Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Positions I Don't Hold: Islam

Part of a series of posts of ideological turing tests.  With the exception of some proper names, I'm going to only use English words.  I know this gives some things away.

Ideological Turing Test: 

The theology of Islam is simple enough for children to understand, but profound enough to be debated by scholars for centuries.  Mankind has simple spiritual needs, and God meets those needs with Islam.

God is one.  God alone is to be worshipped.  God is forgiving when mankind repents, but we must follow and obey his laws for our lives, as submission to God is the only path to true happiness.

From the creation of the world onward, God has sent his prophets to every nation, declaring that God is One and that none is to be worshipped but Him.  Among these prophets were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus.  These mighty figures held out the truth of God's oneness and the injunction of God's law and prescribed prayers.  Lastly, God sent us Muhammad with the fullness of the revelation given in the Quran.

Muhammad grew up an orphan, and was familiar with suffering.  Both of his parents died when he was young.  He was adopted by his grandfather, who also died shortly after.  He was raised in the Quresh tribe in Arabia, and despite his tragic past he became a successful businessman, respected in his community.  This respect changed the day Muhammad heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, who delivered to him the first verses of the Quran.

With his sad upbringing, Muhammad received no formal education and could neither read nor write.  Despite this, after his encounter in the cave, he was suddenly heard reciting the most beautiful poetry the Arabs of Mecca had ever heard.  This poetry was the Quran, the word of God Almighty, that had been delivered to him by the angel Gabriel.  The Quresh of Mecca were stunned by it, and could not counter it for its beauty. Yet the things Muhammad was saying offended them, because Muhammad did not back down from calling out their false gods and warning them to turn from idolatry or face the justice of God.  The pagan Arabs continued to grow in opposition to Muhammad, throwing rotten meat and vegetables or dung at him, yet Muhammad persisted, and never retaliated.  Unable to part with their idolatry, the people of Quresh rejected God's prophet, as they have rejected many others before Muhammad.

This poetry from Muhammad could not have come from him.  Man has no finger on it.  It could have come only from God.  Even today, it is the most beautiful language possible, and the things it says and the way it says them could not have been written by any human, but especially not one who couldn't read or write.  There are many scientific miracles in the Quran that an uneducated Arab could not have known at the time: things such as embryology and development in the womb; the layers of the atmospheres; the separation of ocean waters; the shape the orbit the moon makes around the earth; and the shape of the earth.  All of these point to a divine source for the Quran.

The Quran is God's final word to mankind.  It is his fullest revelation of himself, and unlike the revelations of past prophets, the Quran has been perfectly preserved since the time of Muhammad, right down to the letter.  Not one word, not one line, not a single dot has ever been in dispute.  There is no disagreement amongst Muslims about what the Quran says; there are no differing versions of the Quran, nor debates about what verses belong. Even if every copy of the Quran were destroyed (God forbid it), the Quran would still never perish, because many in the Muslim community have memorized all of it, and can recite it again from memory.  This is yet another miracle of the Quran, showing the truth of Islam, as God preserves his revelation so that all mankind might find it.

This final revelation corrects many confusions about God that people have developed over the years.  In particular, it emphatically asserts the absolute Oneness of God.  God alone is God, and there is none like him.  Nothing else is to be worshipped, or even compared to God.  This true monotheism is the central strength of Islam, because it is philosophically simple, elegant, and self-evidently true.  The confusing plurality of gods in paganism or in Christianity is either a self-contradiction, or proves that the things they call "god" cannot be "god"s.  How can there be two almighties, and not destroy one another?  Or how can a human serve two lords?  How can a god both be the one who makes everything, and yet itself be in need of food and drink?

The philosophical simplicity of this absolute Oneness of God is the central pillar of Islamic theology, and its central strength.  It is intuitive, even self-evident, and its other logical consequences so apparent even the unlearned can grasp.

The final revelation of God is not limited to the Quran.  In addition, the life of Muhammad gives us innumerable examples set by God's prophet for how we Muslims are to live our lives.  The five daily prayers, the fasts, the pilgrimage, the foods we eat and the foods we avoid: all of this comes by observing the lived life of God's final prophet.  Muhammad as a moral example lived an exemplary life, and a life that God holds as the standard for all men to follow.  Muhammad was peaceful and forgiving, and yet not out of weakness; Muhammad was also courageous and stood up to fight in the cause of the oppressed.  He never sought conflict, but would engage against oppressors when called.  Muhammad taught compassion for the poor and orphaned,  and enjoined charity as one of the pillars of the faith.  Muhammad taught respect for women, and requires Muslim men to treat their wive with kindness and gentleness, and not as mere objects of sexual gratification.  He did not teach anything different than the prophets before him, whom we also celebrate, but he did so in the clearest and most perfect way.

Islam is the way God has prescribed for human beings to live.  By following the words of the Quran, and the example of Muhammad, we can rightly worship God in a way that pleases him.  This path might be arduous (such as the fasting of Ramadan, or the prohibition of alcohol), but it is a simple path, and the rewards for following God will be great.


This is what I consider the strongest form of Islam.  It is not the position that most Muslims hold, but it is the position I would hold if I were a Muslim.

There is one God.  He has sent many messengers to people across all the world, to all peoples in all tongues, so that all will know God's perfect will.  But the message always becomes tangled by human fallibility.  The true message is this: love God, serve and obey him, and serve God by loving others.  Whatever else is details.  Whoever follows this true message of God's prophets will be accepted by God on the last day, and receive the righteous reward.

Among those prophets sent have been such mighty figures as Moses, Jesus, Socrates, Zarathustra, Buddha, and Muhammad.  They have been sent to every corner of the world.  It doesn't matter which you follow, as they all point to the one true God who created us.  For those of us in the West, the prophet we were given to follow is Jesus.  If we follow his true teachings, we will be blessed by God Most High.  Jesus' true teachings are to worship the one true God only, and to show love to others, and to repent to God and ask forgiveness when we fall short.  If Westerners follow these teachings of Jesus, they will be saved on the last day.

Muhammad taught the same thing as Jesus.  Though Jesus' message has been corrupted over the ages by the Christian Church, so that Jesus has been made into a god and the focus has become about blood sacrifices and crucifixions, the real message of all the prophets is the same.  Jesus didn't teach his divinity, didn't teach about blood sacrifices, didn't teach that only people who believed in him were saved, and didn't teach his exclusivity.  This was all made up later, by people who co-opted his movement.  But the things Jesus did teach, if Christians believe and follow him, they will be saved on the last day.

Muhammad, like Jesus, was an extraordinary man.  He taught us to love God, and gave us examples of his devotion by praying, fasting, and abstaining from certain foods.  Muhammad's example is just one of the examples of the hundreds of prophets who came before him; we accept all the prophets, and make no distinctions between them.

Overall, do your best, ask for forgiveness, show mercy and kindness to others, and give thanks to God for all things.

Why I Don't Hold This Position:

I find it troubling that many Christians seemingly morph into atheists when it comes to criticizing Islam.  In my argument, I will look only at the Quran's own arguments for itself.  I will not resort to crass insults, mockery or derision.  Even if what I say is offensive, it is offensive in the way all conflicts of truth claims must be.  I will not say anything offensive merely to be offensive, merely to shock, merely to invite others to laugh.

The Quran is a very short book.  It is easy to crack it open and start reading.  The Quran is highly meta-textual, referring to itself frequently, and contains within itself appeals for why unbelievers should believe in the Quran.  These are directed at many different groups, but in particular the Quran contains direct appeals to Christians.  In fact, these appeals to Christians occur close to the beginning of the Quran, and it doesn't take a lot of reading to find them.

The primary argument that the Quran makes for itself is its literary excellence and inimitability.  It is such perfectly-written poetry, that it can only be explained in terms of a divine origin.  The Quran even challenges others, if they don't believe the Quran to be divinely revealed, to try to write a chapter that can match a chapter of the Quran in poetic excellence.  If they doubt, have them write "a surah like it."  Supposedly, the Quran is so perfect that no mere human would be able to meet this challenge.

While Arabic-speaking Muslims insist that the Quran contains the most beautiful poetry ever, English readers are going to find it the most bizarre book they've read.  Verses of the Quran are organized in apparently random order (not historically or chronologically), and different complementary verses about the same event might occur in different chapters, or spaced irregularly throughout a chapter, in no particular order.  There is very little context for anything said, or more often no context at all.  Despite the claims of the Quran to be a "clear" book, it is impossible to understand what most of the text means without going to outside sources to be able to put passages into a historical context.  In particular, Muslims use oral histories passed on from the earliest days of Islam.  Muslim scholars spend their lives collecting and organizing this oral history, so that they can then write detailed commentaries (tafsir) explaining what a verse means, why it was revealed, to whom it was revealed, and when it was revealed.  Without this, there is no way to understand what most of the Quran is saying.

In all fairness, there are Biblical passages that are clunky and incomprehensible.  My point isn't that the Quran isn't pretty so its ideas are false.  A book can be horribly written and still contain truth --- I'm thinking of many, many math textbooks.  My point is that the Quran claims I should believe it because of its supposed excellent composition, when its composition is not excellent.

Muslims will say that the miracle of the Quran's literary excellence only works in Arabic.  There are Jews and Christians who speak Arabic, and they are similarly unimpressed by this argument.

Interestingly, the challenge of "a surah like it" was even taken up by the pagans of Muhammad's day.  Not even Arabic-speaking Bedouins of the time of Muhammad at the time he was making this argument were very impressed by it.  They accused Muhammad of plagiarizing their own poems, and thought they could easily produce poetry that rivaled Muhammads, and then by their own standards proceeded to do so.  The Quran actually quotes them, scorning them for saying that Muhammad's poetry isn't any better than theirs.  

This challenge has been more recently taken by up Arabic-speaking Christians, who wrote a book called the True Furqan.  It is written in classical Bedouin Arabic, and in a blind recitation challenge  will often trick Arabic-speaking Muslims, and always confuses non-Arabic-speaking Muslims.  Non-Muslim Arabic speakers will confirm the book is indeed "a surah like it," in terms of its style and language.

The problem with the argument from literary excellence is that there is no objective standard for what constitutes literary excellence.  Muslims might genuinely believe the Quran is such an amazingly-written book that nothing could ever rival it.  But pretty much no one else accepts this.  When it is heard chanted in song, the Quran can sound beautiful, even hauntingly beautiful.  So does Gregorian chant, so does opera, so do songs composed only of "nah nah"s and "lah lah"s.  In my mind, excellent poetry derives its beauty from the power of the ideas it conveys, and not only the flow of sounds.  The ideas the Quran conveys are largely garbled, like hearing one half of a conversation someone is having with themselves.  I find works of Shakespeare or Cicero that rival anything in the Quran, and far surpass it for poetic excellence, even after so much time.  

Muslims might argue back, that I'm wrong and the Quran is better.  But that's the problem with appealing to taste.

Chiefly, the problem is the Quran is appealing to my taste.  Not the taste of Muslims.  The appeal to literary excellence is made to non-Muslims, and non-Muslims are supposed to be the judges.  Not Muslims.  Non-Muslims, even those speaking the original Arabic, find the argument unconvincing.  Actually, I think most Muslims also find it unconvincing, and don't say so.  I think they find it unconvincing, as most Muslims today don't tend to press this argument, and very few Muslims spend much time reading this supposedly excellently-written book.

Since the argument of literary excellence is the primary argument the Quran makes for the prophethood of Muhammad, and since this argument fails rather hard, I see little reason to accept the Quran's other claims of itself.

There is more, though.   The Quran makes direct appeals to Christians, which I can further evaluate.  

The Quran tries to appeal to me by pointing to the example of Jesus, and reminding me of the things Jesus said and did... yet never once does it quote or cite anything that Jesus ever actually said or did. The Quran's knowledge of Christianity seems limited to what an Arabic caravan trader with no formal education would pick up from oral stories while traveling in the area.

When speaking of Jesus, the Quran almost exclusively refers to the Arabic Infancy Gospels or other gnostic legends that originated hundreds of years after Jesus' death.  It references stories like Jesus turning clay birds to life or Mary giving birth underneath a date tree.  God knows this isn't what Christians believe, but an illiterate caravan trader in Arabia probably wouldn't.  (And when I call Muhammad illiterate, it isn't as a rude insult; there is no shame in being unable to read if you never had opportunity to learn.  By his own account, Muhammad never learned to read or write.)

The Quran claims that Mary (i.e. Mariam) the mother of Jesus was the sister of Moses and Aaron and the daughter of Imran (i.e. Miriam), making Jesus the nephew of Moses.  God knows that these are two completely different people named Mary, spaced thousands of years apart.  An illiterate caravan trader in Arabia might not.

The Quran claims that Jesus never died from crucifixion, and that Christians only have conjectures and theories about what happened to him; and then ironically never clarifies what did happen, so that the Islamic world is full of theories and conjectures about what might have really happened to Jesus.  God knows what really happened to Jesus, and what really happened to Jesus is what history records: he was crucified.

The Quran apparently misunderstands the Christian Trinity as being three gods: Allah, Jesus, and Mary. Even if God is not a Trinity, God would still know what Christians mean when we (errantly) claim him to be a Trinity.  The true God knows every passing thought a person has.  The true God has perfect knowledge of even the false beliefs people hold, even though God knows these beliefs are false.  God would not make this kind of confusion about the Trinity, though an illiterate caravan trader, seeing the inside of a Christian church, might make this confusion.

There have been pagans, such as Julian the Apostate, who lived and died centuries before Muhammad, who wrote better-articulated refutations of Christian doctrine than that offered in the Quran.  These pagans display detailed knowledge not only of the Christian Scriptures themselves, but of Christian interpretations of prophecy, of exactly how Christians interpret words in a text, or exactly the arguments Christians use for particular doctrines.  The Quran does not give any awareness of knowing anything about Christianity, not any beliefs, not the actual words written in the Christian Scriptures, not even such basics as the family relationship of Jesus and Moses.  Are pagans more knowledgeable than God?  Can the true God not do better than pagans when it comes to disproving falsehoods?

The true God knows what has been written in every book mankind has made. God knows the contents of the lost Library of Alexandria and all of the ancient works forever lost to mankind.  God knows the contents of all future books, that have not yet been written, whose authors do not yet exist.  God knows the contents of the Christian Scriptures, and if they were corrupted then the true God knows what the corrupted versions say.  The true God would not ask Christians to compare Muhammad's teachings to a book that had been corrupted hundreds of years ago by the Apostle Paul and the Emperor Constantine, then have to back-track that he meant to compare to the pre-corrupted versions which no longer existed.  An illiterate caravan trader might make this kind of mistake, but the true and living God could not.

If the Quran were the writing of Muhammad, then this is excusable.  It would be possible to believe Muhammad was a wise moral teacher and that he was short-sighted when it came to understanding other beliefs.  But Muslims emphatically insist that the Quran was NOT written by Muhammad, that Muhammad is nothing but a messenger, and the Quran was composed by God.

I cannot accept that God's eternal word makes this kind of mistake, and so I cannot accept the Quran to come from God.  That is why I cannot be a Muslim.

For the steelman, I was wavering between selecting strict Wahhabism or the universalist Mere-Theism.  Strict Wahhabism (think ISIS or Boko Haram) is the logically consistent result of practicing Islam the way Muhammad did.   It's a consistent view, in that it tries to be true to its foundations.  But it isn't very appealing.  It's so unappealing that it isn't even believable it could describe a religion.

Contrariwise, I find the universalist Mere-Theism view highly compelling, on emotional and intellectual levels.  It's the kind of religion I imagine a wise philosopher arriving at, after much scrutiny of the nature of morality, creation, and the relation of human religions.  Throw in there the continued legacy of figures like Avicenna, Averroes, or Al-Ghazali and the notion of worshipping God by studying the natural world, and it is speaking directly at me.  I don't think it's true, and I wouldn't leave Christianity for it, but it appeals to me very strongly.  It's what I wish Islam actually were.

No comments: