Muslims defending their faith

bill flavalThis Article was first published on Bill’s facebook page on the 15 August.  He has very kindly allowed us to re- publish here.

Sunday, 14 August 2016, London Today I spent an enjoyable afternoon, standing in the late summer sun, with the London Black Atheists group at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park. If you are not familiar with this place, it is the English monument to free speech. It is a place where anyone can bring a box to stand on and announce their views on any subject, to anyone who will listen.

Apart from the main speakers stood on their boxes, or stepladders, spontaneous discussions breakout in the melee around you. And every discussion soon becomes an event as people crowd around to hear what is being said and throw in their own opinions.

In the second decade of the 21st century, Speakers’ Corner has become (almost) a single topic affair and that topic is religion, especially Christianity and Islam. Muslims seem to have a special love for free speech in this country–I would guess half or more of the people there today were Muslims. I hope they are as passionate about introducing free speech in their mother countries.

The preponderance of Muslims meant I heard at least half a dozen Muslims explaining why Islam is true, and the only true religion. They were very convinced but they didn’t convince me. They wheeled out the same tired, and fully rebutted arguments we hear from Christians: “you can’t get a universe from nothing”; “how did we get here?” and “I know it in my heart”.

But they had one argument for which there is not really a Christian equivalent. That is, “The Qur’an is perfect, only God is perfect, therefore God exists.” But is the Qur’an perfect?

I heard two separate attempts to prove Koranic perfection. The first is easily dispatched. This is Surah 108 (Chapter al-Kawthar). It consists of only three lines and 10 words (in Arabic). The argument is that there is so much meaning and so many literary devices packed into those few words that no human could replicate them. Indeed, Qur’an 2:23 throws out a challenge for any mortal being to bring a chapter like it.

I was told that in 1,400 years no one has succeeded, therefore, the Qur’an must have been written by God.

It’s not possible for a non-Arabic speaker to judge the merit of the chapter but there is an obvious flaw in the argument; the fact the no one has yet been able to create an equal chapter in 10 words does not mean no one ever will. That alone defeats the argument, but my interlocutor did not know how many people have tried to equal it. It’s not remotely impressive if only a handful of people have tried. Indeed, I’m not sure many people would want to try given the risk that it could be considered blasphemy if they succeeded…

The second way to prove Koranic perfection is to say the book contains no errors. Several Muslims today made that claim but it is an extremely difficult claim to substantiate. If you ask a Muslim “How do you know that?” They can only say no errors have been found but how can they know that? The only reasonable response is, “As far as I know, no errors have been found.” Of course, your interlocutor does not know everything, so his argument really is, “I’m not personally aware of any errors in the Qur’an and, if there are no errors, it is perfect and only God is perfect”. Suddenly this bold assertion, looks awfully weak and the argument fails.

There is another approach to this argument and that is to point out errors in the Qur’an. Actually, this is not difficult. The Qur’an is ancient literature and it reflects its origins. As someone once quipped, why believe a book written by someone who didn’t know where the sun goes at night?

The latter verses of Surah 18 tell the story, narrated by God, of Dhul-Qarnain (some say this is Alexander the Great). The story tells of God establishing Dhul-Qarnain on earth and giving him the means to accomplish everything. Dhul-Qarnain went on a long journey around the world finding people and deciding how to deal with them based on their belief, or lack of belief, in God.

Verse 86 says,  – “Until, when he reached the setting place of the sun, he found it setting in a spring of black muddy (or hot) water. And he found near it a people. We (Allah) said (by inspiration): “O Dhul-Qarnain! Either you punish them, or treat them with kindness.” (Muhsin Khan translation)

This verse is problematic for Muslims. Even Muslims will not deny that the earth orbits the sun and most know the sun is more than a million times the size earth. The idea of the sun setting in a spring of black water is obvious nonsense. It implies the writer thought the sun orbits the earth, that the sun is small compared to the earth and it even implies a flat earth! It also shows the writer had no notion of the temperature of the sun–an object at 5,778K landing in water would be catastrophic.

So Muslims look for excuses for this verse. The most common one I heard is to say, the verse means the sun “appeared” to set in black water. But this overlooks the role of the sun setting in the narrative. The context is that Dhul-Qarnain travelled the whole earth–this verse about the sun setting is matched by verse 90 when he reached the place the sun rises. In other words, these two locations signify the “edges” of the earth.

Worse still. the Qur’an does not mention the words “appeared to” or anything like them. Here are some other translations.

“Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, (The western part of the then known world) he found it setting in a muddy spring, and he found a people at it. We said, “O Thulqarnayn, either you will torment (them) or you will take to yourself towards them a fair (way).” (Dr Ghali translation)

“Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: O Dhu’l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness.” (Pickthall translation)

“Until when he reached the place where the sun set, he found it going down into a black sea, and found by it a people. We said: O Zulqarnain! either give them a chastisement or do them a benefit.” Shakir translation)

“Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a People: We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness.” (Yusuf Ali translation)

But good Muslims really should not try to change the meaning of Surah 18:86. Why? Because Muhammed confirmed where the sun sets, and it is exactly as stated in the Qur’an.

If we turn to Sunan Abi Dawud, a canonical collection of hadith compiled by Imam Abu Dawud Sulayman ibn al-Ash’ath as-Sijistani, at entry 3991 we find a story from Abu Dharr. He says, “I was sitting behind the Messenger of Allah who was riding a donkey while the sun was setting. He asked: Do you know where this sets? I replied: Allah and his Apostle know best. He said: It sets in a spring of warm water.”

So that’s it then. The sun sets in a pool of water. If you find one error in the Qur’an, it’s not perfect… It’s not perfect. Speaking to the Muslims I spoke to today was a saddening experience. They were passionate, which is fine but they were also certain, which is not fine. And they were not certain because they had tons of robust evidence, they were certain because they had been told reasons to accept Islam and they believed those reasons uncritically. Yet, they were bad reasons that could have been discarded with minimal thought.

The had not applied minimal thought. They Just believed.

About Bill Flavell

“Even as a small child, Bill preferred to ask questions before believing things people told him and, although raised a Christian, by the age of 13 he concluded there were no good reasons to believe in God.
Bill pursued a career in IT, marketing and management consultancy and thought little about atheism until the 9/11 atrocity showed how religion could become lethal. This spurred him to engage in online debates with Christians and Muslims and to become active on Facebook; debating, creating memes and writing articles.
His online presence resulted in speaking invitations from atheist groups in several countries including; India, The Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and South Africa. This work has developed to the point where Bill acts as a mentor to emergent atheist groups by advising on everything from organisational matters to debating techniques, PR and media training.
Bill teaches and promotes Street Epistemology as a way to help people to examine, and revise, their beliefs in a friendly and non-confrontational way.”


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