My first memories of anything Islamic were when I prepared to start work in Saudi Arabia. In the United Kingdom I visited my local library and read some books on the country. The place looked extraordinarily exotic and once I got there I wasn't disappointed. I vaguely knew that Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of Islam but as to the significance of the Ka`bah, Hajj, etc., I knew even less.
Some Saudi newspapers have a daily question and answer piece on Islam. The questions submitted by the readers were often extremely specific on minute, seemly irrelevant practices - for example the salah (ritual prayer) or ablution - and these questions were often read out in the work tea room by ex-pats - including myself - for amusement. It all seemed so incomprehensible - but then everything about Saudi Arabia was a culture shock, so I never considered the religion separate from the culture.
Later I shifted to the United Arab Emirates. Here, it felt almost European, laid back, sort of quasi-Mediterranean in comparison. This made me look at Islam differently - it didn't seem so tough and dogmatic as in Saudi. Inevitably again I debated Islam at work or with friends and I was impressed with the logic. Logic and religion? These two are not supposed to coexist.
Being brought up from the age of 4 at a Catholic school run by nuns, then from 11 to 18 at a school run mainly by Benedictine monks, I had undergone years of formal religious education. However, except for some various stories from the Bible, I felt I hadn't a clue as to the relationship between Christianity and real life. Also, there were just so many inherent contradictions and "mysteries" that our school teachers veered away from - so long as you had faith.
So on the one hand at school we were taught to analyze and question the rationale behind biology, chemistry, and so on, but religion was above such earthly proofs. Not surprisingly, my fellow pupils did their best to escape from compulsory church services and ceremonies. I found hymns particularly dreary; saintly statues made me queasy rather than comforted. Priestly vestments and church ornamentation alienated rather than satisfied.
Back to Arabia: I had numerous but always friendly arguments about religion with Muslims. In hindsight, I was the one who provoked the discussion (I've always liked a good argument). My curiosity aroused, I started reading some pamphlets. I was wary of people trying to "convert" me, although no one seemed particularly out to proselytize. On the contrary, my friends patiently went along with my arguments. Religious discussions were frustrating by my lack of information - I was getting fed up with this, so I embarked on a refutation of Islam through reading. I searched for the weak spot - so then I could triumph over these Arabs! I only read booklets and books that I carefully chose myself, looking only for those that were as impartial and frank as possible, written by both Muslims and non-Muslims. By necessity the reading material had to deepen. I moved on from the Ahmed Deedat type confrontational style of material. I still wasn't really convinced and kept looking for that one defect that would unravel it all.
Christianity vs. Islam
Christianity directs to turn the other cheek; whereas Islam says fight for your rights, but only when you are oppressed. Christianity says that a rich man will never enter heaven. Islam says that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wealth; it is good so long as it is acquired legally and a portion (2.5 percent) given yearly to the poor. Wealth is distinguished from greed. The noble ideals of Christianity break down in the real world.
Islam seemed to recognize the grubby imperfect lives we lead but had relentlessly accurate insight of the strengths and weakness of the human psyche. For example, respecting others privacy: Hurtful tabloid newspaper gossip is alien to Muslim countries. The highest standards of courtesy are found in daily interactions: as-salamu `alaykum ("Peace be upon you") is the recurrent greeting, compared to the cold and casual "Hi." Everyone has arguments and fallouts, but for two Muslims, after 3 days the two sides must patch up - the one who makes the first gesture is seen as the better person. Consequently, I almost never heard of the I'm-not-talking-to-him attitude that poisons relationships and is so energy consuming.
I began to realize the astonishing range of issues Islam deals with, particularly on the social side. From hygiene to education, from war time and economics, to racism, to nationalism. No matter is too small to escape its rational instruction. Throughout, the Qur'an addresses mankind, not just the bickering Arab tribes of the time. It is not limited to the period of revelation but appears to speak down the ages. I found the tone consistently serious and majestic but always simple and crystal clear. It all seemed rather practical and sensible. Religion was just not supposed to be like this. Could all this be thought up by an illiterate man 1,400 years ago? Well, maybe.
I dug a little deeper. As for the famous literary brilliance of the Qur'an that I had read of, "that inimitable symphony" described by Marmaduke Pickthall, I had no idea and could only guess at from the inadequate English translations from the original Arabic.
As I said, I had an extensive religious education. These are a few of the creeds of Catholicism that I had always found difficult:
The Christian clergy of priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, etc. Why do we need a hierarchy? Could a religion operate without one?
Divinity of Christ. Did he actually claim divinity? What was that first commandment again?
Doctrine of the Trinity. Sorry, I just don't get it. Anyway, some prominent Christian leaders now openly doubt it, as do some Christian sects, for example, the Unitarians.
Church statues. Idols are breakable. Anyway, what was that second commandment again?
Infallibility of the Pope. But he did make errors, for example when condemning Copernicus for saying the Earth revolved around the sun.
Original sin. A newborn baby has inherent sin and needs forgiveness (baptism)? Again, somehow difficult to understand.
Worshiping "saints." Do we need an agent to reach God?
Transubstantiation. Where bread and wine are transformed (literally) into the flesh and blood of Christ during the Mass. Are there elements of paganism here?
Christ died on the cross for the "sins of the world." If Christ died for our sins in advance, then why bother trying to be good? Anyway, did he really claim this?
And there's more, but I'll spare you.
Islam graciously cut through this ideological nightmare. One by one these muddled dogmas were clearly debunked as I dug deeper in my research. I was interested to learn that the central Christian tenets above were trashed out by a conference 300 years after Christ died. The conference was heavily prejudiced by the powerful Roman emperor of the time: not exactly divine. The monks must have forgotten to mention all that. Surprisingly, in Islam, Christ is a highly revered prophet. Also, like Muhammad, he would never be termed divine. In fact many Muslims are named `Isa (Arabic for Jesus), and Christ and Mary are mentioned in the Qur'an more times than Muhammad.
So, contrary to Christianity, Islam appeared (to me anyway) simple and clear. Today Christianity is all but dead in the West - this is scary and probably precedes an era of spiritual nihilism. The only growth area is in evangelism - where emotions are let rip. It is known by anyone who has had to reason with someone in an ecstatic or angry state, that logic and emotion do not make good bedfellows - any rational thought is thrown out the window. Some churches hire discos in a desperate attempt to attract the punters; others are becoming bingo halls. Good Christians are staying at home in droves on Sunday: for many of them, cutting the grass seems more meaningful.
I remember a Christian friend of mine complained that the Mass never seemed the same when they switched over from Latin to English - it was better when you couldn't understand it.
So, this is the sorry state to Christianity today.
My hunches that these were man-made doctrines were finally proven right. It was quite a relief. Whatever issue I examined in Islam, I could not find error nor did I have to stretch my credibility. Surely then it cannot be of human origin? No wonder the monks at school kept it all well hidden. However, my stubbornness held out another year or so.
I tried to read the Qur'an, which initially I found heavy and intense. I soon realized that this was because it was so concise and concentrated - there was no padding out. It appeared strangely succinct, like a telegraph message. Surely, I wondered, if written by Muhammad, it would be full of the narrow stories of the times, not to mention mistaken scientific beliefs of the time.
In comparison, the Bible goes in great detail regarding local events, internal wars, what so-and-so did, and local politics. All very fascinating at the time, but hardly an eternal guide for all mankind. The Bible was, of course, composed by men - and reads like a diary of the times. For example, the Gospel according to Saint. I long wondered how that makes it divine. There are few grand concepts. The text is addressed to the small tribes of Judea. The statements authentically attributed to Christ himself are but a few dozen, and even those are colored by St. Paul and others. Also, the version we read today is translated through from Aramaic to Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English. What text could possibly have survived unchanged -especially when so many had a vested interest in the content? The many conspicuous contradictions are well known, even by Christians.
Therefore, it was almost unbelievable to learn that the Muslim sacred book, the Qur'an, was written down during Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, was checked numerous times by himself to ensure accuracy, and has remained exactly in the original language and text ever since. I was interested to read that when several thousand copies of the Qur'an were printed in Egypt with just one dumma (vowel mark) missing, they were immediately pulped. Why should a tiny dash make any difference? How did anyone spot it so quickly?
Being scientifically trained, I was interested in the scientific references of the Qur'an. These included meteorological, astronomical, physical, medical references and more. Many of these are tantalizingly subtle, for example [We made every living thing of water] (Al-Anbiyaa' 21:30). So far, no one has found any discrepancies; however, I still looked for one indisputable scientific fact that would clear up the issue: The size of the universe or the distance to the sun for example would do nicely. I could not find anything that specific, of course. Maybe that is the point: Humans always like evidence on a tray, clearly labeled.
I often felt Islam was dogmatic, loaded with tough restrictions and regulations. Was it all necessary? Can't we just go out and have a good time and do what we want? But upon closer examination, I saw that those who "suffer" most by such restrictions are the strongest of society. Who are these? The wealthy, young, healthy, usually male. Who are vulnerable? Women, the poor, the sick, the very young and the very old. All are strongly protected by Islamic Law, centuries before the welfare state was dreamed of. For example
Who drinks and enjoys alcohol the most? Men. However, who actually suffers most from alcoholism? Battered wives and abused children, not to mention the thousands killed or maimed by drunk drivers.
Who's restricted most by the prohibition of sexual promiscuity? A man can walk away from pregnancy. Women are biologically inclined to monogamy. So who pays the real price of promiscuity? The unwanted baby born to a single mother left to fend for herself.
Who benefits from the clothing restriction on women? Hardly the men. Women are protected and respected from predatory males, rape, and pregnancy.
Who enjoys and profits financially from pornography? Throughout history this has always been a male thing. Not many magazines seem to be owned or bought by women. It's well known that rapists and child abusers (men again, I'm afraid) are often driven and seduced by explicit pornography.
Who suffers by giving obligatory charity? The rich.
Who wants to care about the elderly in a society that worships youth? It's such a nuisance to hedonistic young people. Muslims are obliged to look after their parents and all the elderly. Again the weak are given security.
The list goes on.
It's clear that "harsh" Islamic rules actually protect the weak and those without a voice in society. It's not surprising, then, that the abhorrence against Islam, even from the very beginning at the time of Muhammad, came from the high and mighty of society. The entertainment moguls of Hollywood and elsewhere today see Islam as a severe threat to their profit margins. It's not so surprising, then, that the vast majority of those reverting to Islam are women. Also, I noticed that it was the under-trodden of society, such as the destitute Hindus of India and blacks in racist America, who feel that only Islam's ideals can address their problems.
Regarding women, I thought I had hit on the weak spot of Islam until I discovered that women enjoyed inheritance and divorce rights 1,400 years before the West discovered "Women's Lib." A wife even keeps her own name after marriage. Some of the richest people in the Muslim world are women. Contrary to my image of Muslim women being "oppressed," my personal observation was that women were not simply equal to men but in some ways held in a distinguished, almost reverential position in society. They didn't behave a bit oppressed. On the contrary, I personally cannot recall ever hearing a disparaging or sexist remark from a Muslim man regarding any woman.
So what to do with this information? I had two choices: either to do nothing (which was tempting) or change my religion. Also I wanted to break with the Catholic Church which had lost credibility to me. I didn't want to forever be a lapsed Catholic. As far as I know, it's not possible to resign (what would I send back - my confirmation medal?). I mulled over the issue for a year or more before one spring Friday deciding to take the plunge. Now several years have passed and I have realized that far from being the end of the matter, the hard work had only just begun on that Friday. I look ahead with interest and some trepidation at the resurgence of Islam around the world - I wonder how the West will react to the inevitable rise of Islam in the next century: submit or feel threatened? Many vested interests will fight it, particularly the powerful entertainment lobbies. Whatever happens, Islam is not going to go away.