Three essays on Islam
Edited by James Robert Watson, PhD
My father, Jim Watson (1917-2003), was a petroleum consultant who worked for many years at DeGolyer and MacNaughton in Dallas. He traveled all over the world and made many trips to the Middle East. Below is the transcript of a presentation he made in Dallas, probably sometime in the 1990s.
In these days when we constantly hear of conflicts between the Jews in Israel and their Arab neighbors, it is appropriate that we have an understanding of the character of the Arabs and have an understanding of the differences that exist within various Arab nationalities. In my travels in the Middle East, I was always struck by the devotion of the Arabs to their religion and how strictly they adhere to the rules and customs established by the Muslim faith through the Koran, yet how different they are from country to country.
The origin of the Arabs is not well known, except that they originated in the Arabian Peninsula. Nothing in writing has established where the first Arab came from although the Arabs were mentioned in early chronicles of the Persians, Romans, Greeks, Hebrews, and others of the pre-Christian era. It was only with the coming of Muhammad and the foundation of Islam that the history of the Arabs began to be recorded. Muhammad showed up on the scene somewhere between 570 and 580. He was a common mortal whose father died before he was born. His mother died when he was 6. He was raised first by a grandfather and then by an uncle in rather humble circumstances. At 25, however, he married a wealthy widow which gave him the opportunity to investigate the religious situation in Arabia. He was exposed to both Christian and Jewish influences through his conversations with traders and travelers whose religious knowledge was sketchy and not entirely based on fact. He was disturbed by the idolatry of his contemporaries and he recognized great differences between the disciplined religious life of the Christians and Jews and the materialistic paganism of his compatriots. He often withdrew to a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca to meditate and it was here in the year 610, when he was about 40, that he reportedly received divine insight from the angel Gabriel. After a number of visions he was convinced that he was the messenger of God and he dedicated his life to bringing about a change in the lives of the Arabs. For the next 23 years he received these visions and he would recite them to others who recorded them in a form which became the Koran. The magnificence of the poetic text uttered by a man who was basically illiterate was proof to the Muslims that he was indeed the messenger of God.
The Koran is roughly the length of the New Testament and is divided into 114 chapters called surahs which, in turn, are divided into verses or ayahs. Muslims believe that Muhammad was just the last in a long series of messengers which included Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Jesus is considered as the greatest of the prophets, except for Muhammad.
15th century illustration depicting Muhammad preaching the Koran in Mecca.
Muhammad preached of the eternal rewards awaiting those who pleased God by prayer and righteousness and the eternal punishment awaiting those guilty of murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and luxury. He had trouble convincing the residents of Mecca so he moved to Medina, about 200 miles north of Mecca where he was successful in converting most of the population to his way of thinking, which by this time had changed from being religious and prophetic to being more regulatory and secular. His success was so great that it wasn't long before Muhammad and his followers eased back to Mecca and conquered the city in the year 624. By 632, when Muhammad died, Islam had become the accepted way of life in Arabia. He was not then, and never has been, considered a saint or anything other than an ordinary man who was merely the messenger from God. The word Islam means surrender. That is, if you accept Islam, you surrender and submit yourself to the will of God. Muslims worship the same God Christians do and the word Allah is just their word for God just as the French say Dieu and the Germans say Gott. God is the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.
There are no significant variations in the belief as there are in the Christian faith except for the fundamentalists who more strictly adhere to the rules than the run-of-the-mill Muslim. Today, these fundamentalists are causing trouble in Egypt, Iraq, and Algeria. The danger comes from the fact that, according to the rules, anyone who dies in an attempt to further the cause of Islam is given an immediate pass through the pearly gates. Since it is very important that a Muslim finds eternal rest in heaven, this is a great inducement.
There are two principal sects within the Muslim faith: the Sunnis, or Orthodox sect which comprises 80-85% of the total and the Shi'ites who comprise 15-20% and are a more radical group. This split has always been there. When Muhammad died in 632 the Shi'ites argued that Ali had been appointed by Muhammad as his successor and he should, therefore, be the leader. Because this group was in the minority their will did not prevail and Abu Bakr was appointed as the first Caliph to succeed Muhammad.
Islam differs from other religions in one major aspect. The Western mind clearly separates the two spheres of life - the spiritual or religious and the secular comprising political, economic, social, and cultural activities. In fact, we make a big deal out of the separation of church and state. The Muslim, on the other hand, makes no such distinction. To him, Islam embraces all phases of life; it is a totalitarian system that controls all human activity. Another, and perhaps more important difference, between Islam and Christianity is that Islam has no ordained priesthood, no clerical hierarchy, and no mystic sacraments. It is strictly a lay religion - a practical one with no complicated theology and no unattainable ideals. It is for this reason that Islam appeals to the less cultured societies.
Lets look at the five basic dogmas of Islam:
The first and foremost article of Islamic faith relates to the oneness of God. "There is no God but Allah" who is pre-existent, the creator of all things. As the Koran puts it, "He is God, the one; God the Eternal; He begets not and is not begotten; nor is there like unto Him any one." He is powerful over all things and knowing all things yet is gracious, forgiving, merciful, and compassionate. He punishes only when punishment is due.
The second states that Muhammad is only the messenger of God - a warner and a prophet. He is considered equally with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ but is looked at by the Muslims as "the seal of the prophets" the last and the greatest. He performed no miracles unless it be that of the Koran. He was the means by which the Koran was revealed.
The third article of faith relates to the Koran. It is the word of God dictated piece by piece through Gabriel.
The fourth is the belief in a hierarchy of angels headed by Gabriel. Muslims believe that the angels were created long before the world and that they perform different functions: they intercede for man; they act as guardians and support the throne of God. The belief is undoubtedly of Hebrew origin.
The last dogma is the belief of a judgment day, the immortality of the souls, reward for righteousness and punishment for the wicked. The Koran suggests that Hell, where the damned will be scorched by burning fire, is divided into seven sections where the evil doers can be consigned according to the extent and gravity of their sins. The general picture of paradise is an oasis of shady trees, running streams, and all facilities for rest, comfort, and enjoyment; where the faithful can enjoy a blissful eternity.
Islam is not only a system of faith as expressed in the Dogmas I just described but is one of practice. The followers must live their belief and adhere to the following acts of worship:
A verbal profession of the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad.
Acts of prayer. A good Muslim must pray at five prescribed times a day and before each period he must carry out certain ceremonies of purification and ablution. Every mosque has facilities for washing, however, the worshipper often is in the desert or away from a mosque, in which case, sand or dust may be used. After washing, the worshipper stands straight and faces toward Mecca then, prostrating himself, repeats certain words or passages from the Koran. The 5 times are at early dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night. Friday noon is the only prescribed congregational prayer. The mosque itself has no pews and is unadorned with pictures. In fact, in the Arab world, you do not see photos or pictures of living things. All adornments are merely graphic designs. During the early years of Aramco's (Arabian American Oil Company) operations in Saudi Arabia, the drillers had a hard time keeping their rigs operating smoothly since the roughnecks working on the rig floor would take off for the desert to pray when the spirit moved them. Since the spirit moved the men individually and at different times, the driller always had a problem with a short-handed crew. Finally, Aramco established specific times for prayer and the driller would shut the rig down and everyone would go and pray at the same time.
The approach of each period of prayer is heralded by a call to prayer by the Muezzin from the minaret. Originally this was done in person, but now in the era of electronics, this is done through a PA system, where the mosque can afford one. The call to worship is established:
God is most great (repeated four times)
I testify there is no God but Allah (twice)
I testify Muhammad is the messenger of Allah (twice)
Come to prayer (twice)
Come to salvation (twice)
God is most great! (twice)
There is no God but Allah
Alms giving. It is the duty of all Muslims to help the needy. It is not necessarily a disgrace for one to beg since helping the poor is all part of the faith. A figure of 2.5% of your income is enough to qualify you for good treatment in the hereafter.
Fasting. The month of Ramadan is set aside for this purpose. During this 28 day period, the Muslim refrains from eating, drinking, or smoking from dawn to sunset. Since it is a lunar month it rotates around the year and is particularly arduous in the summer when the days are long. I have often been in Arab countries during Ramadan and it was always hard to get things done. For one thing, in deference to their custom you do not eat or drink in the presence of one who is fasting. The ordinary nicety of taking your client out to lunch doesn't work here. Also, you find that you don't get much accomplished late in the day when they are irritable. It is customary for a Muslim to be seated at the table ready to eat at sunset. On occasions, I would be out in the oilfields of Kuwait in the afternoon and head back to Kuwait City about dark. On those occasions the taxi driver would exceed the speed limit so as to get home by dinner time and he would invariably pull up to his front door and tear off to dinner, leaving you to find your way to your destination. Although Christians and Jews practiced fasting before Islam, the purpose of the Muslim in fasting is not to mortify the body but to atone for evil deeds and more closely commune with God.
The fifth requirement of practical religion is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once during your lifetime. All men and women are expected to make this voyage except single women with no male relatives, lunatics, or those who really can't afford the trip. As the pilgrim nears Mecca he goes through the usual washing procedure then puts on a seamless garment and joins the other pilgrims. Guides instruct them as to the proper procedure. First, he must circle the Kaaba, the Holy Place, seven times, kissing the black stone each time. This is a meteoric stone set in the southeast corner of the Kaaba. Like the Kaaba, it is a relic from pre-Islamic heathenism. Tradition says it came down from Paradise and on judgment day it will give evidence in favor of all who kissed it. Following his trips around the Kaaba, the pilgrim must run seven times between two hills as he repeats certain quotations from the Koran. Later he visits the Valley of Mina and Mount Arafat where more prayers are recited and a sermon is preached. On the way to Mina he casts seven stones at each of three pillars. These pillars represent Satan who allegedly appeared to Abraham on this spot. The sacrifice of a sheep or goat closes the ceremony and the pilgrim can then take off the special robe, shave, and return to the secular condition. While in Mecca, it is advisable to drink from the well called Zamzam, where Hagar and Ishmael once drank when they were lost in the wilderness. He should also find his way to Medina and do homage at the tomb of Muhammad. From this point on he is entitled to add the word Hajj (pilgrim) before his name.
The obligation of waging a holy war has been raised almost to the status of a sixth religious duty by the more fanatical of the Islamic sects. Muslim theology divides the world into two parts: Islam the abode of peace and the abode of war which includes all non-Muslims. It is the aim of Islam to ultimately bring the whole world into Islam. These fanatics are the ones we worry about since they firmly believe that any violent act against the infidel insures their favorable reception into the hereafter where they can hob-nob with the angels.
There is relatively little crime in Saudi Arabia, which is a little more strict than other Muslim countries. Although not quite as tough as in older days, a thief gets his hand chopped off, an adulterer is put in a sack and thrown off the tallest building, and murderers are summarily executed. This sounds extreme but it gets the job done. This probably originated in days when there wasn't an elaborate judicial system in the country and some pretty basic rules of conduct were established.
Although united through the Koran and written Arabic, the various Arabic speaking countries have communication problems. The Arabic language is fairly simple but depends on various sounds. A single word can have several meanings depending on how the word is pronounced. Some meanings are quite different. Thus, an Arab from Morocco or Algeria has a hard time communicating with a Saudi or Omani because of local accents or inflections. Even the Egyptian Arabic, which is accepted as proper Arabic, differs from the Saudis. I remember one night in Kuwait City I had the pleasure of playing an evening of bridge with Farida, the ex-wife of King Farouk. She turned out to be a good bridge player and conversationalist. At one point, she interrupted the game when she had to meet with some sheikhs wives. She told us not to leave because she was not looking forward to this meeting and would be right back. Sure enough, when she returned she said she couldn't understand most of what they were saying.
The Palestinian difficulties in Israel have been going on since the formation of Israel in 1947 and will probably continue despite the efforts of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach some satisfactory solution. This in, in effect, a holy war and there is never a solution to a holy war. You just don't convince one or the other party to give in and accept the beliefs of the other. At best, all that can be accomplished is for the two sides to agree to live in peace and accept the others for what they are. The Palestinians have a chip on their shoulder and react violently to any provocation. Even with support from other Arab countries (which they cannot get) they are no match for the armed strength and the organization of the Israelis. Thus, they are in a no-win situation. Terrorism is their only outlet which is an attempt to show the world how they are being mistreated, On the other hand, they feel they have a just cause. Palestine was established as a mandated territory under British rule at the end of World War I. At the end of WWII, in a similar fashion, Israel was created out of what had been Palestine. It isn't surprising that they are sore about the whole deal. The Palestinians, like other Arabs, are not used to an organized form of government and look to any individual leader who is strong, whether or not he knows anything about how to run a government or anything else. In the past, it was common for a brother to kill a brother to gain control over a tribe or a government.
This reminds me of the old fable about the scorpion and the turtle. It seems that the scorpion wanted the turtle to carry him across the Nile River, but the turtle said, "Nothing doing, when we get out on the river you will sting me." The scorpion said, "No way. If I sting you, you will die, but I will drown. I promise I won't sting you." So off they went and, sure enough, when they were out in the middle of the river, the scorpion stung the turtle. As they were both dying, the turtle said, "How could you do this when it meant you would also die?" The scorpion replied, "I couldn't help myself; its the way of life here in the Middle East."
Jihad against Muslims
By Andrew Joppa, in Reason magazine, August, 2006
The religion of Islam (and its millions of devotees) is a new player in forming American culture. While America has long been influenced by religious beliefs and influence, this new one doesn't quite fit the mold that has been guiding American history. It will take some competent politicians and national leaders to integrate the new player into the existing mold with minimal loss of life and minimal disruption. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is more accurately positioned as a socio-political system. Since its origins in the 600s, Islam has been involved with warfare directed at converting the world (like Christian missionaries and NeoCon leaders do). There is nothing in any creed of Islam that encourages Muslims to peacefully coexist with, or have mutual respect for, any other religion. Any accommodating words in the Koran are directed only at fellow believers. All others must be converted, oppressed, or killed.
Ibn Al-Rawandi (abandoned Islam in 1988; borrowed his pseudonym, to avoid being assassinated, from a famous ninth-century Muslim skeptic/heretic)
The myth of Islamic tolerance was largely invented by Jews and Western freethinkers as a stick with which to beat the Catholic church. Islam was never a religion of tolerance - Islam was spread by the sword. It is a religion largely invented to hold the Arab empire together and subdue native populations. A cultural disaster parading as God's will. Religious minorities were always second class citizens in the empire - for polytheists and unbelievers there was no tolerance at all, it was conversion or death - repulsive characteristics are written into the Quaran. There is no way that Islam can reform itself and remain Islam, no way it can be made compatible with pluralism, free speech, critical thought and democracy.
Ibn Warraq (life-preserving pseudonym of an outspoken apostate of Islam)
And when the ignorant among us read those hate-laden verses, they act on them, and the result is September 11, human bombs in Israel, massacres in East Timor and Bangladesh, kidnappings and killings in the Philippines, slavery in Sudan, honor killings in Pakistan and Jordan, torture in Iran, stoning and maiming in Afghanistan and Iran, misery and death in every Islamic country. It is not the extremists who have misunderstood Islam. They do literally what the Qur'an asks them to do. It is we who misunderstand Islam.
The repeated calls for an unreserved apology for publishing ‘offensive' and ‘insulting' caricatures of Mohammad reminds me of the apologies that should be made to those like me. I'd like the offended Islamists to apologize; not for their backward and medieval superstitions and religious mumbo jumbo, but for their imposition of these beliefs in the form of states, Islamic laws and the political Islamic movement. If any of them want to apologize for the mass murder of countless human beings in Iran and the Middle East, and more recently in Europe, for veiling and sexual apartheid, for stoning, amputations, decapitations, Islamic terrorism and so on, just email me direct.
America and Islam: Collision Inevitable?
By Youssef Ibrahim, The New York Sun, June 19, 2006
In its war on terror, America is unquestionably on a collision course with Islamic fundamentalism. The question is how far Islamic fundamentalism is from a collision with Islam itself, as interpreted today by many of its 1.1 billion followers. The rejection of others - which is a basic foundation of Islam that is built into Islamic texts and practices - makes it impossible to divorce the religion from the violent impulses it inspires. Here are some important reasons why Muslims need to re-evaluate where religious practice ends and tyranny practiced in the name of Islam begins.
While Islam may appear a tolerant religion in many verses of the Koran, that tolerance is highly conditional on the submission of others to Muslims' collective will. The holy book refers to those who are not Muslims as "infidels." The Koran speaks clearly of the need to do battle with infidels, to isolate them from the masses of believers, and to persist in efforts to convert them. Thus, as the Koran repeatedly states, the good practice of Islam cannot be limited to the worship of God or service to society. It must encompass spreading the faith, even at the edge of the sword.
Virtually all Muslims, including self-described moderates and liberals, believe what the Koran and the Hadith affirm: that Islam was God's final monotheist revelation. As such it cancels out all previous revelations. Those who belong to any other faith are in need of conversion. In its much venerated and often quoted Sura 9:29, the Koran specifically defines those who are not Muslims and live under Muslim rule as "Dhimmis," people who under Islamic law "must surrender to the pacts contracted between non-Muslims and their Muslim conquerors." That concept should be revised by Muslim scholars if we are to believe they want peace.
The aggressive demarcation of Muslims and infidels runs through all Islamic religious texts and speeches. It is accompanied by much lament over the loss of Spain and chunks of Europe - once part of the Muslim empire. The whole notion that Islam is a nation unto itself that cuts across borders and comes before nationalities, bears the seeds of menace. Indeed, Muslim immigrants in Western nations are encouraged by their preachers to prevail in their societies and "spread the faith."
Islam as practiced today in virtually all Muslim countries does not fashion itself merely as a spiritual value, but as a conquering force with a need to dominate. This overwhelmingly hostile orientation, relayed to the faithful by texts and preachers, has led to Islamic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which uses its huge wealth to export reactionary ideologies to the world, setting up mosques and seminaries across the globe. In Europe, America, Canada, and Australia, it has been easy for Muslim fundamentalists to take over Muslim immigrant communities because Islam promotes confrontation with others. Mosques, religious schools, and the imposition of the veil are tools of domination, not assimilation.
Links to other religious essays
The decline of Christianity
The absurdity of religion, believing that myths are real
The value of prayer
The Bible: some questions to ask believers
Stickers to place in hotel Bibles
Quotes: Words of Wisdom about religion
Jim's spiritual journey