Will Harris & Aslan Let Islam & Muslims Speak for Themselves?

Note of Clarification: My semi-facetious interpretation of Quranic verses and hadith should not be taken as an accurate depiction of how all (or perhaps any) Muslims interpret their religious texts.

Reza Aslan thinks that Islam can inspire no ill.

it seems like a logical thing to say that people get their values from their scriptures. It’s just intrinsically false. That’s not what happens. People do not derive their values from their scriptures — they insert their values into their scriptures.

Meanwhile, Sam Harris thinks Islam can inspire no good.

But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran.

I’d like to see both of them try to us those arguments outside of an interview with a Western media outlet.

A Muslim: “My devotion to Allah inspired me to do charity work with non-Muslims.”
Sam Harris: ” But if you actually took your faith seriously, you’d behead those infidels, not help them.”

Another Muslim: “I behead these non-Muslims in the name of Allah!”
Reza Aslan: “Actually, you didn’t do that in the name of Allah. You did it because [insert any and every motive besides religion here].”

They are both wrong. Like any religion and/or set of dogmatic beliefs, Islam can inspire net good, bad, and/or neutral actions. Those actions do not arise in a space devoid of influences outside of religion, of course. However, it is absurd to deny that religion plays a significant role — especially when the people taking those actions directly cite their faith as inspiration.

If the voices of Muslims claiming that their actions are inspired by Islam are not enough, let us quote the Quran and Hadith — the sources of Islam as a religion  — themselves on the matter.

If any good reaches them, they say, “This is from Allah,” but if any evil befalls them, they say, “This happened because of you.” Say: “All things are from Allah.” What is wrong with these people that they do not understand any word? [An-Nisa’ 78]

Faith is to believe in Allah, angels, books, prophets, the Day of Resurrection, predestination, that good and evil are from Allah, death, and the Resurrection after death. [Bukhari, Muslim, Nasai]

Allah said: “Whoever believes in Me but does not believe in qadar and that good and evil are by My preordainment, let him look for another Lord besides Me. [Shirazi]

A person is not considered a Believer unless he believes that good and evil are from Allah. [Tirmidhi]

Good and bad can come from the belief in Allah. Saying that the good or the bad doesn’t actually count as part of True Islam™ isn’t helpful when Islamic texts, as well as Muslims themselves, feel differently.

While I, as an ex-Muslim atheist, would prefer that people base their values on sources other than religion, that outcome is highly unlikely. Realistically, it makes more sense to encourage movement toward the net good and/or neutral interpretations of religion.

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Will Harris & Aslan Let Islam & Muslims Speak for Themselves?

32 thoughts on “Will Harris & Aslan Let Islam & Muslims Speak for Themselves?

  1. 1

    This is why I point out that religious devotion is an unreliable measure of a person’s morality. You can’t guarantee what result you’ll get because you never know which interpretation of religion someone will prefer or how consistent that interpretation will be. It would be better if we abandoned religious notions of morality and instead focused on ethical behavior supported by evidence.

  2. 2

    I could be wrong, but I think you are missing Aslan’s point. He would agree with this statement: “Like any religion and/or set of dogmatic beliefs, Islam can inspire net good, bad, and/or neutral actions.” (Perhaps he might quibble over the precise meaning of “inspire.”)

    He views “religion as an ideology like any other ideology, no different whatsoever, from secularism or nationalism or socialism. As any ideology, it is completely up to an individual to interpret it.”

    I used to be in Harris’ corner on this but I’ve since rethought a lot of things. Aslan is almost certainly correct. How else to explain such diversity (of behavior) among Muslims? The drivers (Inspiration) behind it must be something closer to community norms, (political) tribalism, and socio-economic status than any singular creed. No?

    1. 2.1

      I’m not in Harris’s corner, either.

      If you look at the sources for my Aslan quotes, he does go on the defensive when it comes to Islam and claim that religion doesn’t inspire actions. It’s pretty clear that the factors you name along with religion inspire actions. I find his adamant exclusion of religion as a factor to be absurd. Where else could, say, anti-apostasy laws come from?

      1. Would it be a stretch to say that anti-apostasy laws come from an intent to exert political control over a clan? That’s not to say to that there’s no religious mumbo jumbo involved, just that the deeper motivating factor is rather banal (and universal).

          1. Heina, my sense is that we are probably in general agreement here. That said, I think you can see how “someone would be specifically against apostates without religion in the first place” with a cursory review of say, the early history of the Soviet Union. (Full disclosure: I am a market socialist with a heavy communist bent. 🙂 )

            It’s not an off-the-wall comparison. When I hear arguments like Harris’ I am reminded of the people who blame the ideology for crimes, rather than the opportunistic thugs who committed them.

  3. 3

    I, as an ex-Muslim atheist, would prefer that people base their values on sources other than religion, that outcome is highly unlikely. Realistically, it makes more sense to encourage movement toward the net good and/or neutral interpretations of religion.”

    As an ex-Christian atheist I couldn’t agree more.

  4. 5

    For an article about letting people speak for themselves, you’re quick to put words in people’s mouths yourself:

    A Muslim: “My devotion to Allah inspired me to do charity work with non-Muslims.”
    Sam Harris: ” But if you actually took your faith seriously, you’d behead those infidels, not help them.”

    Another Muslim: “I behead these non-Muslims in the name of Allah!”
    Reza Aslan: “Actually, you didn’t do that in the name of Allah. You did it because [insert any and every motive besides religion here].”

    Why put words in their mouths? This is trivially dismissed as not what either of those men actually said.

    Can you update this article with *actual* quotes from each of them in discussion with Muslims? Until then, this seems to be a pair of straw men.

      1. You did, but your complaint is directed at things they *didn’t* say: your imagined conversations they have with Muslims. Can you restrict your criticism to address what they actually said?

        1. My criticisms are of the ideas that they transmit. Aslan, as evidenced by my quotes of him (and extended ones at that, as well as citations, in this piece and previous pierces) constantly says that Islam (and other religions) don’t inspire actions, every other factor does. Harris has said, on his own blog (again, I’ve quoted and cited this), that Muslims who don’t “behead infidels” don’t take their religions very seriously. I’m sorry that you’re unable to see past my admittedly-sarcastic paraphrasing. If you were to ignore and skip them, I think my argument still holds.

          1. I think there is much to criticise in both Aslan’s and Harris’s expressions about Islam.

            But the quotes you have from each of them here do not imply the interpretations you have given here; from what I can see, you have wilfully misinterpreted them.

            I disagree greatly with Reza Aslan’s position. I agree largely with Harris’s, though disagree on some points.

            What I see you doing in these articles, though, is drawing inferences that are not warranted even by the direct quotes you give, and then attacking those imagined paraphrasings.

            That’s why I am asking for you to restrict yourself to criticising what they *do* say, without bending their words in this way.

  5. 7

    “I’d like to see both of them try to us those arguments outside of an interview with a Western media outlet.”

    I thought Harris’s main point was that it would be impossible to have this debate in many middle eastern countries precisely because of the consequences we can all so clearly predict. Aslan, in a tortuous stretching of his argument, claims that Islam is beyond responsibility for any and all actions carried out in its name – he really is that warped. How he seems to impress people with this evidence-free stance is incredulous, unless, of course, your sympathy for the protection of religious belief and ideas leaves you grasping for any crumb of comfort given the heinous behavior carried about by so many religious believers of all stripes.

    So, having set up your strawman and then claim “They are both wrong”, only 3 sentences later you confidently assert, “However, it is absurd to deny that religion plays a significant role — especially when the people taking those actions directly cite their faith as inspiration.” This seems to directly contradict Aslan and at least tacitly support Harris. So it is clear, even to you, there is no equitable balance between their two positions.

    Criticizing Islam because of the inspiration it provides to those who carry out evils under its guise doesn’t justify false accusations of either racism or islamophobia. It is an absolute requirement if we are to assist its passage from the 15th century to the modern era.

      1. The strawman is to characterize Harris’s argument that way. It is just intellectual dishonest to grossly simplify what even Harris admits is an extremely complex issue. Your obvious dislike of Harris shouldn’t be allowed to remove any objectivity you might claim.

        1. Barry I think your argument here would hold water if Heina hadn’t quoted both Harris and Aslan directly. Like Heina, I am an ex-Muslim atheist and when I hear both Aslan and Harris speak I know that they are not speaking about the complex and maddening faith in which I was raised. Harris’ argument that hatred of the infidel is the central message of Koran logically leads to Heina’s interpretation. This argument ignores reality by implicitly foreclosing on the possibility that Islam inspires a wide range of actions in its adherents and not just IS type beheadings.

          When I came out as an atheist to my Muslim family and friends, most of them were disappointed but respected me enough to not attempt to interfere. I have enjoyed having robust arguments with my relatives who are still believers. Harris’ argument would hold that my own lived reality is somehow not real because my parents should have shunned or done worse to me a long time ago, them being Muslim and all. At the same time I have observed quite the opposite reaction from other families to their children coming out as atheists.

          I think that Aslan’s ideas are more connected to reality but are still in the main, very problematic. A couple years ago I would have completely dismissed Aslan but these I find if you ignore his arguments which are purely and obviously apologetics, some of what he says makes sense. His position on how scripture is imbibed, interpreted and lived by believers has some merit. As a person raised in a developing country (Jamaica), I have learned to be skeptical of arguments about the developing world that focus on one aspect of a people’s existence (even some thing as all encompassing as religion) to explain the mayhem we often see in these places. People’s motivations for doing certain things are often many and complex and when we fail to recognize this, we are not helping the situation. In so far as I can hear Aslan making this argument, I am willing to give a hearing, but only up to point!!

  6. 8

    Heina, yes Harris has said many times that non-Islamist Muslims don’t take their faith seriously, but I don’t think he meant it in the way that you’ve taken it. He’s not saying that Islamism is True Islam and everything is fake, or lesser, or compromised. It often sounds like that, and that misunderstanding is entirely his fault. It’s ridiculous how someone who has been talking about these issues for so long still hasn’t learned to talk about them clearly and effectively, but he hasn’t. When he says his spiel, he doesn’t anticipate that anyone will take it as you have, so he doesn’t think to clarify himself.

    On his infamous appearance with Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher, Harris was trying to illustrate his rough sense of the statistical breakdown between different varieties of Muslims (in order to counter the charge that he was generalizing across all Muslims). The easiest way to illustrate such a point would be with a pie chart, but he chose instead a series of concentric circles, like a kind of Muslim Venn diagram, and he located Islamist terrorists in the center of those concentric circles. Many people (perhaps yourself, I don’t recall) took him to mean that Islamic terrorism is “central” to Islam, but that isn’t the point he was making. The concentric circle model he was describing was there to serve a particular rhetorical point, and that was to concede the diversity of Muslims while identifying specifically which Muslims he was concerned about. He could have, and should have, made that point without an unfortunate illustration that implies the centrality of Islamist terrorism, but he was not claiming that terrorism is central to Islam. When he was criticized for this, he was being criticized for an implication he did not intend, and a claim that he wasn’t making.

    I’ve never seen Harris say anything that suggests he would disagree, for example, with the statement carbon dated mentioned @2 (“Like any religion and/or set of dogmatic beliefs, Islam can inspire net good, bad, and/or neutral actions.”). I would be amazed if he hasn’t said something very like that at some point, but he’s certainly never said that Islam can inspire no good.

    I think there’s a lot that’s wrong with how Harris talks about Islam, and he has no one to blame but himself for the reputation he’s acquired. But I don’t think he thinks what you think he thinks.

    1. 8.1

      IMHO: Harris is an idiot, sometimes grossly immoral, but also a genius. There’s plenty to criticize him over.

      Obviously Harris would say that Islam can inspire good. Obviously Harris would say that it’s not just religion which can explain these things, and that many other factors come together to inform a person’s actions. Harris would say that religion is a huge factor.

      Now, what Harris does say is that an impartial reading of the Koran is X, Y, and Z. I would similarly say that an impartial reading of the Christian bible is that slavery is condoned and even promoted. Does that mean True Christians must promote slavery? Dunno. Not much interested in defining what a “True Christian” is. I doubt Harris interested in defining what a “True Muslim” is. He’s simply responding to the beliefs of Muslims according to his current understanding of what current people who self-identify as Muslim actually believe.

      1. Correction:

        Harris sometimes does talk about who is a “True Muslim”, such as when he says that Muslims who don’t want to behead infidels don’t take their faith seriously. In doing so, he’s defining “True Muslim” according to a quote unquote straightforward reading of the Koran and associated texts.

        In context, I don’t think that is right. Most of Harris’s problems with Islam are not just the content of the book and texts, because the Christian bible is about as bad. Rather, it’s the surrounding culture of interpretation.

        I accidentally slipped into accidentally defining “True Muslim” just like Harris, and I apologize. I don’t necessarily care about the contents of the books. I care about the beliefs of people which might be very different than the contents of the books.

  7. 9

    While I, as an ex-Muslim atheist, would prefer that people base their values on sources other than religion, that outcome is highly unlikely.

    I very much would prefer that to happen, too.

    It does seem unlikely; should we therefore tell people working to make that happen “you’re doing it wrong”? Is there not room for firebrands to present the position that all religious convictions are not worthwhile and should be abandoned?

    Realistically, it makes more sense to encourage movement toward the net good and/or neutral interpretations of religion.

    Yes, we should certainly have people doing this! Ayaan Hirsi Ali advocates this, and I think it’s good to have that message out there.

    I disagree with it; for my part, I want to continue working to keep awareness that all religion is not worth the time and effort, and should be abandoned entirely.

    My disinterest in the “move these people to less-harmful religious views” project doesn’t mean I want to say people should not engage in that project. Do you not see room for both approaches?

  8. 10

    Hi Heina, best wishes for your blog. Trust me, I am on the same page as you are on this issue. Please take it as a positive criticism. The first part of the blog talks about how the religion influences one’s good/bad/neutral behavior. I agree with you that it does play a role even if it can be miniscule. But the Quran and Hadith quoted later on describes what an ideal Muslim’s approach to Good/Bad happening in his life/world. The quoted scripture is not related to charity or good work done by any Muslim but about how Allah does good/bad to the world. A Muslim doing good/bad vs Allah doing good/bad. Too different things. I hope you won’t take it as a criticism just for the sake of bashing. Keep the great work !!

    1. 10.1

      I’m aware that what you stated is the Islamic interpretation. My reading of it as an atheist is that the concept of Allah drives good and bad in people, since I don’t believe that Allah exists outside of people’s belief in the concept.

      1. Oh boy! You made me walk through the minefield of classic Islamic philosophy regarding the freewill vs God’s will debate. The quoted material states that the Good or bad COMES from Allah. But you seem to think it suggests the good or bad that people do. Apart from a small minority, majority of Islamic scholars clearly state that individuals are responsible for their actions thus Allah made heaven and hell for judgement.

        Your first reference Verse Annisa’ (5) : 78 is explained in the Tafsir Ibn Abbas and Tafsir Jalalayn
        as:
        “(Wheresoever ye may be) O sincere believers, on land or on the sea, in settlement or travelling, (death will overtake you, even though ye were in lofty towers) in fortified towers. Allah then mentioned the saying of the Jews and hypocrites: “since Muhammad and his Companions came to us, our harvests and fields have kept ever decreasing”, saying: (Yet if a happy thing) land fertility, lower prices and continuous rain throughout the year (befalleth them) the Jews and hypocrites (they say: This is from Allah) for He knew that we were good; (and if an evil thing) drought, dearth, hardship and high prices (befalleth them they say: This is of your doing) this is because of the ill-omen of Muhammad and his Companions. (Say (unto them)) unto the Jews and hypocrites, O Muhammad: (All) hardship and blessing (is from Allah. What is amiss with these people) the Jews and hypocrites (that they come not nigh to understand a happening?) that both hardship and bounty are from Allah.
        ________________________
        http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=73&tSoraNo=4&tAyahNo=78&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=2
        This clearly means that the referenced verse is actually talking about the ‘hardship and blessing’ COMING from Allah not the ‘good and evil’ done by people.

        1. I didn’t “make” you do anything. Again, I’m not arguing this as a Muslim. I’m an atheist, so when I speak of Allah, I’m speaking of people’s belief in Allah. To me, there’s no difference between people’s actions motivated by their belief in Allah and what you might call Allah’s will since I don’t think Allah is real. You seriously don’t seem to understand my perspective or what I’m saying.

          1. >>I didn’t “make” you do anything.
            Well, that was figure of speech.
            >>’m not arguing this as a Muslim. I’m an atheist,
            I didn’t say otherwise.
            >>so when I speak of Allah, I’m speaking of people’s belief in Allah.
            So do I.
            >>To me, there’s no difference between people’s actions motivated by their belief in Allah and what you might call Allah’s will..
            It doesn’t have anything to do with your opinion but the actual reference don’t correlate to the point you were making. Islamic scriptures which you quoted were talking about how Allah ( as Muslims believe) acts on the world giving good or bad to mankind. Nothing about what actually human beings(esp. Muslims) act good or bad. Simple!
            >>… you might call Allah’s will since I don’t think Allah is real.
            Yes, you are right. Allah is not real. But the blog’s title says “Let Muslims speak for themselves” which means that we are not supposed to misrepresent Muslim views or Islam in general.
            >>You seriously don’t seem to understand my perspective or what I’m saying.
            This reference part starts with – “If the voices of Muslims claiming that their actions are inspired by Islam are not enough, let us quote the Quran and Hadith — the sources of Islam as a religion — themselves on the matter.”
            Now, after this sentence you are supposed to give sources on how Muslims are to follow actions in their life according to their beliefs. Instead the text talks about how Muslims should believe if something good or bad happening to them from Allah.

  9. 11

    I’ve known many people who when asked why homosexuality is immoral will answer nothing beyond “because that’s what the Bible says” as their justification. They can’t tell you how it harms the gay person, or anyone else. They can’t cite any moral framework by which they distinguish moral from immoral. They may even be deeply torn because their nephew or daughter is gay and they only wish them happiness, but yet they vote against equality measures and don’t want to formally approve of their loved one’s homosexuality solely because that would conflict with the Bible. I’m sure analogous situations exist with Muslims/Jews etc. If people tell us that they only think X is good/bad because their religious text says so, how on Earth can we conclude that the religious text is not driving their stance? By that logic, many Jews are morally opposed to eating shellfish and it has nothing to do with the Old Testament.

    Also what about people who are raised by religious parents who adopt the morality they were taught by them? In many cases the children may end up having completely different (or no) religious beliefs yet still carry the virtues/taboos of their parents faith along with them. Heck, I know steadfast atheists who still feel weird about blasphemy because they were raised in an environment where that was a no-no. So Aslan would have us believe that religion had no role in that?

    Sorry to be OT. I don’t know enough about Islam to chime in on the specifics, but the very logic of Azlan (and Harris) seems equally wrong even if you crossover into other major religions. So wrong that I’m kinda shocked anyone takes either of them (or at least those arguments) seriously.

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