The Christian Response to Islam

What is, or should be, the Christian response to Islam?

I’d like initially to say a few words about the background to this question.

There are two great sources of social order. One is religion, the other is politics.[1] To make religion the foundation of social order is to rest the authority of societal arrangements on the immutable command of God.   This must be presumed to have taken account, from the beginning, of all the otherwise unpredictable  vicissitudes of human history and to have laid down a law appropriate to every future contingency. The divine law was revealed by God in the past, and the past therefore dominates the present: the present must conform to the rule given in the past. The divine law cannot be changed because it will never need to be changed.  It provides eternal security. This is the case with Islam. The Koran was not merely a revelation given at a certain time, but has existed from eternity and will exist for eternity.  The divine law, the Shari’ah or Straight Path, is prescribed in all its details forever, to the end of time. When that day comes the Last Judgment will take place.  Each individual will be judged on the basis of his obedience (islam) to that law.  The authority of religion is therefore personal: it stems from the direct relationship of the individual to God. Government has no independent right. Muslim society does not need government and can function without it.  Government is superfluous. Where government exists, it is an embarrassment.  Its only legitimate task can be to enforce the Shari’ah. On the other hand there are many questions of government the Shari’ah does not answer.  Thus there is a permanent tension between the demand of religion and the demands of government. Although society is visible, the true authority of society is invisible. The result is that no government in a Muslim country enjoys genuine legitimacy.

By contrast, to make politics the source of social order is to emphasize the role of citizenship, participation, doubt, questioning, argument and human lawmaking. These are all Western ideas, created by the ancient Greeks and Romans. To be a citizen is to share in the responsibility for the survival and success of the society, it means participating in the role of government. The actions of government are confined within the scope of the law, and the law is made by human beings who have accepted that responsibility. The making of law is an activity of reason, and the law must be acceptable to reasonable people.  The authority of the social order comes from the fact that it is accepted by the people.

Christ and Christianity accepted this.  Government has authority in its own right to bring order into society.  Christian societies rest on citizenship.  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The sphere of government is different from the sphere of religion.  Religion rules over the interior life of the individual spirit, but government rules over the social order. “Let every person be subject to the government authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Rom. 13)

A special aspect of this situation concerns the role of reason in morality and in general in the conduct of life. In the West, as a result of our ancient heritage from Greece and Rome, we have an activity called ethics. This consists in the use of reason to arrive at moral judgments, without necessarily including any input from revealed religion. The question: what is justice?  What is conscience? What is a moral law? are all questions that can be asked and answered by reason.  A large part of the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas consists of just such questions and answers.

Islam does not have such a discipline. To obtain the answer to a moral dilemma, you must consult the religious authority: the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and doings of the Prophet).  If you happen to find some problem discussed there that is analogous to your dilemma, it may be possible to arrive at an answer by the use of analogical reasoning. But the authority of your answer will remain religious.

There was a period early in its history when Islam did not reject the use of reason. A group known as the Mutazilites taught that valid solutions to moral problems could be obtained by the use of independent reason. The Muslim clergy objected strongly, however, arguing that that would limit the power of God, who would be obliged to follow human reason. They eliminated the Mutazilites. The problem cropped up again later in consequence of the emergence of philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, who defended the use of reason. But this voice was silenced by the influence of al-Ghazali. Since the middle ages Sunni Islam has rejected any independent role of reason. This has had far-reaching consequences for Islam. Among other things it eliminates the possibility of a law of nature: not only of a moral law of nature but also of a physical law of nature, of the kind that the sciences of physics and chemistry are built on. Everything that is done in the universe must be done by God.  Islam eliminates the concept of nature. To have creatures actually do things would be to limit the power of God. Under Islam, therefore, physics and chemistry are not conceptually possible.

The civilization that has issued from Christianity is profoundly different from that of Islam. They are not merely different, they are incompatible. A traditional Muslim community cannot exist in a Christian society, and a Christian community can exist in a Muslim society only in a subordinate status, not as an equal.

How should Christians react, then, to Islam?

There are two Islams: there is peaceful Islam and militant or radical Islam. With peaceful Islam Christians should be peaceful. We should seek to understand their viewpoint with accuracy, should listen to them and talk with them. One word for this is dialogue. Prof. Leonard Swidler of Temple University, a close friend of mine, has been engaged in attempts to carry on dialogue with the Muslim world for several decades. Recently he has reported an interesting development. For many years he could never find more than a handful of Muslim scholars in the entire world who were interested in dialoguing with Christians or the West. But about three years ago, he reports, this began to change.  Now he has heard from perhaps 150 such scholars around the globe who are suddenly much more interested in it. He himself recently received an official invitation to visit Saudi Arabia and lecture about American religious pluralism to a group of the most conservative imams, who were apparently enthusiastic about what they heard, and a group of them will be coming to Philadelphia in the spring to study with him and his Global Dialogue Institute.

We have a task of education to do.  We should focus especially on explaining and conveying to them the concept of nature and natural law, which they do not have, but which would make it possible for them to develop the sciences and a more rational social order. Many Muslims repudiate radical Islam. Our ultimate goal should be to bring them into the Christian fold by voluntary conversion. Ultimately only a religion can resist another religion.

With radical Islam we should use all the resources of the law to oppose them and prevent them from establishing bridgeheads in our land, as they have in European lands. Political correctness prevents us at the moment from taking many measures that common sense would dictate. Our dealings with radical Islam in other countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan are fraught with difficulty mainly because of their endemic corruption. Our first priority there should be to eliminate corruption, if necessary by the use of force. Corruption typically begins at, or is at least sustained by, the top.

Epilogue: Demography is destiny

In the space of ten years Alexander the Great converted a large portion of the non-Greek Middle East to Greek religion, philosophy, society and culture. He brought in a Greek population to live there alongside the existing residents. These territories became Christian when Christianity emerged and they remained Greek, especially the cities, till the Muslim invasions of the 7th century, almost a thousand years.  In their turn, the Muslim armies occupied what the Greeks called Asia, the homeland of St. Paul, and what we now call Turkey and Palestine, islamifying the heartland of Christianity by population change.  At the conclusion of the First and Second World Wars the Western powers were perhaps in a position to carry out similar policies by voluntary means, but let the opportunity, if it was such, slip by. I confess I would like to see a Christian organization that encourages Christians to resettle in lands once Christian but now Muslim, in sufficient numbers to defend themselves. They could begin with Lebanon (if protected from Syria). It is still true that demography is destiny.


[1] This paper owes much to Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest. ISI Books. 2003.