By Ryan Hunter, Former Chair, Defense and Diplomacy Policy Centre at Roosevelt Institute
Dr. Khalil Andani, a scholar of Islamic studies trained at Harvard, had asked me to explain why I became a Muslim and what convinced me that Muhammad (s) was a true Prophet. I have written on this topic elsewhere at much greater length and depth but will share my response to him here for those interested:
(RAHNUMA) I had studied world religions extensively in my teenage years, including Islam. Before I had a word for what I was actually studying, I deeply immersed myself in comparative theology and metaphysics. In my early 20s I became an Orthodox Christian in Washington DC—having been raised Catholic, I fell in love with the beauty and traditions of Orthodox worship, its high ontology, soteriology, and cosmology manifested in its sublime liturgies, and metaphysics on a comparative level, etc. Yet in this time, I was never quite convinced of the chief Christian polemical attacks on Islam. To begin to look at Muhammad uncritically, to ascertain who he really was, who he viewed himself as, and the message he brought, I first had to unlearn many subconscious cultural and conscious theological biases I had against accepting him as a prophet and the religious message he brought as true. This was a years-long process of research, study, prayer, and reflection.
All the earliest (late seventh/early eighth century) Christian apologetics that I read against Islam centered around attempts to attack the historical character and person of the Prophet Muhammad. While not convinced of his being a true prophet until I was 27, I recall being completely unconvinced by the standard Christian polemics, which were either temporally sensitive, morally subjective anachronistic projections of modern liberal views back onto seventh century Arabia (arguments that should have equally applied to Christianity), completely unverifiable ahistorical claims (at best), or easily disprovable slanders (at worse) on his character. This pattern deeply disturbed me, as I saw a massive vulnerability in both ancient and modern Christian polemics and a colossal inability to respond to Islamic theology on a truly comprehensive intellectual level. Then, in the age of Trump, one had the popular Western alt-right views of Islam as inherently violent, legally primitive, and theologically retrograde. I investigated and found the alt-right claims not only entirely lacking in any intellectual substance or depth, but resting on a surface-level, superficial, a historic projection of ISIS and other Wahhabi groups as somehow representing “true Islam”. This narrative served as an attempt to justify the complete ignoring of 1,400 years of mainstream traditional Islam and thereby deny the vast richness and sophistication of Islamic civilization, philosophy, and metaphysics. There were also obvious racist undertones in many alt-right circles which disturbed me, since these essentially took Samuel Huntington’s view of an emerging clash of civilizations with the more “advanced” “northern Orthodox and Western civilizations” in perpetual opposition to the attacking “southern/eastern” Islamic one. This utterly unnuanced view is at the foundation of all anti-Muslim ignorance among Western peoples. If you convince yourself that an entire group or religion is an existential threat, it’s much easier to justify learning nothing whatsoever about them after you’ve formed your initial opinion, which then only solidifies more deeply over time due to confirmation bias and insularity.
While I did not develop a love for the Prophet or a belief in him as a prophet in the religious sense until around the time I became a Muslim in summer 2018, I increasingly viewed Muhammad as a kind of enlightening, righteous “prophetic” figure and leader for the Arabs, a visionary whose new monotheistic religion had improved and reformed his brutal society, getting much wrong but also much correct theologically. For some time, I uncritically accepted the standard “gently negative” Christian view that Muhammad was an ingenious, benevolent social reformer who had created his own religion by taking bits of Christianity and Judaism into his own unique fusion, and that Islam, while offering some beauty to the world, essentially had a parasitic relationship to the classical Persian and Greco-Roman civilizations it conquered and absorbed. The more I began to read Muslim and even secular and some Christian histories of Islamic civilization, the more this view fell away and I came to fall in love with the balance, beauty, and harmony which pervades the entire ethos of the traditional Islamic worldview, whose chief embodiment and foundation, of course, remain the life and legacy of Muhammad.
During my mid-20s, I viewed Muhammad positively within his own cultural and historical sphere of seventh-century Arabia, seeing him as a kind of regional or cultural “prophet”, but did not accept him as a true universal prophet with a divine message. As a committed Trinitarian Christian, on a universal level, I necessarily rejected the particular truth claims of Islam as heretical. This was convenient if logically untenable position, since orthodox Nicene theology in general and Orthodox theology, in particular, does not allow for this sort of “soft condemnation” dichotomy of thinking that Muhammad was a fundamentally good man and a force for positive moral and spiritual development in Arabia yet somehow not a prophet of God. The internal pressure I felt to resolve these internal contradictions were only exacerbated by the fact that every serious Orthodox and Catholic scholar and clergyman I knew insisted that Muhammad was to be condemned as a satanic false prophet and manipulator due to his and the Quran’s explicit denial of Christ’s divinity, his atoning sacrifice, and the Trinity, etc.
Deeply bothered by the fact that my various spiritual teachers’ views of Muhammad did not match up with all the historical evidence I was uncovering, I continued to educate myself despite being warned by many Orthodox and Catholic friends not to delve too deep into Islam. I recall one friend, now a Catholic seminarian, who feared keeping an English translation of the Quran near his bed. Other friends regularly insisted that Islam posed an existential threat to Western civilization, that true Muslims could not be peaceful, etc. Around this time, I recall wondering of Muhammad, “how could a man—who by all early accounts of his life was so righteous, holy, and beautiful in character, who called his people to an obviously transformative, virtuous life of faith, prayer, and pious works, a man who fulfilled so wonderfully all the roles and positions he held—have either been deceived by Satan, been a deliberate liar, or gone mad?” There was far more evidence for the life and character of Muhammad than there was for Moses or Jesus, so it made no sense that given how much was known empirically of his character, that so many people could still be fiercely devoted to an uncritically negative view of him.
In this vein, I recall at one point being particularly amused at C.S. Lewis’ reductionist, confirmation bias-laden logical fallacy about Christ (in the Christian view) that “he was either a madman, a liar, or exactly who he claimed to be (e.g. God incarnate)”. Seeing as Lewis, an atheist-turned-Anglican, had thrown down the gauntlet to search after “the real Christ” in a supremely self-satisfied way (and aware that he had never bothered to look into Islam due to obvious cultural bias), I realized upon reflection that the *only* sources which supposedly proved Christ’s divinity or portrayed him as implicitly advancing his own divinity were in the New Testament canon, codified just over *three centuries* after his death. It deeply disturbed me to learn that the New Testament canon—whose various books and epistles historians and most Church scholars agree on date from forty to a hundred years after Christ—was not finalized till 367, some 42 years after the first imperially-convened Ecumenical Council at Nicea, and some five decades after the first Christian Roman emperor began championing a particular form of Christianity.
I instantly became aware that my entire belief system of Nicene, Orthodox Christianity rested on a massive internal confirmation bias within a closed scriptural system that took its truth and integrity completely for granted. As I began looking into Islam, I never allowed myself to treat the Quran and its own polemical claims this way. I saw that the entire intellectual foundation of my Orthodox faith rested on complete confirmation bias backed up by insular pietistic sentimentalism (the beauty of the liturgical services as somehow proving the truth of Orthodoxy, or the illogical belief that Orthodox martyrs and saints’ very existence somehow proved that Orthodox Christianity is uniquely true).
I then began to look into historical criticism of the Biblical texts and was shocked by the often hysterical and illogical responses of the priests and professors of theology whose advice I solicited. They were utterly threatened by this recent field of study and had no convincing refutations. At that point, the foundations of my Christian faith began to crumble. I thought this would be absolutely terrifying, but to my surprise, it wasn’t—my soul and mind were being opened and purified in a way I can’t quite describe. I quickly came to realize that, for hundreds of years after Christ, no outside sources existed in support of the radical truth claims of Pauline-Nicene theology (specifically the notion of the unique incarnation of a theandric, eternal Son of a Triune God as an atoning auto-sacrifice to redeem fallen humanity and the cosmos itself). No one outside the Gospel accounts ever claimed to see Christ crucified or resurrected. I also realized that the very Old Testament texts which Christians selectively interpreted to require such a severe Fall as to necessitate the coming of Christ *as God* could only be viewed this way if one projected later Christian theological views and assumptions back into the pre-Messianic Israelite scriptures, views the Jews of course completely rejected.
While I continued at this time to hold emotionally or sentimentally to the *idea* of Orthodox Christianity being true due to the great beauty of its liturgical services (a beauty I still deeply appreciate on the level of relative truth), I saw logically how this could not be supported. Believing that God must have put the true religion on earth and kept its essential and eternal teachings inviolate by various mechanisms, I instinctively turned to the other globally universal, theistic faith and the religious system as the only possible alternative —Islam. At this point in my research, when I began reading several Quran translations side by side with tafsir (annotated contextual commentaries), I became aware that the unique truth claims of Nicene Christianity—based historically on a scriptural canon deeply formed by political considerations and divorced by three centuries from the historical life of the founding figure— placed far more radical demand in terms of blind faith than the Quranic theology. In contrast to the historical process of the formation of the Christian scriptural canon over three centuries, all historical evidence shows that the Quran was transmitted orally to many companions in a mostly preliterate society during the Prophet’s lifetime and that what came to be considered the authoritative canon of the revelation (the Uthman Codex) was recorded textually within two decades of Muhammad’s death.
In other words, I realized that logically, the greater and more grandiose the claim being made, the greater proof and defense was required in support of that claim. Paradoxically, a less grandiose or radical claim required less proof or defense. Since the only texts which could be used to argue for Christ’s divinity are those of the Christian canon, no one has any way at all of empirically knowing or proving that Christ ever claimed divinity or died on humanity’s behalf. Thus, accepting the Nicene, Orthodox-Catholic Faith in all its empirically unverifiable dogmatic and theological particularities becomes an immensely dangerous venture in terms of the soteriological stakes, compared to Islam’s less radical dogmatic claims. I saw that unlike the Trinity, which had no explicit and only (in my view) rather weak implicit biblical textual proofs, the doctrine of Tawhid at its various levels was not only perpetually witnessed in the outer and inner dimensions of the Quranic text—itself a Sacred Sign and Theophany to Muslims, which constantly points to the Macrocosm as the greatest Sign and Theophany of God’s unity and the one Reality and Necessary Being sustaining the Cosmos—but I saw logically that its reality stands apart from its messengers and prophets and their inheritors.
From a logical perspective, at worst, had Muhammad been a false prophet, Tawhid was still a more comprehensive, defensible, and rationally conceivable theological system of divine ontology than the Trinity (Jews, for instance, believe in the absolute oneness of God). I reasoned that, had Christ truly been God incarnate, surely the Imperial post-Nicene Church would have been able to come up with more convincing evidence for its immense claims (far more ontologically grand than Muhammad claiming to be merely a human messenger). Having realized that Lewis’ proposition about Christ would apply logically far more to Muhammad, who never claimed divinity, than to Christ, whom Christians believe claimed it, I realized that Lewis had failed to grasp the simplest challenge to his confirmation bias: “What if Christ was neither mad, nor a liar, nor divine; what if he never claimed divinity and others claimed this for him?”. The Quran itself directly answers this question.
In addition to researching and pondering these issues, a wealth of historical evidence shows the deliberate construction from the early fourth-sixth centuries (under Constantine, Theodosius, Pulcheria, and Justinian) of an imperially-enforced doctrinal orthodoxy of what was held to constitute appropriate or correct Christology and theology. This manifested in the dizzying array of imperially-sanctioned ecclesiastical councils and anti-councils that dominated the Eastern Mediterranean world from the fourth-eighth centuries in which an entire religion developed around the worship of Christ as God (something he never established in his life even in the Gospel accounts). This culminated with the creation of an ever-expanding list of supposedly eternal, unchanging doctrines held by a now imperially-established and endowed post-Nicene Church.
This Conciliar, Imperial Roman state Church was to call itself the Orthodox or Catholic Church, and, from the late fourth century on, it strove to violently abolish Classical paganism, suppress Jews throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, and forcibly stamp out numerous divergent Christologies as heretical movements whose writings were collected and burned and their leaders exiled or executed. The bishops of this Church, with imperial approval, consigned thousands upon thousands of divergent books of heretical scriptures to the flames after each successive early Church council anathematized them, and in these bonfires, numerous recorded divergent Christologies were stamped out so thoroughly that today scholars can only guess at the actual historical beliefs of “heretical” men such as Arius, Nestorius, Appolonarius, and Origen. What little we have about their writings and beliefs comes almost entirely from their avowed theological opponents who excommunicated them often post mortem as heretics. This centuries-long imperial Church intolerance of any theological disagreement or religious nonconformity stands in marked contrast to most of Islamic political history, in which most Muslim states practiced a comparable tolerance of Jews and ‘heretical’ Christians unknown anywhere in western medieval Europe or the late Eastern Roman empire.
Historical research has shown that while no early Muslims disputed who Muhammad was and what his message had been (they disputed his spiritual and political succession, the role and scope of that leadership, and how to apply and interpret the Quran and the Prophetic Tradition), what came to be anachronistically defined as the “Orthodox”, “Catholic” position on Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and other aspects of theology was merely one of a great number of early beliefs about who and what Christ was in the centuries following his earthly life. Yet the entire Orthodox/Catholic way of thinking is to ignore this destroyed early pluralism of divergent Christianities, to assert a supposed unshakable unity of dogma that defies the historical record, and to assert the absolute correctness of its own theological dogmas with the circular reasoning that the scriptural canon it codified over centuries supports them.
Having begun examining foundational Islamic cosmology, theology, and ontology through my readings of several Quran translations, tafasir commentary, and books on Islam, I started posing questions to my Orthodox and Catholic spiritual advisors and academic friends. I found their responses entirely unconvincing. I was told not to pursue these questions further, to reject Islam out of hand as a satanic pseudo-Christian heresy, and to accept the various Christian dogmas I was questioning as divine Mysteries of the one true Faith. I soon came to disbelieve in the Trinity, in the singular theandric incarnation, and especially, the notion of cosmic healing and regeneration after a severe Fall through a singular theandric atonement of the Divine Son. Despite extensive discussions with senior Orthodox clergy and years of reading the Antenicene and post-Nicene Fathers during my almost decade-long intense commitment to Orthodoxy, I became less and less convinced of these particular unique truth claims of Orthodox-Catholic Nicene Christianity.
I recall waking up one day in spring 2018 and realizing with a kind of emptiness that I no longer believed in Christ’s divinity or God as Trinity. Yet I believed in God more deeply than ever before, I worshiped Him with more clarity and love than ever, and as I began turning more and more to Islam, on one level terrified of losing my connection to Christ, I came to realize that I still had an active awareness of God’s Presence and Reality which, far from weakening the further I drifted from Christianity, only increased. I came to develop in Islam a profoundly living connection to the holy Prophets, Messengers, and Imams (may God’s peace and blessings be upon them all), with Christ and his holy Mother of course two of the foremost among them.
In terms of the second part of the journey—becoming drawn ever more deeply into Islam—I began at the level of comparative theology to read the Quran on its own terms, rather than through a Christian lens. I began to find the Quranic accounts of the teleology, ontology, and soteriology of all creation generally, and humanity in particular, more credible than the Biblical narrative on the purely exoteric level. I began to fall in love with God all over again and to adore the Islamic understanding (present in Orthodoxy, though warped and confused by the incarnation and crucifixion) of the harmony between the immutable Divine Essence, and the Divine Names/Attributes/Energies by which He reveals Himself and we know Him.
On the level of examining certain problematic biblical passages, I became immensely disturbed by the seemingly genocidal orders the biblical God gave to Moses and Joshua in Deuteronomy regarding the slaughter He commanded of all the pagan Canaanites, later given again to kings Saul and David in 1 and 2 Samuel. This ancient Israelite doctrine of total annihilation by divine decree (herem), held by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to have been a historic reality, has no parallel in the Quran. It thus strikes me as an astonishing double standard when Christians criticize Muslim leaders for historically offering newly conquered non-Muslims the choice to convert or pay the jizya and keep their religion (most chose the latter) when in their own Scriptures God Himself de-throned Saul and raised up David in his place for his failure to carry out a complete genocide of the Amalekites just as He had supposedly ordered Moses and Joshua to do to the Canaanites several centuries before.
The differing accounts of Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Quran and in the Bible—by far the greatest theological difference on questions of sin and soteriology—opened the door to me coming to understand the far higher Quranic divine ontology of an undying, ever-living God Who tells us again and again not to despair, that He is oft-forgiving and ever-merciful, Who does not condemn or punish any of His creatures for the sins of their parents or ancestors, Who would readily forgive any repentant sinner rather than somehow willingly kill His Son or part of Himself as an atoning redemption for the sake of all.
In my Quranic studies, I came to see all creation as even more sacred and utterly imbued with Divine Presence than before, since the Quran time and again presents the Macrocosm as being the greatest manifestation of the Spirit of God, extolling as it does humanity’s divinely-appointed viceregal relationship to the natural world and all of creation. I fell in love with the various Islamic cosmologies and ontologies I studied, and found them to offer a more beautiful, balanced, and enlightened view of Reality and Being as such. Much as I had come to love (and still do love) the numerous Christian saints and the prophets and messengers mentioned in the Bible and the Qur’an alike, I came to love the numerous holy saints (Awliyyah), noble Imams, and the righteous Companions in Islam, and above all the Prophet himself and his noble Family, may God shower them all with His peace a d blessings, as beautiful guides and holy human beings worthy of emulation on the transfiguring Path to God.
I found utter joy and consolation in belief in a God who tells us that His Mercy encompasses all things, Who is not like anything yet whose Face is present wherever one turns, Who is not contained in heaven or earth yet enthrones Himself on the heart of the faithful believer, Who does not limit Himself to body, form, or place yet is closer to us than our jugular vein. I learned to love this God from His own Speech, eternally existent but manifest in time and place on the heart of His Beloved Prophet, and I learned to love God through the Prophet and to love the Prophet through God. This love for Muhammad in no ways diminishes my love for Christ and his mother; in the Islamic Tradition, the Prophet himself spoke numerous times of his deep love for the prophet who came before him and who will return to earth after him.
When one begins to study the life of the Prophet from the earliest sources, whether in Sunni, Shi’a, or secular accounts, one becomes ever more aware of the all-encompassing beauty, nobility, and grandeur of his character and ethics. This aspect of Muhammad—what I know now to be his role as al-insan al-kamil, the Perfector Universal Man—was deeply attractive to me. I realized that, since he never claimed divinity, Muhammad’s status as an utterly outstanding, seemingly flawless yet human, mortal being made him instantly far more accessible, relatable, and possible to emulate compared to the necessarily more remote “God-man” Christ of Christianity. While Muhammad is at once utterly holy and yet also utterly human, Christ is somehow at once human and divine, and, unlike literally anyone else to ever exist, was born of a virgin on earth but also existed pre-internationally as the eternal second Person of a Trinity.
I had been introduced to theoretical and practical Islamic philosophy, spirituality, and metaphysics primarily through Sunni Sufi and Twelver Shi’i thought, but have also begun probing Ismaili gnosis based primarily on your own writings. I embraced Islam in a mainstream Hanafi Sunni Turkish mosque in June 2018 but was always strongly ‘Alid in my spiritual orientation and metaphysical inclination. I was initiated into a Shadhili Sufi order in July 2019, in which many of the fuqara are Shi’i, and have studied with several Sufi shaykhs. In discerning which stream or tradition I would follow within Islam, I applied the same textual and historical analysis by which I had first read and prayed my way from Christianity to Islam. Examining and synthesizing the differing Sunni and Shi’a theological and historical claims, from my earliest days in Islam, I was convinced of the Shi’a position in a non-polemical manner. I am essentially Zaydi in my somewhat gentler, non-polemical view of the first three caliphs, believing they were wrong to deliberately bypass Imam ‘Ali but that God alone knows their hearts and the degree to which he forgave them and they repented. In most theological areas I am closest to Twelver Jafari fiqh (jurisprudence) and Usuli Shi’a kalam (systematic theology) and aqeedah (creed).
I look forward with great joy to continued learning and studying, and, as always, I welcome any suggested reading materials or contacts.
Ryan Hunter is a published author, independent scholar, public speaker, educator, and tutoring entrepreneur. He works in professional communications in New York and is a MA candidate in comparative religion and history of religion. He plans to pursue his Ph.D. and work in academia in Washington DC. Ryan is an aspiring bridge-builder between faith communities, and a lover of international relations, history, philosophy, and comparative theology. In his spare time, he enjoys writing, composing poetry, and learning new languages.