Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Articles, Comments

Part 4: Freethinking Apologetics

So you're a bold "freethinker" and I'm a miserable little "apologist." Oy vey. Why can't I be the "freethinker" and you the "apologist"? That sounds a lot nicer and I'm the guest here. After all, I'm "thinking freely" about Islam while you're writing "apologetics" for a radical critique. Our vocabulary is determined by our perspective.  In any case I'm not writing this in order to get you to "accede at the end of this discussion to [my] charges." I'm happy to be wrong if we can only agree that different perspectives are possible. Merely possible. That would be enough to make me happy.  These are not questions that permit of proof like mathematics. Nor are they matters of logical necessity. I'm not trying to pulverize you, rhetorically speaking. I'm just offering another way of looking at Islam, an Islam for free-thinkers.

This other way is indeed based on a different approach to the canonical texts than the one upon which you insist. It seems to me that you are defining Islam down to one interpretation-one interpretation of the Quran, one interpretation of the Hadith, and one interpretation of the religion. Then you destroy this interpretation. For it is an interpretation! This form of argumentation is called the "straw man" fallacy. You have expressed considerable concern about my authority or lack thereof. You wonder to what "universally accepted thesis" I can appeal. But you don't have any such problem even though your interpretation is not exactly "universally accepted." So authoritative are you about the "real" religion that you do not hesitate to write the whole Sufi tradition right out of Islam! I don't know many actual Sufis but gosh, the moderate Muslims of my acquaintance all admit Sufism into the tent of Islam. It's a wide tent. Getting in seems to have something to do with declaring the shehata (along the lines of "there is no God but God and Mohamed is his prophet") and considering oneself Muslim. It's not known to be a difficult initiation procedure. And then you're a member, with all the rights and privileges thereunto. Indeed, my critique would be that it is too wide a tent, permitting the bin Ladens of this world to slither their way inside and outstay their welcome by a long shot. I speak here of Osama, not the whole bin Laden family, some of whom I know and respect as moderate Muslims. We must be careful not to tar the guilty and the innocent with the same brush. The same goes for the family name of a religion.

I'm not clear about what makes you so sure of your own interpretive authority. You do not seem to recognize the four schools of Islam that most moderate Muslims respect. Yet even if you did your authority would not be unassailable. Correct me if I am wrong, but I am under the impression that Islam does not have an established ecclesiastical authority like, say, the Catholic Church that Voltaire so indignantly assailed. It seems that authority comes easily to you because the Qur'an is so easy to understand, according to your interpretation by way of selected citations. Almost a millennium and a half of interpretation has yielded continuous disputation, but all that is over because now you understand it perfectly. Is it then your ability to read the text literally combined with simple logical prowess that gives you the interpretive edge?  That seems to be your claim. Please don't be angry when I observe that this is not the only way to read and interpret this (or any other) religious text.

May I suggest that you are missing something of the utmost relevance here, something that the fundamentalists and indeed many other interpreters likewise are missing. That is the fact that we do not come to any interpretation as perfectly dispassionate readers operating with some kind of purely independent logical mechanism. We come from where we come from, from our pre-existing perspectives, our sum of life's experiences. We can call these "prejudices," as long as we understand that such pre-judgments are not a "bad" thing but rather belong to being human. That's where all of us begin our study of anything. If we are open to a discussion, a work of art, or a text, we may be able to change our pre-judgments in light of what we see and hear. That's what we call "learning." Our ability to learn in any given situation is not simply a matter of logical ability or IQ or education-whether too much or too little. It is a matter of our openness to having our pre-judgments corrected, to testing ourselves, to overcoming our indignation at what we read or have read, see or have seen, suffer or have suffered.

I realize that I am straying from the very severe limits you place on our discussion:

You [Walter] have said, "This means that I am not the person with whom to debate textual evidence". This suggests you are not willing or able to discuss the sole aim of our website, Islam. In this case, this debate will not lead to any fruitful conclusions. We make it clear again that from our side, discussion would be centered on the Koran and Sunnah/Ahadith (the two absolute foundations of Islam. You may wish to consult any expert whom you might know and that will be helpful for making this discourse more meaningful and beneficial for the readers.

However, any religion including Islam also has a history, which includes a history of textual interpretation. It has been said that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, and I would suggest that some knowledge of the history of interpretations might be relevant to your own interpretation. It is possible that your approach has been tried before. If your purpose is simply theological disputation over individual quotations from the texts, as you insist, I have to agree with you that the value of our discussion is coming to an end because I'm not really interested in that level of disputation. I would suggest you skip talking to ignoramuses like me and go directly to the literature. There is a literature of Quranic interpretation over the past 1400-plus years, and it's huge. That's where the real textual expertise lies. You can't just ignore or deny the authority of every commentary on the Qur'an and Hadith except your own and thereby claim to have "disproved" the religion. If you wish, I can suggest some commentaries with which you can start. Even Seyyed Qutb, for example, published a multi-volume exegesis of the Qur'an. There's hard work to be done. Real scholarship is required. Pulverizing me might be a lot of fun, but it is no substitute for that work if you are serious about your chosen task.

The fact is that your interpretation, far from being the "only" one, is extremely restrictive. Why, you are even more restrictive than Qutb, who didn't claim that the statement "no coercion in religion" is abrogated but who instead pointed to its central importance and interpreted it in his own (very peculiar) way. You're more radical than the fundamentalists! Your cited passages from the Qur'an, after all, do not say that this statement is abrogated. That is your interpretation! It may be an excellent and deeply insightful interpretation, but please, at least grant me that it is an interpretation! You assume that all the "nice" stuff is abrogated and all the "bloody" stuff remains. Moderate Muslims of my acquaintance seem to think that the earlier passages set forth the basic nature of the religion and later passages are oriented toward practical matters, and some even go so far as to suggest that the "bloody" parts were directed toward specific foes in context of defensive war. Apologetic, I know-but completely absurd?

You add another point about my citation:

One more logic point of need consideration. Note that "No compulsion in religion" is the word of the almighty creator. This means such intent (force compulsion on his children) ever crossed the mind of such an all-compassionate father. Well, only if I (Allah) had the power - which indeed came but at a later time and the almighty Allah forced that compulsion well on His independent-minded children (Jews, Christian, idolaters) by mass execution & enslavement (Banu Quraiza tribes) and mass exile (Banu Nadir and Banu Qainuqa) through Prophet Muhammad himself. 

Note that you yourself make extra-textual reference here to the history of Islam.  You're breaking your own rules! But in any case, doesn't your interpretation depend on an anthropomorphic God? Something "crosses the mind" of "an all-compassionate father." Logic is an operation that depends, after all, on a given state of affairs. Your logic depends on your interpretation. I don't mean this as a criticism, but rather as a statement of fact. 

The difference in tone between your own cited Quranic verses and Hadith that I found so striking isn't even admitted for consideration. You simply say, "No there isn't any striking difference-" But the striking difference doesn't rest on your interpretation; it rests on the very statements themselves quite regardless of interpretation. Here they are again:

Both Koran and Sunnah are very categorical about apostasy from Islam as serious crime which bears punishments ranging from "greatest punishment" (~death?) to death. I am quoting a few relaxant sections from the Koran and Hadith that deal with apostasy.

1. They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper [Q 4:89]

2. Make ye no excuses: ye have rejected Faith after ye had accepted it. If We pardon some of you, We will punish others amongst you, for that they are in sin [Q 009.066].

"Ali burnt some people [hypocrites] and this news reached Ibn 'Abbas, who said, "Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, 'Don't punish (anybody) with Allah's Punishment.' No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, 'If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.' " [Sahih Bukhari 4.260]

Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17: Narrated 'Abdullah: Allah's Apostle said, "The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims."

Volume 9, Book 89, Number 271: Narrated Abu Musa: A man embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism. Mu'adh bin Jabal came and saw the man with Abu Musa. Mu'adh asked, "What is wrong with this (man)?" Abu Musa replied, "He embraced Islam and then reverted back to Judaism." Mu'adh said, "I will not sit down unless you kill him (as it is) the verdict of Allah and His Apostle." 

My claim was that on the face of it the Quranic verses appear to be far less dogmatic (more "poetic") than the Hadith about whose provenance I asked. That still seems quite striking to me. Look at them! Am I wrong? Are they all equally "categorical" on the face of it? Don't the Quranic verses require more interpretation from you than the Hadith? Maybe my Western apologist proclivities are leading me astray, but they sure look that way to me. Look at them again! Don't you see it? Gosh, the difference "blows my brain" every time I look at it and you're not even turning a whisker. 

Regarding the Hadith, when I say: 
We would have to examine the provenance of the Hadith in question in order to explore this further. As I understand it, none of the Hadith is considered absolutely certain but there is a range of probability.
You answer:
This has always been the excuse of the western-minded, apologist, western-resident
neo-Muslims that Hadith is not relevant to Islam and that their correct recording is suspect as they were recorded 200 years after Prophet's death. Koran was also compiled 20 years after Prophet Muhammad's death and there are also similar chances of mistake (although to lower extent), which Muslims and their apologists are not willing to agree.

But I didn't argue that the Hadith are not relevant to Islam! You're putting words into my mouth. What I say is that in my understanding, "there is a range of probability," and I ask where in that range the particular Hadith you cite fall. As I understand it, that range has been "authoritatively" determined, although none of them is 100 percent certain because, as you correctly say, they began to be recorded 200 years after Prophet Muhammad's death. Actually, as I read your riposte, you don't exactly deny my point. 

I don't want to wax overly indignant here. When it comes to free-thinking, you have to admit that the ultimate authority, even more than Voltaire, is Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche has remarked that "moral indignation is the unfailing sign that one's sense of humor has left one," and he adds, "no one lies as much as the indignant do" (Beyond Good and Evil, # 26). The way I interpret this, it's not that the indignant set out to lie-just the opposite, they are certain that they are setting out to tell the truth.  But their indignation inevitably twists their perceptions and their perceptions twist the truth. Indignation is not conducive to ferreting out interpretive ambiguity. For my part, I promise to try to steer clear of it.

Is it not the case that your whole interpretive strategy is based on the compilation of individual statements? In the end, you rest your interpretation on individual passages to the effect that the Qur'an is easy to understand, which according to you makes it possible to rest your interpretation on any other individual passages with Quranic authority. You are most unkind to us Western and Westernized apologists who insist on finding complexity and blather on about taking the work as a whole into account.  You are even unkind to me, your friend in this endeavor, noting that some passage or other "almost blew Walter's brain." And you are right, although not about the blowing my brain part. I do see complexity where you see simplicity. I do view the text-indeed, any eminent text, whether of religion or literature-as having texture.  You write off anybody from anywhere with any kind of background who sees likewise, so I guess that I lose no matter what I say. For according to you, anybody to whose authority I could appeal would be either automatically discredited Western apologists like me or, perhaps even worse, "western-minded, apologist, western-resident neo-Muslims." From my perspective, this is called the "ad hominem" fallacy.

Let's turn for a moment to this citation issue. You have all those citations with their marvelous clarity:

Allah says repeatedly that the Koran is clear in transmitting the His message and has been written in simple language which every person can easily understand. I am listing a few such verses:

1. Allah had made His Qur'an clear and easy to understand-2:242

2. The Qur'an is revealed in Arabic (Muhammad's mother tongue) to make it easy to understand and give glad tidings and to admonish people (Muhammad's people)-19:97

3. The Qur'an is made easy to understand...19:99

4. The Qur'an is easy to understand and remember...54:17, 22, 32, 40

There are more verses (2:242, 5:15, 12:1, 14:4, 15:1, 16:82, 16:103, 22:16, 24:46, 6:195, 28:1-2, 43:244:2, 57:9] that says Koran is clear and easy to understand.

Whew! I can't even count that high.  But what if there's something to the contrary in this most simple of books? Let's say for sake of argument that these 23 (more or less) citations are all entirely clear and simple. What if there's just one that implies something different? Either we would have to resort to a mathematical standard-23 to one-or we'd have to investigate the context to see if they can be reconciled. In other words, we would have to start interpreting the text.

Well, self-admitted ignoramus that I am, let's see if I can find one. I'd better look in the Medina section, since you've ruled the Mecca surahs out of order. Hm. How about the third surah, Medina period, "The House of 'Imrān," paragraph 7:

He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves-and these are the essence of the divine writ-as well as others that are allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]; but none save God knows its final meaning. Hence, those who are deeply rooted in knowledge say:

"We believe in it; the whole [of the divine writ] is from our Sustainer-albeit none takes this to heart save those who are endowed with insight."

Oops. This must be one of yours! All that stuff about messages being clear in and by themselves, those being the essence and all! You should have mentioned this one too (maybe you did). However, my handy English edition has a long footnote:

The above passage may be regarded as a key to the understanding of the Qur'an. Tabarī identifies the āyāt muhkamāt ("messages that are clear in and by themselves") with what the philologists and jurists describe as nass-namely, ordinances or statements which are self-evident (zāhir) by virtue of their wording (cf. Lisān al-'Arab, art. Nass). Consequently, Tabarī regards as āyāt muhkamāt only those statements or ordinances of the Qur'an which do not admit of more than one interpretation (which does not, of course, preclude differences of opinion regarding the implications of a particular āyah muhkamah). In my opinion, however, it would be too dogmatic to regard any passage of the Qur'an which does not conform to the above definition as mutashābin ("allegorical"): for there are many statements in the Qur'an which are liable to more than one interpretation but are, nevertheless, not allegorical-just as there are many expressions and passages which, despite their allegorical formulation, reveal to the searching intellect only one possible meaning. For this reason, the āyāt mutashābihāt may be defined as those passages of the Qur'an which are expressed in a figurative manner, with a meaning that is metaphorically implied but not directly, in so many words, stated. The āyāt muhkamāt are described as the "essence of the divine writ" (umm al-kitāb) because they comprise the fundamental principles underlying its message and, in particular, its ethical and social teachings: and it is only on the basis of these clearly enunciated principles that the allegorical passages can be correctly interpreted.

It doesn't sound so simple anymore, does it? But it does sound like my citation of "no coercion in religion" just might fit this interpretation. Is it just barely possible that my interpretation isn't simply Western-apologistic stuff and nonsense? That's all that I'm asking for.

Let me now comment briefly on what is arguably your central assertion:

The truth is: human wisdom, logic, knowledge and capacity to reason has improved by thousands of folds since the time Koran was revealed. Yet, in today's world of excellence in science and reason, people with the highest degrees (PhD etc.) cannot make out what these select verses (seemingly unacceptable) mean. I have seen modern Muslims with outstanding intellectual achievement behind them, including decades of teaching in renowned Universities in Asia, Europe and America do suffer from the same crisis when comes the issue of these verses.

Having established why intelligent people of good faith might find interpretive difficulties where you see none, let me focus on the first sentence.  I agree that we make better washing machines and atomic bombs these days. But human wisdom has "improved by thousands of folds" in the last 1400 years? Really? We are wiser now than, say, Socrates? Our capacity to reason is better than, say, Ibn Rushd's? Is reason then the same thing as modern natural science? Or do you mean that the scientific methodology has somehow improved the natural human capacity for reason, as it has improved technology? How has it done that? What is your evidence? World peace, perhaps? You go way beyond textual disputation with this amazing claim, despite your own injunction, and you also go way beyond my ability to grasp how you can possibly be serious about this. I am willing to enter into this debate over the nature of human wisdom. These questions might take us in an entirely different direction from wrangling over Islamic textual citations but hey, you're the one that brought them up.  A good way to begin would be to go through a Platonic dialogue-any Platonic dialogue, your choice-and find all the places where wisdom and rationality have improved since then.

I do not expect to have persuaded you. Nor can you expect to have persuaded me.  That's not how it works. The best we can do is to offer each other our thoughts, from which each of us will hear whatever we can hear. I think that you are right to question whether this debate should be carried any further. Not only am I not qualified to trade citations with you, but also I do not find that form of theological argumentation interesting. I have tried to express my reasons for that disinterest as clearly as possible, and apologize if I have failed. I also apologize for any note of asperity that has crept into my part of the dialogue.

Let me end with a suitably obscure but hopefully intriguing quote about the Qur'an from a genuine born-and-bred non-western-minded non-western-resident non-neo-Muslim named Mawlānā Jalāl al-Din Rūmī:

The Qur'an is as a bride who does not disclose her face to you, for all that you draw aside the veil. That you should examine it, and yet not attain happiness and unveiling, is due to the fact that the act of drawing aside the veil has itself repulsed and tricked you, so that the bride has shown herself to you as ugly, as if to say, "I am not that beauty." The Qur'an is able to show itself in whatever form it pleases. But if you do not draw aside the veil and seek only its good pleasure, watering its sown field and attending on it from afar, toiling upon that which pleases it best, it will show its face to you without your drawing aside the veil.

How can we make sense of this? Perhaps we should try for a sympathetic interpretation-for according to my thesis, some degree of sympathy is required for interpretation. Maybe then we will see all those horrid citations in a new light, and maybe we will learn to let go of our righteous anger and find peace.