“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
– William K. Gifford
“Let there be not compulsion in religion; truth stands out clearly from error.” [Qur’an 2:256]
Most Christian parents of college-age students with whom I have been personally acquainted express great fear that their son or daughter will “lose faith” in college. This fear even ranks above that of many of the more obvious temptations of college life, such as drug use, alcohol use, or promiscuity. Concern about the appeal of atheism and agnosticism in secular American universities is widespread in East Texas, where I was born and which I still call home. The airwaves (of Christian radio stations) frequently feature stories about formerly-devout Christian teens going off to major universities and having their faith “debunked” by Ivory Tower academics intent on luring young adults away from their roots.
My family is typically East-Texan in most ways. Having become known as “the smart one in the family” (I say this in all humility), I was seen off to college with both great anticipation and great anxiety. As I progressed through college, I was closely scrutinized and frequently admonished to keep on the lookout for rogue professors, lest I fall into their trap and “become too smart to believe.”
In college, I began to question and re-examine my religious-cultural background. Where did I stand as an individual? What kind of person would I choose to be? Would I follow that which I had always been taught, settle close to home and live the same life I had always lived? Would I become an atheist or an agnostic like my family feared I would? But why does being a rational, scientific, intellectually honest person mean I have to be an atheist or an agnostic? Who can use science to “debunk” God? “I want to be smart” I said to myself, “and I also want to believe. So how is it that one can be too smart to believe?”
The answer, I found, ten thousand questions and answers later, was: you cannot. This January, I embraced Islam, a decision that was informed in equal measure by my mind and my personal religious sensibilities. It was the culmination of a great emotional and intellectual battle to secure not just my faith in God but also my integrity as a thinking person, beleaguered as I was by the false fear that true faith may come only at the expense of intellect.
At Rhodes, the inimitably Southern Liberal Arts College which has become my second home, I had the opportunity to meet Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, who took up a position there in the Religious Studies Department in the fall of 2010. In the spring he offered a course that focused on modern Islamic political movements in which I was eager to enroll. Although the course did not cover general Islamic knowledge, such as history and theology, from the course I learned one of the most important lessons I have acquired in a classroom: the great need for Muslims to speak convincingly to non-Muslim westerners who can only see the worst of the Islamic world. “Ninety percent,” Sh. Qadhi said once in class, “of the facts you learn in classrooms you will forget. What will be important is that you learned how to think.” Any informed Muslim in America knows to stay away from mainstream network news sources such as Fox or CNN, which, prioritizing ratings and revenue over the truth, often pander to their audiences with half-factual stories reported in a loud and emotionally appealing style. But how do you talk to someone whose facts all come from sources that present an insipid and uncritical view of the Muslim world? Who has been taught all their life that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a mysterious, complicated struggle as old and time, to which no one remembers the cause – perhaps something vague about an “incompatibility of values” – and to which there never has been a solution? Who views the world in terms of an ultimate “clash of civilizations,” with Christianity on one side of the line and Islam on the other?
I agree strongly with Sh. Qadhi’s statement, quoted in a recent New York Times article, that, as an American Muslim, “you feel your faith.” As a religious minority, you are forced to make choices that Muslims don’t frequently have to make in Muslim-majority countries. You are forced to choose on a daily basis what are to be your priorities. In post-9/11 America, you must be more informed, poised, and persuasive on key issues than the majority – you must know all of their sources better than they do as well as all of your own. Your identity is a struggle for you; a struggle that channels your strengths, keeps you diligent and prevents you from hypocrisy.
A few weeks ago, Sh. Qadhi asked me over lunch what made me decide to come to Islam. After all, bowing one’s head to the ground, fasting, and studying Arabic are all activities that the majority of Americans do not engage in on a regular basis. From the perspective of the mainstream, European and American mentality, many of the practices of our religion seem “foreign,” indelibly “Eastern.” My tongue was held by the immediacy of Sh. Qadhi’s question and by the force and number of possible replies that raced through my mind; in this deadlock I produce only a few half-considered thoughts. But had I had more time to think about my answer, I would have replied as follows.
Islam became normal for me because it is normal. It is a religion of honesty, human dignity, and good old common sense. Its doctrines are easily intelligible, correspond with the universal inclinations of human thought, and can be expressed through clear, unequivocal use of human language. Islam requires no suppression of the intellect nor blinding of the senses to believe in; there is no conflict between reason and faith in Islam. Islam is not a foreign culture – it is equally at home in Yemen as in Yakutsk. Islam is a system adaptable to all times and places; the timeless and inextinguishable precepts which form its message, delivered countless times across the span of time have stirred the hearts of the greatest men to perform the most significant actions in history. “World history,” I told Sh. Qadhi, “did not make sense to me until I began to understand Islam.”
But how did I come to see all of this? Perhaps I should attribute it to the quality of my sources. It is not hard to accept the truth of Islam – what is hard is abandoning all the problems you had before Islam.
Islam stands on its own merits. Chief among these is its simplicity. All of the precepts of our religion extend from one premise: the premise that Allah , to the extent that we are capable of understanding Him, exists. From the fact that Allah , the Ever-Merciful, is, it proceeds that He would furnish some means whereby those of His creations which are endowed with free will, human beings, might be brought into the fold of that mercy through which they would be instructed in the correct way to believe and the correct way to live. Thus proceeding from His mercy, Allah sent prophets to mankind to warn them. It is natural that such a God would also furnish signs through his creation so that man would come to have understanding of these truths by observing and investigating the world around him. If one accepts belief in the One, All-Powerful and Ever Merciful God, this entails belief in His revelations. If one believes in His revelations, it is natural that one should choose to follow that which they teach – i.e., to be a Muslim, one who submits to the will of God.
Belief in this All-Powerful, All-Merciful God has always been absolutely central to my identity; it was only just before I came to college, at the age of 18 years, that I began to seriously question whether or not Christianity was the true religion of God. “Now I re-examine philosophies and religions, They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents,” writes American poet Walt Whitman. Naturally, any educated person professing Christianity has to come to terms with the Pauline doctrine that the same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Sublime author of all that exists, was also a human being who lived on this earth, ate, slept, and prayed to God. The more I studied the Bible, the more I came to see that this doctrine was only indifferently supported by scripture and sometimes contradicted by it outright. In the Gospel of Mark 12:28-32, one of the Jewish scribes asks Jesus which is the most important of all the commandments:
And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but He:
And to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question. (KJV)
The first commandment mentioned by Jesus in the above passage is taken from Deuteronomy 6:4:
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD our god, the LORD is one.”
The word for “one” in the Hebrew scriptures is cognate with the Arabic word for the number one as in the first ayah of Surat’l-Ikhlas (112:1):
“Say: He is Allah, the One!” (Pickthal)
Any Christian would nominally agree with the first half of our shahadah that “there is no god but God.” Yet the Hebrew Scriptures, like our own Qur’an, take this oneness a step further to affirm the essential unity of our Creator. God is the One, and the only entity worthy of worship. How, then, can He be three?
Early Christian communities which had accepted the doctrine of the trinity struggled to reconcile the obvious difficulties in their theology, which necessitated that three be somehow equivalent to one. The only solution was to split the definition of God into two parts: “person” or “substantive reality” (Gk. hypostasis) on the one hand; “essence” or “being” (Gk. ousia) on the other. Without diving into a too-detailed discussion of Greek philosophical terminology, suffice the following example to clarify the meaning of both terms. Among a group of boxes of different sizes and colors, each would be identified by what makes it distinct from the other objects in the group – its color and size. These characteristics would make up the unique hypostasis of each box. Its ousia would consist of its box-ness, a nature which all three objects share in. In the trinitarian formulation, it is a “divine nature” that binds its tripartite conception of God. Succinct yet no less convoluted, the formula of “three persons, one being” became the cornerstone of the theology of Christian Orthodoxy. Yet no matter how you divide it, trinitarianism mirrors polytheism in all but terminology; when they say one, they still mean three. Around the world, you will find Christians who pray sometimes to Jesus, sometimes to “God the Father,” and sometimes to the Holy Spirit, often for equivalent purposes and with little alternation in liturgy.
Early Christianity, before the ascendance of Orthodoxy, was not, however, without difference of opinion. A controversial passage in the Gospel of Luke demonstrates the diversity of opinions one might have encountered had one lived in the eastern Roman provinces during the early years of Christianity. In chapter 2 verse 33, the oldest and most authoritative Greek manuscripts read “And his father and mother were amazed at the things said about him (Jesus)” (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, W 032, and others in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic; my translation). At some time during the history of copying and recopying which the biblical text has experienced, this particular verse was subject to “harmonization,” in this case referring to alteration of the text by a scribe with the goal of making the text better conform to the prevailing theology of the day. An unscrupulous Orthodox scribe who took issue with the fact that Joseph is referred to as the “father” of Jesus changed the text to suit the view of Jesus as God’s literally begotten son. This change was widely accepted and perpetuated so that the few manuscripts which the Anglican church used to make its Authorized Version in 1611, undoubtedly the most influential translation of the Bible ever written, give the less controversial yet altered reading “And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.” This is just one example among many of how the text of the New Testament has undergone considerable change at the hands of those trying to advance a particular theological angle. “There are more errors in the 6000 transcripts of the New Testament as there are words in the New Testament,” as biblical scholar Bart Ehrman said in a talk at Stanford University summarizing the points in his book titled “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.”
The notion of disagreement within a religious text is itself problematic. How can something written by the hands of hundreds (including the scribes who intentionally or unintentionally added to or subtracted from the text, thousands) of different human beings living in different times and places be the word of God? The reason why the Bible disagrees with itself on so many fundamental points is that human beings disagree, because we have imperfect knowledge.
Islam has its healthy share of disagreements among different scholars and thinkers, but that, again, is due to the imperfect knowledge of human beings. On the other hand, the source material we have, the Qur’an, is perfect and without disagreement or variation, nor has it ever changed. There are thousands of different manuscripts of the Hebrew bible, whether complete or partial, and they all have variant readings. The Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the HB, often disagrees considerably with the Hebrew Masoretic text that comes down to us, indicating that it is itself part of an entirely different textual tradition (with its own numerous internal variations) – and so on and so forth with the Coptic, Syriac, and Latin traditions. To really understand all that the “Bible” is, in an inclusive sense with its many traditions and variations, one must be fluent in at least six languages! The Qur’an, on the other hand, is only one text in one language – and its dual preservation as a text both oral and written is a check against any who would unscrupulously try to add to it or subtract from it.
The more I studied the Bible, the more it came to represent something foreign, in some cases well nigh unapproachable. There’s so much language and cultural baggage in the Bible that is lost on even the most well-trained scholars. The text, despite its wide readership, cannot even be approached by the layperson without a massive explanatory apparatus attached to the text (thus these days there are Bibles aimed at particular demographics – there’s a Catholic Bible, an Episcopalian Bible, a Baptist Bible, a Bible for women, a Bible for children, Bibles for conservatives, for liberals, etc.) Some books and chapters (all of the books in the “deuteronomic history” are plagued with this) seem to exalt systems of values and ethics that would be abhorrent to any conscious, humane moderner: For example, the biblical commandment that the Israelites should kill all the men, women, children,Â and beasts of the field – everything “that breathes” – and possess the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:16). Even if such passages were amenable to allegorical interpretation, what exactly would they say?
The Qur’an’s teachings are humane, consistent, and of singular, divine authorship. Its language is unrivaled by any other work in Arabic or any other language. The greatest truths in our universe are evident to anyone who stops and thinks; the beauty around us is but a reflection of the beauty of the Creator.
I am not a believer in the notion that the truth is esoteric, that it must be sought out through secret or obscure means, nor that it is the reserve of a select few. As I was questioning my beliefs while studying religions other than Christianity, I was guided by the awareness that the truth must be clear and easily accessible. It is a sign of the true God’s Mercy that He sends proofs that are clear. If mankind at large is truly to be held accountable for recognizing and following truth and leaving behind error, the truth must be right in front of our faces. And so it was. For better or worse, never before have people in the West been more preoccupied with the “Islamic question.” And the religion yet remains so poorly understood by the masses. If the religious conservatives in our own country were not so misdirected by prejudiced politics, they too would see how close Islam is to their own feelings of antipathy in this time and place which seems so immersed in the myths of secularism and so distant from the eternal principles which all of God’s prophets have established on earth in their times and places.