The Catholic Thing
Islam and Self Knowledge Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Wednesday, 15 September 2010

After graduating from college in the mid 1990s, I went to Jakarta, Indonesia, to work on a cholera vaccination project and, quite unexpectedly, hit it off with an absolutely lovely Javanese woman. On free afternoons, we’d take a bus through the smoggy streets and grab a bite to eat. Our simple outings together ended by the time the sun went down, and often took place in the company of one of her female friends she brought along for the sake of propriety. She’d pinch me whenever I made her laugh, which I took as a permissible sign of affection.

Despite our chemistry, it soon became evident that any talk of a “relationship” was out of the question. She was Muslim; I was Catholic. (Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men). She was no “fundamentalist.” Her situation was not stifling or draconian, as it is for many Muslim women. But she had thought the matter through: it just couldn’t work.

I couldn’t really hold it against her; in fact, I actually admired her for openly declaring that religion and family considerations were of such value. Now that was a foreign concept, at least in my experience growing up in Northern California.

Although she took her faith seriously, she did not really know Islam in great depth. Of course many Christians do not always know the content and history of their faith very well either. She did once admit that she disapproved of the allowance for men to have four wives; what must she have felt, then, about the Koran’s explicit insistence on female inferiority?   She was, I suspect, like a great number of Muslims – profoundly decent and authentically inclined to piety – for whom Islam is part and parcel of social cohesion, but for whom uncomfortable realities (regarding the life of Mohammed, the early days of Islam, specific teachings, etc.) must – by decree, and for the sake of that cohesion – remain buried.  

Muslims have stood with Catholics against the modern assault on the family, and Islam shares with Christianity some basic monotheistic beliefs. But getting things partially right is, according to the historian Hilaire Belloc, another way of characterizing heresy – which, perhaps surprisingly, is precisely how in 1938 he classified Islam. He saw in Islam “not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing.” 

It is based on denial of the Incarnation and the abolition of the sacramental life – in short, on “simplification.” In this sense, he argued, it had much in common with the Protestant Reformation that was to come centuries later. Simplicity no doubt has its appeal, but oversimplifying matters of doctrine is a tidy means of eschewing what seems inconvenient or foreign; in other words, it can easily become a vehicle for egotism and tribalism – no small features in the lives and movements of Mohammed and, say, Henry VIII.

Belloc felt that Islam was “the most formidable and persistent enemy” of Western civilization, and that it could “at any moment become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.” Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote so perceptively about America, also studied Islam intently – and was struck by its insistence on violent jihad; he came away convinced, back in the 1840s, that “all things considered, there had been few religions in the world so dreadful for men as that of Muhammad.” Churchill recognized the “splendid qualities” of “individual Moslems,” but nonetheless said of Islam: “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.”

Though such language may seem harsh today, such conclusions do not preclude having genuine empathy for the peoples who languish under Islamic domination; quite the opposite. It also reminds us that apprehension about Islam in the West is not “phobic” but rational and legitimate. 

Islam’s “retrograde” status, Robert Reilly argues, stems in large part from its conscious break with Greek philosophy in the twelfth century; Islam’s dearth of achievement is but one manifestation of its decisive embrace of irrationality. Andrew McCarthy insists that the problem goes all the way back to Islamic scriptures and texts – in short, to the nature of Islam itself. 

The Arabic-speaking Coptic priest Fr. Zakaria Botros has intimate knowledge of those texts, which he has shared with a wide television audience in the Muslim world; some of what Islam actually endorses is hard for many Muslims to come to terms with, and would shock the rest of us as well. Conveying his in-depth knowledge respectfully – always out of love for Muslims as a manifestation of his Christian faith (even after enduring torture and imprisonment) – has spurred many conversions. One man was so incensed with him that he kept watching his program to figure out where he was so he could kill him. But he soon realized that everything he said was entirely accurate, and in time even became a Christian. The $60 million bounty on his head is one measure of his fruitfulness. 

“We are on our way to Heaven” is what one of Edith Stein’s fellow sisters said in 1942 as the Nazis came to send them to Auschwitz. This is precisely what jihadists (and their sympathizers) suppose – that they are on the way to reward in paradise – when they fly planes into buildings or blow up buses, subways, and pizzerias.

These might be extreme examples; nonetheless, they are inescapably rooted in and sanctioned by the respective religions. What a religion encourages us to give our lives for, as much as anything else, reveals its essence.  John Paul II began his great encyclical Fides et Ratio much the same way Fr. Zakaria Botros approaches the world of Islam: with an appeal to know thyself.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin D. Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, available now from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Joe, September 16, 2010
Matthew, this is an eye-opening piece in several ways. Thanks for the links to Fr. Botros and De Tocqueville, which are quite illuminating.

Bishop Sheen once said of Islam: "If it is a heresy, as Hilaire Belloc believes it to be, it is the only heresy that has never declined...There was never a time in which it declined, either in numbers, or in the devotion of its followers."

This reminded me of a passage in Acts, fifth chapter, where the Pharisee Gamaliel, a "teacher of the law," whose students included Paul of Tarsus, wherein Gamaliel speaks before the Sanhedrin and stops the mob from killing the apostles.

It seems to me it is quite instructive. I hereby quote:

34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

Thus, although Islam seems to be constantly gaining adherents, the efforts of Father Botros and we as Catholic Christians to spread the Good News can mitigate and perhaps retard that growth. What one finds particularly compelling about Fr. Botros' comments is this one:

"... Islam is less a faith, more a vehicle for empowerment."

When viewed in a political context, rather than a religious one, the advancement of Islam is understandable, much the same way one can say how the masses latched on to the appeal of Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and others who fought to establish kingdoms on this earth. But as our Blessed Lord said, "My Kingdom is not of this world."
written by Brian English, September 16, 2010

Excellent article.
written by Roy, September 16, 2010
I agree, this was scintillating. Thank you
written by Lawrence, September 16, 2010
Weren’t our founding fathers also wary of Islam. If I recall correctly, Jefferson or Quincy Adams or both …Funny how they knew more about it back then then most do today. SO much for our education system
written by Louise, September 16, 2010
"Muslims have stood with Catholics against the modern assault on the family . . ."

I wonder whether the Muslims' standing . . . against the assault on the family has the same religious sentiment and beliefs behind it as the Christian family has. Is the Muslim family built on mutual love, equality, respect, understanding, protection, mutual caring and support as undergirds a CHristian understanding of the family? How about a Muslim husband's dissolving the marriage with a word and there being no recourse for the wife who then loses her children? When Muslim men are free to beat their wives, restrict their activities, their friendships, their education, and willingly allow their daughters to be murdered to restore "honor" to the family, I suspect that it is only coincidental that we stand together against the modern assault on the family. How does the word "family" apply to both? I don't think that they mean the same thing.
written by Dan, September 17, 2010
Great observation, Louise, and well supported! The Muslim idea of family is itself an assault on family.
written by Christian, September 17, 2010
"the peoples who languish under Islamic domination"

Islam is the most incurious faith I know of.
written by Randall Peaslee, September 17, 2010
What a well-written and thought-provoking article by Matthew Hanley. Interesting point Louise. I never made that connection before.
written by Michele Coldiron, September 20, 2010
I once read "I do not believe that flesh and blood is the ultimate enemy", a statement by Mark Shea in the NCRegister, so I penned an affirmation, the gist of which is that I believe that Islamic fundamentalism is a ruse thrown at us by the devil in order to confound us. The real enemy in this world is secularism, our selves. We have tried to throw off the "yoke" of Christianity, with the expectation that a world ordered on our self-centered desires will be better. The process began with the Enlightenment and Reformation, and through the centuries has gathered steam. It is a deal with the devil and the results have been coming in for decades.
I believe the New Evangelization described by Pope John Paul II - the rise of lay movements, the nascence of differing forms of piety (unknown to generations of Catholics, including me, until recently), and the ecumenical efforts on the part of the Church and various other Christian denominations - all are part of God's plan to reinvigorate the Church, after a period of lassitude and errancy. God uses suffering to bring forth good. Read Pope Benedict's remarks in Birmingham and you will see he is on the same wavelength as me, or me on his . . . God's time is not ours either, and this is something that has been rolling out for hundreds of years. The Islamic trial, though it looks so scary, I believe is on its last legs, for Christianity is such a beautiful thing, that once we rouse our sleeping selves, learn what the faith truly means, bring home the prodigal sons, and really EVANGELIZE in trust, the rest will wither away on the vine, as well it should.
Of course, the "spiritual forces of evil" (Eph. 6:12) will not rest easy when the forces of good are on the march. But we should not be duped by the dog that is snapping at our pant leg, trying to bring us down. We must shoo off the dog, but more importantly look to the direction in which our footsteps are headed. Is it Christ's path, or is it a path of our own making?

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