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, 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.