I watched a programme on UK Channel 4 last night about the historical origins of Islam. It was both interesting and annoying. Interesting because it dealt with a time when one of the world’s great empires was born and a new religion founded, annoying because when the writer / presenter attempted to discuss the issues with a prominent professor of Islamic studies he was met with the answer that there was a greater truth beyond his research.
Roughly speaking, there is nothing but circumstantial evidence to suggest that there is a direct link between the great expansion of the Arabs in the seventh century and the belief in any distinct monotheistic religion. The earliest link is on an inscription on a coin minted half a century after the death of the prophet. Moreover, the Koran appears to have been written in an area which is now in southern Syria, not a thousand kilometres to the south in Mecca. There is no direct mention of Mecca in the Koran, only of a place in the desert.
An implied conclusion was that having founded an empire the new rulers needed a unifying element to draw together the people they ruled. The emperor Constantine had done much the same in selecting Christianity as the official religion of his Roman Empire. This seems most convincing to me, as I have made a study of the later Roman Empire. The adoption of Christianity and the subsequent standardisation of belief came about at the first Council of Nicea. It is unclear whether or not the Emperor was at any time a convinced Christian.
Another, less well-researched documentary has suggested that the monotheistic religion of the Israelites was only fully adopted at a date much later than has traditionally been assigned to the event. There is considerable evidence for this within the text of the books which form the Old Testament in Christian terms.
What is true is most evident is that anyone attempting to suggest a re-evaluation of the origins of these religions will never get anywhere when asking for a reasoned debate with the senior figures of the religions. When an evidential approach to history collides with faith and beliefs there is insufficient common terms of reference for a intelligible debate. There has been a suggestion that there is some manoeuvre in Christianity and Judaism because both have been through an age of reason. There is only a limited truth to this. When push comes to shove the religious will revert to stonewalling about the truth of their sacred books.
It is only necessary to listen to creationist arguments about evolution to know that there can be no true debate. Evolution is as well established a theory as that of gravity. Then why do those who promote ‘Intelligent Design’, not support a theory of ‘Intelligent Falling’? The answer is that a literal belief in a ‘Holy Book’ stops any debate, any use of reason. If God gave us reason, shouldn’t we make use of it? (See the Parable of the Talents).
What a religion evolves into may have very little to do with the core beliefs it embodied at the time of its foundation. You need to know where you have come from before you can decide where you are going. If you find such a debate is suppressed in your chosen religion, you need to ask why that might be. Galileo was imprisoned for offering proof that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the reverse. He was made to recant, but still muttered, ‘And yet it moves’. Let us hope that this debate will move on in time.