Islam: Reform & Other Options

I know gossip is officially verboten, but I’m only passing along a news item that has people talking. Did you hear about that guy in Arkansas – Billy Bob Something – who married the wife of his adopted son, after he rather sternly prevailed upon him to divorce her?

No joke. This actually happened – except not the other day in Arkansas, but about 1400 years ago in Saudi Arabia. So it’s history, not idle gossip. Mohammed wanted this married woman as his own, and so retroactively deemed his original adoption of her husband to be illegitimate, thereby clearing the way for a “licit” marital arrangement. This is why legal adoption thenceforth became haram (off limits) according to sharia law.

Might the fact that this wasn’t the behavioral norm at the time – even in that “dark” 7th century, even in pagan Arabia – suggest the possibility that Islam ushered in regressive tenets, hard-wired to resist modification?

This is but one of many disquieting incidents – among the assorted depredations, licentiousness, and violence attributed to Islam’s prophet with which many Muslims themselves are not well (or comfortably) acquainted – that might help us frame the prospect for “reform” within Islam.

Take, for example, the Somali-born-turned-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali (now an American citizen) – maligned by the multiculturalists and mullahs alike for having left Islam. She has proposed five particular aspects of Islam that need to be altered. First, she insists that Islam drop its simplistic obeisance to Mohammed and the Quran; the other things that she says need reworking, including jihad and sharia, flow from this.

Therein lies the intractable heart of the matter. However you slice it, there is no getting around the fact that reprehensible acts (including the kinds making headlines today) have been perpetually sanctioned because they were committed and championed by the person deemed to be the paragon of all human behavior. If the deeds of Mohammed simply cannot be scrutinized because they are irreproachable, then emulation and no little turmoil will persist.

Reform is no reform at all if it evades this central consideration – the ounce of water that would not just dilute the faith, but dissolve it. Ultimately, there is only acquiescence, or what Ali herself chose: disavowal.

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent, recognizing that “reform” isn’t really a viable option, has labored conscientiously to come up with a proposal to deal with the sizeable Islamic presence now lodged within France. His hope is for mutual respect, which would necessarily have to be grounded in a return to authentic French identity; postmodern France is in no position to take on a radical challenge, having severed itself from its nourishing roots.

Pierre Manent
Pierre Manent

Manent proposes a kind of “social contract” in which Muslims would be free to live with their particular customs and practices as full French citizens, with two exceptions: that only monogamy be recognized, and that the burqa be banned. In return, they would have to accept the range of liberties protected by French tradition, and to abandon external allegiances.

Manent’s comprehensive diagnosis could not be more valuable, and the thoughtfulness of his proposals – arguably the best currently on offer – is not to be dismissed. The fact remains, however, that for it to work, both sides would have to recognize the need for a two-way street, that is to say, for a sincerely mutual respect for the other. But that would seem to require a serious reform of praxis within Islam. Not promising, to say the least.

Betting men calculate the odds. The smart money would seem to be on absorbing the straightforward implications of what the scholar Raymond Ibrahim calls the “rule of numbers.” Wherever and whenever the proportion of Muslims increases, violence against the infidel becomes more common and overt. (France is presently at 7.5 percent.) No proposal or arrangement has seemed able to change that fact.

Manent’s proposal will likely be ignored for the same reason as the “rule of numbers” has, with grave consequences, been disregarded by the politicians and clerics alike. But it is not an act of mercy – nor is it just – to dismiss the consequences of this theologically grounded observation.

Bishops in the Middle East have been supplying abundant mercy – by respecting the truth from which mercy is inseparable. Truth in the form of plain warnings to their brother bishops that the West, too, will fall victim to enemies they’ve welcomed into their home.

A scenario not particularly difficult to credit.

Yet these merciful admonitions seem insufficient to override what some Western Churchmen and politicians prefer to regard as their own magnanimity. For them, it would seem churlish to task Pope Francis for taking a couple Syrian Muslim families in Lesbos back to Rome. I myself don’t, although there’s plenty of complacency regarding the broader context of ongoing Islamic savagery, both near and far.

St. Francis, whose love of the poor inspires Pope Francis, also wanted to engage the Muslim world directly over competing theological matters of truth and goodness. So much so that he endured a difficult voyage to Egypt. He ultimately failed, but that does not mean his intent was misguided and should not be imitated.

Benedict XVI’s unassailably reasonable and charitable outreach in the same vein (at Regensburg) was rebuffed by the anti-Logos forces in the Islamic and Western worlds. But that does not eliminate the need for such boldness.

Today, we can’t much be bothered to take religion seriously, so to expect boldness of the kind needed seem “unrealistic” as well. One of our presidential candidates actually asked in blissful ignorance: who painted the tilma of Our Lady of Guadeloupe? Hers is the same lack of curiosity many of us display about Islam’s origins and beliefs.

Indeed, boldness – nothing short of the exposition of religious truth in charity – seems the single most urgent need today. But do we possess such boldness?

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.