The attempt to be a thoughtful Muslim must be exhausting. There are so many mental landmines to avoid and crumbling foundations to shore up when trying to build a consistent and coherent Muslim worldview.
This is seen clearly though not by any means exclusively in the schizophrenic mindset that on the one hand boasts of the supremacy of Islam over all other powers or beliefs and on the other hand rushes to claim victim status whenever Islam proves to be weak or at fault in some moral evil committed by its followers in the name of Allah.
This supremacist attitude is woven throughout the Qur’an and Muslim writings. Allah assures his followers that they are at the top of the heap of humanity (“You are the best of all peoples evolved for mankind” — Qur’an 3:110). He informs them that Islam is the perfect faith (“Today I have perfected your religion for you” — Qur’an 5:3). Muhammad tells his denizens that the age of jahiliyyah (i.e., ignorance of Allah and his ways) is now over, and that unbelief is no longer going to be tolerated. Anything not in accord with Islam is to be eradicated (something the Taliban, ISIS and Salafi Muslims have taken to heart in destroying religious sculptures, shrines and museums of religious and cultural artifacts from bygone eras). Unbelievers (the kuffar) are to be won over to Islam or forced to kneel in submission to Islamic rule and pay the onerous yearly head tax known as jizya, or to face the sword of the Islamic state until they lose their heads (literally). Allah assures his jihadis that they will surely be victorious since he will send his angels to fight alongside them and they will overcome huge odds:
O Prophet! Urge the believers to fight. If there are twenty steadfast persons amongst you, they will overcome two hundred, and if there be a hundred steadfast persons they will overcome a thousand of those who disbelieve, because they (the disbelievers) are people who do not understand. (Qur’an 8:65)
Muhammad instructs his followers that they have the right to live off the wealth of the kuffar that they overcome in battle. The spoils of war are theirs to divide up and enjoy. Those captured in war are to become the property of the victors, or to be sold on the slave market. Girls and women of child-bearing age (whether already married or not) can be taken as sex-slaves by the Muslim soldiers. All of this is possible because Muslims are the best of all peoples, and the rest of humanity exists for their pleasure and profit. Muslims are the masters, the kuffar are their slaves (whether they know that fact yet or not).
Yet this supremacist mentality runs violently aground on the reefs of reality.
If Muslims are the best of all peoples, then why do Muslim-majority countries consistently rank at the bottom of the scales when compared with countries run by the kuffar? Why do their citizens suffer significantly poorer quality of life, life expectancy, education, access to clean water and sufficient food, freedom of thought and expression, liberty and social mobility? Why is there such a dearth of scientific research and technological innovation among its learning centers? Why are so many Muslim citizens fleeing their home countries to resettle in the West?
Some apologists will reply that though they may lag behind the kuffar in such categories, they are the best in terms of religious and moral strength. After all, they have Shari’ah (the literal laws of Allah, they believe) and many of their countries enshrine some form of this as their national law, unlike the kuffar, who seem to revel in debauchery, murder and mayhem. Islam, after all, is the religion of peace, and those living under it enjoy the blessings of Allah.
But when one peels back the facade, the claim of moral superiority is lost in a sea of turpitude. The treatment of minorities, whether religious or racial, shows no love of neighbor. Muslims who step out of line are blackballed or, in cases of forbidden love, are targeted for executions in “honor killings.” Graft and corruption are par for the course among those in government or military leadership, and religious patriarchs can be found with large stashes of pornography. Pakistan, the one nation founded in 1947 to show the world what a truly Muslim society would look like, has consistently topped the list of annual downloads of pornography, and not just run-of-the-mill porn but child sex, bestiality and homosexuality. The claims of peace and blessing under the banner of Islam are belied by incessant bombings and slaughters engendered by internecine sectarian and cultural hatreds between Sunnis and Shiites, and among Persians, Kurds, Turks and Arabs. This doesn’t even take into account the bloodshed inaugurated by Muslims against unbelievers in their midst and across the borders of their countries.
Cosmopolitan Muslims have known these facts very well for a long time, and now through the wonders of the Internet, even provincial Muslims are fast becoming aware of the gargantuan gap between the triumphal claims of Islam’s proponents and the reality on the ground of its falsehoods and failures. Such cognitive dissonance is rightly shaking the faith of many in the Islamic world.
Trained to believe that Muhammad is the “perfect man” (al-insan al-kamil), and that Allah calls all human beings to emulate Islam’s prophet in every detail of life, those who learn more of Muhammad often find his reported behavior reprehensible. Should they marry a nine-year-old girl still playing with her dolls? Should they marry more than one wife, and use corporal punishment on them when they get out of line? Should they own slaves, buying and selling them and gifting them to friends? Should they practice and condone violence against those who refuse to submit to Islam? Is it okay to order the assassination of those impugning their reputation as Muslims? Should they employ sorcery to ward off evil spirits? Can they engage in treachery against the kuffar (after all, Muhammad said, “War is deceit”), and even break treaties/agreements when they no longer serve the advantage of Muslims? Do they have to treat Jews as their inveterate enemies, believing that they are the worst of all creatures and worthy of extermination? As the average Muslim learns more about Islam’s founder, it’s not surprising for there to arise a crisis of conscience.
Likewise, the foundations of faith are shaken as Muslims increasingly investigate the faith claims surrounding their “revealed book”, the Qur’an. The standard claim is that this book was sent down from heaven in piecemeal fashion as the angel Jibril (Gabriel) under the commission of Allah relayed portions of material from the “preserved tablets” in heaven. The process of receiving and gathering these revelations was superintended by Allah so that nothing was lost and no errors crept into the final product. As such, Muslims believe the Qur’an in their hands today to be a perfect copy of what Allah originally delivered to Muhammad. As modern scholarship has finally turned its attention to the early manuscripts of the Qur’an and to historical questions surrounding its appearance and description in early Muslim writings, it has become clear from the earliest manuscripts that there are significant variations in text between one manuscript and another, and that the earliest copies date to more than one hundred years after Muslim histories describe the first gathering the Qur’an as a book. Arab linguists studying the text of the Qur’an have noted hundreds of grammatical and syntactical errors as well as at least 118 foreign (i.e., non-Arabic words) in the Qur’an. This is all problematic for a book that claims to be written in pure Arabic sent down from an eternal master copy in heaven. Likewise, the Qur’an claims to be clear (mubeen), that is, easily understandable. Yet in recent years a prominent German Qur’anic linguist, Gerd Puin, has acknowledged that “every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense.” Much of the reason for this is that the meaning of many classical Arabic words used in the Qur’an have been lost to history. Even a cursory study of the formulation of the Qur’an historically demonstrates that there were many competing versions before the text became standardized. Even today, there are dozens of variations of the Qur’an in use among Muslims, but most Muslims don’t know this.
In terms of content, many of the stories found in the Qur’an have their origin in prior writings popular among Persians, Jews and Christians. The bulk of them come from apocryphal sources, even though they reference biblical characters. Jews and Christians recognized them as fables without historical weight, intended to teach moral lessons or answer ancillary questions. But in the Qur’an these stories have been copied and are presented as historical fact. Such borrowing from unreliable sources raises serious questions as to the divine source of the Qur’an. Was Allah not aware of the difference between his own prior revelation (the Bible) and the apocryphal writings concocted by well-meaning humans?
When Muslims begin to confront such anomalies in their prophet and sacred scripture, as well as their lesser stature among the nations of the earth, their world is upended. Their “perfect religion” crumbles before the truth. The foundation upon which they base their supremacy, Allah’s gift of the perfect man and the perfect revelation, disintegrates under scrutiny, and their world teeters on the brink of collapse.
How do Muslims respond to these realities?
Some, of course, refuse to let any of these hard realities register in their minds. They continue to live under the lie that nothing is wrong, that Islam is perfect and that it is moving from success to success as Allah confirms its superiority over all rivals.
Others, wanting to remain Muslim and yet recognize that all is not well in the world of Islam, adopt one of two postures. The first group looks inwardly and argues that the present-day foundering of Islam reveals Allah’s displeasure with the lukewarm obedience of his Muslim subjects as a whole and has withdrawn his blessing until things change. It is therefore up to Muslims to become serious once again about total allegiance to Shari’ah and to the conquest of unbelievers. This is the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood and all its daughter organizations across the world, as well as of al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and most other “radical Muslim” terrorist groups. They are considered extremists by the non-Muslim world, but their conviction is that what they represent is true Islam, and Allah will bless their efforts to bring the Muslim majority back to the teachings and actions of the Arabian prophet. Their rallying cry might be summarized as: “The umma [worldwide community of Muslims] is not Muslim enough.”
The second group looks outwardly and blames what it sees as a plenitude of enemies whose all-consuming goal is the destruction of Islam. Even when one enemy recedes, there is a host of others lined up, clamoring to take its place in oppressing the vulnerable Muslim flock around the world. This group has created the “Islamophobia industry,” claiming victimhood status so as to gain societal and legal protection under which cover Islam can continue to strengthen its standing and advance its supremacist goals. Oddly enough, rarely do such Muslims confront the obvious incongruity between the omnipotent sovereignty of Allah and the setbacks of his people — otherwise, they would move into the first camp (accepting blame for not being Muslim enough to warrant Allah’s successful protection) or they would leave Islam altogether. It is this group in which conspiracy theories flourish. Why are bad things happening to the Muslim world? Because the Americans are spreading the coronavirus in Muslim-majority countries. Because the CIA engineered the 9/11 attack and blamed Muslims to paint Islam as evil in the eyes of the world. Because the Europeans are bigots and don’t want to share their wealth with others. Because Hollywood has profited for years by painting Muslims as terrorists to sell action thrillers. Because non-Muslims are inherently racists against the “race” of Islam. Even Marvel comics has been accused of seeking to undermine the pristine religion of Islam for creating Ms. Marvel, a teenage Muslim superhero whose alter-ego is Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year old female living with her Pakistani family in New Jersey as she fights evil in her spare time.
But far and away the greatest and most terrible enemy of Islam most prodigious in its evil and villainy, is of course “the Jews.” Muslim religious leaders regularly point to them as the source of all the world’s problems. As an example, in a sermon preached this year on January 15th from the pulpit of the Umayyad Mosque (Sunni Islam’s 4th most holy site), the Syrian Islamic “scholar” Tawfiq Ramadan al-Bouti declared:
If you study the Jews, you will find that they are behind two things: The first of these things is inciting strife and wars. The second thing is spreading moral depravity, debauchery and licentiousness.
These dastardly, powerful foes control the world’s banks as well as the publishing and entertainment industries. All their decisions and actions are intentionally taken so as to weaken or destroy the harmony and standing of Islam in the world. Once they are exterminated, the argument goes, the world will rise up in peace and prosperity. Almost every conspiracy theory that gains traction among Muslims ultimately involves the Jews, or the Zionists, who represent Israel, an ever-present thorn in the side, reminding the Muslim armies of their numerous and humiliating defeats at the hands of this small, but resilient and powerful nation comprised almost wholly of their mortal enemies.
But increasing numbers of cognizant Muslims are tired of farcical conspiracy theories. They find the call to unquestioned obedience to the example of Muhammad repulsive in so many respects. They see the evil of repression unleashed by Muslim governments against fellow Muslims, not to mention the kuffar. The cannot escape the reality of nearly 40,000 deadly terrorist attacks carried out by self-professed Muslims around the world in the twenty years since the tipping point of 9/11, when the ugliness of Islamic jihad could no longer be hidden.
Because of these realities, thoughtful Muslims are finding it increasingly difficult to toe the line. Many are “defecting in place,” opting for safety over defiance. Discretion concerning the loss of faith in one’s heart allows the keeping of one’s head on his shoulders. But for others, the private rejection of Islam is not sufficient. Such former Muslims are willing to wear the badge of a murtadd (apostate), defying Islamic punishment so as to display their conviction that Islam fails as a religious and political system. Their numbers are increasing dramatically as the ship of Allah continues to founder on the reefs of reality.
The attempt to be a thoughtful Muslim is indeed exhausting. There are too many holes in the hull to patch as the ship takes on water. Some still labor to keep it afloat, but many of the crew are heading for the gunwales to throw themselves overboard, hopefully to be rescued by others waiting to help those abandoning ship. For those exhausted Muslims looking to renounce their former allegiance, we praise their bravery and pursuit of truth. May their tribe increase! For those waiting in the lifeboats, we say, “Do not be weary in well-doing.” The rescue efforts are well worth the struggle.