Needed: A New Church Policy Toward Islam [Pt. 3]

In his book America Alone, Mark Steyn observed that “there is no market for a faith that has no faith in itself.” He was referring to Christianity’s loss of faith in itself as exemplified by the decline of Christianity in Europe and the corresponding rise of Islam—a faith that does have faith in itself.

Three Part Series 3A new Church policy toward Islam should be geared toward reversing that situation—that is, undercutting Islam’s faith in itself while at the same time strengthening the faith of Christians. Many others have written about the second half of the equation, so let me concentrate on the first. How do you sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of Muslims?

I’ve already addressed the objection that sowing doubts is not a nice thing to do. Many Catholics seem to believe that religion is ipso facto a good thing, which means that weakening someone’s religious faith would be a terrible thing to do. Yet history provides many examples of religions that seem best consigned to the past—for example, the child-sacrificing religion of the Carthaginians and the human-sacrificing religion of the Aztecs.

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Catholics are reluctant to put Islam in the same category as the Carthaginians for two reasons: First, Islam is a very big religion—the faith of a billion and a half people. Second, Islam bears a superficial similarity to Christianity; Muslims believe in one God and they “revere” Jesus. Yet it’s estimated that some 270 million people have been killed in the name of Islam over the centuries—far more than the combined total of all those killed in the name of Nazism or communism. It’s not politically correct to compare Islam to totalitarian ideologies, yet many respected authorities including Catholic authorities, have done just that. Consider this entry from the 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia: “In matters political, Islam is a system of despotism at home and aggression abroad…. The rights of non-Muslim subjects are of the vaguest and most limited kind, and a religious war is a sacred duty whenever there is a chance of success against the ‘Infidel.”’

As I suggested in the previous column, a new policy toward Islam should be based on the assumption that Islam is an ideological enemy, just as communism once was and still is. The idea is to wean people away from the ideology by undermining and discrediting it, and also by offering a better alternative. Because Islam has proven itself to be a totalitarian system, we should try to weaken faith in it just as, during the Cold War, the West (with considerable help from the Catholic Church) attempted to weaken faith in communism.

But it’s difficult to give other people second thoughts about their religion if you don’t know the first thing about it yourself. And there are numerous indications that Catholic authorities are badly informed about Islam—else why do they continue to maintain, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that Islam is a religion of peace? So the first thing that Catholics need to do is to get up to speed on Islam.

Getting up to speed means that you won’t be thrown for a loop the next time a Muslim apologist (or a Catholic defender of Islam) quotes the Koran to the effect that “there shall be no compulsion in religion” (2: 256). You could confidently reply that that verse is cancelled out by the Koranic doctrine of abrogation (2: 106). Or you could point out that the non-compulsion clause doesn’t square with the apostasy laws. Islamic authorities are universally agreed that the penalty for apostasy is death. It seems safe to say that most rational people would agree that the prospect of being killed if you leave Islam is a form of compulsion. For the exact citation about the penalty in one of the most authoritative Islamic law books see Reliance of the Traveller 0.8.1 and 0.8.2.

Another Koranic verse that is frequently used to reassure Islam illiterates is this one: “We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being … shall be regarded as having killed all mankind” (5: 32). That sounds fine unless you happen to be familiar with the next verse:

Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides (5:33).

The trouble is, too many Catholics, including a great many in the Catholic leadership, aren’t familiar with the Koran or, for that matter, with the Sira, the Hadith, or the Islamic law books. They seem content to rely on whatever Islamic apologists tell them about Islam. All that is necessary to deconstruct and dismantle the political-religious ideology of Islam is readily available in the Islamic sources, but Catholics first need to become acquainted with them.

Once you’ve studied up on Islam, the first thing you realize is that the key to sowing the seeds of disbelief is Muhammad himself—he who must not be maligned. The prophet is Islam’s main prop. The whole religion rests on his veracity. If he is discredited, Islam is discredited. We often hear of the five pillars of Islam, but Muhammad is the essential pillar. And he is a surprisingly fragile one. He is Islam’s link to the Almighty, but also its weakest link.

Islamic leaders intuitively understand this. Which is why any cartoon or criticism of Muhammad is met with displays of rage and fury. An attack on Muhammad is an attack on the whole faith. As some experts on Islam have suggested, criticism of Muhammad is a more serious offense than criticism of Allah. To get an idea of Muhammad’s centrality, consider that there is no corresponding outcry among Muslims when Jesus is mocked or caricatured in a cartoon. Yet, according to Muslims, Jesus is also a great prophet and is, in fact, considered to be the greatest Muslim prophet after Muhammad. The truth, however, is that the Muslim Jesus plays a relatively minor role in Islam. For strategic reasons, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation’s anti-blasphemy resolutions are formulated to protect all prophets from slander, but in practice the only prophet that matters is Muhammad.

Jesus—the real Jesus, that is—has survived a good deal of mockery over the centuries. More to the point, he has survived the tests of critical and historical analysis that have been applied to Christian scripture. If anything, the examination has served to strengthen the case for the trustworthiness of the New Testament accounts. It’s highly unlikely, however, that Muhammad could survive a similar examination. That is why, from a survivalist perspective, it ought to be undertaken.

For example, did he even exist? Contrary to what is commonly supposed, the case for the historical Muhammad is not nearly as well-established as the case for people who lived long before him such as Julius Caesar, Cicero, Alexander the Great, Aristotle, and Pericles. Some scholars have suggested that the stories about Muhammad are more legend than fact, and some suggest that Muhammad was the creation of Arab conquerors who needed to invent an historical and theological justification for their conquests. In any event, there is little historical or archaeological evidence to confirm the traditional story of Muhammad. The question of his existence is an avenue of inquiry that merits further exploration. Yet, curiously, few seem willing to explore it. However, there are some exceptions. Some books on the subject for a non-scholarly audience are Emmet Scott’s Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited, Norbert Pressburg’s What the Modern Martyr Should Know, and Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? (which includes a helpful bibliography of scholarly sources). Was Muhammad more myth than man? If so, the next pertinent question is the one raised by Spencer: “Are jihadists dying for a fiction?”

If Muhammad did exist as traditionally portrayed and if the canonical accounts of his life are accurate, then there are some questions about his character and credibility that need to be asked. According to Raymond Ibrahim, revelations about Muhammad’s’ character are the main reason that Muslims leave Islam. Muhammad is supposed to be the perfect man, and it comes as a shock to many Muslims when they discover he was far from perfect. A youngster’s first encounter with Muhammad is likely to come in the form of hagiographic stories that describe him as noble and saintly. It can be sobering to eventually learn that Muhammad ordered mass executions of defenseless people, traded slaves, permitted rape, married a six year old, married his own daughter-in-law, and engaged in deceit and trickery. And that’s only the short list. Fr. Zakaria Botros, a Coptic priest whose TV show is broadcast to the Arab world, sometimes presents a catalogue of Muhammad’s sexual habits and then asks his Muslim audience: “Is this the prophet I follow?” It’s a good question to put to the members of an honor culture because if the leader you are following is a dishonorable man, then your own honor is at stake if you continue to follow him.

Of course, when evaluating a prophet, the most important character trait to consider is honesty. Did Muhammad really receive a revelation from the angel Gabriel, or did he make the whole thing up? We have only his word for it. There is no other corroborating evidence. Here is where the historical-critical method comes in handy. Exhibit A is the Koran. It’s supposed to be the eternal word of God. Muslims say that Muhammad couldn’t possibly have invented it because he was (supposedly) illiterate. The proof that God wrote it, they say, lies in its inimitable style: who else but God could write so well? This is a little hard to swallow because, although there are beautiful passages in the Koran, much of it does look as though it were written by a semi-literate merchant. Well, that’s a little harsh. It’s more accurate to say that it seems to have been written by someone with a flair for poetic language, but with little sense of composition and with limited storytelling ability. Here are a couple of scholarly assessments:

His characters are all alike, and they utter the same platitudes. He is fond of dramatic dialogue, but has very little sense of dramatic scene or action. The logical connections between successive episodes is often loose, sometimes wanting; and points of importance, necessary for the clear understanding of the story, are likely to be left out. (C.C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, New York, 1933, p. 108)

The book aesthetically considered is by no means a first-rate performance…indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events, are often omitted … and nowhere do we find a steady advance in the narration … and even the syntax betrays great awkwardness…. (Theodor Noldeke in Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., Vol. 15, pp. 898-906)

The Muslim comeback to such quibbling is that people who can’t read classical Arabic can’t possibly appreciate the Koran. The soaring style and lilting language of it are simply lost on the Arabic-challenged. In short, if you don’t speak Arabic, then who are you to judge?

When I first came across this argument, it seemed to make sense—for a few minutes, anyway. Then I remembered that I don’t read Greek either, but when I read Homer in translation I can usually distinguish the parts where he is telling a ripping good story from the parts where he is merely nodding. For that matter, I don’t read Russian, but when I read Tolstoy in translation I can appreciate the beauty of his descriptions while noticing at the same time that he occasionally goes on too long about peasants cutting hay in the fields. You don’t have to read French to appreciate Balzac or Italian to appreciate Manzoni. Why is Arabic the only language that doesn’t translate?

There are tedious passages in the Bible, too. Most of us, I daresay, tend to skip over the “so-and-so-begat-so-and-so” parts. But this does not present a serious problem for Christians since most do not consider the Bible to be a word-for-word dictation from God. Likewise, the fact that parts of the Bible are problematic from a scientific point of view doesn’t vitiate the authenticity of the scriptures. The human writers of the Bible were limited by the scientific knowledge of their times. However, when the Koran says that the earth is flat and is composed of seven layers, Muslims are faced with a problem. On the one hand, Allah, the author of the Koran, would have unlimited scientific knowledge; on the other hand, he is uttering obvious scientific falsehoods.

If the tools of textual criticism were applied to the Koran, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is a fabrication—if not of Muhammad’s making, then of someone else’s. One glaring clue is that the author of the Koran, whoever he was, keeps insisting that it’s not a fabrication. The phrase “this is not an invented tale,” or some variation thereof, is repeated dozens of times in the Koran. For example, verse 10:37-38 declares “This Koran could not have been devised by any but God…. It is beyond doubt from the Lord of the Universe. If they say: ‘He invented it himself,’ say, ‘Bring me one chapter like it.’” The net effect of all these self-referential attestations to the authenticity of the Koran is to cast doubt on its authenticity. It’s as though your neighbor is telling you a fish story and feels compelled to assure you at regular intervals that “It’s the God’s honest truth. I swear!” The more he protests the truth of his account, the more you doubt it.

Whether out of fear or out of politeness, the Koran has not been subject to the searching examination that historians, archaeologists, linguists, and textual critics have applied to the Bible. To put it bluntly, it would never survive such an examination. The same holds true of the Jesus of the Koran. He is not a believable character. In fact, he hardly rises to the level of a character. He is more like a disembodied voice than a person. The portrait of him in the Koran is so one-dimensional that to call him a stick figure would not do justice to sticks.

Which brings us to the other Jesus—the real one. If Muhammad is the key to casting doubts about Islam, Jesus of Nazareth provides the path out of Islam. The penalty for converting away from Islam is death, so it takes a fairly compelling reason to convert—such as Jesus himself. According to various reports, a surprisingly high percentage of Muslim conversions to Christianity result from a dream or vision of Jesus—the Christian Jesus, that is.

This suggests a promising avenue of approach for evangelists, apologists, and theologians. Instead of congratulating Muslims on revering the same Jesus we do (it’s not the same Jesus), try to introduce them to the real story of the real Jesus. Most Muslims aren’t familiar with the Gospel story. Most have learned that the Bible should not be consulted because they are taught that Christians and Jews have thoroughly corrupted the text. The true story, they believe, is the story of Jesus that’s presented in the Koran. And since it’s not a very interesting story, they can be forgiven if they think that Jesus is not a particularly compelling figure.

So, one of the first orders of business is to convey the story of Jesus, whether through the Gospels or in film or in simplified story versions. How exactly this message should be conveyed is a matter I will leave up to Christian professionals who know more about media and communications than I do. However, it’s important to remember that Muslim countries have high rates of illiteracy. Audio and visual messages are more likely to have an effect. One other thing to keep in mind is that Islam is a religion that emphasizes power. For that reason it seems important to underscore the power of Christ—the casting out of demons and moneychangers, the healing of the lame and blind, the raising of the dead, the fearlessness in the face of authorities, the final triumph over death itself. And, of course, Muslims need to be informed that at the Last Judgment, it is Jesus Christ, not Isa, who will do the judging.

Who is the real Jesus and what is the true account of his life? A Muslim who becomes acquainted with both versions—the Gospel account and the Koranic account—gets to see that Jesus of Nazareth is a far more compelling figure than the Isa of the Koran. What’s more, he is a far more believable person than Isa. As I wrote elsewhere:

In using Jesus for his own ends, Muhammad neglects to give him any personality. The Jesus of the New Testament is a recognizable human being; the Jesus of the Koran is more like a phantom. When did he carry out his ministry? There is not a hint. Where did he live? Again, there is no indication. Where was he born? Under a palm tree. That’s about as specific as it gets in the Koran. In short, Muhammad’s Jesus is a nebulous figure. He seems to exist neither in time nor in space. In the Gospels, you meet Jesus of Nazareth; in the Koran, you meet someone who can best be described as Jesus of Neverland.

In short, the Gospel story has the ring of authenticity. It provides an abundance of geographical and historical detail. It pays close attention to persons, places, and events. When Jesus and his disciples converse, it actually sounds like human conversation rather than (as in the Koran) cryptic voices from the ethersphere. Conversely, the author of the Koran seems to know almost nothing about the life of Jesus—not even the names of his disciples. Set against the Gospel story, the story of the Muslim Jesus rings exceedingly hollow—which may be one reason that there are no Bibles for sale in Saudi Arabia.

There is much more than can be said on the subject of casting doubt among the followers of the prophet. For instance, any theologian worth his salt could have a field day taking apart the idea that seventy-two virgins await the martyr in paradise. But the upshot is that the case for Christianity is considerably stronger than the case for Islam. Theologically, Islam is a house of cards. It can’t stand up to examination, which is why Islam’s guardians go ballistic at the least hint of criticism. Nevertheless, Catholics should start making the case while there is still time—before the questioning of Islam becomes a crime, or before the Islamic world goes ballistic in the literal sense of the term.

Which brings us to the subject of Church diplomacy—a subject which I don’t have space to discuss here. What I’ve outlined above are some theological initiatives that Catholics should be taking. I’ve left aside the whole issue of Vatican diplomacy because it’s a subject unto itself.

In a future column, I plan to address the question of how the Church can apply various types of diplomatic pressure.

(Photo credit: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)


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