Blogging the Age of Faith

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Christopher Hitchens on Muhammed

Christopher Hitchens
Was Muhammad Epileptic?

There is some question as to whether Islam is a separate religion at all. It initially fulfilled a need among Arabs for a distinctive or special creed, and is forever identified with their language and their impressive later conquests, which, while not as striking as those of the young Alexander of Macedonia, certainly conveyed an idea of being backed by a divine will until they petered out at the fringes of the Balkans and the Mediterranean.

But Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require. Thus, far from being "born in the clear light of history," as Ernest Renan so generously phrased it, Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings. It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or "surrender" as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.

The prophet died in the year 632 of our own approximate calendar. The first account of his life was set down a full hundred and twenty years later by Ibn Ishaq, whose original was lost and can only be consulted through its reworked form, authored by Ibn Hisham, who died in 834. Adding to this hearsay and obscurity, there is no agreed-upon account of how the Prophet's followers assembled the Koran, or of how his various sayings (some of them written down by secretaries) became codified. And this familiar problem is further complicated—even more than in the Christian case—by the matter of succession. Unlike Jesus, who apparently undertook to return to earth very soon and who (pace the absurd Dan Brown) left no known descendants, Muhammad was a general and a politician and—though unlike Alexander of Macedonia a prolific father—left no instruction as to who was to take up his mantle. Quarrels over the leadership began almost as soon as he died, and so Islam had its first major schism—between the Sunni and the Shia—before it had even established itself as a system. We need take no side in the schism, except to point out that one at least of the schools of interpretation must be quite mistaken. And the initial identification of Islam with an earthly caliphate, made up of disputatious contenders for the said mantle, marked it from the very beginning as man-made.

It is said by some Muslim authorities that during the first caliphate of Abu Bakr, immediately after Muhammad's death, concern arose that his orally transmitted words might be forgotten. So many Muslim soldiers had been killed in battle that the number who had the Koran safely lodged in their memories had become alarmingly small. It was therefore decided to assemble every living witness, together with "pieces of paper, stones, palm leaves, shoulder-blades, ribs and bits of leather" on which sayings had been scribbled, and give them to Zaid ibn Thabit, one of the Prophet's former secretaries, for an authoritative collation. Once this had been done, the believers had something like an authorized version.

If true, this would date the Koran to a time fairly close to Muhammad's own life. But we swiftly discover that there is no certainty or agreement about the truth of the story. Some say that it was Ali—the fourth and not the first caliph, and the founder of Shiism—who had the idea. Many others—the Sunni majority—assert that it was Caliph Uthman, who reigned from 644 to 656, who made the finalized decision. Told by one of his generals that soldiers from different provinces were fighting over discrepant accounts of the Koran, Uthman ordered Zaid ibn Thabit to bring together the various texts, unify them, and have them transcribed into one. When this task was complete, Uthman ordered standard copies to be sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and elsewhere, with a master copy retained in Medina. Uthman thus played the canonical role that had been taken, in the standardization and purging and censorship of the Christian Bible, by Irenaeus and by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. The roll was called, and some texts were declared sacred and inerrant while others became "apocryphal." Outdoing Athanasius, Uthman ordered that all earlier and rival editions be destroyed.

Even supposing this version of events to be correct, which would mean that no chance existed for scholars ever to determine or even dispute what really happened in Muhammad's time, Uthman's attempt to abolish disagreement was a vain one. The written Arabic language has two features that make it difficult for an outsider to learn: it uses dots to distinguish consonants like "b" and "t," and in its original form it had no sign or symbol for short vowels, which could be rendered by various dashes or comma-type marks. Vastly different readings even of Uthman's version were enabled by these variations. Arabic script itself was not standardized until the later part of the ninth century, and in the meantime the undotted and oddly voweled Koran was generating wildly different explanations of itself, as it still does. This might not matter in the case of the Iliad, but remember that we are supposed to be talking about the unalterable (and final) word of god. There is obviously a connection between the sheer feebleness of this claim and the absolutely fanatical certainty with which it is advanced. To take one instance that can hardly be called negligible, the Arabic words written on the outside of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are different from any version that appears in the Koran.

The situation is even more shaky and deplorable when we come to the hadith, or that vast orally generated secondary literature which supposedly conveys the sayings and actions of Muhammad, the tale of the Koran's compilation, and the sayings of "the companions of the Prophet." Each hadith, in order to be considered authentic, must be supported in turn by an isnad, or chain, of supposedly reliable witnesses. Many Muslims allow their attitude to everyday life to be determined by these anecdotes: regarding dogs as unclean, for example, on the sole ground that Muhammad is said to have done so.

As one might expect, the six authorized collections of hadith, which pile hearsay upon hearsay through the unwinding of the long spool of isnads ("A told B, who had it from C, who learned it from D"), were put together centuries after the events they purport to describe. One of the most famous of the six compilers, Bukhari, died 238 years after the death of Muhammad. Bukhari is deemed unusually reliable and honest by Muslims, and seems to have deserved his reputation in that, of the three hundred thousand attestations he accumulated in a lifetime devoted to the project, he ruled that two hundred thousand of them were entirely valueless and unsupported. Further exclusion of dubious traditions and questionable isnads reduced his grand total to ten thousand hadith. You are free to believe, if you so choose, that out of this formless mass of illiterate and half-remembered witnessing the pious Bukhari, more than two centuries later, managed to select only the pure and undefiled ones that would bear examination.

The likelihood that any of this humanly derived rhetoric is "inerrant," let alone "final," is conclusively disproved not just by its innumerable contradictions and incoherencies but by the famous episode of the Koran's alleged "satanic verses," out of which Salman Rushdie was later to make a literary project. On this much-discussed occasion, Muhammad was seeking to conciliate some leading Meccan poly-theists and in due course experienced a "revelation" that allowed them after all to continue worshipping some of the older local deities. It struck him later that this could not be right and that he must have inadvertently been "channeled" by the devil, who for some reason had briefly chosen to relax his habit of combating monotheists on their own ground. (Muhammad believed devoutly not just in the devil himself but in minor desert devils, or djinns, as well.) It was noticed even by some of his wives that the Prophet was capable of having a "revelation" that happened to suit his short-term needs, and he was sometimes teased about it. We are further told—on no authority that need be believed—that when he experienced revelation in public he would sometimes be gripped by pain and experience loud ringing in his ears. Beads of sweat would burst out on him, even on the chilliest of days. Some heartless Christian critics have suggested that he was an epileptic (though they fail to notice the same symptoms in the seizure experienced by Paul on the road to Damascus), but there is no need for us to speculate in this way. It is enough to rephrase David Hume's unavoidable question. Which is more likely—that a man should be used as a transmitter by god to deliver some already existing revelations, or that he should utter some already existing revelations and believe himself to be, or claim to be, ordered by god to do so? As for the pains and the noises in the head, or the sweat, one can only regret the seeming fact that direct communication with god is not an experience of calm, beauty, and lucidity.


  • At 7:51 PM, Anonymous ARGpirate said…

    Overall, what I got from this article is that the religion of Islam is pretty much completely and utterly FALSE. The author, Christopher Hitchens, does make some valid points in that there is no true account of Muhammad because it has been lost in time and manipulated by his followers. However, the same case could then be made for Christianity because the stories of Jesus weren't even written until way after his death. On the other hand, the creation of the Bible was a bit more organized compared to the creation of the Koran. The practice of "hadith" in Islam made it especially hard to compile the various teachings and stories. For instance, play the game of "telephone" and that will give you the perfect result of what happens when people use to pass information through word of mouth. I almost think that this practice is what makes Islam not count as a religion because in today's society, you have to have some type of physical/written proof of the existence of your God(s) in order for it to be legit. Yet, no one knows for sure that the Bible or Koran or any other written form of a religion is completely true. However, faith is what makes those books truth and not fiction. Without faith, no religion would exist. So, while Hitchens can argue against the validity of Islam, Muslims will never believe him because they rely on their faith and not necessarily their logic in this case.

    Also, a part of me wants to think that he wrote this article to promote hate against the Islamic religion. The reason for that being because of the war that America is currently in with the Middle East and I wouldn’t put it past our government to use some form of propaganda against Muslims (not that they haven’t already, but this guy might be continuing it). Yet, that is a crazy assumption and it’s probably not in the least bit true. But, I just wanted to say it.

  • At 4:23 PM, Anonymous catface1 said…

    Though it is not my belief I do feel that Islam is just as justified of a religion as any other offered in our modern society and to question it to be anything less is not only disrespectful to the people who practice Islam but also to the prophet himself. People would be (and are)up in arms if and when God came under such scrutiny. To say that a religion is “not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require.”seems like the condescending remark of an ass. Of course it seems a bit shady to an outsider who only researches all of the information and is not a part of that culture. That is how all religions seem to those who do not partake in that worship. To look at Christianity from an outsiders viewpoint I can totally see how people think were nuts. We base all of our faith on a book written thousands of years ago and believe that over 2000 years ago (compared to Islam’s prophet who live in the 600's) a man was born to a virgin to die for our sins. Just look at my two blogs before this. For thousands of years Judas was THE betrayer of Jesus and he was the scapegoat when people looked for someone to blame for the loss of Christ. This sounds crazy if we told this story and said it was about Jennifer Farnsworth, yet it is totally plausible when it is Jesus. *I AM NOT COMPARING MYSELF TO JESUS I JUST USED MY OWN NAME FOR THE SAKE OF SIMPLICITY!!* I’m just saying that for this man to criticize Islam for it’s “copycat” style would be comparable to criticizing America for copying off of England. It’s not their fault they came later but they should not have to be judged merely because he doesn’t believe it.

  • At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I see the Muslim religion to be no less valid than any other of the religions that we study today. Each one can be scrutinized and each one can have holes and flaws in it. I see no reason that Muslims should be seen as copycats. If anything, they more support the fact that the religions aren't as different as some people like to say that they are. A lot of the same principles and the same general rules for living are described in different manners all over the world.
    Muslims are already very much picked on for the war and because everyone claims that the Koran (sp?) has so much violence while forgetting all that is in the bible. Honestly, my opinion on religion in general is that each one is telling basically the same idea, just in different context and with more emphasis on different aspects. Whether or not this author intended to make Muslims out to be bad or have a negative connotation, he sure doesn't have much respect for Muhammad and what he stood for. I think that's one thing that people need to work on is taking off the blinders and maybe seeing where connections could be made.

  • At 10:03 AM, Anonymous lovelikewinter said…

    I believe Islam is a valid religion. Those who practice this religion have a belief in a deity/supernatural, they have a religious work, they have a set of beliefs lined out, they gather together and they practice. What else would they need to be consider their own religion?

    But maybe I need to look at the author? How familiar is Christopher Hitchens with the religion? Does he know anyone who practices the Islam religion? Does Mr. Hitchens even practice a religion. He seems rather insensitive to the people who do. He seems rather unaware of the concept of faith. We cannot control what the founders of any religion did. If they plagiarized there is nothing we can do about it now, so why worry? What purpose would bringing this to light pose? I do not believe the Islamic people would start saying they practiced another religion so it seems kind of pointless unless he is asking to be hating by a group of people

    To me, this reads feels like an attack on the religion. And I do agree with catface1. If this article had been against Christianity, people would be going crazy.


Post a Comment

<< Home