An abridged essay by Dr Peter J Leithart; the full essay is available here.
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.”
—The Epistle of James, 1:23-24
Deep in the pit of hell, the pilgrim Dante came across Mohammed, walking with his torso split open from chin to groin. The surprise in this scene is not the gruesomeness of Mohammed’s punishment, but the place where this scene occurs: the ninth Bolgia of Malebolgia, in the subcircle of hell reserved for schismatics. Mohammed is not among the idolaters or the pagans, but among sinners being punished for breaking off from the Christian Church, all of whom, appropriately enough, have their bodies rent as retribution for rending the body of Christ.
In treating Mohammed as a Christian schismatic, Dante was not inventing a new perspective (he rarely did), but presenting views widespread in his time. Many in the Western medieval world believed that Mohammed himself had apostatized from Christianity. Centuries before Dante, John of Damascus (675-749) treated Islam in the final section of his treatise de Haeresibus, calling it the “heresy of the Ishmaelites.”
These medieval treatments of Islam find little favor today, even among Christians, yet as a purely historical matter, the medieval accounts have some points in their favor. That Mohammed had contact with a Syrian monk is mentioned in the hadith. And it is clear that Mohammed had wider contact with Christians. One of the key themes of the Qur’an is a denial of the Trinity, since it is “far from his glory” for Allah “to beget a son” (Sura 4.171; cf. 2.115; 5.73, 116; 6.101; 9.30-31; 18.4-5; 25.2; 112.3).
Nestorian Christianity had by Mohammed’s time spread through Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Persia, and eastward as far as China, and Monophysite Christians had founded churches in Syria and Egypt. Prior to the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, those areas were predominantly Christian, if often heretically Christian. Many of these Christians greeted the Arabian conquest as a liberation, and willingly converted to Islam. Whatever the experience of individuals, as a region and as a culture, the Middle East and North Africa became Islamic by abandoning Christendom. The medieval perspective is true to this extent: The Islamic world is not pagan but apostate.
The medieval account of Islam also has the virtue of being a theological account. For modern religious scholarship, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, and all the rest are variations on a single, more basic phenomenon called “religion.” But this is worse than useless. For the Church, Islam cannot be considered another variation on a universal religious impulse but must be understood theologically, and addressed as both a theological and practical challenge.
Far from retreating, in recent decades Muslims have become a significant minority in Western Europe and the United States, and, of course, the rise of Islamism or radical Islam means that Islam has become a more direct threat. Political difficulties aside, the practical question for the Church is, What can we do to break through the apparently impenetrable boundary of Islam and ensure that the gospel will be heard and triumph?
The theological problem is equally daunting, and more fundamental. It can be put this way: Islam’s account of history has a place for Jesus and Christianity. Has Christian theology been able to locate Islam within its history? Can Christians make theological sense of the persistence of Islam? Can we fit them into our story?
Though Islam does not meet any strict definition of “heresy,” this medieval idea provides some clues to answering that question. Following up a few of those clues is the business of this paper.
Scripture indicates that the Lord judged Israel by raising up parodic versions of Israel to plague Israel. When Yahweh wanted to call Israel to repentance, He held up a pseudo-Israel as a mirror, and by examining herself in the mirror, Israel was supposed to see her blemishes and learn how to go about amending herself. We may generalize: Still today, one of the ways Yahweh judges His people is by raising up a pseudo-people as a parody and mirror. And so we come to the first perspective on Islam: The Lord raised up Islam as a parody or mirror of Christianity, which is designed to expose our failings and to call us to faithfulness.
Before we examine more fully how Islam is a parody of Christendom, and what we can learn by examining ourselves in this mirror, we need to explore a second biblical perspective on Islam, namely, that Islam is a global and systematic form of Judaizing.
What unites Islam is not doctrine so much as ritual, and ritually, Islam has a number of affinities with the ancient Israelite religion and with later Judaism. Though circumcision is not prescribed by the Qur’an, Muslims practice it, and the high point of the hajj (pilgrimage) is the “Great Sacrifice”, which requires every Muslim male to sacrifice a goat. The Qur’an, further, proscribes certain meats, and prescribes ritual washings before worship.
M. E. Combs-Schilling description of the ritual life of early Islam is worthy of full quotation: “When it became clear that there were not going to be mass conversions of Jews and Christians, Muhammed began to use rituals to distinguish Islam, to mark off its sacred boundaries. He dramatically altered the direction of prayer, calling upon Muslims to turn around, to no longer face Jerusalem, which lay to Madina’s north, but rather to pray facing Makka, in the opposite direction. The number of daily prayers was changed to five rather than three. Muhammed instituted a whole month of fasting. He distinguished Muslims through the style of prayer. Whereas Christians were summoned by bells and Jews by trumpets, Muslims were summoned by the sound of the human voice crying out “Allah Akbar,” God is great. Furthermore, Muhammed settled upon Friday as the Muslim Sabbath.”
Peter the Venerable was right: Islam shows itself as apostasy most clearly in its rejection of Christian rites and its embrace of archaic “sacraments.” For many Protestants, first-century Judaizers are seen mainly as advocates of works-righteousness, but the basic thrust of Judaizers lay elsewhere. A Judaizer might believe that Jesus was the eternal Son incarnate, and might believe that salvation was through the cross. What he would not admit was that the cross and resurrection marked the beginning of a new world, a world radically different from that which died on Golgotha (see Gal. 1:3-4; 5:11-16). Yes, the Judaizer would say, Jesus was the Messiah, crucified for the sins of the world; but still, we must keep Torah, avoid contamination from Gentiles, be careful about who is sitting next to us at meals, and practice circumcision. Judaizers denied the present reality of the new creation. Judaizing denied that the gospel is an eschatological message, that it is a message about an ending and a beginning.
The most important heresy of Islam is the denial that Jesus brought in a new creation. Islam has a place for Jesus and the Qur’an even speaks of Jesus’ “gospel,” but the Islamic Jesus was no more than a prophet, and after his non-crucifixion and nonresurrection, the world went trundling on as it had since creation. James Kritzeck puts it well: “Islam was seen not as a new covenant but as an urgently needed restoration of the old.” Medieval Christians were strictly correct to speak of the “heresy of the Ishmaelites”.
Islam is a Judaizing parody of Christianity. If we want to be more responsive than Rehoboam, we have to take a good look at the face in the mirror, and not ignore the warts.
One premise of the above analysis is that Islam was and is a judgment of God, and therefore that Christians must recognize that Islam’s rise and continuing success results from the failures of the Church. Laurence E. Browne concluded that the “eclipse of Christianity in Asia” was due to the “feebleness” of the Church’s faith and witness.
The exact nature of our crime, however, is not so obvious, [but]… all boil down to the Church’s failure to live and proclaim the gospel, our unwillingness to stake our lives on the wager that we have entered a new creation. In general, this failure is in two directions: On the one hand, we are faced with a Judaizing parody of the Church because we have become a Judaizing parody of the Church; on the other hand and somewhat paradoxically, we are faced with a Judaizing parody of the Church because we are not nearly Jewish enough. [This] is evident in four areas: Christological, ecclesiological, sacramental, and political.
First, Islam arose in a region of Christendom plagued by Christological heresy, of both Nestorian and Monophysite varieties. It is Judaizing because it implicitly denies what Nicea was designed to safeguard, namely, the gospel announcement that Jesus brings final and full redemption.
Islam parodies Christianity’s pallid confession of the incarnation, which appeared and continues to appear not only in Christological heresy (Arianism is rampant in modern Christianity) but also in our inability to articulate a fully Trinitarian gospel. Too often, Christian apologetics to and polemics toward Islam have worked from a basically Islamic unitarianism, a theology that blurs the antithesis at the very point where the antithesis must be least blurry. Mohammed likely never heard a clear proclamation of who Jesus is, and, consequently, of who the Christian God is. It is likely that Islam still has not.
Point one on the Church’s to-do list: Begin to preach, teach, and live a fully Trinitarian Christianity.
Second, during those periods when Arabia was not useful to the Byzantines, it was simply ignored. Christianity thus entered Arabia not as good news but as a sporadically invading, sporadically indifferent, but always alien political power.
Many seventh-century Christians embraced Islam because it represented a liberation from the overbearing lordship of Byzantium. [Michael the Syrian, a Monophysite twelfth-century Patriarch of Antioch, who claimed that “the God of vengeance” raised up “from the region of the south the Children of Ishmael to deliver us from the hands of the Romans.” Dittos for the Nestorians: “Nestorian tradition has it that the Christians were glad at the Arab invasion”.]
Further, in the sixth century the Church in the Middle East was deeply divided. Byzantine Melkites, Nestorian, and Monophysite (Jacobite) Christians contended with one another, In 893, Eliyya Jauhari, a Nestorian eventually consecrated bishop of Damascus, reported on the strife between Byzantines and Nestorians: “… all of them follow one faith, and believe in one Lord, and serve one Lord. There is no difference between them in that, nor any distinction except from the point of view of party feelings and strife.”
Again, the early history of Islam exposes our Judaizing, the Church’s failure to live according to the Spirit and our preference for the “fleshly” strife of the old creation. Islam’s unity should not be exaggerated; it is divided between Sunni and Shi‘ite, and subdivided further within those two large camps. Yet, even with its divisions Islam provides an overarching structure that transcends national and ethnic boundaries. In the main, Islamic nations recognize that they are part of a larger whole, and the individual Muslim has a sense of being part of a “people of God” that is not confined to one locale, but embraces the globe. In this way, Islam appears more Christian than the Church, especially the modern churches, which can hardly see beyond their denominational or national boundaries. The Church does not see herself as a global nation; in short, we do not recognize that we are the new Israel.
Point two: Don’t forget that we are Christians and churchmen, not agents of American foreign policy. Pursue the visible and global unity of the Church.
Third, in the early centuries the Christianity of North Africa, and especially of Syria, was radically ascetic. Ascetic monasticism undermined the gospel in two ways. First, to retreat into the desert meant giving up the obligations of life in community and the obligations of culture-building. To be a holy man, a true and profound Christian, meant to retreat from culture. But this was an implicit denial of Christ’s Lordship over all things, which is the basic confession of the apostolic Church. Second, Eastern monasticism suppressed the joy that the gospel released. Ascetics were as tineared to the festive music of the gospel as the Pharisees of first-century Jerusalem.
Islam was [both] a reaction to and an extension of these trends within Arabian, Syrian, and Egyptian Christianity. It was a reaction in the sense that Islam has always been not merely a religion but a civilization.
As many Muslim apologists point out, the faithful Muslim serves Allah in his daily life, as he submits to Allah in his eating and drinking, in his marriage and raising children, in work and in worship. Sura 107 pronounces woes on anyone who devotes himself to prayer and neglects acts of mercy, and among the targets of this prophetic warning were Christian monks who abandoned their fellowmen.
At the center of the Church’s life is a table filled with bread and wine, but the fast of Ramadan is much more central in Islam. Looking in the mirror should, again, make us wince, for the Church has for centuries been celebrating the Supper as if it were Ramadan. This is not just a minor issue of liturgical tone; it is a denial of the gospel; it raises a Judaizing doubt about the Bridegroom’s arrival.
Point three: Put the feast at the center of the Church’s life, and do the Supper the way it was meant to be done—often, and joyously.
Finally, Islam, as noted just above, has always understood itself not merely as a religion but as a politics and a civilization… “Islam” does not refer merely to a set of practices and beliefs, but to that portion of the world that has been subdued to Allah; it is a contraction of “House of Islam,” the “Dar al-Islam.” The Muslim, in short, believes that in his religion inheres an all-embracing politics, intellectual culture, and nurture.
In a number of Muslim nations, an Islamic civilization has been erected in the face of expansive Western secularism, and this is a most impressive achievement. [To see how impressive it is, take a moment to think of a similar achievement in modern Christianity. Hint: There aren’t any.]
Islam is a threat to the West today precisely because it is a civilization, a politics and a paideia, and not merely a “religion.”
Several trends suggest that there is some hope for progress. The fact that millions of Muslims are now living in the West gives Christians an unprecedented opportunity for mission, since we now deal with Muslims outside the reinforcing cultural and political apparatus of Islam. We no longer need to enter Dar al-Islam to encounter them; they have invaded the Dar al-Harb, where we can engage them more readily. Whatever the fortunes of the “war on terrorism,” American military power could have the positive effect of weakening the hold that Islam has on cultural and political life in the Middle East world. And for all the evils of Western pop culture, perhaps the Lord will use its global spread in a similar way. We may someday have to deal with cheerful Arab nihilists rather than grim Arab terrorists, in other words, with Arabs who are more like our unbelieving neighbors.
Islam’s all-embracing vision is a rebuke to modern Christianity. Once upon a time, Christians saw their faith as equally all-embracing.
Whatever plausibility structure Christendom provided has crumbled, and millions of people now grow up in the former nations of Christendom without the slightest exposure to Christianity in any form.
At the heart of the gospel is the announcement that Jesus, the Crucified One, has been raised to be Lord of all. We should expect the nations to become worshipers of this Lord. But Christians have largely given up this expectation, and have certainly given up the demand that the nations bow before the Son. We act as if the cross and resurrection left the world unchanged.
Point four on the to-do list: Revive Christendom.
The great lesson to learn from Islam is the one that Luther suggested. When he attacked the Crusades in the 95 Theses, he explained, he “did not mean that we are not to fight against the Turk.” Instead, “we should first mend our ways and cause God to be gracious to us.”