This is one of the most common mistakes in Quran reading that is afflicting Muslims and non-Muslims alike: Having a presupposition of what “Islam” and “God” mean based on a superficial view of popular culture and mass media. Besides benefiting ourselves by deepening our understanding of God’s system, correcting this mistake will significantly weaken the arguments of Islamophobes and anti-theists. So Musilms, please pay attention!
Part 1: Presuppositions about Islam
This mistake can be broken down into two components: Presuppositions about Islam and presuppositions about God. Let’s begin with the former. Many Quranists, including me, have challenged the popular definition of Islam and thought about what Islam really means. But for people born into the faith or not familiar with Islam, it’s pretty natural to define Islam as a religious and social institution associated with certain beliefs, rituals, governments, and cultures. Yes, I accept this definition as the cultural definition. Actually according to this cultural definition, there’s no one Islam. Anything that considers the Quran important (even if not infallible) is called some form of Islam by our culture. The different kinds of groups that consider the Quran important can have very different teachings. Skeptical? Consider a very progressive congregation that considers the Quran a very important source of guidance, more important than most other sources such as the Book of Mormon; yet this congregation does not consider the Quran infallible. Do you think the popular Western culture will call this congregation Islamic?
More problematic is that, the cultural definition is sometimes used to refer to the beliefs of ISIS, as the fundamentalists are much louder than other Muslim groups. This is problematic, since such generalization ignores the difference between intellectual corpus juris and lived corpus juris. The former refers to the collection of holy books that a group claims to follow, such as the Quran and Hadith. The latter is the collection of holy books and laws from other sources that a group in fact follows in action, and this can include past rulings of religious scholars that are considered canonical, canonical exegesis methods, desires of politicians, and exalted but undocumented cultural norms. The lived corpus juris can contradict the intellectual corpus juris, though religious groups can try many ways to reconcile the contradictions, such as by introducing more bylaws. Fundamentalist groups have their own lived corpus juris that mandate a violent interpretation, while other Muslim groups have their different lived corpus juris that forbid the violent interpretation; yet Islamophobes ignore the fact that it’s the lived corpus juris that defines a group’s beliefs. Still don’t understand? Imagine a group that claims to follow Book Alpha, but in fact just put Book Alpha high in the shelf, and recite it in a language nobody understands during liturgy, rarely reading it in order to understand, and they follow a set of church bylaws which have little to do with Book Alpha instead. Is the group following Book Alpha? Obviously no. In this example, Book Alpha is their intellectual corpus juris, while the church bylaws constitute their lived corpus juris. If they do something wrong, then it’s more likely to be due to the problems with church bylaws than with Book Alpha. We Quranists try our best to make our lived corpus juris consistent with the intellectual one, which is the Quran.
To cite a similar example more familiar to a Western audience, there’s no one Christianity, according to the cultural definition. Progressive Christians don’t consider the Bible infallable, yet they’re called Christians. There’re also “Christian Atheists,” who don’t believe in God, but consider the example of Jesus worth imitating. Note that they still bear the name “Christian,” because they consider Jesus important, even though not divine. Jehovah’s Witness is also considered a Christian denomination. Devoted Christians who believe in God and Trinity obviously will say, “No, Christian Atheists are not Christians. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also not Christians. The Bible says Jesus is God and you can’t know the Father without knowing the Son.” In other words, they claim that the cultural definition is not compatible with the Bible. The term “Christianity” is also often associated with fundamentalists who advocate young earth creationism since they’re very outspoken. But Christian biologists may say, “Fundamentalists don’t represent the teachings of the Bible. They can’t represent all the Christians. The Bible is compatible with evolution.” This illustrates the difference between the cultural and theological definition of Christianity—the cultural definition is what the popular culture calls “Christianity,” while the theological definition is how the Bible defines “Christianity,” whichever way it’s interpreted.
The problem arises when this cultural definition of “Islam” and “Muslim” is substituted into the Quran, or the theological definition of Islam is confused with the cultural definition and the intellectual corpus juris is confused with the lived one. Just think about it: Why this social institution in Saudi Arabia? Why assume that this institution is sincerely following the Quran rather than embodying the example of Book Alpha? This institution also has changed through history, so which version of this institution? Why should the definition of Islam in 21st century be the same as that in 7th century? What about when the cultural definition contradicts the rest of the Quran or causes contradiction? Everyone would agree that the Quran is the central scripture of Islam, so if you’re truly interested in what Islam really is, then why not find the definition of Islam from the Quran rather than from a human institution which may or may not be sincerely following the Quran? I would agree that Islamic is barbaric and authoritarian if I substitute the cultural definition into the Quran, but it just doesn’t fit into the context and causes contradictions (which can be avoided by suspending judgment on the definition of Islam). For instance, while the Quran condemns sectarianism, the cultural definition, particularly the definition centered on fundamentalists, features sectarian thinking. Can you find such a definition of Islam in the Quran after deleting all your presuppositions (you will have confirmation bias if you don’t delete your presuppositions so arguing against the Quran that way is circular logic)? At least I can’t find it without causing severe contradictions; it must have come from lived corpus juris outside the Quran. Especially for Muslims, substituting the cultural definition is also the wrong attitude to read the Quran: If you seek guidance, you should learn from the Quran rather than teaching it. Who is teaching the Quran? God (75:17-19; even though there’re many verses that say the messenger teaches the Scripture, but since God taught the messenger first and messengers have to teach what God teaches, it’s ultimately God who teaches the Scripture.). So do you want to teach God? What blasphemy! For Muslims and non-Muslims, not understanding the Quran on its own right means that instead of the Quran itself, you’re judging your presuppositions and confirmation bias. If you don’t have the modest attitude to seek guidance when reading the Quran, then there’s a good chance that you can’t understand it and have no right to challenge it, since this is how the Quran instructs the reader. An analogy: You buy an OTC drug to manage a condition, but don’t follow the instruction. Then you observe that the promise of the drug on its package to relieve the symptom is not achieved, so you sue the pharmaceutical company. Of course you won’t win the lawsuit. Sunnis and Shias are not following the instruction in many ways, such as taking verses out of context (the canonical arguments for Hadith and duality of revelation by Shafii is taking verses—even half a sentence in a verse—out of context), so using exegesis based on Hadith to argue against the Quran is not a valid approach.
What is Islam according to the Quran? It’s the creed of Abraham, Monotheism – simple, pure, and universal Monotheism free from sectarian thinking, establishing truthfulness, justice (which can’t be separated from truthfulness), charity, and unity. The existence of Islam is independent from Prophet Muhammad (Otherwise why is it called “creed of Abraham” in the Quran? Why are Moses and Abraham more significant than Muhammad in the Quran?), since the fundamental purpose of all messengers is the same, which is to declare that there’s no god except God, and to give warnings about the consequences of idolatry and injustice so people will be mindful of God, not losing themselves in worldly enjoyments. What about the rituals? To be honest, the spirit of Islam is a lot more emphasized than rituals in the Quran, and when reading holistically, you will find that rituals are means to serve the end of the Islamic spirit, rather than ends on their own. In sum, Islam is much more about God than about culture. (Why define this way? I’ll explain in an upcoming post. I came to this conclusion by changing the terms related to “Islam” into x, then solve for x according to the context of various passages.)
Here comes a problem regarding Part 1: If I have to consider the Quran guidance in order to understand it, then it’s impossible to critically evaluate it, which means Islam is blind faith. My answer is, you can still critically evaluate by indirect proof: If contradictions arise by assuming that the Quran is the guidance, then the Quran is false. (And don’t forget the difference between the cultural definition and theological definition, and between the intellectual and lived corpus juris.) But I haven’t found any irreconcilable contradiction. Apparent contradictions can be reconciled by correcting the definitions of words by changing it into x and then solve for x according to contexts in various passages, and by considering the function a certain type of passage plays in the Quran as a whole. It’s important to solve for x in many cases, because the Arabic language has changed through time, and some of the changes may have been affected by political interests. Why holistic reading? Actually holistic reading doesn’t need to be justified by holistic reading itself (if so, that’s circular logic); there’re many verses directly condemning taking verses out of context and pointing to holistic reading, and they can be understood without holistic reading (2:85; 4:46; 5:13; 5:41; 15:90-93, etc.). Particularly, 2:85, 20:114, and 75:16 may indicate that the Quran functions as an organic whole to be best used as a guidance, though they don’t prove this point. So not reading the Quran holistically means not following the instruction; recall the analogy of instruction to the drug. Another way to critically evaluate the Quran while following its instructions is to see if promises that can be fulfilled before death is fulfilled when you do follow the instructions. To me, I testify that those promises are fulfilled on me. Now, it becomes more like a clinical trial than religious debate.
Another problem is: I mentioned the theological definition of Christianity, but Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons also have their own distinct theological definitions; so the theological definition is subjective and depends on the sect. It’s true that each sect has a theological definition, but it doesn’t mean that they’re equally valid and equally consistent with the scripture. I do consider the theological definition of Islam according to the Quran a good worldview, as it reflects a more just and mightier God than the theological definitions of other sects that involve intercessors (as they usually do). This definition implies that people who don’t call themselves “Muslims” can attain salvation; indeed there’re many similarities between major religions. And this is consistent with the belief that God sent messengers to all nations and that all messengers have the same purpose.
Part 2: Presuppositions about God
The analogy of instruction of the drug still apply here. Actually while God is eternal and immutable, theology has changed through history. So why should the current popular theology be authentic? Nowadays, people tend to assume that nature can autonomously operate on its own independently from God, and that what’s “natural” is not the action of God. According to this view, every new scientific discovery is a new nail to the coffin of God. Also because of this view, God-of-the-gaps arguments became popular, yet these arguments exacerbate the conflict between science and religion (which didn’t exist until around 19th century, and religion is a different concept from the Church), and relates religion to ignorance, which is in grave contradiction with the Quran. This view about God might have been made popular by Isaac Newton (who argued that God has to correct the orbits of planets regularly, which is opposed by Leibniz) and the Deist movement during the Enlightenment; this view contradicts the Quran, and actually contradicts the Bible, according to Oxford theoretical biophysicist Ard Louis (http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/louis_white_paper.pdf, I highly recommend this paper). In contrast, before the advent of our modern popular Deist theology, science was considered part of faith. To Pope Sylvester II, knowing math is like seeing the mind of God. (I highly recommend The Book of the Cosmos by Dennis Danielson and The Abacus and the Cross by Nancy Marie Brown to dispel the myth of the war between science and religion.)
What does the Quran say about God? Everything in the heavens and earth submit to God. God is the immanent Sustainer of the universe. Rain, ships, and cattle are cited as signs of God in the Quran, though we can explain them scientifically and even medieval people knew that ships are made by men. This implies that what we call “natural” is the ordinary activities of God. The Quran also says that looking for miracles is not the right approach; many passages where disbelievers ask for miracles from the messengers are followed by verses directing our attention to the “natural” world. In other words, there’s no “natural,” since what’s “natural” is in fact divine. So being able to explain phenomena naturalistically does not make God obsolete. Other verses of the Quran, such as those pertaining to social laws, should be understood in the light of theology presented in the Quran rather than the modern theology that makes God anthropomorphic, arbitrary, and capricious. Again, whatever theology the Quran presents, as illustrated by the examples of teaching God and the instruction to the drug in Part 1, it’s better to solve for x than substituting something popular into the Quran.
In sum, for Muslims, why not let God tell you about Himself and what He wants you to do instead of you teaching God? I’m sure that no real Muslim wants to commit such blasphemy as teaching God what to do and how to behave. For non-Muslims, even if you don’t believe that Quran is the word of God, superimposing alien ideas onto the Quran and not allowing it to speak on its own right in order to argue against it means that you’re not arguing against the Quran; this is straw man argument.