Besancon: What Kind of Religion is Islam?




What kind of religion is Islam?

Commentary - May 1, 2004

Alain Besancon



It is no secret that, with the return of Islam to the world stage over the last half-century, relations between Muslims and the West, or what used to be known as Christendom, have undergone sweeping changes. Nor is there any mystery to the large historical and demographic forces impelling those changes. The key event occurred when Muslim countries that for centuries had lain under the sway of European empires (Christian empires, as Muslims regarded them) gained their political independence and embarked upon a long-delayed, wrenching, and still far from accomplished encounter with modernity. Partly as a consequence of this development, the once-numerous Christian minorities in some Muslim countries, especially those in the Middle East, entered upon a rapid and frequently violent decline. Concomitantly, significant numbers of Muslims began to settle in the West and no less rapidly to grow there, to the point where, in France today, they probably amount to 10 percent of the overall population, with smaller but important representations in Germany, England, and the United States.


It is the last development in particular that has aroused widespread concern and comment, particularly with the rise of militant anti-Western Islam around the world and the increasing radicalization of elements in Western Muslim communities. In Europe, the discussion is routinely couched in terms of demography and comparative birth rates, poverty and crime, the desirability or nondesirability of cultural assimilation, the persistence of societal prejudice and "racism," and the like. Much more rarely is it couched, even by churchmen, in terms of religion, let alone in terms of a clash of religions.


To the contrary, the mood of the churches in Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, has long been inclined to an indulgent ecumenicism. Although several church establishments are themselves in crisis--or perhaps precisely because they are in crisis--they see their major role as one of welcoming Islam, seeking contact with it, stressing points in common, engaging in "dialogue."


Thus, to hear many official Christian spokesmen tell it, there is no problem here at all. First, they point out, Islam is a sister-monotheism, grounded, like Christianity and Judaism, in a divine revelation. Second, that revelation is recorded in a book, the Qur'an, which is "biblical" in the same sense as the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Finally, Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, claims a common descent from the biblical patriarch Abraham. As if to seal the special comity between Christianity and Islam, Christians also note that the Qur'an makes mention of both Jesus and Mary, attributing to each of them a high status in Muslim eyes.


Three revealed religions, three religions of the Book, three Abrahamic religions, all having more in common than the details of history, or of faith and ritual, that distinguish them one from the other. Is there any truth to this picture?


To answer that question, we need to begin with a longer look backward. In the centuries following the birth of Islam in 622, one can discern three principal approaches to the new religion on the part of Christians. The first, represented very early on by John of Damascus, may be dubbed the attitude of refusal or, better, of conscious incompatibility.


The scion of a family of Byzantine officials who had played a role in the surrender of Damascus to the Muslim invaders, John initially served in the court of the caliph before entering a monastery, in Palestine where he died in 754. Among his voluminous writings in defense of Christian orthodoxy, only a few pages are devoted to Islam; but these are invaluable, for John was a witness to the first hours. Thus, in his Book of Heresies, Islam is listed, interestingly, at number 100, suggesting that at this time it was still unclear whether Islam indeed constituted a wholly different religion or might be taken as another planet in the Christian galaxy itself buffeted by numerous sectarian rifts. But there is no doubting John's opinion of Islam, or the sharp sarcasm of his treatment: Muhammad was a false prophet, and his doctrines, based on a denial of the Christian truths, are absurd.


John was also the author of a later work, Controversy Between a Muslim and a Christian. This was a sort of catechism, designed to prevent Christians from converting to the new faith (which numbers of them were already doing). Here John vigorously defends the idea of free will and sets out to refute the determinism and fatalism that he associates with Islam; along similar lines, he insists on the immutability of the laws of nature, as against the Islamic conception of a sublunar existence beholden at every moment to the whim of God. Throughout, John speaks in a condescending voice not unlike that of some 19th-century English theologian stooping to consider the merits of the Book of Mormon.


Five centuries after John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas extended and deepened the posture of out-right rejection. In his Summa contra Gentiles (1, 5), Aquinas argues that Muhammad was a seducer of men whose commandments appeal only to the carnal appetites; that the truths he taught are of the lower variety, suited to vulgar minds; that mixed in with these truths are teachings of a fabulous nature that utterly compromise them; and that the plausibility of his doctrines rested on the power of his weapons—a characteristic he shared with brigands and tyrants. As for Muhammad's use of the Old and New Testaments, he disfigured them both with mythical concoctions while forbidding his followers to read the originals. In sum, "those who place their faith in his word believe mindlessly."


BUT EVEN as Aquinas was writing, a second Christian approach to Islam had begun to develop in Europe. I call it, in shorthand, the Three Laws. A good example may be seen in the record of a debate between the future Byzantine emperor Manuel II (Manuel Paleologus) and a wise Muslim in 1390. The question before them was how to establish an order of priority among the laws of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.


Manuel starts by asserting that Muslim law is inferior to Mosaic law; he points in particular to the doctrine of jihad, according to which non-Muslims in lands conquered by Muslims are to be given the choice of conversion, death, or slavery. But bloodshed and violence, Manuel avers, are displeasing to God, Who would rather men were brought to true faith by means of persuasion. And if Muslim law is inferior to Jewish law in this respect, a fortiori it is inferior to Christian law.


The Muslim responds by concurring that Christian law is indeed superior to Mosaic law, but not to the law of Muhammad. His objection is that the spiritual discipline Christianity demands of us--to love one's enemies, to seek out poverty, to embrace chastity—is too difficult, too elevated, too impracticable. By contrast, the Qur'an holds to the middle way, the golden mean between the deficiencies of Mosaic law and the excesses of Christian law, and this mean is consonant with both reason and good morals.


Manuel's reply draws on classical Christian polemics. He distinguishes the precepts of the Jewish and Christian Bible from the "evangelical counsels," designed to guide those who receive a call to a life of perfection. Then he delivers his knockout punch. Your law, he informs the Muslim, is a step backward, a retreat from Christian law to the law of Moses--which, to make matters worse, Muhammad plundered and then corrupted, manufacturing from it something motley and disordered.


The quality of the argumentation aside, notice what is going on here. Manuel is patently sincere, and is making a conscious effort to debate on neutral ground. Thus, he conspicuously refrains from appealing to the authority of Scripture, since his Muslim counterpart does not recognize it. Nor does he emphasize the historical continuity between Judaism and Christianity, or invoke the concept of a covenant with God, which is similarly unrecognized in Islam. Instead, he feels obliged to lay out the three "laws" abstractly, on the same a historical plane. In order to refute the law of the Qur'an, he then holds up the specter of Judaism, which, he says, is carnal where Christian law is spiritual.


In so saying, however, Manuel (reverting to the Platonist bias of Byzantine Christianity) implicitly abandons his original position--namely, that Islamic law is inferior to Jewish law--and sets out on a path that will end by privileging Islam over Judaism. Mid this brings us to the third approach to the problem, which involved the search for a more accommodating attitude.


My example here is De pacefidei ("On the Peace of Faith"), written in 1452, just before the fall of Constantinople, by Nicholas of Cusa, a philosopher and a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. Nicholas's conscious intention was to find a higher and more inclusive vantage point, one that would allow him to reinterpret Islam as an unconscious if imperfect version of Christianity. Since, like Manuel, he too must refrain from invoking the final authority of the Bible, he starts by positing a common tenet: faith in the one God. From this first axiom, he then proceeds to deduce, via a learned and recondite chain of reasoning, the Trinity and the other great Christian dogmas. Through this method he hopes to persuade his Muslim interlocutor, who has himself been nourished on the rationalist philosophy of Avicenna, to see the light of Christian truth.


Once again we may pass over the fine points of the debate to notice how Nicholas has obliged himself to neglect the history of salvation as it is understood by Christians to have unfolded over the course of the Old and New Testaments. In the attempt to meet his debating partner on neutral ground, he too finds himself fighting on Muslim territory, stripped of the armor of sacred history and equipped only with the weapon of philosophy. His theology has been disembodied, reduced to abstraction. The transcendent point he seeks has become a point of darkness, one of those nights in which, as Hegel famously remarked, all cows are gray.


In short, the two attempts at dialogue--by Manuel II and Nicholas of Cusa--led to a monologue. The Christian religion is indeed held to be necessarily true and certain, but Christianity itself has been knocked off-center. It is as if the effort to make themselves understood to Muslims subtly required these two fine intellects to traduce their own, thoroughly orthodox beliefs. It is now necessary to see why that is so.


WHAT STATUS does Islam occupy in Christian theology? To be precise, is it a revealed religion or a natural religion?


Those terms have specific meanings in classical Christian theology, according to which mankind is divided as follows. Those who survived the biblical flood are considered (as they are in rabbinic theology) to he under the terms of the covenant that God struck with Noah (Genesis 9). As such, they are bound by natural law and by universal morality; they may also partake of some idea of the divine within the framework of their own pagan religions. Out of this common humanity, whose seed continues everywhere in existence, God then revealed Himself to one man, Abraham, choosing him and his household to be the bearers of His special favor. With Abraham He struck another covenant, which was further developed many generations later in the covenant Moses received in the name of the people Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. Finally, through the person of Jesus, His incarnated Word, God instituted a "new covenant"—one that, having originated long before with Abraham and Israel, and having proceeded through the messiahship of Jesus, will eventually extend to all mankind.


Within this scheme, where to locate Islam? For Christians and Jews alike, the difficulty--and the embarrassment--lie in the indisputable fact that Islam believes in one God, eternal, almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, merciful. Is not this formula, which I have adapted from the Christian credo, continuous with the words spoken by the Lord when He passed before Moses on Mount Sinai at the second giving of the Ten Commandments? Yes. But those same Ten Commandments open by identifying God as the liberator of His people in a particular historical situation: "I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." In the God of the Qur'an, there is no such history.


Nor is that the only problem that presents itself if one tries to approach Islam as a revealed religion, at least as Christians and Jews understand the term. The Christian Church believes that it is the desire of the revealed God to manifest Himself and communicate His message of redemption, letting man know of the truths that elude the grasp of the human mind unaided by grace. To the revelation contained in the Hebrew
Bible, the Christians added a "new testament," while continuing to recognize the full authority, of the document given before the arrival of their messiah.


Muslims also hold that they received a revelation. It is conceived, however, not as part of a historical narrative but as the transmission of an eternally preexisting text. In this transmission, the prophet, Muhammad, does not play a role akin to that of Moses and Jesus. He does nothing but receive texts, which he repeats as if under dictation. AS opposed to the Bible, which Christians declare to have been "inspired," the Qur'an is uncreated. It is the uncreated Word of God.


Islam distinguishes between an authentic prophet (nabi) and a messenger (rassul), or one who has received a particular legislative message. Adam, Noah, Moses, David, Jesus were messengers, dispatched to particular peoples. Only Muhammad, the "seal of the prophets," received a universal mission. That mission was made necessary because the books of the earlier messengers of God, which were also dictated, had become falsified. Jews and Christians had manipulated the writing and distorted the meaning. That is why Muslims do not credit the worth of revealed documents prior to their own. The true Torah, the authentic Gospel, is to be sought nowhere else than in the Qur'an. Muslims are the true followers of Jesus.


THE BALL is thus in the court of Jews and Christians. Can they recognize their Bible, or their two Testaments, in the Qur'an? The answer is no.


Muslims aver that Muhammad was illiterate. God declares to the prophet: "You did not "know what were the Scriptures and the faith before." Yet Muhammad assuredly had some knowledge of the Bible. Medina was full of Jews and Christians of varied sects. John of Damascus believed he had been influenced by an Arian monk; others, that it was a Nestorian monk. Still, to anyone familiar with the Bible, the figures cited in the Qur'an, though recognizable, are palpably alien.


The Abraham of Genesis is not the Ibrahim of the Qur'an; Moses is not Moussa. As for Jesus, he appears, as Issa, out of place and out of time, without reference to the landscape of Israel. His mother, Mary or Mariam, identified as the sister of Aaron, gives birth to him under a palm tree. Then Issa performs several miracles, which seem to have been drawn from the apocryphal gospels, and announces the future coming of Muhammad.


Jesus is indeed granted a position of honor in the Qur'an, but this Jesus is not the Jesus in whom Christians proclaim their faith. The Jesus/Issa of the Qur'an promulgates the same message as the earlier prophets--Adam, Abraham, Lot, and the rest. Indeed, all possess the same knowledge and proclaim the same message, which is Islam. Like the rest, Issa is sent to preach the oneness of God. He is emphatically no Trinitarian, not an "associator"; "do not say Three," he protests. Nor is he the son of God, but a simple mortal. Nor is he a mediator between earthly men and their heavenly Father, because Islam "knows not the concept of mediation. Nor, since in Islam it is unimaginable that a messenger of God can be vanquished, does he die on the cross; a double is substituted for him.


Foreign to Islam is the idea of a progressive revelation. The divine message, in toto, is instead infused in Adam, the first man and the first messenger. Only, men forget the message, and a repetition becomes necessary. Muhammad is the last messenger and prophet. Islam, which means "submission," is the great regulator, which restores time to an eternal present in the same manner that God periodically brings men back into obedience to His eternal decree.


Thus, for a Christian as for a Jew, there can be no continuity between the Bible and the Qur'an. The point holds even for those passages reflecting an evident concurrence on the idea of the one God. Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian conception of God, is "Father"--i.e., a personal God capable of a reciprocal and loving relation with men. The one God of the Qur'an, the God Who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him "Father" would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feelings to Him would be suspect.


Are Muslims, then, like Jews and Christians, "children of Abraham"? The Abraham whom Islam claims for itself is yet another messenger--and a Muslim. He is not the common father first of Israel and then of Christians who share his faith. Indeed, since the truth, according to the Qur'an, was given totally on the first day and to the first man, it is inconceivable that Abraham could have played the founding role assigned to him by Jews and Christians. Rather, the Ibrahim of the Qur'an takes part in Muslim worship by building the Ka'ba temple and instituting the pilgrimage to Mecca. Far from Muhammad sharing the faith of Abraham, it is Abraham who holds the faith of Muhammad.


IF ISLAM is not a revealed religion, is it a natural one?


A common feature of natural religions is a sense of God, or of the divine, being everywhere present in nature. For the Greeks and the Romans, it was enough to contemplate the cosmos, the created universe, to be certain, prior to any process of mental reasoning, that God, or the gods, existed. Not to believe in them was a sign of insanity, marking off the unbeliever from the realm of the human.


This is not the Christian viewpoint, which holds rather that the existence of God can be grasped only with the help of investigation and reason, with faith coming in as an act of heavenly grace to seal this acquired knowledge. But the Christian perspective is not the Islamic perspective, which in this regard bears a greater resemblance to the classical pagan sense of things. Islam does not suppose that faith is needed to perceive the divine presence; that presence is obvious. Although Islam is, to be sure, a religion of faith, where faith comes in is in acknowledging not God's omnipresence but His oneness.


In Islam, God gave a law to man by means of a unilateral pact, in an act of sublime condescension. This law has nothing in common with the law of Sinai, by which Israel joined in partnership with God, nor with the law of the Spirit about which Paul speaks in the New Testament. Rather, the law of Islam is wholly external to man, and it precludes any notion of imitating God as is urged in the Bible ("be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy"). What is required is only to remain within the limits of the pact, whose terms have been fixed by God's uncreated Word and in the Sunna, the authentic tradition. Any impulse to exceed those limits is discouraged. It is enough to do good and avoid evil in order to escape punishment and profit from the promised rewards of obedience.


There is again some similarity here with pagan conceptions, and specifically with pagan ethics. Islamic civilization is a civilization of the good life, and it offers a certain latitude in the realm of sensory pleasure. Asceticism is foreign to the spirit of Islam. There is a Muslim spirit of carpe diem, a this-worldly contentment that often fascinated Christians who may have seen in it a dim echo of the ancient, classical world. There is nothing like the doctrine of original sin in Islam, or eternal damnation for the sinner. Predestination, in the Muslim understanding, is not so different from the ancient notion of fatum.


Much fun has been made, wrongly, of the Muslim notion of paradise. Admittedly, it is not like the Jewish or Christian notion, which envisions an eternity participating in the life of the divine. In the other-world of Islam, God remains separate and inaccessible, but man finds there forgiveness, peace, "satisfaction." If biblical religion suggests a road map that originates in a garden, Eden, and finishes in a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Qur'an charts a return to the garden. Ancient mythologies are replete with similar images: idealized banquets with flowing cups, beautiful virgins and young men, a climate of heavenly satiety in which all desire is fulfilled.


In concordance with natural religion (and with the Hellenistic substratum on which Islam was built), Muslim religious life offers more than one model of piety. For the truly devout, two ways are open, just as in the Greco-Roman world: philosophy (Arab falsafa, itself heavily impregnated with neo-Platonism) and mysticism. Less rigorous souls, with the help of the law and moderate observance of the "five pillars" of Islam, can adhere to a mild but perfectly sufficient religious regimen. This is surely a great advantage over the two biblical religions, which expect of believers a greater scrupulousness and a deeper introspection; it is also, once more, reminiscent of ancient paganism, whose rites were designed to ornament and to enhance the individual's natural, spontaneous sense of the divine.


From this perspective, two facts about Islam that always astonished medieval Christians seem not so astonishing after all: the difficulty of converting Muslims, and the stubborn attachment to their faith of even the most superficially observant. From the Muslim point of view, it was absurd to become a Christian, because Christianity was a religion of the past whose best parts had been included in and superseded by Islam. Even more basically, Christianity was anti-natural: just as Manuel's Muslim debater insisted, its moral requirements exceeded human capacities, and its central mysteries defied reason.


STILL, IF Islam may be regarded as in some sense a natural religion, it is nevertheless the case that, in their encounters with Muslims, Christians from John of Damascus onward failed to recognize in it anything like the "nature" that presented itself to their gaze in the paganism of the Greco-Roman, Germanic, or Slavic worlds, or for that matter among the natives they would later meet in the New World. But that is hardly surprising, for in Islam the very categories of nature and revelation take on wholly unfamiliar aspects. I am not referring here to such things as the peculiar arrangements of the Muslim city, or Islamic family structure, or the position of women, or the particular customs and manners of Islamic people. I have in mind a number of other, more essential qualities of the Muslim religion itself.


One of them, which I have already mentioned in passing, is the characteristic Islamic denial of the stability and consistency of nature. According to Islam, the world is not governed by an unchanging natural law. Atoms, physical properties, matter itself: these endure only for an instant, being created anew at every moment by God. Nor is there any straightforward cause-and-effect relation between events that occur in time. Although daytime usually coincides with the presence of sunlight and night with its absence, God can change things around as He likes and make the sun shine in the middle of the night. Miracles are thus not to be seen as suspensions of natural law but as shifts in the "habits" of God.


With causality, abolished, anything can happen: in place of causes, there are only sequences, one thing after another. The same applies humanly. The creation of Adam does not make him the "cause" of the human line that comes after him: rather, each individual is created, like Adam, from scratch. "He created you in the womb of your mothers, creation after creation." Each stage of growth is, similarly, the result of a new creative act of God, whose intentions, like His nature, are concealed from us. With time itself perceived as an unconnected series of incidents, and nature reliant on the "habits" of the Creator, it is no wonder that to many Westerners the Muslim cosmos has seemed a borderland between dream and reality.


Another, related feature is the denial of history. The Bible is a history, a narrative of a revelation that proceeds in stages. God intervenes in this narrative by means of deeds and words, the memory of which is preserved by tradition and in an inspired book that is perpetually subject to interpretation. The Qur'an, by contrast, is uncreated, and there is no interpretative magisterium. It does not contain a history, but stories. God intervenes only to extend His protection to His prophets and messengers, who are infallible and without sin, and to destroy their enemies. Since the same message is transmitted by all the messengers, the "history" takes on the feel of an infinite repetition. There is no clear differentiation of past, present, and future--another dreamland.


A third connected feature concerns the moral and religious habits promoted by the Islamic system. Even if we decline to credit the Qur'an as an authentic revelation, we are still obliged to account for its unique sense of virtue; and especially the "virtue of religion" as it was understood in Roman times by Cicero. What complicates this task is that, under Islam, and notwithstanding what I said earlier about the moderateness of the religious life, the domain of one's duties can be pushed beyond what biblical religion considers appropriate.


In the latter, man is responsible for conducting his affairs within the framework of a universe--natural, social, political--that operates by internally consistent rules. The performance of one's religious and moral duties is thus confined to a rationally definable area. In Islam, by contrast, the will of God extends, as it were, to the secondary causes as well as to the primary ones, suffusing all of life. Religious and moral obligation can thus take on an intensity and an all-encompassing sweep that, at least in Christian terms, would be regarded as trespassing any reasonable limit.


These, then, are some of the elements that conduce to misunderstanding when Christians and Jews approach Islam. Such outsiders may well be struck by the religious zeal of the Muslim toward a God whom they recognize as being also their God. But this God is in fact separate and distinct, and so is the relation between Him and the believing Muslim. Christians are accustomed to distinguish the worship of false gods--that is, idolatry--from the worship of the true God. To treat Islam suitably, it becomes necessary to forge a new concept altogether, and one that is difficult to grasp-namely, an idolatry of the God of Israel. To put it another way, Islam may be thought of as the natural religion of the revealed God.


LET US now return to the present. Today's Islam, the Islam that is growing in strength and in assertiveness, seems no more attracted by Christianity than was yesterday's. For some Christians, however, Islam exercises an undeniable appeal.


In Europe, this appeal owes much to the work of a single scholar, Louis Massignon (1883-1962). For it was Massignon who disseminated the still-influential opinion that the Qur'an constitutes a sort of "biblical" revelation and that Muslims are "children of Abraham." An entire literature favorable to Islam has grown up in Europe, much of it the work of Catholic priests under the sway of Massignon's ideas.


Of course, reading these books, one begins to sense the presence of other elements as well. Contributing to the partiality toward Islam is an underlying dissatisfaction with modernity, and with our liberal, capitalist, individualistic arrangements. These are implicitly found wanting when contrasted with the enduring beauties; of traditional Muslim culture, among which the spirit of community, the courtesy and warmth of family relations, and the shared customs and ceremonies are often singled out for approving notice. Alarmed by the ebbing of religious faith in the Christian West, and particularly in Europe, these writers cannot but admire Muslim devoutness. They are filled with wonder at the spectacle of men who, whether alone in a desert or in the midst of a crowded European factory, stop whatever they are doing and bow down five times a day in prayer. Surely, they reason, it is better to believe in something than to believe in nothing, and since these Muslims believe in something, they must believe in the same thing we do.


But this is to confuse demonstrations of faith with religious beliefs. In losing sight of the difference between the two, these writers commit other and even more dangerous confusions. Thus, many of them make a point of noting the honor paid to Jesus and Mary in the Qur'an, ignoring the fact that this Jesus and this Mary have nothing but their names in common with the Jesus and Mary of Christianity. And that is only one of several willful misreadings of Islam whose cumulative effect is not only to destabilize Christian self-understanding but to disturb, fatally, the theological relation between Christians and Jews.


Does the honor paid to Jesus and Mary suggest, from the Christian point of view, that Islam is "better" than Judaism, which refuses to pay such honor to the Holy Family? That would seem to be the conclusion of those who, from this perspective, weigh Judaism and Islam in the balance, with the advantage going to Islam. But no serious Christian can seriously entertain such an idea, and the Catholic Church has historically condemned it--for good reason. To accept it would mean giving up the Church's claimed descent from Abraham and from the prophets of Israel; it would mean giving up the Davidic genealogy of the Christian messiah; it would mean cutting Christianity off from its sources and its history. The Gospel would then become, in effect, another Qur'an.


OF ALL the contemporary expressions hinting at a consanguinity between the Qur'an and the Bible, the falsest may be "religions of the Book." This phrase is itself of Islamic origin, but it has nothing to do with what it is widely and misleadingly supposed to suggest. It refers, rather, to a special legal category, "people of the Book," that provided an exception for Christians and Jews to the general rule decreeing death or slavery for those who refused to convert to Islam. Instead, these groups (as well as two other peoples in possession of a scripture, namely Sabians and Zoroastrians) were allowed to retain their property and to continue to reside in Muslim lands with the second-class status of dhimmi.


That such expressions can be so lightly employed is a sign that elements of the Christian world are no longer capable of distinguishing clearly between their own religion and Islam. Are we returning to the times of John of Damascus, when it was possible to entertain the deluded thought that Islam might itself be a form of Christianity? It is not inconceivable. History records more than one instance of a Christian church unconsciously drifting toward Islam when it does not know any longer what it believes in, or why. This was precisely the fate of the Monophysites in Egypt, the Nestorians in Syria, the Donatists in North Africa, the Arians in Spain.


Islam is not some primitive, simplistic, unworked-out religion. It is neither a "religion of camel drivers" nor a religion of soft and malleable borders. To the contrary, it is an extremely strong religion, with a specific and highly crystallized conception of the relation between man and God. That conception is no less coherent than the Jewish and Christian conceptions; but it is quite opposed to them. Although some Christians may imagine that, because Muslims worship the common God of Israel, Islam and Christianity are closer than either is to paganism, this is not the case. In fact, Christianity and Islam are paradoxically but radically separated by the same God.


It follows that the effort to engage in "dialogue" with Muslims has been set on a mistaken course. The early Church fathers deemed the works of Virgil and Plato a preparatio evangelica--preparation for the Gospel, for the truth of Christianity. The Qur'an is neither a preparation for biblical religion nor a retroactive endorsement of it. In approaching Muslims, self-respecting Christians and others would do better to rely on what remains within Islam of natural religion--and of religious virtue--and to take into account the common humanity that Muslims share with all people everywhere.


ALAIN BESANCON, the eminent historian, is a member of the French Academy. His books in English translation include The Soviet Syndrome, The Rise of the Gulag, and The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. The present essay draws in part from his most recent book in French, Three Temptations of the Church.


Citation Details
Title: What kind of religion is Islam?
Author: Alain Besancon
Publication: Commentary (Refereed)
May 1, 2004

Publisher: Commentary Magazine
Volume: 117, Issue: 5, Page: 42(7)