A Philosopher's Blog

Defining Islam

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2010
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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as correct. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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28 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 24, 2010 at 7:27 am

    How do you deal with an attitude like this?

    “Apostates should be killed. But if you are living in the West where killing apostates is against the law then you should abide by the law until such time Islam is strong enough that the law is changed.”

    • freddiek said, on August 24, 2010 at 9:28 am

      I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to provide the source of this statement.
      t would be good to know whether it’s a direct quotation from the Koran or an interpretation of part of the Koran. Without reference it could be seen as an indictiment of the Koran, an indictment of the Islamic religion , an indictment of a particular denomination of Islam (depending on their interpretation of the Koran) , an indictiment of Wahhabists extremists, or an indictment of all Muslims, including every last one of the 4M American Muslims.

      • freddiek said, on August 24, 2010 at 11:21 pm

        Does this damn quotation have a source or did you simply make it up?

        Let me briefly restate my first reply. Is it a direct quotation from the Koran, or an interpretation by Whabbiist extremists? Is it a quotation from a Sufi Muslim about his understanding of the Koran?

        • T. J. Babson said, on August 25, 2010 at 7:22 am

          It is a purely hypothetical attitude that tries to describe the thought processes of the people in “Undercover Mosque.”

          • freddiek said, on August 25, 2010 at 9:51 am

            Oh. Yeah. Thanks for making that perfectly clear from the outset.

            Am I to assume , hypothetically now, that when you allude to “Underground Mosque” you would include those unidentified Musilms who are filmed walking away from the camera down some unidentified street as the narrator of the piece comments in hushed tones specifically about the Green Lane Mosque and its members and radical Islam?

            Is there a word for a hypothetical within a hypothetical?. 🙂

            Some questions similar to those I’ve asked you before pop to the surface: Were we supposed to ‘assume’, based on your “hypothetical”, that this quotation represents the views of ALL Muslims? Most Muslims ? All British Muslims? All American Muslims? Depending on what you want us to conclude from your “hypothetical” our answers to your question “How do you deal with an attitude like this?” SHOULD vary accordingly. Right?

            Conclusion 1: ALL Muslilms feel this way. Then we could take one of at least two possible (hypothetical) approaches-. Perhaps you can dream up more?:

            A/ “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran” and all Muslim countries until their people return to the dust from whence they came. But before that we should “ship back to the countries they came from” all Muslims from Western democracies or whatever rock they happen to be hiding under . Then we can bomb them all to hell. Any escapees who remain in the West can be rounded up one by one. By the time we get around to doing all of the above we’ll surely have repealed the First Amendment and probably the Fourteenth and added a specific constitutional amendment containing wording to the effect that ” anyone assumed to have intentions of destroying all opposing religions when “Islam is strong enough” will be summarily executed”. OR

            B/ We can take a more reasoned approach like that suggested by the RAND study I alluded to frequently in Michael’s “Islamophobia” piece.

            Conclusion 2: If we determine that a handful, or some, or a ‘not insignificant number” of Muslims DO NOT agree with the hypothetical you dish up, the answer to your question becomes more complex. Or does it become easier? I would assume that a “moral” society, a Christian society, working under assumptions based on your hypothetical could not follow (A) above . But (B) a slow, steady approach would seem to be quite realistic approach.

            There are likely some options I missed..

            My question to you is now is “how [would TJ] deal with an attitude like” that expressed in your hypothetical quotation? WWTJD?

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 26, 2010 at 8:58 am


              I try to distinguish between the theology of Islam (which I frankly find extremely disturbing) and actual Muslim individuals (who I think we all agree are by and large nice people) and who should be judged as individuals.

              What is your view of Islamic theology? From your comments I would guess you regard it as benign.

            • freddiek said, on August 26, 2010 at 10:33 am

              tj/I’ll answer you question only because you seem to be answering at least part of mine.

              “From your comments I would guess you regard it as benign.” What comments specifically? From the outset of our discussion on Islam–three or more articles here– I’ve specifically tried to make a distinction between the benign aspects of the religion (Sufism for example and the radical aspects such as Wahabbism” But, the body ofIslam can host benign tumors and malignant tumors. As a Christian I see that the Christian faith is host to both types, though not to the degree that Islam is. Many atheists, maybe even Sam Harris, I don’t know, would declare that no religion is benign. If you have specific instances to support your guess, present them here. I’ll summarily apologize and denounce any blanket statement that Islamic theology is benign .

              My focus has been on avoiding where possible the marginalization and outright denial of of, if you will, ” ‘benign’ Muslims”. I’ve asked you time and again to tell us who and how many Muslims you would marginalize and on what specific bases. This response “. . . Muslim individuals (who I think we all agree are by and large nice people) and who should be judged as individuals” would seem to be a first step toward answering my questions.
              As a Christian I disagree with major aspects of Islamic theology. But I cannot ignore common sense or national security. I must accept the views expressed in the RAND paper as an important addition to my thinking on the subject

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 26, 2010 at 8:35 pm

              TJ would “trust but verify.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 26, 2010 at 3:58 pm

      Depends on who has the attitude. If the person is amenable to reason, try to use reason. If they are open to persuasion, use that. If they are eternally committed to this view, cannot ever be swayed and intend to act on this principle, then termination is in order.

      • freddiek said, on August 26, 2010 at 7:06 pm

        Basically what I’ve been saying. Your actions toward the person and his faith (in this case the Muslim and Islam) will be determined by your judgment of the degree of that believer’s commitment to the strictest tenets of his faith. Thus, if you believe all Muslims will always, in the end, heed the call to obey their faith in its strictest terms, you would be obliged to terminate them all. I know where I stand on this.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 26, 2010 at 8:53 pm

          Yes, if I believed that someone 1) was devoted to killing me if I failed to accept his belief system, 2) incapable of changing his devotion to my death and 3) actually capable of attacking me, then I would be inclined to attempt to kill him right back.

          However, most Muslims do not seem to be any more devoted to killing me then Christians are devoted to hunting down and killing witches, stoning disobedient children and so on. As such, I can usually rely on the fact that most people either fail to live up to the aspects of their faith that seem to call for killing or do not accept those tenets as correct.

          • freddiek said, on August 26, 2010 at 10:32 pm

            This funny fits about as well here as anywhere else:


            Initially Stewart makes a clear distinction between the radicals who are “f!!!!g crazy” and the “few good apples” among the followers of Islam. The best part, a mini-documentary titled “Tennessee No Evil” begins around 4:45. The characters are real (unless they managed to find a reeeally good look-alike for Laurie Cardoza-Moore Ben Leming is, w/o doubt, Ben Leming. The piece is somewhat reminiscent of the BBC doc about the Green Lane Mosque, replete with ham-handed editing—Curly Howard wasn’t actually at the Muslim mom’s, not Imam’s, interview, watch the over the shoulder shots,look for the facial cut or wipe (anyone know the official terminology?) used to ‘adapt’ Cardoza-Moore’s responses , ominous background music, and the hushed, obviously opinionated tone of the interviewer.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on August 24, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    “However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. ”

    I don’t think this is an apt comparison. Religious beliefs are not congruent with the laws of a nation. For one thing, everybody recognizes that laws are man-made and can be changed with the stroke of a pen. But as Sam Harris points out, “the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them.”

  3. T. J. Babson said, on August 24, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Mike, just out of curiosity, what do you regard as the “best” aspects of Islam. Has it occurred to you that what you consider the “worst” aspects of Islam others may consider the “best”?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 26, 2010 at 4:09 pm

      Of course. I am well aware that what I regard as evil is sometimes regarded by others as good. For example, I regard racism and genocide as evil, but some folks are for both.

      As far as the best aspects of Islam, I would say that zakat (charitable giving) is one of them. Of course, this is one of the five pillars of the Sunni branch.

      I’m generally not a big fan of religions. However, if people want to practice their faith in ways that does not harm other people, then that is fine. When the religious views lead people to harm others, then that is not the best.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 26, 2010 at 11:18 pm

        Just curious: does zakat extend to non-Muslims? I don’t know, but if I had to guess I would expect the answer is “no.”

  4. Emily C said, on August 25, 2010 at 9:12 am

    TJ – Religious beliefs are not congruent with the laws of a nation.

    In some they are, and in others (even when they specify they aren’t) it’s difficult to tell that they are not! You only have to look at the conflicts that arise when religious iconography is displayed in civic buildings….

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 26, 2010 at 8:44 am

      Are we therefore allowed to make inferences regarding the nature of Islam based on the laws of Islamic countries?

  5. jonolan said, on August 26, 2010 at 9:57 am

    By and large Islam cannot be changed except temporarily and in limited loci. It’s non-hierarchical so cannot be changed as a whole from the top down.

    • jonolan said, on August 27, 2010 at 9:19 am

      That is a matter of a great deal of debate among Muslims. Some say that zakah cannot be given to dhimmi others say that it can. There is also some argument over who gets priority the poorest or the most devout (to Allah of course) among even those who say it is permissible to give zakah to dhimmi.

      Note: The use of dhimmi was deliberate. All Muslim scholars agree that giving zakah to non-Abrahamic peoples is haram, i.e., pagans and heathens can go starve, elsewhere preferably.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on August 28, 2010 at 9:52 am

    We finally have a name for it: oikophobia

    The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’ ” What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm

      I don’t think supporting the freedom of religion by arguing Muslims should be allowed to build a mosque there is oikophobia. It rather seems to be quite consistent with the professed values of America.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 28, 2010 at 3:59 pm

        Straw man. Nearly everyone concedes they have the right to build. The question is whether they should build. I think it is a needless provocation, and will likely result in a lot of free speech that Muslims will find offensive.

        • T. J. Babson said, on September 6, 2010 at 12:19 pm

          As I predicted. This is why the GZM is a bad idea. But perhaps this is exactly what the builders want?


          Jakarta, Indonesia — Thousands of Indonesians gathered Sunday outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta to protest a Florida church’s plan to burn copies of the Quran.

          The Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, Florida, plans to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning copies of the Muslim holy text. The center describes itself as a “New Testament church based on the Bible.” It made headlines last year when it distributed a T-shirt that said, “Islam is the devil.”

          Protesters in Jakarta carried signs saying, “Jihad to protect Koran” and “You burn qu’ran you burn in hell.” The protesters included members of the hard-line Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia and the pluralism care movement, a multi-faith group.

          “We hope that the U.S. government to stop this plan. We represent Muslim, Christians and other religions who all wants to avoid any clashes as a result,” Damien Dematra, the coordinator for the pluralism care movement, said in a news statement.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on August 28, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Is this a freedom of religion issue, too? Try to be consistent.

    LYNDON — To Richard and Joan Downing, the 24-foot-tall cross on a hilltop on their property is an expression of their faith. To a state commission that regulates land use, it is out of character with the natural beauty of the rural neighborhood and should come down.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 28, 2010 at 7:10 pm

      Without any consideration in depth, I would say that as long as the structure is not posing an actual hazard to others, then they have the right to have the cross on their property. The grounds would be the right to free expression, the right to practice one’s faith and the right to use one’s property as one sees fit, provided that it does not do unjust harm to others.

  8. […] Defining Islam « A Philosopher’s Blog. […]

  9. kernunos said, on September 7, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    They can define themselves. I believe in freedom of religion and freedom to assemble. I know this does not represent all Muslims but discussing Isreal is as good a test as any to find out. Just mention George Bush around a Dem and see what happens next. 🙂

    they want to destroy by ‘peacful’ means. How does that work?

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