Understanding Islam

INSIDE ISLAM: A GUIDE FOR CATHOLICS: 100 QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS. By Danile Ali and Robert Spencer (Ascension Press, P.O. Box 1990, West Chester, Pa. 19380, 2003), 179 pp. PB 11.99.

How it is possible for Catholics, or for anyone else for that matter, to know so little about Islam, what it holds about itself, is something of a mystery. No longer is it simply ignorance or lack of interest about some curious or ancient sect, like Aztec theology. It is not knowing the most growing and, in many ways, dangerous, of religions. One might expect some more detailed guidance from official Catholic sources, particularly as the number of Catholics who have been martyred in Muslim lands in modern times is rather large, but there seems to be a reluctance to spell out in careful detail the basic premises of the Muslim faith. Muslims, on the other hand, take great efforts to proselytize Christians and favorably to compare Islam’s simplicity against Catholicism’s, to them, mind boggling complexity.

Daniel Ali is a convert from Islam and founder of the Christian Islamic Forum. Spencer has written on several aspects of Islam, on its rapid growth, on its notion of holy war. Together, they have understood that there is lacking any real intelligible presentation of Islam that is framed against a specifically Catholic historical and theological background. They present a book that is accurate in understanding Islam, but one that does not shirk unpleasant facts about it or untenable theories. What is particularly useful in this book is a presentation of how Catholicism is so badly understood by Islamic scholars and promoters.

Consider the following random questions found asked and answered in the book: Q. 7, “What is the Koran?” Q. 38. “Why don’t Muslims believe that Jesus died on the Cross?” Q. 68, “Does Allah call all people to embrace Islam?” Q. 79, “Does Islam require all Muslims to join in a jihad against unbelievers?” Q. 92, “Is it true that Christians living in an Islamic state must pay a special tax?” If we have not wondered about such questions, we should begin pretty soon to see their import.

Within Islam, for example, a very complicated theory of what might be called the “two bibles hypothesis” is present. Since Mohammed lived some seven hundred years after Christ and Mohammed is said to be the last prophet, it is necessary to explain, within Muslim terms, how this is possible. There is no mention of Mohammed in the Bible. Moreover, the two basic Christian teachings, about the Trinity in the Godhead and the Incarnation of Christ, a member of this Trinity, is considered blasphemous and to be suppressed. These Christian views are contrary to the teaching about the transcendence and simplicity of Allah. Ali and Spencer question the too easy assumption that Islam and Christianity worship the same God, even though Islam claims and probably has some familiarity with both the Old and New Testaments, in some garbled form. Modern forms of literary criticism make the Koran seem most dubious. Ali and Spencer do not go into the problem of science and the Koran that Stanley Jaki does in his writings on Islam.

To solve the bible problem, it is proposed in Islam that there was an ancient version of the bible in which the Trinity and the Incarnation did not appear. All copies of this early bible were deliberately bought up and destroyed by Christians. Later, Christians concocted a new bible, the one we have now. As the authors point out, this is a preposterous theory, with not a bit of historical or textual evidence to back it. But it is necessary to propose it and hold it as an absolute truth, whatever the evidence, to solve the question of how we get to Mohammed as the only prophet, who was supposedly predicted in the original, but suppressed in all existing bibles.

The authors go into almost every controverted question in Islam. The question and answer format in this case works quite well. The authors take particular effort to explain why Muslims think they have a complaint, historical or theological, against Christians. The background and nature of the controversy are given. The much maligned crusades are actually last-ditch stands of Christian armies which, had they not been successful, would have lost Europe to Islam centuries ago. There were abuses, of course, even of Christians against each other, but the concept of the Crusades was defensive. To picture it otherwise is simply false. Islam expanded primarily by ruthless military means and most often against once Christian lands. Spain is almost the only place where conquering Muslim armies were pushed out of a place once conquered, and that re conquest took seven centuries. The mood in Islam today is not in the direction of rejecting this expansionist past, but in reinvigorating it in modern terms with frank hope of ultimate conquest of the world for Islam.

There are long discussions about the status of women in Islam, almost the only subject we do see something of in the modern press. Muslim divorce laws are detailed, the four divorces, the problem of concubines, women’s inheritances. Slavery in Islam is discussed. Likewise, the status of Jews and Christians in Muslim lands is seen to be one of second class citizenship in almost every Muslim country, with Saudi Arabia the absolute worst. Though there are some Muslim converts to Christianity, they are very few. It is often worth one’s life to try to leave Islam for another religion. In many ways, it is a religion of fear and, even by its own title, of submission. Conversions take place, but mostly from Christianity to Islam. The Christians once in the Middle East get out whenever they can.

Why this book is important is that it takes seriously the need to understand what is wrong with Islam’s concept of world and its practices. It seeks to engage the theological and practical issues. So long as we are reluctant to do this, Islam will win. We vastly underestimate both how it can be attractive and how it uses its financial and military or terrorist power to expand its dominion. Islam in many of its leading thinkers is not a passive religion. It thinks it is the true and only worldwide religion by right. Much of the political unrest and war in the world today stem from this belief. Not to take it seriously or know its dimensions is a formula of cultural suicide. Ali and Spencer do something that official Church and political leaders are reluctant even to consider, namely, they examine what Islam says of itself and asks the question, “Is it feasible?” “Is it true?” This very useful book is as good a place as any to begin to see the dimensions of what will no doubt, as it seems now, be the major problem of the 21st Century.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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