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Islam and Self Knowledge

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] 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’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.