I would like you all to meet a young woman, raised a devout Roman Catholic, who converted to Islam. Her online story reads in part as follows:
“I’m one of the many western converts out there…I grew up in a very traditional orthodox Christian household. My family was going to church and respecting all traditions, but it was mostly something they did out of habit, not something they actually felt…I could never agree with many concepts Christianity supports. I did try to accept it, I did want to be firm in my convictions, but it never happened…I had the best intentions in the world for any religion that came to me, but the one and only that stuck in my heart was Islam…The moment I started reading the Qur’an, I felt this incredible wave of love surrounding me and all the weight from my shoulders was lifted off. I will never be able to put it in words…Here I am after years, still a Muslim, and an incredibly grateful one. I was 18 when I converted.”
One can only feel for this young woman who by her own testimony never managed to find Christ. And one does wonder about the paths she trod as a Roman Catholic, especially since she also said that when she converted to Islam it was her priest who gave her a copy of the Qur’an. But I share her story in order to focus upon the need for the Church to deal with Islam here in the West. Though perhaps not typical, her story is hardly unique, and includes some big name converts such as Cat Stevens, who converted to Islam in 1976.
Islam is, to say the least, a very controversial religion. For some people, especially since the tragedy of 9-11, all Muslims are either terrorists or potential terrorists. For others, Islam is a religion of peace, and is unjustly slandered by Neanderthal “Islamophobes”. Obviously Islam, like any large religion, contains of number of very diverse people, and sweeping generalizations make things difficult. Where does the truth lie?
Specifically, what can one say in response to the standard Islamic self-portrayal of itself as a religion of peace, reason, and reasonableness? Islam offers a faith that is coherent, all-embracing, and (for many) a refreshing change from the immoral culture of the West with its pornography and twerking. It is familiar enough to include Biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, as well as Biblical concepts such as the necessity for compassion, justice, and a final judgment. It also emphasizes that it avoids such complexities as the three-in-one Trinity, which it portrays as unreasonable, self-contradictory nonsense. Jesus was a prophet, they say, and nothing more. He is respected, but not worshipped as God, for if He was God, wouldn’t that make two gods? How can Christianity claim to be monotheistic if it worships Jesus?
Islam’s presentation of its history gives the impression of being straightforward and clear, without the necessity for believing in miracles. Indeed, one writer (Renan, d. 1892) asserted that “Islam was born in the full light of history”, in contrast to the supposedly murky and uncertain beginnings of Christianity. The Qur’an is easy to read and claims to represent the ipsissima verba of Allah to Muhammad given through the archangel Gabriel from the years 610-632. The authenticity of the sayings attributed to Muhammad are vouched by for chains of witnesses, whose names are given. Surely nothing could be more clear, more illumined by the full light of history?
Well, no actually. When western scholars subject Islam to the same searching inquiry and the same bright glare of impartial research with which they approach any other historical subject, certain problems immediately arise. For one thing, the earliest compiler of hadith (the stories about Muhammad on which Islamic history is based) examined 600,000 hadith, memorized 200,000 of them and rejected all but 2700 of them as inauthentic.
Even granting some pardonable exaggeration in the numbers, by any standard of judgment this represents an astonishing number of false stories being fabricated about Muhammad. And the earliest collection was made about 250 years after the events they purported to document. By anyone’s thinking, this is hardly “the full light of history”. Moreover, the chains of supporting witnesses have been found to be faulty—not surprisingly, since they came into existence late, around the mid-eighth century. Furthermore, conflicting stories are justified using the same chains of witnesses.
When one turns from the life of Muhammad to the Qur’an itself, one finds it riddled with historical errors, including a confusion of the “Miriam” who was Moses’ sister with the “Miriam” who was Jesus’ Mother. A detailed and comprehensive reading of the Qur’anic text reveals that it was the work of someone who had heard many stories about Jesus and the events of the Old Testament from others, but had never actually read the sacred texts himself—hence the confusion and the garbling.
Scholarly research and impartial detailed examination of the history of Muhammad and his movement, and of the sayings he transmitted (eventually collected and published as “the Qur’an”) prove that the claims Islam makes for itself cannot be sustained. Wherever the truth about God lies, it is not here.
It is one thing to assert this in a brief blog piece, and quite another to argue it to its final conclusion. That is why I have written a book about Muhammad, the early history of Islam, and an exploration of the Qur’an itself. It is written irenically (as befits writing done in a liberal democracy, where many people live together who must somehow all get along), but it is also written clearly, letting the evidence speak for itself. It draws upon the work of scholars such as Fred Donner (who kindly examined some of the chapters on early Islamic history and gave it a “thumbs up”), Claude Gilliot, Patricia Crone, and Stephen Shoemaker. It also draws upon the voices of Nabeel Qureshi and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both of them former Muslims, the former of whom converted to Christianity.
I commend the book to you and hope you will buy it and read it for yourself. It is available from Sebastian Press here.
Irenic or not, I’m surprised it’s still legal to author a historical-critical work on Islam in Canada. Congrats!
One of the things I have learned through inter-faith dialogue meetings is this. The purpose of Inter-faith dialogue is not to “convert” the other to one’s own faith. The purpose of inter-faith dialogue is to see how the “others” faith sheds light on one’s own.
So I realize there are many things in the Muslim faith that we Christians can learn about that may corroborate or shed Mega Light on our own faith traditions. Thank you Father Lawrence for your scholarly devotion to the Christian faith and your incredible attention to detail. I’m sure your book Exploring Islam: A Christian Perspective on the Life of Muhammad and the Qur’an will help many Christians understand how and why the Muslim faith is growing in North America while many Christian Congregations are shrinking.