Only Genesis and Questions for Islam
John C. Rankin
(January 17, 2013)
Based on the pursuit of religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally, and based on the theological and political assumptions in Genesis and the Power of True Assumptions (Second Edition) [see johnrankinbooks.com] here are some open-ended questions for Islam:
- How does Islam understand creation, sin and redemption?
- Is Allah singular in nature?
- Does Allah communicate directly with anyone but Muhammad?
- In Islam, is there any dialogue with Allah?
- What is the nature of man and woman in Islam?
- What is the nature of human freedom in Islam?
- Can Muslims pose Allah their toughest questions?
- Can Muslims challenge the authority of Islamic leaders?
- What is the place of science and the scientific method in Islam?
- How do the Qur’an and Hadith view the place of eye-witness verifiable history?
- Do Muslims trust in Allah and the Qur’an through any other source but Muhammad’s singular testimony?
- What is the nature of Shari’ah law?
- How does Islam regard non-Muslims?
- What are human rights and justice in Islam?
- Islam claims to be universally true, and that all people will ultimately submit to Islam. How will this come to pass?
The nature of these fifteen questions is to invite Muslim scholars and peoples to give answers as they best see fit in pursuit of a healthy social order. By the same token, there is history and context.
In the Qur’an, in Surah 1 (Al Fatihah or “The Opening”), with its interpretive power for summing up the whole Qur’an, it has no concept of an original goodness. It instead assumes the presence of judgment and wrath already in existence. Thus, my overarching question is this: Is there any place in the Qur’an that describes an original goodness unpolluted by broken trust?
Thus, beginning with the assumptions of Surah 1, here are ten set of questions parallel in subject matter to the ten positive assumptions of Only Genesis:
1. The Nature of Allah. In Surah 1, Allah is called the “Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds.” Yet Allah does not enter into space and time to relate to us, and by definition, Allah is singular in terms of human number. Thus, is greatness defined by Allah being greater than the universe, but also keeping his distance from human beings, being too great to dwell within the universe at the same time? This leads to the question of unity and diversity. There are three basic concepts of deity in human history, in reverse chronological order. First is a monad: This is Allah in the Qur’an, who is eternal but defined by the human concept of the number one, as he has “no companions.” Second is polytheism: This is where there is a multiplicity of finite gods and goddesses, “companions” often at war with each other. And third is Trinitarian monotheism: This is the biblical Yahweh Elohim, who is eternal and greater than the human concepts of space, time and number as made clear by the etymology and biblical usage of the Hebrew words. He is revealed in the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is easy to grasp once it is understood that Yahweh Elohim is not restricted by the human concept of the number one. These three different concepts of deity produce three different possibilities. First is Allah – unity without diversity, or the power of imposed conformity in the religious and political order. Second is polytheism – diversity without unity, or the chaos of competing parochial powers in the religious and political order. And third is Yahweh Elohim – diversity in service to unity, or the freedom produced when there are checks and balances on power in the theological and political order. Is this a fair representation?
2. The Nature of Communication. In the Qur’an, Allah does not communicate with men and women directly. He speaks only through Muhammad (essentially by the agency of the angel Jibril), and only in a one-way capacity. Muhammad is a vessel for Allah, but in the Qur’an he only records what Allah says, with no human interaction, no dialogue, no asking of questions. All the biblical prophets had dialogue with Yahweh Elohim, and full freedom to pose him the toughest questions. Many Muslims see Muhammad as the most perfect human example through whom they can relate to Allah. So whereas the Qur’an rejects the idea of Jesus as the fullness of the Creator in human form, we as human beings still need to communicate with the One who created us. For Muslims, here is a good question: How can communication with Allah happen through Muhammad, when in his own communication with Allah, Muhammad was only on the receiving end, passive by definition?
3. Human Nature. The Qur’an speaks of mankind variously as being made from a “clot of congealed blood,” or “water” or “clay” apart from any context related to a defined and good order of creation. Is there any idea of Allah breathing the breath of life into mankind, any idea that man and woman equal the crown of creation, his highest purpose?
4. Human Freedom. In Surah 2 (Al Baqarah or “The Heifer”), verse 256 says: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.” This is a good concern, but it is also a double negative – reactive in nature. This is like the other nearest concept of freedom in the Qur’an and Hadith – liberation from slavery, but not a freedom “for.” Does the Qur’an have a prior and deeper positive or proactive definition of human freedom? Too, these words from Surah 2:256 come from the early Medinan period in Muhammad’s leadership, when Islam was under persecution by the polytheistic Qur’aysh. How consistently were these words followed into the late Meccan period, when Islam gained great military and political power; and likewise in the expansion of Islam beyond Arabia following Muhammad’s death? Was not the spread of Islam by imposition?
5. Hard Questions. Among the ahadith there are various examples of Muhammad graciously receiving questions from believers and unbelievers alike. What then is the essence of Surah 33 (Al Ahzab or “The Confederates”), verse 36? It says: “It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter had been decided by Allah and his Messenger, to have any option about their decision.” Does this indicate a restriction on certain questions? (In Genesis 18, Yahweh Elohim gave Abraham the option to challenge the decision on Sodom and Gomorrah.) Then, in the ijtihad (legal reasoning) of Shari’ah law, it is prohibited for a Muslim to question 1) the existence of Allah, 2) the prophethood of Muhammad, or 3) the perfection of the Qur’an. To do so is to be regarded as an unbeliever or infidel. How can there be political and economic freedom in the Muslim world if there is no prior religious freedom to pose questions of Allah? How does this same restriction relate to Muslims posing of questions of Islamic leaders? And finally here, in Ibn Ishaq’s The Life of Muhammad, we see instances of the opposite of the love of hard questions, beginning with the hijra, the emigration to Yathrib (Medina), which is also the beginning of the Islamic calendar. For example, on p. 239, Ishaq says: “It was the Jewish rabbis who used to annoy the prophet with questions and introduce confusion.” And on p. 270, when some Jews asked Muhammad “who created Allah,” the text reads “The apostle was so angry that his colour changed and he rushed at them being indignant for his Lord.” The angel Jibril is said to have quieted him, but as the questions continued, again, “The apostle was more angry than before and rushed at them” (p.270).
6. Human Sexuality. Here, there are many questions for Islam. For example: How does ordained polygamy serve the equality and complementarity of men and women? A man may marry up to four wives, as Surah 4 (Al Nisa or “The Women”), verse 3 states (and he can have sex with any of his female slaves, as verse 24 states). But a woman can only have one husband. In Islamic history, a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man. In Surah 2:223, a wife is considered a tilth, a field to be tilled. Is the same true for how a wife can consider her husband? Surah 4:34 speaks of a man’s right to “strike” or “beat” or “scourge” his wife if he believes it “necessary” to discipline her. There is some debate about the Arabic word used here, and whether it might mean something softer like “a gentle slap,” as in the view of translator ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali. Still, does the wife have the same right to discipline her husband, as it were? And across Islam there is a debate over the veiling of women, modestly, or with the full burqa. So often it is said that men need to be kept from temptation, and thus Muslim women need to be veiled in public. Is it only the fault of women that men might be tempted? Is a just social order possible apart from the genuine equality and complementarity of men and women?
7. Science and the Scientific Method. In Islamic history, particularly in al-Andalus, there was great scientific study and incorporation of Greek classics. But does Islam to this day invest itself in the discipline of archeology in order to sustain any of its claims? As well, Jesus invited his enemies to disprove him if they could find one thing untrue in what he said or did (the ethical prerequisite for the scientific principle of falsification) – and they failed. Did Muhammad ever hold himself up to the same scrutiny?
8. Verifiable History. The Qur’an has no historical storyline within itself. It does make many references to the biblical storyline, but with no exegetical knowledge of the Bible or even direct quotes from the written text. The Qur’an itself is ambiguous about the Bible. It affirms portions that it claims to follow, but even then, only as interpreted through an Islamic understanding, and well after the fact. It also changes various assertions in the Bible, historically, theologically and otherwise. Historically, for example, in its treatment of Noah and Moses, the whole storylines are changed to reflect Islamic assumptions apart from biblical content or process of verifiable history. Theologically, for example, the Qur’an repeatedly disputes Jesus as the Son of God. The Bible comes through thousands of years of multiple eye-witness history of very many Hebrews and Christians, and as inspired by the Holy Spirit. But the Qur’an only comes through the inner non-testable experience of one man, Muhammad. Indeed, it is in Muhammad’s word alone that all Islam places its trust – in a manner contrary to verifiable history and the Law of Moses. Many in the Muslim umma say that the Qur’an needs to be interpreted through the Hadith (singular for the eye-witness stories about Muhammad’s life, given by his companions). The process of assuring what ahadith are true (for example, 7,397 out of at least 600,000 by Sahih al-Bukhari) is rooted in a rigorous process of verifiable history as into the authenticity of those who passed along stories about Muhammad for over a century until written down. Yet the Hadith is spoken of as an entirely human project. But the Qur’an, without any process of verifiable history, is spoken of as entirely divine. Why the difference? For example, the Bible understands Yahweh Elohim coming to us inside our own storyline, in the person of Jesus as Yahweh Elohim in human form. The Bible has both Yahweh Elohim’s presence and human involvement side by side and interfacing in the same text. In Islam, Allah’s declarations and the human storyline are separated between two texts – the Qur’an is hortatory with no intrinsic storyline, and the Hadith has Muhammad’s storyline. In the balance of the Qur’an and the Hadith, does not the same human nature common to us all yearn for incarnation, for divine presence within the human story?
9. The Nature of Law. The Qur’an does not speak of covenantal law, but out of the Qur’an and Sunnah flow Shari’ah law. Allah is to be obeyed apart from any promises he might make. Biblically speaking, Jesus, as Yahweh Elohim in the flesh, held himself accountable to the covenant of the Law of Moses, even dying for our sins. Even though the Qur’an limits a man to four wives, Muhammad was given a special exemption to this rule for a season, placing him above the law (Surah 33:50-52). He had 13 wives over his lifetime, as many as 11 at one time, including his taking of Zaid’s wife by “divine revelation.” How does Islamic Shari’ah law compare with biblical covenantal law? Biblical law is understood in the context of “grace” (from the Hebrew hen and the Greek charis for “gift”) where life and salvation are gifts of Yahweh Elohim, of Jesus, to be received and then acted on out of gratefulness. Out of such a gift comes the ability to do justice. Shari’ah law, in contrast, micromanages people’s daily lives, and thus, life and salvation depend on a legal compliance with Shari’ah, as Surah 7 (Al A’raf or “The Heights”), verse 8, says: “And the weighing will be just on that Day. Then those whose (deeds) are heavier in the balance will find fulfillment, and those whose (deeds) are lighter in the scale shall perish.” Shari’ah law is understood to eventually rule all nations in this life, where people will ultimately have no choice but to “submit” to it (the root meaning of the words islam and muslim). Biblical covenantal law imposes nothing in the present political order, but serves communities of informed choice both now and in eternal life.
10. Civil Rights. The Qur’an does not indicate any sense of unalienable rights for all people equally, given by the Creator, and above human law. Rather, its discussion of rights is found within the legal framework of what Muslim peoples can expect from others in various settings, under a concept of justice. In contrast, from the beginning of the church, in the face of great persecution, before it was later corrupted by political power, Christians took care of those who were not Christian, honoring their unalienable rights – for the poor, the needy, widows, orphans, prisoners, exposed infants, the oppressed – with no expectation of anything in return. But in the Qur’an and Islamic history, such charity was only extended to fellow Muslims, with Jews and Christians being treated as second-class people, dhimmis, denied many civil rights given to Muslims, and pagans were treated even worse. Which of these two views of law creates the most just society?