There’s a guy who comes into one of the local coffeeshops – 40ish, a businessman, and speaks with a foreign accent. I had met him a few months ago. I didn’t know he was a Muslim until a few weeks ago when he mentioned fasting for Ramadan. Last night, I was working on my laptop at the seat next to him, and he said something to the effect that the US should withdraw from Iraq and let the Sunnis and Shia fight it out. I just kind of nodded, not really intending to get into a political discussion. I don’t recall exactly how we got on the subject, but we started talking about Islam. He was from Palestine and was a Sunni – although, he had a number of conservative Christian business partners and friends. He seemed moderate enough, didn’t have the “I’m a fanatic” beard, had lived in the US for 20+ years, but he prayed five times a day and had socially conservative views.
I was interested in hearing his view of Islam, though, so I was asking him some questions about it.
He started talking about the differences between Sunni and Shia, and Middle-Eastern politics. He (a Sunni) didn’t like the Shia and considered them to be militaristic and willing to kill themselves whenever their leader commands. He did seem to like Hamas and Hezbollah – even saying that Hezbollah were “good Shia”. It wasn’t hard to see the underlying political bias that could lead him to this view – since Hezbollah supported the Palestinians against Israel.
I asked him what he thought of the Wahabbis. (Wahabbis are fanatical Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The 9/11 terrorists, as well as Osama Bin Ladin are Wahabbis. They are behind Saudi laws that women must be completely covered, can’t drive or vote, don’t allow people to take their picture, etc.) He said that Sunnis have no problem with Wahabbis, but they were more conservative than most Sunnis. He didn’t agree with laws that women should be completely covered, and didn’t think women needed to cover their hair, either. But, he thought women shouldn’t be walking around in bikinis.
A little later, he was trying to convince me that Islam was the third and final revelation of God (Judaism and Christianity being the first two). He began claiming that the Islam and Christianity had a great deal in common, but Islam was the more accurate and recent revelation. I questioned that assertion with by contrasting New Testament teachings with Islam, but said I thought the Old Testament and Islam had more in common. I think he assumed I was a Christian (and I must admit, bringing up Christian teachings did play into that perception), and was trying to convince me that Islam was better than my (presumed) Christian beliefs. I ended up telling him that I was actually an ex-Christian and that I didn’t believe in God.
He began trying to convince me of the existence of God. First, he he told me that the Koran states that there are 99 names for God (the Merciful, the Creator, etc.) He then told me to hold my hands in front of me. Apparently, some of the lines in your right hand look like the arabic numerals for 1 and 8. The lines in your left hand are the same, but reversed: 8 and 1. He said to add them up (18 + 81), and, of course, they add up to 99. I think he was trying to make an argument that the result somehow validates the Koran, which says there are 99 names for God. Did God write 99 on our hands to tell us the Koran was true? This seemed like an odd argument. Not only is the method of coming up with 99 questionable, but, more importantly, I told him that I could form my own religion, tell people that God had 99 names, and use the same argument – would that validate the truth of my religion, too?
(Wikipedia: 99 Names of God + Palm of the Hand)
He also tried to convince me with Pascal’s wager, although he had never heard of “Pascal” or “Pascal’s Wager”. My guess is that he heard this argument used by a Muslim, and they had stripped-out the Christian origin of the argument. I told him that I didn’t buy that argument because it’s easy to manipulate people with that argument (any false religion can use that argument), and I didn’t want to confer legitimacy on false religions or be complicit in supporting a false religion for my own self-interest. I also told him that I thought it would be cowardly and intellectually dishonest to believe in a God I didn’t think existed simply for my own self-interest. It’s important for humanity to move towards truth – and that might involve risking personal harm to erase false religions from the world. The cowardly and spineless, on the other hand, are the prime “converts” for Pascal’s Wager. Ultimately, rejecting Pascal’s Wager is an act of courage in service of supporting what is true, despite potential personal harm – perhaps in the same way that being a soldier in a just war is personally risky, but a necessary step in fighting for what is true and right.
He claimed that the Koran was too complex to have been written by an uneducated man (Mohammed), therefore he had to get the words from someone else – and that someone else was presumed to be God. Not knowing arabic and being unable to judge the sophistication of the Koran, I simply couldn’t accept his claim based on “say so”.
He also claimed that Mohammed was fortold in the Torah (the Jewish holy book, ostensibly written by Moses), and that, according to the Torah, Islam was the last revelation of God. This story sounded like complete fiction. I asked him where in the Torah it said that, because the Torah is the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, and I certainly never read anything about Mohammed there. I said that his story sounded suspect, but if he had a verse that we could lookup, we could verify that claim. He couldn’t give me any reference, but in an attempt to shore-up this story, he claimed that, a few years ago, all the religious scholars of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism got together for a conference. Already, this story sounded highly suspect. “Really? All of them?” I asked. This story seemed simply to fantastic to believe, but I let him go on. He said that the Islamic scholars confronted the Jews with this information in their own Torah. At this point, I simply had to stop the story. It was simply too fantastic to believe. I can certainly understand why such a rumor would spread through the Muslim community, however. The story – that Mohammed was foretold in the Torah – not only validated their own religious claims, but it also made the Jews appear as if they were unwilling to acknowledge the superiority of Islam despite their own holy books teaching. Even further, if it was in the Torah, it would have significant implications for Christianity. I’ve heard of a lot of urban legends in the Muslim community, but this is certainly one I’d never heard before. Funny how fictions end up playing an important role in supporting pre-existing beliefs.
He claimed that the reason I didn’t believe in God is simply because I got busy in my life and forgot about Him. He said people don’t pray when everything is going well, they only remember God when things are going badly. I told him that it wasn’t true at all. I was a little too tired at this point to fully explain my disbelief, but I did tell him that when I was about 18 or 19 that I began to realize that the world made a lot more sense if we assume God isn’t involved in it. It’s funny when religious people believe ficticious accounts of why unbelievers don’t believe. There is always an easy explanation that discredits the basis of an unbeliever’s unbelief – something that is easy for them to deal with intellectually, and has a ready-made fix.
I asked him about the teaching that Christians would go to hell. He said that the Koran never teaches that. I told him that I thought he was mistaken on that point, but there was nothing more to say about it, since I couldn’t look up the verse in the Koran (like I can do now): “The unbelievers among the [Jews and Christians] and the pagans shall burn for ever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures.” (Koran 98:1-8) / “They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.” (5:17) He did say later that the only unforgivable sin was worshipping a God other than Allah. I asked him about people born in other countries – they followed the beliefs of their culture and their family – would they were somehow guilty of the unforgivable sin? He backed off from the ‘unforgivable sin’ claim and said he really didn’t know how God would judge people. I saw this again a little later, too — he would make a claim that the Koran says X, I would bring up a situation that would be unfair and unjust if his claim were true, and he would suddenly change his position to be agnostic about that particular point.
A little bit later, he was telling me that Islam is a religion of peace – and to backup his point, he said that the Koran teaches that whoever kills one person is as guilty as killing the whole world. So, I asked him about his earlier statements about Abu Bakr (a close friend of Mohammed who became leader – at least according to Sunnis – after Mohammed’s death). After the death of Mohammed, a number of people de-converted from Islam and Abu Bakr had them killed (this is where Muslims have their belief that apostates should be killed). Further, Sunnis regard him as the first of four righteously guided Calphates (leaders of the Islamic community).
Doesn’t the fact that Abu Bakr killed lots of apostates make him guilty of killing the whole world many times over? Ismael got evasive again. He didn’t know how God would see those killings, although he did agree that it was legitimate to kill Muslim apostates. Which gets us back to the old religious bait and switch. When a Muslim wants Islam to be perceived as peaceful, they can quote various sections of the Koran, but then ignore them or claim agnosticism whenever it comes to religiously-sanctioned murder. I dropped the “Islam is peaceful” claim and started asking him about the legitimacy of killing apostates. He said it was legitimate to kill apostates because they had disrespected their community and their teaching. I tried to turn it around and help him look at the nastiness of that idea from outside his religion. I asked him what he would think if Christians killed ex-Christians who had converted to Islam. Would he think that was okay? He shrugged and said that would be okay if Christians did that. I asked him if he could see that the practice of punishing or killing people for their beliefs will cause all kinds of strife and problems – and that this is the major lesson of European religious wars centuries ago. In fact, I had some ancestors who fled Catholic France to escape persecution because they had converted to Protestantism. I was trying to get across to him the fact that trying to control people’s religious beliefs leads to societal problems, endless fighting, and strife.
He claimed that Afghanistan under the Taliban were the only country on earth to actually attempt to practice true Islam. (And he didn’t mean that as an insult to Islam. He meant it as a compliment to the Taliban.) I asked him if he knew of all the violations of basic human rights that went on under the Taliban – having non-Muslims wear certain clothing, having women completely covered – including a mesh over their eyes so people couldn’t see their eyes, that music was banned. He relented a bit and said they were excessively conservative in making women cover everything. He believed that women didn’t need to cover their faces, or even their hair. However, he believed that music was justly banned under the Taliban because music – at least music with singing – was wrong according to the Koran. Music without vocals was okay under Islam, however. He also thought it was justifiable for the Taliban to enforce the death penalty on apostates. He didn’t worry too much about the “death for apostasy” idea because, he said, very few Muslims convert to other religions anyway. Well, yes, I told him – but many countries have laws against preaching anything but Islam. Saudi Arabia, for example, doesn’t allow anyone to preach a non-Islamic religion, they don’t allow religious minorities to show any religious symbols, they punish on any Muslim who de-converts from Islam. He seemed shocked by the idea that I would even suggest that a non-Islamic religion be allowed to preach in Saudi Arabia. Afterall, he said, Mecca was the home of the prophet. I asked him what he would think if Israel made it illegal to preach any religion except Judaism – afterall, Israel is the birthplace of Judaism. Would he like it if preaching Islam was outlawed in Israel? He said something about Israel being only 50 years old, and somehow it didn’t apply. Anyway, he said that in the Middle East, even if there wasn’t a government law against apostasy, that if any Muslim converted away from Islam and they made it known, that someone would certainly kill them. It didn’t matter if there was an actual law or not. There would be vigilante attacks.
His whole idea of true Islam just seemed so medieval and barbaric. The Taliban had a long list of basic human rights violations, and I told him this but he didn’t seem that bothered by most of it. He did say he didn’t think women needed to be covered to the extent that the Taliban laws required, but that was about it. Yet, in other ways, he seemed rather open-minded. For example, letting his son read some pro-Christian material that one of his Christian business partners gave him. He certainly didn’t want his son to believe it, but he wanted his son to at least know about it and be exposed to it. He did say that he thought Al-Queda were wrong, even if he seemed to admire the rule of the Taliban. In fact, he claimed that the reason the Taliban was destroyed was precisely because they were practicing true Islam. It’s always amazing to hear Muslims try to position their religion (for public relations reasons) as a religion of peace, but then be taken aback when they express opinions that rightfully belong in the 15th century. They love to say that the Koran teaches that there should be no compulsion in religion – although, the actual meaning of that phrase is subject to interpretation. Yes, there are religious minorities in every Muslim country. But, to control the education system to reinforce Islam, prevent people from preaching non-Islamic religion, and have laws (or vigilante “justice”) applied to Muslim apostates means that Muslims are under *compulsion* to remain within Islam. I also asked him if potential converts to Islam should be worried about the “death for apostates” idea, because it seems that they won’t be allowed to change their minds later. He said that it wasn’t really a problem because countries didn’t enforce it (or at least, countries outside the Middle East didn’t enforce it) – which makes me pity any country that becomes more and more Islamic because the draconian laws are sure to follow once Islam has converted the majority of the population. Based on his opinions, I got the feeling that he would support Islamic rule over the United States – if there were enough American Muslims to actually make that a feasible possibility.
He also said that, according to Mohammed, that Islam would branch into 77 different sects before “the prophet” returned, but that 70 of these sects would end up in hell. I had to wonder what kind of infighting this teaching would cause. Muslims could be “justified” in branding other Muslims as heretics with that idea. It also gave me a bit of insight into why people like Al-Queda see most Muslims as enemies.
He said that in Islam the church and the state are merged. I said that the idea will lead to all kinds of strife and conflict, because people will want their version of Islam in control. It would bring back all the problems of the european religious wars. The West has learned it’s lesson about the foolishness of that idea. Yet, this idea is entrenched in Islam. I couldn’t help but think there were a lot of things in Islam that would lead to permanent internal and external conflict.
He said that Mohammed had made a prediction about Persia (present-day Iran) becoming an Islamic country, and that it came true. He also said that Moahmmed predicted that the Vatican/Rome would fall under Islamic power. Again, I couldn’t help but think these predictions were formenting conflict. While the Islamic world is currently too weak to capture Italy, this “prediction” could become a self-fulfilling one if enough Muslims take it upon themselves to make it happen. Again, it was an case where Islamic teaching could stir up conflict and strife.
I asked him how Muslims/the Koran would view me as an ex-Christian who no longer believed in God. He just shook his head. Apparently, to him, I had learned God’s second revelation (Christianity) and rejected it. I kind of figured I was only one step better than an Muslim apostate who had become an atheist, and his reaction seemed to confirm that view.
In the end, I thought it was an interesting conversation. I wish I hadn’t been quite so tired, or else I might’ve remembered more and made some better points. We left on friendly terms. I’m still a little bit taken aback by how he – a seemingly moderate muslim in many ways – could also endorse death for apostates, and admire the Taliban. And, as I said earlier, he certainly didn’t look like a crazy fundamentalist. I didn’t even know he was a practicing Muslim until recently. But, it’s odd how people can hold nasty views like that and have their religion completely blind them to the nastiness of their ideas. I’m also convinced that an Islamic world means a world of strife – because they believe most so-called “Muslims” are not following “True Islam” and will end up in hell (which seems a step away from punishing them here on earth), and the very idea of punishment and death for people who convert from Islam seems like medieval and barbarianic. He seemed to endorse even the parts of Islam that conflicted with basic human rights. The mixture of church and state seems a very potent mixture of conflict – as everyone would want the government to enforce their version of “true Islam”. Yet, he’s quite convinced all these things are an essential part of his religion.
Personally, I view Mohammed as no better than countless other people who have created power, wealth, and adoration for themselves by creating their own religion. He is simply in the same category as Shoko Asahara (Aum Shinrikyo), Li Hongzhi (Falun Gong), Joseph Smith (Mormonism), L Ron Hubbard (Scientology), Sun Myung Moon (the Moonies), etc. It’s unfortunate that we are still living with and fighting against the ghost of this hoax over a thousand years later.