On the Fragility of Islam

Islam is the longest-lasting, closed, unchanging socio-religious culture to appear among men. Its very idea is that everyone worships Allah over time in the same way, with the same simple doctrine. The major change Islam looks to is not modernization or objective truth but, in a stable world, the submission to Allah of all men under a caliphate wherein no non-believers are found.

We still look back at communism, at least the non-oriental variety, with some astonishment in this regard. Almost no one thought it could “fall” without a major military encounter. That it disintegrated so quickly and so completely seems incomprehensible to anyone but a John Paul II. He understood its frailty, its failure to understand the human soul and its origins.

Islam is far older than Marxism. In the seventh century of our era, Islam appeared suddenly almost out of nowhere. It rapidly spread, mostly by military conquest. Its immediate victims were the Byzantine Christian lands and the Persian Empire. Both proved incapable of rising to their own defense. Islamic armies eventually conquered North Africa, the Mediterranean islands, much of Spain, the Balkans, the Near East, the vast land area from southern Russia to India and Afghanistan and even parts of China. Indonesia was a more commercial conquest.

Later efforts of Europe to regain some of these conquered lands worked for a while. The Crusades ultimately failed though they indirectly prevented further Muslim conquest of the rest of Europe. Spain, Greece, and parts of the Balkans managed to regain their lands. But the control of the Muslim lands by European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made little real inroads into Islam itself. Islam was exposed to western power and science, but that did not effect any significant inner conversion, except perhaps for Muslim confusion about its own lack of science and technology.

The Muslim conversion of former Christian lands seems to be permanent. What few Christians are left in these lands are second-class citizens. They are under severe pressure to convert or emigrate. Many forces within Islam desire a complete enclosure of Islam that would exclude any foreign power or religion. The Muslim world is divided into the area of peace and the area of war; the latter is what Islam does not yet control.

Is the Koran what it claims to be?

So with this background, why talk of the “fragility” of Islam? This instability arises from the status of the text of the Koran as an historical document. The Koran is said to have been dictated directly in Arabic by Allah. It has, as it were, no prehistory, even though it did not come into existence until a century or so after Mohammed.

Scholars, mostly German, have been working quietly for many decades to produce a critical edition of the Koran that takes into consideration the “pre-history” of the Koran. Due to the Muslim belief that any effort to question the Koran’s text is blasphemy, the enterprise is fraught with personal risk to the researchers. The idea that the text cannot be investigated, of course, only feeds suspicion that even Muslims worry about its integrity.

Much of the philosophy within Islam, as we know, had roots in scholars who were originally Christian or Persian. This is well recorded in Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind. But even more, the Koran itself seems to be composed of many elements from Christian or Hebrew scripture. The very word Koran has roots in liturgical books.

The systematic denial in the Koran itself of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the reducing of Christ from the Messiah to another prophet, force us to inquire about the connection between the Koran and Judaeo-Christian Scriptures. The broader claim that Mohammed’s “revelation” rewrote and made obsolete the earlier revelation needs direct confrontation.

The ecumenical movement has limited relations to Islam pretty much to areas of mutual agreement. This is well enough. But one cannot ignore the issue of truth about a text and the grounds on which it is based.

Religion or faith, even in Islam through Averroes, has been conceived as a myth designed to keep the people quiet. The scholars could quietly let the caliphs and the imams rule if the intelligentsia were left free to pursue philosophy, which was conceived to be anti-Koranic in the sense that the Koran did not hold up under scrutiny about its claims.

The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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