Aquinas on Islam

It is no secret that secularists generally react to Christianity with hostility, but to Islam with obsequiousness – or silence in the face of belligerence and even of atrocities such as the Ft. Hood massacre. The most elementary explanation for this curious phenomenon, aside from cowardice, might simply come from that old adage: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But is there more to it?

Scholar Ibn Warraq notes that diverse figures, including Czeslaw Milosz, Carl Jung, and Karl Barth have spotted striking similarities between Islam and Communism or National Socialism; atheist Bertrand Russell felt, for example, that “Bolshevism is to be reckoned with Mohammedanism rather than with Christianity and Buddhism.” The estimable Theodore Dalrymple has also referred to Islam as the Marxism of our times, though he feels its totalitarian tendencies are borne of an inherent weakness: its inability to withstand philosophical scrutiny.

For all their obvious differences, Benedict XVI also posits (as in his Regensburg Address) that Islam and the secular West do have something important in common: they have each given Reason the Heisman. By that I mean that they have each stiff-armed Reason because it stands in their way.

Which bring us to St. Thomas Aquinas – the “Angelic Doctor,” known for efforts to harmonize faith and reason, whose feast we celebrate today. He had some memorable things to say about Islam, though he only addressed it explicitly a couple of times.  In one treatise, he offers reasons for Christianity against many typical Muslim objections and, at the beginning of Summa contra Gentiles, he concisely presents objections to the claims of Islam: its founder produced no miracles, and Islam – unlike Christianity, which emerged amidst waves of persecution – spread by the sword.         

Aquinas’ own words from the 1260s are worth a look today: “He (Mohammed) did not bring forth any signs produced in a supernatural way, which alone fittingly gives witness to divine inspiration; for a visible action that can be only divine reveals an invisibly inspired teacher of truth. On the contrary, Mohammed said that he was sent in the power of his arms – which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants.”

He goes on to note that Mohammed shrewdly forbade his followers to read the Old and New Testaments, which he twisted into “fabrications of his own,” before concluding: “it is thus clear that those who place any faith in his words believe foolishly.”

One can prize universal religious freedom, acknowledge the piety and sincerity of a good many Muslims, and value genuine dialogue, yet still find these medieval observations, stripped of politically correct evasiveness, engaging in ways that modern, informed, judgment-free observations tend not to be.

Aquinas also observes that the founder of Islam, much like our own secularist vanguard “seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teachings also contain precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure. In all this, as is not unexpected, he was obeyed by carnal men.” (See Chapter 6 of Book 1 for these passages).

          Thomas Aquinas by Ardith Starostka

We tend to think of (reliably anti-abortion) Muslims as repulsed by the Western penchant for tearing down boundaries in the pursuit of carnal pleasure. But the severe restrictions on basic interaction between members of the opposite sex in parts of the Islamic world cannot be taken as the measure of propriety; such severity tends to mask capricious and domineering deviations from the Judeo-Christian tradition that secularists can’t quite condemn. How could secularists, who aggressively promote all sorts of “family” arrangements in the name of an all-pristine inclusiveness, object to the polygamy permitted and commonly practiced in the Islamic world? 

In a similar vein, on what grounds could secularists object to someone marrying a first cousin – an exceedingly common practice in vast swaths of the Islamic world; more or less half of all marriages in countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia are consanguineous. By employing “equality” rhetoric to advance their “marriage” goals, secularists naturally, if unwittingly, align themselves with the only religion that allows for such close blood relations (the genetic equivalent of one’s half sibling) to marry.

Even lesser known is the unwritten code within the Dar al-Islam that tolerates pederasty. Afghanis speak openly, in a recent PBS Frontline documentary, about recruiting and abusing “dancing boys” – a shockingly widespread practice. Women are for children, boys are for pleasure, is the local saying. (A combat veteran home from tours of active duty told me how common this practice is among the Arabs as well).

Tortured indeed is the “reasoning” which sanctions such vile practices while simultaneously directing lethal hostility towards homosexuals (excepting men who abuse boys).

It is not an easy documentary to watch, but it is not hard to come away from it wondering if these villagers from the so-called “stone age” would feel right at home at NAMBLA gatherings. They might even appreciate the “progressive” academics who speak of “male intergenerational intimacy.” They would bristle, though, at the Greek government (proving that progressing in wisdom over the centuries is by no means assured) which now defines pedophilia as a “disability.”

Confucius recognized long ago that people lose their liberty when words lose their meaning; we should also add that children lose their innocence when men lose their minds. That’s why it was important that Benedict XVI called the crimes which in recent decades infiltrated the Church and traumatized so many innocent lives for what it was: “filth”.

Many secularists and Muslims, of course, are uncomfortable with the (respectively distinct) prevailing means of pursuing carnal pleasure. Yet easing the resulting human suffering hinges upon the extent to which they each see the need, with Aquinas, to keep human passions under the control of reason.

Sancte Thoma, ora pro nobis.  


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.