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The Ambiguity of Islam
Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.
“When some fanatics kill children, women, and men in the name of pure and authentic Islam, or in the name of the Qur’an or of the Muslim tradition, nobody can tell them: ‘You are not true and authentic Muslims.’ All they can say is: ‘Your reading of Islam is not ours.’ And this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to our present day: violence is a part of it, although it is also possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, but it is also possible to choose violence.”
—Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., 111 Questions on Islam
“Real problems were raised by the Christian encounter with Islam as a socio-political system, which followed the politicization of religion. Since then there has been a tendency in the Muslim tradition of imposing its domination. This tendency derives from the Muslim conviction that they have a monopoly on the truth and that the Qur’an is the perfect and ultimate revelation.”
—Samir, 111 Questions on Islam
Many books on the meaning and apparently sudden rise of Islam have been published since September 11, 2001. For overall insight, it is still difficult to surpass Belloc’s chapter on “The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed” in his 1938 book Great Heresies. But books such as Laurent Murawiec’s The Mind of Jihad, Reza Aslan’s No god but God, Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest, Tawfik Hamid’s Inside Jihad, Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred, and Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia are just a few.
Several books on this pressing topic are especially of interest to Catholics: Jacques Jomier’s The Bible and the Qur’an, Daniel Ali and Robert Spencer’s Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics: 100 Questions and Answers, Thomas Madden’s New Concise History of the Crusades, and, most recently, Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.’s 111 Questions on Islam, a book originally written in Italian. My own Regensburg Lecture is also pertinent here.
It is the Samir book about which I wish to comment. Father Samir is an Egyptian Jesuit, an advisor in the Holy See, with roots in Cairo, Beirut and Rome. An essay of his in the Asia News (April 2006) is entitled “When Civilizations Meet: How Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam.” In it, Samir writes:
"Benedict XVI has stated more exactly the vision of John Paul II. For the previous pope, dialogue with Islam needed to be open to collaboration on everything, even in prayer. Benedict is aiming at more essential points: theology is not what counts, at least not in this stage of history; what counts is the fact that Islam is the religion that is developing more and is becoming more and more a danger for the West and the world. The danger is not Islam in general, but in a certain vision of Islam that does never openly renounce violence and generates terrorism, fanaticism. On the other hand, he does not want to reduce Islam to a social-political phenomenon. The Pope has profoundly understood the ambiguity of Islam, which is both one and the other, which at times plays on one or the other front."
Samir’s comments on Islam are often the best around.
Samir calls himself “culturally” an Arab, but religiously or theologically a Christian. Samir is learned in the language, literature, folkways and philosophy of Islam. The book contains a glossary of Arabic terms and its own useful bibliography. This book is a must-read for anyone who sees the need to understand what Islam is about, something to be avoided only at the price of political and theological blindness. What Islam is about is no longer a kind of romantic reflection on a stagnant culture. Today it is a very aggressive religion whose reaches affect not only who lives next door to you, but the price of gas, the ownership of banks, the need for and size of armies, and the accurate understanding of one’s own faith.
This book is written by a man who is both sympathetic toward and critical of Islam. Samir knows its philosophical and theological backgrounds, as well as its history from its appearance in the seventh century on the Arabian peninsula. The book’s presentation is frank, pulls no punches, but never speaks without accurate knowledge and clear conviction.
The question-and-answer format of the book works well. The questions cover most of the basic issues, from suicide bombing to the status of women to the Muslim understanding of Christianity. Yet, I found the book rather frightening in its honest and direct presentation of what Islam does, holds, and seeks, of what it does when it conquers, and of the intensity of its beliefs, which in so many ways are so ill-founded. Basically, if it could, Islam would convert the world, one way or another, by peace or by war, as precisely the “will” of Allah. It really has little place for anything else, except when Islam cannot prevent its presence.
We really have no idea what we are up against unless we take a careful look at what is held theologically and what has happened historically in the Muslim world and its understanding of the world outside itself, which it calls the sphere of war. The voluntarism of Islamic thought enables it, apparently, to justify means of advancement that are by any reasonable or democratic standard immoral. Indeed, as Benedict noted in his “Regensburg Lecture,” this voluntarism and its invalidity stands at the intellectual root of Islam’s self-understanding.
Many western writers on Islam today, especially in explaining its violence, want to interpret this violence as somehow an aspect of western ideology, as if there were no roots of it in the sources of Islamic revelation itself. It is true that a number of modern Muslim thinkers were influenced by Lenin, Marx, or other revolutionary thinkers. There is a modern component. But there was violence in Islam’s expansion from its beginning.
Islam aggressively conquered large areas of the world, often ones ruled by unprepared Christians. Its methods of rule by tribute, second-class citizenship to the conquered, and isolation of subject groups are grim to contemplate. Much revolutionary Muslim theory and practice would want to rid Muslim lands of all foreigners who do not accept the Qur’an and its law. To a large extent, this exodus of non-Muslims from Muslim-controlled lands is happening. The Holy See has often sought to stem this tide, but one can hardly blame Christians and others from leaving such hostile environments while there is still time and still someplace to escape to.
The solution to the “problem” of Islamic violence, according to these same contemporary thinkers, is to “westernize” or “modernize” it. That is, make it something other than it conceives itself to be. While there may be some of this secularizing that is feasible—to “democratize” Islam—the drift is now decidedly in the other direction after the independence of Muslim states after both wars. Muslim states are under pressure of their own religious enthusiasm to reject overtures to modernity as contrary to Islam.
The advantage of Samir’s book is that he sticks to Muslim history and practice. He gives the most sympathetic interpretation of Islam that is possible based on the evidence. But this is a man with no illusions. He is not without some hope, but still, no illusions. He understands that many Muslims do not look at the West as a haven of good living, but as a morally corrupt, decadent society. Hence, to them, the notion of western superiority is absurd. We do not judge Islam by its standards, and it does not judge us by our standards. Islam does not have a tradition of natural law in the ordinary sense that would signify a rationale all men could accept apart from their religion.
Most people today in the West are covert multiculturalists. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and the rest of the “religions” believe in the “same” God by different expressions. This is fine until we dig a little deeper. We soon run into Chesterton’s remark that most religions are alike in their rites and external garb, but they differ in what they believe God to be. Here, in fact, they differ vastly. We are used to hearing that we all believe in the same God, but investigation makes this view tenuous.
The French scholar Sylvain Gouguenheim, in pointing out that Aquinas did not get his knowledge of Aristotle solely from Arab texts, says this of the Muslim understanding of Allah:
"To proclaim that Christians and Muslims have the same God, and to hold to that, believing thereby that one has brought the debate to its term, denotes only a superficial approach. Their Gods do not partake in the same discourse, do not put forward the same values, do not propose for humanity the same destiny and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organization in human society. The comparative reading the Gospel and the Koran by itself demonstrates that the two universes are unalike. From Christ, who refuses to punish the adulterous woman by stoning, one turns to see Mohammed ordaining, in the same circumstances, the putting to death of the unfaithful woman. One cannot follow Jesus and Mohammed" (Brussels Journal, 01-05-2009).
Samir follows the tenuousness of the thesis that the God Allah and the God of Christ are the same God. The Qur’an specifically denies the two basic elements of the Christian notion of God. Both the Jew and the Muslim agree in rejecting the God who is Trinity and one of whose Persons became man.
For those not prepared to accept its bluntness, the most surprising thing is what the Qur’an says about Christianity. Samir is very good here. He is careful to point out that the Church has never said that Mohammed himself was a “prophet.” Moreover, for the Muslim, Christ is not the Son of God, but a “prophet,” important but by no means superior to Mohammed, whose status as the last prophet enables him to explain Christianity’s unique doctrines simply as heresies or errors.
Both the Trinity and the Incarnation are “scandals” to the Muslim mind.
Originally, it is held, everyone was Muslim. The whole of Genesis is rewritten,
including the sacrifice of Isaac. Everyone is “naturally” Muslim. The “natural
law” of human beings is not some rational understanding after the manner of
Aristotle but the Law of the Qur’an. This law, for the true Muslim believer,
should eventually replace all existing laws in modern states.
The attraction of Islam, it is often said, is its relative simplicity. All that is required is to follow the five obligations: faith in Allah and his prophet, praying five times a day, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. By comparison, Christianity demands a philosophical thought that does not simply reject the Trinity as three gods or the Incarnation as a degradation of god into matter. Simplicity of practice is not a virtue when it comes to the proper understanding of revelation.
One of the most useful things that Samir does in this book is to explain how the Muslim will understand us. He will see signs of weakness in what we call simple good will or cooperation. We see the suicide bomber as a kind of blind madness or fanaticism. Samir explains how Muslim theologians have worked around suicide bombing so as to justify it. The suicide bomber even becomes a “martyr.” In this case, suicide bombing becomes a kind of personal sacrifice, even though many others are killed and suicide was generally condemned in Muslim tradition.
Samir is aware that many Muslims just want to live in peace. But others have a much more aggressive concept of what Islam is about. They think that everyone should be Muslim. A Muslim who converts to another religion or philosophy can be subject to death. Muslim countries will vary in how this penalty is carried out, but it is a factor that is not simply imaginary.
The people of the world, to worship Allah properly, should all be subject to the one Law, which should be enforced by what we call the state. Samir recounts that in Islam there is no real distinction between state, religion, and custom. There is absoluteness in this worship that allows no one to be outside. Jews and Christians, as a sort of compromise, are given a certain second-class status in Muslim countries, provided they pay a tax and do not seek to convert Muslims. Those who are not Jews or Christians technically can be killed. It is difficult to believe that such rules or traditions exist, but they do. And they are not seen as in any way wrong. They are part of a pious effort to subject all things to Allah.
In short, the “111 questions” of the title of this very incisive book are designed to ask every question one may have had since Islam forced itself before our daily attention. Again, Father Samir is both a hard-headed and sympathetic critic of Islam in all its phases. The book has much force to it precisely because it is written by someone who has been in immediate contact with Islam all his life. He has studied the texts and the history. But he also knows both Christianity and what we call the modern state. The book is often as hard-hitting about the West as it is about Islam.
When one has finished this book, he sees the Muslim with clearer eyes. The whole history of Muslim philosophy is a valiant attempt to make sense of the Qur’an and its practices. It does not think that anything is lacking in the Qur’an, which is said to be divinely transcribed. Efforts to examine the literary and historical sources of this text are much too rare and indeed can be dangerous.
The notion of a modern, progressive, technological society is not particularly in the forefront of the pious Muslim’s mind. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely this modern technology and its relation to oil that has supplied the Muslim world with the cash to become much more aggressive.
Samir’s discussion of why the mosque is not a church and of why the Saudis are involved in spending their oil riches, not to help the poor, but to build mosques all over the world, while at the same time forbidding the presence of Christian churches in Islamic lands, is most sobering. Considerably more people are converted to Islam each day than are converted from Islam. The great political fact of our time is the increasing presence of Muslims in what were once western lands that managed in previous eras—at Tours and Vienna—to prevent Islam from taking over Europe at a much earlier date.
Over a fifth of the world’s population is Muslim. In many ways, most of the military hot spots in the world today have something to do with Islam. Its nature and presence cannot be ignored. How does one think of this? Samir’s presentation of Benedict’s view is quite to the point. It is practically impossible to have a theological discussion with Islam. In the first place, there is no Muslim pope. There are many centers and sources of the interpretation of its law. Not all agree with each other on basic points. Benedict seeks to find a minimum basis of conversation, not so much of high theology, but of ordinary decency. There must be an explicit rejection of the use of violence as an act that has religious sanction.
This incisive book deserves widespread reading. It is clear, sensible and well-informed. It represents what the service of intelligence to the faith really means. It follows Aquinas’ dictum that we must understand a position urged against the truth. Only in understanding this can we estimate what we are up against and begin to think of how to confront it. Father Samir’s 111 Questions will do more than start us thinking about these issues. It will lay out the whole scope of what the “ambiguity of Islam” means.
Reverend James V. Schall, S.J. is now teaching at Georgetown University after having taught at the University of San Francisco and the Gregorian University in Rome for twelve years. A prolific writer, he is the author of many books and hundreds of articles. One recent book is Roman Catholic Political Philosophy (Lexington Books, 2004). A frequent contributor to HPR, his most recent article appeared in June 2009.