Woe to them who fake Scriptures and say ‘This is from God’ so that they might earn some profit thereby.
Most of us are familiar with the famous painting by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It was commissioned by Pope Julius II, a commission only reluctantly accepted by Michelangelo, who considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter. It was painted between 1508 and 1602 and is regarded as one of the Renaissance’s masterpieces.
Central to the ceiling decoration are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis of which The Creation of Adam is the best known. In this depiction Adam and God touch fingers. The hands of God and Adam have been reproduced in countless imitations. Scholars have remarked that to the untrained eye it is not clear who is creating whom!
There is a strange ambiguity in religion. Most believers, whilst jealously defending their own concept of God, are nevertheless adamant that the gods of others are merely fictions conveniently imagined to fill the vacuum that the absence of the real God left.
It is also intriguing to me why the miracles and revelations which purportedly happened so long ago are given more credence than any such present day events. If I were to come down from a mountain with some stone tablets today which purported to reveal God’s greatest truths I would be the subject of derision. Or if I were an illiterate inhabitant of a Third World country who alleged that I had been visited by the Archangel Gabriel in a cave and commanded to dictate Allah’s message to be recorded for posterity, I would be lucky not to be committed to an asylum!
Indeed it is hard to reconcile the traditional notion of God and his earthly interventions with reason and science.
In the wake of the Twin Towers attack in September 2001, we have seen a slew of aggressive, intellectual atheists including, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others, launch a formidable attack on the traditional concept of God. It is relatively easy to dismiss the Old Testament God who is anthropomorphic and reputedly walked in the Garden of Eden in the afternoons and is, as believers have maintained for two millennia, omniscient, omnipotent and infinitely good (which seems to be contradictory to the facts of observed history). This is such an easy target I have even taken a few pot-shots at it myself!
Others have argued that religions (like virtually everything else according to Matt Ridley) along with the concept of God, evolve.
The theologian, Gordon Kaufman, wrote:
The partner in the dialogue with God is not the individual but the human species as a whole.
It would be reasonable to assume then as we evolve our concept of God will change. (See for example The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.) The sceptic who believes that Man creates God will argue as our knowledge increases we need to revise our concept of God to reconcile the dissonance that results. The mystic will argue that as our knowledge increases we are better able to understand a more complex abstract nature of the deity than we were in the past.
Most ancient cultures were originally polytheistic. Monotheism, as religious historian Karen Armstrong relates, only seems to have become entrenched in the period 800-300 BC. This period saw a huge spiritual awakening in the civilised world. She calls this period The Great Transformation and describes how during this stage of history many of the spiritual ideas that are still with us today arose from the emerging philosophies of Buddha, Socrates, Jeremiah, Confucius and Lao Tzu among others.
In this period the Jews consolidated their disparate gods and assorted beliefs into the single God figure of Yahweh (Jehovah).
But, as we saw above, religions evolve and from the platform of Judaism, Christianity and then Islam subsequently arose.
In the Old Testament, God often revealed himself to privileged believers, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. One indirect method Yahweh adopted was to talk to his chosen people through so-called “prophets” who often admonished the Jews for disobeying their God and warning of the dire consequences of so doing.
Christianity was founded on the belief that God sent his son, Jesus into the world as an intermediary to again wean the populace off their evil ways and direct them back to the bosom of God. Most Christians have the strange belief that God can only be approached by loving his son. The New Testament outlines the life of Jesus in various forms (some contradictory of others) and is replete with stories of miracles and symbolism.
Unfortunately believers are inveigled into believing the Jesus story is actually historical and is uniquely Christian.
British authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy provide impressive research to suggest neither of these beliefs are true. They take many of the elements of the Jesus story, eg:
- Son of God
- Virgin birth
- Born in humble surrounds on 25 December
- Twelve disciples
- Opportunity for followers to be “born again” through the mechanism of baptism
- Dying at Easter time to atone for the sins of the world
- Rising from the dead on the third day
among many others and show how they have been derived from pre-existing pagan myths.
The authors (Freke & Gandy) propose that Jesus did not literally exist as an historically identifiable individual, but was instead a re-interpretation of the fundamental pagan “godman” (as exemplified for example by Osiris, Dionysus, Attis and Mithras,) by the Gnostics, who were the original sect of Christianity. Orthodox Christianity, according to them, was not the predecessor to Gnosticism, but a later outgrowth that rewrote history in order to make literal Christianity appear to predate the Gnostics. They describe their theory as the “Jesus Mysteries thesis.” (As we shall see the writing of back stories to justify current beliefs is not unusual in religious history!)
There seems to be no reliable history of the existence of Jesus. There is a brief reference by the Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus that Christian scholars often refer to. But this reference seems to have been interpolated into Josephus’ work at a later time by Christian apologists. Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire dismissed this passage as a “vulgar forgery”.
It seems strange that the momentous events described in the Gospels were not recorded anywhere else. Jesus is said to have miraculously fed thousands of people and raised the dead. At his own death a great darkness is said to have covered the whole land, the earth quaked and split open and the dead came out of their graves. You would have thought somebody would have noticed and recorded such extraordinary events!
You must also remember that what has been written about Jesus are not eyewitness accounts and the authors of the Gospels laid down their accounts of Jesus’ life considerably after the event. The earliest Gospel written was that of Mark and it was compiled some fifty or sixty years after the reported death of Jesus.
As the Protestant scholar, Albert Schweitzer wrote in his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus:
There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus ……..it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another.
So I would conclude that far from being the Son of God, Jesus the man, probably never existed, and those wonderful elements of his story, far from being uniquely Christian were largely borrowed from pre-existing pagan myths.
But all was not lost! Some 600 years after Jesus, God purportedly sent another intermediary, Muhammad (and according to Islam God’s last prophet) to help the faithful understand what He required of them.
At the age of forty Muhammad went off to meditate in a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca. Now of course Muhammad was no ordinary man. Tradition has it that Muhammad was a prophet from the beginning of time. He also had a miraculous birth in the manner of Jesus – when he was born he was already circumcised and detached from the umbilical cord! And as befits those assigned to be prophets of God there were the usual extraordinary displays in the heavens at his birth. In the cave, the angel Gabriel appeared to him with a written message from God and commanded him, “Read!” But Muhammad was illiterate and protested that he was unable to read. Eventually Muhammad overcame his reticence and found he could indeed, miraculously, read. Over the next two decades Muhammad reputedly brought these messages from God back to the people. But because he could not write, these revelations were not systematically recorded.
It is said that some of Muhammad’s followers, known as Companions of the Prophet recorded Muhammad’s revelations on anything that came to hand, such as scraps of parchment and leather, stones and palm leaves and even camel bones. These fragments were neither numbered nor dated. They were eventually gathered up by Muhammad’s son-in-law, Uthman, some 30 years after Muhammad’s death. However some scholars maintain that no definitive version of the Koran existed until as late as the tenth century.
Similarly, after Muhammad’s death his followers began to collect stories and sayings related to Muhammad. These are called the Hadiths. These were all second-hand accounts because those who had originally known Muhammad personally had, by that time, died.
Scholars point out that both the Koran and the Hadiths are replete with errors, contradictions, omissions and interpolations. Arabs who originally read these writings complained about how repetitive they found them and criticised what they saw as the lack of consistent form or chronology. The Koran has also been criticised for the fact it devotes much space to prescribing petty cultural issues.
One of the difficulties with the Koran is that there is little order to it except that, that in general, the chapters (known as “suras”) are arranged from longest to shortest.
Western scholars have been critical of the Koran. The historian Edward Gibbon called it “an endless incoherent rhapsody that seldom excites a sentiment or an idea”. Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlisle said it was “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble.” The American religious scholar, Huston Smith, who was generally sympathetic to the world’s religions, declared that “no one has ever curled up on a rainy day to read the Koran.” One would have thought that the word of God might have been more inspiring!
Despite all this the Koran tells us it is the ultimate, unchallengable authority on God’s law. (The usual circular logic prevails. How do we know the Koran is the unalterable word of God? Because it says so in the Koran, of course!)
Now you might believe that there is better historical evidence in support of Muhammad than Jesus and that is largely the case. But again we face the dilemma that most of what we know about Muhammad and his life was written well after his lifetime and again we face the likelihood that it is a backstory compiled by his believers supporting that which they wished to believe. There are a number of scholarly works that seek to show that the story of the historic Muhammad may have been significantly different from what is recorded in the Koran and the Hadiths.
For example, two Islamic scholars Patricia Crone and Michael Cook argue that Islam had actually begun as a movement that included apocalyptic Jews and only established itself as a separate religious entity after the conquest of Jerusalem around 638 CE, well after Muhammad’s death. In this scenario the Koran was compiled in the eighth century rather than the seventh as is commonly believed.
The history writer, Tom Holland, drawing on the research of historians John Wansbrough and Fred Donner wrote the book In the Shadow of the Sword charting the origins of Islam. He maintained that “to understand the origins of Islam we must explore the empires and religions of late antiquity.”
In doing so he concluded that Islam, rather than originating in the arid deserts of Arabia was born further north. In his opinion Islam was spawned “in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars — the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes.”
In researching his work, Holland discovered that the first known biography of Muhammad was written some two hundred years after Muhammad’s death and as such historians had grave concerns regarding its accuracy. Holland asserted that the problem with studying the life of Muhammad and the origins of the Koran is that “by looking at the Koran in its historical context – which in any other field would be wholly uncontroversial – is that Muslim accounts of its composition, all of them written long after the lifetime of Muhammad, and often in direct contradiction of the Koran itself, are the only accounts we possess.”
In his recent book, The Evolution of Everything Matt Ridley drew a similar conclusion to Tom Holland. He writes:
So the sudden miraculous, a nihilo invention of Islam by Muhammad becomes the story that is told. In fact what was going on in the 690’s was that a newly entrenched Umayyad Amir, Abd al-Malik, set about deliberately cultivating the legend of the prophet, naming him for the first time. “In the name of God, Muhammad is the messenger of God” was stamped on his coins. He did so deliberately differentiating his empire’s religion from that of the rival Romans, and to establish that it was not just a reformed version of Christianity.
Here we see a reversal of the prevailing logic. It has long been maintained that Islam was the cause of the Arab conquest, whereas according to these writers it might well have been the consequence.
The conclusions to be drawn from all this are manifold. Firstly whilst there is more evidence to support the historical existence of Muhammad than there is of Jesus, the portrayal of Muhammad in the Koran and the Hadiths, Muhammad the legend, is unlikely to bear a lot of resemblance to Muhammad the man. Secondly it would seem inconceivable to most of us that Muhammad was God’s messenger. And therefore, thirdly, the Koran is most likely a collection of material some of which Muhammad may have been the author, but much of which was manufactured by others after his death.
So then I have looked at the origins of both Christianity and Islam and both religions have dubious histories. Now you might question my motivation in drawing this to your attention. I don’t particularly want to dissuade believers from their beliefs of choice. (I would of course prefer that they arrived at those beliefs through some process of enquiry and not automatically adopted the belief sets of those around them without question and without knowledge of the alternatives.)
A key point in understanding all the wisdom literature whatever its source is being able to understand that which needs to be taken literally and that which is allegorical – in the words of Karen Armstrong being able to distinguish between Logos and Mythos. Islam doesn’t seem prepared to concede that there is such a distinction.
Religions, as Robert Wright in his book (mentioned above) The Evolution of God maintains, evolve. Christianity, whilst hardly embracing rigorous scrutiny has at least tolerated it. Consequently in recent centuries, through the mechanism of biblical criticism and theological research, it has become much more liberal. As an example we only need to look at its changing attitudes on the role of women and its acceptance of homosexuality. In most Christian churches the literal truth of the ancient teachings has been vigorously contested.
Unfortunately Islam has little such history because those daring to question the literal truth of the Koran have been charged with blasphemy, heresy or apostasy and faced with dire consequences. Consequently the fundamentalist followers of Muhammad are locked in a time warp, compelled to live out the medieval barbarism that was the norm in the Arabian Peninsula a millennium and a half ago.
On 20/1/2013 I published a blog essay which I titled Is This the Islamic Dark Age? (This is still accessible in the archives on my blog site.) In this I chronicled how the Christian church had thwarted progress in Europe between the fifth and tenth centuries. That was followed fortunately by the Renaissance period which heralded an unprecedented period of discovery and cultural progress which was triggered by the Reformation. It seems now we need an Islamic Renaissance. Recently the Egyptian President, Abdul Fatah el Sissi urged Muslim scholars to commence a similar reformation of Islam.
Ostensibly it would appear that the West is caught up in a conflict with Islamic fundamentalists – but we are wrong to believe the underlying war is the physical one fought on the battlefields of Middle East and in the terrorist atrocities inflicted by ISIS et al. This is a fundamental war of ideas. We need to convince not only Muslims but people everywhere that the ideas promoted by the Islamic fundamentalists are not only harmful to humanity but that they are plainly wrong! We not only seem to be losing this war, we seem to be avoiding it out of fear. We should not shy away from confronting these dangerous ideas.
Kenan Malik is an Indian-born English writer, lecturer and broadcaster. He hails from a Muslim background. He was a great supporter of Salman Rushdie during the outrageous fatwah imposed for his writing of The Satanic Verses. Some time ago he wrote that Salman Rushdie’s enemies lost the battle of The Satanic Verses, but they won the war.
In an interview on the ABC Religion and Ethics Report, 18 November, he explained himself thus:
What I meant by that phrase is that Rushdie won the battle because The Satanic Verses continued to be published. But his critics won the war because the perception which formed the core of the conflict, the notion that it is morally wrong to say or do something that offends other cultures, has become almost received wisdom in liberal, democratic societies. If you argue against it, you are perceived as adopting an extreme position. Almost anything critical one might say about another group or another culture can be seen today as offensive.
And Malik is right! While it would be helpful to beat the fundamentalists on the battlefield, we will never be safe until we are able to refute their barbarous ideology. It is time we engaged more forthrightly in the battle of ideas!