Christianity, Islam

The Trouble With Islam

First, let me say that I am only comfortable making these observations because in Sura 2.76 through 2.79, 3.7, and 3.78, among other places, Muhammad makes it clear that the Quran, together with the Torah and Gospel, is Islam, and that the additional “revelations” that people may contribute are highly suspect. So, a person like me who reads the Quran is entitled to form a valid opinion. Second, I want to note that as a Christian I have no fundamental problem with the notion that Muhammad may have been chosen as God’s prophet to the Arabic people and, through them, to others. The Prophet specifically renounces any divinity in himself, and he professes that the Gospel is Truth. He accepts that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary by God’s divine act, to carry God’s message and play out the role described in the Gospels. His only real quarrel with mainstream Christian theology is with the notion of the Trinity and Christ’s equality with God. Muhammad was reacting against Gnostic theology and other religious notions that proposed co-gods that should be worshiped, so he was quite emphatic that nobody should say that God has “helper” gods. He logically argues that God was in the beginning and that Christ was His creation, begotten or not, and that Christ thus exists at the will of God, cannot oppose or add to God, and is not necessary to God’s operations. I don’t think that a Christian needs to disagree with any of that, because it is perfectly reasonable to view Christ, who achieved perfect alignment with God, as being part of God without quibbling about the Trinity, which even in core doctrine is officially a Mystery. Muhammad apparently felt the same way, since he specifically accepts Christians that properly follow the Gospel as being proper Muslims. The two are consistent.

I read the Quran in order to fact-check the American commentators that have been asserting that Islam is an inherently violent religion. That assertion is wrong. The Quran does have passages, mostly written when the Prophet was in Medinah and trying to work up support to go and take Mecca, that indicate that God will condemn those who fail to fight bravely in His cause. See, for example, Sura 4, which contains a number of verses encouraging fighting against the enemies of faith. Overall, though, along with repeatedly endorsing the Gospel and Jesus, the Quran discourages fighting and vengeance. Thus, while Sura 4.89 says to catch and kill oppressors of Faith, 4.90 then goes on to forbid killing anyone who offers credible assurances that they will not fight. Sura 5.28 through 5.32 tells the pacifist story of the sons of Adam, “If you raise your hand against me to kill me, then it is not for me to raise my hand against you to kill you, for I fear Allah. I intend to let you take upon yourself my sin as well as yours, for you will be among the companions of the Fire.” Killing is banned save for those who murder “or do mischief in the land”, i.e. those who actively oppress the faithful.

The Quran does dictate that Muslims should not tolerate people preventing them from practicing their faith, and should do whatever is necessary to stop them from such interference. Remember, though, that the Quran classifies Christians as Muslims, and so gives Christians the same dictate. A great many professed Christians would be pleased to follow Muhammad’s dictate to overthrow, by violence if necessary, anyone who sought to suppress their faith. I think Jesus Himself would demand more caution as to means – “put away your sword” – but Christians are really not in a position to criticize Islam for this dictate. The Quran does not endorse the harming of innocent civilians, it expressly bans the killing of any believer including proper Jews and Christians, and it counsels mercy and giving even active oppressors a chance to reconsider and change their hearts.

Islam, then, is not inherently violent, and indeed is much less violent in general than the Old Testament. (The Wahhabi version of Islam backed globally with Saudi money is a different story; here I am speaking to Islam as authorized by The Book, not to that bloody-minded offshoot.) The problem with Islam is not inherent violence. Further, while it is unfortunate that the Quran is written against a background where slavery, including sexual slavery, was considered okay (though it indicates that freeing slaves is a good act of charity), I think we can put that in the context of the time and place it was written, and state that modern Muslims should know better.

The real problem with Islam is not these things, but rather is its vision of God. The Quran repeatedly states that people can only find salvation if Allah wills it, that Allah could will it for everyone if He chose, and that seeking salvation is hopeless if Allah does not feel like letting you get there. See, for example, Sura 6.110 through 6.112, 45.23, and 57.22. Further, the Quran, unlike the Bible, is very wrapped up in visions of hell, in which the damned are subjected to creative and very nasty tortures for ever and ever. This, we are told, is just, because the damned chose to stray from The Path. However, again, the damned can’t choose to stay on The Path unless Allah feels like it, so while they did wrong they did wrong under Allah’s supervision. Does that really merit infinite torture? This, to me, is a vision if a very large bully playing “why are you hitting yourself?” on an eternal scale, which I can’t believe is an accurate reflection of God.

The Quran instructs people to pray to and worship Allah several times a day, to never even consider setting up the idea of “helper gods”, to make the pilgrimage, to follow a few specific rules, and to practice charity, a notion that appears to fold in other broad concepts of honor, virtue and niceness. Charity and virtue, however, are not emphasized as being the core of what it is all about. Worshiping the Big Guy is, and realizing that He is the only one who can help you or hurt you is the key, and a great deal is made of the destruction of Sodom, Noah’s flood, the drowning if the Pharaoh’s army, etc. to emphasize that Allah will wipe out those who refuse to believe, along with then torturing them for eternity.

This is a vision that makes it easy to accept killing innocents to promote the greater glory of God. Allah wipes people out without much qualm. Allah has them tortured forever. Allah rewards anyone who was collateral damage by giving them nice gardens with lots of good food and drink forever. So, what’s the big deal if you kill a bunch of people?

Now, all of the Old Testament wrath stories are in the Christian Bible, and many Christian sects are big on the notion of fiery tortures in hell. Calvin taught that government should ruthlessly suppress the ungodly so that they would not interfere with the Elect, and Martin Luther told the German emperor to use the guns on unruly Christians. So, Christianity is not immune from these flaws. As I explain in Christianity Made Simple, however, the real message of Christianity is quite different. God does not seek to have people worship Him out of vanity; He wants to have people seek virtue. God does not condemn people to tortures in hell as punishment; He allows Free Will so that people may find bliss in virtue, and the necessary side effect of that choice is that people may instead follow spiraling, insatiable desires that are themselves the tortures of hell – not a punishment, but a condition chosen by those who failed to learn to find pleasure in virtue. God does not grant favors to those who ask nicely enough in prayer. God gives all what they need without asking, and prayer is merely the process of finding what you have already been given. Christianity rightly understood, then, does not lend itself to hatred or slaughter. However, very many Christians do not understand their own religion.

On the other hand, I would argue that many Muslims have gotten past the problems with the Quran and have come to rightly understand their religion. They realize that Allah, who sent Jesus, wants us to be loving, peaceful and kind. They realize that because Allah is goodness, worship of Allah is not like worship of some vain king, but rather is done by focusing the mind on virtue and kindness. They realize that the boiling water and putrid wound-ooze of the Quran’s hell is just a metaphor for the self-inflicted torture of insatiable Want suffered by those who fail to learn to take pleasure in virtue, and likewise that the cool gardens of heaven are a way of suggesting the pleasures felt by those who learn to find bliss in virtue, rather than really being a place of endlessly entertaining varieties of fruit. The Quran, like the Bible, must use earthly metaphors for that which we cannot truly envision.

There is no inherent conflict between Islam and Christianity. Muhammad was correct in saying that those who truly understand are all following the same religion and all have God’s approval. The problem, as Muhammad correctly noted, is that people are so frustratingly willing to fail to understand a simple message. Be good and kind to your fellow creatures. Avoid sinful, insatiable wants and learn to take pleasure in loving others and doing good for them. Realize that doing the right thing simply because it is right is the only acceptable choice, and that “right” is best seen by its effect on others. It is not that complicated. Christianity Made Simple applies equally well to Islam. If God thought it was complicated he would have made us all a lot smarter. We just need to try harder to do what our hearts try to tell us is right.