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Our Misguided Obsession with Islam's Perspicuity

November 27, AD 2015 18 Comments

In the wake of the Paris attacks, voices across the West are once again debating whether or not Islam is an inherently violent religion.  One side, represented by Muslims, Western Islamic scholars, and political liberals, argues, to quote Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, that Islam is peaceful and has “nothing to do with  terrorism.” The other, represented by nationalist, conservative, or Christian thinkers, cites Quranic excerpts or Islamic history as evidence for its essential bloody character.  Both sides are misguided.  Although it is natural to want to take action or offer explanations after horrendous and mind-jarring terrorist attacks perpetrated by religious extremists, we would do well to remember that few of us are actually qualified to speak authoritatively on Islam – a 1,400 year-old religion with more than 1.5 billion adherents spanning the globe, offering a diversity of languages, cultures, and theological traditions that rival the diversity of Christianity.  Furthermore, this enterprise is reliant on a wrong-headed Western twist on the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity — a belief that Scripture is clear to any reasonable person on matters of salvation — though now applied to the Koran, and awkwardly reoriented to determine whether Islam is violent or peaceful.

One such reflection by a prominent Catholic apologist after the Paris attacks asks: “Is Islam a peaceful religion? Let”s not ask the news sources or the Islamic Studies college profs. Let”s just look at what the Quran itself says. You make the decision for yourself.” Such a proposition appeals to our often historically Protestant sensibilities that presume the perspicuity of religious texts. Surely we should be able to pick up the Quran and determine for ourselves — it”s the Muslim”s Bible, isn”t it? Any sensible person should be able to interpret its meaning on some issue, we surmise.  Indeed, eschewing those obviously-biased “Islamic Studies college profs” has historical roots in perspicuity”s suspicions towards authority.  Moreover, the apologist immediately – and predictably, given he is himself asking us to trust his authority as a religious thinker — contradicts this approach, urging the reader to first consider some extra-Quranical data points “before you look at the verses,” such as Islam”s often violent legacy.  This is suggestive that the text may not be sufficient for the task.  

Admittedly, it is not difficult to find the pro-forma Quranic verses urging the mutilating or killing of one”s enemies. Yet after centuries of anti-Christian polemics citing the also stereotypical “violent” Bible verses, one would think that this methodology would be avoided. Jewish and Christian “violent” verses are just as easy to find with a quick Google search: the conquest of Canaan, where God orders the Israelites to “not leave alive anything that breathes… completely destroy them,” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) or the commandment to exterminate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15), come to mind. One might even cite Jesus” proclamation that He does not bring peace “but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Of course, Christian apologists would rush to arguments citing historical context, metaphorical language, and literary genre to reconcile these verses with the idea of a loving and merciful God. But when it comes to Islam, casino scholars employing this same exegetical nuance are viewed with suspicion and scorn.

We also forget how we react when skeptics of our own religion cite verses from our Scriptures purportedly demonstrating contradictions. Such attempts are often scornfully resistant to the theological, historical, or literary training needed to understand our beliefs, and frequently ignorant of centuries” worth of counterarguments or how those verses function within interpretive traditions. But Islam is itself an old religion with complex streams of thought. If we bother to read beyond the anti-Islam proof-texts and try to study the whole Quran, it”s rare we study various philosophical or theological interpretive traditions, be they Avicenna, Averroes, or thousands of others who have influenced the myriad categories and sub-categories of Islamic thought.

Epistemically, what evidences would one cite to prove whether a particular religious system is intrinsically violent? A simple examination of religious texts is problematic and insufficient. Analyzing history is equally complex — Christian and Jewish history both have their fair share of violent episodes: the conquest of Canaan, Charlemagne”s forced conversions, European colonialism. Some sort of statistical model counting the number of people killed by adherents to various religions bears obvious a priori logical problems – did the Enola Gay “represent” Christianity because America was a Christian nation? Moreover, in a time where many claim terrorists do not represent true Islam, it is challenging even to determine what “real” Islam is. With no agreed-upon temporal authority to guide interpretation, every self-proclaimed imam or mullah can claim to teach the true path to submission to Allah.  It is for this reason that the alternative thesis, that Islam is a religion of peace, is just as problematic. Who is to say that ISIL or al-Qaeda don”t represent Islam? Nobody who calls himself a Muslim has more authority than anyone else to delineate the lines of authentic faith.  Any attempt to do so reeks of Anthony Flew”s “No Trust Scotsman” fallacy.

Let”s be clear: I am not arguing that Islam should be “off-limits” for all but the most senior “experts,” as if we are incapable of judging Islam. But we will need a bit more nuance and a lot more humility. If it is possible to prove that Islam is essentially violent it will be a steep, uphill ascent even for the most learned scholar. The question is about as nebulous as asking whether a belief system is fundamentally happy, healthy, or efficient.  Yet a blend of pride and unhealthy faith in scientism encourages us to think that we can easily quantify such categories in a meaningful way, and that unschooled individuals with limited training or knowledge are capable to do it. I myself took one course in Islam in Protestant seminary a decade ago, and have since read a handful of books on the religion – hardly enough to qualify as an Islamic scholar. It”s natural to want to understand a religion who claims adherents responsible for ISIS, Boko Haram, and Paris.  But let”s conduct our study not with the oversimplifications and bravado of our own detractors, but with the same attributes we hope those interested in our faith will exemplify: humility, patience, and charity.





Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand, and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion. He is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School at Christendom College in Alexandria, Virginia.


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  • james

    Very timely, very very well done.

  • OutsideTheGate

    Superb piece.

  • Nate

    Islam has to exist in its part of the world. I Find it extremely dangerous Catholics are falling into the idea that is is “charitable” that we let Syrian so called “Refugees”, into our Country. Our Crusading ancestors had the right idea of what to do, and we ought to follow their example.

  • Macmooski

    Very liberal Protestant.

    • Casey Chalk

      Hello Macmooski,

      Thanks for reading the article and the comment. You claim that my article argues that “dialogue and understanding will fix everything,” but I never said that. I argued that many people, including well-meaning Christians (to include Catholics), have a tendency to apply a specific paradigm (i.e. perspicuity) to Islam on the subject of violence. This paradigm is unfounded and unhelpful to accurately understanding Islam. Islam in its essence may be violent, but answering that question is quite nebulous and will require more than proof-texting.

      You appear to offer an alternative approach: “simple discernment.” You appear to mean by this phrase “how Islamic adherents behave toward non-Muslims.” Presumably you mean Muslim extremists or jihadists, since I would think you are aware that there are large, significant Muslim populations and strands of Islamic thought that eschew violence and are open to dialogue with non-Muslims. I for example have had plenty of Muslim colleagues who are charitable, thoughtful, and thoroughly opposed to violent actions perpetrated on behalf of Islam. So “simple discernment” is not an effective method for understanding or countering Islam. And, I would argue, we need to truly understand Islam before we begin criticizing it.

      I would encourage you to read CCC 841, which discusses the Catholic Church’s position on Islam, referencing Lumen Gentium 16 and Nostra Aetate 3. — I would offer that it’s quite different from your interpretation. in Christ, casey

      • Macmooski

        I’m not certain that the god of islam is the same creator as the God of Abraham, however, I do trust that God will sort it all out in the end. As for simple discernment, I’m talking about responses as a part of daily interactions, not as a world view. In my experience, generic labels don’t work, sorry if I was unclear in that regard.

      • Casey Chalk

        Hi Macmooski,

        I’m not sure how your comment above is specifically relevant to the question of Islam’s inherent violence, but I agree that God as the most popular forms of Islam worship Him has certain characteristics that are irreconcilably different to the God of the Jews or that of Catholic Christianity — his impersonal nature, or ability to defy his own moral or universal laws are two immediate examples that come to mind. I don’t understand your follow-on points regarding “responses as a part of daily interactions” or “generic labels.” in Christ, casey

      • Macmooski

        I was replying to your reference to the catechism – on how we are to respond to those who believe in our Creator. I’m a simple person, you appear to be scholarly – I know we are to use our minds, our logic, our whole selves to the best of our abilities to know, love and serve God. My Catholic catechesis was good, though basic. Logic doesn’t allow me to reconcile a god that spoke thru Mohammed- a violent man, with the God that appeared to Abraham and came to us in Christ, that’s all I’m saying. I wonder if the god of Mohammed might be a demon – because then the Muslim focus on death, carnage, and the sensual after death make sense.

      • Casey Chalk

        Hi Macmooski,

        You will need to reconcile your conception of Islam with the Catholic documents I listed earlier, including Lumen Gentium 16, a doctrinal document from the Second Vatican Council. The relevant section reads: “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” As for your second comment, I also wonder about the specific circumstances of Muhammad’s claimed interaction with an angel, though such wondering is best categorized as speculation, which is not particularly useful for understanding or debating Islam. in Christ, casey

  • steve abril

    I guess Macmooski has the the simple Ockham”s razor solution to misguided perspicuity of islam thought. Casey Chalk put a lot of thought into his reflection and left me thinking not of blah,blah blah.

  • dagny111

    Catholicism is based on reason, where Islam has declared reason blasphemous. This difference is basic, and one does not need a degree in religious studies to grasp the problems inherent in a belief system that discourages rationality.

    • Casey Chalk

      Hello Dagny111,
      When you say that “Islam has declared reason blasphemous,” what exactly are you referring to? A statement from a particular Muslim imam or scholar? in Christ, casey

      • dagny111

        Early Muslims,until the ninth century, believed the Qu’ran was subject to analysis by logic and reason, as did the medieval Christians. However the Ash’arite school of thought took over, their belief was that Allah is not subject to reason, and to think that He could be is blasphemous. This school of thought persists to this day.

        My information is from Robert Reilly’s book THE CLOSING OF THE MUSLIM MIND.

      • Casey Chalk

        Hi Dagny111,
        Thanks for the clarification — still not sure how that demonstrates that “Islam has declared reason blasphemous.” I think you mean something a bit more specific. Anyway, I agree that significant numbers of Muslims subscribe to a theological/philosophical system that sees religious faith and reason as being in tension (if not in opposition to one another), rather than as cooperative forces. I would however warn that, as my argued in the article above, Islam is by no means monolithic, and many other Muslims do not subscribe to the Ash’arite school; indeed it is a stream of thought more prevalent in Sunni, vice Shia schools of thought and practice. Moreover, even many Sunnis, to include Salafis (who are typically the ones conducting terror attacks), even eschew Ash’arite’s willingness to appropriate reason — in certain circumstances — in theological study. So yes, let’s highlight those streams of Islam that reject reason as notably problematic for Muslims, but let’s not attack a straw-man by lumping all Muslims together in ways that we would find frustrating and inaccurate if applied to us. in Christ, casey

  • dondi

    If the founding historical figure is representative of the religion and is the religion’s model exemplar, then Christianity and Mohammadism are worlds apart. If the current standards of local reaction to apostasy are compared, then Islam is generally more violent. I know this depends on some ifs and some generalisation but if the question asks about Islam in general, as a whole, then a general answer is as good as can be offered. The impossibility of perfectly defining ‘islam’ and ‘violent’ compels the use of iffy assumptions. For example, IF internicine homicide is an accepted indicator of violence, or female genital mutilation, then Islam ‘wins’ the contest. But if feticide or self-harm or abuse and neglect of the elderly were the main indexes the Christian world ‘wins’. And how!

    • Casey Chalk

      Hi Dondi,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree with your initial statement regarding comparing historical founders of Christianity and Islam, and that such a comparison can be really helpful in conversations about Islam. I also agree that the ubiquity of harsh legal responses to “apostasy” in Islamic countries is an alarming reality, reflective of the most dominant forms of Islam practiced in the world — this is suggestive of something intrinsic to Islam, at least as it is practiced by the majority of Muslims in the world, that is in sharp contrast to Christian (and even secular) beliefs about religious freedom.
      Yet, as you note, using these examples to get to “Islam is violent,” requires a lot of “ifs” and “generalizations,” which I would argue effectively diminishes such an assertion to such a degree that it’s not very useful or helpful in ecumenical dialogue. You aptly recognize that the question “asks about Islam in general,” but I would argue that the question is so general and opaque that we are probably better off simply determining that the question isn’t really worth answering, at least, not worth answering for the vast majority of us unqualified to speak authoritatively on Islam and its essence, whatever that may be. Just because lots of people are asking the question doesn’t make it a good question. In reference to Islam, I prefer other questions that I think get to the heart of the matter: “are the truth claims of Islam true?” or “how are Christianity and the predominant forms of Islam different?” in Christ, casey

  • dagny111

    While terrorism may not represent the ” real” Islam,there are many other aspects of Islam which are disturbing. The treatment of women under Sharia Law is certainly a part of Islam, and is more than just a cultural problem. Critics of Christianity often point out that Christian societies have not always supported women’s rights, an objection that, while true, falls to recognize the huge difference between not having the right to vote or wage differences, and encouraging ( by establishing rules for) the beating of wives or genital mutilation. Violence toward women is really systemic in Islam, due to the assumption of certain rights given to men over women. Men may choose not to exercise these rights, but they are enumerated.

  • DLink

    It is somewhat difficult to be nuanced when someone else is attempting to remove your head in the name of Allah. I lived in a Muslim area of the Philippines for 15 years and while most conditions most of the time were peaceful, the exercise of prudence was a necessity. The writer takes far too sanguine an attitude toward the problem.