Monday, May 25, 2009

The Devil and the Jew

In God's Problem, author Bart Ehrman states that the inadequate Biblical explanation of suffering is what led him from Christianity to agnosticism.

Is is possible to take the flip side of that argument to suggest that the presence of evil is evidence of a personal Satan? Before you dismiss this as a completely whacky idea, let's look at one example of what I see as evil - the unchanging hatred of Islam for the Jews.

(I need to present a big alibi before I even begin. I'm not insinuating that all Muslims hate Jews. I am talking, however, about core teachings of Islam that affect the attitudes and actions of hundreds of millions of people).

I've long wondered why Islam harbors such hostility for the Jews. Many Muslims in the west claim this is linked to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Muslim clerics and educators in the Middle East are much more honest. The speaker in this interview, addressing a group of young children, states clearly "our hatred towards the Jews is perpetual and continuous" because they did not accept Muhammad as a prophet. contains dozens of similar interviews.

In 1986 I went to Tunisia and tried to learn the Tunisian dialect of Arabic. An oral storyteller named Abdallah Laroui had lived earlier in the century and recorded hundreds of Tunisian folk stories that were played every day on Tunisian radio. I used to record and listen to them. Some of them were about the Tunisian Jews; Tunis had large communities of Jews who had lived there for centuries before they were forced out following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the disastrous Six-Day war of 1967. Whenever Laroui would mention the word "Jew", he would immediately follow it with the expression "hashek". This is similar to the English "God forbid", as in, "If you ever get cancer, God forbid", but means more than that. It has the additional connotation of "may this never happen to you", or "may you never become one of them". Laroui would repeat "hashek" every time he mentioned something distasteful, like a pig...or a Jew. "There was a Jewish shopkeeper living in La Goulette, hashek (may Allah never allow you to become one of them)."

Why did Laroui repeat this word after every reference to a Jew? It had nothing to do with 20th century politics, but was a reflection of long-held social attitudes towards Jews. It is similar to the call-in shows to Arabic TV shows that I have listened to where older Saudi women without hesitation use the word "kalb" (dog) to describe Jews, or just use both words as a noun-adjective phrase, "hathal-kalb al-yahudi" (that Jewish dog).

At Muhammad and the Jews, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, I described the experience of the Jews of Saudi Arabia as the result of their refusal to obey Muhammad. One could argue that Muslim hatred for Jews is the result of that refusal. But could there be an additional spiritual, supernatural element?

Traditional Christian theology is that Satan tries to destroy what God builds. Some theologians even see the activity of Satan in the first two verses of the Bible. Instead of, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void," they prefer, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth became without form and void" (after Satan got his hands on it and messed things up). Genesis 3 contains the story of Satan in the form of a snake, again trying to destroy what God had built.

Now the story starts to get interesting. God informed the snake (or Satan) that he would put enmity between "the seed of the woman and your seed". Although one could argue this is the reason many women do not like snakes, the story is usually interpreted to mean there will be two lines of people, the people of faith and the people without faith (or, the people of false faith). Several chapters later, Abraham is chosen by God to be the father, or ancestor, of the people of faith. The line is further narrowed down when Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Again, Isaac and his descendants become the chosen people of faith, with Ishmael and his offspring left outside the covenant. The descendants of Isaac were the Jewish people from whom Jesus was born, and the descendants of Ishmael were the tribes of Arabia from which Muhammad was born.

Back to the idea of Satan the destroyer; nothing is more destructive than imitation. Nothing destroys the value of a hundred dollar bill more than a counterfeit bill. What if there was a real, personal Satan who tried to imitate what God did by producing a counterfeit that would not only deceive, but would also enable Satan to destroy the true? If Abraham and his seed were the people of faith, why not create a counterfeit that would not only be close enough to deceive many but would also help obliterate the true?

How could one do this? First of all, by imitating the original story as closely as possible, but applying it to another person. The Bible says Abraham was prepared to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God; the Quran says it was Ishmael. The Bible says Abraham gave Isaac the blessing of the favored son; the Quran says Abraham and Ishmael went to Mecca where they built the kabah. The Bible says the descendants of Isaac were the chosen people; the Quran says the descendants of Ishmael are "the best of peoples". The Bible presents David as the Prophet-King; Muhammad dreamed of the same role. The Bible describes Jesus as the God-man; the Quran presents Muhammad as the Perfect Man.

A sinister plan carried out over thousands of years by a personal Satan to counterfeit and destroy the plan of God? It's an interesting idea.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Considering Islam? Watch

If you are an intelligent, clear-thinking person contemplating Islam, I recommend, a program intended to guide you in that direction. Is this because I want you to convert? No, it's because watching the show for a while will keep you from making that fatal mistake. Notice I said if you are "intelligent and clear-thinking". There are apparently many muddled ex-pastors and others out there who have never given up their search for the perfect religion and the perfect book. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

A recent program was entitled "The Five Main Misconceptions About Islam". If you have the time, we could turn this into a classroom exercise. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, and watch the 40 minute presentation. If you can counter the "Five Misconceptions", you don't need me. If you can't, or thought they were convincing, read on.

* * * * * * * * * * * (did you watch the entire video?) * * * * * * * *

The top five misconceptions, from 5 to 1.

Misconception number 5: The Quran copies stories from the Old Testament.

In spite of the fact that dozens of stories from the Bible are repeated in the Quran hundreds of times, Dr. Sabeel insists they were not copied because Allah is the author of every word in the Quran. If they were copied, according to him, they would have been exactly the same. Here are a few things to consider:

1) Muhammad's society was an illiterate one, where stories were passed by oral tradition at poetry fairs and around caravan campfires. It's inconceiveable that stories in the Quran would appear exactly as they were in their original sources. I'm amazed that someone would argue that the fact that stories do not appear in the Quran exactly as they were in the Old Testament indicates they did not come from that source.

2) Muhammad deliberately changed the Old Testament stories because he had a specific reason for telling them. Every story told by Muhammad about the Biblical prophets contained the same basic theme. The prophet was calling his people back to God, and if they did not obey they would be punished. This was to confirm Muhammad's claim that he was a prophet just like them and Allah would punish those who did not follow him. As an example, the story of Abraham in Quran 60:4 speaks of the enmity between Abraham and his people because the people had rejected him, and as a result the people were under the judgment of Allah. The earlier Biblical account contains nothing of this, but simply gives the historical account of Abraham moving from Iraq to Palestine. Muhammad altered the story for his own purposes.

3) Imagine a story that contained all the elements of a good tale: a beautiful woman, sex, family drama, and mystery. Now imagine men repeating this story around campfires for hundreds of years. What do you imagine the result would be? It doesn't take much imagination to realize the salacious elements of the story would increase with the telling. Next compare the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 and Yusuf (Joseph) in Quran 12. The Biblical story is almost boring in its simplicity. An attractive young man was sold by his brothers as a slave to Egypt, his master's wife tried to seduce him, he refused her advances, she told her husband he had tried to rape her, and the angry husband threw him in prison.

Now read the story in sura 12 of the Quran hundreds of years and thousands of campfires later. It contains numerous senusal details that never appeared in the original. The wife rips the shirt from Yusuf's back and throws a dinner party for her friends to impress them with his attractiveness. When they see him, they all lose control and cut their hands with their knives. Muslims believe this literally happened, in spite of the fact that it is difficult to believe the wife of an ancient Egyptian official would host a dinner party to show off the man she desired, and the guests would really cut their hands with knives.

4) The reality is the Old Testament is not the only source of the stories Muhammad copied into the Quran. One of the most nonsensical stories in the Quran is that of King Soloman and the magic bird Hudhud. The reason it is nonsensical is that parts of it were copied almost word for word from a pre-Islamic Jewish Aramaic childrens story called "The Second Targum of Esther" (or, Targum Sheni). The Muslim response to the Targum, of course, is to insist it must have been written centuries later after the Quran. The abundant historical proof this could not be true is available online; googling the above subjects will give both the historical evidence and the Muslim counter-claims.

4. Misconception number 4: The word "Allah" was an Arabic god or the moon god.

The word "Allah, according to Dr. Sabeel is the Arabic word for "the Creator", and Allah has always been the one true God.

This is an example of what I have previously posted; Muslims easily present "facts" without proof that can require the serious student hours of research to confirm or deny. Google "the history of allah" and carefully read the scientific and historical information available. Agricultural societies tended to worship the sun, and pastoral societies preferred the moon. Muhammad's was a pastoral society, and the moon god Allah was very important to them. This god, by the way, even had a female counterpart. Words are feminized in Arabic by adding a "t". The Arabs worshipped Allah and Allat (Mr. and Mrs. Allah!). Seriously, Allat was probably the daughter and not the wife of Allah.

There are additional psychological tidbits worth thinking about. Muhammad's father was "Abdallah", the servant of Allah. Muhammad had other relatives named after other local gods; Abdel-shams and Abdel-manaf. Did Muhammad emphasize the god Allah in memory of the father he never had? If his father had been Abdel-shams, would the god of the Muslims today be Shams, the sun god?

If there is no connection between Allah and the moon, why is the moon so important today to Muslims? The months of the Arabic year and religious holidays are all based upon the cycle of the moon. Mosque minarats by the thousand show the symbol of the crescent moon. The Arabic Red Cross is the "Red Crescent".

Muslims actually have a far greater challenge to face than who was Allah. Arab historian Jawad Ali in his book Mufasil Adyan Al Arab Qabal Al Islam , The Religions of the Arabs Before Islam, examines the 360 idols that were located in the kabah. These idols included Wudd, Rahman, Rahim, and many more. In his desire to attract the worshippers of these idols, Muhammad simply took them and inserted them into the Quran and the "99 names of God". All but one of the chapters of the Quran begin with Allah, Rahman, and Rahim. The god Ya-sin even had an entire Quranic chapter named after him! Why did Muhammad incorporate the idols of the Arabs into the Quran?

How do Muslims counter the above historical evidence? Denial.

3. Misconception number three: Jihad means Holy War.

Muslims love to argue that because the expression "holy war" (Al Harb Al Muqadasah) does not occur in the Quran, jihad is not related to fighting.

Rather than go into a detailed discussion of the meaning of jihad, let me give a few quick comments. Having just returned to the US after six years in the Middle East, I'm amazed at the way Islam is presented in the west as opposed to how it is interpreted in the Arab world. Dr. Wafa Sultan writes at length how Muslims change the definition of words to suit their audiences. Jihad is presented to the American audience as an inner spiritual struggle to improve oneself. Reference is often made to a weak hadith (that means, one that has been discredited by Arab historians and you would never hear quoted in the Muslim world) where Muhammad said the "greater jihad" was spiritual self-improvement, and the "lesser jihad" was fighting. The statistical fact is that 97 percent of the references to jihad in the Quran and the hadith mean only one thing: opposing the unbeliever to remove obstacles to the spread and domination of Islam. This jihad can take many forms, including fighting, money, and writing, but its only goal is to spread Islam.

2. Misconception number two: Women in Islam are Oppressed Because they Wear the Scarf.

The real question here is not "to veil or not to veil"; it is "does Islam honor women"?

Let's begin with the women in Muhammad's life. How did Muhammad honor his late mother Amina by refusing to pray at her grave? How did he honor his first wife Khadija by adopting no craft or profession? When they married, she was rich; when she died, they were poor. How did he honor her by not helping raise their children? There's not a word in Islam about Muhammad the father.

How did Muhammad honor the innocence, the childhood of Aisha by having sex with her when she was nine years old? How did he honor her by marrying many more women soon afterwards? How did Muhammad honor Aisha by suspecting her of adultery when she was innocent? Her own words were, "If I lied and said I did it, you would believe me; when I tell the truth and say I didn't, you don't believe me."

How did Muhammad honor his daughter-in-law Zaynab by encouraging her to divorce his son so that he, Muhammad, could marry her? Why didn't he use his influence as a "prophet" to help save, rather than destroy, their marriage? (for any women reading this, what would you honestly think if your father-in-law tried to get you to divorce his son so that he could add you to his list of conquests?). How did Muhammad honor his wife Hafsah when he lied to get her out of the house so he could sleep with the Christian slave girl he had recently given her? How did Muhammad honor Sofiya, the 17 year-old Jewish girl he took as a wife after he tortured and killed her husband? One of Muhammad's associates first claimed her, but Muhammad offered the associate two other women so that he, Muhammad, could have her.

If that is Muhammad's "honor" to his wives, you can imagine his mercy to his opponents. How did Muhammad honor the Jewish women who had lived in Medina for centuries? Within a few years of his arrival, they were all gone, sent out with only what they could carry while he appropriated all their wealth and property. Many hundreds of them were now widows, after he beheaded from six to nine hundred of their husbands, brothers, and sons in one day.

Muhammad honored Muslim women, you say? How did he do that when the Quran states that a man must perform ablutions after he has gone to the bathroom or touched a woman (Quran 4:43)? How is putting a woman on the level of feces honoring her? How did Muhammad honor women by stating that three things can invalidate the prayer of a man: a passing dog, donkey, or a woman? How is putting her on the level of a dog or a donkey honoring to her? How did he honor women by stating they were deficient in intelligence and religion? Can you really not see the connection between that and the fact that hundreds of millions of Muslim women today are functionally illiterate because education has been denied them?

How did Muhammad honor women when he stated that most of the inhabitants of hell are women? Muslims argue these are only "bad women". Well, bad women do things with bad men. Why aren't the men in hell?

How did Muhammad honor women by stating that, "Heaven for women is at the feet of their husbands."? Muslims love to quote the hadith that "Heaven is at the feet of mothers". The Muslim heaven must have a lot of feet. By the way, most Muslim women are mothers. How can heaven be at their feet if the majority of them are in hell?

How did Muhammad honor women by telling them their husbands could divorce them at any time with a word, or take other wives without informing them? How did he honor them by describing them as possessions of their husbands (Quran 4:3)?

The most basic human rights for a woman include the freedom to believe what she wants, and marry who she chooses. These rights are denied her in Islam. Although Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women, the Muslim woman does not have that choice. And neither of them have the right to not believe in Muhammad.

1. Misconception number one - Islam is synanamous to violence and terrorism.

Islam, according to Dr. Sabeel, is a peaceful religion.

I'll concede the point, to an extent. Islam was peaceful until Muhammad first began to mock the gods of the Quraysh. Ibn Ishaq describes Islam's first incident of violence in "The Life of Muhammad" as follows:

"Sad ibn Abu Waqqas was praying with a group of the prophet's companions, when a group of polytheists came and rudely interrupted them. They blamed them for what they were doing, until they came to blows. Sad smote a polytheist with the jawbone of a camel, and wounded him. This was the first blood to be shed in Islam."

That was a few pages into Muhammad's official biography. The rest of the biography is violence and jihad. So statistically, the peaceful stage lasted about 2 percent of the book. The remaining 98 percent is conflict.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why Christians Can't Debate Muslims

I've been watching some Muslim-Christian debates recently, and frankly, the Christians don't usually do very well. Here are three reasons I think this is true.

1. The Muslim's mind is made up before the discussion even begins.

(Or, if I were as blunt as Simon Cowell, I might say, The Muslim has a closed mind). He comes into the debate absolutely convinced of four things: 1) Muhammad is the perfect man, 2) the Quran is the perfect book, 3) Islam is the perfect religion, and 4) if you disagree, you are totally wrong. His role in the debate is only to convince you that he is right and you are wrong. As my Islamics professor Dr. Ismail Al Faruqi used to say, "To convince someone of the truth of Islam, you give them evidence. If they refuse to believe, give them more evidence. If they continue to refuse, you conclude they are either malicious or ignorant."

This is a world apart from the Western idea of debate where two opposing sides present their ideas, discuss the evidence, and reach conclusions in which they both might change their minds. There is no give and take on the part of a Muslim when she is discussing the things she is convinced of before the debate begins.

The Muslim might respond to the above paragraph by saying, "Everyone does that; not just us." Well, I don't. I go into a discussion prepared to listen, think, and change my mind if I see I was wrong. When I read, for example, the books of Bart Ehrman that challenge the way I have looked at my faith or the Bible, I'm prepared to rethink my beliefs. That doesn't happen with the Muslim.

(A quick aside; Muslims love writers such as Ehrman who challenge traditional Christian assumptions, but a Muslim Bart Ehrman - that is, a Muslim scholar who used the same scholarship to reach the same conclusions about the Quran that Ehrman has about the Bible - would be ostracized in America and beheaded in Saudi Arabia. It's interesting how many ex-Christian pastors convert to Islam when their beliefs about the Bible are challenged. Rather than use the challenge to grow to a more mature understanding of faith, they jettison it all and go on a lifelong quest for the "perfect book" which they eventually conclude is the Quran).

The result is that the debate with the Muslim will never go very deep. It can't because he is unwilling to be challenged in what he believes.

2. Muslims love to throw out "facts" that the Christian is unable to counter.

As a child I heard the statement, "A fool can ask more questions in five minutes than a wise man can answer in a lifetime." Similarly, the Muslim can make more claims in a twenty-minute debate than a person who doesn't know much about Islam can answer in a long time. Even to do the research is a daunting task.

Here's one example; I could give dozens. Muslims love to say, "Muhammad forbade the practice of female infanticide, which was commonly practiced in the jahaliya (pre-Islamic period of ignorance)". One online Islamic site claims, "Prior to the advent of Islam, female infanticide was rampant in Arabia. Baby girls were buried alive the moment they emerged from their mother's womb."

When the Christian hears that infanticide was "rampant" but Muhammad stopped it, she thinks, "Wow, that's impressive." Not one in ten thousand can give a response.

The fact is, the Muslim claim that Muhammad forbade this practice is based upon a single sentence in Quran 81:8,9. In the midst of a striking and poetic description of the final Day of Judgment, Muhammad asks, "When the female who was killed at birth will be asked, 'What was your crime?', what will her response be?"

The historical truth is that female infanticide was not "rampant" in Saudi Arabia. It was seen as something shameful by the Arab tribes themselves. The Quran, the hadith, and the early biographies of Muhammad are filled with the names of women who obviously were not killed at birth. Female infanticide was an exceptional practice condemned by the Arabs themselves.

The most authoritative biography of Muhammad, "The Life of the Prophet" by Ibn Ishaq, discusses a group of men who broke with polytheism to follow the monotheism of Abraham before Muhammad announced that he was a prophet. These men, known as the hanifs, were relatives and associates of Muhammad, and he was greatly influenced by their beliefs as a young man. They practiced meditation in the caves of Hara and Muhammad, following their example, was in the same cave when he claimed Gabriel appeared to him.

Ibn Ishaq says the following about one of these hanifs, "Zayd bin Amr stayed as he was; he accepted neither Judaism or Christianity. He abandoned the religion of his people and abstained from idols, animals that had died, and things offered to idols. He forbade the killing of infant daughters, saying that he worshipped the God of Abraham, and he publicly rebuked his people for their practices."

The following is clear from Islamic history itself:
1. Female infanticide was the exception, not the rule, in pre-Islamic Saudi Arabia.
2. The hanifs, who were associates of the young Muhammad and included his wife's cousin Waraqa bin Naufal, condemned the practice and publicly rebuked those who did it long before Muhammad mentioned the subject in the Quran.

My point is that it takes a lot of research for the average person to counter the claims Muslims so easily throw out in discussions and debates. We haven't done that research, and we are easily duped by those claims.

3. Muslims don't always tell the truth in debates.

(Again, if I were Simon Cowell, I might have phrased the above sentence a bit differently).

It amazes me how easily Muslims in America throw out information that is a lie. Again, there are dozens of examples, but one of the most common is that Aisha was a teenager when Muhammad married her. EVERYBODY in the Middle East has known for 1400 years Aisha was 9 years old when Muhammad married her; it's not even a matter of discussion. Realizing that the idea of a self-proclaimed 53 year old religious prophet having sexual intercourse with a 9 year old child is distasteful to Americans and is cause for really bad jokes (What do you call a Catholic priest who has sex with a 9 year old? A pedophile. What do you call a Muslim who does the same thing? Khatem Al Anbiah - the seal of the prophets), Muslims simply change their own history. I've given information about Aisha before, so won't repeat it here.

So the next time you hear a Muslim argue that "jihad is an inner spiritual struggle", or "the Quran explains osteoporosis" (yes, there is a verse in the Quran where Zakariya complained about his grey hair and his "weak bones"), or "Muhammad understood embryology hundreds of years before medical science" (because the Quran discusses "the piece of dirt" and the "nuftah" and the "attached thing like a leech" and the "piece of chewed-up thing" for which ten Arab scholars will give ten different explanations), take it with a grain of salt. If you are inclined to believe what you hear, at least take the time to do the research.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It Goes a Little Deeper Than That

I used to think that if Muslims really understood the life of Muhammad, they would stop believing in him. If Muslims knew that Muhammad tortured a young Jewish man to death to get his money, and then had sex with his 17 year-old wife the same night, wouldn't that cause them to think twice? (and no, this is not linguistic hyperbole; the Arabic text says that Muhammad "aathaba" the young man and that is the only Arabic word I know for torture). If they realized that while visiting one of his wives Muhammad got turned on by the beautiful Egyptian Christian girl he had given her as a slave, lied to his wife to get her out of the house while he had sex with the girl, and then composed an entire chapter of the Quran threatening to divorce his wife because she was unhappy when she found out - wouldn't that make you at least question your faith in Muhammad as the perfect man, the greatest example, the person you want to follow the rest of your life?

Now I'm not so naive. Following are two personal examples that help explain why Muslims continue to believe.

1. The Power of Denial

When Ahmad walked into my house in Riyadh, the first thing he noticed was the Arabic Quran and the biography of the life of the Prophet lying on my coffee table. Like any good Muslim, Ahmad was not about to pass up an opportunity to do "dawah".

"I see you are interested in Islam," he said. "Tell me, what do you think of Muhammad?"

My reply was not what he expected. I picked up Ibn Hisham's "Al Sira Al Nabawiya", opened it to a particular page, and handed it to Ahmad. "Why don't you read this?" I asked, "Then tell me what you think of Muhammad."

And so Ahmad read "Umayr ibn Adiy's Journey to Kill Asma bint Marwan". The full story is described here. Muhammad had told one of his followers to "Take care of" a poetess who had written a poem he didn't like. After the man killed her while she was sleeping, he reported back to Muhammad. Perhaps bothered by guilt or fearful of retribution, the man asked Muhammad if anything would happen to him. Muhammad reassured him the murdered Jewess was not worth two goats butting their heads together.

I watched Ahmad's face change and visibly grow pale as he read the story. He finished it, and handed the book back to me. "I didn't know that," he said. "I never heard that story."

But it only took a few seconds for the mental programming of 30 years of Islamic denial to kick in. "Muhammad didn't really send that man to kill the poetess," Ahmad informed me. "When he told that man to 'take care of her', he meant he wanted the man to write some poetry to counter her poetry. He didn't really want him to kill her."

2. An Entirely Different Perspective

I was watching the Muslim shaykh on TV explain the hadith where a woman's hand was cut off for theft. This woman had a habit of "borrowing things, and then denying she had borrowed them". When Muhammad learned of it, he ordered that her hand be cut off. Her tribe was shocked; this type of punishment had never been applied before, and even the people she had stolen from did not want her hand amputated. They asked one of their leaders to go to Muhammad and plead for mercy for the lady.

Muhammad's face grew angry as he listened to the leader. "By Allah," he thundered, "I would cut off the hand of my daughter Fatima if she was caught stealing. This punishment will be carried out!"

And it was. Muhammad's young wife Aisha commented that she often saw the woman walking around with her missing hand, and the woman had "done a good repentance". I imagine she had.

I saw the story as a vivid example of the barbaric civilization Muhammad wanted to establish. But the Shaykh on TV interpreted it completely differently. He praised the unflinching obedience of Muhammad to Allah (for it was Allah, after all, and not Muhammad, who ordered hands amputated for theft). He loved the justice brought by Muhammad; the Prophet of justice would apply the same rule of law to his own daughter that he did to a stranger.

Putting these two incidents together gives some evidence of why Muslims continue to believe, no matter what they learn about Muhammad. The "denial syndrome" is alive and well in the West, where Muslim apologists deny with impunity facts about Muhammad that are well known in the Arab world, or give the "lite low cal" version of Islam to unsuspecting Americans. The "totally different perspective" is flourishing in the Middle East, where Arab apologists not only acknowledge but take great pride in the aspects of Muhammad's life that are uncompatible with Western concepts of a 21st century civilization.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Was it the Thamudians or the Nabateans?

I recently watched Muslim Christian Dialogue About the Quran, between a Christian lawyer and Muslim Nouman Ali Khan. Nouman argued that God always gives a miracle to his prophets to validate their message, and cited the Arab prophet Saleh who produced a live camel from a rock. The miracle given to Muhammad was the perfect Quran.

Having recently spent three days at Madayn Saleh in Saudi Arabia, where Saleh allegedly lived, the video caught my attention. Is it possible that these two ideas (Saleh and the Magic Camel; Muhammad and the Perfect Quran), instead of proving the infallability of the Quran, prove that it is a flawed document? Impossible, you say? Let's look at the story in four stages: what the Quran says, why it says what it says, what history and archeology say, and how Muslims resolve the difference.

The Quran repeats the story of Saleh in numerous places. He is usually placed within a trinity of ancient prophets (sorry, "trinity" is the wrong word; perhaps we should say "trilogy") that include flood survivor Noah, Hud from the tribe of Ad, and Saleh from the tribe of Thamud. Most Muslim historians and Quranic commentators, including Ibn Kathir and Al Tabari, place Saleh about two centuries after Noah. They believe that the "generation after Noah and its messenger" (Quran 23:31,32) refers to Ad and Hud, and the "people of the century after that" (Quran 23:42) refers to Thamud and Saleh. The following verse, Quran 23:44, indicates that many more prophets were sent before Moses (Quran 23:45). This is in agreement with Quran 14:8,9, where Moses stated that these three prophets (Noah, Hud, and Saleh) lived long before him. So Saleh and the Thamud tribe, according to the Quran, lived many thousands of years ago.

Quran 7:73-78, 15:80-84 and several other texts tell the basic story. The Thamud lived in a rocky area called Al Hijir (which means rock in Arabic), and carved their houses out of rocks. They were idolaters, and Allah sent one of their own, the prophet Saleh, to call them to himself. When the Thamud challenged Saleh to produce a live camel from a boulder if he wanted them to believe, he did so. An immense pregnant camel appeared, and soon gave birth to a calf. Following Saleh's instructions, the people set up a system where only the camel could drink from their wells every other day. The people in turn would all drink the milk of the camel. Some of the tribespeople rebelled and killed the camel. Allah then sent an earthquake to destroy them in their homes.

When Muhammad passed through the area on his way to raid Tabuk, he warned his army not to enter the rock-carved homes unless they were in tears, lest they meet the same fate as the original inhabitants. For this reason, some members of the Saudi ulema still oppose any tourist development of the area (that really makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?).

Now comes the interesting part; where did the story come from?

Umayya ibn Abu al-Salt was a poet and one of Muhammad's relatives. Numerous hadith refer to Muhammad's appreciation of Umayya's poetry. Sahih Muslim tells the story of Muhammad asking one of his followers if he remembered any of Umayya's poetry. After the man recited a few verses, Muhammad asked him to continue, until the man had recited one hundred couplets.

Early Muslim historian Ibn Hajar Al Askalani wrote that Muhammad would often sit with Fariah, the sister of Umayya, and she would recite to him her brother's poetry. Much of this later appeared in the Quran. Umayya's lines:

The God of the heavens and the earth
And lord of the mountain peaks
Created them and planted them firmly
Without visible pillars or cords

Are repeated almost word for word in Quran 31:10: “He created the heavens without visible pillars, and planted mountains firmly on the earth.”

The famous story of angels opening the chest of Muhammad to remove a "clot of impurity" (as if sin is a physical clot!) first appeared in Umayya's poetry.

Included in Umayya's poetry was the local folk legend of Saleh and his Magic Camel. Umayya even gave more details than did Muhammad; he described the camel emerging from the boulder, as well as the camel's newborn calf.

(An interesting aside is that Umayya ibn Abu al-Salt, like most of Muhammad's relatives, never became Muslims. According to one hadith, when Umayya was passing by the cemetary where those killed in the Battle of Badr were buried, he commented, "If Muhammad were really a prophet, he would not have killed his own people.")

Muhammad was well aware of the structures carved out of the rocks in the area now known as Madayn Salah. It was directly on the caravan routes between Mecca and Syria, and he had probably seen them on his trips as a young man. He simply took the legends, gave them a location, added his usual warning of, "What happened to them will happen to you if you don't follow me," and put them in the Quran.

Part three: what do history and archeology say? This will be really short, because anyone interested in further research can find much available online.

The abundant archeological remains available in western Saudi Arabia, as well as documents from ancient Greek and Roman historians and geographers, make it easy to determine with great certainty who lived where when.

An Arab tribe known as the Lihyans occupied the area of Al Hijir in the 4th century BC. About three centuries later, the area was overtaken by the Nabateans who came from Petra in Jordan. The Nabateans in turn were conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century AD. The Nabateans carved tombs for their deceased out of the rocks, and these tombs still exist today.

The Thamud tribe first appeared in history when they were defeated by King Sargon II in 715 BC. They remained as an Arab tribe until they disappeared in the 5th century AD. Although they lived in various parts of Saudi Arabia, there is no evidence the Thamud ever lived in Al Hijir. Remnants of Thamud writing have been found in the southern Tabuk region, but that is still some distance north of Madayn Saleh. Saudi archeologists agree with their non-Muslim counterparts that the ruins from Madayn Saleh are one-hundred percent Nabatean.

A quick review of the differences between archeology and the Quran indicates the following:

1. The Quran says the Thamud lived soon after Noah and before Moses; archeology places them from the 7th century BC to the 5th century AD.

2. The Quran says the Thamud lived in the area of Al Hijir; archeology says the Lihyans and other tribes lived there.

3. The Quran says the Thamud built their houses out of rocks; archeology says these were tombs built by the Nabateans (and Muhammad, who knew nothing of the Nabateans, did not realize they were tombs, not houses).

Now we come to the final part: how do Muslims reconcile the differences between the Quran and archeology? That's easy. At the hotel where I stayed in Al Ula, there were two kinds of tourists. The first were groups of Westerners, who were interested in the archeology of the region. The second were busloads of Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and other Muslim countries who spent a day at Madayn Saleh as part of their hajj or umrah package tour. Our (Muslim) tour guide told us the archeological history of the area. We learned about the Nabateans, their stone carvings, their engravings, and their history. The Muslims pilgrims didn't learn anything about that. Their tour guide told them about Saleh and the Magic Camel, the camel who was created from a rock. They went home to tell their children about the thousands of Thamudians who lined up to drink fresh milk from the udder of Saleh's Magic Camel.....and the legends continue, generation after generation.

If you are a Muslim, I have a question for you. Which group of tourists would you have preferred to be with? What would you have wanted to hear from your tour guide? The history of the Nabateans, or the story of the Magic Camel?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Still Thinking Out Loud - Part 2

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Madain Saleh (the cities of Saleh) in Saudi Arabia. It's an collection of Nabatean tombs from 2000 years ago. Although not as well-known as the more spectacular similar tombs of Petra, Jordan (one reason is that Saudi Arabia is just now tentatively beginning to grant tourist visas), it's still an impressive place to visit.

It was therefore with great interest that I noticed that my favorite Arabic TV program, "Daring Question" with host Rashid, recently hosted an episode on "Saleh and the Camel and the People of Thamud". Rashid is an ex-Muslim who challenges Muslims in their understanding of the Quran. He and his guest first relayed the story of Saleh as it appears in the Quran. In his usual ignorance of history, Muhammad claimed that the area now known as Madain Saleh was occupied by the Thamud tribe soon after the time of Noah. A prophet named Saleh was sent to warn them against idolatry. The people, wanting a miracle to prove that Saleh was from God, dared him to produce a giant camel from a huge rock. Saleh prayed, the rock moved, and turned into a pregnant camel. The people then set up a system in which the camel would drink water one day, and they would all drink the camel's milk the following day. Eventually they killed the camel, and God in turn destroyed them.

When Muhammad passed through the area on one of his raids, he commented that because the people had been destroyed, no-one could enter their ruined city unless in tears. For this reason, some conservative Saudi scholars still oppose tourists visiting the area.

After Rashid and his quest presented archeological evidence that it was the Nabateans, and not the Thamuds, who built the tombs that remain till this day, they gave viewers the opportunity to call in. Most viewers insisted that the Quranic account was correct, for the simple reason that the Quran is from Allah and can never be wrong. When Rashid asked, "Give me one piece of evidence from history and from archeology that it was the Thamud tribe who built those tombs, just one piece of evidence that is not from the Quran," they not only were unable to do so, but were not even interested in the question. The Quran said it, and that settled it.

As I was listening to Rashid, I thought, "But don't we do the same thing with the Bible?" Conservative Christians believe, for example, that Jonah really did spend three days in the stomach of a fish. If you ask them, as Rashid asked his viewers, "Give me one piece of evidence apart from the Bible that this really happened," there is no answer. Again, the Bible says it and that settles it.

Rashid is now a Christian, who calls Muslims to leave Islam and become Christians. He recently did two extensive interviews with Wafa Sultan, who is also an ex-Muslim. She also challenges Muslims to rethink many of their assumptions, although as a non-religious person she does not call them to Christianity. The fascinating thing about the interviews is that Wafa and Rashid are both on the same page in their understanding of Islam and its negative impact on its followers. One is a believing Christian, the other a non-religious atheist or agnostic, and yet they share the same values, opinions, and perspectives. The similarities between them were much greater than their differences. They are both calling people to become better human beings, to treat others better, and to leave the world a better place then when they arrived. I thought that was really interesting.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Thinking Out Loud (a most dangerous thing)

I've been thinking lately about two related questions: What is a Christian, and am I one?

These questions would have been too simple to even ask for most of my life. The world was divided into two kinds of people. There was a small minority who were saved, of whom I was one. Our destiny was paradise with Jesus. Then there was the much larger group of the lost, who were going to hell. They would be cast into an everlasting furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42), tormented forever in the flames (Luke 16:24). The punishment is similar to the hell of Islam, where skins will be burned off only to be replaced with new skins (Quran 4:56), and whose inhabitants are forced to drink boiling water (Quran 14:16). The difference, of course, is that the Muslim hell is for all who did not accept Muhammad, and the Christian hell is for all who did not accept Jesus.

These descriptions of the Christian hell, by the way, were those preached 50 years ago when I was a child. Preachers shy away from them today, preferring to describe hell as "eternal separation from God." Apparently even most of them don't want to think too much about the literal hell of the Bible. Larry King never passes up an opportunity to ask his evangelical guests - whether James Dobson, Billy Graham, or Joel Osteen - about hell. Their answer is always to just say that this is a heavy question, but God will work it all out.

Interestingly enough, the way to escape hell in both Christianity and Islam is to make a statement. The statement in Islam is "I testify there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet" (this should be done in Arabic which, if not the only language God understands, is far and away his favorite). The Christian counterpart is, "I accept Jesus as my Personal Lord and Savior." Unlike Islam, this can be done in any number of ways. My favorite was the Christian camp I attended as a teen-ager, where the speaker encouraged us around the campfire to clasp the finger of one hand in the palm of the other if we wanted to make that momentous decision. We didn't even have to say a word!

Following the decision, of course, in both Islam and Christianity, are things to be done. The first thing in Christianity is to be dipped for a few seconds under water. This is considered to be of such significance that churches have divided over whether it is essential, or subsequant to, the initial born-again experience (which is another way of describing "the statement"). Then one is to tell others what happened to them, pray, read the Bible (daily is best), and go to church. The sequence in Islam also includes reading the Quran, saying prayers at the mosque, and describing your experience to others (called "witnessing" in Christianity, this is "dawah" in Islam).

Having never been a Muslim, I'll leave the parallels for now and concentrate on the Christian experience. The first thing the new Christian learns is that everyone in the entire world is bad. They are all going to hell, unless they make the statement. This poses many intellectual problems for Christians, especially for those who are strongly pro-Israel, since all those Jews are going to hell as well. I've heard Christians come up with some unique solutions to this dilemma. One was that all Jews who were killed in the holocaust got a free pass. Others think that Jews - but no-one else - will be given a second chance after death. The most common view is that things are going to get really bad for Israel over the next few years, and boatloads of them will accept Jesus. That takes care of the Jews in the future, but doesn't give much hope to those who die now.

One of the cracks in the wall came for me a few years ago. Wafa Sultan, a courageous ex-Muslim, says she refuses to believe anything that goes against her reason. I was watching the documentary "Born into Brothels", a story of children born into prostitution in India. The film maker not only made a beautiful film, but put much effort into rescuing the children from their tragic lives (just as Wafa Sultan, who is non-religious, does into liberating Muslim women). I realized as I was watching the film that I could not believe that a person (religious or not) who would devote herself to freeing children from prostitution would suffer the same eternal fate as the man who practiced child prostitution or sold his children into it.

The next thing the Christian is expected to do - at least the Christianity of my youth - is believe the Bible is all literally true. Our earth is in a solar system, including the sun and its nine planets, but God did not create it that way. He first made the earth, and four days later made the sun and the other planets (there were some good explanations of how you could have several days without a sun!). The possibility that a writer thousands of years ago might have based the story upon the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe was not to be taken into consideration. Next comes the story of the walking snake who suddenly loses his legs. Some time ago Aayan Hirsi Ali, another courageous ex-Muslim who is now an atheist, was asked why she had given up all faith. Her response was, "I refused to go from the Allah of Islam to stories of gardens and snakes." At the time I thought that by going from "Allah is not god" to "there is no god", she might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Now I'm not quite so judgmental.

So where am I now in all this? I'm not sure. I began by saying I've been asking myself questions. I didn't say I have answers.