Christianity and Islam: Cooperation or Conflict?

A review of Robert Spencer’s Not Peace But a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam.

Robert Spencer has written a dozen books on Islam, as well as thousands of pages of commentary on Islamic law, scripture, and tradition, but this may be his most significant book yet because of its potential to alert Christians to a dangerous gap in their knowledge of Islam. Christian leaders are badly in need of a wake-up call about Islam and this is a wake-up call that is hard to ignore. Not Peace but a Sword asks questions about the relationship between Christianity and Islam that few others are asking, even though they are questions that beg for answers.

Coexistence or Chasm?

The main question is whether the differences between Christianity and Islam can be worked out or whether there is an unbridgeable chasm between the two faiths.  Spencer is not saying that individual Muslims must necessarily be at odds with individual Christians but he is asking whether Islam’s doctrinal hostility toward Christianity can be overcome, or whether it is of the essence of Islam.

This hostility toward non-Muslims is abundantly evident in almost every country where Muslims are in the majority and even in many places where they are a sizeable minority.  A few weeks ago in Pakistan, a Muslim mob attacked a Christian neighborhood burning down 180 homes and damaging two churches.  In Egypt, Christian girls are routinely kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men.  In Nigeria, Christians are burned alive in their churches.  Brutal attacks on Christians are a daily occurrence in the Muslim world, and in many instances, the hostility is fueled by Muslim clerics.

The hostility is much less in evidence in the world of Western academics and in the conference rooms where Muslims and Christians gather for dialogue.  In these settings, Christian professors and prelates get along fine with their well-educated and friendly Muslim colleagues and dialogue partners, all of whom seem committed to the proposition that the values Christians and Muslims share in common are much more important than the differences that separate them. Many Christians in the West take it for granted that Muslims share the same values they do, but, as Spencer ably demonstrates, this assumption seems to be based largely on wishful thinking rather than on knowledge of Islamic doctrine and practice.

Spencer is not opposed to dialogue per se, but he suggests that Christians need to be more clear-eyed about it.  Take the “Common Word” initiative. Begun in 2007, it was an appeal to Christians by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars for mutual understanding. The initiative was well-received by Christians and this resulted in an ongoing series of interfaith conferences and other undertakings. The Common Word website says that “the [Muslim] signatories have adopted the traditional and mainstream Islamic position of respecting the Christian scripture and calling Christians to be more, not less, faithful to it.”

This sounds promising but, as Spencer points out, in Islamic tradition the true and original Christian Gospel is considered to be congruent with the Koran.  According to this staple of Muslim belief, the New Testament that Christians consult today is a corruption of the original gospel.  In fact, Muslims look upon Christian Scripture in much the same way that The Da Vinci Code does:  “Mainstream Muslim belief is that orthodox Christianity is nothing more than a subterfuge, a massive hoax designed to fool the believers and lead them astray.”  Thus, when Muslim scholars call Christians to be more faithful to their scripture, what they have in mind is something quite different from what their Christian audience supposes.

Moreover, as Spencer notes, the Qur’anic verse on which the Common Word initiative is based suggests that the agenda is not dialogue but conversion or, at least, submission:  “Say: ‘People of the Book! [Christians] Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.’” (3:64). Spencer observes: 

Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims.

According to Spencer, there are two main factors which account for the willingness of some Christians to paper over the substantial differences with Islam.  One is the hope that Muslims will be our allies against the encroachments of secularism—“faithful brothers-in-arms in the culture war…”  While it’s true, as Spencer acknowledges, that Christians and Muslims have worked together against population control in the Third World, it is not so evident that they are on the same side on other issues.  For example, Muslims do not believe in the indissolubility of marriage.  As Spencer observes, “A Muslim man can divorce his wife at any time for any reason.”  For that matter, Muslims don’t believe that marriage is a one man/one woman proposition; instead, a Muslim man is permitted to have four wives simultaneously.  In fact, there are a whole host of moral issues on which Muslims and Christians are worlds apart.  For example, although Islamic law requires Muslims to be charitable, it expressly forbids that alms be given to non-Muslims.  In the wake of the Indonesian tsunami, UN and US supplied food and water was frequently denied to Christians by the Muslim majority. More ominously, Islamic law stipulates that the lives of Christians and Jews are of far less value than the lives of Muslims.

The other factor which accounts for a certain naivite among some Catholics is an over reliance on two very brief statements from the second Vatican Council—one from Lumen Gentium , the other from Nostra AetateLumen Gentium tells us that Muslims “along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” Nostra Aetate notes that Muslims “revere Jesus”, “honor Mary,” and “value the moral life.”  Spencer maintains that altogether too much has been read into these statements which, he suggests, are better understood as gestures of friendship and outreach than as the Church’s final word on Islam.  Moreover, he observes that, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, Vatican II needs to be understood in the light of Catholic tradition, and “When it comes to Islam, the consistent focus in earlier statements about Islam is generally not on what Muslims believe but on the hostility of Muslims to Christians and Christianity.”  One example of the earlier tradition (although it’s not cited by Spencer) can be found in Summa Contra Gentiles.  After excoriating Muhammad for his carnality and brutality, Aquinas notes that “he perverts almost all the testimony of the Old and the New Testaments by making them into a fabrication of his own…It is thus clear that those who place faith in his words believe foolishly” (Book 1, Chapter 16, Art. 4)

The Real Differences

Much of Not Peace but a Sword is taken up with an examination of questions about Christianity and Islam that are largely left unexamined by theologians and dialoguers.  They are not especially complex questions and one suspects they are not addressed mainly because Christian dialoguers do not wish to give offence to Muslims.  Many of those who are involved in interfaith dialogue seem more committed to the process of dialogue than to understanding the realities of Christian-Muslim difference.  As a perusal of the interfaith dialogue websites reveals, harmony rather than honesty seems to be the order of the day.

But, as Spencer says in his Introduction, “We must never think our obligation to be charitable can or should overwhelm our responsibility to bear witness to the truth.” In chapters such as “The Same God”, “The Same Jesus?”, “A Common Desire for Justice?”, “A Shared Sexual Ethic?”  Spencer suggests that the differences between Christian and Islamic theology are far more salient than the commonalities.

Take the questions of whether we worship the same God and revere the same Jesus.  It’s comforting to think that we do because then it stands to reason that jihadist Muslims are misunderstanders of their faith.  But do we worship the same God?  In some senses we do, says Spencer.  The Allah of the Qur’an is one.  He is a creator.  He’s all powerful and all knowing and he will judge mankind on the last day.  On the other hand, he denies being a Trinity.  He is not a father.  He does not desire that all men be saved.  He wills evil as well as good and his will is not subject to reason.  How can the same God reveal such contradictory teachings?  In one revelation, he claims to be a Trinity and in the other “revelation” he denies he is a Trinity.  In many ways, as Spencer demonstrates, the Muslim view of God is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian understanding of God.

Do we revere the same Jesus?  Although there is a Jesus in the Qur’an, it’s not at all clear that he is the same Jesus that Christians know.  The Muslim Jesus denies being the Son of God.  He is not crucified, killed or resurrected, and he not a savior, but just one in a long line of Muslim prophets.  To top it off, when he returns at the end of time, he will make war against Christians and Christianity.  The Jesus of the Qur’an has news for Christians, but it’s not particularly good news. Under examination, many of the supposed similarities between Islam and Christianity fade away.

Good Muslims and Bad Muslims

Spencer’s book ends with an interesting epilogue—a transcript of a 2010 debate between Spencer and Dr. Peter Kreeft, one of the foremost exponents of the idea that Christians and Muslims ought to form an alliance against anti-religious secularists.  The proposition of the debate was “The Only Good Muslim Is a Bad Muslim.”  And, indeed, much of Spencer’s work over the years suggests that the more moderate Muslims are the ones who ignore their faith altogether or else don’t fully understand its obligations. On the other hand, the more closely a Muslim adheres to the core teachings of Islam, the more likely he is to be a danger to non-Muslims. Right now, the media is trying to come up with a reason to explain why two young men in Boston became heartless killers.  Many journalists, pundits, and politicians are avoiding what appears to be the most obvious factor—Islam.  The two Tsarnaev brothers had evidently become more aware of the religious obligation to wage jihad and being young they chose the path of armed jihad. From our point of view, this would mean they were “bad Muslims” but from their point of view they were “good Muslims.” In this regard, consider the explanation given by a world-be suicide bomber in Pakistan as to why he let himself be recruited by the Taliban to don a suicide vest:  “They prayed all the time and read the Koran so I thought they were good people.”

There is abundant evidence that Islamic terrorists are not “misunderstanders” of their religion as the media likes to portray them, but that they understand it very well.  For example, Umar Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” was president of the Islamic Society at University College London, and in high school he was nicknamed “the scholar” for his extensive knowledge of Islam.  And anyone who closely follows the careers of extremist Muslim leaders such as Ayatollah Khamenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Mohamed Morsi will realize that they are well-grounded in their religion and take it very seriously.

Perhaps it’s time for those Christian leaders who are responsible for dialogue to take Islam more seriously, also—seriously enough to take a harder look at Islamic doctrine. It’s beginning to look like the real misunderstanders of Islam are the Christian academics and dialoguers who seem committed to a policy of “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.”  The urgent question they need to ask themselves is whether, in their desire for harmony, they are only succeeding in legitimizing and enabling a politico- religious ideology that endorses the subjugation of Christians and Jews.

Not Peace but a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam
By Robert Spencer

Catholic Answers Press, 2013
Hardcover, 251 pages

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About William Kilpatrick 81 Articles
William Kilpatrick is the author of several books on religion and culture including Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West (Ignatius Press) and What Catholics Need to Know About Islam (Sophia Institute Press). For more on his work and writings, visit his Turning Point Project website.