Reading Aslan Armstrong and Campbell

What are your thoughts on religious scholars or philosophers like Karen Armstrong who approach Islam from the historical and cultural point of view, or Alain de Botton who said that all religion are man-made? To illustrate some examples, Karen Armstrong argues that when the Prophet (PBUH) commanded Muslims to switch from praying towards Jerusalem to Mecca, it was a political decision after a friction with some group. And Reza Aslan argues that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) might not be an illiterate, because he was a trader in a bustling city. He would at least have a basic math and basic literacy to be a good trader. What are your thoughts on these kinds of “scientific or historical findings” which can be found after the advancements of technology? Will it or should it change the long established perspectives?

What are your thoughts on ideas like in Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” which argues that all religion, myth, folktales, culture and traditions all have similar stories, not because they are fabricated and then copied, but as a result of a human psyche. And the religion myth etc. that were born from this slowly evolve into the glue that create order out of chaos in society. In other words, all religion are the result of this human evolution, aka all religion are man-made. What is Islam’s view on this matter?

former What Would a Muslim Say visitor

In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

So these two questions are interesting because I’ve been reading Aslan, Armstrong and Campbell lately . . . funny that 😉

Let me start by diving into the historical and cultural views of Aslan, Armstrong, and the like. Personally, I like both of these authors. I have read many of their works, and I find myself often referring back to them from time to time.

I like to think of myself as moderate and progressive in my thinking while simultaneously religious and devout in my practice. I personally believe in balance between mind, body, and soul. So when I read the cultural and historical writings of these scholars, I feel my faith energized not threatened. There is always some level of storytelling in religion, yes even Islam. The Qur’an is difficult to explain from naturalistic causes, which is why I agree more with Aslan (who professes Islam) than with Armstrong (who does not).

Reza Aslan writes: “Faith is a choice; anyone who says otherwise is trying to convert you. You either choose to believe that there is something beyond the material realm – something real, something knowable – or you don’t. If, like me, you do, then you must ask yourself another question: Do you wish to experience this thing? Do you wish to commune with it? To know it? If so, then it may help to have a language with which to express what is fundamentally an inexpressible experience. That is where religion comes in.”

I really appreciate the depths of Aslan’s statement here. The stories told about the Qur’an (Prophet’s life, Companions’ lives, hadith, etc.) all revolve around explaining the Qur’an and how it came to prominence in 7th century Arabia and WHAT THIS MEANT for the Arabs and their neighbors. For me and Aslan, we concede the Divine origin of the Qur’an but like any Muslim, we reserve judgment on the hadith, stories, history, and so on that surround it according to the facts that are found, the historical integrity of contemporary texts, and the cultural milieu in which they were written. For people like Armstrong, while she sees the impact of the Qur’an, it is not enough for her personally to accept it’s claims to Divine origin. For her, and many other historians, it is just one more example of a human being trying to make sense of the world in their own way. She even says it in some of her books: “Muhammad was creating one of the world’s literary masterpieces.”

So while she sees the beauty and power of the Qur’an, she does not see it as something superhuman. This is OK, because from the beginning, that was the defining line between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. This has always been the case, my friend. The only time that God has sent down a miracle that defied all explanations and demanded the belief in God to explain it was the miracle of Moses and the escape of the Israelite’s from Egypt. Even Jesus’ miracles could be “explained” as medical science in disguise.

The Qur’an says that the reason why God chose not to send miracles like Moses’ is that so many people disbelieved even after witnessing the sea parting for Moses. So I guess what I’m trying to say is there is always room for doubt. Since God only wants those people who put their faith in Him via the Unseen, there will never be any irrefutable proof of His existence or of His communication with humanity. I kind of already accept that, so it does not bother me that there are many secular and historical explanations for religions in general and Islam in particular.

Specifically to your points, Armstrong is correct that the changing of the Qibla was a political statement. .. the difference is whether we believe that the statement is rooted in a change of Muhammad’s policy or God’s? Muslims would say that God decided that the “scepter has passed” from the sons of Issac to the sons of Ishmael. Non-Muslims would say that Muhammad himself decided to break with the Jewish-Christian orientation. Both views make sense. But again, we differ in the Unseen meanings and motivations of the facts, not the facts themselves.

Another example is Aslan’s point that the Prophet probably was not illiterate. However, this is a red herring, because even if he could read and write in a rudimentary fashion, he definitely could NOT compose stellar poetry nor could he study ancient scriptures and manuscripts. As Dr. Rahim mentioned in this LINK, we still don’t have a satisfactory explanation for where the style and content of the Qur’an came from. Muslims see this as proof of Divine inspiration while non-Muslims see this as a sudden savant-like creativity from Muhammad’s mind himself. We differ in the Unseen meanings and sources of the facts, not the facts themselves.

Moving on to Campbell’s idea that all religions are the result of human evolution, there is truth to this idea. John Bowker wrote: “Among the religious world pictures are accounts of what the world or the universe is and of how it began. These are called cosmologies and cosmogonies. Religious cosmologies are not in competition with modern science, though they have often been used or portrayed in that way. If we seek additional information about the universe, we go (if we are wise) to science, not to a religious cosmology. Religious cosmologies serve an entirely different purpose: they show how the universe is as an arena of challenge and opportunity — as much actually for science as for religion. The universe, far from being indifferent to our existence, becomes an invitation to discover its meaning as a demand upon us to act and live in responsible and accountable ways.”

See his full article this LINK. I believe that there IS some reality beyond the material realm. I also believe that this reality has manifested itself to humans since the beginning, but each generation explained and applied metaphors to that reality in different ways. Those ways are religions . . . different in how they relate to this Reality but one and the same in WHAT they relate to. More importantly, only the most fundamentalist and least imaginative would see these religions as conflicting with empirical evidence or science. So I guess what I am saying is that just because I concede that the metaphors and imagery of religions are man-made, that does not mean I think the object of those metaphors are imaginary. The Qur’an says: It is not for any human that God should speak to him, except by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His permission whatever He wills. He is All-High, All-Wise. (42:51)

So even here we see that all inspiration is mediated, not direct. And God knows best. . .

May peace be with you,
Ahmed

I absolutely agree with you, reading the cultural and historical writings on Islam complement everything that I have learned and give me more understanding and more complete pictures of my religion. And thus I also feel that my faith is not threatened, but instead by reading the history, science, etc of Islam bring me closer to my own religion that seems like a stranger since I was a child.

You said, “We differ in the Unseen meanings and sources of the facts, not the facts themselves.” That is such a good way to put it. Referring to your previous answer, it doesn’t matter whether Muhammad (PBUH) was illiterate or literate, because the sheer level of the poetic language and the wide range of scope are very difficult to fabricate by even the most genius person in the world.

On the different roles between science and religion, your answer has a logical approach, where we don’t have to choose to believe to either science or religion, but instead both can complement each other’s. I remember that that’s the fundamental approach of the Golden Age of Islam in Baghdad and Damascus, where science were pursuit to answer Allah’s questions for mankind in the universe, not to defy His existence. I also suddenly remember Pope Benedict XVI’s comment that God creates the evolution, and the Royal Society led by Isaac Newton was also formed to prove God’s mightiness.

Funny how we can suddenly remember all of the seemingly random and forgotten facts when presented by the proper structure and reasoning. Thank you for teaching this proper structure today.

former What Would a Muslim Say visitor
Reading Aslan Armstrong and Campbell
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