Is Islam a Religion?

In a previous column, I discussed books by two ex-Muslim women, Nonie Darwish and Wafa Sultan, relating their experiences after years under Islam. Darwish comes to the most extreme conclusion – that Islam is not a religion at all, but a political ideology in the guise of religion. She also specifies what should be the essential characteristics of a religion: 1) a religion must be a personal choice; 2) no religion should kill those who leave it; 3) a religion must never order the killing and subjugation of those who do not choose to be its members; and 4) a religion must abide by basic human rights.

Could it be true that Islam is not a religion? St. Thomas Aquinas, in defining religion, utilizes Cicero’s broad characterization according to which religion  “consists in offering service and ceremonial rites or worship” to “some superior nature that men call divine.” Aquinas adds that this definition applies to religion in general, but that further specifications may be derived from revelation:

It belongs to the dictate of natural reason that man should do something through reverence for God. But that he should do this or that determinate thing does not belong to the dictate of natural reason, but is established by Divine or human law.

Under Cicero’s broad definition, Satanism, which recognizes Satan as the supreme superior nature, would qualify as religion; and abhorrent pagan practices such as child sacrifices, would qualify as ceremonial rites related to worship of pagan gods.

But we have received revelation about what God expects – including respect for human life (Genesis 9:5-7); keeping the Ten Commandments (Matt. 19:17); knowledge, love, and service of God (Lk. 10:27). The Epistle of James adds that for true religion it is necessary to bridle the tongue, visit orphans and widows in their tribulations, and keep oneself unspotted from this world (Jas. 1:26-27).

But, aside from revelation, if we admit that even Satanism, Aztec worship, etc. are “religions” in some sense, can we deny that category to Islam?

An analogy with democracy may be helpful. The egalitarianism of the French Revolution, which led to the Terror; Karl Marx’s movement in 1843-1844 to communism as “true democracy”; Pol Pot’s massive exterminations of people and property in Cambodia during the 1970s to establish “Democratic Kampuchea”; and similar massive “levelings” in the name of democracy, by throwing out the “baby” (individual freedom) with the “bathwater” (social inequalities) do not deserve the title of democracies. And any “democracy” that is dedicated to the destruction of all other democracies, would qualify as a “limiting case” – a self-nullifying concept. A government tolerating groups dedicated to the overthrow of itself would be carrying the democratic value of toleration to an extreme of absurdity.

So also, a religion like Islam that enjoins submission to Islam of all other religions (Qur’an 9:29), extermination of all unbelievers (9:5; 2:191-193), withholding friendship from Jews and Christians (5:51), and finally conquering all other religions (61:9), offer us a “limiting case” of religious co-existence.

The various Islamic practices that Christians and others find objectionable in Islam – the subjugation of women, genital mutilation, sex slavery, child marriage, polygamy, “honor” killings, execution of adulterers, etc. – might be tolerated under the rubric of primitive religious practices. Even the violation of almost all of the Ten Commandments, and the complete absence of a “Golden Rule” in Islam, may be compatible with the “basics,” as indicated in Cicero’s broad definition.

The Islamic tenet of execution of any Moslem who converts to another religion does not differ from the practices of some religious cults; thus Islam could be recognized as a massive worldwide religious cult, jealously guarding its members against incursions from alien sources.

But the “limiting case” has to be Islam’s programmed extermination or subjugation of all other religions. Beginning in 635 A.D., invasion after invasion, with forced conversions (“convert or pay the Zakat”), followed one another for centuries: Damascus, al-Basrah in Iraq, Antioch, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Armenia, Egypt, various cities of North Africa and Persia, Spain and Sicily, and finally Constantinople in 1453.

Robert Spencer, in Arab Winter Comes to America, comments on the following passage (2:193) in the Koran: “Fight them until there is no (more) fitna and (until) worship is (acknowledged to be) for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors”:

Fitna is a key sin in Islam; the word is variously translated as disturbance, upheaval, chaos, and sedition. If Muslims are to fight until there is no more fitna and worship is for Allah, non-Muslims will have to have all become Muslims, thereby eradicating the fitna caused by unbelief, and ensuring that worship is all rightly directed toward Allah.

The fate envisioned for the United States is of a piece with this script. Omar Ahmad, cofounder and previous chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), in 1998 informed all who are interested that “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.”

The presently ongoing extermination of “unbelievers” as the ultimate goal of a worldwide caliphate leads us beyond the concept of a tolerable religion, with all the rights and privileges accruing to other religions. This is not a religion but an anti-religion “holy” war.

It goes without saying that many Muslims (like Catholics who know little about the New Testament or the Catechism) are unfamiliar with the Koran and the Ahadith (traditions about Muhammad) – and this may be a blessing! But “ecumenical dialogue” with devout Muslims, who must be familiar with their ultimate goal (a worldwide caliphate and the nullification of all religions), is something like a death wish.

One thinks of Captain Yossarian’s sudden wartime realization in Catch 22 that “they are trying to kill me!” A “religion” dedicated to ending all other religions, by force if necessary, is a clear “limiting case” for meaningful religion.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.