The meaning of Islam, and the deeper problem we must face
When a leading Lebanese Muslim argued that extremists misinterpret Islam, he raised a much larger question than he realized. The points he made are exceedingly important. But they must be considered on two levels.
Muhammad al-Sammak is the Secretary-General of the Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue in Lebanon and also co-President of Religions for Peace, so there is no question about where he stands on the “Islamist” phenomenon which lies at the root of terrorism today. Al-Sammak made the following points:
- Islamic extremism is not based on a sound understanding of Islam.
- Islamic extremists should stop confusing Christianity with the West, for the West has renounced Christianity.
- The second-class status of dhimmitude should now be superseded by the idea of citizenship.
- The notion of the caliphate (implying worldwide Islamic rule) has no basis in the Qur’an.
All of these ideas play well on the natural level for those who value freedom of religion, pluralism and both local and international justice and peace. The American State Department could not wish for a better set of talking points. It is obviously in the best interests of non-Muslims to foster an Islamic self-understanding very much like this. If such a self-understanding were to become dominant in the Islamic world, a potent cause of warfare, terrorism and persecution would be eliminated.
In other words, if Islam is simply a set of human ideas that change over time, then with respect to widespread Islamic hostility to those who do not share these ideas, this is the new form we want the ideas to take. But if Islam claims to be Divinely revealed (and it does), then Muhammad al-Sammak has a serious problem.
Revelation requires an authority
I’ve made the point repeatedly in my writings in apologetics that a specific Divine Revelation at a particular point in time makes absolutely no sense without the establishment of a recognizable authority over that Revelation. Such an authority must be able to preserve the content of the Revelation, protecting it against the normal shifts in human ideas, authenticating legitimate developments in understanding and expression, and identifying false developments and other errors.
It is not enough, for this purpose, to have a “sacred text” which in some sense preserves the original Revelation. The text may be considered incomplete, it may not directly answer every question, different passages will seem to lead in different directions, and some questions will not be comprehensively addressed. Then there is the problem of conflicting interpretations. Wildly divergent understandings of the Bible join Muhammad al-Sammak’s divergence from “extremist” Muslims as proof of this insufficiency.
Anyone who has thought clearly for more than five minutes about an alleged Divine Revelation should have grasped this most basic need. The fact that the majority of believers have not grasped it demonstrates how little thought is expended on these important questions, how content we are with inherited patterns of religious thought, and even how attracted we humans are to systems that ultimately leave everything up to us. It never ceases to amaze me that people actually think they can discuss the tenets of an allegedly revealed religion without a grasp of its authority principle.
If no coherent authority principle exists, two serious questions arise: First, how can we regard this religious system as authentic? Second, must we look elsewhere for revealed truth?
Human manipulation of religion
Now there is no authority principle in Islam, and so I may reasonably desire to see it transformed or reinterpreted into something which corresponds far more closely to my own interests (provided my own interests are perfectly moral, that is, consonant with the natural law). Lacking an authority principle, Islam must be a moving target, and cannot be an accurate representation of Divine Revelation. Though I consider our political policies foolish in not taking religion seriously, I cannot fault the effort to move Muslims toward mutual respect, legitimate pluralism, non-violence, and peace.
Yet I find socio-political efforts to manipulate Catholicism reprehensible. This is because Catholicism does have a coherent authority principle. In this and other key respects it fulfills very well all the criteria for possession of a Divine Revelation. Catholic tenets, then, may reasonably be held to trump malleable human judgments, and in the very nature of things, the Catholic system merits being treated with a scrupulous caution. It passes certain basic logical tests. Even intelligent non-believers ought to fear the possibility of putting asunder what God has joined.
More broadly, of course, it is necessary to recognize that religion is a virtue. There is a strong moral obligation to avoid all willful blindness to the recognition of God, to revere the Creator, and to seek to know and do His will. At the same time, however, not all religious formulations are accurate, not all religious formulations are good. We have a moral responsibility to seek to modify these formulations whenever they are lacking in truth and goodness. But we also have a moral responsibility to defend against those short-sighted human modifications which fail to recognize Divine elements, and especially Divinely revealed elements. These turn the tables; they are not ours to manipulate; they stand as corrections to our own mistaken judgment.
Today we find ourselves, perhaps more than ever, on the horns of a dilemma. A godless regime seeks to modify all religion without distinction. Two ways to do this (the ways chosen by the Obama Administration, for example), are: (1) To honor or employ high profile religionists who prefer secular values to the formal teachings of their own religious bodies; and (2) To increasingly privatize religion, sapping it of its public presence and influence. In these and other ways, the modern State seeks to make religion less threatening to its own power. This is an extraordinarily important feature of modern politics, and it makes it more important than ever to figure out which religious conceptions are really modifiable human ideas, and which come from God Himself.
Here we see the deeper significance of Muhammad al-Sammak’s observations, and the inherent warnings that go beyond his own intentions. There is a great deal about the problem of religion that is legitimately subject to human reason, and therefore legitimately the object of policy. But to avoid disaster in the modern world, which no longer takes religion for granted, it is absolutely necessary to figure out what comes from God and what does not.
We know that the modern State wishes to modify religion, and we know that the State is neither of Divine origin nor protected by God from error. So if there is a particular religion that is of Divine origin, we need to know that, too. We need to rethink these things now. There is not a moment to lose.
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