The ambiguity of Islam

“When some fanatics kill children, women, and men in the name of pure and authentic Islam, or in the name of the Qur’an or of the Muslim tradition, nobody can tell them: ‘You are not true and authentic Muslims.’ All they can say is: ‘Your reading of Islam is not ours.’ And this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to our present day: violence is a part of it, although it is also possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, but it is also possible to choose violence.”
—Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., 111 Questions on Islam

“Real problems were raised by the Christian encounter with Islam as a socio-political system, which followed the politicization of religion. Since then there has been a tendency in the Muslim tradition of imposing its domination. This tendency derives from the Muslim conviction that they have a monopoly on the truth and that the Qur’an is the perfect and ultimate revelation.”
—Samir, 111 Questions on Islam

Many books on the meaning and apparently sudden rise of Islam have been published since September 11, 2001. For overall insight, it is still difficult to surpass Belloc’s chapter on “The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed” in his 1938 book Great Heresies. But books such as Laurent Murawiec’sThe Mind of Jihad, Reza Aslan’s No god but God, Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest, Tawfik Hamid’s Inside Jihad, Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred, and Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia are just a few.

Several books on this pressing topic are especially of interest to Catholics: Jacques Jomier’s The Bible and the Qur’an, Daniel Ali and Robert Spencer’sInside Islam: A Guide for Catholics: 100 Questions and Answers, Thomas Madden’s New Concise History of the Crusades, and, most recently, Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.’s 111 Questions on Islam, a book originally written in Italian. My own Regensburg Lecture is also pertinent here.

It is the Samir book about which I wish to comment. Father Samir is an Egyptian Jesuit, an advisor in the Holy See, with roots in Cairo, Beirut and Rome. An essay of his in the Asia News (April 2006) is entitled “When Civilizations Meet: How Joseph Ratzinger Sees Islam.” In it, Samir writes:

“Benedict XVI has stated more exactly the vision of John Paul II. For the previous pope, dialogue with Islam needed to be open to collaboration on everything, even in prayer. Benedict is aiming at more essential points: theology is not what counts, at least not in this stage of history; what counts is the fact that Islam is the religion that is developing more and is becoming more and more a danger for the West and the world. The danger is not Islam in general, but in a certain vision of Islam that does never openly renounce violence and generates terrorism, fanaticism. On the other hand, he does not want to reduce Islam to a social-political phenomenon. The Pope has profoundly understood the ambiguity of Islam, which is both one and the other, which at times plays on one or the other front.”

Samir’s comments on Islam are often the best around.

Samir calls himself “culturally” an Arab, but religiously or theologically a Christian. Samir is learned in the language, literature, folkways and philosophy of Islam. The book contains a glossary of Arabic terms and its own useful bibliography. This book is a must-read for anyone who sees the need to understand what Islam is about, something to be avoided only at the price of political and theological blindness. What Islam is about is no longer a kind of romantic reflection on a stagnant culture. Today it is a very aggressive religion whose reaches affect not only who lives next door to you, but the price of gas, the ownership of banks, the need for and size of armies, and the accurate understanding of one’s own faith.

This book is written by a man who is both sympathetic toward and critical of Islam. Samir knows its philosophical and theological backgrounds, as well as its history from its appearance in the seventh century on the Arabian peninsula. The book’s presentation is frank, pulls no punches, but never speaks without accurate knowledge and clear conviction.

The question-and-answer format of the book works well. The questions cover most of the basic issues, from suicide bombing to the status of women to the Muslim understanding of Christianity. Yet, I found the book rather frightening in its honest and direct presentation of what Islam does, holds, and seeks, of what it does when it conquers, and of the intensity of its beliefs, which in so many ways are so ill-founded. Basically, if it could, Islam would convert the world, one way or another, by peace or by war, as precisely the “will” of Allah. It really has little place for anything else, except when Islam cannot prevent its presence.

We really have no idea what we are up against unless we take a careful look at what is held theologically and what has happened historically in the Muslim world and its understanding of the world outside itself, which it calls the sphere of war. The voluntarism of Islamic thought enables it, apparently, to justify means of advancement that are by any reasonable or democratic standard immoral. Indeed, as Benedict noted in his “Regensburg Lecture,” this voluntarism and its invalidity stands at the intellectual root of Islam’s self-understanding.

Many western writers on Islam today, especially in explaining its violence, want to interpret this violence as somehow an aspect of western ideology, as if there were no roots of it in the sources of Islamic revelation itself. It is true that a number of modern Muslim thinkers were influenced by Lenin, Marx, or other revolutionary thinkers. There is a modern component. But there was violence in Islam’s expansion from its beginning.

Islam aggressively conquered large areas of the world, often ones ruled by unprepared Christians. Its methods of rule by tribute, second-class citizenship to the conquered, and isolation of subject groups are grim to contemplate. Much revolutionary Muslim theory and practice would want to rid Muslim lands of all foreigners who do not accept the Qur’an and its law. To a large extent, this exodus of non-Muslims from Muslim-controlled lands is happening. The Holy See has often sought to stem this tide, but one can hardly blame Christians and others from leaving such hostile environments while there is still time and still someplace to escape to.

The solution to the “problem” of Islamic violence, according to these same contemporary thinkers, is to “westernize” or “modernize” it. That is, make it something other than it conceives itself to be. While there may be some of this secularizing that is feasible—to “democratize” Islam—the drift is now decidedly in the other direction after the independence of Muslim states after both wars. Muslim states are under pressure of their own religious enthusiasm to reject overtures to modernity as contrary to Islam.

The advantage of Samir’s book is that he sticks to Muslim history and practice. He gives the most sympathetic interpretation of Islam that is possible based on the evidence. But this is a man with no illusions. He is not without some hope, but still, no illusions. He understands that many Muslims do not look at the West as a haven of good living, but as a morally corrupt, decadent society. Hence, to them, the notion of western superiority is absurd. We do not judge Islam by its standards, and it does not judge us by our standards. Islam does not have a tradition of natural law in the ordinary sense that would signify a rationale all men could accept apart from their religion.

Most people today in the West are covert multiculturalists. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and the rest of the “religions” believe in the “same” God by different expressions. This is fine until we dig a little deeper. We soon run into Chesterton’s remark that most religions are alike in their rites and external garb, but they differ in what they believe God to be. Here, in fact, they differ vastly. We are used to hearing that we all believe in the same God, but investigation makes this view tenuous.

The French scholar Sylvain Gouguenheim, in pointing out that Aquinas did not get his knowledge of Aristotle solely from Arab texts, says this of the Muslim understanding of Allah:

“To proclaim that Christians and Muslims have the same God, and to hold to that, believing thereby that one has brought the debate to its term, denotes only a superficial approach. Their Gods do not partake in the same discourse, do not put forward the same values, do not propose for humanity the same destiny and do not concern themselves with the same manner of political and legal organization in human society. The comparative reading the Gospel and the Koran by itself demonstrates that the two universes are unalike. From Christ, who refuses to punish the adulterous woman by stoning, one turns to see Mohammed ordaining, in the same circumstances, the putting to death of the unfaithful woman. One cannot follow Jesus and Mohammed” (Brussels Journal, 01-05-2009).

Samir follows the tenuousness of the thesis that the God Allah and the God of Christ are the same God. The Qur’an specifically denies the two basic elements of the Christian notion of God. Both the Jew and the Muslim agree in rejecting the God who is Trinity and one of whose Persons became man.

For those not prepared to accept its bluntness, the most surprising thing is what the Qur’an says about Christianity. Samir is very good here. He is careful to point out that the Church has never said that Mohammed himself was a “prophet.” Moreover, for the Muslim, Christ is not the Son of God, but a “prophet,” important but by no means superior to Mohammed, whose status as the last prophet enables him to explain Christianity’s unique doctrines simply as heresies or errors.

Both the Trinity and the Incarnation are “scandals” to the Muslim mind. Originally, it is held, everyone was Muslim. The whole of Genesis is rewritten, including the sacrifice of Isaac. Everyone is “naturally” Muslim. The “natural law” of human beings is not some rational understanding after the manner of Aristotle but the Law of the Qur’an. This law, for the true Muslim believer, should eventually replace all existing laws in modern states.

Samir explains just why a Muslim rejects the Trinity. The Muslim thinks the doctrine means the existence of three gods, an error that did not begin with Mohammed. The notion of three Persons in one God seems too subtle. The Muslim rejects the Incarnation because there can be only one God. God cannot “generate,” contrary to the Christian Scriptures and their understanding of generation within the Godhead. Muslim monotheism is absolute. No room is left for a Word made flesh, let alone a Son and Spirit within the Godhead.

The attraction of Islam, it is often said, is its relative simplicity. All that is required is to follow the five obligations: faith in Allah and his prophet, praying five times a day, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. By comparison, Christianity demands a philosophical thought that does not simply reject the Trinity as three gods or the Incarnation as a degradation of god into matter. Simplicity of practice is not a virtue when it comes to the proper understanding of revelation.

One of the most useful things that Samir does in this book is to explain how the Muslim will understand us. He will see signs of weakness in what we call simple good will or cooperation. We see the suicide bomber as a kind of blind madness or fanaticism. Samir explains how Muslim theologians have worked around suicide bombing so as to justify it. The suicide bomber even becomes a “martyr.” In this case, suicide bombing becomes a kind of personal sacrifice, even though many others are killed and suicide was generally condemned in Muslim tradition.

Samir is aware that many Muslims just want to live in peace. But others have a much more aggressive concept of what Islam is about. They think that everyone should be Muslim. A Muslim who converts to another religion or philosophy can be subject to death. Muslim countries will vary in how this penalty is carried out, but it is a factor that is not simply imaginary.

The people of the world, to worship Allah properly, should all be subject to the one Law, which should be enforced by what we call the state. Samir recounts that in Islam there is no real distinction between state, religion, and custom. There is absoluteness in this worship that allows no one to be outside. Jews and Christians, as a sort of compromise, are given a certain second-class status in Muslim countries, provided they pay a tax and do not seek to convert Muslims. Those who are not Jews or Christians technically can be killed. It is difficult to believe that such rules or traditions exist, but they do. And they are not seen as in any way wrong. They are part of a pious effort to subject all things to Allah.

In short, the “111 questions” of the title of this very incisive book are designed to ask every question one may have had since Islam forced itself before our daily attention. Again, Father Samir is both a hard-headed and sympathetic critic of Islam in all its phases. The book has much force to it precisely because it is written by someone who has been in immediate contact with Islam all his life. He has studied the texts and the history. But he also knows both Christianity and what we call the modern state. The book is often as hard-hitting about the West as it is about Islam.

When one has finished this book, he sees the Muslim with clearer eyes. The whole history of Muslim philosophy is a valiant attempt to make sense of the Qur’an and its practices. It does not think that anything is lacking in the Qur’an, which is said to be divinely transcribed. Efforts to examine the literary and historical sources of this text are much too rare and indeed can be dangerous.

The notion of a modern, progressive, technological society is not particularly in the forefront of the pious Muslim’s mind. The irony, of course, is that it is precisely this modern technology and its relation to oil that has supplied the Muslim world with the cash to become much more aggressive.

Samir’s discussion of why the mosque is not a church and of why the Saudis are involved in spending their oil riches, not to help the poor, but to build mosques all over the world, while at the same time forbidding the presence of Christian churches in Islamic lands, is most sobering. Considerably more people are converted to Islam each day than are converted from Islam. The great political fact of our time is the increasing presence of Muslims in what were once western lands that managed in previous eras—at Tours and Vienna—to prevent Islam from taking over Europe at a much earlier date.

Over a fifth of the world’s population is Muslim. In many ways, most of the military hot spots in the world today have something to do with Islam. Its nature and presence cannot be ignored. How does one think of this? Samir’s presentation of Benedict’s view is quite to the point. It is practically impossible to have a theological discussion with Islam. In the first place, there is no Muslim pope. There are many centers and sources of the interpretation of its law. Not all agree with each other on basic points. Benedict seeks to find a minimum basis of conversation, not so much of high theology, but of ordinary decency. There must be an explicit rejection of the use of violence as an act that has religious sanction.

This incisive book deserves widespread reading. It is clear, sensible and well-informed. It represents what the service of intelligence to the faith really means. It follows Aquinas’ dictum that we must understand a position urged against the truth. Only in understanding this can we estimate what we are up against and begin to think of how to confront it. Father Samir’s 111  Questions will do more than start us thinking about these issues. It will lay out the whole scope of what the “ambiguity of Islam” means.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.


  1. HPR Site Admin HPR Site Admin says:

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    Steve Golay – Question on Allah’s Oneness |76.247.175.Xxx |2009-11-10 16:Nov:th
    Question: Can I use the word ‘simplicity’. Is Allah truly ‘simple’ has the Christians understand God? Is Allah’s oneness a totalitarian oneness, suffocating and fearful of all that is not himself? Yes, it is a true, Islam does not accept God as Triune, therefore Christianity and Islam differ. But more fundamentally, do Islam and Christianity (with Israel) even participate in the same understanding of God’s Oneness? Are we not talking about different monotheism?

    Having a difficult time getting anyone to clarify these questions. Seems we want desperately to hold something in common with Muslim so we toss out the collective monotheistic life-jacket hoping it will keep all afloat on the stormy sea of the great religions.

    For me, Islam is best understood as a double heresy: Christian and Jewish. It must be thought as such, treated as such.


    Manuel G.Daugherty Razetto |97.115.213.Xxx |2009-11-12 18:Nov:th
    Fr Shall’s comment on the book by Fr. Samir is, though extensive, an apparent attempt to intelectualize the big question that is Islam for us Christians.
    Islam is, after all, a big world in itself. Countries that label themselves as Islam do not appear to be well developed and greatly civilized. Great masses of the population live a life that ought to be considered by us, ‘westerners’ heirs to the Western Civilization, as backwards to say the least. Just imagine the regular man in Afghanistan and we have a typical islamist. That prototype of citizen is the big part of the image we need to have of them: ignorant, simple, supersticious, poor, mostly uneducated if not illiterate, and so on.
    The ‘scandal’ that is mentioned by Fr Shall exists, also, between Cristians and Jews, regarding the Triune Deity , the Incarnation etc.

    We all know how barbaric and cruel can a fundamentalist muslim be; our valiant soldiers have been victims of such treatment in Irak and Afghanistan.

    The attacks by Israel in Lebanon during the ‘impasse’ between them
    and the Hezbollah, demonstrated that cruelty to civilians and children was a problem caused by both sides.
    Let us follow Benedict XVI example, and take Islam with a calm and intelligent point of view.
    I will read the book by Fr Samir and hope to understand more the muslims. We need to study more about them.


    Mayer – a little humility, please… |89.139.14.Xxx |2010-01-22 08:Jan:nd
    You say that the “typical Islamist” is “ignorant, simple, supersticious, poor, mostly uneducated if not illiterate”, and that “attacks by Israel … demonstrated that cruelty to civilians and children was a problem caused by both sides”, and then you go on to speak about how “our valiant soldiers have been victims” of this cruelty in Iraq and Afghanistan…

    Try some humility for a change: “Our Valiant Soldiers” have committed numerous atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing more civilians in the brief time they “have been serving” in Iraq & Afghanistan, than the total killed by Israel did since its inception in 1948. Not just a little bit more — but orders of magnitude more. Whatever righteous intentions the “Our Valiant Soldiers” may have had at the start of these wars have all backfired. In a few years from now, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are going to be having the same pathetic stickers on their cars — “Our Cause Was Just” — as to veterans of Vietnam.

    Islamic countries typically have a higher birthrate, so families are poorer because they have more children to support. With poverty come various hardships, including lack of access to education. But there are still many university-educated Muslims, and many staff academic departments all over the world, including in US.


    Phillip Turnbull – Mr |202.70.51.Xxx |2009-12-11 23:Dec:th
    I live in the world’s biggest Muslim nation: Indonesia. I read Fr Samir’s book and have found it invaluable for providing a basic understanding of the fundamentals of Islam. I recommend it.
    One thing Fr Schall’s excellent survey of Fr Samir’s book failed to note (can’t do everything) is that apart from anything else, the Qur’an understands and rejects the Trinity because it is God (the Father), Jesus and Mary. That’s one point of ‘dialogue’ to begin with – setting the score right.
    Some personal asides. During the week my maid came out of her room togged up for her nightly prayers to deal with a minor household crisis. It was the first time I had seen her attired in her prayer robes. (She looked like a Benedictine Nun in full battle dress.) After setting things right in the kitchen she passed by me to return to her room. I said to her how pleased I was to see her saying her prayers and extended my hand as she passed. She laughingly sreeched with mock horror and ducked out of reach. Then I realised something. Had I touched her, her prayers to God would have been invalidated and she would have been required to start again. A religion of ‘Law’.
    A catholic aquaintance here recently converted to Islam through the ‘evangelism’ of another Muslim friend. I took him aside and spoke to him of some of the worries I had about his conversion. He replied: “Well you know what its like when you go to Mass here. The priests speak drivel in the pulpit.”They do, unfortunately.
    Another friend whom I had coaxed back to Mass has also recently stopped coming with me. “The sermons are so boring.” They are.
    I know from experience in Australia that this is also the case. Islam is active in seeking converts. And sometimes Catholics prepare the ground.
    But it is not through agression that Islam will take over the West. Our western liberal democratic thought and laws, including advocates of catholic-lite, will hand it to them on a platter. And the Muslims know it.


    Wsquared |74.5.182.Xxx |2011-04-06 09:Apr:th
    All the more reason why Catholics need a proper grounding in what the sacraments are, to say nothing of what the Mass is all about.

    The center of the Mass is the Eucharist, and it is not contingent upon how awesome or awful a preacher the priest is. The Eucharist is not a symbol, but rather the true body of Christ. The priest doesn’t make this so; Christ does. The priest is just an agent.


    Gary D. Knight – Dr. |69.165.143.Xxx |2010-02-26 12:Feb:th
    I agree with Phillip that ‘catholic-lite’ (in the sense of watered-down beer) will hand over many Christians to other cultures if not ‘theologies’. But boredom at lacklustre instruction (which is starvation for the meat of truth) is only half the problem. The other half is excess of ultra-modernist drivel such as making a symbol out of everything including the Eucharist. I also agree that being technologically savvy is no insurance against Islamic culture, since in fact a large influx of Moslems in Western universities has already led to whole scientific journals founded in Iraq and other Islamic states. I know at least one quantum physicist who was converted to Islam, persuaded that the language of the Q’uran was the most perfect he’d heard. The only occasion of doubt I had him wrestling with was, that God our father is very personal .. and Islam seems deeply unconvinced of that. In fact, my question for (Christian) Islamic experts is whether Moslem scholars really do ‘theology’ in the sense we conceive-of as Christians. We have a conviction that God is personal, and wants to be found and known through our personal commitment of devout inquiry, modelled rather well on the dialogue between Jewish dads and their children at the Seder meal. We as grafted brothers of Israel do call our Father, ‘Abba’; and I think perhaps Allah doesn’t meanl the same thing. Therefore, I submit that we grossly misunderstand Moslem scholars when we suppose they make an enquiry on theology in filial terms, as do either Rabbinical or Thomistic (or Augustinian – as I am) enquirers. My thinking then is that the pope and bishops will do well to try to broach a dialogue on this difference, to convey to the other sons of Abraham that we see God as first and foremost Personal. Indeed, as creatures we have personhood only because He is Person. To an Islamist I think it seems too proud a thought to elevate the quality of personhood, or to bring down divine nature to something seemingly familiar (even though personhood and eternal responsibility is a deep mystery). This is seen in the simple fact that human life is not absolutely sacred to the Islamic mind. Perhaps then we can basically agree to disagree, since to the full Christian, human life is made sacred exactly by its participation in the image of God, by the incarnation of Christ, and by the price of His blood. If a jahidist was going to sever my head this afternoon, then this morning I would tell him “to know God better, learn that he loves you”. Then possibly he or his brethren will reflect that God must love every child he has fearfully and wonderfully made ‘in secret’ and brought into the warmth and light of His personal presence.


    Dana Callan-Farley – Adj. Professor |130.76.96.Xxx |2010-10-25 17:Oct:th
    Here in Jersey City, there are many converts from Catholicism to Islam, mostly Hispanic women. Marriage is the reason. These men provide a stable home (no polygamy), economic environment and, from everything I’ve experienced, status inthe community. It works well.. They don’t care about wearing hijab – and some only wear them at prayers in the mosque. Home lives are stable and they have lots of kids. Children accompany parents to prayer and catechesis is done in the home and youth groups, similar to any congregation.

    Here there are MANY moderate Muslims and the vast majority reject the violence of the jihadists. There are a few who refuse to condemn violence against innocent civilians – their polemics are challenged, but they are given respect. Muslims here realize that to reject and isolate those who identify with jihadists can create larger problems; better to embrace and win them over to reject violence.

    Thanks to the efforts of the Archdiocese of Newark’s Commission of Interreligious Affairs, Fr. Philip Latronico, Mary Sue Callan-Farley (my wife) and others are involved in a continuing dialogue with the Islamic community. These relationships build bridges of understanding, even when people say there is no way to understand. It is these people, on the frontlines of diaglogue, that will create a future- even with the good works of Fr. Samir.

    They don’t call them “converts” – they call them “reverts”….may we all roll our eyes.