Arabic Culture Defense
Frequently, non-Muslims are advised not to judge the traditions of Muhammad by Western cultural standards. On the surface, this seems like wise advice to follow. Muhammad lived a long time ago in an ancient Arabic culture that is quite foreign to us. Perhaps, it would be good manners to by-pass what seems antiquated, cruel, and perverse and to excuse it on cultural grounds.
However, this cultural defense of Muhammad seems to confuse moral values with cultural values. The word, culture, was derived from the Latin word, colere, meaning to cultivate or to bring from the ground. The development of human societies is dependent upon their physical environment. The Arabic Bedouins lived in tents and depended upon their camels for their nomadic movements across the desert. Their physical environment played a key role in determining the desert culture of the Bedouins. It influenced all aspects of their culture, such as, their food, clothes, travel, family structure, education, music, etc,. In other parts of the world, the physical environment gave rise to other diverse cultures. It is morally indifferent whether a person lives in a dwelling that is made of forest wood, animal skin, earthen adobe, stone blocks, Arctic ice, or plant fabric. The mode of travel is not a moral issue. There is no moral difference between a person who travels by automobile, airplane, camel, dog sled, Indian canoe, or horse. Yet, these things provide cultural differences between people groups.
Moral values are distinct from cultural values. For example, lie telling is a moral value. It is considered virtuous when a person tells us the truth. Friendship is another positive moral value. These moral values were not cultivated from the ground, and they don’t come from our physical environment. Moral values find their ultimate source in Allah. Allah created human beings with a moral sense of right and wrong. Human beings have a conscience that indicates to each person a sense of good and evil. It is true that this ethical sense can become hardened and twisted, but even a hardened person tries to offer a positive moral justification for a bad deed. They might say, “The devil made me do it.” “He had it coming.” “I stole it because he had more than he needed.”
Now, moral things, like friendship, are common to all of humanity. Everyone appreciates it when they are treated friendly and with respect. Honesty, courage, sacrifice, thriftiness, and kindness are other positive virtues that are universally respected. This does not mean that everyone exercises these moral virtues. In fact, human beings can, and often do, act contrary to what they know is right and good.
The fact that cultural values are different and distinct from moral values allows us to evaluate moral behavior. It makes it permissible, and even desirable, to have discussions on moral behavior observed in different cultures. For example, some ancient cultures sacrificed babies on altars. Morally, this is a depraved act, even though it was culturally acceptable. Now, if moral values were the same thing as cultural values, we would not have a basis to judge whether a society would be better without child sacrifice. There could be no moral progress in social behavior if cultural values were the same as moral values. If this were true, it would yield the absurd result that a baby-sacrificing culture would be morally equivalent to a non-baby-sacrificing culture.
So, to claim that no one has the right to judge the moral actions of Muhammad because he lived in an ancient Middle Eastern culture is mistaken. It shows that the person does not understand the difference between moral values and cultural values. Furthermore, this is a strange defense to make for Muhammad, because Muslims themselves make moral judgments regarding Western culture. However, if persons cannot make moral judgments about another culture, then Muslims have no right to make moral judgments about the behavior of non-Muslims. But Muslims do make moral judgments about others. They argue that an Islamic culture would be morally better than any other culture. So, it is hypocritical for a Muslim to object to a moral discussion of Muhammad’s sayings and behavior on cultural grounds.
Culture itself is not the moral standard by which to determine whether or not an act is right or wrong. And thus, it is appropriate to discuss the moral worth of the sayings and actions of Muhammad. In conclusion, appealing to the norms of ancient Arabic culture to defend Muhammad’s behavior is logically fallacious because it confuses the categories of culture and morality.
Last edited 10/14/2000
One Muslim’s Presuppositional response
Presuppositionalism assumes an idea to be true. And, with this beginning assumption, it judges the truth or falsity of other claims according to their correspondence with the initial assumptions.
In the example above, the presupposition is that Muhammad was a Prophet of mercy who was always affectionate and compassionate to believers. It assumes that he was never an ill-mannered nor a hard hearted person who would attack without first giving instruction.
Of course, if one begins with a set of unquestioned assumptions, then one must reject all evidence to the contrary. If the initial assumptions were that Muhammad was always merciful and compassionate, then it could never be the case that Muhammad was angered and desirous to poke a believer’s eye out. It has to be rejected because the initial assumptions don’t allow this possibility to have ever occurred. The idea that such an event could have actually occurred is never entertained in the mind of the religious presuppositionalist.
Presuppositionalism is a form of fideism, and it protects the religious belief system from the harsh realities of actual historical events. Because, if a Muslim were to accept that Muhammad desired to poke the person’s eye out, then the Muslim’s presuppositional foundation would be destroyed. It would bring into question the Muslim’s preconceived ideas about Muhammad’s character. And, if these preconceived ideas were to be discarded, perhaps, then Muhammad’s claim to prophethood would be less certain. This rarely happens because the believer finds great comfort and assurance in presuppositional beliefs.
So, the above hadith is rejected—not on historical grounds, but it is rejected because it does not accord with the believer’s assumptions about the character of Muhammad.
There is the additional problem that two contradictory presuppositional belief systems cannot be adjudicated on presuppositional grounds. One side assumes that their belief is true and the other side assumes a contrary belief to be true. No matter how much historical evidence either side gathers, the other side rejects the historical evidence, because its presuppositions don’t allow any contrary evidence to be admitted that would challenge their initial presuppositions.
Sometimes, presuppositionalists engage in intellectual (epistemological) hypocrisy. Being presuppositionalists, they are not eager to allow their assumptions to be challenged, but they are eager and willing to challenge the presuppositions of those who have a different religion. When they challenge another religion, they are not willing to grant the presuppositions of other religions. They argue with the opponent as if historical evidence were necessary to establish the claims of their opponent’s religion. But, they are not willing to submit their own religion to the challenge of empirical historical evidence.
Epistemological hypocrisy is a special problem for a Muslim who lives in an Islamic country. In such countries, a Muslim may freely criticize all religions except Muhammad’s religion. Because, if a Muslim were to criticize the sayings or behavior of Muhammad, the country’s Islamic leadership could charged him with blasphemy and call for his public execution. So, for a Muslim, no matter what Muhammad said or did, it must never be criticized or become a reason to question his prophethood. In some Islamic countries, it is safer to be a hypocrite than be an honest thinker. Because, embracing the historical evidence could be a threat to a person’s life.
Last edited 10/15/2000
Weak Hadith Defense
There is extensive historical information on the life and teachings of Muhammad that is found in the written collections of the ancient Muslim oral traditions. These written traditions are called hadithss1. Some of the most valued collections of hadith were those collected by Bukhari, Dawud, and Muslim, who were ancient traditional Muslim scholars.2
Their extensive collections provide detailed information on the thoughts and actions of Muhammad. These collections must be studied in order to understand Muhammad’s life and teachings. In fact, these collections provide vastly more information on the life and teachings of Muhammad than does the Qur’an itself.
However, when someone examines these accepted hadiths, they find some accounts in which Muhammad displays unfavorable behavior. This behavior is an embarrassment to many Western Muslims who seek to defend Muhammadanism in the Western world. Often, these Muslims seek to minimize these historical accounts by claiming that these hadiths are weak; and, therefore, they should be ignored in discussion of Muhammad’s religion.
But, is this weak hadith argument a legitimate defense of Muhammad’s character? Or, is it a convenient ploy to divert the attention away from the unfavorable actions of Muhammad? Why should the ancient writings of the great traditional Muslim scholars be set aside so conveniently whenever Muhammad’s questionable behavior is presented from scholarly traditional Muslim sources by non-Muslims?
Now, it is true there were many hadiths that were rejected by ancient traditional Muslim scholars. They rejected them because these traditions were fabricated (maudu’) for political reasons long after Muhammad died. So, it is proper that these fabricated traditions should be rejected by those who follow the life and teachings of Muhammad as well as by Western scholarship. These fabricated Muslim traditions are very much like the apocryphal post-New Testament writings that appeared long after the genuine New Testament gospels were written. Now, it is clear that Al-Bukhari, Imam Muslim and others did not intend to include maudu’ hadiths within their collections. In fact, they applied stringent standards to assure that these mandu’ hadiths were excluded.
For an oral tradition to be accepted as sahih (sound), it must meet important requirements. And, if a tradition did not meet the requirements for a sahih hadith, it was not accepted into the family of sahih hadiths. However, the standard hadith collections are considered by traditional Muslim scholarship to be sahih. Therefore, it is unjustified to use a weak hadith defense when a sahih hadith is used to present the actions and teachings of Muhammad.
Literally means sahih means sound, healthy, and without fault. Firstly, to be a sahih hadith, the hadith must have an impeccable chain of transmission (isnad) in which there is no weakness. Each link of the chain must be connected by a narrator who heard the narration from the prior link in the chain. The chain of narrators must be an unbroken chain. Secondly, each individual narrator must be a just (‘adl) Muslim of good reputation. Thirdly, the text (matn) of the hadith must be in accordance with orthodox Islamic teachings.
When a hadith meets all the proper qualifications for a sahih hadith, it must be accepted by all Muslims. A sahih hadith is an obligatory hadith. It must be acted upon according to the consensus of the Muslim scholarship. The sahih hadiths are those used as the sources of Islamic jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh). And, it is proof in cases involving Islamic shari’ah law.
So, it is not legitimate for a Muslim who professes to follow the teachings and behavior of Muhammad to downplay sahih hadiths. These sahih hadiths are not weak hadiths in any technical sense.
Furthermore, the fact that a hadith is not a sahih hadith does not mean that the hadith is not a true report regarding Muhammad’s life. It simply means that, technically speaking, the isnad of the hadith lacks the high standard required to be a sahih hadith. So, even though a hadith is technically weak, i.e., its isnad is not flawless, it may still be an authentic hadith. Technically, a weak hadith is not the same thing as a ‘forged’ (Maudu’) or fabricated hadith.
Fabricated hadiths were not intentionally included in either Bukhari’s or Muslim’s collections. So, simply setting aside a hadith as weak is only a statement regarding its isnad. It is not a statement that the traditions is a forged or a Maudu’ hadith. The fact that a hadith was included in Bukhari’s or Muslim’s collections is strong evidence that the hadith is an authentic one, even though its isnad may not meet the standard required to be a sahih hadith. So, the weak hadith defense against an unfavorable hadith regarding Muhammad’s behavior is really a weak intellectual defense. What a Muslim must show is that the hadith is not historically authentic and this is a much more difficult task to do.
Furthermore, Muslims accept the text of the Qur’an without hesitation. However, each ayah (verse) of the Qur’an is not based upon Mutawatir (multiple chains of corroborating narration continuous through history) isnad. So, why should a hadith have to meet a higher standard of historical verification than the Qur’an itself?
Lastly, some Muslims disparage some hadiths because of their initial presuppositions regarding the sayings and behavior of Muhammad. For example, they uncritically assume that Muhammad was a perfect and flawless individual whose sayings and actions were all divinely inspired by Allah. Beginning with this initial presupposition, they set aside everything in traditional Muslim scholarship that does not accord with their initial religious assumptions. However, this is unfortunate, because historical reality should take precedent over our religious assumptions. Instead, our religious belief should be in accordance with historical reality. This is why the historical record found in the ahadith and the Sirat Rasul Allah by ibn Ishaq are so important.
Finally, the third standard (matn) that Muslim scholarship uses to judge the authenticity of a hadith seems to be an illegitimate standard. The real standard should be the historicity of a narrative. To determine the actuality of an historical event, the chain of narrators (isnad) and the reliability and reputation of the narrators (‘adl) are valid considerations. By contrast, it is not intellectually appropriate to reject a historical event because it does not agree with Muslim religious doctrine. This view gets the cart before the horse. In essence, it asserts that, even if a historical event actually happened, Muslim scholarship would reckon that it did not happen because it conflicts with their present-day religious dogma. Our present-day thoughts don’t create the events of past history. If they did, there would be no point in historical research.
As a side note, some Muslim scholarship applies their third standard to the events of the Bible. For example, some believe that all prophets lived sinless lives. Since Muslim belief teaches that adultery is a sin, it would follows that no prophet committed adultery. Therefore, since they believe that King Dawud (King David) was a prophet, it follows that he never committed adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-5). Therefore, they conclude that the biblical report of King Dawud’s adultery is not a true report. For them, the historicity of the report is irrelevant. It does not make any difference whether or not King Dawud actually committed adultery. Their present-day beliefs take precedence over the actual events of history. Thus, there could never be an historical event that could conflict with Muslim dogma. Such an arbitrary standard safely protects the Muslim’s religion from the realities of the historical record, making their religion non-falsifiable.
For some additional information on the classification of hadiths, see the Introduction to Sahih Muslim’s collection on page ix.
1 In Arabic, hadith is singular, while ahadith is plural.
Last edited 10/02/2000