On the “Reform” of Islam

If violence, terror, beheadings, forced conversions, subjection of women, and intolerance of others are removed or “transformed” in Islam, is it still Islam?


The President of Egypt, at Al Azhar University in Cairo, recently did everyone a favor by putting on the table, from inside of the Islamic world itself, the question of its public conduct and inner soul as they relate to the Muslim religion. Does its conduct, as manifest in its deeds, flow from its religious beliefs? One and a quarter billion Muslims, President al-Sisi bluntly affirmed, cannot hope to eliminate the other six and a half billion human beings. A May 14, 2014, article in the American Thinker estimated that over the centuries some 250 million people have been killed in wars caused by Islam. The religion itself thus needs, in al-Sisi’s view, a thorough “revolution” or transformation.

The issue that I bring up here, in the light of these observations, is this: “Is such a revolution possible without, in effect, eliminating the basic content of what we know as Islam?” If violence, terror, beheadings, forced conversions, subjection of women, and intolerance of others are removed or “transformed” in Islam, so that they are no longer parts of the religion but condemned by it, is it still Islam? Would it not be something totally unrecognizable as the same Islam faithfully loyal to its founding by Mohammed? If so, it would follow that something is radically disordered in the founding itself and its development to its present form.

No one thought that communism could fall except, perhaps, Reagan and John Paul II. Some elements of it still strive to hang on, to be sure, but its evils have generally been acknowledged as inhuman. Is there a similar hope about an unexpected turn in Islam? Could it almost miraculously morph into something else? Or, if it changes in any basic way, does it not have to change into something already known, such as Christianity? Or Hinduism? Or even modernism? Are the violent manifestations within Islam towards itself and others simply an aberration? Or, are they essential to the mission to which Islam is committed, namely, to conquer the world for Allah? The authors of Charlie Hebdo hoped that Islam would become as “harmless” as Christianity has become. But is a “harmless” Islam an irrelevant Islam?

In 2011, I called attention to the work of scholars (mostly German) in establishing a critical edition of the Qur’an. It becomes evident that the text of this famous book could not be what it is claimed to be—that is, a revelation in pure Arabic delivered directly from the mind of Allah in the seventh century through Mohammed. Moreover, it is said to be unchanged in any way, not only from its first appearance, but also from eternity.

My assumption, of course, is that the Muslim mind—or any mind—when faced with facts, can recognize a contradiction in its own origins or practices if pointed out. If the Qur’an cannot be what it said it was, how can anyone uphold it? If it is a correlation to previously existing texts, its origin is not what it said it was. The effort to eliminate the scholars who even dare to wonder about this issue is not an argument in favor of the Qur’an, but against it, a sign of unwillingness to examine the evidence. One can only suspect that the failure of any source in Islam itself to produce a critical edition of the Qur’an, combined with the efforts to impede anyone else from doing so, is an indirect proof that many in Islam know there is something strange about the original text that is not explained by the theory of direct revelation.


Muslim thinkers, in the light of contradictory statements in the Qur’an, have had to devise a philosophical thesis about Allah’s nature that would, supposedly, defend the text from incoherence. The key to this defense is the affirmation that Allah is pure will. This doctrine is also found in Western philosophy, as in legal positivism. It is sometimes called the “two truth” theory—that something in revelation and something in reason can contradict each other. As pure will, Allah is not bound by reason, by his own decrees, or by what he may or may not have said previously.

In terms of Muslim law, the last statement in the text is the ruling one. Allah can decree what is good to be evil, or what is evil to be good. Thus, the suicide bomber who kills, in addition to himself, many innocent people, can be considered a “martyr” because he is killing by the will of Allah. This understanding broadens the power of Allah’s freedom. A God of Logos and a god of voluntas unrelated to reason are simply incompatible. The God of Logos has a will ordained to His reason and being. The god of will has no reason to impede any of his actions.

President al-Sisi is in a different position from those Western political and religious leaders who keep insisting on a distinction between a peaceful Islam and a war-oriented one. In the face of the most violent evidence to the contrary, they insist “Islam is a religion of peace”. The Western mind is thus sent off to search for the causes of “terrorism” that can be attributed to non-religious sources. They can never seem to find any, because the origin of such violence is religious. The text of the Qur’an can justify it. It is simply dishonest or ignorance to maintain otherwise.

The Muslims who know this background feel abused when it is claimed that they have nothing to do with the “real” Islam. In their view, they are the real Islam. This textual and traditional foundation is why peaceful Muslims, who know their tradition and history, are either silent or acknowledge the fact. In this sense, the problem of Islam is not some misunderstanding that arises from outside its own soul. It arises from within it.

In the wake both of history and Qur’anic text, this view of a peaceful Islam is really not possible to maintain, except in the light of a jihad that submitted the world to Allah. Peace is possible when, and only when, all people are Muslim. Hence it becomes naïve-sounding to hear the myth of a totally peaceful Islam repeated by people who seem to have no knowledge of history or what motivates most Islamic people who do use force and terror with, in their view, the complete approval of Allah. We can call them fundamentalists or terrorists, or whatever we want, but they see themselves as devout Muslims who are obeying Allah. It has proved almost impossible to change the minds of such “believers” in the Muslim world-mission.


It is obviously true that someone from outside Islam will miss many things within it when it comes to the question of how to change it, if change is needed. On the other hand, the very existence of Islam is itself a denial of the heart of Christianity. No Christian—or anyone else—can fail to see what happens to Christians in Muslim lands. They are fleeing, being killed, forced to convert, or reduced to second-class status. Islam is also a question of an attack on the essence of Christianity itself. Islamic scripture demotes Christ to the rank of a mere prophet. This is not to praise Him but rather to insist he is not the Son of God. His mother is a very holy lady, not the mother of God. The Trinity and Incarnation are specifically denied.

The Old and New Testaments are said to be fraudulent documents rewritten somehow in the light of the pre-existing Qur’an; and the Qur’an is the final and definitive revelation, not the Jewish or Christian scriptures. Yet what scholarship we have indicates, instead, that the Qur’an is itself a strange amalgam of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and other sources that existed previous to its slow composition in the first centuries after Mohammed.

Islam is said to be the final and only true “revelation”. All people should be “submissive” to Allah; all people are born Muslim, but are corrupted by parents or customs. If, though they are often persecuted, Jews or Christians are tolerated in Muslim lands, it is at the cost of second-class citizenship, with severe restriction of places and organizations that support them. Essential to any real Muslim internal “revolution” would be the abandonment is this lethal hatred and intolerance of others.


Many Catholic and other Christian leaders—and perhaps even some Muslim documents and leaders—want to hold (and do hold in public) that Islam worships the same God as they do. I have often tried to imagine just what the two “gods” really have in common so that we could call them “the same”. An Allah who denies the Trinity and Incarnation hardly seems like the same deity that affirms them. We carefully peel every differing understanding of the deity off the core. We affirm what, in Christianity, is rejected by Islam. Can the remains still be Christian, or even Platonic? It is not the Yahweh of the Jews.

When we see how Allah is understood in Islam, how he is described, we are hard pressed to see what, if any, relation the Christian God and Allah have at all. Rémi Brague, in On the God of Christians (and on one or two others) (St. Augustine’s Press, 2013; Editor’s note: see CWR’s review of Brague’s book), has shown the textual and historical difficulty in efforts to equate these two positions. But is not just the seeking for an explanation something in common? The problem, however, exists at the level of what is found, not what is sought.

Others want to maintain that, if we keep stripping off the things that make the two views different, we will eventually arrive at a notion of “submission” to the will of God or Allah. This submission can provide a basis of agreement. But the Christian idea of submitting to the will of God and the Muslim notion of “submission” to Allah are so different that it is difficult to see how they can be reconciled, however much good will is put into the effort. The Christian is freely open to a God of order, which it can reject; the Christian God is Logos, reason. The freedom of God is bound to His being. He is mysterious but not arbitrary or contradictory.

Allah, it seems, is pure will. He is not bound by even His own decrees, let alone to any objective distinction of good and evil. “Submission” literally means that, because man’s mind has no grounds to oppose or understand anything that Allah claims, his will must be done whatever it is. The difference between free, rational obedience and servile submission is a gulf, even though both are supposedly worthy ways to worship.

Allah’s will shows its supremacy by decreeing evil to be good or vice versa. This thesis was necessary in large part because many ideas in the Qur’an contradict each other. The only way to save the integrity of Allah was to deny that a contradiction made any difference. If these two views are compatible, I fail to see how. One can only “respect” someone’s god if that god is not the origin of what is impossible to maintain.


But to return to President al-Sisi’s point, can a “revolutionary” Islam that has purged itself of all the violence still be Islam? Benedict XVI’s question, in his 2006 “Regensburg Lecture”, asked whether a God who approved violence in the name of religion could be God. No doubt, Yahweh in the Old Testament did command violence in numerous occasions. Many think this source is where Islam got the idea in the first place. Likewise, the notion of “going forth and conquering all nations” may well be of New Testament origin. No one wants to deny the sins and aberrations of one’s own history. John Paul II sought to “redeem” Christian history of its own aberrations by acknowledging that these deeds were wrong. But they were wrong by some objective standard that ought to have been known and observed. They are not presented as God’s will.

Islam, as far as I can see, does not apologize. It rarely gives aid to anyone but its own. But the capacity to forgive or aid others would seem to be essential to the “revolution” that President al-Sisi has proposed. It is first necessary to acknowledge that much of Muslim history was based on a wrong understanding of God, and thus of man. It is also necessary to change the Qur’an in such a fashion that its readers will not constantly rediscover the roots of violence that is engenders every time it is taken seriously as the will and word of Allah.


In thinking about such subjects, it is well to recall Aristotle’s admonition that any “revolution” can make things worse as well as make them better. A status-quo that is pretty bad may still be better than an even worse situation. One of the root factors in the rise of Islam in recent decades is its shrewd analysis of the disorder of soul in the lives and polities of its chief critics. While population growth in several Muslim countries is now declining to western levers, the killing of 1.3 billion babies by abortion since 1980 makes it difficult for many Muslims to see why it would be better to imitate the moral chaos that now seems to rule democratic countries. Why is it all right to kill the unborn and the elderly but not kill the blasphemers? Why are divorce, serial monogamy, and “gay” marriages superior to polygamy?

Muslims know that many religious people in the West uphold these practices, evidently without scruple. But these facts bring us back to the same issue: which God upholds these practices and which one does not, and why? The Christian God is not only distinct from Islam on the issue of killing in the name of religion but also in its notion of family life. One is hard pressed to see that the family life practiced in Islam, with all its aberrations, is worse than what our laws and practices now enforce or encourage.

In the name of “justice” and economy, we now see ways to eliminate a family as the bond between one woman and one man with their children. We have separated sex from reproduction in such a way that makes “the brave new world” look familiar, even romantic to us. Ironically, the same “voluntarism” that makes Allah so dubious is the going doctrine of our legal, social, and moral lives. In the end, we have to say to President al-Sisi, that perhaps it is not only Islam that is in need of a real “revolution.”

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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).