Please note that I have conducted only the most superficial study of Islam and am therefore obviously unable to offer any kind of authoritative comment on it or the evidence for its truth. However, since–having recently converted–setting out my understanding might be of some help to others who are as uncertain about the purpose of life as I was, by directing them to minds far greater than my own, and since it will clarify and focus the future of this blog, I have done so below.
Firstly, belief in the single, unitary God of the Abrahamic tradition is by far the most rational worldview.
Arguments for and against God abound in post-Christian Western philosophy, but few people are swayed one way or the other by pure ratiocination. The argument that most avoids the pitfall of supporting only some “God of the gaps”, a useful explanation until further notice, is called the kalam cosmological argument (kalam is in fact an Islamic term roughly meaning “theology” but most of its Western proponents are Christians).
This states that God is the only explanation for why anything in the universe exists at all. Everything is the universe exists contingently, i.e. it could possibly not exist. You can explain one contingent thing with another but eventually you reach an infinite regress – what was the “first cause”? There are three options: the universe is not actually contingent (but necessary, i.e. it has to exist), it just exists for no reason at all, or it was caused by something outside the universe that is necessary.
The first option doesn’t fit with science – we know that the basic structure of the universe is contingent because the particles and forces that make it up don’t have to exist. The second is arbitrary – we don’t accept this idea in the ordinary course of our lives; if we did we could hardly live at all, so why make special pleading for the universe? Only the third is reasonable, because it renders the universe explicable.
This is not a cast-iron proof. If it were, we wouldn’t have any real freedom to believe or not to do so, which would make life rather meaningless. Whether it proves that belief in God is rational depends on what philosophers call your “prior commitments”. If you think it’s already very likely that the universe just exists for no reason at all you won’t be convinced; if you think it’s fairly likely it has a reason for its existence, in the same way everything else seems to, you will. Hence belief is a choice, but reason can show that it is an extremely good choice.
It also gets us very close, already, to the Islamic idea of God. Allah (Arabic for God) is utterly transcendent (outside the universe) and exists necessarily by His nature (i.e. He could not fail to exist). Crucially, he is also perfectly unified: if any other transcendent being existed, it would either have power over God (meaning God is not fully necessary, i.e. not God), God would have power over it (so it would not be God), or both or neither would have power over the other (so neither would be God!)
And that is pretty much sufficient. Different schools of thought have different opinions, but in general in Islam, there is not much else you can affirm about God until He reveals His nature to you (e.g. through speech that can be transcribed as a holy book).
Here we have one of the great advantages that Islam has over all other religions. Not only is belief in a single God so deeply logical, but it avoids all the improbable complications other faiths have added. Unlike in Christianity, God did not become a man; since He is transcendent and necessary, the idea makes no sense at all. Jesus was a prophet, given a sacred mission to teach God’s word, but he was not the “son of God” and there is no “Holy Trinity”.
Historically, most of Christianity was based on the theology of Augustine of Hippo. Because of Adam’s sin in eating the forbidden apple, thought Augustine, all humans following him were corrupted by nature, and doomed to Hell by default. The only way to make up for our original sin was for God to become a man and die in agony, and therefore the only way to be forgiven is to accept this sacrifice. Consequently, a baby who died before being christened would–deservedly!–suffer in the fires of Hell.
Original sin offends against the most basic idea of ethics, that it is only just to punish someone for something they actually did. Islam, on the other hand, affirms that you can only be punished for sins you yourself committed. So, logically and ethically, it fits far better with common sense than Christianity. It seems very likely that one of the main reasons Christianity is declining so fast in its former strongholds is exactly this — once we lose the cultural attachment the implausible doctrines are simply unappealing.
We could make similar arguments regarding other religions too. For example, Hindu traditions feature a multiplicity of Gods and Goddesses who kill, eat, and become “incarnate” as one another, and almost all such traditions fall well short of rational monotheism.
This brings us on to Islam’s second great advantage: the historical evidence for Muhammad(pbuh) being a Prophet (i.e. receiving a message from God) versus the doubtful evidence for other religions’ historical claims. Qur’anic verses have been carbon-dated, with about 95% certainty, to within the lifetime of Muhammad(pbuh), by secular archaeologists with no vested interest in the subject.
It could have been written by some other of his contemporaries, but this would go against everything we know about the period, from both secular and religious sources. So if Muhammad(pbuh) (who as is widely known was illiterate) did produce this book, we have a simple question as to its origins. That he claimed to have received a message from God is as well established as anything else in the history of the period, not only from the hadith (sayings of Muhammad(pbuh)) collections that were painstakingly built up by Islamic historians but also from all the available records from Muslim and non-Muslim observers of events.
Since we have no reason to doubt that he claimed to be a Prophet, there are three possibilities. Either he was a liar, he was insane, or he really was one. All the available evidence shows that the first two are unlikely. Before announcing his Revelation, he was known to his community as as-Sadîq, “the trustworthy”. Even his most bitter opponents like Abū Lahab did not deny this reputation.
Nor did he ever exhibit any kind of loss of his rational faculties, but on the contrary exhibited consistently excellent judgement in his twenty-three year career as a religious leader and statesman. All his contemporaries reported that he behaved in a perfectly balanced way as a father, husband, friend, teacher, and leader and never exhibited any evidence of mental disturbance.
Does this prove he was a genuine Prophet? Again, it is not a cast iron proof. That would render faith meaningless; it depends on your prior commitments. If you already think God exists and that it’s pretty likely he would try to communicate with humanity, it surely does; if you’re certain He does not, logically his alleged messengers must have been insane or lying. But it certainly establishes, combined with the evidence for God, that it is unreasonable not to believe that he was genuine.
The Bible, on the other hand, has been shown in the last two centuries not to have the origins claimed for it. It is widely known, and accepted by Christian experts, that most of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people whose names they have been given, and that all of the surviving Gospels were written long after Jesus’s life by people we know nothing about. This is set out in a series of books by Bart Ehrman, but it is not original research and is completely accepted by leading Christian thinkers like Alastair McGrath. So we don’t have in Christianity a reliable record of what Jesus actually taught.
And other religions have the same problem. We can probably never know the original message of the Hindu Vedas because they are composed of so many layers and have been revised so many times over the millennia. While in the Chinese traditions, most of the words ascribed to Confucius in the surviving texts are not old enough to be his, and books were many times moved in and out of the official collections to suit political agendas with the changing of the dynasties.
There are other reasons that Islam is compelling, but most of them relate to the insanity of the modern age and will not be persuasive if you do not already have a certain detachment from it. So I’ll finish here with this summary of my reasons for converting, and what I think is at least a skeleton of a rationally compelling case for doing so.