Holy smoke 9

No god, or supernatural messenger of a god, ever wrote a single word or dictated anything to any human being.

Persons who set down “God’s word” may have thought that a god told them what to write; felt that a god told them what to write; believed that a god told them what to write, but they themselves, mortal inhabitants of this natural world, wrote every line, every sentence, every law, every commandment, every story, every poem, every prophecy, every proverb in every “holy book” that ever was. If those who wrote were not the same as those who composed what they wrote, it is certain that the composers were also mortal men.

This must seem so obvious to atheists as to be hardly worth saying. It is so clearly a fact. Incontrovertible.

But billions of people do not accept the fact. And among the billions are thousands, possibly millions, of intelligent, erudite, and even reasonable people!

One such intelligent, erudite, and reasonable man is Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim and reformed “Islamist”, who founded Quilliam, “a London-based think tank that focuses on ‘counter-extremism’, specifically against Islamism, which it argues represents a desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam on society”.

In conversation with atheist Sam Harris,[1] Nawaz argues for a reformation of Islam through constructive interpretations of its “holy scripture”. [We are concerned here only with Nawaz’s side of the discussion. What Sam Harris says is well worth reading.]

The chief “holy book” of Islam is the Koran. Muslims believe it is “God’s final revelation to humanity”. They believe it was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, who first appeared to him when he was forty years old as he lay in the Cave of Hira in the year 609, and that the full “revelation” was delivered at intervals through the rest of his life, a period of 23 years. Muhammad was illiterate. He recited to his companions what he said the angel Gabriel recited to him, and they wrote it down.

Nawaz asserts – for which we applaud him: “Islam is, after all, an idea; we cannot expect its merits or demerits to be accepted if we cannot openly debate it.”[2]

And he argues: “Any given subject has multiple interpretations, which demonstrates that there is no correct one. [His emphasis.] If we can understand that, then we arrive at a respect for difference, which leads us to tolerance and then pluralism, which in turn leads to democracy, secularism, and human rights.”[3] And: “My organization … [takes]  the unequivocal view that no place on earth should seek to impose any given interpretation of religion over the rest of society.”[4]

He sums up his mission thus:

A complete overhaul of cultural identity patterns and a reformed scriptural approach is required. … Such scriptural reform must involve denying those who approach texts vacuously … from absolute certainty that theirs is the correct view …[5]

The greater part of his contribution to the discussion is concerned with differences of interpretation of the “holy scripture” by the learned men of Islam: his point being that the Islamic texts have been and still can be subject to interpretation; and that new interpretations can assist a reform of Islam for this age, when bad interpretations are inspiring or causing evil actions by large numbers of Muslims banded together in terrorist organizations.

Maajid Nawaz has bravely assumed “the responsibility to counter” the “scriptural justification” for Islamic “extremism”.[6] He sees this as a way to make Islam compatible with the values of the West. We take his word for it that such interpretations are possible, and that spreading them through the Islamic world may help to bring about his obviously meritorious ends.

Let us assume – wishing him well with his project – that his interpretations of Islamic “holy scripture” (the hadith as well as the Koran) are enormously and wonderfully attractive and persuasive; that hundreds of millions Muslims come to accept them, perhaps even a majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today. The very case he demonstrates, that the texts are forever open to interpretation cannot but mean that there will still be bad interpretations, still likely to inspire evil actions. 

How likely is it that a reformed Islam will become so prevalent that “extremist” interpretations inspiring “Islamism” will be completely and forever abandoned, totally superseded, obliterated? If likely, then that would be, of course, a good result of Maajid Nawaz’s movement. But if unlikely, then his proposed remedy for the savagery, the cruelty and mass murder being carried out by such organizations as al-Qaeda and ISIS, is no remedy at all. It is worth trying. It may lessen the effects of Islamic “extremism”. But it is no remedy.

As long as there are multitudes who believe that they are in possession of “the word of God”, and that God tells them to harm others who do not believe the same as they believe, there will be no remedy.

In time, perhaps, religion will die out as a motivating force of human activity. We long for that to happen. But we cannot see that it will happen any time soon.



1. Islam: A Dialogue, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, Harvard University Press, 2015.

2. page 88

3. page 105

4. page 109

5. pages 116,117

6. page 121

Posted under Islam, jihad, Muslims, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Saturday, March 26, 2016

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Can Islam be reformed? 8

The term “Islamist” is an invention by non-Muslims who want to differentiate between what they insist is the ”the vast majority of peace-loving law-abiding Muslims” from the “radicals”, or “extremists”, or “Islamofascists” for whom they think “Islamist” is a politer word. Islamists are, in the eyes of the well-meaning tolerant non-Muslims who coined the term, a minority with whom the vast majority of “moderate” Muslims do not agree and of whom they do not approve. Even though few of them actually express disapproval, the well-meaning, respectful, tolerant non-Muslims assume it to be strongly felt, and wish the wider public would believe and appreciate this.

For convenience, let’s call the well-meaning, respectful, tolerant non-Muslims who advance this view the Defense. The Defense hopes to persuade non-Muslim public opinion that the law and values of Islam are compatible with the laws and values of what is generally called the West.

The question then arises, what do “moderate” Muslims believe that is different from what the Islamists believe? For both moderates and Islamists the Koran is the holy word of Allah. The holy word of Allah cannot be changed. So what does the Defense say to that? It is, the Defense argues, a matter of interpretation. (For a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of this idea in connection with the Ground Zero mosque dispute, see an article by Ron Radosh at PajamasMedia. We usually find much to agree with in his writing, but in this article we find much to criticize. Rather than do so, because we think a point-by-point exegesis would be boring for us and our readers, we’ve chosen to make our own statement on the issue.)

What interpretation can be put on commandments to beat wives (sura 4.32), amputate limbs (eg sura 5.38), treat women unequally (eg sura 4.11), kill apostates (eg 4.89) – to take just a few instances of Allah’s writ? They are laid down in the Koran, from which Sharia derives. It is hard to read them and think of an interpretation that cancels, contradicts, or even merely softens their meaning. Even by the most liberal definitions imaginable by the most elastic of legal minds – one that could find, for instance, gradations of meaning in the word “is” – the words of the commandments cannot be made to mean their opposites. But some have tried to make them less apodictic, and the Defense depends on the possibility.

The Defense maintains that if the Koran is interpreted as meaning in many essential instances something different from what it says, it can be made compatible with American Constitutional Law. But wouldn’t that require deeply radical change, even complete reversal? And if such a radical change were to be made (by whom?), how, or to what extent, would it still be Sharia? Wouldn’t such a profound alteration mean, in effect, the obliteration of Islam?  And if so, how likely is it that it will be accepted by (at least a large enough part of) Islam?

One point often made by the Defense that needs to be answered: The Bible also orders cruel punishments, including, for instance, stoning adulterers. True, but there is no country on earth that declares Biblical law to be its constitution, or makes the commandments of Jehovah, or God the Father, or Jesus Christ, the law of the land, even though some laws agree with some of the ten commandments. Israel decidedly rejected the idea of basing its state laws on Jewish religious law (though for political expediency governments have made some concessions to the religious political parties, causing more nuisance than oppression – such as that marriage must be by religious rite).

But every state in which Islam is the religion of the majority – even including Iraq when it was ruled by the ostensibly secular socialist Ba’athists – has Sharia as the basis of its law. Turkey was an exception that is now changing under an Islamist government to conform with the rest.

Islam wants the world to be Muslim. It declares that every Muslim must help achieve its goal. It prescribes violence as the chief if not exclusive means. Clearly by this alone Islam has set itself up as the enemy of all non-Muslims. In pursuit of its supreme goal and in obedience to the word of Allah, millions of Muslims, including the 19 who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11 in the name of Islam, have dedicated themselves to waging war on the rest of the world, and more will do so in the years to come.

They need to be stopped; by peaceful means if possible, by force whenever necessary. If “reinterpretation” of Islam’s holy writ is a way that can work peacefully, it should be pursued. But can it be done? Our answer is – almost certainly not.