Secondary evidence for Islam
In January’s essay on Why Islam is True, I explained my understanding of what we might call the primary evidence for its truth: the existence of God and his unity and simplicity, the possibility of Prophethood, and the divine origins of the Qu’ran. Here I will try to explain secondary evidence, points which do not, even if correct, make it certain that Islam is true, but make it substantially more probable.
As all the points I will discuss here appeal to a notion of what a true religion should look like, I will combine my analysis of Islam’s superiority with discussion of this question.
The first piece of evidence is that Islam has not changed over time. A true religion should have teachings that are unchanged since its inception. This is because a revealed religion claims to be based upon a message from God, who does not change, and if it deviates from the original message it becomes false. God might, of course, tell us that he will update the message in the future, but the criterion then just applies to whatever is the latest message.
The Church has used the notion of the Holy Spirit to justify justify changing its teachings, claiming that God is imminent within the institution and guiding it ever closer to the truth. However, this can’t explain either why it didn’t even reach the core doctrines of what we now call Christianity for three hundred years after Jesus’s(pbuh) death or why it initially claimed that the Spirit would actually prevent it from changing its mind. Moreover, reforms like those of Vatican II were blatantly following secular values.
Also, the Holy Spirit does not exist because the doctrine of the Trinity is false. Dr Brian Leftow at Cambridge, one of Christianity’s most eminent theologians, has spent over a decade trying to prove that the doctrine of the Trinity is internally coherent and has admitted that so far it has been a failure. After two thousand years, with all the resources of modern logic, Christianity can’t even prove that its basic conception of God is logically possible, let alone true. So we should probably forget about it.
Fragments of the Qu’ran have been carbon-dated at the University of Birmingham to within the lifetime of Muhammad(pbuh), and even before this, hardly any Western scholars seriously doubted that the Qu’ran we have now is the version assembled by Uthman in 651AD. The few who did, like Patricia Crone, have mostly retracted their theories.
Uthman’s manuscript was assembled from the oral traditions of those who had heard Muhammad’s(pbuh) recitation of the Qu’ran, each of whom had to provide two witnesses for their verses. Western scholars have only been able to doubt the validity of this guarantee by assuming that his Companions were basically dishonest and cynical, an arbitrary supposition that goes against everything else we know about their lives. Even the modern critical method, applied properly and without prejudice, would find that the Qu’ran is unchanged.
The same goes for the Muhammad’s(pbuh) sayings, the hadith, from which most of Islam is derived, which were meticulously investigated by Islamic scholars and graded according to the reliability of the people who transmitted them, using normal (and very exacting) standards of honesty and intellectual competence. One of the greatest hadith collectors, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, is once supposed to have traveled from one end of the Arabian peninsular to the other in search of a single hadith. Seeing the transmitter trick his donkey into obeying him, he decided immediately that this treachery undermined his trustworthiness, turned on his heels, and left.
Western scholars who criticised the hadith collections either knew nothing about the subject, or, once scholarship improved, used completely illogical strategies to undermine them. Some used a cynical understanding of human nature to convict transmitters of forgery, with Joseph Schacht notably assuming that any common link in the transmission of a hadith through multiple chains must have been the person who forged it. As Dr Jonathan Brown has shown, this is all very well if you believe all humans are naturally liars, despite all the evidence to the contrary in the case of the transmitters of (most) of the hadith that Islamic scholars assembled over centuries; but it suffers from the same problem of all such ridiculous, simplistic theories of human nature, like classical Marxism. All humans are basically machines, their adherents, proclaim, motivated only by this or that and not by truth or righteousness—except I, exalted be my genius, who truthfully discerns this and judges them. Well, I wish the best of luck to people who can stomach this approach.
The other strategy they used was to question the content of the hadith. If they report miracles or other seemingly unlikely events, Western scholars claimed they can’t be true, no matter how reliable their narrators. This approach defeats the entire point of religion. If God exists—and He does—He can do anything, and so can His messengers if He lets them. So evaluating the content of hadith in this way only makes sense if you presuppose that Islam is false, and thus is completely useless as a criticism of it.
So Islam has an unchanged scripture and unchanged sources of authority. Of course, some of its moral and spiritual teachings have varied between time and place, but the unchanged texts give us constant standards of orthodoxy. There are also constant methods of interpretation. The four madhabs, or schools of jurisprudence, have not altered their methodology in the twelve-hundred odd years since their codification. Four schools exist, and even within them they allow different opinions on many subjects, because some of Islam’s texts are genuinely ambiguous, so multiple equally valid interpretations are often possible. But there are very strict limits to this, established through application of rigorous, scientific study of Arabic grammar, logic, and rhetoric, to make sure reason operates only within the boundaries of revelation. Sects that deviate from this, like the so-called Wahabbis, are easily identified and rejected by mainstream scholars.
And consequently basic fundamentals of the religion are exactly the same as they were in the time of Muhammad(pbuh). The method of prayer, the five pillars, and the essential moral commandments have not changed one iota in fourteen-hundred years, and they obviously come from an unchanged scripture.
This is not true of other religions. As I mentioned earlier, the Catholic Church has constantly changed its teachings over its history, preserving the fiction of “unchanging doctrine” only through slight of hand, and has now adapted most of its values to secular modernity. How many “conservative” Catholics now believe that error has no rights, which was the official teaching of their Church in the nineteen-fifties? The point hardly needs to be made about liberal Protestants, whilst “conservative” evangelicals like America’s Christian Right want, at most, to selectively restore parts of the status quo of around nineteen-sixty, minus the overt racialism, and actually see secular ideas like liberal democracy as sacred. The Orthodox churches, though retaining a more ancient liturgy, were just as mired in the theological controversies of the first five Christian centuries and have also now changed their historic teaching on matters such as the morality of contraception, divorce, and the perpetual virginity of Mary. Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, all groups aside from the “ultra-orthodox” haredi consciously interpret religious law in light of modernity, even if they retain orthodox beliefs about the Torah’s ultimate origins. This approach is rare and marginal in Islam.
Secondly, Islam is untainted by the modern world. The so-called Enlightenment was a giant movement away from understanding God to manipulating His creation, and involved a disastrous attempt to derive secular values from unaided reason. It destroyed the Christian tradition in the West and the traditions of most of the societies the secular West colonised and put nothing substantial in their place. No uncontroversial moral conclusions were reached because none can be reached without God; we have never been more morally ignorant, to the point where most Westerners believe that morality is subjective, putting them one stop away from total nihilism. The Enlightenment was wrong: its premises are false. Adapting religion to them is therefore also wrong, and will render an adapted religion equally false.
We don’t need to prove how Christianity is compromised by the Enlightenment. Consider some of the world’s other traditions. In China, “neo-Confucian” scholars claim to be continuing an indigenous tradition but their political theory, based largely around the idea of a “fiduciary community”, is basically the secular, Western theory we call “communitarianism”, and consciously draws on Enlightenment methods of analysis. There are even neo-Confucians who develop complex communitarian arguments for “homosexual” “marriage”, but the idea that Confucius would have endorsed this is absolutely deranged. Buddhism, similarly, has compromised much of its historic integrity. Western “buddhism” is obviously a joke, but even in the East, Tibetan lamas teach ignorant foreign seekers advanced yogic practices previously accessible only after years of spiritual training.
Thirdly, Islam is vibrant and alive. While Christianity evaporates in the West, violent atheism remains state orthodoxy in China, and most of the rest of the world muddles along by retaining some kind of superficial commitment but adapting its important beliefs to the demands of modernity, only in the Islamic world is serious, orthodox piety still normative.
Islam is the world’s only complete din, a total, fully-described religious way of life with its own source of authority, that can in any way compete with secular modernity. The pre-colonial traditions of America have been almost completely destroyed. Native African religions are rarely practiced in a manner uninfluenced by Islam or Christianity. Some Hindu traditions have retained genuinely ancient worldviews and practices largely intact, but most do not offer a complete way of life, and are part of a hugely fragmented religious system, and the ruling BJP’s Hindutva ideology is utterly modernist. China’s Daoist and Confucian traditions are almost dead as lived systems, the former retaining only some fading practices in rural areas, largely stripped of their original meaning-giving context, and the latter only the nominal adherence of certain scholarly and political elites. In a very real sense Islam is therefore the only alternative to modernity and secularism.
This is important evidence for its truth because a good and loving God would not allow a true religion to go extinct. God promises in the Qu’ran to preserve the revelation for humanity; if other religions claim similar promises, they cannot claim they have been fulfilled.
Fourth, Islam is the din-al-fitr, the religion of primordial human nature. It did not begin with Muhammad(pbuh) but with the first human, Adam(pbuh). There is nothing more basic to humanity than the prostration of the Islamic prayer, which involves the entire mind and body in the affirmation of the foundation of all religious and spiritual life, the sense of dependence on something that transcends the physical universe. Equally, there is no better antidote to the baffling world of electric light and heat than the compulsory timing of the prayer, tracking the movement of the sun’s disc across the sky. It forces you to connect with the rhythm that is supposed to govern our lives, awareness of which is itself a form of ibada or worship. In this and other ways Islam fulfills the intimation, common to every single human being, for a way of life that is oriented to the transcendent, and does so in a way that is complete, systematic, strict but not rigid, and completely rationally satisfying.
Finally, and related to this last point, Islam’s moral system is evidence for its truth. Secular moral philosophers use a method called “reflective equilibrium”, in which they weigh general and specific intuitive judgments against each other until they reach a consistent overall system. A true equilibrium, however, would accord different weightings to moral intuitions depending on how universally they are shared. The people who do moral professional moral philosophy are almost all WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic) and therefore have totally different intuitions to most humans, especially if you count the ones who are already dead, i.e. most of us. If we do reflective equilibrium properly we will get to a moral system very similar to that of Islam. As Jonathan Haidt has shown, authority, loyalty, and purity are as integral to moral psychology as the fairness, freedom, and prevention of harm valued by WEIRDos.
Islam strikes the perfect balance between these values. It is neither hedonistic nor repressive, neither enjoining celibacy and asceticism nor the wanton enjoyment of the flesh at the cost of family, health and sanity. It recognises the equality of all individual souls before God while supporting the authority of the righteous and knowledgeable among us, and acceptance of the complimentary roles of the sexes and of a society’s different social classes and stations. It commands us to fight oppression, cruelty and the worship of worldly power wherever we find it while also forbidding the sowing of discord and sedition against any reasonably just ruler. It makes salvation a matter between the free individual and his Lord but forbids him from neglecting his duties to others. It is neither belligerent nor pacifistic. It is universal but particular, uniting all nations and tribes with a single direction of prayer while elevating their local customs to the status of sacred law. It tells us firmly that we must live in the world but not for it.
It is, in short, the middle way between our competing moral intimations, and at a deeper level the middle way between pantheism, which sees God everywhere, and atheism, for which He is nowhere.
All these are among God’s signs and among the ways He calls us to Islam. All are evidence for its invincible truth. If I have not proved this here, it is partly due to my own ignorance and partly because this world was made for us as a test, in which we must use our own intellects and our other faculties to come into God’s presence, and seek his guidance for ourselves, insha’allah.