My first memories of anything Islamic were when I prepared to start work in Saudi Arabia.
In the United Kingdom I visited my local library and read some books on the country. The place looked extraordinarily exotic and once I got there I wasn’t disappointed.
I vaguely knew that Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of Islam, but as to the significance of the Ka`bah, Hajj, etc., I knew even less.
Some Saudi newspapers have a daily question and answer piece on Islam. The questions submitted by the readers were often extremely specific on minute, seemly irrelevant practices — for example the salah (ritual prayer) or ablution — and these questions were often read out in the work tea room by ex-pats — including myself — for amusement. It all seemed so incomprehensible — but then everything about Saudi Arabia was a culture shock, so I never considered the religion separate from the culture.
Later I shifted to the United Arab Emirates. Here, it felt almost European, laid back, sort of quasi-Mediterranean in comparison. This made me look at Islam differently — it didn’t seem so tough and dogmatic as in Saudi. Inevitably again, I debated Islam at work or with friends and I was impressed with the logic.
Logic and religion? These two are not supposed to coexist.
I had numerous but always friendly arguments about religion with Muslims. In hindsight, I was the one who provoked the discussion (I’ve always liked a good argument). My curiosity aroused, I started reading some pamphlets. I was wary of people trying to “convert” me, although no one seemed particularly out to proselytize. On the contrary, my friends patiently went along with my arguments.
Religious discussions were frustrating by my lack of information — I was getting fed up with this, so I embarked on a refutation of Islam through reading. I searched for the weak spot — so then I could triumph over these Arabs! I only read booklets and books that I carefully chose myself, looking only for those that were as impartial and frank as possible, written by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
I began to realize the astonishing range of issues Islam deals with, particularly on the social side. From hygiene to education, from war time and economics, to racism, to nationalism. No matter is too small to escape its rational instruction. Throughout, the Quran addresses mankind, not just the bickering Arab tribes of the time. It is not limited to the period of revelation but appears to speak down the ages.
I found the tone consistently serious and majestic but always simple and crystal clear. It all seemed rather practical and sensible. Religion was just not supposed to be like this. Could all this be thought up by an illiterate man 1,400 years ago? Well, maybe.
As I said, I had an extensive religious education. These are a few of the creeds of Catholicism that I had always found difficult:
- The Christian clergy of priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, etc. Why do we need a hierarchy? Could a religion operate without one?
- Divinity of Christ. Did he actually claim divinity? What was that first commandment again?
- Doctrine of the Trinity. Sorry, I just don’t get it. Anyway, some prominent Christian leaders now openly doubt it, as do some Christian sects, for example, the Unitarians.
- Church statues. Idols are breakable. Anyway, what was that second commandment again?
- Infallibility of the Pope. But he did make errors, for example when condemning Copernicus for saying the Earth revolved around the sun.
- Original sin. A newborn baby has inherent sin and needs forgiveness (baptism)? Again, somehow difficult to understand.
- Worshiping “saints.” Do we need an agent to reach God?
- Transubstantiation. Where bread and wine are transformed (literally) into the flesh and blood of Christ during the Mass. Are there elements of paganism here?
- Christ died on the cross for the “sins of the world.” If Christ died for our sins in advance, then why bother trying to be good? Anyway, did he really claim this?
And there’s more, but I’ll spare you.
Islam graciously cut through this ideological nightmare. One by one these muddled dogmas were clearly debunked as I dug deeper in my research. I was interested to learn that the central Christian tenets above were trashed out by a conference 300 years after Christ died. The conference was heavily prejudiced by the powerful Roman emperor of the time: not exactly divine. The monks must have forgotten to mention all that.
Surprisingly, in Islam, Christ is a highly revered prophet. Also, like Muhammad, he would never be termed divine. In fact many Muslims are named `Isa (Arabic for Jesus), and Christ and Mary are mentioned in the Quran more times than Muhammad.
My hunches that these were man-made doctrines were finally proven right. It was quite a relief. Whatever issue I examined in Islam, I could not find error nor did I have to stretch my credibility. Surely then it cannot be of human origin. No wonder the monks at school kept it all well hidden. However, my stubbornness held out another year or so.
I tried to read the Quran, which initially I found heavy and intense. I soon realized that this was because it was so concise and concentrated — there was no padding out. It appeared strangely succinct, like a telegraph message. Surely, I wondered, if written by Muhammad, it would be full of the narrow stories of the times, not to mention mistaken scientific beliefs of the time.
So far, no one has found any discrepancies; however, I still looked for one indisputable scientific fact that would clear up the issue: The size of the universe or the distance to the sun for example would do nicely. I could not find anything that specific, of course. Maybe that is the point: Humans always like evidence on a tray, clearly labeled.
I often felt Islam was dogmatic, loaded with tough restrictions and regulations. Was it all necessary? Can’t we just go out and have a good time and do what we want? But upon closer examination, I saw that those who “suffer” most by such restrictions are the strongest of society. Who are these? The wealthy, young, healthy, usually male. Who are vulnerable? Women, the poor, the sick, the very young and the very old. All are strongly protected by Islamic Law, centuries before the welfare state was dreamed of. For example:
- Who drinks and enjoys alcohol the most? Men. However, who actually suffers most from alcoholism? Battered wives and abused children, not to mention the thousands killed or maimed by drunk drivers.
- Who’s restricted most by the prohibition of sexual promiscuity? A man can walk away from pregnancy. Women are biologically inclined to monogamy. So who pays the real price of promiscuity? The unwanted baby born to a single mother left to fend for herself.
- Who benefits from the clothing restriction on women? Hardly the men. Women are protected and respected from predatory males, rape, and pregnancy.
- Who enjoys and profits financially from pornography? Throughout history this has always been a male thing. Not many magazines seem to be owned or bought by women. It’s well known that rapists and child abusers (men again, I’m afraid) are often driven and seduced by explicit pornography.
- Who suffers by giving obligatory charity? The rich.
- Who wants to care about the elderly in a society that worships youth? It’s such a nuisance to hedonistic young people. Muslims are obliged to look after their parents and all the elderly. Again the weak are given security.
The list goes on.
It’s clear that “harsh” Islamic rules actually protect the weak and those without a voice in society. It’s not surprising, then, that the abhorrence against Islam, even from the very beginning at the time of Muhammad, came from the high and mighty of society.
Regarding women, I thought I had hit on the weak spot of Islam until I discovered that women enjoyed inheritance and divorce rights 1,400 years before the West discovered “Women’s Lib.” A wife even keeps her own name after marriage. Some of the richest people in the Muslim world are women. Contrary to my image of Muslim women being “oppressed,” my personal observation was that women were not simply equal to men but in some ways held in a distinguished, almost reverential position in society.