As we’ve watched the daily advance of the jihadist group ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or as our presidential administration prefers, ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)…or as they themselves prefer, IS (the Islamic State)…hereafter referred to as IS, we’re simply dumbfounded at the shocking brutality of this scourge.  When else has almost daily news of crucifixion and beheadings filled our newsfeeds and Twitter nests?  This is unlike anything we’ve seen (short of cable television).  One difficulty for the post-modern mind is that IS just doesn’t jibe with our real cultural religion, that familiar piece of nonsensical bumper-sticker theology, our insistence that we all just “Coexist”.  How do you coexist with someone who wants to behead you?


Some headlines, mostly from Catholic commentators, have suggested that the world owes Benedict XVI an apology.  Many will recall the Pope Emeritus’ lecture at Regensburg in 2006, for which he was much maligned, quoting a fourteenth century dialogue attributed to Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Benedict XVI notes that the sword as the method of choice for the spread of Islam seems more common to the later period of the spread of the faith of Mohammed and that earlier attempts to spread Islam were more consistent with an earlier surah from the Qu’ran which states that “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Now, there may be some form of exegetical gymnastics capable of reconciling this surah with others such as surah 8:15 that reads, “I shall put terror into the hearts of the disbelievers. Strike above their necks and strike their fingertips.”  But for now we’ll leave that to Muslim apologists.  The Emperor’s dialogue denounces the use of violence in favor of reason in spreading the faith:

“God is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.

According to the emperor (and this was one of the Pope Emeritus’ points in the lecture), the use of violence in spreading the Christian faith is not only unsavory or undesirable merely because it is violent, but because it is incompatible with the very faith being spread.  The Pope quotes the emperor again toward the end of the lecture, “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God.”  The Christian concept of God as logos, that is, as reason itself, necessitates the primacy of reason and dialogue in evangelization.  But is there something about the nature of God in Islam that makes the use of force, and even violence, a justifiable means of enabling its spread?

While it is often said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (and there are reasons for affirming this), there are nevertheless differences between the Christian and Muslim understanding of the nature of God that have real consequences for our respective theologies.  One such philosophical difference concerns the transcendence of God.  Christians, Jews, and Muslims all affirm that God is creator of the cosmos and thus transcends the cosmos.  But the likeness of the cosmos to God will mean a difference in degree of transcendence.  Christian theology posits that God transcends the cosmos, to be sure, but because everything that is not God has its origin in God, it bears some likeness to God, even if only in that it exists and borrows, so to speak, being from God Who is ipsum esse subsistens, Being itself (See Summa Theologiae, Q.4, a.2).  God is “other” than the cosmos, but He is not so wholly other that nothing of Him or His will can be known through reason.  This participation in the Mind of God by reason is what is meant by Natural Law.  Rational man can discern, though by no means perfectly, something of God’s attributes and even moral will.  Since there is no being but God from which things that are real can draw their being and essence, the natural order can be a source of indirect knowledge about God.  Thus, God, while remaining transcendent, is not so totally transcendent that He cannot be known apart from direct revelation or expression of His will.  Reason (logos) and discourse are not only one way to evangelize for Christians, but in fact the way that God Himself reveals Himself, both through the natural order discerned through reason, and in His Son Who is the Word (logos) made flesh.

In Islam, Allah is utterly transcendent.  Allah is creator of the cosmos, but the cosmos remains utterly and totally distinct from Allah.  For this reason, Allah cannot be known apart from direct revelation or “Kalam”, meaning “[direct] speech”.  Hence, within Islam, we find a natural home for both mystic Sufism and the nomocratic legalism of Sharia.  The Sufi experiences the Divine through direct experience, while Sharia expresses the will of Allah.  To be a religious scholar in Islam means to be an expert in law, since nothing about Allah can be known apart from His expressed will.  One such legal scholar who was also a Sufi mystic was late eleventh century philosopher Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Ghazali (al-Ghazali).  There was much much debate in Arabic philosophy about the relationship between philosophy (falsafa) and direct revelation (kalam) leading up to al-Ghazali, but after al-Ghazali, not so much.  The influence of al-Ghazali on Arabic philosophy is so pronounced, that Umar F. Abd-Allah writes in “Theological Dimensions of Islamic Law” that “…many jurists and jurisprudents came to regard kalam as the principal underpinning of legal speculation, even to the extent that they regarded jurisprudence as a branch of theology.” (In The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, edited by Tim Winter, 237-257. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)  In other words, reason and philosophy were insufficient to say anything useful about Allah and the will of Allah.  Strangely, someone like al-Ghazali could be comfortable in both Islamic mysticism and legalism since both affirmed the utter inexpressibility of Allah and His will save for direct revelation.

There is no prevailing notion of Allah as logos (reason) within Islam, and so no sense that anything of Allah can be discerned from reason and discourse. This realization brings us back to the role of reason and discourse in spreading the faith.  Ideas have consequences, and if one’s idea of the nature of God is such that God is the very ground of reason, the logos itself, then this will shape the manner in which a faith which posits this about God will be spread.  On the other hand, if Allah is so wholly transcendent from the cosmos, then not only can nothing about him be known by reason, but there is nothing meaningful to say about him.  Dialogue (literally dia-logos–reasoning between) is impossible.  Allah is pure will.  Force (the sword) becomes a legitimate means for spreading Islam.  Convert, or die.  Allah wills it.

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