Islam and the Definition of Religion

Everyone talks these days about the need for dialogue with Islam, perhaps no religious group more insistently than the Catholic Church. As many critics have pointed out, however, you only have real dialogue when both sides are quite candid about what they believe and what acts they encourage. Given the foreignness of Islam for most Westerners, it is often difficult to make reliable judgments in such matters. But at present, such judgments are desperately needed.

In her book Cruel and Usual Punishment, Nonie Darwish makes the rather stunning claim that Islam is not a religion. Darwish, the daughter of an Egyptian Islamist “martyr,” describes her first thirty years of life in the Middle East under Sharia law, and her gradual awakening to a fuller understanding of Islam. Towards the end of the book, she offers the following: “The conclusion that I – and others who have studied it – have reached is that Islam as a whole is not a religion. It is Arab Imperialism and a protectionist tool to preserve what they believe to be a supremacist Arab culture.”

Islam – not a religion? Is this just hyperbole? Or can she really mean it?

Ms. Darwish offers three arguments in support: Her main argument is concerned with voluntariness. Although Mohammad in the early (Meccan) portions of the Koran states that the choice of religion must be voluntary, this position undergoes a sea change in the later (Medinan) segments, after Mohammad had become a warlord, gaining power and booty from raids on neighboring tribes, and putting apostasy from the Islamic faith in the same category as treason in the military. Darwish comments, “The most glaring evidence that Islam is hardly ‘religion’ is in its apostasy law – the order to kill those who leave it. That immediately moved Islam from the realm of religion to the realm of totalitarian political ideology.” In other words, the apostasy law, still prevailing in modern Islamic societies, is incompatible with authentic religion; a non-voluntary religion or non-voluntary continuance in religion would be a contradiction within the very concept of religion.

Her second point has to do with the widespread and official suppression of women in Islam, for which she offers numerous instances – legal, cultural, and historical. This argument is echoed by Wafa Sultan, in A God Who Hates. Ms. Sultan traces the multiple instances of Muslim hatred for women to a conception of an Allah who hates women; and this hatred, she continues, opens the floodgates for hatred of all outsiders. Ms. Sultan points to the Fatiha, the prayer repeated five times a day by devout Muslims, the Arabic version of which is embedded with code words or formulas of hatred towards Jews and Christians. The question raised by both Darwish and Sultan, of course, is whether an official policy of hatred can be part of a bona fide religion. Here again, it is important to take into account the tremendous difference in tone between the earlier, Meccan, parts of the Koran and the later Medinan Suras.

The third argument is that Islam is marked by the transformation that took place in Medina, after Mohammad became a powerful warlord bent on destroying all opposition. Darwish writes, “Toward the end of his life, he (Mohammad) even declared a whole group of people as illegal to live – the Jews. His message turned into a violent obsession to eliminate non-Muslims. At that point, such violent messages abrogated any previous tolerance he taught. Religions and people who did not yield to his authority became Islam’s number one enemy. That is when Islam turned from a religion into a political system, one that kept Muslims inside the prison of Islam – under penalty of death.”

Many commentators and critics of Islam have pointed out that Islam is inherently political, without anything comparable to the distinction between church and state, Caesar and God, in Christianity and the Western world in general (although the separation of the religious and the political is never nice and neat). But Darwish goes still further: Islam is not even a religion often willy-nilly intermixed with politics, but rather a political ideology, purely and simply. Could she be right?

Going beyond such criticisms, Darwish offers some thoughtful and seemingly incontrovertible criteria which must be met, before classification of Islam as a “religion” becomes feasible: 1) a religion must be a personal choice; 2) no religion should kill those who leave it; 3) a religion must never order the killing and subjugation of those who do not choose to be its members; and 4) a religion must abide by basic human rights.

This is a definition that would seem to apply, for the most part, to Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism – despite occasional historical movements or sects that have advocated forced conversions, execution of apostates, oppression of women, etc. I would also include two offshoots of Islam – Sufism, the mystical Islamic school of thought concerned with achieving personal union with God, and Ba’haism, the nineteenth-century Muslim movement dedicated to working for spiritual harmony and ecumenism in the world. But Ba’hais are considered apostates by mainstream Muslims, and Sufis have been persecuted as non-Islamic by fundamentalist regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As even these brief reflections show, Islam is a complex reality. But for those who wish to enter into genuine dialogue with its adherents, the hard questions raised by some who grew up in that faith cannot be ignored. And we are a long way from good answers to those questions.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Perspective
    A great column about two great, courageous women. Reminded me of this from Hilaire Belloc’s “The Great Heresies” (1938):

    Millions of modern people of the . . . civilization of Europe and America . . . have forgotten all about Islam. They have never come in contact with it. They take for granted that it is decaying, and that, anyway, it is just a foreign religion which will not concern them. It is, as a fact, the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.

  • Michael F. Hickman

    Think it through
    Islam is certainly a religion. Although there is indeed no distinction between spiritual and temporal authorities in Islam, it is highly dubious to suggest that their worship of Allah is all a false front for a politcal project. Which is not to say that Islam isn’t a false or heretical religion, and even the cause of much evil in the world, based on its specific teachings. But Darwish’s criteria for what qualifies as a “religion” seems to me to be a subtle attempt to “tame” religion in general by deligitimizing any religion that does not fit the Procrustean bed of modern “natural rights” ideology. This approach is no boon to Catholics.

  • Joseph

    The poisoned fruit of Islam
    Catholic apologist Hillaire Belloc beat Darwish to the punch years earlier inveighing not only against Islamic extremism bu the Protestants, who were classified, in his view, as outside the “Universal Church.”

    Belloc famously said, “The faith is Europe. Europe is the faith.” As Pat Buchanan notes in his book, “Day of Reckoning,” the faith of Europe “has been discarded and displaced by secularism — and the triumphal return of Islam to the continent from which it was largely expelled centuries ago.”

    Buchanan quotes Belloc as proving to be prophetic by quoting the Frenchman: “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probably, that here would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between Christian culture and what has been fore more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.”

    Buchanan then adds, “That tremendous struggle has been renewed.”

    Although Islam has displaced Catholicism, by the numbers, as being the largest religion on earth — “religion” to be called into question — nonetheless, Buchanan questions whether Islam can play a hegemonic or dominant role in the destiny of mankind because, among other things, there is little that unites Muslims, who are separated by ethnicity, nationality, culture and race. “If faith is their strength, diversity is their weakness,” Buchanan writes and while Zionism unites them, they have fought more wars with each other than with Israel.

    Per corollary, my own view is that division, not unity, is what is tearing America apart today, along with the creeping totalitarianism, more subtle but just as pernicious as Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984. Today’s “tele-screens” are not as obvious but just as effect in monitoring the so-called free individual who is slowly bowing down to Big Brother as his god. This is the greatest threat: the World Government in formation in which “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery”.

  • Joe

    10 Point Toss-up
    Which is more like an anti-Christ, a rich and worldly successful warlord prophet, with multiple wives, speaking in the name of a god of pure will, remote and threatening whose moral requirements seem hateful to lowly humans, or a scientific materialist who makes man the highest power in the universe and who bows to blind chance as the creator?
    Is it a tossup? Thoughts?

  • senex

    Whether you agree or disagree with what Muslims are alleged to believe and do is only one part of the issue. The issue that is more intellectually and politically tantalizing is whether one can define or redefine ‘religion’ to suit his or her purposes. Are we embarking into Wonderland where Humpty Dumpty says:

    “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.”?

    This question is not so arcane, as we see all sorts of redefinitions in our current culture, e.g., social justice, equality, Progressives, freedom of religion, of speech, terrorists. The list could go on. It is easy to get rid of a problem by redefining it so that it sounds like a solution, and on the contrary by redefining something good and worthwhile as a problem or injustice.

  • A dissent
    I must say that I disagree with Darwish and Sultan. I think that the biggest issue we face in dialogue with Islam is the fact that there are so many different Muslim groups (Benedict himself has said this and I firmly with the pope). For example, as someone who grew up as a Bosnian Muslim, I can truly say I have nothing in common with Arab Muslims. Saying that Islam is not a religion also denies the reality and existence of Sufism. Throughout my childhood, I have seen so many pious, tolerant (in the true sense of the word, not the euphemistic definition of liberals), God-fearing people in my family and outside of the family circle. I could never possibly think of Islam as merely a political ideology. So, where does this leave us? Perhaps when speaking out about the inadequacies or flaws of Islam, we have to make sure to mention what group are we talking about. We need to put thoughtful distance between these good people and the bad “policies” (especially terrorisim) associated with Islam because of various Muslim groups. Then we can have a dialogue–I do agree with that in the essay.

  • KIMO890

    ONE point of view
    believe me that’s one point of view everyone should ask himself what really is islam and why is it growing not shrinking may be it is the strait way to god

  • Wayne

    Yes and No
    Islam’s founder or aides in hindsight were very clever mixing both true and false about the Old and New Testament, true and false about God, leaving its adherents to worship and follow most any interpretation suited to the occasion.

    The best touchstone for me is their story about how God provided falsehood to the people by putting Judas on the cross and making the people only “see” Jesus on the cross, while Jesus made his escape. A story of a god who perpetrates a lie is not a truth from the True God, but perhaps a story from his onetime First in Command .

  • end times

    A group of people who base their beliefs on a desire of world domination by force is not a religion, it is a mob. Freedom of Religion does not mean we give those that believe they have the God given authority to kill those who disagree with them, the rights afforded by the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights.

    It is not religious tolerance to allow a mob mentality to be considered a religion, it is ignorance to the facts.

  • Al Nettles

    Circa 1595 the Russian ambassador to Turkey returned to Moscow after seven years in Turkey, and reported to Czar Peter. After seven years observance of a Moslem society, he said, “Islam is most appealing to the uneducated and simple-minded.”
    The definition of religion is probably the most controversial today. Anything goes, but the “most unhuggable” of religions, per Salmon Rushdie, is Islam. Islam is merely an organization designed for world domination, one that disenfranchises half its population,keeps them ignorant, proposes murder for those who disagree, and allows murder of those who would leave. It will be the number one problem of the world for at least the next one hundred years.

  • Reem Said

    Sadly most people speak about Islam based on impressions they have rather than on facts, and fail to research the true context in which certain verses were revealed. Take time to study the true history of the Prophet Mohammed as well as the history of how Christians and Jews travelled to Islamic societies for protection to practice their religion in freedom rather than persecution and you will see how human rights and freedom of religion truly emanated from Islam. Unfortunately the so-called Muslims themselves who misunderstand their own religion and have become cult-like fanatics have given Islam a bad reputation. God clearly states in the Quran:
    “Let there be no compulsion in religion.  Truth has been made clear from error.  Whoever rejects false worship and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks.  And God hears and knows all things.” (Quran 2:256)

  • sabir

    The followers of Judaism and Christianity, now they felt sorry, because their old generations upset/annoyed their God as well as their prophets, so the God replace their religions with the third and the last religion, AL-Islam, and its prophet was Mohammed(Ahmed)and its book was Al-Quran, that is why now became jelous from Al-Islam and its followers and started building false statements against them all. I hope all of you who follow other religions other than Al-Islam, say the truth about it and start follow it so may Allah(God)foregive you all. God bless all of us.

  • jason taylor

    Kimo890, arguing from which is successful on Earth at a given momment is frivolous and can easily be countered by asking why Islam hasn’t already taken over the world. Or are you saying that Lepanto and Vienna prove that Islam is NOT the way to God?

  • Rabea Saeed

    Ironically people judge Islam by observing Muslims- who do not follow the true Islamic principles in the real context. Judgments and comments should be made after studying the religion and not the people for even Jews and Christians cannot claim that all Jews and Christians are devout followers of their respective religions.

    As far as the true “HEROIC AND BRAVE” ladies mentioned above are concerned, I would request them, and those who tag them such, to try to come out of the psychological realm and study Islam with an unbiased sight. Nowhere they would find compulsion in Islam, nor would they find women suppressed.
    Women suppression is a great claim darted against Islam and hijab is taken as its’ obvious symbol so I will just brief here that Hijaab or Veil is not mandatory in Islam, rather it is mandatory to cover your body appropriately so that a woman does not appear to be an item displayed in market to be sold. People have given different forms to Hijaab as per their cultural context as we see all across the world: in Western states women wear western clothes with head cover and I am sorry to say this is not Islamic Veil as tightly fitted clothes finish off the element of modesty and dignity. Hijaab is certainly not only covering head or face, rather it has been described as a matter of eyes in the Quran- the way a person looks at another. Therefore, Hijaab is mandatory not only on women but also on men in Islam. They are also asked to dress up decently and not to portray themselves as items to be sold and are advised to keep their dignity.
    Lastly the first Surah of Quran, AL Fateha, that is recited five times a day in every prayer is simply a supplication sending praises to Allah and asking for His forgiveness and guidance so that the one who recites it does not go on the wrong path as his ancestors or generations before him did. I see no harm done to Christians or Jews.