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.

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