The Ambiguity of Islam


Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders hold a prayer service and vigil at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., April 21, 2011. (CNS photo)The two recent pieces by William Kilpatrick, “Christianity and Islam: Cooperation or Conflict?” (Apr. 21) and “Of Bishops and Bombers” (Apr. 29), have generated a lot of discussion here on the CWR site. Some of the comments and premises behind them jump out at me, especially those that talk about “true Islam” being this or that, believing this or that, and being capable (or incapable) of doing this or that. Such remarks bring to mind an important book published by Ignatius Press a few years ago, 111 Questions on Islam (2008), which is a lengthy interview with Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, the Egyptian scholar of Islam who teaches in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

In a section headed, “Can Islam Change?”, Fr. Samir discusses the problem of authority in Islam, especially the authority to make final, binding interpretations of various suras, especially those that advocate violence toward and subjection of Christians and Jews. Fr. Samir writes:

I speak about the violence expressed in the Qur’an and practiced in Muhammad’s life in order to address the idea, widespread in the West, that the violence we see today is a deformation of Islam. We must honestly admit that there are two readings of the Qur’an and the sunna (Islamic traditions connected to Muhammad): one that opts for the verses that encourage tolerance toward other believers, and one that prefers the verses that encourage conflict. Both readings are legitimate. (pp. 69-70; emphasis added)

A bit later, Fr. Samir states,

Today the problem is that, whatever their position, Muslims will not admit that some verses of the Qur’an no longer have relevance for present situations. Therefore, the ‘ulima’ (qur’anic doctors of the law) are obliged to say that they do not agree with those who choose to adopt the Verse of the Sword as normative, even if they cannot condemn them. Consequently, in the Qur’an there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is a need for an authority, unanimously acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: From now on, only this verse is valid. But this does not—and probably will never—happen.

What are the consquences of this serious problem?

This means that 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. (p. 72).

This helps make sense of the fact that very few Muslims or Muslim groups renounce acts of violence committed by those who identify themself as Muslim and as carrying out jihad. Regarding jihad, Fr. Samir points out that “All the Islamist groups who adopt the word jihad into their organization do not intend it to be understood in its mystical meaning but rather with its violence connotation. … The term jihad indicates the Muslim war in the name of God to defend Islam” (p. 62). He also notes that historically, three different ways, or tendencies, have developed within Islam as it seeks worldwide conversion of all people. The most extreme is that which uses military action and violence. The second is the “mystical-spiritual” approach, which “has as its goal the Muslim return to the lost authentiicty of Islam and the propogation of the message of Qur’an among non-Muslim populations.” The third approach is “socio-political” in nature, and it involves migration and political strategies with a long-term approach to domination, which “is considered an inevitable movement of history” (pp. 139-40).

In 2010, in an interview with National Catholic Register, Fr. Samir again referred to the “ambiguity” inherent to Islam today:

Some would argue that the 9/11 bombers were not real Muslims, but fundamentalist ideologues and terrorists?

Yes but this is the wrong position because radical Muslims are true Muslims. I’m not saying that the true Islam is bin Laden, this is not my opinion. But I would contend that bin Laden is a true Muslim – a true Muslim. Pastor Terry Jones [the evangelical pastor who has threatened to burn the Koran] cannot say he’s truly representing Christianity because you cannot find anything in the Gospel that says that. But all the positions of radical Muslims you’ll find in the Koran and in the tradition. You’ll find other positions, but this is one, and one that is very strongly presented in the Koran and in the Sunnah. Nine-eleven was a Muslim action even if for apologetic reasons, it’s said that this was a terrorist action and terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, that Islam means peace and so on.

Fr. James Schall, SJ, in his lengthy review of Fr. Samir’s book in Homiletic & Pastoral Review (November 2009), wrote:

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. …

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.

Read the entire interview on the HPR site.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.