palestinian Territory surveyed citizens support capital punishment for apostates; also 46 percent Lebanese and 42 percent Iraqis agreed to the capital punishment.[26]

List of Non-Religious Middle Eastern people

  • Armin Navabi Ex-Muslim atheist and secular activist, author, podcaster and vlogger including founder of Atheist Republic
  • Ashraf Dehghani Iranian female communist revolutionaries, and is a member of the Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas
  • Aramesh Dustdar Philosopher, writer, scholar and a former philosophy lecturer at Tehran University
  • Afshin Ellian Iranian-Dutch professor of law, philosopher, poet, and critic of political Islam. He is an expert in international public law and philosophy of law
  • Carlos Fayt Argentine lawyer and academic. Emeritus Professor at the University of Buenos Aires and Minister of the Supreme Court (of Syrian and Lebanese descent)
  • FM-2030 Belgian-born Iranian-American author, teacher, transhumanist philosopher, futurist, consultant and athlete
  • Hadi Khorsandi Contemporary Iranian poet and satirist. Since 1979, he has been the editor and writer of the Persian-language satirical journal Asghar Agha
  • Shahin Najafi Iranian actor, musician, singer and songwriter
  • Maryam Namazie British-Iranian secularist and human rights activist, commentator, and broadcaster
  • Ibn al-Rawandi Early skeptic of Islam and a critic of religion in general
  • Mina Ahadi Iranian-Austrian political activist
  • Sadegh Hedayat Iranian writer, translator and intellectual, Best known for his novel The Blind Owl
  • Faisal Saeed Al Mutar Iraqi-born satirist, human-rights activist and writer who was admitted to the United States as a refugee in 2013.
  • Bashar ibn Burd Poet of the late Umayyad and early Abbasid periods.
  • Rifat Chadirji Iraqi architect, photographer, author and activist. He is admired as the greatest modern architect of Iraq, and taught at the Baghdad School of Architecture for many years.
  • Sami Michael Iraqi-Israeli author, first in Israel to call for the creation of an independent Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel.
  • Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi prominent Iraqi poet and philosopher, known for his defence of women's rights.
  • Jim Al-Khalili Iraqi-British theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster.
  • Selim Matar Writer, novelist and sociologist with Swiss and Iraqi nationalities, was born in Baghdad and resides currently in Geneva.
  • Abdullah al-Qasemi, a famous Wahhabi scholar who left Islam
  • Joumana Haddad Lebanese author, public speaker, journalist and women's rights activist.
  • As'ad AbuKhalil Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.
  • Rabih Alameddine Lebanese-American painter and writer.
  • Ziad Rahbani Lebanese composer, pianist, playwright, and political commentator.

See also


  1. Adam Withnall (2014-04-01). "Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents - Middle East - World". The Independent. Retrieved 2015-07-23.
  2. Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. "Law and Religion in the Muslim Middle East." The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 1987), pp. 127-184
  3. Maliki Fiqh: The Risala of 'Abdullah ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani A Treatise on Maliki Fiqh (Including commentary from ath-Thamr ad-Dani by al-Azhari)(310/922 - 386/996) Shafi Fiqh: Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Edited and Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (p. 595) and Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Edited and Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (p. 508, o1.1-2) Hanafi Fiqh: Shaybani's Siyar (The Islamic law of nations) Hanbali Fiqh: By Imam Muwaffaq Ibn Qudama (A.H. 541-620), page 309
  4. Yearbook of International Religious Demography, 2015.
  6. BBC News, 24 June 2019.
  7. "Iraq: Information on the treatment of atheists and apostates by society and authorities in Erbil." Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, 2013-September 2016.
  8. Khader, Jamil. "The irrational hatred of new atheists: A toxic combination of Islamophobic obsession and anti-Palestinian animus."
  9. KHALIL, MOHAMMAD HASSAN. "Jihad, Radicalism, and the New Atheism." New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  10. Youssef, Nancy. "Meet The Middle East’s Atheist Preacher: In a region increasingly defined by its Islamic fundamentalism, Ismail Mohammed is vocal about his belief that there is no God. And he’s discovering that he’s not alone." The Daily Beast, 14 April 2017.
  11. "Egypt: Are there really three million atheists?". BBC News. 2013-11-19. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  12. Fisher, Max (2013-05-01). "Majorities of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-07-23.
  13. "Iran." The Humanists International.
  14. "No God, Not Even Allah; Atheists and Islam." The Economist Nov 24 2012: 67,n/a. ProQuest.
  15. Saeed,Abdullah and Hassan Saeed. Freedom of Religion,"Apostasy and Islam." New York: Routledge, 2004.
  16. Peters, Rudolph and Gret J.J. De Vries. "Apostasy in Islam."Die Welt des Islams, Vol. 17, Issue 1/4 (1976-1977), pp. 1-25.
  17. "Is Gulf youth increasingly drawn to atheism? | The National". 2012-08-19. Retrieved 2015-07-23.
  19. "Arab Atheists, Though Few, Inch Out Of The Shadows". Archived from the original on 2014-03-20. Retrieved 2015-07-23.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  20. "Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism" WIN-Gallup International, 2012.
  21. "Poll describes Arabs as moving away from religion, Islamism: Trust in Islamist movements has declined dramatically since the 'Arab spring' revolts." The Arab Weekly, 28 June 2019.
  22. "IRANIANS' ATTITUDES TOWARD RELIGION: A 2020 SURVEY REPORT". گَمان - گروه مطالعات افکارسنجی ایرانیان (in Persian). 2020-09-11. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  23. Maleki, Ammar; Arab, Pooyan Tamimi. "Iran's secular shift: new survey reveals huge changes in religious beliefs". The Conversation. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  24. "Iranians have lost their faith according to survey". Iran International. 2020-08-25. Retrieved 23 October 2020.
  26. "The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society." Chapter 1: Belief About Sharia. Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, 30 April 2013.