Chapter Sixteen: Islam
Islam is founded on the prophetic teachings of an extraordinary man named Mohammed ibn Abdallah. Born in 570 AD in the Arabian city of Mecca, Mohammed was believed to have been illiterate his entire life. He made his living as a successful merchant, riding the camel caravans from Mecca throughout the Arabian world. During the first half of his life he came into contact with many Jews and Christians, where he learned and appears to have accepted the doctrine of strict monotheism. Mohammed married a wealthy Meccan woman named Khadija who would bear him six daughters. As a respected member of the powerful Quraysh tribe, Mohammed's life would have been the envy of most Arabs. But this life would be forever changed by an unexpected and powerful spiritual encounter during one of his annual pilgrimage to Mount Hira.
In an emotional and physically wrenching experience, Mohammed reports encountering a supernatural being called Gabriel, an angel known to both Jews and Christians as a messenger from God. It was here that Mohammed received the first words of his revelation:Recite in the name of your Lord who created-created man from clots of blood.
Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who by the pen taught man what he did not know.
Indeed, man transgresses in thinking of his own master;
For to your Lord all things return. (Sura 96,1-4)
Terrified that he was being possessed by an evil demon, Mohammed at first seems to have rejected the idea that he was to be the messenger of God. But a second vision convinces him of his divine purpose: (Mohammed, p 83)
"When I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying: 'O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of God, and I am Gabriel.' I raised my head toward heaven to see who was speaking, and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon... I stood gazing at him, moving neither backward or forward; then I began to turn my face away from him, but towards whatever region of the sky I looked, I saw him as before." (Mohammed p 83/Ibn Ishaq, Sira 153)
These visions from angels would continue for the rest of Mohammed's life. While he faced disbelief from many of the people who knew him, especially those who disagreed with the teachings, there can be little doubt of the intense passion with which he was able to convey his visions to the Arab people. The Koran describes the nature of the revelations as follows:By the declining star, your compatriot is not in error, nor is he deceived!
He does not speak out of his own fancy. This is an inspired revelation. He is taught by one who is powerful and mighty. He stood on the uppermost horizon; then, drawing near, he came down to within two bows' length or even closer, and revealed to his servant that which he revealed.
His own heart did not deny his vision. How can you, then, question what he sees? (Sutra 53, 1-9)
From this dramatic beginning Mohammed would hand down chapter by chapter the Koran, the Recitation, a message believed to have come from God. But Mohammed did not at first believe that he was creating a new religion. He embraced the teachings of the People of the Book, the Jews and the Christians, as having been received by the same God who now spoke to him. "We have revealed the Torah, in which there is guidance and light." (Sura 5,44) "After them We sent forth Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the Torah already revealed, and gave him the Gospel, in which there is guidance and light, corroborating what was revealed before it in the Torah, a guide and an admonition to the righteous." (Sura 5,46)
Mohammed incorporated many of the stories and traditions of the Jewish and Christian sects he had come to know as a traveling merchant into his teachings. The stories of the Genesis Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark and Abraham would over time fill the pages of the Koran. Sura 6 reminds the hearer that all of the patriarchs of those religions were messengers from God, just as Mohammed now was:
"We gave him Isaac and Jacob and guided them both as We had guided Noah before. Among his descendants were David and Solomon, Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron (thus do we reward the righteous); Zacharias and John, Jesus and Elias (all were upright men); and Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah and Lot." (Sura 6.86)
Obedience to the one true God was to be Mohammed's key doctrine that linked his revelations with those of the Jews and Christians. "We believe in God and that which is revealed to us; in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes; to Moses and Jesus and the other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them, and to God we have surrendered ourselves." (Sura 2,137)
The Koran was to be the last and greatest of God's revelations and Mohammed the last of the great prophets. It was a revelation specifically meant for the Arab people. "And to you We have revealed the Book with truth. It confirms the Scriptures which came before it and stands as a guardian over them." (Sura 5,48) There is little doubt that Mohammed believed he was fulfilling a divine mission in the same vein as Moses and Jesus had done in the past. We can reasonably conclude that Mohammed thought he was preordained to be a prophet. In Sura 61 Allah is said to be speaking of Mohammed, the Ahmad or praised one, as having been predestined to receive the Koran:
"Tell of Moses, who said to his people: 'Why do you seek to harm me, my people, when you know that I am sent to you by God? And when they went astray, God led their very hearts astray. He does not guide the evil-does. And of Jesus the son of Mary, who said to the Israelites: 'I am sent forth to you from God to confirm the Torah already revealed, and to give news of an apostle that will come after me whose name is Ahmad." (Sura 61,4-6)
But in contrast to Christians, Mohammed did not accept Jesus as the Son of God. "The Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was no more than God's apostle and His Word which He cast to Mary: a spirit from Him." (Sura 4,171) Muslim's accept that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he had great healing powers. They also accept that he will return on Judgement Day. But they do not believe that he was God incarnate or that he was resurrected.
At first Mohammed only revealed his experience to his closest family and friends. But eventually he began to teach more openly in the public market place of Mecca, where he quickly came into conflict with the religious and political leaders of the city. The most uncompromising thing that Mohammed taught was the belief that Allah was the one true god. While it seems that the members of his tribe, the Quraysh, accepted that Allah was the creator God, they also worshiped lesser deities as important intermediaries to this God. (Mohammed, p 69) Three goddess in particular, al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat were worshipped by the Quraysh. There is a controversial apocryphal story, made famous by Salman Rushdie's novel the Satanic Verses, that at one point Mohammed had a false revelation that accepted these goddesses as valid intermediaries to Allah, and these verses were later removed. (Mohammed, p 111) In any case, Sura 53 in the Koran strongly denounced the goddess worship of the Quraysh and put Mohammed at odds with his own tribe:
Have you thought on Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and thirdly, on Manat, the other? Are you to have the sons, and He the daughters? This is indeed an unfair distinction! They are but names which you and your fathers have invented: God has vested no authority in them. The unbelievers follow vain conjectures and the whims of their own souls, although the guidance of their Lord has long since come to them. (Sura 53,15-24)
The danger to Mohammed and his rapidly growing following reached a crisis point in 622 after one of his powerful protectors in Mecca died. Knowing that he could now be killed with impunity by the leadership of the city, Mohammed led his follows on a retreat to the oasis town of Medina. There he founded the first Islamic community on what would later be commemorated as Year One of the Islamic calendar. While living in exile in Medina Mohammed had an exceptional mystical experience. Awoken one night by the angel Gabriel, Mohammed reports to have been taken to Jerusalem in what has become known as the Night Flight. He then was taken to heaven, where he met the great prophets of Judaism and Christianity. Finally he is able to see Allah himself:He heard a call, a message from the Friend.
A call came from the Essence of the All:
'Leave soul and body, transitory one!
You, O My goal and purpose, enter now
And see My Essence face to face, My friend!'
In awe, he lost his speech and lost himself-
Muhammad did not know Muhammad here,
Saw not himself-he saw the Soul of Souls,
The Face of Him who made the universe
(Mohammed, p 140/Ilahinama p 167-8)
By orders of Mohammed, the Muslims began to carry out raids against Meccan caravans, eventually succeeding in capturing several. A powerful army sent by the enraged Meccans failed to capture Medina, emboldening many nomadic bands of Arabs to join the Muslim cause. Mohammed also attempted to win over the Jewish tribes living by the oasis. Frustrated by their refusal to accept him as a prophet superior to Moses and fight against the Meccans, he eventually resorted to a military assault to subdue them.
With growing power, Mohammed was able to secure a treaty with the Meccans to allow his people to travel once a year in peace to the city to worship at the Kaaba shrine. Containing the famous black stone, Mohammed believed that the Kaaba had originally been built by the Jewish patriarch Abraham. "When We prepared for Abraham the site of the Sacred Mosque We said: 'Worship none besides Me.'" (Sura 22,26) Since he believed that Abraham was the father of both the Jewish and Arab people, Mohammed considered Abraham to have been a Muslim. "Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian. He was an upright man, one who surrendered himself to God." (Sura 3,66)
In 630 Mohammed was able to field an impressive force of 10,000 soldiers and at last marched on Mecca. His followers had grown so powerful within the city that it surrendered with only token resistance. Mohammed offered forgiveness to most of the Meccans who had opposed him, providing that they declared their undying allegiance to him. The first thing he did as leader of the city was to destroy the 360 idols around the Kaaba and outlaw polytheism. Islam was now the official religion of the Arab people.
Mohammed's unexpected death left two unresolved dilemmas for his followers. First his revelations had only been oral. His closest companions quickly recorded his teaching in the Koran. Further sayings attributed to Mohammed, although with varying degrees of historic certainty, were enshrined in the Hadith, which would became a major part of Islamic law and culture.
Mohammed also had not named a successor to lead the Islamic community. After his death there was a political fight for leadership of the fledgling religion. One of Mohammed's earliest and most loyal supporters, Abu Bakr, successfully assumed power in 632. Although he died only two years later, he established the office of the Caliph, the official leader of Islam. Following his expansionistic example, his descendants would lead Islam armies against the weakening Persian and Byzantine Empires. Islam proved to be an attractive faith for people living around the Middle East and conversions swelled the ranks of the advancing Arab armies. It seems many if not most of the people living in the newly conquered lands found the Muslims preferable to the harsh rule of the Persians and Byzantines. (Religious Experience of Mankind p 412)
Jews and Christians living under their rule frequently decided to convert to this sister faith. In fact Christianity would virtually disappear from the lands that Jesus himself once taught in. A Muslim shrine would even sit at the site of the old Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the building that once housed the Ark of the Convenient. So offensive was this turn of events to European Christians that it inspired generations of the vigilant faithful to attempt to win back the Holy Land in a series of military crusades, with varying degrees of success.
The ruling Umayyad dynasty expanded from North Africa into Spain, only being stopped by the Christian army of Charles Martel at Pointers, France in 732. To the east Islam marched as far as the Indus Valley by 710, where it began its bloody relationship with Hinduism. (Religious experience of Mankind p 413) Islamic power perhaps reached its pinnacle with the capture of Constantinople in 1453. These impressive victories and mass conversions were seen as evidence of the truth of Mohammed's teachings. There is no doubt that the Muslims clearly believed that God was on their side during this dazzlingly successful period of expansion.
While Islamic armies met with success on the battlefields, a major split grew within their own ranks. Despite Mohammed's teaching in Sura 42,13 "Observe the Faith and do not divide yourselves into factions," non-Arab Muslims often found themselves isolated and treated as virtual second class citizens. Husayn, a younger son in a family eligible to being the Caliph, led a revolt against the reigning Umayyad dynasty. He was defeated at Karbala, Iraq, and brutally killed. The anti-Arab sentiment of this revolt caused Husayn to become a martyr for the new Shiite sect, causing a split with the orthodox Sunnis. Sunnis and Shiites continue to disagree over who represents the legitimate leadership of Islam.
Mohammed's teachings sometimes display the mark of their historical creation. One example of this is the change in tone that the Koran displays in regard to people of other religions. The Koran always asserts an intense intolerance toward polytheists, sometimes advocating their outright killing if they refused to renounce their ways. But at first he was tolerant and friendly with Jews and Christians. "Say: 'Unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship. I shall never worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine.'" (Sura 109,1-2) Conversion was not to be forced onto the members of these rival religions. "There shall be no compulsion in religion." (Sura 2,256)
But as Mohammed grew in power in Medina he began to take on a much more belligerent tone. Although not demanding that they convert to Islam under penalty of death as he did polytheists, he required that they pay a special religious tax to the Muslim community in exchange for tolerance. "Fight against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe neither in God nor the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the true Faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued." (Sura 9,29-30)
The idea of a Holy War against nonbelievers was justified as long as the Muslims were initially the victims of persecution. "Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors. (Sura 2,190) "Permission to take up arms is hereby given to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged." (Sura 22,39) Once Muslims were attacked or were persecuted in their faith they were expected to fight with great fierceness, especially against Polytheists or idol worshipers. "Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage." (Sura 2,190)
Mohammed believed that fighting against nonbelievers was simply a requirement of the world. "Had God not defended some men by the might of others, the monasteries and churches, the synagogues and mosques in which His praise is daily celebrated would have been utterly destroyed." (Sura 22,39) It is worth repeating though that according to the Koran, Muslims are not to start a war against non-believers, they can only fight once they are attacked or persecuted.
Although some degree of religious toleration was accepted, the separation between Muslim and non-Muslim was to be absolute. "Believers, take neither Jews and Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number. God does not guide the wrongdoers." (Sura 5,51) This shaky relationship between Muslims and other religions would continue throughout most of Islam's history. Many Muslim leaders showed great respect for the minority religions that lived under their control, while others treated them with severe cruelty.
While Mohammed claimed to believe in the divine revelations of both the Torah and the Gospels, when they conflicted with his beliefs he insisted that their original words had been corrupted. He rejected the claim that Jesus was the incarnation of God, insisting that he had only been a prophet. "The Jews say Ezra is the Son of God, while the Christians say the Messiah is the Son of God. Such are their assertions, by which they imitate the infidels of old. God confound them! How perverse they are!" (Sura 9:30). Mohammed taught that the most important requirement in a person's life was absolute obedience to God. He incorporated traditional Arabian customs into his teachings, including the promise of a heaven in which each Muslim man would enjoy sexual pleasures with a harem of beautiful women.
Muslims accept the Christian belief that Jesus was prophesized in the Old Testament, but they also perceive Mohammed's divine foreshadowing as well. For example, Muslims believe that "riders on asses" in the following quote in Isaiah refers to Jesus and the "riders of camels" refers to Mohammed:"For thus the Lord said to me:
"Go, set a watchman, let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on asses, riders of camels,
Let him listen diligently, very diligently." (Isaiah 21,6-7)
Mohammed demanded compassion toward those less fortunate in a society racked by prejudice. "It shall be no offence for the blind, the lame, and the sick to eat at your table." (Sura 24,61) "If relatives, orphans, or needy men are present at the division of an inheritance, give them, too, a share of it, and speak to them kind words." (Sura 4,9)
In the early days of Mohammed's mission he sought the support of Jews and Christians to his cause, believing they would see the truth of his words and become faithful Muslims. He ordered, for example, the Muslims in Medina to face toward Jerusalem in their daily prayers. But when Jews and Christians failed to convert to his new teachings, Mohammed ordered Muslims to stop praying toward Jerusalem and start praying toward Mecca. As God's self-proclaimed last and greatest prophet, he declared that Islam was the only true religion and all good Muslims were instructed to wage war against any who would oppress that truth.
Mohammed taught about a Judgement day in the future, when all people would be called before God to answer for their actions. It is similar to predictions in the Torah and Gospels:"It was to reveal the Truth that We created the heavens and the earth and all that lies between them. The Hour of Doom is sure to come: bear with them nobly. Your Lord is the all-knowing Creator.
We have given you the seven oft-repeated verses and the Glorious Koran. Do not regard with envy the good things We have bestowed on some among them, nor grieve on their account. Show kindness to the faithful, and say: 'I am he that gives plain warning.'
We will surely punish the schismatics, who have broken up their scriptures into separate parts, believing in some and denying others. By the Lord, We will question them all about their doing.
Proclaim, then, what you are bidden and let the idolaters be. We will Ourself sustain you against those that mock you and serve other deities besides God. They shall before long know the truth." (Sutra 15, 85-97)
According to Muslim theology life on earth is a one-time event, a mere preparation for the life to come afterward in heaven and hell. "Trifling are the pleasures of this life. The hereafter is better for those who would keep from evil." (Sura 4,77) On Judgement Day God will pronounce sentence on all people:
"Fixed is the Day of Judgement. On that day the Trumpet shall be sounded, and you shall come in multitudes. The gate of heaven shall swing open, and the mountains shall pass away and become vapour.
This judgement will also be made for those who have already died:On the day the Trumpet sounds its first and second blast, all hearts shall be filled with terror, and all eyes shall stare with awe.
They say: 'When we are turned to hollow bones, shall we be restored to life? A fruitless transformation!' But with one blast they shall return to the earth's surface. (Sura 79,4-7)
Heaven will be full of devout Muslims. "The only true faith in God's sight is Islam. Those to whom the Scriptures were given disagreed among themselves, through jealousy only after knowledge had been given them. He that denies God's revelations should know that swift is God's reckoning." (Sura 3,19)
Exactly how the end would come is made clearer in the Hadith traditions:
"It has been well known by all Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time a man from the family of the Prophet will without fail make his appearance, one who will strengthen the religion and make justice triumph. The Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the Mahdi (that is, the "Guided One"). Following him, the Antichrist will appear, together with all the subsequent signs of the Hour (of the Last Judgement), as established in the sound tradition. After Mahdi Jesus will descend and kill the Antichrist. Or, Jesus will descend with the Mahdi, and help him kill the Antichrist, and have him as the leader in his prayers." (A Classic Reader of Islam p 389, secondary)
Islam and Christianity are the world's major missionary religions. The history of Islamic conversions is controversial. Christians once maintained that Islam only converted by force, but modern scholars dispute this idea today. (Understanding Religious Conversion p 70) But the conquest of societies by Islamic armies did set the stage for future conversions. Professor Rambo gives this account of this multi-generational process:
"Throughout Muslim history the soldier, trader and saint have been considered important agents of Islamization and Islamic conversion. Most scholars reject the notion that Islam converted many people by the sword, but it is now agreed that Islamic conquest set the stage for Islamization in that the opposition was defeated, Islamic institutions were created and maintained, and eventually (over hundreds of years) the conversion process of individuals and the society as a whole was accomplished. Thus, the soldier, while not a direct agent of conversion, was a major precursor to conversion, making it possible for the Muslim merchant to travel all over the world and establish Muslim outposts on the frontiers." (Understanding Religious Conversion p 70)
Humphrey J. Fischer believes that Muslim conversions tend to follow three phases. In the first phase Muslim traders, merchants and religious teaches move into an established culture as an isolated minority. Typically only those at the margins of society will convert, such as slaves. In the second phase the barriers to conversions in the society will over time erode, allowing for easier attachment to Islamic doctrines. During this phase Islam tends to be more moderate and accepting of mixing between the local religion. In the last phase, after Islam is well established, there is more confrontation and intolerance on the part of Muslims to the rival faith. (Understanding Religious Conversion p 94)
In any case Islam has proven to be extremely tenacious in maintaining faithful followers once it becomes established in a culture. No doubt the declaration by Mohammed that any Muslim who apostatizes their faith should be executed helps to keep many loyal. But unquestionable the vast majority of Muslims hold deeply to their belief in the Koran's view of God. To surrender unconditionally to Allah and accept the teachings of the Koran as the supreme word of God have been virtues that have helped to maintain stable Muslim communities throughout the world.
Problems with Muslim Inerrancy
To restate the purpose of this section, can any religion claim to be the inerrant World of God on each and every doctrine? Or is it more reasonable to conclude that the world religions all contain a mixture of divine truth, potential divine truth, and human cultural beliefs? As with all the world religions, I would again point out that no one has been able to disprove that the metaphysical basis of Islam is untrue, just as no one has been able to prove that it is true. With that in mind there are a few teachings of the Koran that fail in my opinion to pass the test of being entirely true or entirely good on each and every doctrine.
For example, Mohammed taught many of the same questionable stories that are found in the Torah. The Muslim version of the Creation Story includes the basic idea that God created the world in six days, although it comments that God did not require a day of rest. "In six days we created the heavens and the earth and all that lies between them; nor were We ever wearied." (Sura 50,37) A more detailed version is found in Sura 41:
"He set upon the earth mountains towering high above it. He pronounced His blessing upon it, and in four days provided it with sustenance for all alike. Then, turning to the sky, which was but a cloud of vapour, he said to it and to the earth: 'Come forward both, willingly or perforce.' 'We will come willingly,' they answered. In two days He formed the sky into seven heavens, and to each heaven He assigned its task. We decked the lowest heaven with brilliant stars and guardian comets." (Sura 41,9-12)
The story of Adam is also found in the Koran:
"We first created man from the essence of clay: then placed him, a living germ, in a safe enclosure. The germ We made a clot of blood, and the clot a lump of flesh. This We fashioned into bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, thus bringing forth another creation." (Sura 23,6-7)
As we saw in our study of the Jewish version, these stories, if taken literally, are not an accurate description of the origin of the universe, the earth, or human beings. Noah's Ark also gets a similar retelling in the Koran, although in the Muslim version Noah seems to approve of the mass killing off of the human race:
"And Noah said: 'Lord, do not leave a single unbeliever on earth. If You spare them, they will mislead Your servants and beget none but sinners and unbelievers." (Sura 71,27)
"Build an ark under Our watchful eye, according to Our instructions. When Our judgement comes to pass and water wells out from the Oven, take aboard a pair of every species and the members of your household, except those of them already doomed. Do not plead with Me for those who have done wrong: they shall be drowned." (Sure 23,27)
"Recount to them the tale of Noah. He said to his people: 'If it offends you, my people, that I should dwell in you midst and preach to you God's revelation (for in Him I have put my trust, muster all you idols and decide your course of action. Do not intrigue in secret. Execute your judgement and give me no respite. If you turn away from me, remember I demand of you no recompense. Only God will reward me. I am commanded to be one of those who shall submit to Him.' But they disbelieved him. Therefore We saved Noah and those who were with him in the ark, so that they survived, and drowned the others who denied Our revelations. Consider the fate of those who were forwarded." (Sura 10,68-73)
The same argument that questions the factual and moral nature of the Jewish story also applies to the Muslim version. There has never been enough water on earth to cause a worldwide flood capable of drowning "every single unbeliever on earth." The moral of the story would seem to be "accept the claims of certain prophets or face violent death from God." This is difficult to accept as the teachings of a perfect moral being since many of the claimed revelations, such as the Noah's Ark story itself, are somewhat farfetched and extremely inhumane in light of our modern understanding of the world.
Some simple factual problems include Mohammed's belief that Alexander the Great was a Muslim who built an iron and brass wall to separate the warring nations of Gog and Magog. (Sura 18:84-99) This idea is clearly contradicted by the historical and archaeological records of ancient Greece. Mohammed's description that Alexander traveled to the end of the world and watched the sun set in a pool of black mud (Sura 18:85) obviously is difficult to accept today as being literally true, although there is perhaps a more poetic interpretation.
Mohammed's retelling of an old Arabic fable about a city of men and woman who were turned into apes for fishing on the Sabbath (Sura 7, 163-166) reveals the extent to which he seemed to be relying on his cultural background for at least some of the details of his teachings. His revelation from the angel Gabriel that ". . . it should become legitimate for true believers to wed the wives of their adopted sons if they divorce them," (Sura 33, 37) seems suspiciously convenient for Mohammed when he then marries the newly divorced wife of his adopted son Zayd. None of these arguments of course disproves that the Koran contains the inspired Word of God, but they do make a strong argument that some human elements did take a part in their creation.
Although Muslims claim that Mohammed was Allah's greatest prophet, his knowledge of the Torah and Gospels often seems lacking. Contrary to his assertion in Sura 9:30, orthodox Jews did not believe that Ezra was the actual Son of God. The claim in Sura 19:22 that Mary gave birth to Jesus under a palm tree is somewhat in disagreement with the much older biblical account in the book of Luke.
Mohammed seems to have believed that the Trinity was a belief in three separate Gods. "Unbelievers are those who say: 'God is one of three.' There is but one God" (Sura 5:73). This goes against the orthodox Christian theology that the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three manifestations of the same God. These discrepancies might have been caused by Mohammed getting his information from unorthodox sects in Arabia, such as the Gnostic Christians. The mistakes are only inexplicable if we believe that Mohammed was actually receiving his information directly and entirely from God without the possibility of human error.
All these points might in all fairness be seen as metaphoric misunderstandings, although that would still bring into question the Muslim fundamentalist claim that the Koran is the absolute inerrant Word of God. But a far more serious challenge to the argument that God himself wrote the entire Koran without any human influence is its many dubious moral teachings.
Allah, as described by Mohammed, seems to have whole heartily endorsed the institution of slavery. Slave-girls in particular are described as being a delight and a reward for Muslim men. Here are a few examples:
"Prophet, We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom God has given you as booty..."" (Sura 33,50)
"Blessed are the believers, who are humble in their prayers; who avoid profane talk, and give alms to the destitute; who restrain from carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them)..." (Sura 23,1-5)
"He makes you this comparison, drawn from your own lives. Do your slaves share with you on equal terms the riches which We have given you? Do you fear them as you fear one another? Thus do We make plain Our revelation to men of understanding." (Sura 30,28)
"But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them, marry one only or any slave-girl you may own." (Sura 4,3)
"A believing slave-girl is better than an idolatress, although she may please you." (Sura 2,220)
As in ancient Christianity it was considered a virtue for a slave owner to legally free his slaves, but doing so was entirely optional and up to the discretion of the slave master. "As for those of your slaves who wish to buy their liberty, free them if you find in them any promise and bestow on them a part of the riches which God has given you." (Sura 24,33) Slavery wasn't legally abolished in Saudi Arabia until 1936, and the practice continued illegally for at least another generation. (History of Slavery, p 249) One can only wonder if Islamic nations would have banned the practice at all if they had not been pressured by the powerful nations of the West.
Another questionable doctrine in Islam is the idea of killing in the name of God. One striking example occurs during Mohammed's exile in Medina. The Banu Qurayza was the last Jewish clan left in the oasis town, the others having been forced out. The Muslims besieged their camp for several weeks, eventually forcing them into an unconditional surrender. Mohammed then ordered that all the surviving male Jews were to be beheaded. "Then the Messenger went out to the market of Medina-which is still the market today-and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for them and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches." "There were 600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900." (A Reader on Classic Islam p 85, secondary)
The young women were turned into slave-girls and given as presents to the Muslim soldiers, while the rest were sold into slavery. (Why I am not a Muslim p 96) Sura 33 records the grizzly event in the Koran. "He brought down from their strongholds those who had supported them from among the People of the Book and cast terror into their hearts, so that some you slew and other you took captive." (Sura 33,25) Women are given an extremely inferior status in the Koran and the Hadith tradition. "Men have authority over woman because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them." (Sura 4,34)
In matters of inheritance women were considered to be worthy of half a man's portion. "A male shall inherit twice as much as a female." (Sura 4,11) The testimony of one man was also considered equal to that of two women because of a belief that women had an inferior memory. "Call in two male witnesses from among you, but if two men cannot be found, then one man and two women whom you judge fit to act as witnesses; so that if either of them commit an error, the other will remember." (Sura 2,282)
A woman's primary purpose was to sexually satisfy her husband or master and raise his children. In this relationship the man had total control. "Women are your fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please." (Sura 2,223) But the punishment for a woman caught having sex before she was married (unless it was to her slave master) was a hundred lashes, and sometimes even death. (Why I am not a Muslim 310) "If any of your woman commit fornication, call in four witnesses from among yourselves against them; if they testify to their guilt confine them to their houses till death overtakes them or till God finds another way for them." (Sura 4,14)
The depictions of heaven in the Koran give a revealing insight into the male domination of Mohammed's world. Celestial maidens called houris were to attend to each male Muslim's sexual needs:
"But in fair gardens the righteous shall dwell in bliss, rejoicing in what their Lord will give them. Their Lord will shield them from the scourge of Hell. He will say: 'Eat and drink to your hearts' content. This is reward for your labors.' They shall recline on couches ranged in rows. To dark-eyed houris We shall wed them." (Sura 52,15-20)
"As for the righteous, they shall surely triumph. Theirs shall be gardens and vineyards, and high-bosomed maidens for companions: a truly overflowing cup" (Sura 78,31)
"The righteous shall return to a blessed retreat: the gardens of Eden, whose gates shall open wide to receive them. Reclining there with bashful virgins for companions, they will call for abundant fruit and drink." (Sura 38,49-53)
As appealing as this might sound to some men, it doesn't seem to include any place for women in heaven, except as the sexual objects for their husband's enjoyment. Any literal reading of the Koran or the Hadith forces us to the conclusion that women are simply not the social equals of men.
But we must be weary of being arrogantly overly critical of the Koran. Our modern understanding of the world has developed far beyond our ancient roots. With the help of science we are today able to understand the physical world in a way denied to all of the ancient world prophets. Our modern understanding of human rights would simply seem alien to people living in the ancient world. There is undeniably much greatness in the theology of Islam. Egalitarian virtues and passionate obedience to God have helped to create moral Islamic societies throughout the world. Islam's grudging acceptance of Judaism and Christianity at least set the foundation for the greater religious toleration that some Muslim countries now allow.
Islamic scholars must also be credited with preserving and expanding on the ancient Greek knowledge during Europe's Dark Ages, knowledge that might otherwise have been lost. But most importantly, Islam and the Koran have led countless humans to a life closer to at least their view of God. Islam continues to grow and develop in the modern world. In fact Islam can lay claim to being the fastest growing religion with the very real potential to challenge Christianity as the world's most populous religion in the near future.
But a careful reading makes it difficult to view the Koran as the absolute inerrant Word of God on each and every doctrine. It contains the same mythological stories found in Judaism and Christianity that seem to have been created more by fallible human beings that by God. It contains examples of mass murders that we are forced to believe were endorsed by God. It clearly establishes slavery as a legitimate institution, going so far as to offer it as a reward for loyal Muslim soldiers. It forces us to the conclusion that God wishes women to be treated as inferior to men, worth about half a man's value. To accept the Koran as absolute divine truth forces us to believe that God is against many things that we currently perceive to be basic human rights.