The “True” Islam

The writings of Rémi Brague, winner of the 2012 Ratzinger Prize, about Islam offer the sort of unflinching and detailed analysis often missing from papal utterances


Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, states that the Mohammedans “profess their faith as the faith of Abraham, and with us they worship the one, merciful God who will judge men on the last day” (par 16). At first sight, that statement appears friendly and matter-of-fact; the “faith” of Muslims is evidently thought to be the same “with us”. We “agree” about a last judgment and a merciful God who is one. This mutual understanding apparently comes from Abraham. This way of putting the issue argues to a common origin of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, each of which “appeared” in history at different times—the New Testament some twelve hundred years after Abraham and Islam some seven hundred years after the time of Christ.

But when we examine what each tradition means by unity, worship, judgment, and mercy, we hesitate to affirm that they mean the same things by the same words. And the assumed agreement that God is one provides little basis for further agreement about what flows from it. Islam confronts religion and politics as we know them with questions of the true and the false, with questions of life and death. Seemingly both fascinated and paralyzed, we watch Christians and others killed or beheaded before our very eyes in the most brutal manner. The great Monastery of St. Elijah near Mosul in Iraq, dating from the 600s AD, was recently not just destroyed, but pulverized, not for any military reason but to erase any sign of historic Christian presence there. This is a foretaste of what will happen to other Christian churches and buildings if this Islamic expansion continues.

These killings and destructions are considered a judgment, so it is claimed, on a corrupt society that refuses to accept the will of Allah as the norm of how to live. We also hear of women molested even in front of European cathedrals as if such deeds are “rights”. Indeed, the women are said to be themselves the “causes” because they do not attire themselves as Muslim law requires everywhere. The victims thus cause the crimes—not the “true” believers who carry out the assults.

We know also of blatant discrimination against non-Muslims in all Muslim lands. But again this is said to be a “right” of every people to decide who is or is not a citizen and what its laws are. Nor are such brutal activities new or unjustified within Muslim thought. They have been present in one form or another ever since Islam began in the seventh century. There is a philosophic consistency about them. Many ways to come to terms with this abiding conduct, however, are currently proposed to render it less violent. Many, including Pope Francis (Evangelium Gaudium #253), maintain that the “true” Islam is “peaceful”; the “violence” is presented as an aberration unrelated to Islam, not the norm.

When it comes to understanding the implications of these Islamic things, no one is more insightful than the French philosopher and historian, Rémi Brague, winner of the 2012 Ratzinger Prize, a professor in both Paris and Munich, and author of books including The Law of God, The Legend of the Middle Ages, and On the God of the Christians. In an essay in the French journal, Commentaire (Spring 2015), entitled “Sur le ‘vrai’ islam”, he addressed himself to a consideration of the Pope’s view that “true” Islam is a “peaceful” religion. Brague noted that no pope is an “authority” within Islam to define what it is.

One might point out, though, that a pope is an authority within Catholicism. In that capacity, he has the responsibility of identifying what is not Catholicism. This authority would include pronouncing on the understanding of Christianity found in the text of the Qur’an where both the Trinity and Incarnation are denied. Judeo-Christian Scripture is itself said to be a false interpretation of an “original” Qur’an existing only in the mind of Allah before time; hence it is the oldest “book”. But popes have rarely seen fit to exercise this responsibility. Pope Benedict XVI, in the “Regensburg Lecture”, did press the issue of recurrent violence coming from Islamic sources.

To understand what is at stake, Brague proposes certain distinctions that I will try to spell out in a more general way. Some issues about Islam deal with fact, others with law. With regard to facts, all sects and movements within Islam—Sunni, Shiite, Sufi, Wahhabi—even when they conflict with each other, intend to represent the “true” Islam. The so-called “terrorists” claim, on legitimate Qur’anic and historical evidence, to be the real voice of Islam. They accuse those who do not follow their aggressive example of being “traitors” to Islam. Those Muslims who reject ISIS’ understanding of Islam cannot, however, claim that their view is the only legitimate view.

On the question of right or law, many approaches are likewise possible. How, then, is one to go about distinguishing the “true” from the false Islam? It is quite possible, as Samir Kalid Samir SJ, in his 111 Questions on Islam, observed that violence is justified both in the text and in tradition. To deny this justification of violence is contrary to many well-attested points in the Qur’an and in Islamic history. In this sense, one cannot simply say that the “true” Islam is not violent. Such an affirmation does not do justice to the complexity of the issue.


Who does have authority, in its own name, to state definitively what Islam is? Certainly a pope does not have this power. Within Islam, however, we have no official authority designated to resolve matters of fact and principle. Brague thinks that it is important to guard against the ambiguity of the term “true Islam”. Like a pope, he is not himself an authority within Islam. As any good scholar, he seeks to make a fair statement of what is at issue. Still, it is worth examining what the term, “true Islam”, might mean. What is the meaning of the word “Islam”? How can Islam be considered as a “religion”, a “civilization”, and a “population”?

As a religion, Islam means the complete abandon of the whole person into the hands of Allah. In the West, Islam refers to the religion preached in Arabia by Mohammed beginning in the seventh century. But the Muslims themselves consider their religion to be much older than Mohammed. Indeed, it is said to go directly to Allah, passing through nothing, not even the interpretation of Mohammed. In this sense, Mohammed was in no sense an “author” of the Qur’an as the evangelists were said to be “authors” of their respective Gospels, or as the prophet Samuel was said to be the author of the Books of Samuel.

As a civilization, Islam began at a given time and a given place. But it has an inner spirit. It consciously distinguished itself from the polytheistic and ignorant pagans who preceded it. Thus, the Muslims have their own calendar that begins in 622 when Mohammed left Mecca for Medina. Within the broad geographical limits under basic Islamic control, we have the area of “peace”. Outside it, everything is in the domain of “war”. The ISIS-type Muslims still use this peace/war terminology; others tend to use terms like “land of mission”. But all those people in the arena of “war” can be considered to be “enemies” of Allah. Therefore, they are subject to his Law and vengeance. In this world, there are no “innocents”.


Islamic civilization includes those who do not belong to the Muslim religion, but live within its ambience. But they must pay a price to be left alone; they must accept second-class citizenship. Many of those who, early on, translated Muslim texts into other languages were in fact Christians or ex-Christians in Muslim conquered lands. Today we can speak of Islam as the totality of those peoples ever touched by either the religion or the civilization. The modern revival of Islam, especially its nationalism as inspired by western political trends, also included Christians who hoped that a modern “state” would give them status and equality not dependent on Islamic law.

Today we see, however, the few remaining Christians being driven out of Muslim lands which provides no place for them. European languages distinguish between Christianity as a religion and Christendom as a culture. This distinction does not exist in Islam. This lack of a distinction indicates a different understanding of Muslim reality by those who are Muslim and those who are not.

In this sense, one cannot easily distinguish between the “true” Islam as a religion from that which it is as a civilization. In examining the notion of a “true” Islam, Brague hopes to show the difficulty in using that phrase in such a manner as to be able to say that it is or is not, in principle, “peaceful”. One useful way to understand Islam is to see how it looks to those who hold it from the inside, who believe it. Another way to see Islam is from the perspective of non-Muslim academic specialists using their own scientific methods. Such methods can only show what the methods allow. Belief as such—Christian, Muslim, or whatever—is not a direct object of scientific inquiry.

There is, again, no “pope” within Islam. That is, no one is officially authorized to state what it does or does not hold. Everything is open to multiple interpretations. This is why Islam seems so erratic. Indeed, it is from this collection of contradictory practices and beliefs in the Qur’an and in Islamic history that Islamic scholars themselves had to develop a “theory” that would justify these contradictory phenomena and thereby save the religion from evident incoherence.

This is the real origin of the voluntarism that underlies Muslim views of the cosmos, man, and God. For the voluntarist, Allah can order the opposite of what he ordered before. Otherwise, it is held, he would not be all-powerful. Allah’s will, not a divine logos, is at the origin of all reality. In law, this move necessitates a theory that would argue that the last or latest contradiction is the rule until another can be justified. This voluntarism is also the basis of the “two truth” theory that allows revelation and reason to hold contradictory views.

We can acquire a “sense” or an “agreement” about what the Muslim community or population hold in practice. But this observed consensus is usually something articulated by a few scholars, with the al-Azhar University in Cairo as the most obvious. The newly formed authority of the ISIS caliph recalls the loss of the earlier Caliphate at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This reestablishment attempts to re-found the earlier caliphate’s authority but, as Brague sees it, on the bases of power or “terror”. The question of authority is especially complicated because “the Qur’an was thought not to be written by Mohammed but by God in person.” This origin leaves no room for consistent interpretation. To “interpret” it would imply a human authority capable of being Allah, hence a blasphemy.

The Qur’an also relativizes the Old and New Testaments as faulty documents that have stolen or mis-interpreted the original Qur’an text properly located in the mind of Allah. The most obvious comment on this understanding is that the opposite is what happened. The Qur’an was itself a selection and interpretation from earlier Jewish and Christian sources. When this became obvious, a theory developed of a prior revelation in the mind of Allah that was only later spoken through Mohammed. This view became the device to save Islam from incoherence.

Can a pure or authentic Islam be found before the later Jewish and Christian influences came to its attention after the military conquests of the Near East? It looks rather like the Qur’an is really a re-write and selection from the Old and New Testaments and other apocryphal sources. Can we find an Islamic text written before Judeo-Christian scripture? Thus far, no. Most early texts of the Qur’an or its parts were destroyed, though some fragments show up as in Yemen. The text of the Qur’an reflects a series of “purifications” of the text at different levels. Mohammed is said to be purified by Allah. The original Qur’an that we possess may not be the pure one if the Qur’an is in fact a later redaction from many texts that we no longer possess, as seems to be the case.

We can perhaps speak of the “true” Socrates or the “true” Christ or the “true” Plato, which term does not immediately refer to their words but to what they come to mean. We can also distinguish what is primitive and what is grown or mature—the acorn and the oak-tree. The German scholars who have been attempting for decades to determine the origins of the texts of the Qur’an by form-critical analysis are involved in this process.
Islam does not maintain that what it is initially appeared with the first preaching of Mohammed. Rather Islam thinks itself first rooted in the mind of God before history. This is why it claims to be older than Judaism or Christianity. It “existed” unchanged in the mind of Allah. In this view, Judaism and Christianity are corruptions of the original Islam, not vice versa as is more reasonably the case. Thus, if this view about Islam’s origin in the mind of Allah is true, everyone is born a Muslim. If someone in history is not a Muslim, it is because he was corrupted by parents, schools, or other religions. This is why Islam does not have for itself any official beginning dates in history.

History, however, gives us a picture of the “real” Islam as lived, as it manifests itself before the nations. Sometimes it is harsh, sometimes mild; sometimes it is strong, sometimes weak. Just when Mohammed himself first appeared is also a question. Thus, Robert Spencer can write a book entitled Did Mohammed Exist? (ISI Books, 2012).The many biographies of Mohammed repeat the same tales. They first appeared some century or more after Mohammed died. Archeologists have never been allowed to investigate Medina or Mecca. In Brague’s view, then, we cannot easily arrive at a “true” Islam.

Yet, we can see the effect of Islam by observing how people actually live the life. Islam has a real talent for both borrowing and hiding practices from outside itself. The tension between Islam as a religion and Islam as a civilization can be great. The government and the religion in differing Muslim states usually reach some kind of working harmony in getting along and reinforce each other. The mission of subjecting the world to Allah and, within that subjection, of having its government and its religious side in harmony, is a prevalent hope in all of Islam. Many now envision it can be achieved by democratic and demographical means as well as by terror.

Modern thinkers are often surprised, even astounded, that such an idea as Islam as a world-conquering religion can persist and be a factor in century after century since its beginning in Arabia. “To carve out a ‘true’ Islam from one that is not ‘true’ has,” Brague amusingly thinks, “as its purpose only the satisfaction of intellectuals in their taste for classification.” To seek to isolate the clinical essence of Islam from the actualities of Islam itself is always a “risk” when appealing to its historical and geographical terms.


What about a reform within itself of Islam to soften its violent impetus? Robert Reilly, in a recent letter to the Wall Street Journal (Nov 5, 2015) noted that this “reform” is what now exists in Islam. We are now living with a twelfth-century rejection of any connection with reason in Muslim philosophy as its basis. Change and reform were constant things in both Protestantism and Catholicism, Brague observes. In Islam, the early military conquests were not much different from Greek or Roman conquests. The Muslim armies took over, set up government, and reduced the population to its order.

The terrorists of today reclaim these earlier power methods even those commanded by Mohammed. The terrible scenes of historic Muslim conquests are accepted as facts of its history. They are in the Qur’an. Mohammed is a good example. Thus, one can invoke the facts and deeds of the Prophet. He is one chosen by God to do these things. One can say these examples are chosen, but one cannot say that they betray the tradition. The justification of suicide bombers can be cited from Mohammed himself who gave advice on how to enter heaven. Is this just fundamentalism which is not really Islam? But these things are from the beginning. A man was recently expelled from France for beating his wife, but the Qur’an sanctions this practice.

Can we make Islam, as an alternative, into a purely spiritual movement? The Sufi tradition does exist in Islam; it is spiritual. But the question in Brague’s mind is this: Is it more representative of the “true” Islam than the other views of the same subject? Western scholars often oppose this “spiritual” Islam to a “legal” one where the latter is somehow looked down upon. Muslims themselves usually do not consider “mystical” Islam as the “proper” one. Within Islam, we have a tradition of opposition to it.

This mystical tradition has been limited to small sects. They often seem radical in the eyes of the Law, manifesting all sorts of moral aberrations. But it was al-Ghazali in the twelfth century who found a place for Sufism within Islam. The holy ones can turn in to themselves to better observe the commandments of Islam. But this mysticism is not presented as an alternative to the Law. The effect of this mysticism is better to observe the public Law. It might be noted that the notion of the “two truths”—a truth of reason and a truth of revelation, within Islam—is related to this notion. In the case of the philosopher, as opposed to the mystic, he could become, say, an Aristotelian, but only provided that he does not question the practices of the public Law.

What about tolerance? Suppose we did allow for a multiplicity of ideas. The strict observance of the Law would still keep any expression of this difference from coming forth in public. In short, “Sufism does not oppose the legitimacy of the Law but makes it acceptable.” What about a secular or lay view of the state wherein religion is strictly a private affair of conscience? The separation of politics and religion is as old as Christianity. We could look on them as ignoring each other. Each European country recognizes a domain for the other.

The case of Islam is different. Its religion includes a public legislation. Separation of mosque and state is not conceivable. Islam enters Europe as a civilization in which these relations of religion and politics are already included. While the number of laws in the Qur’an that might touch the public order may be few, they are considered culturally important and include marriage laws, punishment, treatment of property and women.

The problem arises when we think that these points of the Muslim law are merely questions of our civil law, when the Muslims consider them to be the unbreakable Law of God. Thus, a “true” Muslim, faced with a western positive law state, has to choose between a changeable custom and the Law of God contained in the Qur’an. That is, he cannot be at peace in any society that does not establish the Law of Islam as its civil law. Thus, in the end, it seems clear that the “true” Islam is indeed a “peaceful” religion only when it has attained political and religious control of the Law that governs our thought, actions, and polities.

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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).