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There Are No Amendments In Islam
Sarah Haider writes a compelling analysis of the odd political re/alignment you see playing out today between Christians and Muslims on social issues:
Similar scuffles are taking place in Canada, and around the world conservative Christians are locking arms with Muslims in their opposition to the inclusion of gender and orientation in classroom materials. Some are applauding this new brotherhood of Abraham, and hoping that this heralds a change in the winds.
There’s really nothing surprising about this alliance at the object-level. What religious Christians and Muslims believe about how society should be structured in regards to promiscuity, sexual modesty, and traditional family structures have long been near-impossible to tell apart. The overlap also bleeds into superficial similarities about isolated rural ranchers defending their traditional way of life from outside influences, while openly carrying their firearms to their places of worship (am I talking about the Taliban or…?).
Sarah is correct that the modern alliance between liberal progressives and Muslims was a marriage of convenience that took advantage of some unusual culture war circumstances, but it’s a tryst that was bound to fray apart given the fundamental policy disagreements. One of the efforts to keep the bandwagon held together comes from what Sarah terms Muslims in Name Only (MINOs):
If Muslims decide to be more vocal about their opposition to leftist social agenda, they will find that MINOs will be invited to speak over them, and will succeed in drowning them out. We will be treated to a barrage of ludicrous op-eds that posit Islam as a LGBT friendly religion (“How Muhammad Was The First Queer Activist”, etc) as well as profiles of camera-friendly gay Muslims who claim to find no contradictions between “their Islam” and homosexuality. The more intelligent among the MINOs might attempt to put a more theological spin on it with a few cherry-picked quotes from hadith or the Quran, or perhaps bring in some historical flavor by blaming colonizers for anti-gay legislation in the Middle East. “True Islam”, it will be revealed, is a religion of Peace and #Pride.
I was raised Muslim but abandoned it as an atheist a long time ago, and this passage is particularly painful for how real it is. The discordant discourse above has largely been operating in parallel and disconnected tracks. On one side you get a bevy of purportedly “Muslim” activists announcing that Islam can mean whatever you want it to mean, and actual Muslim religious scholars responding with The Fuck?:
By a decree from God, sexual relations are permitted within the bounds of marriage, and marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. In the Quran, God explicitly condemns sexual relations with the same sex (see, e.g., Quran, al-Nisā’: 16, al-A‘rāf: 80–83, and al-Naml: 55–58). Moreover, premarital and extramarital sexual acts are prohibited in Islam. As God explains, “Do not go near fornication. It is truly an immoral deed and a terrible way [to behave]” (Quran, al-Isrā’: 32). These aspects of Islam are unambiguously established in the Quran, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and a chain of scholarly tradition spanning fourteen centuries. As a result, they have gained the status of religious consensus (ijmā‘) and are recognized as integral components of the faith known to the general body of Muslims.
As an atheist I have all sorts of complaints about all religions, but the attempts to rehabilitate Islam’s image to better fit liberal sensibilities are pernicious for their particular dishonesty. Because one of the few good things I’ll say about Islam is to praise its unusual commitment towards scriptural fidelity.
In case you didn’t know, Islam was founded around 600 AD explicitly as the final entry in the Abrahamic religion trilogy. Islam was not presented as an alternative to Judaism and Christianity, rather it was heralded as the true and uncorrupted version of those creeds. According to Islamic lore, Allah (literally just the Arabic word for God) created the world and everything in it and then spent the next however many millennia trying — and implicitly failing — to convey his divine message to humans through a long succession of prophets. First man Adam was also the first prophet, and he was followed by well-known Biblical heavy-hitters like Ayyub (Job), Musa (Moses), and of course ‘Isa (Jesus). The full list is unknown and unknowable but Islam assures us that every community throughout history received at least one of Allah’s Verified™ messengers.
The reason Muhammad of Mecca is special in Islam is because he’s Allah’s final message delivery attempt. Adam was the first, and Muhammad is heralded as the “Seal of the Prophets” to underscore the finality. I won’t get into exactly why god needed so many attempts to convey his message, but a common point of criticism from Muslims about past attempts (such as Christianity) is that god’s message was corrupted and lost through misguided translation attempts. I say this as a Muslim apostate with no stake in the debate but the concern over the Bible’s reliability seems uncontroversially true to me given the inherent limitations of translation, and the resulting myriad of competing versions. After centuries of debating whether the in John 1:1 was intended to be a definite or indefinite article from the original Greek, I can see why someone would be too traumatized by the prospect of any translation attempt.
To their credit, early Muslim scholars appear to have taken this mistranslation concern very seriously. All of Muhammad’s revelations were collected over time by his followers and, after his death in 632 AD, were compiled into a single book known as the Quran. Islamic theology insists that the Quran is the literal word of Allah which means it has never been modified. Given the religious motivations at play, it’s natural to be skeptical of such a claim but it does appear to be solidly supported by the archeological evidence available, with the oldest Quranic manuscripts radiocarbon dated to between 568 and 645 AD and matching what we have available. The commitment to the divine inviolability of the Quran is also reflected in the expectation that, everywhere from America to Indonesia, all practicing Muslims are required to learn and recite passages in the original Arabic. Translations of the Quran exist of course, but reluctantly so and intended solely as a study aid.
The Quran is the central commanding text, but below it are hadiths — a sporadic collection of stories, speeches, and anecdotes attributed to Muhammad and a significant source for how to live the Good Muslim Life (covering topics such as when to assalamualaikum your bros, whether cats are cool, or how to wash oneself before praying). Unlike the Quran, hadiths are not seen as direct guidance from Allah. Instead, their reliability as a guiding lodestar is obsessively assessed in proportion to their authenticity. So some hadiths will be accepted as controlling authorities because they’re heavily corroborated by reliable narrators, while others get dismissed because they’re fourth-hand accounts on a weird topic and with a dodgy chain of transmission.
The point is, given the obsession over the lineage of the Quran and hadiths, it’s no surprise that Muslims today come across as especially zealous about following their deen. There’s no leeway to fall back on mealy-mouthed “Living Quran” rationalizations for why only some aspects of Islam should be obeyed but not others.
Islam’s etymology is about unquestioning submission to authority, purportedly only to god’s authority but that’s a hard demarcation to keep in mind when political and religious power is near-impossible to disentangle within Muslim countries. Its focus on the eternal afterlife for doling out rewards for devotion endowed me with a fatalistic perspective about my temporary earthly existence at a formative time where I was still grappling with immigrating to the US. My depressed ass then couldn’t wait to hurry up and die — an overwhelming desire to to get it over with already so that can experience the promised happiness at last. I left Islam because it’s a regressive and stifling bundle of superstitions, ill-suited to living out a fulfilling existence. In consideration of the billions today living under its penumbra, I wish it wasn’t so, but that sentiment is not enough to change reality.
I’m comfortable saying that the MINOs who self-appoint themselves as the religion’s modern rehabilitators are blatantly lying. If I had to guess at their motives, it probably has something to do with the fact that being a member of a religious minority is too valuable an emblem within the Progressive Stack of oppressed identities to give up completely. For Islam to be the religion least amenable to revisionism does not matter when it’s put up against such an irresistible force.