Not Peace but a Sword- The Great Chasm between Christianity and Islam is the new book published by Catholic Answers written by Robert Spencer.
As the title suggests this is not a soft look at Islam, but it is also not a diatribe against Muslims and a recitation of acts of evil committed by individuals or groups of Muslims. There is a very common idea that Muslims, Jews, and Christians being “People of the book” have many foundational ideas in common. There is certainly some truth to this, but when it comes to Islam there is much thought to be in common that actually isn’t. Robert Spencer also does not set out to say that we can’t have common cause with Muslims in some areas, but that we should be aware how far that common cause actually goes. For example he talks about how for example working with Muslim countries in the United Nations in regard to abortion has certainly been helpful to keep or delay more odious abortion rights language. Yet at the same time this alliance was not all that we would want.
The Muslim representatives agreed to the language ruling out the use of abortion as a means of family planning but opposed Vatican efforts to call for an end to it in all circumstances. For Islamic law, unlike Church teaching and contrary to widespread belief, does not forbid abortion in every case.
This and many other examples he gives us shows that many terms and ideas we might think we have in common often have many caveats attached to them. This becomes even more apparent when we look at basic philosophical and theological ideas that ground Christian influenced Western thought that is just missing in Islam.
Robert Spencer does a lot of quoting from the Qur’an and some would object that you can find calls to violence in the Bible also. The problem with this is that Muslims have a totally different view of their scripture compared to how Catholic view scripture such as detailed in the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum. Muslim’s consider the “Qur’an was dictated by Allah word for word, miraculously protected from scribal error, and contains no human element whatsoever.”
While on the other hand regarding Holy Scripture Dei Verbum says:
(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4) Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16–17, Greek text).
This contrasting view provides a very different view concerning how Muslim read the Qur’an and how the various semi-official schools of interpretation view the Qur’an in general and specifically what we would call the difficult passages. Adding to that those vary same passages which usually occur later in the Qur’an are given more weight over earlier less violent ones.
The biggest problem in understanding Islam as one of the Abrahamic faiths is that what we seem to have in common can be seen as completely different. We might think we are looking at the same basic story in the Old Testament, but while there might be commonalities in the Qur’an there are also vast differences. This comes about because of the way the Qur’an came about in the first place. Maybe this analogy is off-base, but it seems to me to be kind of like fan-fiction. Somebody takes a story they like and writes another story in that same universe. They also might reboot the story to be in a similar framework, but with some diferences. You can even have a case of one fan-fiction writer writing a story like the latter and then another writer taking off on that story. The Qur’an to me seems to be an awful lot like that as you have some similar biblical stories, but there are major differences such as Abraham attempting to sacrifice Ishmael instead. There are also obvious Gnostic Christian influences along with examples of other early Christian heresies.
Another major underpinning that we don’t share with Islam is the view that we were created in the Image of God and that we are merely “Allah’s slave.” The lack of the Imago Dei and the lack of the concept of original sin leads to many distortions that are evident in historical and modern-day Islam. A view of predestination that might even make Calvin cringe. This flawed anthropology concerning the human person means that the dignity of the human person as understood in Christianity is not reciprocated in Islam.
Knowing all this is important when dealing with the individual Muslim so that we don’t assume more than is evident. That when we enter into common cause we understand the limit of it. That when we evangelize that we don’t forget that we often mean very different things when it comes to referring to the Old Testament. There view like so many religions that appeared after Christianity is that the texts we have today are totally corrupted and that goes for both Testaments of the Bible. When the Qur’an refers to the “Gospel”, they refer not to the New Testament, but a lost Gospel of Jesus. Or at least that is the interpretation Muslim theologians give these passages referring to the Gospel as a source of knowledge.
I found this book quite worthwhile as it gave me a better understanding of what it actually means to be a “People of the book” and that it does not mean as much as I thought. If we are not going to talk passed each other and to be able to talk with each other we have to have some common understanding. While many might think that this would be a rather polemical book, I did not find this to be true. As the author wrote “The object of these explorations is to generate more light than heat.” Still just pointing out the underlying philosophical and theological problems is something many people would rather ignore. A view that charity means pretending there are no differences. This is a critique of Islam not the lives of individual Muslims. Often there is a disparity between the two. I learned a good bit concerning this in The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria which was the basis for the great movie “Of God’s and Men.” That book nicely detailed the lives of these monks and there relationship with the Muslim village they served and had deep friendships with.
The book ends with a transcript of a debate with Peter Kreeft and Robert Spencer. I had previously seen the debate on YouTube and greatly enjoyed it. For one I wish all debates could be so free of contention. Peter Kreeft is on the side of even greater common cause. Yet while he basically disagreed with Spencer’s conclusions, there was little disagreement if any with the fact presented.