I read “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. My unusually fast reading of this book tells you how good it was! Thank you to the (several) people that recommended it. I actually haven’t read many books on the history of Islam, but this is one I would recommend to anyone, Muslims and non-Muslims; he does a very good balancing act between the two audiences, remaining ambiguous about his own views! I am curious now to read another book of his, “How To Win A Cosmic War”.
The first point that hit me in chapter 2 was an explanation for why an uncompromising monotheism was so important to Muhammad. The greedy materialism in Mecca was supported by the fact that the Ka’ba housed statues of all the gods, and so the Meccan Quraysh tribe were able to exploit the pilgrims who came from all over. He had to attack the polytheism in order to render the Ka’ba redundant.
“… the Hanif preachers may have attacked the polytheism and greed of their fellow Meccans, but they maintained a deep veneration for the Ka’ba and those in the community who acted as Keepers of the Keys. That would explain why the Hanifs appear to have been tolerated, for the most part, in Mecca, and why they never converted in great numbers to Muhammad’s movement. But as a businessman and a merchant himself, Muhammad understood what the Hanifs could not: the only way to bring about radical social and economic reform in Mecca was to overturn the religio-economic system on which the city was built; and the only way to do that was to attack the very source of the Quraysh’s wealth and prestige – the Ka’ba.” (Ch. 2)
It was a surprise to read because obviously at some point the Ka’ba became important to him again. But it makes a lot of sense.
Polytheism by nature is pluralistic and inheres religious freedom because there is always room for one more god. So I definitely think there was a downside to bringing an uncompromising monotheism. But attacking a greedy system, I can understand.
This leads to Muhammad’s persecution and eventual emigration to Yathrib (which became Medina). Then what? It never occurred to me before that the Meccans would just have let them be if they’d minded their own business and lived peacefully, but that’s exactly the picture that Aslan paints.
“By declaring Yathrib a sanctuary city, Muhammad was deliberately challenging Mecca’s religious and economic hegemony over the Peninsula. And just to make sure the Quraysh got the message, he sent his followers out into the desert to take part in the time-honored Arab tradition of caravan raiding.” (Ch. 4)
Makes it sounds positively harmless, doesn’t it? He goes on to say that it wasn’t considered stealing, and that through it, “Muhammad finally got the attention he was seeking.” This is different from Tariq Ramadan’s justification of it as retribution for the property that was stolen from them.
There was more disturbing stuff to come. By the time of Muhammad’s death, “In eastern Arabia, another man, Maslama (or Musaylama), had so successfully imitated Muhammad’s formula that he had already gathered thousands of followers in Yamama, which he had declared to be a sanctuary city.” (Ch. 5) Isn’t that fascinating? But of course, such movements had to be extinguished by the Muslims. “[Abu Bakr’s] principal achievement as Caliph was his miliatary campaigns against the “false prophets” and those tribes who had ceased paying the tithe tax…” (Ch. 5) Oh well.
Here is a really important point that I think all traditionalist Muslims should realise:
“There is a tendency to think of Islam as having been both completed and perfected at the end of Muhammad’s life. But … it would be a mistake to think of Islam in 632 C.E. as being in any way a unified systems of beliefs and practices; far from it.” (Ch. 5)
Any honest look – or even glance – at the hadith literature will tell you that nothing is clear-cut!
Authority within Islam was an interesting topic. He says:
“… the primary purpose of the Five Pillars is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community. The ancient Kharijite ideal of the Ummah as a charismatic and divinely inspired community through which salvation is achieved has become the standard (orthodox) doctrine of the vast majority of Muslims in the world…” (Ch. 6)
That was interesting in itself, but he goes on to say this is because there is no central authority in the religion. I’m not sure I follow, because the same could be said of Protestantism, and yet salvation there is not through membership in a Protestant community. However. For Sunnis, the Caliph held political authority while the ulama – scholars – held religious authority. For Shi’as, the Imams are both of these and more, as far as I understood – kind of like Popes, but even closer to prophets than that. I didn’t know that.
I learnt a lot I didn’t know about Shi’ism.
“The Shi’ah… regard Husayn’s martyrdom as having completed the religion that Abraham initiated and Muhammad revealed to the Arabs.” (Ch. 7)
Almost like the way Jesus’s sacrifice completed the law of Moses. Atonement through sacrifice. Husayn died fighting and Jesus died not fighting, but both knew they faced death and didn’t run away from it. Hard acts to follow!
There were a lot more interesting things in the book but these were the standout things for me, things I wanted to record and/or see what your reactions are.
As promised, I start off with a…
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS VERY STRONG CRITICISM OF MUHAMMAD AND THE QURAN
Surah 66 “At-Tahrim” (1) O PROPHET! Why dost thou, out of a desire to please [one or another of] thy wives, impose [on thyself] a prohibition of something that God has made lawful to thee? But God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace: (2) God has already enjoined upon you [O believers] the breaking and expiation of [such of] your oaths [as may run counter to what is right and just]: for, God is your Lord Supreme, and He alone is all-knowing, truly wise.
I don’t believe swearing off honey would be a serious enough thing to warrant these verses.
Moreover, I think the criticism is a red herring, deflecting attention from the real wrongdoing here, which by some accounts had everything to do with sexual passions and nothing to do with honey. It is actually very clever – have a verse criticise you for something extremely minor, and people might overlook the bigger wrong. And how do I know it was a wrongdoing (aside from my own personal opinion about it)? – a person only swears off something (or someone) if they feel guilty about it.
And just what is so wrong with forbidding yourself something that is lawful? Does that mean we can’t go on diets, or give up coffee?
Or was the pleasing of one’s wife (by imposing restrictions on oneself) the thing that is being criticised here? So men who are inclined to think twice about taking a second wife for the sake of keeping the first wife happy, for example, should snap out of that and just take what’s lawful to them?
I am pretty open-minded and I try not to write off other lifestyles as bad just because I am not culturally conditioned to accept them.
I think polygamy is one of those things that can work for some people. An example of a happy polygamous family is Megan’s. She chose to join a polygamous family. The first wife and the husband decided together to go poly, and they all live in one big house. The “sister-wives” – at this point there are 4 of them – all love and support each other. It actually sounds pretty nice. There clearly must be something in it for these women who’ve chosen to live like that.
But I think there is nothing worse than a man going behind his wife’s back to take another wife, or point blank going against her wishes… and saying to everyone “it’s legal/permissible so I feel no guilt”.
Now, in the history of religions, the norms were different and men wouldn’t have thought there was an obligation to consult their wives about a decision like that. In fact I’m not sure the concept of “consent” even really existed. Sometimes girls were married off young, so young it was not possible for them to give genuine consent. And as for war captives, let’s not even go there.
So would all the prophets of the past have consulted their existing wives before adding a new one? I don’t think it would have been possible for them to think that way. Does that make them bad? I think they have to be judged according to the standard of their time. They weren’t perfect, they were human and it is unreasonable to expect that they could have measured up to our more progressed standards (although in other aspects of life I suspect our standards have slipped since their time). This only poses a problem when we think they were an example for all mankind and that they knew all there was to know about morality. Then we have to either accept their norms as our norms, or find a way of attributing our moral norms to them even though history tells another story.
The discrepancy between the contents of the Quran and the hadith literature was always a bit of a puzzle. Sure, the hadiths are less accurately preserved, but overall the picture they paint is probably pretty accurate. It doesn’t seem possible that women could not have ceased worship during menstruation, for example. That cannot all be fabricated.
I couldn’t come up with an explanation for why Muhammad would add to the words of God, or even apparently override them (e.g. wiping socks instead of washing feet in wudu). The best I could come up with was that the non-Quranic things were pre-existing customs that were allowed to continue.
Another thing that struck me was how different the two are in emphasis: the Quran is more philosophical and the hadiths are more legal.
Having accepted that Muhammad was not a prophet, it has all fallen into place in my mind. The Quran was not central to everything, but was just one part of the authority that Muhammad had. It contained those matters about which external verification was needed: it let other parties know where they stood with the Muslims and with Allah. It didn’t need to contain much law, or ritual, because the followers of Muhammad accepted this direction straight from him. There was no need for it to come from the mouth of God. In a way maybe the Quran was more often for non-believers than for believers. It was poetic and persuasive and tried to win them over.
I also no longer need to believe that Muhammad was always consistent, and so contradictions between the Quran and hadiths – and between hadiths – do not need to be explained away as “inaccuracies in preservation and transmission” (although I’ve no doubt that is one cause of inconsistency too).
I don’t know what I think about fighting to establish justice or eradicate oppression. I think that it could be OK to overthrow an evil dictator, but maybe only if it’s what the people of the country want. If they don’t want it, then I feel uncomfortable about the whole concept of establishing anything good through force.
I think the early Muslims did some good in uniting tribal Arabia under tawheed, and in later spreading what was at that time probably the most equitable, just civilisation that had existed, across a third of the world. But I think that in doing that, at some point they must have voided the Quranic injunction not to commit aggression. Perhaps the instructions can legitimately change over time and with circumstances; as I have said before, the Quran does not have to be viewed as a universal life manual. Maybe at some point it became appropriate to conquer. What do you think?
I think the reason I feel uncomfortable boils down to the stark categorisation of people into believers and unbelievers. I think professed belief is an inadequate and overly simplistic way of judging and defining people. It is just one more way of dividing humans and breeding prejudice and de-humanisation of the “other”. I find it hard to imagine that God views us that way.
I was actually quite impressed that Muhammad signed the treaty of Hudaybiyya and didn’t charge into Mecca, and then eventually conquered it without much bloodshed, along with mass conversion to Islam and amnesty granted. I thought this demonstrated wisdom, as per Tariq Ramadan “The Messenger”. They had held back from fighting the unbelievers, and in doing so, turned many of them into believers – which is better.
But then I read the Quran verses about the Hudaybiyya incident and I changed my mind. God apparently said that if it weren’t for the presence of believers in Mecca, He would have had the Muslims fight their way in. It sounds like it was God’s concern for the plight of believers that caused the restraint, rather than God’s desire to cause more hearts to believe and His foreknowledge that this would happen. If there hadn’t been believers in Mecca He would have had the Meccans killed at the hands of the Muslims rather than give them that chance to come to faith. This upset me quite a lot.
48:25 [It was not for your enemies sake that He stayed your hands from them: for] it was they who were bent on denying the truth, and who debarred you from the Inviolable House of Worship and prevented your offering from reaching its destination. And had it not been for the believing men and believing women [in Mecca], whom you might have unwittingly trampled underfoot, and on whose account you might have become guilty, without knowing it, of a grievous wrong: [had it not been for this, you would have been allowed to fight your way into the city: but you were forbidden to fight] so that [in time] God might admit to His grace whomever He wills. Had they [who deserve Our mercy and they whom We have condemned] been clearly discernible [to you], We would indeed have imposed grievous suffering [at your hands] on such of them as were bent on denying the truth.
Maybe it’s my Christian background, but I like to think God sees the potential in every person and isn’t quick to write them off.
When I see people posting scholarly articles banning Muslims from congratulating the kuffar on their festivals, and other things like that that are extremely separatist and have an undercurrent of hatred, I get upset and tie myself in knots trying to convince myself this attitude is not authentically Islamic. And maybe it isn’t. This is a weird period of time that we’re in. However, as much as I’ve tried, I can’t find much support for being loving and merciful towards unbelievers in the Quran. Polite, yes, and respectful; but all your most loving qualities seem to be for the believers only. Perhaps I am missing something here?
48:29 MUHAMMAD is God’s Apostle; and those who are [truly] with him are firm and unyielding towards all deniers of the truth, [yet] full of mercy towards one another...
5:54 …God will in time bring forth [in your stead] people whom He loves and who love Him – humble towards the believers, proud towards all who deny the truth…
58:14 ART THOU NOT aware of those who would be friends with people whom God has condemned? They are neither of you [O believers] nor of those [who utterly reject the truth]: and so they swear to a falsehood the while they know [it to be false]. God has readied for them suffering severe [in the life to come]…
58:22 Thou canst not find people who [truly] believe in God and the Last Day and [at the same time] love anyone who contends against God and His Apostle – even though they be their fathers, or their sons, or their brothers, or [others of] their kindred…
A related question is why belief is so important in the first place. I’ve always understood the Quran to be saying that wrong beliefs are the basis of all badness. In other words, the pagans were wicked and unjust precisely because they didn’t have correct beliefs about God. But there are many people who have wrong beliefs according to the Quran and yet are very good people.
I am in two minds about posting on why I arrived at a lack of belief in Islam. I do want to record this for myself (that’s what my blog is for), and I think some people will want to read it. I am also still open to any answers Muslims might be able to give me, so that is another reason to write it on the blog. But I hesitate because I don’t want to destroy anyone’s faith. Maybe it’s big-headed of me to think my problems with Islam are big enough to impact on anyone’s faith, though; and people can decide for themselves whether to read it or not (I will not be offended if anyone decides not to). Another thing I am a bit worried about is the threats others have experienced when criticising Islam (admittedly they probably did so with less respect than I am going to do). I don’t know how worried I need to be but I’m going to do this in parts and see how it goes.
It was not one thing that broke the deal for me, it was a lot of little things that I was tying myself in knots trying to be OK with. I have been called a perfectionist, and often in life I give up with things because I cannot cope with imperfect situations. This is what has been happening lately with Islam and I recognised the familiar pattern. The discomfort and panicked wrestling has blunted my enthusiasm. My first thought was, I need to tolerate the uncertainty and the problematic elements, just like with other aspects of life – I can make it work for me. Nothing is perfect, even religion – we have to work with that and not just throw it out and start from scratch again.
With another religion that might be OK. But with Islam, it’s not OK to think the religion is imperfect. The Quran calls itself a book written by God, and so there’s really no room for thinking that it’s OK for some of it to be wrong.
I had already rejected the idea that it had to have been perfectly preserved. A year ago I read a book by scholar Farid Esack which spoke of “variant readings” of the Quran existing, and quoted historical figures from the first caliphates saying that no-one could be sure the whole of the Quran had been collected and none of it had been lost! I think what we do have of the Quran has been preserved pretty accurately and any variations were of limited impact. But because I couldn’t see God subjecting important detailed information to these flawed human transmission processes, I was of the opinion that the overall message is probably what matters – and is simple enough to have been well preserved – rather than any specific verses. So that’s not in itself an obstacle to faith in it.
But what is the overall message? It calls itself a reminder, which implies it doesn’t contain new information and need not be seen as a definitive guide for life. Indeed I don’t think it is. I saw it as more the product of a conversation between Muhammad and God in which he is instructed to warn and guide and remind people of God. As you read it, much of it is instructions or information regarding situations he was facing – how to deal with unbelievers, what to say to them, how to warn the hypocrites, and the Jews and Christians, how to argue for the existence of God and resurrection and judgment, how and when to fight, and to a certain extent what laws to put in place. It reads more as a book of guidance for Muhammad than a book of guidance for people everywhere. Of course there may be guidance in it that is relevant for people everywhere, but it is not structured as a life manual. There is no equivalent of the ten commandments, no place where it sets out exactly what moral conduct is. The other day I trawled through it looking for a verse to support the moral precept that lying is wrong, and it was harder to find than you would think for a divine “life manual”. Which can be OK – maybe that’s just not what it is, it’s just a reminder of the eternal principles of tawheed, delivered in the form of situational divine insights to Muhammad.
But it still has to be perfect. If any of these situational divine insights are flawed, then it throws the whole thing into doubt. Unless I am going to believe that Muhammad was divinely inspired some of the time, and mistaken some of the time – but by this point I would be so far from orthodoxy that there would be no point calling myself a Muslim. Or unless I can convince myself the questionable bits were inauthentic, like I do with the hadiths – but there is far less justification for that with the Quran, and it would also put me far out of the mainstream. So basically it has to be perfect. And this is why I have been putting myself through hell: worrying over so many things that don’t seem perfect, trying to hold on to Islam, making myself exhausted in the process.
I just want to say that although I don’t think God wrote the Quran, I do think there is truth in it, and goodness. I think Islam can be a path that leads people to God. I do think that goodness can grow even out of flawed origins. Islam has flourished and evolved as it’s become a world religion, and I know people do find meaning and truth and beauty in it; whether this is original or not perhaps doesn’t matter. I don’t know exactly what I think of Muhammad but I have never entertained the notion that he was a fraud, and I still can’t believe he was. I think he was sincere and I think the empire he started was, on balance, a force for good in the world. If I wasn’t such a perfectionist, I’m sure I could have converted.
I have realised I cannot be Muslim.
That feeling of certainty, of peace, has finally come to me – I didn’t want it to be like this, but I’ve been living a kind of hell for the past few weeks and it just feels so good to be out of it that I feel nothing but gratitude.
This whole long episode is like a fire that has refined me and I’ve come out purer, stronger, knowing much more clearly what I believe and what I don’t. I feel much closer to God and much more ready to trust God. I am not afraid of life any more at this point.
I am shocked that certainty has come so swiftly, but this is what happens when all the pieces suddenly slot together. When all is right with your head, then all is right with your heart too.
Not much has really changed, I still have much the same beliefs, and the same values. What was genuine has stuck. But I’m seeing life in colour again. It’s like when I left church – I can see beauty in the world again now.
I will explain more soon. My very next post will be about personal repercussions, and will be password-protected with a NEW password. If you would like the password, email me or leave a comment with your email address.
“Great article. I found the tips on how to manage worry to be quite helpful. My favorite is letting go of needing to know and learn to be comfortable with uncertainty.”
There are many things I could worry about. But it’s always religion that gets it.
This just seems to happen episodically. It happened about 3 weeks ago, and I see that it happened a month before that too.
When it happens, I feel as if I am about to have to abandon all my beliefs, however rational and deep the convictions, over a little issue that throws it all into question. Like now it’s Muhammad’s marriage to Zainab, and last month it was the fact that the Quran appears mostly addressed to men. I forget what it was the month before that.
These little issues just cast an enormous shadow of doubt over everything else that I’ve become convinced about, and send me into a spiral of anxiety. Maybe this is a totally inordinate response. Maybe I need to learn to let go of needing to know everything, and be comfortable with the uncertainty.
I want to go and buy that issue of SciAm Mind so I can find out what causes this. Either it means something is seriously wrong with my approach to religion, or this is a personal trait of mine (or perhaps a particular way that I respond to the general uncertainty in my life). I don’t think I ever doubted this severely in the past, but then, back at age 18-21 I was a lot more courageous and flexible and not so worried about a lot of things.
Maybe what this means is that I still haven’t established an emotional conclusion about the question of religion. The emotions only come in when I worry and doubt, and I can’t calm them with the experience of better emotions. I am not getting an emotional conviction, just an intellectual one.
The negative emotions pass and then the urgency to seek an answer to the question dissolves as well. Because when I break out of the spiral and calm down, it doesn’t seem such a threatening thing. It would be easier to force myself out of the spiral if I had previously arrived at a conclusion that I was determined to hold onto. But I am still in a mentality of making my mind up. I don’t want to cast any questions out of my mind. I think all questions are valid. I even question whether there is ever a reason to feel sure of anything, or to commit to a belief or a way of thinking.
I am still hiccupping over the issue of menstruation and worship. I know I’ve been through it a lot before, but I still can’t seem to arrive at an opinion. It’s an issue that exemplifies my struggles with religion in general and begs the general question: WHY IS IT NOT IN THE QURAN?
Firstly, it bothers me that women might have to miss out on praying and also potentially on things like the last 10 days of Ramadan and Eid prayers etc. Why does the Quran bend over backwards to allow people to pray even when they can’t find water to wash with? Presumably because it is important. So why should it be OK for women to miss out on this? If you say that women can maintain a connection to God through dhikr and dua, my question would be, what’s the difference then? What is it about salaah that requires cleanliness? Why is salaah important anyway if we can have a connection to God through dhikr and dua? Perhaps it isn’t important… after all, from the Quranic perspective, people of other faiths can go to heaven and they don’t do salaah the same way. A connection to God seems to be important.
Secondly, and onto my main question, for me to believe salaah is out during menstruation, I have to understand why it’s not in the Quran. This ties in with the question about why it’s addressed mostly to men, although I will not address that in this post. I suppose you could say that the Quran doesn’t specify everything, for example it doesn’t say you must clean yourself with water when going to the toilet. After all the whole premise behind the menstruation thing – notwithstanding some people who try to say that it is about “hardship” – is that such waste makes you unclean, which ostensibly includes menstrual blood. Actually I agree that it is unclean, but I’m not entirely convinced that washing with water after using the toilet is necessary anyway.
Is it possible that all of the hadiths about cleanliness and menstruation are inauthentic? Along with all the other hadiths involving things that aren’t in the Quran, like the evil eye? I know it is only a small minority of Muslims that would be willing to consider the possibility that these things did not really happen. And I don’t know the history of hadiths well enough to know whether I think it is a possibility. But if these things did happen – if there were concepts and rules established beyond the scope of the Quran – I find this very perplexing. Presumably Muhammad’s sayings were not revelation experiences otherwise they would have gone into the Quran. So how could he be sure that he was right? Either the hadiths are painting an inaccurate picture, or he really was (rightfully or wrongfully) confident about making extra-revelatory judgments. If he was wrongfully confident, then this would seem to suggest he wasn’t really a prophet and so even the Quran is not from God. But if that were the case and he was making the whole thing up, probably he would have put those extra rules in the Quran too. The only possibilities left, if one accepts the Quran, are: (1) the hadiths giving extra rulings beyond the scope of the Quran are inauthentic, or (2) he was rightfully confident about making those extra rulings; perhaps they were revelations of a different kind. Even if (2) is true, I have some doubt about whether God would want to subject important messages to the hadith transmission mechanism which is undeniably flawed. It could only work in the form of verbatim oral recitations (or written scriptures) that were viewed as the words of God and so would be respected and transmitted with the utmost fidelity. For example I don’t think all the details of salaah are laid out in the Quran because I don’t think they matter. I don’t think there is just one way to do it.
Or perhaps the things that come from hadiths are things that were pre-existing. Ritual uncleanliness during menstruation is an example off the top of my head of things that were pre-existing and are not specified in Quran. Maybe they were pre-existing things that were allowed to continue. Or maybe they didn’t happen but they later spuriously found their way into hadiths because they were long-standing traditions.
In summary, I can’t seem to even practise the pillars of Islam without getting stuck on the question: why do we have hadiths that add rules on top of what’s in the Quran. Believing such rules are not that important, through one argument or another, seems to be the way I’m going. I am fully aware that this is a lonely road to take.