Impossible Faith Non-Parallel #3: Islam

As elsewhere noted, reaction to our item The Impossible Faith has consisted of some vague challenges. A recent Skeptical writer claimed, "The same could be said of all religions," and listed some -- as though by their mere listing he had proved his point.

And again, fair enough. As we evaluated Mithraism and Mormonism so now we evaluate Islam using the same criteria. With this we will now have examined the most relevant candidates: Christianity's ancient, most popular competitor; the fastest-growing modern religion, and the second-largest modern religion. I now put it in the hands of critics to propose their own counters and analyze them in turn.

As before also I should note for fairness that our factors, even if few or none apply to another faith, obviously do not serve to disprove that faith's veracity -- the acid test here is negative and not positive. Islam or any religion could be entirely true and still meet none of these factors.

And as a reminder: This article should only be read in light of and with knowledge of The Impossible Faith.

Our primary source here is The Oxford History of Islam by John Esposito (Oxford U. Press, 1999), and we have recently gotten some input from a very helpful and gracious contributor. Before beginning it is necessary to lay some historical groundwork.

Islam began in a political situation in which two large empires -- the Byzantines and the Sasanians -- competed for supremacy. These two empires were centrally at odds, politically, philosophically (Hellenist vs. Iranian/Semitic), and religiously (Christian vs. Zoroastrian). The populations were far from homogenous (the Jews were also major players, on both sides) but were clearly at odds as a whole. Beside the two empires were a few independent territories, including Axum in Arabia, where Muhammed was born.

At a particular point, Muhammed gained enough converts to take over a single city, Yathrib (now Medina), and the ball kept rolling from there. He spent 10 years consolidating his control [8], in the process dealing with those who challenged his prophetic authority (or allied themselves with his political enemies), who "were handled harshly in a series of confrontations" and exiled, enslaved, or executed. Once control of Medina was secure, Muhammed orchestrated raids on the caravans, the "commercial lifeblood" of Mecca (his former hometown) until they finally negotiated a truce, then were taken over. Muhammed won the loyalty of members of his old tribe by giving them positions of authority. From there he eventually became "the most powerful political leader in Arabia." [10]

After he died his successors continued a military-oriented policy. Muhammed's successor, Abu Bakr, reacted to attempts to abandon the political and religious alliances "quickly and decisively in what is usually called the Apostasy (or Ridda) wars, during which he sent armed bands of Believers to the main centers of opposition in Arabia." [11] It was not long before the movement controlled all of the Arabian peninsula, and started biting chunks off of the Byzantines and Sasanins, the latter of whom they managed to defeat completely.

As a whole, though, they were not harsh taskmasters to the newly conquered peoples, forcing only pagans (and sometimes Zoroastrians) to convert to the new faith while leaving Jews and Christians alone. They also implemented an efficient bureaucratic system of "highly clustered garrison settlements" that became new cities, which in turn helped the Muslims live apart from the subject peoples of their vast conquests, thereby minimizing assimilation with them..." The conquered were allowed to enter into a client-patron relationship which was to their benefit.

This history is necessary to make a key point: Islam, unlike Christianity, did not spend very long as an underdog, and never was an underdog to a huge Empire that despised what it stood for. Had Muhammed not eventually had a military machine, what would Islam be today? We will discuss this point more at the end of this essay.

Factor #1 -- Who Would Buy One Crucified?

With this factor we might suppose to discover some ground. The time of the 5th and 6th century was not as far removed from the first; honor and shame were still key social factors. So the question now would be, would Islam or Muhammed have anything to be ashamed of?

No -- there was obviously no trial or crucifixion to speak of. Muhammed himself was not a person of shame: He was orphaned, but came under the guardianship of his uncle, who was head of his clan which was part of a tribe that had a "measure of experience in the organization and management of people and materials." [6] Early accounts show Muhammed to have been "a promising and respected young man who participated in both Mecca's cultic activities and commerce." [6]

So there is no particular shame to be found in Islam's founder. Indeed, as time passed he only collected honor in the eyes of his peers, winning numerous military victories and becoming an inspired, honorable leader.

What about the ideas of Islam, though? Here we find nothing extraordinary in this context, which is not to say inoffensive (see below). "Many aspects of Muhammed's message were conveyed in concepts and sometimes words that were already familiar in Arabia...The ideas of monotheism, a Last Judgment, heaven and hell, prophecy and revelations, and the emphasis on intense, even militant, piety were widespread in the Near Eastern scripturalist religions in the sixth century." [7-8] Muhammed did hail from a clan that was still into paganism, and this did indeed cause him some grief as time passed: his most fierce opposition came from within his own tribe.

I am informed that within the tight familial context of ancient Arabia, Muhammed's religious message, which inevitably required men to fight sword to sword with those in their own families who did not convert from paganism, was exceptionally offensive -- as much as many today find Jesus' words about leaving family behind for his sake offensive. Muhammed also took a few behavioral risks: He permitted fighting in the sacred months (4 months of the lunar calendar when even the feuding Arab tribes would cease hostilities); he permitted the cutting down of palm trees (in a barren desert land like ancient Arabia, much superstition had grown up around these trees, which were considered sacred in virtue of their immense usefulness); he married his adopted son's ex-wife, as commanded by a revelation (when this was not a good thing to do, violating a serious taboo) and at one point forged a treaty with the pagans (the treaty of Hudaybiyya) whose terms were very humiliating for the Muslims. The shock of this was so great that even one of Muhammad's staunchest and most loyal followers, Omar (who later defeated the Persians and the Byzantines and created the vast Islamic empire), wanted to secede from the community.

Islam and Muhammed, then, caused grave offense, but no idea in Islam was offensive to sensibilities then present to the degree that a crucified god would be to the Jews and Romans of the first century. And one may rightly ask how things would have turned out had the sword not come to be on Muhammed's side -- an advantage Christianity in its formative period never had.

Factor #2 -- Neither Here Nor There: Or, A Man from Galilee??

The geography factor is a non-issue here. The spread of Islam began within the relatively limited confines of Arabia among people of like ancestry. No one thought less of Muhammed because he was from Mecca, and when Islam went outside Arabia, it did so on the wheels of military conquest -- an advantage which was had not by Christianity, but by its enemies, during the important formative stage. Constantine did not give Christianity muscle until much later in the faith's history.

Indeed in one sense Muhammed's ancestry helped him in the long run. Our source familiar with Islam has told me: "The success that was crucial for him was his victory over his own tribe, the Quraysh. They already had tremendous prestige in Arabia as guardians of the most ancient temple of the Arabs at their hometown of Mecca, the Kaaba. Moreoever, it was believed that they were divinely favoured because of a certain event that had taken place around or before Muhammad's birth. In that event, a large Abyssinian Christian army had set out from the south to destroy the Kaaba (in revenge for the desecration of a cathedral in the south). They made it to Mecca, but the mission was aborted, for mysterious reasons. (Muslims believe that it was because God sent a large flight of birds to pelt the invading army with stones, and naturalistic historians think there was a massive outbreak of smallpox in the Abyssinian army).

At any rate, this event made the Quraysh (Muhammad's tribe) appear to be divinely favoured in the sight of the Arabs, because it seemed that God had mysteriously defended them from the invading army...So when Muhammad himself decisively marched on Mecca, and overwhelmed the Quraysh without any bloodshed or fighting, the Arabs began to think of *him* as divinely protected and favoured. From that point on, delegations poured in from all over the peninsula acknowledging him as God's apostle. This was the military victory that was crucial for him, and is what won him respect from most of the Arabs. He still had to fight some major battles against Arab tribes after this, and had to deal with the Byzantines up north, but there was a clear change in attitudes to him from this point on."

Factor #3 -- Getting Physical! The Wrong "Resurrection"

This is somewhat of a notable factor. Islam teaches resurrection, and did not come up against Greco-Roman aversions to the material body, though they did come up against a less sophisticated form of this objection from pagans who could not imagine someone living again after becoming dust and bones.

However, it should be noted that resurrection is an accessory doctrine in Islam compared to Christianity, where the resurrection of one man is the core of the faith.

Factor #4 -- What's New? What's Not Good

Islam was ably positioned as a movement of reform and did not have to fight this battle to a certain extent. However, I have been informed by my source knowledgeable in Islamic history that Muhammed did have to fight an attitude somewhat like the Roman one: "We will follow the religion our forefathers followed." I am told as well that the Koran records Muhammed's responses: "Even though your forefathers had no intelligence?" or "You and your forefathers are food for Hell."

In this light it seems we have in Muhammed someone who deliberately and decisively polarized the issue: You were either on his side or you were not.

Factor #5 -- Don't Demand Behavior

Islam of course has a high ethical demand ratio, and Muhammed's own tribe was often off put by the ethical demands of his new revelations. Nevertheless, it is true that this is not an insurmountable hurdle even for Christianity in the Roman world; but it was likewise less difficult as a whole for Islam in a context where "intense, even militant piety" was familiar.

Factor #6 -- Tolerance is a Virtue

Like Mormonism, Islam was not a radical disposal of the accepted gods, but a fine tuning of the predominant ideas about God. It was not entirely innovative, merely innovative on certain points. It did conflict heavily, as noted, with the paganism of Muhammed's native tribe, but once outside of that area found people who agreed with many of its principles, if not its particulars in theology.

There is no parallel to the Roman conception that failing to pay homage to the proper gods (piety) would cause problems in other arenas, and conflicts with the religious and political ideology were solved with the sword or with politics -- for Islam was not on the business end of the sword as Christianity was.

Factor #7 -- Stepping Into History

With this there is no issue, because Islam's tenets are not rooted in any particular historical occurrence that is testable. The revelations to Muhammed were not, and were not claimed to have been, witnessed by others.

Factor #8 -- Do Martyrs Matter, and More?

Martyrs matter, but as it happens, Islam spent its formative years on the long end of the stick. Muhammed was persecuted by his home tribe, but as noted above it wasn't long before he had the power on his side.

And again note the standard Skeptical argument that "in every religion people die for their beliefs." This is very relevant today as we have Islamic militants (deviants from the norm we are told, but that is beyond our scope) who willingly die, even suicidally, for their beliefs.

But here again the beliefs in question are not grounded in historical data. One who would readily die for the belief that they would enter a paradise upon death may not be so ready to die for a belief that Washington did (or did not) cross the Delaware. With Islam's central beliefs rooted not in history but in theology, this is a non-factor.

Factor #9 -- Human vs. Divine: Never the Twain Shall Meet!

This is not a problem for Islam; indeed, Islam essentially would have been agreeable to the Romans in denying incarnation as a possibility, and there were no barriers to this assertion among Islam's converts.

Factor #10 -- No Class!

Islam was at its earliest stage mostly homogeneous and did not erase or reject otherwise any class or social distinctions held by society. It gained converts from upper and lower classes [8], from a variety of peoples in Arabia who were genetically linked and therefore to some extent predisposed to unity.

Factor #11 -- Don't Rely on Women!

Factor #12 -- Don't Rely on Bumpkins, Either!

Since Muhammed was neither a woman nor a bumpkin, we find this to be a non-problem.

Factor #13 -- You Can't Keep a Secret!

This factor does not come into play, since again, Islam is founded upon private revelations. Muhammed's home tribe became his enemy, but before long Muhammed had his own muscles to reply.

Factor #14 -- An Ignorant Deity??

This is obviously not at issue.

Factor #15 -- A Prophet Without Honor

See factor #1 above.

In a real sense Islam would meet the test of an "impossible faith" except for one major hump in the road: Muhammed's road to success via the sword and political leadership. The Muslim may argue, quite sensibly, that God gifted Muhammed with victories and with military genius. Indeed, an Islamic website (now defunct) explains:

We find, on this occasion, the Prophet exhibiting the marvelous qualities of an experienced military tactician, which complemented his eternal mission of delivering the universal guidance to mankind, providing yet another indication that the inspiration received by him could have only been from Almighty God. The way in which he organized his troops for battle, as well as his reactions to the sudden and surprise attacks by the superior enemy forces despite the limited number of soldiers needs to be studied to truly appreciate the prodigious military genius of the Prophet (Peace be upon him).
Arabia was a small area of independent nomadic or settled tribes. Muhammed's efforts were remarkable -- but also quite understandable as a human effort, though that of perhaps a genius.

My source offers this example out of many: "After a 10,000 strong force had tried to besiege his city (The battle of the Trench) Muhammad pursued them, and to give them the impression that he had more men than he actually had, he lit huge fires across the desert at night. His opponents saw the fires, and thought they were being pursued by an unbelievably large army, so they fled at top speed. This sort of tactic was unheard of in Arabia. The treaty of Hudaybiyya was on the face of it a humiliating defeat for Muhammad, but he had outcalculated everybody: the result of the treaty was an increasing isolation of his tribe, which led to the final victory against them at the Conquest of Mecca."

It is noted that some of Muhammed's opponents were also great on the battlefield (including one, Khalid bin Walid, who later converted to Islam). Yet one cannot help but note that this serves in the long run to show just how impossible Christianity was in its own context, for it had none of these advantages. There was no political or military genius at the helm; at best theological geniuses (like Paul), but without the hardware to back it up.

In light of what is offered above, I must conclude that Islam, whether one chooses to see it as the truth or not, does not pass the test as an "impossible faith." Muhammed was clearly an amazing individual, like the CEO of today who gambled and won big. But one may reasonably ask whether matters would have turned out the same had his gambles come to nought.