Monday, March 30, 2015

The Qur'an and Philosophy (Part I)

Insha'allah, I will be delaying the next installment of my series on the Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History for another week or two.  Today I am in the mood for a rant.

One sometimes hears sweeping claims like "philosophy is ḥarām," that philosophy is somehow incompatible with revelation, or the stereotype that philosophers wallow in discussions of abstract problems that are of no relevance to the real world.  So what is the fact of the matter?  Is philosophy incompatible with revelation, or with Islam?

The Qur'an does not require people to accept it's worldview without any kind of epistemic or rational justification.  To do so would be to make an unreasonable demand on people.  Quite the opposite in fact, the Qur'an constantly tries to persuade its audience using philosophical arguments.  At the very heart of the worldview that the Qur'an argues for are philosophical issues:

  • What does the concept of God entail?
  • What are the reasons for believing that God exists?
  • Does the universe exhibit evidence of design?
  • Does the universe exhibit evidence of purpose?  If so, what is that purpose?
  • What is the human being?  Is he simply a material entity, or something more?
  • Is it possible for the human being to somehow continue to exist after death?  In what sense?
  • Why does evil exist?  Can it be reconciled with God's existence?
  • Is nature governed by precise laws, and if so, what is the source of these laws?
  • Is there an afterlife?  What are the reasons for believing so?
  • What is the nature of knowledge, evidence, faith, and justified belief?
  • How do we arrive at knowledge of religious truths?

On many of these questions—particularly what the concept of God entails, what the warrant for believing in God is, how creation functions as a reservoir of "signs" of God, and the reasons for believing in a purpose, an afterlife, and and postmortem accountability—the Qur'an gives not only philosophically rich answers, but also philosophical arguments.  It is absolutely impossible to take the Qur'an seriously without doing philosophy.  It constantly urges its audience to "reflect" and "contemplate" its arguments and the signs of God in the creation.

The problem then, from the Qur'an's point of view, is not with philosophy as an endeavor.  The problem is when believers fail to explore the Qur'an's epistemology and philosophical arguments, fail to internalize them, fail to develop and defend them in contemporary intellectual discourse or in the context of advances of human knowledge about the universe, and fail to respond to bad philosophical reasoning with good philosophical reasoning.  As C.S. Lewis once said, "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered."

It must be noted that the Qur'an does not present its arguments in the form of rigorous syllogisms.  The Qur'an is extremely philosophically rich and its worldview extremely persuasive and coherent, but it usually presents its answers in implicit ways, expecting its audience to discover them through careful study and contemplation.  When the Qur'an does present an argument explicitly, it tends to be very brief.  This is because the Qur'an was primarily an oral composition that interacted with living audiences in a specific historical context, and at the same time it had to address audiences of various different backgrounds and levels of understanding on a universal level while being concise enough to handle. 

For example, the Qur'an exhorts us to study and contemplate the creation of the universe and of life, asking us to consider whether or not it could have been the product of other than an intelligent agent.  It does not give us developed arguments regarding cosmology, the fine-tuning of the universe, the origin of life and biological information, consciousness, and so on.  Rather it pushes us to study these matters and carefully reflect on them, promising that they contain signs of God.  Similarly, it indicates that knowledge of God comes not only through observation and logical arguments, but an intuition that is already programmed in the human being.  It guides us to these evidences, but it leaves them up to us to study and reflect on.  Its arguments are highly condensed or (perhaps more accurately) allusive, and they require us to unfold and develop them as we observe and contemplate.

Today there is a field that is entirely devoted to this quest: analytic philosophy of religion.  In the past, Islamic tradition has had some great analytic thinkers who rigorously developed various aspects of the Qur'an's philosophy, such as Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Taymiyya, and in more modern times Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, all of them with a concern for contemporary philosophical problems that had far-reaching implications for the people of their times (and certainly later times as well).

Today, however, it is almost exclusively Christian philosophers who are doing top-notch work in analytic philosophy of religion.  For example, in the last several decades Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Paul Moser, and C. Stephen Evans have produced extremely sophisticated works on how God is known intuitively through His "natural signs" and by other experiential means—an extremely Qur'anic concept.  Christian philosophers have also done the same on the arguments for the existence of God based on the evidence of creation and human intuitions, and on questions such as the problem of evil and the nature of miracles.  In developing these arguments they have taken into account the best criticisms by other analytic philosophers as well as (when relevant) scientists.  Analytic philosophy of religion is a booming field, to which Muslims have in modern times contributed very little.  The Qur'an's constant urge to reflect on God's signs has been almost completely neglected by Muslims and has been taken up almost entirely by Christian philosophers and scientists.

The result is that within the Muslim community, there are almost no up-to-date sources for addressing intellectual doubts about fundamentals of the Islamic worldview, and most Muslims are completely unaware of the advances that have been going on in the field of philosophy of religion over the last four decades.  As a consequence, many people are afflicted with serious doubts about the existence of God (etc.) and have no idea how to deal with them.  Some of them become atheists or agnostics, completely unaware that cogent answers to to their questions are available.

As a solution to this problem, I plan to write a book with my friend Hassan explaining the Qur'an's epistemology and arguments for the existence of God (benefiting from the insights of earlier Muslim thinkers like Ghazali and especially Ibn Rushd and Ibn Taymiyya), and how insights in science and contemporary analytic philosophy have reinvigorated these arguments with incredible power.  At the same time, we will aim to answer the best and the most common (which usually tend to be among the worst) objections to the arguments, to show that they still come out very strong.  The book will be a primer for doubting Muslims, Muslims interested in better understanding these questions, atheists and agnostics, and even Christians and people of other faiths who are interested.  Insha'allah.

There are a few more points I wanted to make here, but my post is already long enough.  I will reserve them for another post insha'allah, maybe for next week.  In particular: What exactly is philosophy?  Is it important for everyday life?  Does this mean that just anyone should become involved in philosophy?  Who is a philosophical appreciation of the Qur'an for?  And what are some important guidelines?

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History (Part 4): Moses and Muhammad

In Judaism, the Exodus story forms the basis of the Israelites’ obligation to adhere to the Torah:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exod. 20:2-3)

In the Qur’an, the Exodus story functions as a model for the emerging Muslim community.  Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is cast in the role of Moses.  The persecution of the Israelites in Egypt is related to the persecution of the early Muslim community in Mecca.  The Exodus is the model of the Hijra.  The establishment of a new community under the Law given to Moses is the model for the establishment of a new community under the Shari’a given to Muhammad.

Muslims have traditionally seen Deuteronomy 18:15-19 as a prophecy of Muhammad:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me[1] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet…Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from the midst of your brethren;[2] I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.

While the notion that this text specifically refers to Muhammad is debatable, it should at least be granted that if likeness to Moses is a biblical sign of authentic prophecy, then no one fits this profile like the Prophet Muhammad.[3]

Like Moses, Muhammad was the original and preeminent religious and political leader of his community.  Like Moses, he was a prophet, the founder of a monotheistic religion in the Abrahamic tradition, a lawgiver, a statesman, an arbiter, a diplomat, and a military leader.  Like Moses, a defining event in his prophetic ministry was a forced immigration experienced by he and his community.  Like Moses, he received an authoritative scripture purporting to be from God, which he spoke “in God’s name” (cf. Deut. 18:18), and which was dictated and written down during his prophetic career.  And like Moses, he also had a natural birth and death, and married and had children.  In most of these respects, Moses and Muhammad differ, for example, from Jesus or other Israelite prophets.

In fact, the similar careers of Moses and Muhammad lack any other analogue in history or legend.  I once read an interview with biblical scholar Carol Meyers entitled “Moses and the Exodus.”  When asked about the historicity of the character of Moses in the Bible, she replied,

The Moses of the Bible is larger than life.  The Moses of the Bible is a diplomat negotiating with the pharaoh; he is a lawgiver bringing the Ten Commandments, the Covenant, down from Sinai.  The Moses of the Bible is a military man leading the Israelites in battles.  He’s the one who organizes Israel’s judiciary.  He’s also the prophet par excellence and a quasi-priestly figure involved in offering sacrifices and setting up the priestly complex, the tabernacle.  There’s virtually nothing in terms of national leadership that Moses doesn’t do.  And, of course, he’s also a person, a family man.  Now, no one individual could possibly have done all that.  So the tales are a kind of aggrandizement... (emphasis added)

Her argument is that no man could have such an impressive résumé, fulfilling such a staggering variety of roles.  But one exception came to my mind when I read this—Muhammad.

This unique similarity between the two figures was recognized by the eminent Jewish biblical scholar, Moshe Greenberg:

No single figure in later Israel plays the many roles ascribed to Moses...The best analogue to Moses in the history of religions, Muhammad, exhibits the very same multiplicity of roles: oracle, political-military leader, cult founder and lawgiver.[4] 

In a sense, then, Muhammad is a confirmation of Moses just as the Qur’an portrays Moses as a confirmation of Muhammad.

[1] The Book of Deuteronomy concludes,
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:10-12)
[2] The New Revised Standard Version says “from among your own people,” but Hebrew literally says “from the midst of your brethren (aḥeḵā).”
[3] The Qur’an implicitly compares Muhammad to Moses in order to legitimize his prophetic authority to audiences familiar with the biblical narrative.  See Bobzin, Hartmut. “The ‘Seal of the Prophets’: Towards an Understanding of Muhammad’s Prophethood.” The Qur’ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qur’ānic Milieu. Ed. Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai, and Michael Marx. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 579-81.
[4] Greenberg, Moshe. “Moses.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1971. Qtd. in Crook, Jay R., The Old Testament: An Islamic Perspective, Volume 2: From Moses to Alexander.  Chicago: ABC International Group, 2005. 507.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Exodus in the Bible, the Qur’an, and History (Part 3): Evidence for the Historical Exodus

In the previous article, I briefly dissected the common arguments against the basic historicity of the Exodus tradition.  In this article I will present some of the evidence in its favor, though I will leave many specific details for the succeeding articles in this series.

1. The Unlikelihood of Invention

One reason many, if not most, scholars hold that the Exodus story has a historical core is that it is otherwise difficult to explain why the Israelites would have invented a story that portrays their national origins as lowly slaves laboring on Egyptian building projects.  As Kitchen frames it, “If there never was an escape from Egyptian servitude by any of Israel’s ancestors, why on earth invent such a tale about such humiliating origins?...That question has been posed enough, and the sheer mass and variety of postevent references gives it sharp point.”[1]

By “postevent references,” Kitchen is referring to the fact that references to the Exodus occur throughout the different biblical sources including even the earliest Hebrew texts: J, E, P, and D (the different sources of the Torah, according to the Documentary Hypothesis long held by biblical scholars), the Psalms, the different prophets, and so on.  This suggests that the slavery in Egypt was widely accepted by the Israelites as their historical national origin, and not merely a myth invented by a few writers or a single party.

2. Semitic Slave Labor

The opening chapter of Exodus describes the slave labor the Israelites were forced into:

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. (Exod. 1:11)

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. (Exod. 1:13-14)

The use of Semitic people for slave labor is a well-known phenomenon of ancient Egypt beginning in the New Kingdom period, i.e. after around 1540 BCE.  This means that the notion that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt forced to labor in construction projects has a credible historical backdrop.

The Book of Exodus even gives specific details about the nature of this slave labor:

Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’ So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw. The taskmasters were urgent, saying, ‘Complete your work, the same daily assignment as when you were given straw.’ And the supervisors of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, and were asked, ‘Why did you not finish the required quantity of bricks yesterday and today, as you did before?’ (Exod. 5:1-14)

Remarkably, all of the details of this description are confirmed by the a relief on a wall of the Tomb Chapel of the vizier Rekhmire (c. 1450).  The painting shows Semites and Nubians building the Temple of Amun at Karnak in Thebes, gathering straw and measuring the building materials to meet a specified daily quota:

3. City Names and Descriptions

The Book of Exodus names specific cities where it locates the Israelites:

“Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.” (Exod. 1:11)

“Pithom” is now identified as Per-Atum in the modern Tell el-Mashkuta.  “Rameses” is identified as Pi-Ramesses, built into a large city by Ramesses II (r. c. 1279-1213 BCE) to be his capital in the East Nile Delta.  (This is one of the evidences, as we will see, for Ramesses II being the pharaoh of the Exodus.)  Pi-Ramesses was indeed a “supply city” as the above quote from Exodus states.  It had workshops and storage magazines for palaces and temples.  As Kitchen[2] and Hoffmeier[3] point out, because the city was abandoned in the 1130s BCE, it could not have been known to the authors of the Book of Exodus if they were writing a made-up story many centuries later.  They could only have received it as an authentic detail preserved in the memory of an actual historical Exodus from Egypt.

Additionally, the biblical text states that the Hebrews required two days to travel from Rameses to Succoth to Etham (Exod. 12:37; 13:20; Num. 33:5-8).  The Papyrus Anastasi V also gives the same time frame with reference to two escaped slaves who took the same route.[4]

4. Israelite People Names

Another reason for believing that the Exodus story has a historical core is that many Israelite names appear to be of Egyptian origin: 

a relatively large number of Egyptian personal names are found within the tribe of Levi (e.g., Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Merari, Putiel, Phinehas, Hophni). There is therefore a basis to surmise that ancestors of some Israelites, and particularly those associated with the priestly tribe, came out of Egypt.[5]

This is, of course, unlikely on the assumption that the Israelites emerged completely indigenously in Canaan.

5. Environmental Descriptions of the Sinai

The descriptions of the Israelites’ sojourn in the Sinai Peninsula found in the books of Exodus and Numbers are strikingly consonant with its actual natural conditions.  This includes the mention of the quails and their flight patterns, the miracle of the water from the rocks, salt-tolerant reed marshes, and even geographical descriptions, such as the description of the route the Israelites took down the southern coast of the peninsula (see point 1 in the previous article).  We will mention these in a later article.

We see from this that the details found in the biblical descriptions of the Exodus and Wandering could not have reasonably been produced by scribes writing in Palestine or Babylon many centuries after the alleged events.  The details are accurate and could only have been passed down from actual experiences in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, particularly towards the end of the New Kingdom period.

[1] Kitchen, 245.
[2] Kitchen, 256; Hoffmeier, 117-119.
[3] Hoffmeier, 118.
[4] Kitchen, 259.
[5] Greenstein, Edward L. “Exodus.” HarperCollins Study Bible: Old Testament.  Ed. Attridge, Harold.  iBooks.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur'an, the Bible, and History (Part 2): Alleged Evidence Against a Historical Exodus

There are several arguments regularly cited, even in reputable textbooks and scholarly works, for regarding the Exodus as largely unhistorical (though not necessarily lacking a historical core).  A popular presentation of these arguments is laid out in Israel Finkelstein’s and Neil Asher Silberman’s popular book, The Bible Unearthed [1].  Because the assertion that the Exodus tradition conflicts with archaeological evidence is so common, it is appropriate to first address these arguments and show why they are misplaced.  I have summarized these responses from Kitchen.

1. No records of the Israelites in Egypt

The most common argument against the historicity of the Exodus is that ancient Egyptian records do not attest to a large group of Israelites in Egypt.  The Egyptians were meticulous record-keepers, yet there are no records of the Israelites in ancient Egyptian papyrus documents, temple walls, or tomb inscriptions.  Similarly, there are no records of the plagues or of the drowning of the Pharaoh’s army.  Additionally, the border between Egypt and Canaan (the biblical term for ancient Palestine) was closely controlled during the New Kingdom period, when the Exodus is usually assumed to have happened.  If a great mass of fleeting Israelites passed through these border fortifications, a record should exist, just as we do have a record of the escape of a small group of Edomite slaves.  The only mention of Israel is the Merneptah Stele (c. 1208), which mentions the Israelites as a group existing in or around Canaan.

Answer: The Bible places the location of the Israelites in the East Nile Delta.[2]  We should not expect to find records of the Israelites there because records in the Delta are lacking in general, since papyrus records do not tend to survive its humid climate.  Monuments and other ancient Egyptian remains are similarly lacking in the East Delta because they were repeatedly recycled as building material, moved, leveled, and or/built over.  Moreover, the Egyptians did not usually memorialize humiliating defeats on their temple walls, only victories.  Finally, the Egyptians generally referred to Semites as “Asiatics” rather than mentioning specific groups.[3]  As we will see, the story of the presence of the Israelites in the East Nile Delta fits in extremely well with what we know about the setting during the New Kingdom period, and there are many positive reasons to acknowledge it. 

2. The Unlikelihood of Escaping Egypt

Argument: The escape of a large group of slaves would have been highly unlikely, because during the New Kingdom period, Egypt was at the peak of its might and its borders were heavily guarded.  There was a sophisticated system of Egyptian forts, granaries, and wells established along entire length of the road to Canaan (known as the Way of Horus), with Egyptian officials in charge of administration.  There were also Egyptian strongholds in various places in Canaan.

Answer: The Book of Exodus specifically states that God led the Israelites on the southern roundabout way through Sinai in order to avoid conflict:
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. (Exod. 13:17-18)
In fact, the archaeological data shows that the southern route was virtually free of Egyptian presence.  Hence this turns out to be evidence for the historical authenticity of the Exodus account.[4]

3. No Archaeological Remains of the Wilderness Wanderings

Argument: The Sinai desert could not have supported a group of more than a few thousand people.  If the Israelites camped around in the Sinai for forty years, they should have left behind archaeological traces.  Despite extensive archaeological surveys of the Sinai Peninsula—especially the traditional locations of Mount Sinai, Kadesh-barnea (where the Israelites allegedly camped for 38 years), and Ezion-Geber—no remains have been uncovered from the 13th century BCE except of some Egyptian forts on the northern coast.  In contrast, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of even simple hunter-gathers and pastoral nomads from the 3rd millennium BCE.

Answer: “The state of the preservation of archaeological remains is very uneven.”  We know from written texts that there was indeed considerable migration by nomadic tribes and Egyptian travelers back and forth through the Sinai Peninsula throughout the second and early first millennium BCE.  Yet the archaeological remains for those are scant. Moreover, “from Sinai the Hebrews expected initially to be in Canaan in a year, not in forty years. They had no need to lug tons of heavy pottery around with them…if leatherwork or skins would do.”[5]

4. Anachronisms in the Exodus Account

Another objection is that the books of Exodus and Numbers contain anachronisms which render their accounts historically dubious, such as the mention of Edom as a kingdom.  It is not essential to address this claim here, since we are concerned with the Qur’anic account, which does not contain these specific details.  However, the interested reader can consult Kitchen[6] and Hess[7] for crisp refutations of these claims.

[1] Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Neil Asher. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
[2] We will see shortly that the mention of the cities of Pithom and Rameses in Exod. 1:11 are crucially significant in determining the setting of the Exodus.
[3] Kitchen (2003), 245-246, 466-467.
[4] Ibid., 266-270.
[5] Ibid., 467.
[6] Ibid., 467, 473-474.
[7] Hess, Richard S. “Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed” (Review).  Denver Journal 4 (2001): Denver Seminary, Mar. 2001. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.