Catholics and Islam
John R. T. Lamont
A special essay for Rorate Caeli
The recent terrorist attacks by ISIS have increased the urgency of understanding the ideology that drives the attackers. Catholics naturally look to the leadership of the Church for guidance on the nature of Islam, its relation to the ideology of ISIS, and the approach that Catholics should take to the threat of ISIS terrorism and to Islam itself. Unfortunately, the episcopal leadership of the Church has not provided such guidance. If anything it has done the opposite, in Europe and North America at least; it has misled the faithful on the nature of Islam and the relationship between terrorist extremism and the main tenets of the Muslim religion. A good example of this deception can be found in a pamphlet recently issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled 'Catholics and Muslims in Canada: Believers and Citizens in Society'. It is worth examining this pamphlet in some detail, to better understand both the character of this deception and the real content and implications of Muslim belief.
The stated purpose of this pamphlet is to 'help Canadian Catholics better understand their Muslim neighbours'. It is signed by Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, the Archbishop of Gatineau in Quebec, in his capacity as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Its contents give Catholics a false conception of the nature and teachings of Islam. This is done more by omitting facts than by making false statements about Muslim belief, although such falsehoods are to be found in the pamphlet.
The principal omissions are the following.
1. Attitude of Islam to Christianity.
The pamphlet acknowledges that the Koran specifically condemns the central Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and that it denies that Christ died on the cross:
'Oh People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion, nor say of God anything but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a messenger of God, and His Word which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him. So believe in God and His messengers. Say not, 'Trinity.' Desist! It will be better for you, for God is One God, Glory be to Him! (Far exalted is He) above having a son.' (Sura 4:171). 'Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him.' (Sura 5:75). 'They did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so' (Sura 4.157).
However, the pamphlet does not acknowledge that Islam is the only major religion that was founded with the specific purpose of destroying and replacing Christianity, and that these denials of Christian teaching are intended to further this purpose; they are not simply expressions of theological disagreement. No other major religion contains specific denunciations of the basic Christian doctrines in its sacred texts. Mohammed is presented by Islam as having written to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius demanding that he embrace Islam and abandon the worship of Christ. Both the Old and New Testaments are asserted by Islam to have been falsified by Jews and Christians, and to have originally supported the teachings and prophetic office of Mohammed. The reading of the Bible was accordingly forbidden by Mohammed, to prevent its undermining Muslim belief. Christ is alleged by Muslims to have been a prophet in the succession of prophets leading up to Mohammed, whose message is subordinate to and in the service of Mohammed's own prophecies. Being a true follower of Christ, on the Muslim view, thus consists in adhering to Islam and rejecting Christian teachings and practice. This anti-Christian mission has always been central to Islam, and has been pursued in every stage of Muslim history.
2. Nature and implications of sharia law.
One of the most important differences between Islam and Christianity is that Islam claims to possess a divinely revealed code of civil law, referred to as sharia law. This code of law is based on the Koran and the Hadiths, which are collections of traditions relating to the life, teachings and example of Mohammed.
There is a divinely revealed code of civil law in the Old Testament, but it applies only to the Jewish people, not to the human race as a whole. Rabbi Samuel, an early Talmudic authority, qualified the claims of the Old Law in an important respect by ruling that ‘the law of the kingdom is law’; this principle was followed by all subsequent Orthodox Jews, and was understood to mean that the legislation of non-Jewish states was authoritative unless it explicitly contradicted a tenet of the Old Law. The Mosaic law is not binding on Christians, who do not believe in a currently existing, divinely revealed civil law. The Catholic Church teaches that civil law is to respect divine revelation, but is itself to be based on the natural law; in practice most Catholic states simply adopted and extended Roman law, a legal system of pagan origin, for civil purposes.
Sharia law as traditionally understood by Muslims differs from the Jewish and Christian conceptions of civil law. It is not based on human reason, but is claimed to be entirely composed of divine revelation. It does not apply only to Muslims, but is held to be God's command to the entire human race. It is understood to be a complete legal system that admits of no competitors or supplements; there is no idea that ‘the law of the kingdom is law’. It can be extended to new situations by the interpretations of jurists, but this extension is supposed to be a discernment of what is already present in it, not an addition of rules that it did not previously contain. There are different traditional schools of interpretation of sharia law, but these schools do not differ radically from each other, and agree on the teachings described here. They all hold that since God's commands ought to be obeyed, it is an obligation for Muslims to bring it about that sharia law is imposed on the entire human race. This obligation is the basis for jihad, the Muslim holy war, whose aim is to subject non-Muslims to Muslim rule and Muslim law. Muslims are required by their religion to carry on this war if it has a chance of success. Sharia law states that non-Muslims who worship idols are to be given a choice between conversion to Islam and death. Christians are included in the 'peoples of the book' – followers of monotheistic religions older than Islam – and as such are permitted to retain their religion. They are however given an inferior status in sharia law, that of the 'dhimmi'; they are required to pay a special tax, and are subjected to severe discrimination that is designed to induce them to convert to Islam. Such conversion cannot be reversed, since leaving Islam is punishable by death in sharia law.
To some extent the question of terrorism is a side issue when it comes to the establishment of sharia law. The centrality of terrorism as a tool for Islamic extremists simply reflects the fact that they do not control a large and powerful empire, as was the case in previous centuries. Because of this fact, they have to resort to terror as a means of armed attack. Under the early Caliphs and the Ottoman Empire, the expansion of Islam was pursued by regular, well-organised military campaigns. These involved the use of terror at times – as is often the case in all military conflicts – but military victory by regular armies was historically the main tool of expansion of sharia law. This form of conflict was not less destructive and horrible than terrorist campaigns; in fact, it was far worse.
The changes in the political situation of Islam over the centuries have nonetheless had an influence on the religion that is worth examining. From the early period after the death of Mohammed until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in the First World War, Islam was shaped and constrained by the demands of empire. Religious positions that impeded the operation of an imperial state could not be accepted, and this sometimes discouraged the more violent and fanatical manifestations of Islam. Under the Ottomans, who depended to a considerable extent on Jews and Christians to perform essential functions in governing their empire, Muslim religious intolerance was of necessity considerably modified. The Ottoman empire was succeeded by a secularist regime in Turkey, and by states created by the British and the French in the Middle East. These colonialist powers imposed various forms of cultural imperialism on their client states, such as the abolition of slavery in Iraq in the 1920s, and their dominance did not favour political Islam. British and French power in the Middle East was broken by American opposition during the Suez crisis, and the states of Iraq, Syria, and Libya have been destroyed directly or indirectly by American and European military action. This has largely destroyed the structure of the post-Ottoman states, many of whom were secularist. The remaining powers in the Middle East are Iran on the one hand, and the Saudis and the Gulf States on the other. Both these power groups are committed to militant forms of Islam that exemplify the worst traits of that religious tradition. Their economic position depends on oil wealth, and does not impose any constraints on their religious extremism. The House of Saud has enjoyed a close alliance with the Americans since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Saudis have bribed official Washington from top to bottom. As a result they have been able to promote their Wahhabist ideology with impunity. The character of this ideology needs to be described.
3. The innovation of modern Islam.
Everything said above about Islam applies to the traditional forms taken by that religion in the first millennium and a half of its existence. The forms of Islam espoused by contemporary Muslim radicals depart from traditional Islam in important ways. This contemporary Islam stems from the ideas of the 18th century Saudi religious leader Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, who sought to return to what he considered the original purity of Islam. He rejected the philosophical and rational components of traditional Islam, and held that Christians and Jews are idolaters who should be killed if they do not convert to Islam. Al-Wahhab allied himself with the House of Saud, and a relation of mutual support has existed between Wahhabi Islam and the House of Saud ever since. Wahhabi Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis have poured money into spreading Wahhabism all over the world. The basic idea of Wahhabism is also termed Salafism; it is the idea of a return to the original purity of Islam as practiced by Mohammed and described in the Koran and the hadiths. This is precisely the religious belief of ISIS, which is a Salafist offshoot, and which does not differ much from these other Islamic movements in its religious conceptions. The well-funded Saudi-supported Muslim institutions that are spread all over Africa are devoted to the Wahhabi version of Islam (some details are provided here). Saudi support is making Wahhabism the most active and powerful form of Islam in the world. It is an even worse threat to Christians than the traditional forms of Islam, and is destroying the Christian communities that managed to survive for centuries in the Middle East under Islamic rule.
Omission of the above facts about Islam gives Catholic an incorrect and dangerous conception of the nature of Muslim religion. This is aggravated by the document’s claim that Muslims highly esteem an upright life. Of course, Muslims highly esteem a life of the kind the Islam proclaims to be upright. But it is clear that the Islamic conception of an upright life is incompatible with the Christian concept, and with the natural law. Sharia law requires some evil actions such as the forcible imposition of Islam, the execution of converts from Islam to Christianity, and the discrimination against non-Muslims noted above. It permits or encourages other kinds of evil behaviour, such as divorce at the will of the husband. The example of Mohammed is particularly significant here. It is a central Islamic teaching that Mohammed was sinless, and hence that all his actions were perfect and serve as models for the behaviour of Muslims. But Mohammed's actions, as portrayed in the Koran and in universally accepted hadiths, include robbing caravans, consummating his marriage to his youngest wife Aisha when she was nine years old, and massacring all the men of the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza and taking the women and children as slaves. The worst crimes of contemporary Islamic terrorist organisations are presented by them as being legitimated by the example of Mohammed, and this argument is plausible if the sinlessness of Mohammed is accepted. (In fairness to Muslims, however, it should be noted that when the CCCB document says that both Muslims and Catholics ‘pray, give alms and fast’, this description applies far more to Muslims that to Christians at the present time.)
This exposure of the deceptions of the CCCB document enables us to identify the main features of Islam that are a deadly threat to Catholics. They are the ambition to destroy and replace Christianity, the understanding of sharia law as divinely revealed, and the belief that Mohammed was sinless and a perfect exemplar of Muslim behaviour. These are all central to the traditional conception of Islam and well supported by Islamic sacred documents. Permanent coexistence with Muslims who reject these features is possible, but it must be acknowledged that there is no large, organised religious body that adheres to a form of Islam that denies these teachings. There is no logical impossibility in developing such a form of Islam, but it may be questioned if it is a practical possibility; these teachings are so central to Islam that if they are removed from it, constructing a coherent religious position would be difficult.
Having examined the real character of Islam, we can give a correct answer to the question of how Canadian and other Catholics should understand and relate to their Muslim neighbours. The only way in which Catholics can promote the ‘harmonious relationship’ with Muslims that Archbishop Durocher calls for is by convincing them that the dangerous features of Islam mentioned above are not in fact true and should not be acted upon. It should be kept in mind that a large proportion of Muslims do not in fact believe them, and adhere to their religion out of loyalty to their traditions and past and a general sort of belief in God and the moral law; this provides a starting point for persuasion. The active minority who both believe and attempt to implement these dangerous features cannot however be ignored or neglected by Catholics, for obvious reasons. If anything, they are the main group that needs to be convinced. The unique nature of the relation between Islam and Christianity means that for Catholics, making the case against the dangerous features of Islam cannot be separated from making the case for Christianity. Since the Koran contains specific denials of basic Christian teachings, logic entails that either Christian teaching is true and Islamic teaching is false, Islamic teaching is true and Christian teaching is false, or both Christian and Islamic teaching are false. Catholics cannot accept the second and third of these alternatives, so they can only argue that these denials are wrong because the Christian doctrines they attack are true.
This conclusion does not answer all the questions raised by the CCCB document. How is it that this document can offer a careful falsification of the nature of Islam, a falsification that seems to have been designed to leave Catholics in ignorance of the threat that traditional Islam poses, and in consequence to disarm them in the face of that threat?
The answer to this question lies in the outlook held by Archbishop Durocher. When he was speaking at a press conference at the recent session of the Synod on the Family, he was asked if the question of giving communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics concerned doctrine or discipline. He replied ‘If you want doctrine, go read Denzinger’.(1) Such a remark could only be made by someone who holds the content of Catholic doctrine, and the very notion of Catholic doctrine itself, in contempt. This neomodernist outlook (2) on the Catholic faith is not restricted to Archbishop Durocher; it is the dominant culture within the leadership of the Catholic Church in Canada, and is the basis of the interfaith and ecumenical activities of the CCCB. For example, Fr. Damian Macpherson S.A., a member of the National Christian Muslim Liaison Committee of the CCCB, has stated that ‘The Roman Catholic Church does not proselytize, that is, actively seek the conversion of others. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is committed to active evangelization and those who respond are welcomed as members of the Catholic Church’. (3)
When ecclesiastical functionaries with this outlook consider Islam, there are two consequences. One is mirror imaging; because they do not take the doctrine of their own Church seriously, they cannot grasp that Muslims take their own religion seriously and literally, and consider themselves to be subject to its teaching. In presenting Muslim doctrine they change its content into what they consider to be an acceptable form, just as they change Catholic doctrine for the same purpose in their own religious views. The second is sympathy and attraction to Islam on account of its opposition to basic Christian doctrine. Not all of the Christian doctrines rejected by Islam are necessarily rejected by neomodernists, but the essential Muslim stance on Christian teaching – that the doctrines of the Christian faith do not have divine authority and do not need to be accepted on account of this authority – is the fundamental principle of neomodernism. The neomodernist hatred of the doctrines they reject is also stronger than their adherence to the doctrines they find acceptable for their own reasons. The Muslim position on Christian doctrine is thus a sympathetic one to neomodernists, and it predisposes them in favour of that religion.
At the Synod on the Family Cardinal Robert Sarah remarked that ‘A theological discernment enables us to see in our time two unexpected threats (almost like two “apocalyptic beasts”) located on opposite poles: on the one hand, the idolatry of Western freedom; on the other, Islamic fundamentalism’. He observed that it is possible to discern that these two threats have the same demonic origin. The neomodernist establishment in the Catholic Church is a third such beast. Its cooperation with the idolatry of Western freedom was evident at the Synod on the Family; Archbishop Durocher himself was actively involved in this cooperation at the Synod. Its cooperation with Islamic extremism is manifested in the CCCB document and in many other statements by influential priests and bishops about Islam made in reaction to the recent attacks in Paris. As has been shown, the CCCB document carefully conceals those aspects of Islam that pose a real danger to Catholics. This deception betrays those very numerous Christians who are now suffering and dying at the hands of Islamic persecutors, and it facilitates the further persecution of Christians by concealing the nature of the threat that they face. In doing this, neomodernism lets its mask slip for anyone with knowledge of Islam, and shows its malice and its origin.
(1) LifeSite News: Synod Day 2: Doctrine apparently ‘open question’, call for ‘end to exclusionary language’ for ‘gays’; ‘Denzinger’ is a standard reference work containing formal Church teachings.
(2) For an account of neomodernism see here: "A Christmastide Gift for our Readers: Attacks on Thomism: a special historical and theological essay" - a special essay for Rorate Caeli by John Lamont.
(3) "Email interview with Damian Macpherson, director for interfaith affairs, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto": spelling and grammar have been corrected. Fr. Macpherson goes on to say that ‘I am not sure there is such a thing as "the Canadian church." We do have the Canadian Council of Churches. This reminds us that there is no Canadian church.’