This past Christmas, an Islamist group in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, bombed two Christian churches, killing more than forty people, including thirty-seven parishioners as they came out of the packed Christmas morning Mass in St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla. Many others were injured. Its current leader, Imam Abubakar Shekau, has warned of more attacks. Why? And what is the relationship between this group’s view of reality and the violence it practices?
Founded by Mohammed Yusuf (1970–2009) in 2002, Boko Haram aims at establishing a Sharia government. The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. Its slang name loosely translates as, “Western [non-Islamic] education is sacrilege.”
In a state security interrogation, Yusuf apparently proclaimed: “All knowledge that contradicts Islam is prohibited by the Almighty.” What kind of knowledge might this be? In an interview with the BBC just before being killed by Nigerian forces in 2009, Yusuf explained:
there are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it.
In this statement, Yusuf shows that he is completely familiar with the scientific explanation for rain, but states that he must reject it for religious reasons. This will strike many as odd, even eccentric, but this view has deep roots in a large part of Sunni Islam. It goes back to the conception of God’s omnipotence and the problem of causality in the natural world.
Here is the dilemma: If God is not the cause of everything, can He be omnipotent? In other words, if God does not directly cause the rain, but it is caused by intervening natural forces (secondary causes in technical philosophical terms), are not those natural forces in competition with God? If A must cause B in the physical world (as in condensation causing rain), does this not exclude God or at least limit his freedom?
These, of course, are very real theological and philosophical problems with which every form of monotheism has struggled. Ash’arite theology, which dominates in Sunni Islam, concluded that, if God is omnipotent, nothing else can be so much as potent.
This means that there can be no such thing as natural law or cause and effect in the natural world. As a consequence, everything that happens becomes the equivalent of a miracle because God does it directly.
Imam Abubakar Shekau, current leader of Boko Haram
This view has real-world effects. During the rule of General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, the weather reports were suspended from the media for several years because of complaints by Muslim clerics that they were impious. If God causes the weather without intermediary, how can you possibly predict what He is going to do next? Since there is no inherent order in the realm of nature, who is to say whether it will rain or snow? The claim to such knowledge is blasphemously pretentious.
A friend of mine living in Bahrain was conversing with a very sophisticated Arab businessman, who told him that he was going to take his family on vacation at the end of Ramadan, but his departure was uncertain because it would depend on the sighting of the new moon.
My friend informed him that this was no problem; he could tell him when the new moon would appear. “How could this be?” asked the Arab. Because, my friend responded, “I have a Farmer’s Almanac.” The Arab businessman informed my friend that no one could possess this knowledge. He would have to wait until the imam actually sighted the new moon.
A more profound problem arises in respect to the use of violence in advancing faith. Is this morally permissible? That is the question Benedict XVI raised in the Regensburg Lecture. Can you know that it is unreasonable to employ violence to advance faith, short of your revelation telling you so? And how, in the first place, does reason becomes the standard for what is moral and immoral?
Reflecting upon the order in nature, the Greek philosophers concluded that God is logos. It was the rational order inherent in created things that led to an apprehension of the order in God as reason itself. If God is reason, then behaving unreasonably becomes a moral problem. And it would seem to be unreasonable to use force against conscience regarding faith.
What happens, however, if you begin with an a priori assumption that there is no rational order in nature because it would impinge upon God’s omnipotence? Would this not also mean that God is not logos? If God is not reason, then there is no barrier to the employment of violence in advancing faith. The combination of this view with a scriptural endorsement of armed jihad is lethal.
This is the theology that allows radical Muslims to translate their version of God’s omnipotence into a politics of unlimited power (which they also use against other Muslims). As God’s instruments, they are channels for this power.
This is what led Osama bin Laden to embrace the astonishing statement of his spiritual godfather, Abdullah Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” This can only be true – that violence in spreading faith is an obligation – if, as Benedict XVI said in Regensburg, God is without reason.
If God is without reason, you cannot predict the weather, but you can force your neighbor to comply with your religion or kill him if he won’t. This is the logic behind Boko Haram and its murderous Christmas bombings.