A day in the life of a professor

December 7, 2010

It is getting towards the end of the semester, and, as might be expected, books sit poised in precarious piles on my kitchen table, and there is a stack of students’ papers that needs to be attended to, though my aging body tells me to sleep. When I am able to summon up the willpower, I do attend to them. Not surprisingly, those papers that are most poorly written take the longest to read, and are the hardest to evaluate — for example, although it seems clear that so-and-so actually found an essay written by someone else in another language and applied Google Translate to it and handed me the results as though it were her own work, and, even so, didn’t really follow the assignment, nevertheless, I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt and give her a C for this paper; particularly since her grade for the semester is already close to failing, and I don’t feel like pushing her over the edge.

Today’s class was a particularly difficult one to teach, but I think I got through it okay. We are at the point of talking about Islam. It is a subject upon which I have very mixed feelings. Having spent last Wednesday talking about Muhammad and his personal history, I spent today talking about the origins of the caliphate, and the phenomenal early growth of the Islamic empire that, within a century of the death of Muhammad, spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus Valley. The question was inevitably raised, whether Islam is a religion of the sword. The textbook we are using, Mary Pat Fisher’s Living Religions, states categorically that it is not. I tried to point out that the question is not so simple, that there are different passages in the Koran that lead different Muslims to interpret their own religion in different ways; one passage (Sura 2:256) states: “There is no compulsion in religion”; another, later passage (Sura 9:29) commands Muslims to fight against the Peoples of the Book (i.e., Jews and Christians) “until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled,” that is, become “Dhimmi.” Pagan Arabs are given the simple choice of death or conversion. (“Slay the polytheists wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, let them go their way; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate”) (Sura 9:5). So, I said, it seemed to me that different Muslim scholars, by laying emphasis upon one or another of these passages, arrive at different interpretations of Islam’s relationship to the non-Muslim world; some do see it as essentially militant, others do not. There are a couple of Muslims in my class; I asked them if they thought I was misrepresenting the religion; one of them said no, the other answered as though I were asking about religion in general, and protested that people ought simply to be nice to one another and not make religion an excuse for their differences. The first student then added that religious violence is not an exclusively Islamic problem, and I agreed with that. But by this time many students in the class were showing signs of feeling uncomfortable, and, as I am sensitive to the limitations of their patience and attention spans, I moved on as best I could to speak about other things.

Were I an ideal professor, I might provide my students with answers to all questions: to the Arab-Israeli conflict, to thirteen centuries of Christian-Muslim antagonism, etc. But I am not an ideal professor, and I do not know the answers to all questions. I know that, as a Christian, I cannot accept the claim that God does not have a Son, or that Jesus did not really die upon the cross, claims which are taught by the Koran and which plainly conflict with the teaching of the New Testament. But also, as a Christian, I cannot simply watch fellow human beings be treated as subhuman. St. John, in his first epistle, says that the one who denies the Father and the Son is antichrist (1 John 2:22). I take that warning seriously. But I do not think it gives me, or anyone else, a license to hate.

13 Responses to “A day in the life of a professor”

  1. James G Says:

    Dr. Gilbert,

    I enjoyed your thoughtful post. I too have mixed feelings about Islam.

    For many of my coworkers and acquaintances it is easy for them to lump Islam into the “bad” category but I cannot paint so broadly. My reluctance is most due to my own experiences and dealings with Muslims in my university days; the sweet Indonesian girls, the American-born Iranian fellow engineer, the Egyptian grad student who taught my section and many others. I had nothing but positive experiences with the Muslims I have met, of varying degrees of observance, but all kind people.

    Yet one cannot ignore the reality of the world where there is a segment of Muslims who we are at war (literally and figuratively) with. Nor should it be forgotten that the phenomenal Muslim expansion came at the expense of the Christian East by the sword. It was that very Muslim aggression which necessitated the Crusades for which Catholics are constantly lambasted for. As a descendent of noble Spanish knights who fought the Reconquista I am proud of that history and angered by many modern scholars’ attempt to paint “al-Andalus” as a paradise of tolerance.

    Islam definitely has claims regarding God that Christians must reject. I would hope that despite this there is common ground on which to build relationships until they all submit to Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I have been told of the many Muslim women who visit shrines of Our Lady in the Holy Land and have read about the rich veneration for Muslim “saints” in some streams of Islam. I have also read of the disdain for and violence perpetrated against such Muslims by Wahhabists and their ilk who consider them to be apostates.

    A big practical problem I see in Islam is that there is no doctrinal authority. It’s like the Protestants where they have scholars and preachers, some who follow various schools and some who follow their own interpretation. There are no bishops, no councils, no Pope. Which is the true Islam: the Sunni, the Shiite, the Sufi or the Salafi? (Just like which is the true face of Protestantism: the Calvinist, the Lutheran, the snake-handler or the Fundamentalist?) When discussing Muslims who do we base our opinion on, our good neighbor or the guy posting videos of beheadings on the internet? Can they really be separated? For their sake, I hope so.

    Please clarify your use of the word “hate” as I do not understand how you mean it and it is a much abused term these days. Hatred is something that must be cultivated if it is to be directed at a specific group. As such, I don’t think most people have actual hatred for another group; prejudice and bigotry (whether of ignorance or from a skewed experience) maybe. Contrary to the media’s portrayal, I doubt many Americans hate Muslims nor do I think that most Muslims hate us. I think most just want to live their lives. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that some do mean us harm. Maybe if we lived our lives by our Christian values instead of by those of the Culture of Death that number would be even lower?

    James G

  2. bekkos Says:

    James,

    Thanks for your own very thoughtful reply. As mentioned in the post, I am up to my ears with work, so I cannot write much. But, briefly, the word “hate” was used in a very general way, but it carries some of its usual connotations: to demonize, to view with contempt, to hold a grudge against, to blame for all of one’s own problems. I think those things are temptations for Christians when faced with the growth of Islam in the contemporary world. They are responses based primarily on fear. Sometimes fear is legitimate and justified, and a person would be foolish to deny that this emotion has been given to us for a purpose. But I don’t think fear can be the basic Christian response to any human situation; it is not one of the theological virtues. So I don’t think fear, and all that accompanies it, is essentially a Christian response to Islam; it is essentially a political, carnal response, the response of the old man who tells us that, even if Jesus says we should love our enemies, we are fools to do so.

    As mentioned, I don’t have the answer to thirteen centuries of Christian-Muslim antagonism. Maybe some of that antagonism was necessary and justified. But, like you, I tend to think that Islam exists, in the first place, because of Christian insincerity and division and worldliness. In the Old Testament, God raised up countries like Assyria and Babylon to punish the children of Israel for their sins; I very much think that Islam, in the greater scheme of things, plays such a role. It originated in a world in which the Church was divided and was becoming an instrument of state policy; it spread among cities where Eastern Christian populations, sickened with Byzantine taxation and oppression, were only too glad to exchange one master for another. Where it has taken root, it has always sought to perpetuate the Christian divisions that exist. And if it is becoming fashionable in places like Britain among some members of the intelligentsia, I must think that this fashion is, at some deep level, a response to the utter bankruptcy of Christian ecumenism, which after a century of talk has produced no visible results, but only hopes deferred, which, according to the proverb, make the heart grow sick (Prov 13:12).

    Sorry, I have to get back to work. That’s all I have to say.

    Peter

  3. Rebecca Says:

    “Were I an ideal professor, I might provide my students with answers to all questions”

    Hard to imagine a worse professor than that, no? On the other hand, you, Peter, sound like a good teacher — one who gets your students to ask questions and seek answers.

    Often when confronting the incendiary, discretion is the better part of valor, and somehow I can’t think that our loving God punishes or disapproves of such discretion (after all, the divisiveness doesn’t bring anyone closer to Him).

  4. Michaël de Verteuil Says:

    Dr. Gilbert,

    It was a pleasure to meet you at the Fordham conference.

    It may be a bit late in the day, but perhaps I can offer at least part of an answer to your student’s question and provide some historical context to place the suras you quoted in a consistent hermeneutic framework.

    The short answer is that while Islam values peace as much as does Christianity, it doesn’t follow that this makes Islam (or Christianity for that matter) a pacifistic faith (though both obviously do allow for pacifism as a moral ideal).

    Islam teaches that there are some things worth fighting for: most notably to right to teach and practice Islam freely and publicly.

    When Islam appeared on the scene, the only non-Christian religion tolerated in the Christian East, Europe and North Africa was Judaism. As a result, military conquest was the sole means through which the legitimate religious rights of Moslems or potential Moslems in Christian ruled areas could be exercised.

    In marked contrast, while they were politically and socially marginalized, and subjected to onerous taxes, Christians under Moslem rule were by-and-large free to practice their faith in peace. This was a favour Christian rulers were not disposed to return (or were ideologically constrained from returning) until the time of the Crusades. Christianity learned (relative) religious tolerance from medieval Islam, and this initially only in areas in which already substantial Moslem populations had newly come under Christian control.

    The Islamic attitude to paganism is more complex, as pagan blood sacrifices to idols were considered abhorrent and akin to satanism. But even here, the demands of the relevant sura are relatively modest: pagans are to desist from such practices (“repent”), at least outwardly profess belief in God as per one of the four religions of the Book (Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) (“say the prayer”), and pay their taxes (“pay the alms”). It should perhaps go without saying that all these strictures only applied to areas under Moslem rule.

    Now this offers, of course, a somewhat idealized picture of Islam, but still one to which the political and religious programme of early Moslem rulers broadly conformed.

    It is not until the militant naivety of the very recently Islamicized Turks in the 11th century that true intolerance makes an appearance in Islam. And it is precisely this break with some four centuries of tolerance that provoked the Crusades, when the Turks began to molest and ban Christian pilgrims from the Holy Land. It is also at this point that the West also came to the conclusion that there were religious rights for which it was worth fighting.

  5. bekkos Says:

    Michaël,

    I apologize; for some reason WordPress failed to notify me last week when you posted your comment to this blog; because of this, I didn’t see your comment until yesterday evening. I also was glad to have the chance to meet you at the Fordham Conference earlier this year.

    In your comment, you write:

    “While Islam values peace as much as does Christianity….”

    There is much that I have read and seen and heard that would suggest that it doesn’t. Quite apart from what Jesus says (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you,” John 14:27), much history could be adduced to contest the claim that the peace that Islam values is anything like the peace of Christ. Not only was Islam propagated very effectively by the sword in the generations immediately following Muhammed’s death, and not only did three of the first four caliphs die violent deaths at the hands of fellow Muslims, but Muhammad’s own biography shows a similar character: he had numerous of his critics at Medina assassinated (e.g., Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf), he ordered caravan raids during times of traditional armistice, and there is the notorious incident of his overseeing the beheading of some six to nine hundred men of the Medinan Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza who had made common cause with the Meccans; their children and wives were made to watch this and were then sold into slavery. I do not see Jesus acting this way towards the people who disagreed with him.

    As to your comment that, “as a result [of Christian intolerance of heresy], military conquest was the sole means through which the legitimate religious rights of Moslems or potential Moslems in Christian ruled areas could be exercised,” I would strongly question this injection of the post-Enlightenment language of “religious rights” into the analysis of the relationship between Islam and Christianity in their early encounter. How, for instance, were the “legitimate religious rights” respected of Muslims in Muslim-ruled lands who were “potential Christians”? How, indeed, are they respected now? A Muslim who becomes a Christian puts his or her own life at risk — that was true then, and that remains true now throughout large parts of the world. (One of these Muslims who became a Christian and who suffered for this is remembered today by the Orthodox Church: the New-Martyr Achmed the Calligrapher of Constantinople.) To assert that the “legitimate religious rights” of “potential Moslems” could only be procured by military conquest is to argue for the legitimacy of a universal military conquest, since such “potentiality” knows no boundaries. And that is, so far as I can see, precisely what the notion of a “Dar al-Harb” entails: everyone who is outside the sphere of Muslim government is, by definition, understood to be in a state of war with Islam. (Cf. Genesis 16:12, “his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.”)

    As someone who holds that doctrine matters, and who believes the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to be saving truths, I confess that I view with some alarm the alternative traditional Islam presents to me as one of the “peoples of the book”: either deny those saving truths and submit to Muhammad’s absolute unitarianism, or accept incorporation into a state which systematically denies those truths and subjects those who hold them to privation and ridicule. Granted, I currently live neither in a traditionally Muslim nor in a traditionally Christian state, but in a secular one, and much of the secularity of that state lies in its separation of the religious and political spheres (a separation that is real, though the boundaries of it are perennially debated). As a citizen of the United States, I respect American Muslims’ rights to live and worship here and to practice their religion in peace. But when I see Christians in large parts of the world not being accorded similar rights to practice and propagate their religion, when a country like Saudi Arabia refuses to let a Bible or a cross through customs, when Christian missionaries in Muslim lands generally have to operate surreptitiously for fear of being killed, when even a nominally secular country like Turkey refuses to allow churches to be repaired or an Orthodox seminary to operate, then, I confess, I see Islam not merely as a religion, but as a political ideology, and I find the slogan “Islam means peace” to ring very hollow. Tell an Armenian that Islam means peace, or tell this to a Christian from Eritrea or southern Sudan. See what kind of a response you get.

    As for Western Christians having had to wait for the arrival of the Turks to become persuaded that there are religious rights for which it is worth fighting, you are forgetting Charles Martel as well as many others in the intervening centuries when Europe was constantly on the defensive, when, e.g., Italy was subject to repeated incursions and Rome itself was sometimes endangered. Your last name is French; you should thank Charles Martel, and the Carolingians who came after him, that you have a Christian and Catholic heritage. Undoubtedly, these early medieval Christians did not see universal religious toleration as an absolute good, and it may well be that, as members of democratic societies, we ought not to emulate them in that respect. But it may also be that tolerance is not, in fact, an absolute value, something to be preferred above all other goods. In saying this, I confess that I am not an Enlightenment liberal. So be it; I am a Christian.

    Peter

  6. Michaël de Verteuil Says:

    Peter,

    I fear you are reading far too much in my comment. I did not propose to offer a defense of Islam or its self-identified practitioners, or even to draw comparisons with Christianity as such. My purpose was to shed some light into Islam’s self-understanding.

    Islam identifies itself as a religion of peace, whether we agree with this self ascription or not. Yet, as you note, it was spread in large part (though not invariably) through the sword. This requires some explanation. One can fall back on ascribed hypocrisy, mendacity or irrationality as bases for this apparent inconsistency, or one can try to enter into the minds of Muslims and see their history as they understand it. I assumed this was why you raised the issue of the apparent incompatibility of various Koranic verses you cited.

    Your reference to Enlightenment “religious rights” is both unfortunate and unhelpful here. Islam was not more tolerant of Christianity than vice versa because of some abstract adherence to or belief in generalized “human rights,” any more then a concern for human rights motivated Christianity’s tolerance of Judaism at the time. Concern for human rights is entirely anachronistic to the period. Tolerance of Christianity rested instead on the fact that Muslims recognized Christians as worshiping the one God (albeit in their light improperly), a recognition which has been only belatedly and rather incompletely returned by the Christian side.

    You asked: “How, for instance, were the “legitimate religious rights” respected of Muslims in Muslim-ruled lands who were “potential Christians”?

    By “potential Muslims” I meant Christians (or Jews) who genuinely wished to convert to Islam, but were prevented from doing so by the penal legislation in effect in the Empire and in other Christian lands. Perhaps I should have placed the word “legitimate” in quotation marks as I was not referring to some objective legitimacy, but rather legitimacy as Muslims saw it. But to answer your question, there were no “potential Christians” among Muslims, from this point of view, but only potential apostates, for which the penalty was death. This was also, until a few brief centuries ago, the penalty that awaited Christians who apostatized in Christian lands. I trust you don’t see this as evidence that Christianity is inherently violent or intolerant. So why raise it as evidence where Islam is concerned?

    Muslims can be violent, just as Christians can be violent. But there is nothing inherent in Islam that legitimizes violence in a religious sense other than the defense of the right to practice (not impose) Islam. The same could be said for Christianity between the fifth and and 16th centuries.

    If I were to argue that past and current Muslim violence is evidence of an inherently violent religion, what am I to make of Christian violence against Muslims, often sanctioned by Christian religious authorities over centuries and across peoples and denominations? How does Srebrenitsa differ from 9/11?

  7. bekkos Says:

    Michaël,

    I reply to you on a day when a governor in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard for supporting the rights of a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been convicted under a new blasphemy law. It is merely one piece of evidence that points to the unreality of your claim that “there is nothing inherent in Islam that legitimizes violence in a religious sense other than the defense of the right to practice (not impose) Islam.” The right to practice Islam, for vast numbers of Muslims, implies the right to impose it. So far as I can see, that has been true of Islam for most of the thirteen centuries of its existence, and the basis for that position lies within the Koran itself. As a Christian, I cannot view that stance as a stance of “peace.” I have not yet learned to use such doublespeak.

    You point to examples of Christian violence, and ask if there is any moral difference between 9/11 and Srebrenica. A simple answer is, No. Mass murder is mass murder. The massacre at Srebrenica was a crime, and a blot on the religion of those who committed it, just as the massacres carried out by the Croatian Ustashe during the Second World War were a crime, and a blot on their religion, and the 9/11 attacks were a crime, and a blot on the religion (if any) of those who perpetrated it (and, if you have read this blog recently, you will know that I am not convinced that Muslims were the sole people behind it). But, while I do not see the New Testament giving any justification for mass murder, I do find the example, which I cited to you earlier, of six to nine hundred men beheaded at Muhammad’s orders shocking, and particularly so when it is considered that the example given by this man is seen to carry divine authority among his followers.

    You write much of Islam’s relative “toleration” of Christians over the centuries, as opposed to the Church’s intolerance of Muslims within its own territories. Please bear in mind that, for most of the early centuries of Islam’s existence, Christian powers did not govern any areas with large Muslim populations, whereas Islam originally spread through a formerly Christian Mediterranean world. Muslim governors were initially faced with a problem that Christian governors, by and large, did not face, that of being a minority, military elite in the midst of a religiously alien culture. And the relative tolerance accorded by Muslim rulers to the “Peoples of the Book” was undoubtedly a response to that situation: it allowed the screws to be tightened on the “dhimmi” peoples more gradually. When Christian rulers did find themselves in similar situations, some of them, like Frederick II in Sicily, responded in a similar way (I take this to be what you were referring to earlier, when you wrote of Christianity having “learned (relative) religious tolerance from medieval Islam, and this initially only in areas in which already substantial Moslem populations had newly come under Christian control”).

    If a religion were to be justified by its practitioners’ complete dedication to non-violence throughout its history, then it is unlikely that either Orthodox Christianity or Catholicism would pass that religious test. And some people whose opinions I value, like Leo Tolstoy, have thought that complete dedication to non-violence does constitute justification, that it is the essence of Christ’s gospel. For my own part, I have never adopted this position; I accept the idea that it is sometimes necessary for the state (which, according to St. Paul, “does not bear the sword in vain”) to “resist evil” by the use of force. So far as I can see, that has been the Church’s position through most of its history, though it seems, on the face of it, to go directly against Christ’s commandment to “turn the other cheek.” (But, when Christ met a centurion, he did not tell him that, to be saved, he must quit his job; and likewise, when St. John the Baptist was questioned by certain soldiers, “What shall we do?”, Luke 3:14, he did not tell them to lay down their arms and become conscientious objectors. He told them to be content with their wages, and not to terrorize or intimidate people or accuse them falsely.) If the subject of Islam causes me uneasiness, it is not because I have some principled objection to war as such; although I recognize war to be an evil, something to be avoided whenever just causes do not make it absolutely necessary, there are times when I think it has been necessary, and justified; the victory of Charles Martel at Tours in 732 was one instance where I think war was necessary and justified; the Battle of Vienna in 1683 was another such instance; the Battle of Lepanto was another. The subject of Islam causes me uneasiness because, virtually throughout its existence, it has maintained some kind of warfare, at times very successful warfare, against the Christian world. Its core doctrines directly deny the Trinity, the Incarnation, and any form of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is, in my simple view as an Orthodox Christian, undoubtedly a heresy, as much of one as Arianism or the various strains of Gnosticism ever were. If the fathers of the Church saw those things as soul-destroying, then I have reason to think that Islam is soul-destroying as well. And I cannot take an external, secular view, and say, Oh look here, you Christians have just as much to answer for in the eyes of God. Undoubtedly Christians have much to answer for, but, I venture to say, protecting the Church from heresy is not one of them.

    So, to return to the theme of my original post, as a teacher of World Religions at an American university, I face various dilemmas. I have Muslim students; I do not hate them. I recognize the truth of something once said by William Gladstone, during the time of another war: “Remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own” (cited in Winston Churchill, The Great Democracies [New York 1958], pp. 298 f.). And, by and large, I do not raise these issues in my classes; I do not speak in my classes about Islam as a “heresy,” or point to things like the Armenian genocide or the Ottoman practice of devshirme; I do not see it as my business to be telling my students what to think. I try to encourage my students to understand some basic things about the history and beliefs of the different religions, and leave it up to them to make their own decisions. But I cannot deny the fact that I myself see Islam, in most of its historical manifestations, as a deeply anti-Christian phenomenon, and that its increasingly global presence troubles me. And the claim that what Muslims seek is not the right to impose Islam, but merely the right to practice it, seems to me only a half-truth, and does not go far towards allaying my concerns.

    Peter

  8. James G Says:

    Michaël,

    I think you are trying to play Devil’s Advocate; I think it would be helpful if you gave us your own opinion and not an attempt to present a thoughtful Muslim’s argument. I would like to know what your personal feelings are towards Islam.

    As a side note, I did not know what Srebrenitsa was so had to look it up. The first Google hit was this article in Pravda.

    I am very much conflicted over religious tolerance and how much of it is actually a virtue. I would hold that freedom of conscience is inviolate so that no man should be compelled to reject his belief or accept another but I am not at all convinced that he should be free to practice it in all instances. I look at the case of some of my own ancestors who practiced human sacrifice until the Spaniards put a stop to it. Under no circumstances do I think the full ceremonies of the Aztec and Mayan religions should be permitted. Yet a Muslim who quietly prays in his house should remain unmolested in my view.

    I also believe there is a limit to the free practice of non-human sacrificing religions. As a man who believes in objective truth and who accepts the truth claims of Christianity I do not see that proselytization by non-Christians (or even all Christian groups) should be permitted. At the same time Saudi Arabia’s (as an example) rules against Christian proselytizing are wrong because they are denying the Truth. It is a double standard but one I support because what does truth owe to error?

    Christianity and Islam will always be at enmity with each other because both place such a high emphasis on converting others. Most other religions would accept mere toleration because they do not actively proselytize but neither Christianity nor Islam can accept that. Since both have mutually exclusive truth claims then logically either one must be right and the other wrong or both are wrong. Fundamentally, ideas of complete religious tolerance stem from the assumption that both (or all religions) are wrong.

    In the end, because Christianity is the Truth there can be no total religious freedom in regards to Islam. To permit Islam to proselytize Christians is to risk the destruction of their souls, a crime worse than murder. The best (as far as religious freedom goes) a Christian can do is permit a Muslim to quietly practice his faith while trying to convert him to the Truth. From a Muslim’s perspective, the opposite holds true. The question then falls to the permitted methods of persuasion. A Christian is forbidden to convert by the sword. Does such a prohibition exist in Islam or is it the opposite?

    James G

  9. Michaël de Verteuil Says:

    Peter,

    I am sorry to have taken so long in returning to the issue of whether Islam can be considered a religion of peace. In my defence and as a caveat let me reiterate that I am not an Islamic scholar or even a scholar in religious studies, but a political scientist. As such, I am almost inevitably going to approach Islam as an institution, an ideology and a belief system (with an emphasis on “system”). Not being an Islamic scholar, I have had to devote some time to research the topic anew and more deeply in order to gain the confidence necessary to push this discussion further. I feel I can do this now.

    If you will forgive me for doing so, I will try to respond to your own long response point by point, not out of any polemic intent, but because I think it will prove the best way to grasp the essential points at issue and to demonstrate why I do not believe the evidence you offer demonstrates the case you felt call upon to make. I will also be making comparisons with details of the Christian experience, not with a view of making them invidiously or of denigrating Christianity, of course, but to demonstrate that specific examples have to be taken and understood in context.

    I take it as a point of departure that you do not see Christianity as an inherently violent or repressive faith. I share this view, needless to say, and this will be, in fact, central to my argument that Islam shouldn’t or at least needn’t be seen as such either.

    “I reply to you on a day when a governor in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard for supporting the rights of a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been convicted under a new blasphemy law. It is merely one piece of evidence that points to the unreality of your claim that “there is nothing inherent in Islam that legitimizes violence in a religious sense other than the defense of the right to practice (not impose) Islam.” The right to practice Islam, for vast numbers of Muslims, implies the right to impose it. So far as I can see, that has been true of Islam for most of the thirteen centuries of its existence, and the basis for that position lies within the Koran itself. As a Christian, I cannot view that stance as a stance of “peace.” I have not yet learned to use such doublespeak.”

    I hope you don’t expect me to defend Taseer’s assassination. That said, the chain or reasoning you derive from this grotesque episode is open to challenge. Taseer was not assassinated for defending the “rights” of Asia Bibi as a Christian or otherwise. Her rights were not at issue. She was convicted by a lower court (and so far I know there is an appeal pending in her case) for publicly making disparaging and insulting comments about Islam and Mohammed, not for being a Christian or for practicing Christianity. As it happens, she denies having made any such remarks, so the case doesn’t even touch on any right we might presume she should have had to make such remarks as a Christian or otherwise. Taseer was assassinated for advocating the repeal or at least softening of the blasphemy law under which she was convicted. His stated purpose in doing so wasn’t the defence of Christian rights (noble as such a defence might have appeared to us), but to put an end to an abusive legal and evidentiary procedure in which anyone could lodge an accusation of blasphemy against anyone else without even having to specify the details of the alleged blasphemy (since it would be blasphemous to repeat it in open court). Convictions thus rest on the plausibility of the accusation and the respective status of accused and accusers. Inevitably such procedures prove to be prejudicial where Christians are concerned but, more significantly from Taseer’s point of view, were being abused by Muslims against other Muslims as a means to settle scores and foment disorders in completely unrelated disputes.

    Now, when we consider that this particular blasphemy law (and its provision for the death penalty) were imposed on Pakistan by a (largely pro-American) military dictatorship, and that Taseer’s party had won free and democratic elections both at the provincial and federal level while campaigning for its repeal, we can legitimately question to what degree its provisions genuinely reflect popular attitudes even in a country as piously Islamic as Pakistan, a country, we should note, the very existence of which hinges historically on an Islamic identity.

    Now clearly Taseer’s assassin acted out of what he considered to be religious conviction. But so did the very Catholic Ravaillac monk-then-Jesuit wannabee when he fatally plunged his dagger into the chest of the equally Catholic French King Henry IV as a response to the latter’s stated intention of invading the Spanish Netherlands and grant of religious liberties to the France’s Protestant community. What we are dealing with here is not the articulation of genuinely legitimate religious injunctions, but acts of deranged religious extremism. It is distressing, to be sure, that a vocal minority in Pakistan including some radical clerics have commended Taseer’s assassination as a defence of Islam, but Ravaillac in his time also had supporters.

    “But, while I do not see the New Testament giving any justification for mass murder, I do find the example, which I cited to you earlier, of six to nine hundred men beheaded at Muhammad’s orders shocking, and particularly so when it is considered that the example given by this man is seen to carry divine authority among his followers.”

    It is true that the New Testament offers no justification for mass murder. The New Testament, however, is not the sum total of the Christian scriptures, and the Old Testament certainly does. We need look no further than the case of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2-3). Now, as to the 800 men beheaded at Medina, our only evidence is the Koran itself, and so in all fairness we have to respect as authoritative the context offered in the koranic narrative, especially if we are to discern what lessons Islam draws from the episode. The 800 were not killed arbitrarily but convicted of collusion with Medina’s enemies. They were indeed the third successive group of Jewish inhabitants of the besieged city to have been guilty of such collusion. In the first two successive incidents Mohamed had decreed no more than exile, in the third he deferred the decision to a judge from among the original Medinans themselves, and it is this judge, not Mohamed, who decreed their execution, Mohamed subsequently letting his decision stand. In fact, I am not aware of any evidence of Mohamed staining his hands (unlike Samuel) with another’s blood, though he himself was at timjes present on the battlefield and in fact once wounded. Now I am not detailing all this to establish that Islam is peaceful and that the Judeo-Christian ethic is violent. I do think, however, that this clearly establishes the perils of seeking vindication and moral superiority through comparing our best with their worst. If Islam has a case to answer here, so do we.

    “You write much of Islam’s relative “toleration” of Christians over the centuries, as opposed to the Church’s intolerance of Muslims within its own territories. Please bear in mind that, for most of the early centuries of Islam’s existence, Christian powers did not govern any areas with large Muslim populations, whereas Islam originally spread through a formerly Christian Mediterranean world.”

    That may well be true, but the prohibition against non Christian or Jewish religious activity had been on the books since Theodosius’ time. There never was a time, however, until the 1800s under Wahabist Islamic rule in Arabia, where the practice of Christianity was banned under Islam except in Mecca itself, no matter how small or insignificant the Christian community. Despite the rather tolerant example of the Crusader states and the Norman kings of Sicily (and their successor Frederick, though he did eventually relocate His Moors to Italy of all places), prohibition of Islam remained the legal norm in most of Europe until the Enlightenment. I might add that even in this day and age Christian Swiss voters feel free to ban the local construction of minarets. I don’t think we have much to brag about comparatively where historic tolerance is concerned.

    “Muslim governors were initially faced with a problem that Christian governors, by and large, did not face, that of being a minority, military elite in the midst of a religiously alien culture. And the relative tolerance accorded by Muslim rulers to the “Peoples of the Book” was undoubtedly a response to that situation: it allowed the screws to be tightened on the “dhimmi” peoples more gradually.”

    We can’t just dismiss the fact that it was rather an explicit koranic injunction that well preceded the Islamic conquest.

    “When Christian rulers did find themselves in similar situations, some of them, like Frederick II in Sicily, responded in a similar way (I take this to be what you were referring to earlier, when you wrote of Christianity having “learned (relative) religious tolerance from medieval Islam, and this initially only in areas in which already substantial Moslem populations had newly come under Christian control”).”

    Some did, most (notably in Spain) didn’t. My point is that the Koran imposed such tolerance as a religious injunction. It is only on the Christian side that one can claim such a policy as purely the product of expediency.

    “The subject of Islam causes me uneasiness because, virtually throughout its existence, it has maintained some kind of warfare, at times very successful warfare, against the Christian world.”

    Well, this is at least understandable and straightforward. While Christ does call on us to love our enemies, we don’t have to like them. And there is no denying that at many times in the past both distant and recent, Muslims have figured amongst our enemies. But so have Germans, for example, and we should ponder that. Muslims have also not always been the aggressors, and Jews haven’t always been called upon to view the acts and sentiments of broader Christian society as exclusively benign either.

    “But I cannot deny the fact that I myself see Islam, in most of its historical manifestations, as a deeply anti-Christian phenomenon, and that its increasingly global presence troubles me.”

    This is not something you need apologize for, though I for my part would insist that only a direct offshoot of Christianity could be described as a heresy in the same sense as Arianism. I agree with St John Damascene and contemporary mainstream Catholic theology that Muslims worship the same God as do Christians (albeit, from the Christian perspective, improperly and with inadequate discernment and understanding), but describing Islam as a heresy just occludes the fact that it is a fundamentally different religion.

    “And the claim that what Muslims seek is not the right to impose Islam, but merely the right to practice it, seems to me only a half-truth, and does not go far towards allaying my concerns.”

    Here we enter into a more complex reality, as there are indeed some streams of Islam that read into the Koran and the Hadith a religious injunction to subordinate non-Muslims via conquest if necessary (and expedient), notably Wahabism and even wider Salafism (albeit still respecting the proviso that there is no compulsion in religion). But these are very much minoritarian within Islam. Even Osama bin Laden purports that we in our decadent secularized West can live in peace if we would just leave, and stop our meddling in, “traditional” Muslim lands. There is an ideological inhibitory imperative here to which all educated Muslims must at least pay lip service.

  10. Michaël de Verteuil Says:

    James,

    I hesitate to engage your questions directly as I see this forum as essentially one for Dr. Gilbert to converse with his reader but, as it would be impolite of me not to respond, I hope I can be indulged the following brief words.

    I have no personal affection or distaste for Islam. It exists, it appeals to its followers, it isn’t about to go away, and I am willing to accept its presence with neither fear nor animus.

    I don’t consider it a significant proselytic threat to properly catechized Christians, despite seemingly widespread and hysterical fears to the contrary. If the poorly catechized are vulnerable, it would be better to address the source of their vulnerability directly than to rely on a coercive ban on potential exposure to non-Christian “truths.”

    Error has no rights, but neither does truth. Only persons have rights, and that includes the right to be wrong and mistaken.

    Finally, yes, Islam prohibits conversion by the sword. This does not mean conversions have never been coerced, but I have little doubt that any Muslim scholar would recognize such instances as abuses. Conversion, after all, is more than outward submission and involves an inward transformation which cannot be compelled. Nevertheless, I suspect that many of these same scholars, while decrying forced conversions as forbidden, would argue that resulting habit and reflection can eventually lead to the real thing. It strikes me that the Frankish bishops who implemented the forced conversion of the Saxons under Charlemagne must also have been of this mind.

    On this note, I bow out unless Dr. Gilbert wishes to pursue the question further.

  11. bekkos Says:

    Michaël,

    Thanks for the considered and measured response, and my own apologies for being slow with a reply. As to this forum being essentially one for me to converse with my reader, it seems, over time, to have developed into such a thing, although it would make life easier for me if, as on other blogs, readers would occasionally slug things out between themselves and leave me the easier task of telling them to behave.

    I brought up the case of Salman Taseer, not because I thought it conclusively proves that Islam is violent whereas other religions are not, but because it seemed to me to be a piece of evidence that fits into a pattern. Salman Taseer was himself a Moslem, and was, so far as I can tell, a reasonably peace-loving and just man. And nowhere have I claimed, or tried to claim, that Islam is incapable of producing persons of high moral quality; it has not been my claim that all Muslims are terrorists, or, conversely, that all Christians are angelic, sinless beings with eyes glued skyward and with beatific looks on their faces. Human beings are complicated, often contradictory creatures, life is full of surprises, and, as Jesus pointed out, sometimes one’s nominal “friends” may leave one lying bleeding by the side of the road while one’s “enemy” may stop what he is doing and bring one to the hospital. Yet, for all that, I mentioned the case of Salman Taseer, because it seemed to me to fit into a pattern. A disproportionate amount of the religiously-motivated violence that is occurring at the present day is either coming out of or occurring within the Muslim world. It seems to me that Samuel Huntington’s observation, made in the mid-1990’s, is substantially true: Islam has bloody borders. And I believe one is also justified to go further, and to say that Islam has had bloody borders from the start. The concept of jihad is not an accidental, extraneous notion to Islam; it is deeply rooted in its origins, its sacred texts, and its history. In spite of the distinction some commentators would like to draw between Islam as such and “Islamism” or “Jihadism,” the reality of Islam as an expansionist, militant ideology, given to political assassinations and to what the American Constitution terms “cruel and unusual punishments,” has been there from the start; although it is not characteristic of all Muslims, nor of all movements within Islam (it is not, apparently, characteristic of Salman Taseer’s party), it is one consistent, recurrent aspect of what Islam is and has been over the course of its 1389-year existence, and is not likely to change so long as the Koran and the hadiths and the example of Muhammad himself carry supreme authority within the Muslim world.

    To point to figures like “the very Catholic Ravaillac monk-then-Jesuit wannabee” or the Prophet Samuel, who hewed Agag king of the Amalekites in pieces, is somewhat beside the point. Samuel, for all his importance as an Old Testament prophet, is not an example that is continually set before the Christian mind for emulation, as Muhammad is set before the minds of pious Muslims. And as for the very Catholic Ravaillac, I confess that I did not know of him before you brought up his example; specimens of religiously-motivated Christian assassins are perhaps not all that easy to find. I do not feel that I am “comparing our best with their worst.” I am attempting to contrast essential characteristics of the Christian and Muslim religions. Would you be prepared to assert that religiously-motivated assassination has played a role in Christian history comparable to the role that it has played in the history of Islam? Was there ever a Christian religious order or sect that practiced assassination on a regular basis, as the Nizari Isma’ili sect did from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries? Here is what a recent introduction to Islamic history has to say about them:

    “They were a secret society, often acting clandestinely and infiltrating the major centers of power. When opposed, the followers of Hasan responded by terrorizing their political enemies by means of targeted assassinations. Their first major victim was Nizam al-Mulk, the powerful wazir of the Saljuq rulers, who was stabbed to death in 1092 by an Isma’ili assassin disguised as a sufi. Other victims included the ruler of Homs in 1103, the Saljuq governor of Mosul in 1113, the wazir of Aleppo in 1177, and the Crusader king of Jerusalem in 1192.” Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd ed. (Chichester, West Sussex, 2009), pp. 136 f.

    It is, apparently, from this sect, or from its putative use of hashish before the carrying out of killings, that our word “assassin” is derived. Not that assassination, as a religious phenomenon, began with them; as I have already noted, three of the first four Caliphs (Umar, Uthman, and Ali) were assassinated, as was Ali’s son Hasan; most of Ali’s other sons, in particular, Husayn, died in battle with other Muslims at the Battle of Karbala.

    So I do not think that “what we are dealing with here is not the articulation of genuinely legitimate religious injunctions, but acts of deranged religious extremism.” On the subject of assassinations, it seems to me one can legitimately speak of an Islamic tradition. It may be a tradition that many Muslims would like to disown, and I commend them for wanting to disown it; but that it has characterized Islam from its beginnings seems to me undeniable.

    You go on about how Muhammad never stained his hands with another’s blood. Perhaps in the very literal sense of doing the deed himself, that is true. But if you had followed a link I had put in an earlier comment, you would have found plenty of examples of him ordering the deaths of other people. And, no, I am not terribly impressed by your attempt to absolve Muhammad of any responsibility in the mass slaughter of the Banu Qurayza. He gave the judgment into the hand of Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, but, so far as I know, nowhere is it said that he did not confer with Sa’d ibn Mu’adh beforehand about his decision, or that this decision was not made to gratify the Prophet, who, by this time, had achieved complete dictatorial power in Medina.

    As for your reply to the argument that the relative tolerance accorded by Muslim rulers to the “Peoples of the Book” was a response to a situation in which a minority, military elite lived in the midst of a religiously alien culture (“We can’t just dismiss the fact that it was rather an explicit koranic injunction that well preceded the Islamic conquest”), it assumes that everything found in the Koran was written during Muhammad’s lifetime, prior to the conquest. Some recent scholarship has questioned that assumption, and has maintained that parts of the Koran reflect post-conquest conditions. See, for instance, P. Crone and M. Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge, 1977); also, Brown, in the book referred to above, seems to incline towards this view.

    On the issue of Islam being a Christian heresy, I follow the view of saints like John of Damascus and Theodore Abu Qurra. Islam teaches various things about Jesus Christ; it claims that the revelation given through Jesus Christ was not a final one, that it was “superseded” by the Koran (just as earlier texts in the Koran are “superseded” by later ones); it denies that Jesus Christ was in any sense divine; it denies that Jesus died upon the Cross, or that the Cross was in any sense a redemption from sin; it denies that God is Father; it holds the doctrine of the Trinity to be a form of blasphemy; it sees the New Testament references to a “Comforter” or “Paraclete” as being references to Muhammad himself. These are not examples of mere “religious differences”; they are specific denials and misreadings of central Christian teachings. For this reason, I think the characterization of Islam as a Christian heresy is valid, just as I think the same thing is true of Manichaeism or Mormonism.

    This whole debate began when I took exception to your statement that Islam values peace as much as Christianity does. I never questioned the existence of peaceful Muslims or of warlike Christians. I have not wanted to condemn everything in Islamic history or to whitewash crimes committed in the name of Christ. But, because you compared the two religions, I saw fit to question your comparison.

    The simple fact that I do not feel entirely at liberty here to criticize the person of Muhammad, for fear of the consequences, tells me something. If I were to criticize the Pope, or the Patriarch of Constantinople, or Jesus Christ himself, or the President of the United States, or the Buddha, or, essentially, any secular or religious figure, past or present, aside from Muhammad, I might expect to receive much criticism in return by readers of my blog, but I should not be worried about the possibility of people coming to my door, prepared to do me bodily harm. Whether justifiably or not, the latter fear is present, and it has affected what I have said and have not said about Muhammad in my comments to this post — which is one reason why, all things considered, I would prefer to end this discussion.

    But I will ask one final question. If at some point in perhaps the not-so-distant future you shall see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica encircled with minarets, as Hagia Sophia is surrounded with minarets today, and shall see the Bishop of Rome evicted from his palace and taking up residence in a hotel in a Roman slum, will you then still be of the opinion that Islam is a “religion of peace”?

    Peter

  12. Michaël de Verteuil Says:

    Peter,

    I think we can wrap this one up with a couple of final observations on my part.

    I don’t think the question of whether Islam is a “religion of peace” can be addressed fairly by adducing as evidence the fact that some Muslims are prone to violence and that some non-mainstream Islamic sects, both current and medieval, condone or even advocate violence. Even an overtly pacifist religion like Buddhism can’t survive such a test, and Christianity and Judaism most certainly cannot.

    What we actually have is a historical conjuncture in which violence “in defence of Islam” has greater currency in lay Muslim opinion today than it has in mainstream Muslim clerical circles. This, in my view, is precisely because lay opinion in general is more moved by communalist impulses than by mature theological reflection, particularly when perceived grievances cannot be otherwise addressed due to power asymmetries. Yet it is mature theological reflection that should be the standard for judging a religious ethical system.

    “I am not terribly impressed by your attempt to absolve Muhammad of any responsibility in the mass slaughter of the Banu Qurayza. He gave the judgment into the hand of Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, but, so far as I know, nowhere is it said that he did not confer with Sa’d ibn Mu’adh beforehand about his decision, or that this decision was not made to gratify the Prophet, who, by this time, had achieved complete dictatorial power in Medina.”

    The issue relevant to this discussion is not what “really happened in Medina,” but what lesson Muslim exegesis draws from the episode as it is described in the Koran: i.e. exercise forbearance twice, even in the face of treason.

    “If at some point in perhaps the not-so-distant future you shall see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica encircled with minarets, as Hagia Sophia is surrounded with minarets today, and shall see the Bishop of Rome evicted from his palace and taking up residence in a hotel in a Roman slum, will you then still be of the opinion that Islam is a “religion of peace”?”

    Surely the answer would depend on the circumstances in which this change came about. It would be far more likely to be the outcome of secularization of formerly Christian society than of armed conquest by a militarily resurgent Islam. But just out of curiosity, how do you think Muslims feel about their expulsion from Iberia and the conversion of their former mosques into churches in Andalusia?

    Seriously, there is no crime by Muslims against Christians for which a Christian-on-Muslim precedent cannot be found. This is not because either religion is inherently violent (and these incidents really should be viewed in light of far worse Christian-on-Christian or Muslin-on-Muslim religiously motivated atrocities). It merely reflects instead the fact that peoples belonging to either faith have been in conflict on and off for thirteen centuries.

  13. bekkos Says:

    Michaël,

    I must suppose that Muslims do not remember the Reconquista with joy. And, having once visited the Alhambra, I confess that the Christian chapel erected in the middle of it does not add to the architectural beauty of the place.

    The term “religion of peace” embodies a statement of faith; it is not merely a term of historical or sociological description. It is not simply equatable with “pacifistic religion.” Some Christians are pacifists; most, probably, are not; some Muslims are terrorists; most, apparently, view those who are with abhorrence. The Christian claim is that Christ is the Prince of Peace, and that he gives a peace which the world cannot give. This is not a sociologically verifiable claim, or sociologically falsifiable. Nor is the Muslim claim that Islam is a religion of peace sociologically verifiable or falsifiable. It is a profession of faith, phrased as an empirical description. For my own part, if I am reluctant to recognize Islam to be a religion of peace it is, in part, because I do not profess Islam and do not want to, because to do so is to deny Christ. But it is also because, if that phrase is taken simply as an empirical description, I have seen too much evidence of Muslim violence in the world, and against Christians in particular, to see it as warranted. If, under the new constitution that appears to be in store in Egypt, the treatment of the Coptic minority improves, and if the lot of Christians begins to improve as democratic reforms take place in various other parts of the Muslim world, this will go some way towards persuading me that Islam’s claim to be a “religion of peace” has some legitimacy and is not merely an empty slogan.

    Peter


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