I'm making my way through Stephen Prothero's "God is Not One," a book about how the eight major religions of the world are not at all the same -- much more like roads that head off in different directions than paths leading to the same summit.
In my first post about "God is Not One" after only reading the introduction, I predicted that I'd like Prothero's book. I was right. The next chapter on Islam was clearly written and offered up some fresh insights on what the author considers to be the world's most influential religion.
Here's what struck me the most about it, an insight that likely will be repeated in the next seven chapters: religions are mostly nonsense, but sometimes (or always) a religion's core tenet reflects an important human truth.
Note my churchless qualifier: human.
In my true-believing days, I considered that this physical world was a reflection of some higher reality, a copy rather than the original. Even when I turned to a study of Greek philosophy and wrote a book about Plotinus, a Neoplatonist, the notion of idealized metaphysical "forms" that comprise the foundation of earthly existence appealed to me.
Now, I see this world as the clear and present reality that it is, with religions taking truths evident here and projecting them into an imaginary supernatural realm.
Consider Islam. Prothero writes:
The word Islam means "submission" or "surrender," however. So Islam is the path of submission, and Muslims are "submitters" who seek peace in this life and the next by submitting themselves to the one true God. They do this first and foremost by prostrating themselves in prayer.
"Are you prostrate or are you proud?" this tradition asks. Masjid, the Arabic term for mosque, literally means "place of prostration." And some who surrender to this practice develop a mark on their foreheads that the Quran refers to as a "trace of prostration."
Well, it seems ridiculous to believe that Allah is pleased by someone pressing his or her forehead to the ground so often that a permanent mark appears on the skin.
But here's why I say that we're all Muslims -- just a teeny, tiny bit.
It makes sense to submit... to reality. The universe is a lot bigger and more powerful than we are. The laws of nature are going to do what they do, regardless of how we feel about it. The cosmos, along with our Earth, is interconnected in multitudinous astonishing ways.
In short, no man or woman is an island. Rather, we're each very small parts of an incomprehensibly vast whole.
Where Islam goes wrong, as does every religion that posits a transcendental divinity, is submitting to a concept, an abstraction, instead of reality. A notion of Allah/God is viewed as the gospel (or Quranic) truth rather than the purely human imagining that it almost surely is.
Which brings me to a strange contradiction in Islam that seemingly should get a lot more quizzical attention from believers than appears to be the case: Muslims detest representations of Allah or Muhammad, but they are fine with concepts that represent their God.
Christians, of course, are monotheists, but theirs is a soft monotheism in which the one God appears as a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Islamic monotheism is harder. Like Jews, Muslims reject the Christian and Hindu notion that God can incarnate in a human body.
Muslims also join Jews in rejecting visual images of God on the ground that such images, which cannot possibly capture the reality of the divine, tempt us toward idolatry. God is, for Muslims, absolutely and totally transcendent -- far beyond all human conception of Him.
If this is true, then why is the Quran viewed as a perfect guide to the nature of Allah and Allah's will, even though it was dictated by the eminently human Muhammad and written in an eminently human language, Arabic?
If God is indeed "absolutely and totally transcendent," then why all the Islamic customs, rituals, and what-not that dictate how Muslims should behave in sometimes excruciating detail (Islamic banks, for example, neither charge nor give out interest, because the Quran proscribes this).
Moreover, the scripture Muhammad brought into the world attends to more topics than the Christ-inspired New Testament. As much about society as it is about spirituality, the Quran speaks of prayer and providence, marriage and divorce, breastfeeding and menstruation, lending and law.
I don't see any reason to take those aspects of the Quran seriously. But when it comes to submission -- hey, I'm up with that, as long as it's reality that I'm submitting to.
After all, what choice do I, or anyone else, have in the matter?