We need a Christian assessment of Islam. I purposely use the term “Christian” here in order to convey the substance of historic Christian doctrine and sincere attempts to practice a way of life in line with the plain teachings of Scripture and of the Lord Jesus. Sadly, the term “Christian” today has almost become meaningless from misapplication and negative associations; thus I have to clarify the sense in which I am using it here.
I am grateful to God that there are many excellent examples today of Christians writing about how to reach out to our Muslim neighbors—we need that training and encouragement. Yet how are we to effectively “reach out” to Muslim people for the sake of the Gospel is we do not do a Christian assessment of Islam? It is essential to accurately assess what Islam actually affirms—the essentials and the diversity of views represented within the religion. To discover this requires a diligent study of its history and sources as well as knowledge of how contemporary Muslims interpret the meaning and application of Islamic texts today.
Christians have a rich tradition of critical assessments of those movements and teachers who have challenged the Churches’ teachings. We modern Christians tend to be embarrassed by this fact (even those of us who know something of history) and are more likely to avoid critiquing anyone’s beliefs! Usually we cough this under “not judging others” but I wonder if there may be another motive: Namely, that many of us lack convictions and coherent understanding of biblical doctrine or we are afraid to speak of what we do believe.
In past generations Christians were willing to call a spade a spade and name error when it was being advocated. Such doctrinal error was called heresy and those who advocated for it were called heretics and the movements they started were called heretical. The list of specifically identified persons and movements in church history is quite long. The greatest writers in the Christian tradition have written against such ideas and movements by identifying false teaching and defending the truth as the Church taught it. In our time this necessary task has been downplayed to the point that most Christian people today find it difficult to even the use the term “heresy” or “heretic.” That is not a sign of health in Christian communities but rather one of decay and negligence.
In my opinion, this trend is illustrated painfully in the conflicting perspectives which modern day Christians hold about Islam. Some people, regardless of their views, speak about Islam and/or Muslims from ignorance because they have not attempted to do any serious study of what the Islamic tradition is and what the Qur’an teaches. In other cases, some Christians hold views that are highly colored by a kind of wish fulfillment that elevates the commonalities between the biblical narrative and Qur’anic teaching and actively relegates the points of sharp disagreement to mere cultural differences.
The common line used is that they “basically teach the same thing”! This view is demonstrably false as well as foolish. (Even among those who reject Christianity but who have taken the time to study religious history know that this is nonsense.) We need a distinctly Christian assessment of Islam rather than bowing before the neatly packaged presentations of Muslim apologists. We need to assess Islam according to the convictions of historic Christian doctrine and not assume Qur’anic categories in our conversations and research.
I have been studying Islam for many years. My time in academic study of Islam convinced me that I needed to invest time for careful study of Islamic sources as well as reading the Christian responses to Islam. I have pursued this dual strategy and found many fine examples of coherent and intellectually rigorous responses to Islam in church history. I want to introduce the reader to a Church leader who pioneered what we may recognize as a sound means to approach and assess Islam. Let the reader slowly read his words and consider his approach as an orthodox Christian.
Peter the Venerable, as he became known, was one of the most prominent Church leaders of his generation. He became the Abbot of Cluny (1122) and served as a prominent voice in the Western Church till his death (1156). At that time, the monastery of Cluny was arguably the most influential Christian institution within Western Christianity. Peter had a bent toward learning and a keen mind which he utilized for the development of scholarly and polemical writing. He left his mark on Western Christianity in a number of ways but what I think is most remarkable about him is his writings about Islam.
In in his book, Against the Sect of the Saracens, at length he defends his reason for writing the book (presumably against the criticisms of other Christians) by citing Christian authors who wrote against various heretical teaching. He was perplexed regarding Islam because it was not, strictly speaking, an off shoot of Christianity but nevertheless it taught things that ran directly counter to the Church’s doctrines.
“But whether the error of Muhammad ought to be called heresy, and whether his followers should be called heretics or heathens, I do not fully settle. Indeed, I see that they receive certain things from the Christian faith in the manner of heretics, and reject other things, equally to do or to teach according to pagan rite what no heresy is ever written to have done. . . . If you have called them heretics, it has been demonstrated that one should oppose them over and above all the heretics or heresies. If you call them pagans, on the authority of the Fathers I prove and I show that one ought not oppose them any less.”[i]
In a letter to Bernard of Clairvaux, he pleads with his friend to use his influence to act to correct the fact that no Christian (in Western Europe) had made any serious attempt to study Islam. And that since almost everyone was content with being almost wholly ignorant about the religion and practices of millions of people this task was urgent.[ii]
“What scraps of information about Islam Europeans possessed, usually centered about the figure of Mohammed, were utterly or in large part false. Mohammed was sometimes thought to be the god of the Moslems, but a more current view was that he was only one god in a pantheon worshipped by them; the Chanson de Roland, for instance, placed both Mohammed and the Koran in this pantheon. Those who knew that Mohammed was regarded by Moslems merely as a prophet often confused him with the heretic Nicholas condemned in the Apocalypse (2:6) or contented themselves with spurious tales about his sinful excesses. He was variously viewed as a drunkard, an epileptic, and a pupil of a heretical monk. . . . It is amusing to note that one bizarre variation of the widespread legend that Mohammed had been taught by a heretic eliminated the interlocutor completely and made of Islam’s prophet a renegade cardinal from Rome who had set up his heretical religion in Arabia in a fit of pique after having failed to be elected pope.”[iii]
The state of ignorance in Europe about Islamic beliefs and practices drove Peter to arrange for the financing of translations of four Islamic books into Latin (one of which was a translation of the Qur’an). Once these projects were completed, by competent Arabic speaking Christian scholars, he spent years studying these writings. Then he took on the task of writing a book, Against the Sect of the Saracens, in which he addressed the Muslims of the world to challenge them through rational argument regarding the central claims of Islam. Whether Muslims every read this book is not clear but that was not his sole purpose in writing it; rather he wanted to educate his fellow Christians about what Islamic teachings and practices actually were.
In the Resonance journal (Summer 2018) there is an article by Matthew Kaemingk, entitled, “Stereotyping Islam and Following Jesus.”[iv] Kaemingk, in part, rightly points out that Americans (and that means many American Christians) very mistakenly settle for stereotypes about Muslims and let their personal conduct and perspectives be led by these. I agree with that assessment but I am puzzled (at best) by his prescriptions for how he thinks that Christians can and should think about and conduct themselves in relation to Muslims who live or immigrate to Western countries. My purpose here is not to engage that part of his article as that would require a much longer and more complicated written essay.
I agree with his insistence that ignorance is not an option for the Lord’s disciples in America or anywhere else in the world. We must seek to learn at least some basic (and accurate) knowledge about the beliefs and practices of the people who are our neighbors. This step is necessary if we are to prayerfully grapple with how to live in the light of Scripture, with integrity in our relationships and allow God to shape our perspectives and intentions toward our Muslim neighbors.
Kaemingk’s approach differs radically from that employed by Peter the Venerable. Peter’s perspective is more historically representative of how Christians have responded to Islam and Muslims. I think it needs to be taken seriously.
Peter’s writing demonstrate three action steps which are commendable. First, he made the effort, at great expense, to learn what Muslim’s actually believed. He was committed to the truth and so he sought to accurately record Islamic teaching and to reject the legends and false information which was then current in Western Europe regarding Islam. Second, he utilized the core affirmations of the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition to make his arguments against their veracity. That is, he demonstrated the logical problems with Islamic doctrine, using the assumptions of Qur’anic teaching, while retaining his perspective as an orthodox Christian. Third, he clearly presented biblical teaching as it relates to Qur’anic claims and doctrines. That is, he began with Scripture and demonstrated how and why Scripture does not agree with Qur’anic teachings.
[i] Peter the Venerable, Against the Sect of the Saracens, paragraphs 13, 14; cited from The Fathers of the Church Mediaeval Continuation, Volume 16, Peter the Venerable: Writings Against the Saracens, translated by Irven M. Resnick (The Catholic University of America Press:2016),pp.68, 69.
[ii] See The Fathers of the Church Mediaeval Continuation, Volume 16, Peter the Venerable: Writings Against the Saracens, translated by Irven M. Resnick, pp.31-33.
[iii] James Kritzeck, Peter the Venerable and Islam (Princeton:1964), pp.18-19.
[iv] “Christianity and Culture” (Summer 2018, Vol. 4.2)