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Monday, February 16, 2015

Three short discourses on Islam

1. Origins and teachings
Islam, some 700 years younger than the other two main Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, is literally translated as, ‘voluntary submission to God’ where one’s purpose of existence is to worship him. However, where it differs from many other religions is its all-encompassing nature. There is no aspect of your life that Islam, through the Quran, is not concerned with guiding, and many would argue, controlling. The Quran teaches how to pray and worship, how to deal with parents and family members, how to be moral, why not to cheat, steal and kill. However, and most importantly, you must worship one God only.
The word Quran not only describes the revered text but is translated from Arabic as ‘the recitation’. Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad by God through the angel Gabriel over a period of some 23 years (610CE to 632CE). Only after Muhammad’s death, did his followers put together his various teachings and recantations into a coherent body of material – the Quran.
The Quran is a physical text and Muhammad certainly existed as a leader and ‘prophet’. God’s dialogue with the angel Gabriel, and through him, Muhammad, is more tenuous with respect to reality, it’s existence supported only through public heresay based on, inevitably private, revelation. This claim regarding the divine origin of the Quran and its relevance to mankind is really quite extraordinary. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to require extraordinarily strong evidence of its truth. But this has not been given.
Without other convincing arguments to the contrary, the Quran and its teachings can only take the default position of being originated solely by Man.
2. The assertion
After the Quran was revealed, it became the Book for all of mankind until the Hour begins. Whoever does not believe in it is a kafir who will be punished with torment on the Day of Resurrection. It describes Allah as saying: "But those who reject Our Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs and revelations), the torment will touch them for their disbelief and for their belying the Message of Muhammad" [al-An'aam 6:49].
Put another way, ‘these should be your beliefs and if you reject them, you will be punished with torment (sent to Hell)’.
This does not sit easily with the claim that the Quran instructs Muslims to show tolerance and respect to other religions (6:108), or indeed non-theists’ opinions.
3. The barriers to criticism
The Quran is described as dealing with Divine nature, God’s intervention in history, and spiritual lessons learned from mastering the text. It is furthermore considered the literal word of God and taken so seriously, that in order to be considered qualified to offer a credible opinion on it, one must be well versed in each of the following.
•   Mastery of classical Arabic (the Arabic of the Quraysh at the time of the Prophet).
•   Mastery of the entire book.
•   A thorough knowledge of Hadith literature.
•   A deep knowledge of the life of the Prophet and of the first community. No interpretation is valid that ignores the original context.
•   A commanding knowledge of the exegetical notes and writings of the earlier scholars and of the traditions of earlier Muslim communities.
The above five prerequisites for the right to critical discourse intend for the Quran to be shielded from criticism to all except fervent Islamic scholars. Further, and inherent in their definition, the prerequisites cement the Quran’s relevance firmly to the past and to civilisations that are long gone.

Thoughts on the proofs for the existence of God

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), was the originator of the Quinque Viae (Five Ways) where he summarised the five logical arguments supporting the existence of God.  
The following arguments are closely related to these. Thoughts and comments are in italics.

1. The ontological argument
Attributed to Anselm of Canterbury a Benedictine monk who was Archbishop from 1093-1109.
It argues that once we ‘mentally grasp the concept of God’ in the sense that there is nothing that can be greater or more perfect, we can then logically assert that God’s non-existence is impossible. This argument, if it is successful, demonstrates the existence of a perfect being that could not possibly fail to exist.
For this argument to be successful, one must accept that a) existence can be considered more favourable (ie better) than non-existence and b) God is the greatest and most perfect entity. If these are not accepted, the argument cannot hold.
This argument was believed insufficient by Aquinas. Kant, the German philosopher, argues that existence is not a property that something can possess or lack. Further, one can fully describe something without it having to exist and if we found that it did indeed exist, nothing useful is added. This applies to God’s existence also. Thus, in Kant’s opinion, the argument is not successful.

2. The cosmological (first cause) argument
This argument goes back to Aristotle and encapsulated by Parmenides in his claim ‘Nothing comes from nothing’; Aquinas called this the ‘Unmoved Mover’ argument. It is verbosely defended by William Lane Craig, philosopher, theologian and Christian apologist in his numerous discussions with atheists.
It argues that, since our Universe exists, it must have come into existence at a point in the distant past and, since it cannot possibly come from nothing, something ‘outside of our Universe’ must have caused it. Many theologists argue this demonstrates the existence of a Creator that transcends time, that has neither beginning nor end.
For the success of this argument, we need to accept that a certain event beyond our current understanding, namely a universe from nothing, was caused by God. If this is not accepted, then the argument fails. 
Some propose that accepting a first cause argument does not necessarily mean accepting God; there could be another cause. Others posit that even accepting God as the first cause, there is no reason to believe that He continued to interact with the universe. This is the Deist, as opposed to the Theist, religious belief. Theists would have us believe that God is omnipresent, watching over and guiding us for eternity.
Professor Laurence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, has written a book entitled ‘A Universe From Nothing’. ‘Nothing’, here, refers to a quantum vacuum as opposed to simply ‘not anything’. Krauss’s arguments have not received physicists’ universal acclaim.
"What I can’t understand is why you can’t see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that life started from nothing – that is such a staggering, elegant, beautiful thing, why would you want to clutter it up with something so messy as a God?" Richard Dawkins

3. The teleological (by design) argument
This argument for an intelligent creator is based on ‘perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural or physical world’. It probably arose in Ancient Greece from Socrates.
This seeks to prove the existence of God through the perfect, ordered state of our universe. It is supported by the fact that most physicists agree that if conditions in the first hundred billionth of a second after the Big Bang had been only slightly different, life as we know it would almost certainly not have resulted. Also, consider the Earth. It is the only known planet equipped with an atmosphere of the right mixture of gasses to sustain plant, animal and human life.
Thus, because the probability of us ever existing was very low and given the fact that we do indeed exist on a seemingly perfect world, we were created by God, and further, the whole universe was constructed with Humanity in mind.
Evolutionists argue that we find ourselves in an environment that is perfect for our needs because of the change in our population over successive generations through the key mechanism of 'natural selection'. It is patently not the suspension of the normal rules of physics through the miraculous act of a divine Creator.
‘Adaptation’ is the evolutionary process whereby an organism becomes better able to live in its habitat or habitats. Species newly evolve, adapt, change and move or become extinct and there is ample physical material evidence of all of these throughout history. Also, there must be a fundamental flaw in the omniscience of a Creator who allows 99% of His created species to become extinct.