“What is Islam?” Revisited

Within Islam, the world is divided into a zone of war and a zone of peace. Those who are in the zone of war or sympathize with it are enemies who deserve death.

“An aspect of the attack (in Syria) that was not often reported in the media was the way the Islamist invaders tried to remove not only the Christians but the Christianity from the town, a phenomenon that is common now when Islamism expands in the Middle East and in the greater Muslim world. It is not enough that Christians should leave, convert, or die, but all traces of Christianity should be removed as well.” — Michael Coren: Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity (Plattsburg, N. Y. McClelland & Stewart/Random House Canada, 2014), 48

“Seventeen-year-old Ismael said he was ordered this summer by his Islamic State superiors to help behead every male ages 14 to 45 from an enemy Syrian tribe in Deir Essour. The teenager said he balked, but his 10-year-old brother took to the job with zeal. Activists said hundreds were killed.” — Maria Abi-Habib, “The Child Soldiers Who Escape Islamic State: Boys, Teenagers Tell of Lessons in Beheading, Weaponry at Training Camps,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2014

“The Islamic State stormed unimpeded through Mosul, Qaraqossh, and the smaller towns of Nineveh province last summer, marking Christian homes with the letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’ and giving residents an ultimatum: renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam, or die. The 200,000 Christian faithful in Nineveh, many of whom still pray in Aramaic, refused. For that, they had to flee en masse one August day with little more than the shirts on their backs. Some, including children, were slaughtered, and some may have been enslaved.” — Nina Shea, “Christians on the Run from Iraq,” National Review Online, December 24, 2014


Michael Coren, the Canadian journalist and TV host, has written a sober and frank book, titled Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity. Its basic intent is to survey and accurately recount the extent of Islamic persecution of Christians in particular in every area of the world from the Mid-East, to Africa, Indonesia, Asia, the Philippines, Europe, and America. Others besides Christians are also attacked, but Christians have become the prime target. The goal, now almost achieved in many areas, is the total elimination of Christians from Muslim-held areas. No doubt, for many, this startling phenomenon has certain apocalyptic overtones. As Coren himself stated, one needs a strong stomach just to read about the mind-numbing, brutal Islamic atrocities that regularly occur in every part of the world—beheadings, stabbings, rapes, throat-slittings, eye-gougings, knifings, burnings, and killings of every imaginable sort.

These scenes are not figments of anyone’s imagination. They are often recorded live in various media. Most people cannot even imagine them even when they see them. If the extent and inhumanity of this persecution of Christians are at all reported in the West, they are played down or unstated because of political presuppositions, ecumenical or liberal presuppositions, or because of cowardice and very real fear of Muslim retaliation—the murder of 12 in Paris yesterday being a timely and horrifying example. While Walid Phares, Robert Spencer, Laurent Murawiec, and Andrew Bostom, among others, have presented earlier graphic accounts of Muslim-originated atrocities, Coren has brought this bloody record up-to-date, as the violence has increased measurably in recent months.

When Robert Royal finished his book Catholic Martyrs in the Twentieth Century in 2000, I recall being especially struck by his observation that so many of these martyrs died quietly, unknown except to God.  Usually they lived good lives. In no way were they the cause of their fate, other than for their being Catholics or Christian. A reading of the Coren book leaves one with the same agonizing impression. Catholics and Christians of every denomination are now being slaughtered on a regular basis in various Muslim-dominated lands for no other reason than that they are followers of Christ. The numbers and variety of places in which these slaughters take place is mind-numbing. It is only to be matched by the relative indifference to it or the unwillingness to face its causes. To address these atrocities requires a different kind of courage, one that most politicians, clerics, professors, and media people seem to lack.

Coren systematically goes around the world, recording one-by-one particular instances of such killings. As examples, I will simply here cite a number of cases, by no means the worst, with which the book is filled. Hundreds, if not thousands, of instances like the following are listed:

1) “In January 2012, three Christians were killed in Damascus in planned multiple attacks, two of them while waiting to buy food for their families. The following month in Qusayr, Sunni terrorists stopped a family car at gunpoint, forced the father of the family out of the vehicle, murdered him in front of his wife and children, and then executed the children” (52-53).

2) “Early in October in Samarra, where there had been relatively little anti-Christian violence, a convert to Christianity was killed by his son and nephew. Converts to Christianity living in heavily Muslim areas are particularly vulnerable to attacks and especially hated by Islamists” (58).

3) “In Nag Hamadi (Egypt), a fourteen-year-old and six others were murdered as they left Mass; in Menoufia, a young Christian man was shot dead by a Muslim police officer—just one of many incidents in which policemen and soldiers have committed Islamist crimes and attacks” (73).

4) “In January 2013 in Bahawalpur (Pakistan), a Christian was stabbed to death for dating a Muslim girl, and in February in Chaman, a Christian was shot five times and killed when he refused to convert. Three Christian women in Pattoki were beaten by a mob in their homes, and in Lahore a middle-aged Christian was killed by Muslims after a conversation about religion” (97).

5) “In Kapompa (Indonesia), a Christian man was killed and another injured; in Marowo in May a Muslim man was killed because he was with his Christian brother–in-law, and in Kawua a restaurant owned by a Christian family was bombed and five people hurt” (122).

6) “In On-Mbaagbu (Nigeria), two villages were attacked and seven people, one a two-year-old, were killed with knives, and in Bauchi a car was driven at high speed into a prayer service and twenty people were killed” (136).

Coren cites page after page after page of these killings, all recent. Finally, he writes, “there is something dizzying about the seemingly interminable list of attacks and killings and the sheer repetition and numbers make it difficult to appreciate the human reality of it all. But there is no other way of presenting the truth of the slaughter, nor is it likely that the situation will improve” (142).


In the light of this frank narrative of crime after crime committed against Christians in every part of the Islamic world, what are we to make of it all? Coren puts it this way: “The fundamental question…is whether this current terror is intrinsic to Islam or somehow a product of a modern and passing anger” (103). Again the question is: “What is Islam?” Is it a religion like other religions? Is it committed to peace or war—or both? Is it a military danger? Will it, unless forced to by outside powers, abide anything within its borders but itself?

One of the most effective American military officers and diplomats is Marine Corps General John Allen. He is basically confident that the Islamic State can be contained with systematic effort. However, Allen recognizes, as few others do, that what we are confronting is not merely a military upheaval but, as it were, a civilizational threat. Many elements in Islam are now convinced that the time of this religion’s completion of its revelational “mission” is at hand. It is nothing less than the submission of the whole world to Allah. Modern weapons and politics are relatively ineffective and irrelevant to its success. Indeed, they seem to foster it. Western efforts to replace Muslim strong men, who at least protected Christians in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Serbia, have but made matters worse for Christians in these areas. In “free” elections, Muslim voters end by empowering a much more radical Islam. Allen writes:

But the major difference (between the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda) is that “we’re not just fighting a force…we’re fighting an idea….” The Islamic State had created an “image that it is not just an extremist organization, not just a violent terrorist organization, but an image that it is an Islamic proto-state, in essence, the Islamic caliphate.” It is an image of invincibility and image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.” (Joseph Rago, “Inside the War against the Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2014)

We cannot limit or fight against such a force without arms. But, if we only have arms but lack ideas, we will lose. Islam always seeks to back up its ideas with threats and force.

We look at the slaughter of Christians in recent years that Coren chronicles so vividly. Reflecting on it, we realize that similar persecutions have been going on since Islam first appeared in the seventh century. The first lands it conquered were largely Christian ones with similar slaughter. And it is not just that Muslims kill Christians and other conquered peoples. They kill each other with amazing abandon (See Mike Konrad, “The Greatest Murder Machine in History,” The American Thinker, May 31, 2014; Norman Berdichevsky, “Muslims Killing Muslims in the Name of Jihad,” The American Thinker, June 2, 2010). Yet, while some of this killing can be chalked up to vendetta or banditry, most of it is for what is said to be a “legitimate” purpose within Islam’s understanding of itself.

It always comes as a shock to those in the Western Christian tradition, for example, that one can be called a “martyr” for killing infidels. Suicide bombers who slaughter numerous innocent people are the ones held to be “martyrs,” not those whom they kill. Within Islam, the world is divided into a zone of war and a zone of peace. Those who are in the zone of war or sympathize with it are enemies. They deserve death. Killing them is an act of heroism. It has to do with what they are, not with any individual crime. It makes no difference whether old or young, male or female, white or black, are involved. All are “guilty.” Sometimes, as with the Christians recently in Mosul, they are given the choice of converting, paying a heavy tax, or death. It is all right to hate what is opposed to Allah. When assassins, suicide bombers, and killers of Christians carry out their deeds, they shout. “Allah be praised!” is usually heard. Islam has a missionary zeal that takes its goal of submitting the world, or any part of it, to Allah with—literally—deadly purpose.


Such thinking seems preposterous until we sort out the rationale for it. It does not become much better when we do. But it is well to spell out this rationale. This theoretic origin is where the new offensive of Islam is coming from. It cannot be explained, as many try to do, in terms of exploitation, poverty, bad social structures, psychological disorders, or any of the usual justifications for terror. If we “revisit” Islam in the light of its new aggressiveness, what can we make out of its understanding of itself and how it looks to others?

Islam considers itself the only true religion. It has a “narrative” of itself that all branches of Islam hold, although they differ somewhat on how it is to be achieved.

The Quran is the basic book of Islam. In addition, other commentaries and traditions add to what is in the Quran. In general, what is later in time is considered more authoritative. This rule is necessary as some passages in the Quran contradict others. In addition to the Quran and the sayings, there is the actual history of Islam, the account of its expansion and the methods used in and after conquest of Christian and other lands in the Mid-East, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Islam today occupies approximately a fifth of the human population on earth, and a proportionate control of land mass. From the very beginning, struggles, often bloody, have taken place within Islam itself over the meaning of its books and tradition, though most accept its ultimate goals.

While the Germans seem to be preparing one, we have, curiously, no critical edition of the Quran, its origins, its texts. The reason for this lack of investigation is, in Muslim terms, due to the nature of the text. It is said to come directly to Mohammed in Arabic. The Quran was not compiled for at least a hundred years after Mohammed’s death. Earlier versions of it seem to have been destroyed. Still, critically to examine the Quran is considered to be blasphemous. It implies human judgment on an unchangeable divine text. But technically, Mohammed is not “inspired” in the Christian sense. For the Quran is said to exist verbatim in Allah. Thus, it supposedly antedates the Old and New Testaments. These “latter” writings are thus said to be corruptions of the Quran, not vice versa, which the real case is.

In the Quran, there is no mention of the Trinity or Incarnation, except explicitly to deny them. It is blasphemy to believe in them, as well as to question anything connected with the Quran. Allah intends the whole world to observe the Sharia, the Muslim legal code, observing its letter. As soon as it can, this law is imposed in every Muslim land or smaller community, even in democratic states. No distinction between Islam and the state exists. Everyone is born a Muslim. If he is not a Muslim, it is because his parents or teachers corrupted him. It is impossible to convert from Islam to another religion, without grave, often lethal, consequences.

It is not against the Quran to use violence to spread or enforce Islamic law. Those Islam conquers, even from its beginnings till now, it either kills, forces conversion, or imposes second class citizenship. The Islamic State, now so much to the forefront, seems to have the correct understanding of what the Quran intends and advocates. The voluntarist presuppositions of Islamic thought allow what is prohibited to become good. Allah is not bound by the distinction of good and evil. Whatever Allah wills, even if it was the opposite yesterday, is good.

The struggle within Islam itself is over the issue of the degree to which Muslim law is practiced. Over against the Islamic State position are those older states which have some political structures, usually of European origins. Within these latter, military rule, while accepting most of Islamic culture, often limits the imposition by force of Islamic law and practice. In this sense, most Islamic states today are under pressure from the new Islamic State Caliphate. Most often what these latter states seek is a return to the status quo ante, to a version of Islam that allows some tolerance of outside ideas, without ceasing to control the culture. Most Western diplomats would see this as the lesser evil.

Others would like to secularize Islam in a similar manner in which the West is said to be secularized. It turns out that one of classic arguments against this move is precisely what has happened to moral life under the aegis of liberal thought. To most Muslims, the West is itself morally decadent. Many think that the decline of population in the West and the high birth rate of Muslims almost guarantee eventual control of many European countries by Islam. And no talk exists of “converting” Islam by Christians. With Fatima, Reagan and  John Paul II could talk of ending the evil empire of the Soviet Union, but the question, “What is Islam?”, is seldom addressed. There is certainly nothing said about really changing Islam, only containing it.

Finally, it is possible that Islam will follow its pattern in the early modern world. Much of its recent success has depended on its good fortune with oil and other resources. But no Islamic state or group has been the origin of any properly modern inventions or developments. There seems to be theological reasons for this, as there is no reason to investigate a world that is based solely on the arbitrary will of Allah. Islam lacks any real notion of a natural law or a basis in reason that would allow it to criticize itself and recognize the extremism of many of its own practices, and especially the killings.

Moreover, no real basis for the much-appealed-to “dialogue” with Islam seems to exist. Almost all the initiative for dialogue has come from the Christian side. Islam has no central authority. It has no fixed theology except what is in the Quran and attempts to defend its consistency.

Dialogue is looked upon as a sign of weakness unless it can be used to further Muslim goals. In the case of the killings that Coren lists, if they are looked upon as legitimate means, there is no need either to talk about them or to cease their presumed effectiveness in spreading Islam. One cannot really appeal to the Quran to cease these killings, as there is ample reason within it to justify them as worthy means. Had it not been possible to justify these means in the Quran, the whole history of Islam would be different. Indeed, it probably never would have expanded at all.

If we “revisit” the question “What is Islam?”, seen from the perspective of Coren’s analysis, we have to conclude, with General Allen, that the Islamic State does not have the military capacity to carry out its self-appointed mission of world domination. This position would be comforting were it not for the other side of Allen’s concern, namely, the power of ideas before a culture that has lost its own faith and is relatively indifferent to the killings throughout the world.

When an airplane goes down with several hundred on board, CNN spends days and days analyzing the problems and causes. The whole world knows about it. But when the massive killings of Christians and others go on, little is said. It is not much of a problem. It is to this latter issue that Coren’s book is directed.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).