We human beings are a gullible lot. We are often inveigled into believing the implausible when it seems attractive to us.
The Spanish Conquistadores returned from the New World full of stories about El Dorado, purportedly a city of gold. The myth spurred many expeditions devoted to discovering the wealth of this fabled place. Whilst such expeditions helped the exploration of Central and South America, El Dorado itself eluded all attempts to locate it, which wasn’t entirely surprising because it is extremely unlikely that such a place ever existed.
Or consider the mediaeval obsession with the holy grail. The grail is most commonly identified as the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper and that Joseph of Arimathea used to collect Jesus’s blood when he was crucified. Given the importance of Jesus’s crucifixion and the eucharist in Christian beliefs, the search for the grail became the holiest of quests as it signified the pursuit of union with God. Much of the Arthurian legend was based on the pursuit to find this holy relic. But, of course, like Jesus himself, there is little evidence to suggest that it actually existed.
Perhaps the cruellest of such beliefs are those adopted by the unfortunates suffering from incurable cancer. In their desperation to prolong their lives they subject themselves to all sorts of dubious alternative treatment regimes in the hope of an unlikely cure or respite.
I don’t really want to offend anybody, and far be it for me to deprive people of hope, but much of what we pin our hopes on is ill-founded. Many of our religious beliefs fall into this category.
Today we live in an increasingly secular world. Most democratic Western nations are multicultural and tolerate their citizens adopting religions of their choice. However, Muslim countries, with a few exceptions, enforce religious conformity. In such countries citizens are required to adopt Islamic beliefs and failure to do so can lead to fatal consequences.
The Western world was not always so liberal. In previous times Christianity was the dominant religion and believers were cruel and intolerant. But fortunately, after the Reformation, different belief systems began to be tolerated. Then followed the Age of Enlightenment where science began to be broadly accepted. This led to the challenging of many traditional religious beliefs. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had a major impact leading believers to begin to understand that many of the writings in their Bible could no longer be taken literally. In this way Christianity, with a few exceptions, has been largely able to adapt to modernity. At the same time secularism has flourished.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Islam. (Refer my previous blog essay Is This the Islamic Dark Age?)
Muhammad lived from c. 570 – 632 CE. A little more than a hundred years after the death of the Prophet, Muslim scholars began to assemble the great collections of Muhhamad’s sayings (abadith) and customary practice (sunnah), which would form the basis of Muslim law.
As Karen Armstrong has written, “The Sunnah taught Muslims to imitate the way that Muhammad spoke, ate, loved, washed, and worshipped, so that in the smallest details of their daily existence, they reproduced his life on earth in the hope that they would acquire his internal disposition of total surrender to God.” Thus Islam seems determined to perpetuate the mores of a seventh century illiterate Arab.
It is instructive to remember that the construction of the history of the Prophet was put together well after his death and that most of the sources were second hand. In this way we might say his life was “reconstructed” just as the life of Jesus was.
In fact one historian maintains that, “The life of Muhammad, dependant on sources written centuries after he lived, increasingly has come to seem a thing very difficult to define as fact. The consensus among scholars now probably would be that we know less about the historical Muhammad than we do about the historical Jesus.”
I would probably differ from that conclusion. However little we know about Muhammad I think that there is sufficient evidence to acknowledge his existence. I must say I cannot be convinced that Jesus was anything more than a convenient myth!
The first serious biographers of Muhammad began to outline his life in the eighth and ninth centuries. It should be admitted that their work would not satisfy modern biographers. They accepted into the recorded history many references that were obviously suspect and often recorded contradictory interpretations that were allowed into the historical record side by side.
There is little plausible history of the Prophet before he purportedly began to receive his revelations from Allah.
When his biographers began to relate his earlier life they embellished the story with mythical elements just as those who purported to record the life of Jesus did.
It is difficult not to admire the achievements of Muhammad. He united disparate Arab tribes into a great nation. He stimulated an Arabic Empire that for a time extended from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees. The great affront that Islam now confronts us with is largely as a result of an ambition to recreate the Islamic world of a thousand years ago. Apart from the oil rich states in the Middle East, Muslim states have not prospered. They are largely third world countries that have not been able to benefit from the achievements of modernity. They are stuck in the mire of their Islamic tradition, trying forlornly to bring back the triumph of their ancient history.
In trying to understand Islam many have pointed to the distinct difference in Muhammad’s teachings in his early years when he lived in Mecca and those that came after his relocation to Medina. In Mecca he struggled to have anyone pay attention to his teachings. At this time he was tolerant and accommodating. But when he went to Medina he was immediately successful in attracting converts to his teaching. It seems that as his power and influence grew his tolerance waned and he became quite bellicose and quick to take punitive action against unbelievers. If you read the Koran you will see many contradictory passages as a result.
For some twenty three years, from about 610 until his death in 632, Muhammad claimed that he was the direct recipient of messages from Allah delivered through the medium of the Archangel Gabriel. These messages were assembled in the text that we now know as the Koran. The Koran is a difficult text because it was compiled piecemeal, one part at a time, without any logical structure. Sometimes a revelation would be made to address a current issue that Muhammad was dealing with. Consequently successive verses can seem illogical and arbitrary with respect to their subject matter.
As each new set of verses was revealed to Muhammad, his followers learned it by heart, and those who were literate wrote it down.
There is disagreement about when the Koran was initially put together. Some authorities believe that it was compiled during the first Caliphate of Abu Bakr immediately after Muhammad’s death. Others assert that it was compiled by the Caliph Uthman who reigned from 644 to 656.
Whomever and however the Koran was compiled it seems certain that it was derived from many disparate sources. It has been said that the Koran was first collated in order to settle issues between competing interpretations of Muhammad’s teachings. But this didn’t resolve the matter. The written Arabic language renders the difference between some consonants difficult to distinguish and it has no symbols for short vowels. As a result vastly different interpretations were still possible.
According to believers, the Koran is the final and unalterable word of God. This claim is hard to defend in light of the many inconsistencies and possible interpretations.
It is worthwhile remembering at this stage that the Christian reformation occurred when the Bible was translated from Latin into European languages which made the text accessible to all. From this sprang the discipline of biblical criticism. This movement could be said to have enabled Christianity to be reconciled with modernity.
Judaism, of course, has also a long tradition of scholarship, criticism and interpretative debate.
Unfortunately Islam doesn’t allow such self-examination. The Koran is purported to be the final and inalterable word of God. It is to be taken as the literal truth.
(There is an exception to this hard-line literal translation. Sufism is a far more mystical version of Islam. The Sufis believe that God reveals himself in many ways. They recognise that much of the revealed doctrine is actually myths which point believers towards an understanding of God rather than depicting the literal truth. The religious leaders of conventional Islam disparage the approach of the Sufis and paternalistically maintain that ordinary believers don’t have the skills or temperament to use a more symbolic, imaginative approach to ultimate truth.)
So let’s cut to the chase. Islam is based on the Koran which Muslims maintain is the inalterable and final word of God. The Koran is replete with contradictions. It is a document fashioned by fallible men, relying on hearsay and dubious references about the Prophet’s life. It relates largely to a minor geographical area and the lives of insular tribesmen in the seventh century.
The other religions of the “book” have been able to scrutinise and revise their beliefs and as a consequence be able to accommodate modernity. Through its obstinate insistence that the Koran is inalterable and as a result criticism is forbidden, Islam has locked itself in to a seventh century interpretation of the world.
With its ongoing conflict with modernity, there seems to be only two possible outcomes – either Islam accommodates modernity or it succeeds in compelling the rest of us into adopting its archaic beliefs.
It seems to me that our interests (and paradoxically the interests of Muslims also) are best served by encouraging an Islamic reformation. We need to give succour and support to those Muslims who are brave enough to challenge fundamentalism and we should never falter despite the protests of the fundamentalists that they are subject to Islamophobia when they challenge our basic freedoms.
To my mind one of the greatest tragedies that stems from fundamentalist Islam is that for those unfortunate to reside in areas where it is practised, there is no opportunity to explore other belief systems. This in itself reflects an insecurity of its adherents. Many followers of other religions also take their beliefs unquestionably from their society, families and peers. Most such people however, whilst they might never question their beliefs, are at least not prevented from doing so. I cannot be critical of people’s beliefs if they have arrived at such beliefs of their own volition. It is intolerable that fundamentalist Islam allows no such choice and tolerates no questioning or criticism of its archaic belief system. While Islam takes such a stance it can never be reconciled with modernity.