Measuring the Books: Truth Claims in Islam and its Others

All religions make truth claims. These may be specific, as in the form of particular doctrines—heaven, hell, the trinity, the virginity of Mary—or more general: the finality of the Prophet, the exclusive role of the Church as a means of grace and salvation, the belief in the divine election of the Jews.

What is not so widely acknowledged is that these claims of truth are supported by a set of rationales, or to use Van Harvey’s famous term, “warrants” that provide security and confidence to adherents of the religious tradition.

The warrants are seldom available in the sacred writings and doctrines explicitly, but they are often observable in teaching, interpretation and conduct. The three book religions, which often have been referred to as “Abrahamic” actually have quite different warrants for their truth claims.

Warrants in religion are a kind of pseudo-empiricism—a quantification of truth value. Like empirical tests, warrants are susceptive of disconfirmation—being proved false—at least in theory. A warrant is not a doctrine, but a justification for religions to “do as they do”; they empower belief and practice by creating benchmarks for the success, prestige or dominance of a religious tradition—often through comparison to rival traditions.

For example, in some forms of millennarian religion predictions of the end-time have been recorded with remarkable precision. The habit goes back at least to the time of Rabbi Joseph the Galilean, a contemporary of Hyrcanus and Azariah, who thought the Messiah would come in three generations (60 years), after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The messiah failed to arrive, however, and the nominee for the position, Shimeon bar Kochba, died a humiliating death at Roman hands in 135. End-time prophecies continued with the Christian Hippolytus’ calculation that 5,500 years separated Adam and Christ and that the life of the world was “6,000, six full ‘days’ of years until the seventh, the day of rest.” His calculations in 234 indicated there were still two centuries left. Two millennia of apocalyptic forecasting lay in store. The “prophet” Moses David of The Children of God faith group predicted that the Battle of Armageddon would take place in 1986 when Russia would defeat Israel and the United States. A worldwide Communist dictatorship would be established, and in 1993, Christ would return to earth.

Apocalypticism is conspicuously subject to disconfirmation and its calculations have – quite obviously – never been accurate, as Simon Pearson has documented in his popular survey, A Brief History of the End of the World (2006). Just as surprising though is the amazing ability of apocalyptic movements to regenerate themselves: this or that cult or movement may die away through embarrassment and loss of faith and members, but the phenomenon itself is tied to a (more or less) naturalistic belief in the beginning and end of things, and theological constructions of that belief to include ideas of judgment, reward and punishment.

All three of the book religions, at bottom, believe in the last three of these ideas – the end of the world and the judgment of humankind. The mechanism and details differ slightly, with Christianity and Islam being historically more tied to eschatology (the belief in the final destiny and dispensation of the human race by God). In fact, it would be more accurate to call the three “Abrahamic” faiths the eschatological traditions because of their common belief that the relationship between God and the human race is personal and moral rather than abstract. The belief in judgment is most vivid in Islam, less so in Christianity, and highly controversial in Judaism—where, nevertheless, since Hellenistic times, it has featured significantly.

If eschatology is a core belief in the three book religions, it is fair to ask: what mechanisms (warrants) have been used to procure the success of these traditions in the face of disconfirmation?

Just as any case of eschatological “disconfirmation” (a failed apocalyptic event) weakens the overall strength of a warrant, so too the collapse of a warrant will lead to general doubts about the truth claims of the religion. This religious domino effect is most clear when the eschatology is strong.

For example, messianic Judaism of the period after the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE) is relatively well attested. Most Jewish apocalyptic literature is not written until after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE (most even later) and the disintegration of the Hellenistic world he created. Between the time of the Persian hegemony over Palestine, right through to the period of Roman domination, the apocalyptic spirit—an acute sense that the times are out of joint, that God is at the end of his wits waiting for things to right themselves, and that divine intervention is imminent—is at a high pitch. But while the spirit may have been feverish, solutions did not arrive on schedule, and when they did they were not the solutions the Jews had been expecting.

Apocalypticism ends with a massive crash: the Roman assault of 66-70 CE – the burning and looting of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, a century of uneasy détente followed by a second blow with an edict that Jerusalem was henceforth off-limits to Jews and that a pagan shrine would be built on the temple site. This is not coincidentally the period when messianism, originally a political movement, later a more spiritual one, was most in evidence. But the hope for a messiah was repeatedly disconfirmed by circumstance, loss, and disappointment. The “truth” of Judaism and beliefs subordinate to its eschatology had to be sacrificed at an empirical level for more secular goals and a this-worldly focus on ethics. In strictly historical terms, the truth claims of Judaism were untruthed. All else is adaptation and interpretation.

The Jewish situation cannot be understood properly without looking at its foster child, Christianity. Whatever else may be claimed about this religion, it is undeniably Jewish, eschatological, and messianic in its origins. It belongs specifically to the time when Judaism was the most fraught with expectation, and some of its apocalyptic books, and passages from the gospels (such as Mark 13), are literally taken wholesale from Jewish writings such as IV Esdras and I Enoch.

Christianity survived for just under a century under what scholars used to call the cloud of
“imminent eschatology,” and what one scholar has called “prolonged disappointment”. By looking backward and forward, it appropriated and reinterpreted passages from the Hebrew prophets to apply to their messianic hero. This point of conjunction is often overlooked in exchange for the belief that Christianity somehow forged quickly ahead of Judaism and looked back only occasionally and when necessary. In fact, as the second century Marcionite crisis showed, Christianity could not go it alone. It needed the “witness” of scripture – the Hebrew Bible – and the promises of the prophets to make sense of its emerging belief system. It required Jewish atonement theology to explain the significance of the crucifixion. It did not claim a new finality, but completion of a process. It did not (except very rarely) challenge the wording of the Hebrew Bible or rewrite the prophecies or produce targums of Jesus setting it all straight. It became skilled at allegorical interpretation, in its own theological service, but also made reference to the rabbis. Christianity was not the shock of the new but the old repackaged for sale to gentiles.

Above all, beginning with Paul, it was messianic. And its first crisis, as we gather from passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5.2 and 2 Peter 3.4-6, concerned the delay in the return of the messiah. When that event—the second coming that would vindicate the unexpected failure of the first—did not happen, Christians were confronted with a crisis that could only be rationalized organically.

Two things distinguish the Christian reaction to eschatological failure from the Jewish response, however. First, Christianity was much more concerned with the belief in resurrection than with belief in messiahsship. Its happenstansical withdrawal from the Jewish world at the end of the first century immunized it to a certain extent from the effects of disconfirmation—or at least, bought it some time. Truth was focused on the larger event which (though tied to eschatology) was not seen to be identical to it in the gentile world, where Christianity gained the most ground. And in the gentile world at least, even the emphasis of the “judgment aspects” of resurrection were deemphasized in favour of its promise of immortality—a theme long revered by the Greeks and Romans. Later on, in the onslaught of death, plague and war, the emphasis on judgment and the cruder aspects of the afterlife would reemerge in the middle ages. But during the period when Christianity was most at risk of being another disconfirmed Jewish messianic movement, it survived by changing the subject. Indeed, it may have been Paul who changed it –as early as the 50’s of the 1st century.

As the resurrection faith, a religion of expectation, Christianity survived through a proclamation of a risen lord “who will come again.” Its truth claims were protected through procrastination—not that any individual Christian or church or hierarchy was aware of the strategy. No “groupthink” was involved and no council could have been called to resolve the issue. The response seems to have been organic and somewhat reflexive—but crucially it meant that Christianity could not be untruthed until such time as Jesus did or did not come, and no one knew precisely when that time was: the psychology of prolonged expectation prevailed over the psychology of prolonged disappointment. In a word, “faith.”

Islam is related to its cousin traditions in a contorted way. Like Christianity, it claimed to be a common heir of the Abrahamic traditions. Unlike Judaism, it taught that much of that tradition had been corrupted by false prophets and evildoers. Like Christianity, it claimed a continuum with the prophets of old; unlike Christianity it made little use of any specific passages of the Hebrew bible, did not incorporate it into its own sacred library, and did not regard the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood to be based on any adumbration in the books of the Jews or Christians.

This was important, because the legitimacy of Christianity was theoretically dependent on the sheer fact of the Old Testament (rightly interpreted) and its soteriological system being applied to the death of Jesus—the atoning sacrifice for sins. Islam like Christianity understood itself as somehow connected to the past, but disconnected from most of its theology and in large part from its literary tradition. In particular it was disconnected from Jewish and Christian soteriology: the God of the Prophet does not suffer the sin of the people but rather judges them according to his fiat, the Qur’an. The connecting fiber that joined Christianity to Judaism was decisively cut by Islamic rejection of the ancient idea of atonement.

The extent to which the earliest teachers of Islam felt able to appropriate the Judeo-Christian sources ex post facto is a subject of some discussion, but whatever the reasons for the disuse of the prior claimants to the Abrahamic faith, Islam alone found error not merely in interpretation but in the sources themselves. The idea of error was both tied to and a consequence of the doctrine of finality: Muhammad is the prophet of God in a conclusive and indubitable sense. What is contained in the book revealed to him is true beyond question.

The messianism of the two older traditions depended in different ways on verification. Even the New Testament, whose messianic claims are undone by historical outcomes, asks believers to look to the skies, but the portents and signs can only be understood by looking backward (Mark 13.14-16).

Judaism and Christianity saw the events of the end-time as suprahistorical happenings whose occurrence could only be understood prophetically. By sacrificing the “backward look” to the idea of finality Islam created a new understanding of prophecy, whereby “non-prophets” could be adopted simply because they were believed to have lived in an age of witnesses—as “Muslims before their time.” This theme was not unknown in Christianity; it is voiced by church fathers like Justin and Clement the church fathers in relation to Old Testament heroes and a few classical worthies who “taught truth” before its time had fully arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

The last day or yawm al-din underscores the idea of finality which also shapes the view of prophecy and scripture: God’s judgment demands the observance of Islam to such an extent that in Islam, eschatology replaces theology. This also accounts for the largely allusory style of the Qur’an in relation to the other book traditions; individual stories do not matter as much as establishing the historical pattern of “warning” and the Prophet’s pedigree: Adam, Abraham, Jonah, Noah, Moses, form a kind of chorus of worthies, an honor guard, whose role it is to provide a line of succession to the prophet of God. They are not so much “adopted” or interpreted as in Christianity, as they are expropriated.

So too the Islamic use of the messianic idea. It is not clear that the first Muslims grasped the idea of the messiah or “mahdi” except in relation to the belief in judgment. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century historian famous for his pioneering work in philosophy of history, writes in his Muqaddima:

It has been (accepted) by all the Muslims in every epoch, that at the end of time a man from the family (of the Prophet) will, without fail, make his appearance, one who will strengthen Islam and make justice triumph. Muslims will follow him, and he will gain domination over the Muslim realm. He will be called the Mahdi.

The Mahdi’s bona fides are well-established from early on: He will be an Arab, from the tribe of Banû Hãshim and through his line by Fatima (ie a member of the Prophet’s family). Critically, he will not be a Jew or a Christian—Islam’s declaration that the final judgment of God will be according to the rules of Islam. The Mahdi will be “assisted” by Jesus, who is relegated to role of helper on the day of judgment; he “will fulfill a role behind the Mahdi.” The true Christians “will follow Jesus in accepting Imam al-Mahdi as the leader at the time and become Muslims.” In short, the messianic expectation is that all those who will be saved will follow Jesus in subordinating himself to the true messiah.

The measurement of any truth claim in Islam, therefore, is subject to the prior assumption—or “strong belief” in the finality of the Islamic position towards its predecessors. This claim, despite certain superficial or family resemblances, is a belief in unqualified rejection. The claims of Christianity and Judaism are selectively falsified in the doctrine of the corruptibility of sources, the partiality of God’s revelation to previous warners, the rejection of the idea of atonement, and the replacement of it with a strong and exclusivist eschatological scenario in which followers of Jesus will be judged on the basis of their acceptance of Islam.

More directly relevant to measuring truth claims however is their effect. Never a large religion and today consisting of only about 14,000,000 adherents worldwide, Judaism has historically been an exclusivist religion. Its salvation theology emerges from its historical situation – one surprisingly similar to its current political situation – as a fairly cohesive religio-cultural community surrounded by adversaries. The viability of faith depends first of all on the existence of the faith community, and throughout its later history this has been Judaism’s primary concern. In such constricted circumstances its theology was necessarily more about salvation, messiahship, and rescue than conversion and growth. Its truth claims were tied to that survival more directly than to other possible warrants, such as military achievement or imperial expansion.

Christianity traded exclusivism for expansion after the second century of its existence. It did so by lowering the religious bar on radical monotheism, relaxing some of the more stringent safeguards of Judaism in terms of diet and religious observance and the use of images and rituals, and substituting for this a church-based system of authority and a sacramental system that created a sharp class distinction between laity and hierarchy. “Faith” (de fide) in this sense was not an act of the will but a body of doctrine passed down as a sacred deposit of truth interpreted and taught by the Church: the laity had no active role other than to accept the church’s teaching and conduct their lives accordingly.

To the extent this system was successful, as it was until the sixteenth century and in modified form even until the twentieth, Roman Christianity and its protestant spawn successfully substituted the idea of reliance on belief for the more ancient belief in the coming of Christ (even though the latter has been given honorary status among the discarded beliefs of the ancient period). The warrant of the truth claims of modern Christianity, for all the available versions and possibility of continued fissiparation, is simply the quantum of what the church or churches teach and what Christians find agreeable to faith. Protestantism shifted the focus from the nominative sense of faith as a body of orthodox teaching to the verbal understanding – faith as assent in conscience to biblical revelation. But in either case, the lex fidei, the law of faith, was the exclusive warrant for Christians of the Middle Age and Renaissance periods.

Islam offered no such options. The doctrine of finality had not budged much since the early middle ages among serious adherents of the faith. When Islam is seen as regressive or repressive in terms of social doctrine or custom, it is usually because its core structure has remained remarkably intact, like a well built house that defies the weather.

The doctrine of the Mahdi, for instance, has never had to be rationalized, defended or abandoned, because it did not suffer the historical disconfirmation that both Judaism and Christianity experienced. Islam’s eschatology is alive and robust, and looks to the future. It is fundamentally different from an eschatology undone by history (Judaism), or dislodged by qualifying doctrines (Christianity). While the authority of approved teachers, imams and ayatollahs is a significant feature of the religion, there is no central authority and no mechanism for consensus of all individual authorities. In fact, the debate in much of contemporary Islam is not whether the fundamentals of faith are sound but whose Islam is the most Islamic—the “truest” example of the faith.

Superficially this would seem to suggest chaos, but instead it points to the fact that there is enormous room for disagreement among Muslims, within limits. The limits concern subordinate or derivative doctrines: when is violence justified; should women wear hijab; to what extent is it permissible to sort out true and false traditions relating to the early community or the hadith; and the applicability of sharia to the regulation of the conduct of believers.


In addition to the apparent impermeability of its core doctrine to disconfirmation, Islam has developed a sixth pillar which it seems to me is beginning to serve as a warrant for its truth claims. Unlike Judaism and increasingly unlike the phenomenon of a deflating world Christianity, Islam is growing. Its success is in numbers – conversions, expansion, the building of mosques and madrasas. From Malawi to Toronto and London, the signs of Islam’s health and success at a demographic level are visible, impressive, and unmistakable.

In 2008 the estimated world Muslim population was close to 2 billion, increasing at a rate of about 2.3% per year. Estimated increase and actual numbers vary widely among researchers, but the U.S. Center for World Mission estimated in 1997 that Christianity’s total number of adherents is growing at about 2.3% annually. (This is approximately equal to the growth rate of the world’s population.) Islam is growing faster, at about 2.9%, and Islam will surpass Christianity as the world’s most populous religion by 2023.

Samuel Huntington famously saw these numbers as portending a clash of civilizations. Whatever the merits of his argument, the more significant issue is how numbers are interpreted by the adherents of a belief system and just as vital, how adherents “behave” toward numbers. If numbers serve as a warrant of truth, adherents will have an enormous interest in sustaining and expanding the numbers, through whatever means possible. As a matter of history, unlike the messianism of the Jews and the parousia-theology of early Christians, Islam – uniquely – has not been eschatologically disconfirmed. In fact, its warrant provides a kind of empirical test that Judaism and Christianity have already failed. Given the warrant that Islam uses for the truth value of its beliefs, it passes the test.

Early Judaism dreamed of a day when Abraham’s descendants would be a numberless as the stars in the heavens. If that remained an ideal, the day never came. As a warrant of truth claims, Judaism would have very little to gain from playing a numbers game. The more modest and warranted Jewish position is that Judaism is true as long as it survives.

But the same is true of Christianity, largely because it is no longer one thing but many things—not Christianity but Christianities, as the Oxford scholar Peggy Morgan likes to point out. In significant ways, Christianity has been unharmonious and inhomogeneous since the Middle Ages. It has had to measure its truth with different spoons, using different systems for the better part of five centuries, and still is large enough that certain segments of the Christian religion hardly know that other sectors exist or what doctrines they profess. Evangelical Christians may dream of bringing a singular gospel to the far flung regions of the world, but a healthy majority of other Christians oppose the entire missionary philosophy as form of religious colonialism. In addition to this, an unknown but sizable percentage of the world’s Christians are largely secular, agnostic, or “lapsed” members of the tradition; they identify with it in name only. Rarely in the twenty-first century will someone be denied the status of “believer” in any denomination through violence or persecution simply because his beliefs are askew. And even in those traditions with ancient legal traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, rules are unenforceable at a penal level.

Thus the Christian warrant for its truth claims, “faith” (whose faith?), is a wobbly instrument of measurement in the modern situation, and a number of factors weigh against the ability of Christians to use geographical reach and population as indicators of truth. Christianity possesses no single vision, doctrine, or praxis. With the death of “Christendom” in the sixteenth century, Christians also sacrificed geography and population as a warrant for the claims advanced by the faith. The export by missionaries during the colonial period of a variegated Christianity preached in different ways to different colonial populations only accelerated the process of international fissiparation – which we still see in the massive success of “conversions” in Central and South America from Roman Catholic to Evangelical protestantism, and the supermarket Christianity of the developed world. With the acceptance of modernity, Christianity was obliged to accept the relativity of its belief systems to other ways to the truth, including in principle the idea that its faith was unwarranted. Christianity’s survival seems latched to the acceptance of the final triumph of secularism and its correlate: believing less and less.

For Islam however, from an early date, the increase of the faith is a living proof of its finality. Numbers are paid attention to. Territory once submitted to God must always be submitted to God—one of the reasons the question of Jerusalem remains one of the irreconcilables of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Dominant stories, dates, and myths are significant: The triumph over the Meccans, the submission of Constantinople, the conversion of the Mongols, the winning back of Jerusalem by Saladin, the capture of al-Andalus. “Jihad” has been the key word to describe this warrant, but rather than thinking of it as war or violence, it must be seen as the execution of a principle, without which Islam might go the way of the other book traditions.

Sheer increase has become the defining warrant for the truth of Islam. Consequently those who pursue the interests of the dar-al-Islam (the territory submitted to God) most vigorously – the Taliban, for example, or others that western observers are likely to label “religious extremists” – are acting on a proven principle. If we end where we began : “A warrant is not a doctrine, but a justification for religions to ‘do as they do’; they empower belief and practice by creating benchmarks for the success, prestige or dominance of a religious tradition—often through comparison to rival traditions.” By that definition, Islam’s success seems assured whether by comparison to its rivals in the Abrahamic tradition or by dint of the prestige it enjoys as the world’s fastest growing religion.

May 11, 2009

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