In a recent post, fellow CV blogger Tom Hoopes asks, “Is ISIS Islamic?” He compares ISIS to the dissident group Catholics for Choice, suggesting that ISIS, while claiming to represent authentic Islam, in reality act from a distorted view of Islam, in the same way that believing Catholics might look to “Catholics for Choice” and say, “Umm…yeah, no.” ISIS does not represent true Islam, he concludes. I can think of few questions that are openly debated in opinion pieces and com-boxes than this one right now—second only perhaps to “what’s the deal with Trump?” But why the knee-jerk rush to defend and apologize for Islam? Even well-meaning Catholics seem to want it to be the case that ISIS doesn’t really represent Islam. I even saw a photo on the interwebz of a college-aged Christian girl holding a sign that read, “I love the Qur’an.” Why are we bending over backwards? Why the tolerance gymnastics?
Now, of course it’s not true to say that all or even most Muslims support ISIS or wish to wage violent jihad. I have no doubt that many and perhaps even most Muslims are holy, humble, and kind, and are themselves horrified by the carnage we seem to witness on a now weekly if not daily basis. And, as defenders of the “not real Islam” narrative are quick to observe, many of the victims of ISIS are Muslims whom ISIS considers to be apostates. But this has nothing to do with individual Muslims or even numbers. The question is, as Hoopes asked, “Is ISIS Islamic?”
As Hoopes points out, there are competing schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. But this is not analogous to the various dissident groups who call themselves Catholic or even to the various denominations within Christianity. There is no central magisterium or authority within Islam besides the Qur’an against which to check the claims of ISIS or any school of Islam, for that matter. In other words, it’s not that simple.
But going deeper still, we might ask, even if there are various schools of thought and even if the majority of Muslims are good and holy, is there anything about Islam itself that would suggest ISIS is acting consistently or at least not in opposition to some foundational theological and philosophical tenets of Islam? I think there is. And this is what Hoopes’ argument fails to consider.
There are three foundational aspects of Islam that are worth considering to show how violent jihad may be justified; the absolute transcendence of God, the Qur’an, and the historical spread of Islam.
First the transcendence of God. Christianity posits that God transcends the universe (He must, as its Creator), but also that God is not so remote that He cannot be known at all by human reason. Islam rightly tries to preserve the transcendence—the “otherness”—of God, but in doing so, makes Him so remote that He bears no resemblance to anything that He has made. To say that anything resembles God is to commit the sin of shirk, or of confusing a creature with the Creator. As such, things rely on God even to act as causes. There are no distinct causes in the universe, because only God is a cause. Whatever occurs is not only permitted by God, but really caused by God. This explains why ISIS seems to attribute their “successes” directly to God and not just “God’s help”, as a Christian might say.
But in Christianity, the universe bears some resemblance to God and something of God and His will can even be deduced through the observation of the universe and even of His will through the moral law. God, as St. Thomas put it, “has given His creatures the dignity of being causes.” But if nothing can be known about God or His will through the world He has made, then the only way to know what God wills is direct revelation or speech, primarily through the Qur’an. God is not reason or logos, nor is He love. He is pure will. This is why we find within Islam a tradition of both law and mysticism. Both are direct encounters with the divine will. The influential Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali, who wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, was both a lawyer and Sufi mystic. But for the Christian, God is not pure will. He is also love and logos. Some of His attributes can be discerned by observation of the natural world, and something of His will can even be known through the Natural Moral Law. Hence, the Christian can see establishing a new university as a “weapon” against ISIS. Love and logos, not will.
Now, it is undeniably true that the Qur’an advocates violence against unbelievers. This is a fact. Apologists will point out here (as Hoopes does) that the Old Testament also seems to justify the killing of the unrighteous from time to time and since Christians do not take these passages as warrant to commit violence against unbelievers, neither should the Qur’an be understood this way. But this is not an accurate comparison. The so-called “dark passages” of the Old Testament are not nearly as numerous as they are in the Qur’an and when they are to be found, they are generally to be understood in spiritual or metaphorical terms or as limited to a particular historical context. In addition, Scripture as a whole is to be understood by the Christian as a whole and in the light of Christ. It makes no sense to select individual quotes out of context and hold them up as representative of the whole. This is not, however, the case with the Qur’an. There is no development of doctrine or “new” testament within Islam to supersede or fulfill these passages. In fact, the opposite is true. A general approach in Qur’anic studies is the approach that considers later suras (passages) to supersede earlier ones. This is one way of reconciling conflicting statements within the Qur’an itself. Now if, as Christian theology states, God is bound by reason because He IS reason (logos), we expect His self-revelation, when understood in its fullness, to be consistent and coherent.
But since in Islamic theology God is not bound by anything, even reason, He is free to contradict earlier commands with new ones. And most of the more violent passages appear later in the Qur’an. This approach is known as abrogation and even seems consistent with the historical spread of Islam. Islam was (again, this is an historical fact) spread largely through conquest—whether by the sword or the subjugation of those in its path. It didn’t begin this way, but it appears that as Muhammed gained power, followers, and land, that conquest—not dialogue—became the primary means of the spread of Islam. As less and less emphasis was laid on reason, philosophy, and freedom, will, force, and law became the operative principles. The practice of dhimmitude (reducing non-Muslims to second-class citizens and taxing them for their unbelief) reveals that the kind of submission called for is not just conversion of the heart, but submission to the will of God—doing what God commands, because God commands it. If conversion of heart also occurs, bonus. Again, we see that the will of God is primary. This would be inconsistent with the Christian view that conversion cannot be forced, since, being made in the image of God Who is love and logos, is not made primarily to do God’s will, but to know and love God. Pope Benedict was right at Regensburg…ideas have consequences.
Assuming that Islam regards violent passages in the Qur’an in the same way that Christianity regards dark passages in the Old Testament is projection. We’re projecting our own understanding and exegesis of Christian scripture onto a text that is not interpreted or understood in the same way by its adherents as the old and new testaments are by theirs. Islam and its sacred text should be understood on their own and through their own lens and not through the lens of Christian or Jewish Biblical exegesis.
This is a kind of ideological colonialism. It’s an imposition. When we bend over backwards to say “oh that’s not real Islam”, we’re just plain in over our heads. The fact is that the way Catholics or even most Christians understand the Bible is not the way the Qur’an is understood by Muslims. We might think we’re being kind or tolerant or respectful but it’s actually quite condescending. And it’s usually done by those who haven’t ever studied Islamic theology, law, or philosophy, but by overnight armchair theologians who assume that their own sacred texts are not understood that way, so of course that must be the same for every “great religion”. Only it’s not. To say so is syncretism.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the ISIS caliphate, does have a PhD in Islamic studies, by the way, from one of the oldest schools of Islam in the world. Let’s not lightly dismiss that fact.
Hoopes rightly points out that there is no such thing as a monolithic magisterium within Islam (besides the Qur’an itself…therein lies the difficulty). There are, rather, a variety of schools, some of which consider the others to be apostate. This is where the comparison to Catholics for Choice falls flat. There IS a Magisterium within orthodox Christianity that interprets and teaches Scripture. One does not walk away from a holistic reading of Christian scripture with the sense that the faith ought to be spread by the sword, or that God is utterly transcendent and unknowable apart from direct revelation. And the spread of Church came not primarily by the sword but by the blood of Her martyrs and their evangelion, proclamation of the Good News. So we can say resoundingly and confidently that Catholics for Choice is NOT consistent with the “pillars” of Christianity. Not so with ISIS. We’re left having to answer the original question with a kind of “well, yes and no”. But definitely not the “no” that Hoopes’ piece concludes with. That would be at the same time a false analogy, oversimplification, syncretism, and a refusal to consider the philosophical, theological, and historical foundations of Islam. Hoopes’ piece makes a number of good points, but ultimately fails to consider Islam (not Muslims) on its own merits.
What does this mean for Christians? Let me be clear and say that hatred of any human person is a sin. Unjust discrimination of persons is a violation of human dignity. This includes sweeping prohibitions against any Muslim from entering the United States, even as refugees…just in case anyone were, totally hypothetically, crazy enough to suggest such a thing…ahem… Our obligations to our neighbors do not change depending on the foundations of their ideology. But criticizing elements of error in an ideology or its consequences is not the same as to hate the one who subscribes to the belief.
Not all Muslims understand their faith this way. This is not a criticism of Muslims, so don’t even try it in the comments. And we would do well during this year of mercy especially, to be honest in our assessment of ideas that are contrary to the dignity of our neighbors, and in charity seek to offer correction—correction, not in a manner that is violent or coercive but rooted in the dignity of the other, based in reason, freedom, and in the joy that comes from the knowledge of the God who is not a solitary and absolute pure will, but love and logos in Himself.