Arguments in context

Much to my peril, I have probably spent more time than most, both before my shahada and since, reading polemics against Islam in my pursuit of the truth.

Some of the arguments against what is said to be Islam have merit, some do not: it is a mixed field, made up of all kinds of players from the very political to the devoutly religious. Some arguments when taken out of their historical context can seem persuasive, but others simply prey on ignorance.

Unfortunately Muslim refutations of polemical arguments are far too often very weak: they skirt around the issues raised, fail to address the core points and betray an abject ignorance of history.

Nevertheless, before getting too involved in the argument it is sometimes necessary to ask questions about those promulgating it. For example there are some critics of Islam which present themselves as being pacifist or opposed to political violence, who on further investigation are found to advocate war against Muslim countries. Similarly, there are missionary organisations which hold Islam to a much higher burden of proof than they apply to themselves.

One particularly famous belligerent website maintained by a group of evangelical Protestant Christians sees its contributors giving themselves the privilege of leapfrogging Christian history and presenting themselves as true first-century believers who follow the Bible alone. This, they believe, allows them to ignore two thousand years of Christian scholarship, whilst simultaneously trawling through classical Muslim works to reveal the unpalatable views of ancient scholars.

The doctrinal excesses and crimes of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or early Protestant churches are nothing to do with them, they claim, making what Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas or George Whitefield had to say on the same subjects irrelevant. But of course their views are not irrelevant at all, for they provide context to the ideas discussed.

We have to always look at claims in their proper historical context — and this applies both to Muslim and non-Muslim polemicists. When we put things in the proper order, they begin to make a lot more sense. Perhaps then we might begin to make progress in our mission to determine the best way to live our lives.

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