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

Matthew Hanley

Matthew Hanley is senior fellow with the National Catholic Bioethics Center. With Jokin de Irala, M.D., he is the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Hanley's and not those of the NCBC.

  • Other Joe

    If one put Christ’s attributes in column A and Mohamed’s attributes in column B alongside, one would see a pattern of perfect opposition. Make of that what you will in what appears to be the end of the beginning of the end times. As noted above in a marvelous article, the Muslim religion and secular faith are both earth-centered. Allah and Blind Chance are the unseen and impersonal operators, both red of claw, but all the action takes place down here, and it is everyman’s duty to bring us closer to the eschaton by hook or by crook. That is the philosophical knit line between the two. They are all about the flesh. Mr. Hanley has also brilliantly pointed out that the totalitarian imperative is invoked when the animating narrative will not bear the scrutiny of reason in both instances. It should be obvious that free will and love are irretrievably conjoined (though apparently it isn’t) and that totalitarian systems by definition are against free will and thus against love and thus always bring forth bitter fruit.

  • Sandra

    What is from G-d is good, life affirming, getting outside of yourself to help others, even those that are strangers and enemies.
    What is from the “evil one” is not. That is how to tell the difference, there is very little to Islam except to accept surrender and embrace death… that is NOT life affirming.

    Many religions have teachings that are life affirming, but few direct by divine commandment to extend to the stranger, and to your enemies.

    Faith and belief do not die because tested, they die from apathy and from the appeal of glamour and from self-interest.

  • Aeneas

    Wow. I had no idea about, well about most of this article! I did not know Mohammed produced no miracles, nor of Mohammed’s promise of carnal pleasures. I certainly was not aware of the inbreeding going on in Muslim nations. That is too incredible to believe, and yet it’s true. However two things mentioned here I did know of: Islam being spread by the sword, and the pedastry going on in Afghanistan.
    In an age where information is so readily available, it’s incredible that so few seem to know of them. Then again I can understand why, if any one even mentioned these things, they would be accused of being a racist of a bigot, and then hear a litany of how ‘Christians did this, or Christians did that’, which I should also mention, is usually false, totally ignorant, and itself bigoted. This is of course the tactic used to silence people. Wrong is wrong no matter who does it. But in our world today, wrong is only wrong if the right group of people do it.

  • Linus

    Well, at least a few people are talking about it. Simply, it is a totalitarian ideology, systemized politically, having no authority from God, and having no moral restraints – and which condemns the use of reason, especially in the rank and file.

  • I am not Spartacus

    Muslim Paradise includes the possibility (actually probability) that homosexual men will have their pick of attractive young males. Serja Trifkovic has a memorable description of who Mahomet was – part John Gotti, part David Koresh

  • Tony Esolen

    I’ve been puzzling over these questions for a long time: If the Church is to apologize for the Crusades, should the secular state apologize for the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War 2, World War 1, the Russo-Japanese War, the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the War of 1812, the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, the French and Indian War, and on and on and on? Or: would the world not have been better off if the Crusaders had WON after 1099?

  • Louise

    Dr. Roy Schoeman’s book, “Salvation Is from the Jews” has an extensive discussion of the collaboration between Hitler and Arab leaders, including photos. It was the first time that I had ever heard of this political and military collaboration, and I lived through the Second World War.

    I have often wondered why this was never spoken of or reported on in all the many movies, newsreels, books, and newspapers years ago when our country’s administrations were less sympathetic to Islam, and especially before political correctness and (intolerant) tolerance and diversity and openness had put a stranglehold on the West.

  • teresa

    Can’t agree with the author. Thomas Aquinas knew very little about Islam. His writing about the Islam is mainly of theological nature, whilst the author is combating modern Islam which was certainly very different to the Islamic world during the medieval times. And the charge of Nazism and Communism is also a cheap shot. Islam is not a State nor a political ideology. And the last sentence should read “Sancte Thomas, ora pro nobis”, because it should be in the vocative case.

  • Michelle

    Thank you for posting this detailed article…


  • Hieronymus

    To Teresa,

    Actually, it should be “Sancte ThomA…”.

    As for the article, I rather agree with Dr. Peter Kreeft’s stance on Islam. St. Thomas’ objections to it seem rather superficial.

  • Tony Esolen

    I used to believe that Thomas did not know much about Islam. I’ve been persuaded recently that he did know a fair amount: he had access to a translation of the Quran, he certainly was deeply read in the (heretical) Islamic philosophers (Avicenna, Averroes, Alfarabi, Alghazzali, others); and he was advised by Dominican friars who were preaching in the vicinity of the Moors in Spain. It does seem that the Summa Contra Gentiles is directed towards justifying the two great truths the Muslims will not admit: the Trinity and the Incarnation.

  • Steve

    To Teresa:
    Cheap shot? Really? Better check out the relationship, highly documented and referred to in the article, between Hitler/the Nazis and the family regimes of Iraq and Syria and others. We just eliminated Hussein and Assad is in deep trouble. As I recall, their families were related and the political “socialist” parties they created ( I hate getting old, can’t recal the regime’s name) still have power.

  • G.K. Thursday

    I am saddened to read an article of this sort here at the Catholic Thing, especially after all Benedict XVI has done to establish genuine respectful dialogue with the variety of traditions that go under the broad name “Islam”. First of all,nin the Regensburg address, the Pope was critiquing a particular approach to reality that has plagued humankind perrenially: the truncating and bracketing off of reason from areas of human life, whether that be faith, the natural world, or human society. He picked an example from a dialogue between Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy to situate it sufficiently outside of modern life so that it might be understood as not simply a contemporary problem.

    Unfortunately, many people read it as a critique of Islam alone, which it was not. Many Christian groups have rebelled against reason as a guide to faith, thus proposing a variety of fidieisms, mainly of Protestant origin, but sometimes of Roman Catholic. But the Holy Father used this as an opportunity to reach out to Muslims and show them the love and respect that _Nostra Aetate_ demands of us when it writes, “Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The Sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.”

    If Saint Thomas were to speak to us right now, he would urge us to do as the Sacred Council directs us: forget the past and make a sincere effort to achieve mutual understanding; let us together, Roman Catholics and Muslims, preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values. This what the Holy Father has done in visiting Muslim countries and mosques, sometimes even kissing the Q’uran to underscore what the Sacred Council has asked of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. I can only hope that Dr. Hanley will look more deeply into the mind of the Church before simply quoting the past shorn of its full context.

  • Mike McCardle

    “The most elementary explanation for this curious phenomenon, aside from cowardice…” You can stop right there. Never understimate the craven cowardice of the left. Men without chests have been with us for a while, but have reached their zenith with the current self-loathing leftist administration.

  • Charlie

    carnal= the devil himself

    Aquinas= mind inspired by the divine truth

    CHOOSE and CHOOSE the truth which is Christ’s church.

    OR ELSE face the consequences of your tepid faith

  • Shareif

    I am absolutely appalled by the attacks made against Islam in this article. Where does one begin addressing the inaccuracies here?

    In short, I would like to turn your attention to Book I, Chapter II, Paragraph 3 of the text by Aquinas that is cited in this article, Summa contra Gentiles. In this chapter, Aquinas states:

    “To proceed against individual errors, however, is a difficult business, and this for two reasons. In the first place, it is difficult because the sacrilegious remarks of individual men who have erred [i.e. Muslims] are not so well known to us so that we may use what they say as the basis of proceeding to a refutation of their errors.”

    In plain speak, Aquinas is saying from the very beginning that his knowledge of Islam is quite limited. In other words, his arguments are based on a flawed premise that his observations of Islam are actually reflective of Islamic thought and jurisprudence.

    With regards to pederasty in Afghanistan, to state that Islam permits this practice is irresponsible and short-sighted on the part of the writer. He mixes a backward cultural pre-Islamic practice with Islam itself. As Christians like to point out to others in defense of Christian history, the acts of Christians do not necessarily reflect the teachings of Christianity. That same principle applies here. The Qur’an is in 100% with the Bible and the Old Testament on homosexuality and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. “We also sent Lut : He said to his people : “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” Qur’an 7:80-81 Furthermore, the Qur’an states, “What! Of all creatures do ye come unto the males, and leave the wives your Lord created for you? Nay, but ye are forward folk.” Qur’an 26:165

    Does anyone know the literacy rate in Afghanistan? 43% for men and 12.5% for women as of 2011. Does anyone know the poverty rate (those living on less than $2 a day) in Afghanistan? 20 million people, out of a total population of 34 million people. That is a huge percentage of the population! Combined with the pre-Islamic existence of this practice, these two facts are the reason why pederasty exists in that part of the world. And speaking of pederasty, was it not the educated religious leaders of the Catholic Church that secretly took on this practice in recent decades? Was it not the Church that sought to keep these practices under wraps and to silence the victims for all of these years? Under the writer’s logic, what should that tell us about Catholicism? I doubt many of my Catholic brothers and sisters would accept the conclusion that Catholicism therefore permits such practices.

    So please, my dear brothers and sisters, in the words of the Book of Matthew, Verse 12, Chapter 7 (Matthew 7:12) – “So in everything, do unto others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” The Golden Rule really is golden.

  • Margie

    Hey Sharief!!!!!!

    DO unto others…. well for starters I would only like the TRUTH from others. Wouldn’t you?

    There is NO TRUTH in Islam

  • Achilles

    G.K. The past shorn from its context? It sounds like you advocate the present, with its misplaced values and platitudes, shorn from the past.

  • GhostOfDisco

    I have to take issue with this paragraph:
    “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.”

    Actually, the Catholic Church also allows marriages between first cousins. Granted, they have to receive a dispensation to do so, but it still means the Church considers such unions to be morally acceptable.

    To be fair, there *is* a higher chance of the child of two first cousins of having birth defects (roughly 4-6%, as opposed to 2-3% to the child of two non-relatives), but it’s basically the same chance as the child of an older mom. (Of course, this is just the stat of a “first-time” cousin marriage, whereas in the Middle East, it’s been going on for quite a while…)

  • Shin

    Then too there is St. John of Damascus’s Critique of Islam, which is worth reading.

  • John

    “It is no secret that secularists generally react to Christianity with hostility, but to Islam with obsequiousness…”

    Thank you for beginning the article with this nonsense. It prepared me for the appalling inaccuracies within.

  • TL Winslow

    Islam is the logical completion of a triad with Judaism and Christianity, starting out by accepting the basic ideas of Genesis, and even the existence of Jesus and his mother Mary, then spinning it into the most intolerant supremacist brew ever known. Allah literally demands Muslims to conquer the world for him, and then to rule it with his “divine” laws of Sharia, which are now gaining ground after the Arab Spring. The essence of Sharia is that Muslims have the right to rule, and non-Muslims are to be ruled. In other words, total domination, forever. That’s why the word Islam is a unique combo of the words for submission or surrender and peace – Islam promises that there will be peace only when you submit, either personally through conversion, or by surrendering to Muslim forces. A Muslim can’t argue with Allah.

    To master the long history of Islam from square one is an arduous task, but the Historyscoper dot com site offers a free online Islam history course that’s the most detailed ever.

  • Paul

    There is one other basic fact, preached by Islam, that many seem to have overlooked in these apparent End Times. Islam denies that Jesus Christ is the Son God and is therefore Anti-Christ.

  • gsk

    From a Catholic point of view, the question is binary. Either God spoke to Mohammed or he didn’t. If we adhere to the admonition in Galatians 1:8, the answer is clear. It’s not a question of being nice, but of being truthful. Christians and Muslims both cannot be right (though yes, they could both be wrong). Dialogue is fine, but not an end in and of itself. At some point it needs to lead somewhere. If the Golden Rule is to be the standard, then I hope that both sides agree to do what is most charitable to the other, and speaking forthrightly in love is a good place to start. I’m not seeing that in much of the Muslin world right now, but I sense that’s exactly what Mr Hanley has tried to do.

  • gsk

    From a Christian point of view, the question is binary. Either God spoke to Mohammed or he didn’t. Christians and Muslims both cannot be right (see Galatians 1:8) though of course they both could be wrong. If the Golden Rule is to be the standard, then speaking forthrightly in love is a good place to start, which Mr Hanley has done.

    Dialogue isn’t an end in and of itself, it must lead somewhere. If we honestly seek the truth, then difficult things must be said. Responding with equal forthrightness (on topic, answering claims) is valuable; handwringing over direct or challenging statements is absurd. Truth is a double-edged sword, and at least these were just words.

  • Terence Nunis

    Islam denies Jesus is the Son of God. The Qur’an acknowledges him as Prophet and the Messiah and there is a whole chapter speaking about his virtues. And from the top, it only gets worse. So many things said about Islam AND Christianity is erroneous, it is embarrassing.

    The article is full of factual inaccuracies and things are taken out of context. The comments do not but highlight bigotry and ignorance. Christianity is better than that and Christians are supposed to be better than that.

  • Other Joe

    The concept of apostasy in which one may check out but never leave is more appropriate to a secretive criminal enterprise. Criminal enterprises often enforce a code of conduct with just enough social “good” (security, conformity and small favors for those who fall within the shadow of the enterprise) to maintain a tentative social contract, but one that is based on fear and intimidation. Either God is loving and personally interested in His creation, or not. It really is a binary problem, either or. In Florence Italy there is a small, not well known museum that displays Muslim armaments from the wars of conquest. Damascus steel was famous for a reason. The items in the collection provide a concrete (and frightening) record of a millennium and a half of constant religious warfare. There is no equivalent in any other religion or culture. In our rush to apologize for sporadic attempts to defend Christianity with arms (the Crusades)we tend to forget that the aggressor sets the rules of engagement.

  • Ben Horvath

    I don’t think the fact that liberal secularists want Muslims immigration into western societies has anything to do with the rejection of reason common to both groups or the similarity of certain aspects of Islam to marxist-leninism: I think the reason that lefties want more Muslims among us is that they will reliably and consistently vote for the left in every election (both lefties and Muslims see Muslims as victims and therefore entitled).

  • Shareif

    Hello Margie,

    I completely agree with you with wanting the truth from others. The author wrote an article based on one of Aquinas’s writings in which he states that his knowledge of Islam is very limited. In other words, most of his premises regarding Islam are false. I wish the author would have told the truth by noting that. He should have listened to your advice.

    Have you ever read the Qur’an? If so, can you tell me what you found to be untrue?

  • Rosemary

    We Catholics have been ineffective in raising the level of Western culture because we have been seduced by it. This is alarming to devout Muslims to whom we export the worst of the West. I don’t wonder that they have such animosity toward Christians because they identify our oversexed culture with Christianity. They look at Christianity and may think, “What have those Christians done?”

    And they are right. It is hard to argue when one considers the garbage we export through our films and on the internet. WE are our enemy but because we are uncomfortable with that, we pick on Islam instead. Yes, Islam is a die-hard heresy but it wouldn’t be if people who give lip service to their Christianity actually lived it.

    I am sick of Christians blaming others for what is really their own lack of faith. Do we think that by criticizing and charging persecution we will justify ourselves before God?!