Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two insights into Islam

In recent days I have read two books on the subject of Islam. The first is popular historian Tom Holland's excellent book In the Shadow of the Sword that examines the origins of Islam in the context of the decline of the Roman and Persian empires. The second is Michael Houellebecq's novel Submission, which is set in France in the near future when a Muslim is elected president, a not entirely fanciful notion.

I am a keen student of history but Holland's book contained a great deal of historical fact of which I was not aware - for example, who knew that a Jewish state (Himyar) existed in Arabia up until the 6th Century? The Himyarites were Arabs not Hebrews, and they dominated the Arabian peninsula until they were defeated by Christian forces in 525 A.D. The Roman and Persian empires were constantly vying for dominance in the region, with the latter overcoming the former to conquer Ephesus, Jerusalem and Alexandria by the early 7th Century.

The accepted modern history would have you believe that Islam started in a world that was still predominantly pagan and it grew to the point where it eventually came up against Christianity, but in reality the region was split between three competing religions - Zoroastrianism, Judaism and a burgeoning Christianity - and Islam is clearly a fusion of all three.

Holland challenges much of the accepted history. He doubts, for example, that Mohammed wrote (or dictated) most of the Koran, and he is certainly not the only historian to credit the book to Uthman, the third Caliph, who ruled the expanding Arab empire a couple of decades after Mohammed's death. He identifies much of the Koran as having its origins in the Jewish Torah, the New Testament and the books of Zoroastrianism. As for the Hadith, the supposed sayings of Mohammed, he rightly identifies these as a mixture of Greek, Roman, Jewish and Persian writings and sayings compiled and culled by scholars such as the prodigious al-Bukhari a couple of hundreds of years after Mohammed's death.  None of this is particularly controversial with even Islamic scholars acknowledging the hybrid origins of their faith, and in fact many Muslim leaders deny that Islam is a separate religion per se but maintain it is the evolution of the monotheistic faiths into a more coherent, final form.

Houellebecq's Submission is in some ways the more informative book on Islam. The name of the book is, of course, a literal translation of the word Islam, and it made me realise for the first time how important is the idea of submission to the Islamic faith. Submission to God, of course, is the central tenet of Islam but it also explains the role of women as being submissive to men. The main character is a professor at the Sorbonne who loses his job when the university becomes an Islamic institution, but then he is offered not just his old job back at a much higher salary, but the opportunity of a lucrative book contract and the prospect of several young wives - in short, everything a slightly inadequate academic could ever aspire to - but, of course, only on the condition that he submits.

Those of us who are atheists have difficulty understanding the appeal of submission to a mythical being, but to many people it is the most attractive part of religion and it is the need to submit that makes Islam so appealing to so many. We like to think of human beings as being rational creatures but the reality is the human mind has always been attracted to mystical explanations and the belief that we are in the hands of something that is greater and wiser than ourselves is comforting, like returning to childhood. It is easier to abrogate responsibility for our lives to a supreme being than to take that responsibility on our own shoulders.

Houellebecq's book made me realise that we cannot counter Islam with rational argument and by appealing to our own desire to be free, independent human beings with natural rights. It is the very lack of these things that attracts people to Islam. I must admit I found this conclusion rather frightening.

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