Argument from Cultural Relativism

It has been my experience that when confronted with a negative point of view, one of the arguments Muslims can rely on is the argument from cultural relativism. This argument holds that human values, far from being universal, vary according to time, historical norms, and cultural perspectives. Muslims will say that slavery in the Quran is morally okay because it was normal back in those days. Slavery was certainly a cultural norm back when human beings authored the Quran. No one can ever negate this fact. They are saying we should not juxtapose modern standards of morality in today’s society, with the customs and life styles practiced in Arabia fourteen hundred years ago. Muslims admit that moral values today are not in harmony with the moral values practiced by Muhammad or outlined in the Quran. In their opinion Muhammad’s tendency to acquire slaves, regard women as spoils of war and marry little girls must be viewed within the context of Arabia at that time.

In this argument Muslims absolve Muhammad of behavior they would normally find to be morally repugnant. The problem arises when Muslims claim Muhammad is the standard by which all Muslims should live. They cannot make that claim without cherry picking what things Muhammad did are moral versus what things are not moral. Muslims will wear a beard like Muhammad, dress like Muhammad but they will not do other things Muhammad did, such as capture and rape slaves. Another problem arises when Muslims claim that the Quran contains universal morality, relevant to modernity and modern people. Either the Quran represents universal morality or it does not. As long as Muslims make the ‘cultural relativism’ argument, they concede that the Quran is not relevant to modernity. Muslims cannot claim that the Quran ‘speaks to all humanity’ when it condones slavery. We find Muslims doing something very odd, they apply their argument for ‘cultural relativism’ only to Muhammad and not to other people who have done some very bad things in the past.

Allow me to illustrate this point with an example. Before the American Civil War, slavery in Alabama was a cultural norm. The slave trade was legal, regulated and common practice. If Muslims want to apply the same ‘cultural relativism’ excuses they use to get Muhammad off the hook, they must be willing to admit that plantation owners were not immoral for owning slaves, because slavery was a cultural norm back in that time and place. When presented with the fact that slave owners raped their slaves at the plantations, Muslims must also be willing to say that these slave owners did not commit a wrong act because raping slaves was common practice back then. Do we hear Muslims making any of these arguments? Of course not. They are typically very vocal against American slavery. We would not hear any ethical person claim that American slavery was morally justified because it was a cultural norm. We do not hear people saying that American slavery was justified because it was common and sanctioned by the American government. Muslims like to pick and chose what situations they will apply their argument for ‘cultural relativism’ and what arguments they will not apply it to1. We often say American slave owners were ignorant to something very immoral, but we do not just let them off the hook or give them a free pass because slavery was a cultural norm.

The biggest problem with their ‘cultural relativism’ argument is when Muslims claim that the Quran is relevant to modern people. If the Quran is the unaltered word of Allah, then all its laws apply equally to the people who lived fourteen hundred years ago as well as the people who live today. Therefore, since the Quran says that slavery is okay, it should be permissible for modern Muslim people to own slaves. If Muslims think that slavery should be outlawed, and that no human being should be a slave, then they must concede that the Quran is not culturally relevant to modernity. The question to ask Muslim people is very simple. “Should people be allowed to have slaves today—yes or no?” They should be able to answer the question with a simple yes or no. There are no reasonable ‘maybe’ ‘kind-of’ or ‘sort-of’ answers to a question like this. Remember that you are asking them about slavery, not what kind of ice cream they order at Baskin Robins. A person with a broken moral compass will give you some ‘maybe’ ‘sort-of’ or ‘kind-of’ answers. When you ask a Muslim this question, this is the moment when they pull the ‘cultural relativism’ argument out of their hat. Remind them that once they do so, they automatically concede that the Quran is not relevant to the modern world. A moral person will answer the question flat out and say—“Hell no! Slavery should be completely abolished everywhere!”

Any person who concedes that slavery is wrong, has also conceded that all three of the major Holy Books are also wrong. That person will not be able to use the ‘cultural relativism’ argument, without negating the fact that these Holy Books are not culturally relevant to modern people. They are stuck. Muslims should think very carefully about their arguments. All arguments relying on ‘cultural relativism’ are extremely easy to debunk. Debunking these arguments does not take any high diplomas from an IV league University or special training in logic. Any person attempting the ‘it was normal back then’ argument has automatically conceded that their religion belongs in the past and should be discarded.

When a person makes an argument from ‘cultural relativism’, we must remember that there is a difference between regular people and Muhammad. Muhammad was different from regular people because he claimed that the Angel Gabriel visited him regularly for twenty-two years. Muhammad claimed to be God’s last and final prophet. We can then make the presumption that if all of this is true, then Muhammad had special information about the world. Regular people are not privy to special information. Regular people would have followed the customs, even immoral customs, because they were after all—regular people.

Perhaps we can make the claim that any regular, slave-owning man, living on the Arabian Peninsula fourteen hundred years ago can claim he is not an immoral person. He can say that slavery was a cultural norm, legal, and regulated by the community. Although we understand today that all slavery is wrong, the regular man can claim that he did not know it was wrong. The regular person can claim slavery was a social/cultural norm during his time. This person can claim that he was on par with society and what was believed to be acceptable. Many people would not have a problem validating his argument. Most people would say. “Okay, you did something that was morally wrong. You did something cruel, evil, and barbaric. But, you did not know it was wrong at the time because slavery was a cultural norm. Therefore, you were merely ignorant to something very evil, and very wrong.” I think most of us can agree this is the position we would take with such a regular person.

Muhammad, however, is a very different situation. Muhammad allegedly had a hotline to Allah. It would follow that Allah would have told Muhammad, “Look, I know slavery is a cultural norm but as my last and final prophet I need you to tell everyone slavery is an evil institution. Do not permit, condone, codify or allow any form of slavery among your tribe. Furthermore, if you do have slavers or tell others it is okay to have slaves, then future generations will question whether or not you really are a prophet.

Then, Allah would have turned around and said to Muhammad, “And one more thing, you cannot rely on any ‘cultural relativistic argument’ because that applies only to regular people, not to people that claim to be a prophet of God. Remember you are different from everyone else. The moral standards people have for you, as a prophet, will be higher than the average person.

From that point, Muhammad would have responded to Allah saying something like this, “You are saying slavery is a universally immoral institution. There is not excuse, rationalization or justification for slavery. I should not permit it in the first place. Even if slavery is practiced in common culture, I am better than everyone else is, I have special knowledge about morality that others do not have. Therefore, I must tell everyone never to buy, sell, or trade slaves. When my men ask me about coitus interruptus with slaves, I should condemn them for having slaves in the first place. I should condemn them for even thinking about raping slaves. Okay Allah, I understand what you are saying to me. No problem. I will do exactly as you say and pass the word onto my tribe.

As it would happen, Muhammad did and said all the things we would expect from a normal, regular man who lived in the Arabian Peninsula fourteen hundred years ago. Muhammad captured slaves, gave them to his men, bought them, sold them, and had sex with them. A word of caution, the following paragraphs are a bit disturbing. I recommend that you proceed with caution.

In the above Hadith, we see Muhammad behaved like any other warlord from the ancient Arabian Peninsula. Muhammad’s companions discussed the female slaves and were interested in their prices. (Remember that the Quran previously forbids prostituting female slaves, yet these men and Muhammad are sitting around talking about how much money these women are worth.) Then one of the companions turns around and asks Muhammad a question about coitus interruptus. Coitus interruptus, also known as the pullout method is a birth control technique in which a man withdraws his penis from the woman’s vagina prior to ejaculation during sexual intercourse. It has been widely used for over two thousand years as a method of contraception. In layman terms, what these men are asking Muhammad is this. “When I am raping one of the slaves, should I pull my penis out of her vagina before I ejaculate?”

Just try to get a mental picture of this conversation. Muhammad and his companions are sitting around a fireplace, having a nice little chat. One person asks whether he should ejaculate inside a slave’s vagina. Muhammad advises the friend that he should ejaculate inside the woman’s vagina, and take a chance that she might become pregnant. Imagine this from the woman’s perspective. Muhammad and his henchmen destroyed and looted her home. Her loved relatives are mostly dead or enslaved. If all that was not bad enough, the men who slaughtered her family, destroyed her home, stole her possessions are now raping her. All the while, Gods prophet is encouraging these men to ejaculate inside her vagina with the risk that she might become pregnant.

Upon reflection, one must ponder how can Muslim people across the world look at this behavior and find any moral justification to it. Do they think these women really enjoy sex with their captors? Do they think that these women enjoy carrying the baby of the very man who beheaded her brother? If this proves anything, it proves Muhammad was not only a warlord but also a morally sick, demented human being. If Muhammad lived today, he would be sitting on death row, or in an asylum for the insane. Muslims continue to look to this twisted man as if he deserves respect. They continue to believe that all this behavior is morally acceptable because apparently – “it was normal back then, so that makes it okay.”

To Be Continued …

Footnotes :

1. Muslims often use the Appeal to Cultural Relativism when they explain why Muhammad’s pedophilic relationship with Aisha was acceptable. They claim that marriage and sex with children was ‘normal’ back in Muhammad’s time, and as such, he has been given a free pass from child rape. To be rational, Muslims must be able to apply that argument to any man who raped a child at any point in the past, even if child rape was normal during that epoch.

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