Christianity & Islam: Are We At War? By Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J.

There are a couple of things that we have to understand at the very outset.  The world for Muslims is divided into two parts.  First, the land of the people of Islam.  Islam means being submitted.  So, the land where people are submitted to God.  Second, the people or the land or war.  If a country has not submitted to Sharia, the law of God as revealed in the Quran and Muhammad’s oral tradition, then that land is not in submission and is a land of war.

 This is a designation that goes back to the time of the early kalifs (a title for any of the religious and civil rulers of the Islamic world, claiming succession from Muhammad).   This is something we are dealing with in the modern world.  There are different types of jihad (a religious duty of Muslims).  The word jihad in Arabic means struggle not Holy War.  We have the interior struggle to submit to God.  We also have the struggle with those who are opposed to our religion.  Finally, we have the struggle to get others to convert to submit to God.  Muslims have traditionally dealt with all three. 

Today we see the rise of new movements in Islam.  We are dealing with a level of Muslim terrorism that we have not seen in the past.  This struggle with jihad is affecting us like it never has before.  Where is this struggle coming from?  It is not new, though we have a new form of it.  From the earliest days of Islam, Muhammad himself engaged in violent struggle with his opposition.  He is from Mecca.  His father died while he was still in the womb.  His mother died when he was about six or seven years of age.  He was raised first by his grandfather who died when he was eight.  He was then raised by uncles until he was mature.  They sent him off to work as a caravaneer. 

Mecca was one of the most important religious shrines in pre-Islamic Arabia.  It still has today the shrine called Ka’ba which was a pagan shrine with a variety of different deities.  Three principle deities were goddesses.  The chief god was Allah.  He was the god of gods.  He had daughters and apparently wives.  His three daughters were also worshipped at Mecca.  Muhammad would travel north particularly to Damascus which would bring him into contact with Christians.  He knew about other religions.  Paganism bothered him.  He was known to be an honest and trustworthy man though he had a low social status due to having no father or grandfather.  Eventually he worked for a Christian woman by the name of Khadija living in Mecca and they eventually married even though she was forty years of age and he was twenty five. 

In pre-Islamic Arabia, wealth passed through the women.  One of the issues going on throughout the Quran and in Islam was that Muhammad saw a changeover from the old tribal ways to a new way in which the wealth goes from the man to his sons rather than through the wife to the daughters.  So this was a major cultural change which he effected.  While living with this woman, he had some visions in a cave outside of Mecca.  He was also influenced by one of her relatives who was a monk. 

This monk translated sections of the Old and New Testament into Arabic.  He made this available on an oral level to Muhammad who could perhaps read a little though could not write.  He heard the stories of the bible through his wife and her relatives.  When he had the visions his wife encouraged him as she thought that he was coming to faith in Christianity. 

He began to preach a couple of key concepts. First, he taught that there is only one God, that Allah is God, and that any other gods being worshipped in Mecca were not God.  Second, Allah requires people to be ethical as he himself was.  Third, God will bring about a resurrection of the dead, therefore, you cannot live for this life alone as the pagans were doing.  Fourth, God will judge your behavior before you are raised from the dead.  If you are immoral you will be raised to spend your time in Jehenum (a belief in Hell which is compulsory to all Muslims). He gets this word from the New Testament and Christ’s reference to Hell as Gehenna. 

If you are a righteous person you will be raised up to live in paradise.  Paradise will be a place where there are rivers underground that will be watering orchards with every kind of fruit.  There will be fountains of pure water, fountains of milk, and fountains of wine that will not make you intoxicated.  In addition, the men will have the hope of having women every day and that their virginity will be regenerated on a daily basis.  This will be available to the men for their pleasure for all of eternity. 

There is no clear explanation for what Muslim women can expect when they get to paradise.  It is a part of Muhammad’s teaching that most of the people in hell are women.  He taught this unsuccessfully from the time of the first visions until the Hijra (the immigration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina).  The death of his wife was a significant blow to him as he was no longer under the protection of her household.  He was dependent on his own tribe which was alienating him because he was speaking against the deities of Mecca which were the main source of income for the caravans coming to Mecca.  The various pagan holidays brought in great pilgrimages and wealth to Mecca.  By speaking against the paganism and the gods being worshiped in the Ka’ba, he was undoing all of their expectations for wealth in this life plus he was saying that life alone in this world is not satisfactory.  He taught that all would be judged and that if they didn’t believe what he said they would be going to hell.  Neither of these options were very popular. 

By 622 AD he was driven out of Mecca and goes to Medina.  This is an important point to understand because the Quran will reference where particular chapters were composed.  It is important to pay attention to the fact of where the text was composed.  Once he had moved to Medina he began to engage in a new level of the struggle.  In Mecca he was too weak to stand up with great power and strength.  He was a meek man seeking to persuade people on the merits of his personal authority or on the merits of the logic for what he was saying.  When he moved to Medina he was accompanied by all of the Muslim followers from Mecca.  There was a group of pagans living in Medina that converted to Islam upon his arrival.  They invited him to make this physical move.  They became known as the Ansar or helpers.  These two groups form a new power block in Medina. 

Muhammad knew that there were three tribes of Jews.  Expecting that the Jews were monotheists, would welcome him as a prophet, would recognize his authority, and would become Muslims submitted to God because there was only one God.  This did not happen.  The Jews opposed him.  Muhammad instigated a series of wars against Mecca.  Sometimes the Jews would side with Mecca.  As a result, in one of the earlier wars he told one tribe of Jews that they must leave Medina and to take their possessions. 

In a later war, he told the second tribe of Jews that they must also leave, though could not take their possessions.  The third tribe was not allowed to leave and the men age 12 and up were beheaded.  The remaining women and children were made slaves.  Muhammad married at least one of them.  For ten years this struggle goes on for him in Medina before his death in 632 AD.  When reading the Quran and its message inciting people to violence, you can almost be sure that it was written while he was in Medina.  Yet another important point to understand about Islam is that there is no official magisterium.  So, everyone can interpret the Quran the way they want to.  Islam is a religion of peace of the believer is focusing and centering their life on texts that Muhammad composed in Mecca.   Islam is a religion of war if one focuses on the texts written in Medina. 

The question for each Muslim is which of the texts are they going to follow.  The Quran is one book separated into chapters called Suras each named after a particular theme in the chapter.  The Quran is also divided into 30 juz or sections.  It is tradition that each of the juz is read during a different day of Ramadan, a month in the Islamic calendar.  Here is an example of the text from Sura 4 a Medinan text.  Verse 77 states, “Our Lord why have you ordered us to kill?”  In some translations the word kill reads “fight”.  The proper translation is kill.  Seven times in the Quran it says “kill the unbelievers”.  In another text from Mecca, it states that “there is no compulsion in religion.”  Twice it states this.  The question is which verse does a Muslim follow.  It is left to their personal interpretation.  Because of Muhammad’s ongoing wars with Mecca, he was finally able to make them submit to him.  They knew that he had gathered an Army that they could not defeat.  As a result, he became in effect the ruler of all of Arabia.  He killed some of his chief opponents that he would not forgive.  There are passages in the Quran that state that it is good to forgive, while at the same time there are passages that justify the killing of your opponent.  Vengeance is acceptable.  Which is appropriate?  It is up to you and your personal interpretation.

Muhammad was prepared to continue fighting with the intent to attack the Byzantine Empire when he died in June of 632 AD.  His father-in-law became the next kalif and continued the attacks taking control of part of the Byzantine Empire and on into Egypt.  Within the first hundred years the empire had spread from Spain to Persia.  In this effort they did not persecute the Christians as they were not considered to be unbelievers in traditional Islam.  Christians are people of the book and so are Jews.  So, if Christians and Jews were willing to live peacefully in a Muslim area and were willing to pay a protection tax called the jizya, then they could be left alone.  These Christians welcomed the Islamic armies in their efforts to conquer the Byzantines because the jizya tax from the Muslims was less than the Byzantine taxes.  The advances for which the Muslims were touted during this timeframe were the result of what they had learned from the Christians.  The Nestorian Christians created the university system that was replicated by the Muslims.  It was also the Nestorians that translated the Greek classics into Arabic.  By the 13th century the majority of the Middle East was no longer Christian, but Muslim.  Leaders within the Muslim world began to call for a more strict form of Islam, eliminating the need for pagan philosophers like Aristotle.  At that point of rejecting Greek culture, Muslim culture begins its decline.

Why are we today in this struggle with Islam?  First, the Turks were among the variety of conquering movements within Islam.  They are not Arabs.  The Turks kept growing their empire and began chipping away at Europe.  In addition to the jizya, they would also require a certain percentage of the Christian males of a conquered district to become janissaries (elite infantry of the Sultan’s army).  They were forced to Islamize and became known as the most trusted.  They did not have any family ties to the Turks.  They were former Christians.  They were radically loyal to the Sultan.  They were forced to fight other Christians as the Ottoman Turks continued their expansion.  Then there was the battle at Leponto.  A small Christian fleet defeated the Ottoman Turks in a battle they should have lost though won through the intercession of Our Lady and the praying of the Rosary.  The Turks had sworn an oath to Allah that they would conquer Italy and make St. Peter’s basilica into a mosque.  It didn’t happen.  What was more significant to the Turks occurred 100 years later when the Christians defeated the Turks following a failed attack on Vienna. 

From this point the Turk and Persian empires start to decline and continue to do so.  In the early 18th century, Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, begins to chip away at these empires.  The British seeing the Russian’s success and not wanting them to get it all get involved taking territories in Northern Africa and India.  In World War I the Turkish Empire falls completely and the British and the French get their chunks.  As a part of the Sykes – Picot Treaty of 1916, France gets Lebanon and Syria, while the British get Palestine, Iraq, and Arabia.  This completely changes the world and as a result we are today still dealing with the effects of the fall of the Turkish Empire. 

This is what we are fighting to this day in the Middle East.  Let’s study this further.  Looking back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there are two ideological forces that come to the forefront that we are still dealing with today.  First, in 1740 a new movement of radical Islam starts.  This movement is referred to as Wahhabism.  It was begun by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who lived in Arabia.  He was a mullah (educated in Islamic theology and sacred law) that was rejected and ostracized by the other mullahs.  He met up with a man who became his military arm.  He was from the Saud family from where today the name Saudi Arabia comes from.  Saud sons married Wahhabi daughters cementing the alliance making the Saud family the military arm that pushed the radical Wahhabi Islam that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab started. 

This is extremely important for what we are going through today because al qaeda is a Wahhabi organization.  The Wahhabi sect provides the ideology for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as for al qaeda and other groups such as the Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood, and groups in Indonesia, Pakistan, and other areas of the world.  The Wahhabi are the benefactors of the spread of Islam in central sub-Saharan Africa, especially Nigeria.  In addition, they are the main benefactors of the largest Muslim mosques and schools in the United States. 

A young man who was valedictorian of his class at a Muslim school in Northern Virginia was accused of trying to assassinate President Bush.  This school was Wahhabi financed and run with the textbooks coming from Saudi Arabia where the textbooks are required for the education system from pre-school through graduate studies.  This is true for not just religious studies, though for all forms of study.  A key difference in Wahhabi Islam is their interpretation of content of the Quran.  Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab wrote a book entitled The Unity of God.  This book has redefined what it means to be an unbeliever.  In traditional Islam, the unbeliever is defined as a pagan or an atheist.  In Wahhabi Islam, it is taught that Shiite Muslims, Jews, and Christians are not people of the book and that they are unbelievers or sorcerers.  This is in chapter 24 of The Unity of God.  Therefore, these unbelievers can be the object of this command to kill from the Quran.  It is legitimate and even the responsibility to perform these killings.  The Wahhabi began to live this out as early as 1790 under the direction of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab by attacking the Shiites that lived on the coastal region of Oman and the Emirates, as well as killing tens of thousands of Shiites in Kabbalah and Najad, the same cities that we hear about today in the news.  The Wahhabi sect brought an army of Arabian Wahhabis into Iraq and began killing Shiites throughout the country.  They then took the army west up towards Damascus at which point the sultan said enough is enough. 

In 1900 Ibn Saud escaped from imprisonment.  He joins up with Wahhabi relatives and begins the conquest of Arabia.  He creates the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, named after his family.  He sets up the capital in Riyadh.  He institutionalizes the Wahhabi religion as the official form of Islam.  He drives out the family of King Abdullah.  What do we call Jordan today?  The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  The Hasimi family were in charge of Mecca and Medina.  The Saud family drove them out as non-Wahhabi.  They considered them heretics.  So in the 1920s, the British created Jordan and placed one of the brothers in charge.  For another brother, King Faisal, they created Iraq.

There is a second movement that we must be familiar with to understand our current circumstance.  That is 19th century nationalism.  In the 1800s the idea of the nation state as something greater than the individual, to which you must commit your allegiance begins to take hold around the world.  It replaces religion.  Back in the 1600s and 1700s religion lost its ability to hold people together in Europe.  Christians were fighting among themselves.  So since their faith could not hold them together, they turned to the nation.  For example, Otto von Bismarck forms Germany.  Garibaldi creates Italy.  The idea of the nation being the great entity spreads throughout Europe.  This culminates in the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and when you add racism to it World War II.  This idea of the great nation was also exported to the various small communities in the Turkish Empire.  For example, The Lebanese began to say “we are the Lebanese Nation” – there was no such place as Lebanon.  Throughout the Ottoman Empire, people had not historically thought of themselves as a Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Kurdish, or Syrian.  Rather, this was there tribal identity.  The idea of the nation did not exist until it is imported from Europe mostly by the Christians that could speak the European languages.  As a result, new tensions begin to arise.  One of the reactions is when the Armenians start to have a sense of national identity. 

The Turks take acts of reprisal and commit the first acts of genocide in the 20th century, wiping out 1.5 to 2 million Armenians in an attempt to stifle their move towards nationalism.  When the Ottoman Empire falls, this nationalistic idea takes over.  Michel Aflaq forms the Ba’ath party in Damascus.  This was a nationalist party of Arabs that spread to Syria and Iraq.  It became a national socialist policy with Hitler’s Nazis.  The Palestinians led by the grand mufti of Jerusalem also take on this nationalistic idea and align themselves with the Nazis.  The grand mufti ended his time in the war in Berlin.  These nationalistic ideas formed the governments of places like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and the PLO.  This creates the situation where the government becomes more centrally powerful than ever happened under the Ottoman Turks.  These governments were investing themselves into private lives and killing citizens in ways that Ottomans never conceived of.  Modern communications and modern arms made this possible. 

The result of nationalism throughout the Middle East was more oppression of the everyday person and collapse of the nationalist system, so that now what we are seeing is that people are saying that the idea of nationalism is a demon from the West.  They believe it was a way to get them to accept Western ideas.  They now want to get back to the way of life in accord with radical Islam.  This is the situation we see developing today.  The reaction against nationalistic movements is radical Islamic movements.  This is true except in Syria and was true in Iraq until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein where the nationalistic parties were too repressive.  The two centers for radical Islam are Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Ayatollah Khomeini developed a radical Islam for the Shiites and the Wahhabi developed it for the Sunnis.  They are in competition with each other.  The idea of them ever joining together is very unlikely because they have theological and ideological differences that result in the rejection of each other.  It is a struggle to the death.  The Shiites and the Sunnis do not mix together anywhere.  Where they have areas close to one another, the boundaries are clearly defined.  They cannot get along.  They are going to be at each other.  When you are watching the news and you hear that someone has blown himself up, it is almost certain that this is a radical Islamic suicide.  They expect from doing this that they have given a testimony to Islam and therefore they will be welcomed into paradise.  Whereas, if you see that someone has killed others, though not himself, that will be the nationalists fighting.  They don’t want to die as they do not have the same beliefs about heaven.    

We are attempting to respond to the dangerous situation.  Some of the ways have been very foolish and others somewhat effective.  The idea of trying to build friendships is out of the question.  Trying to get everyone to just get along is not going to happen.  There are radically different ideologies fighting themselves in the Middle East and they both agree to not trust the West.  Trying to ignore the situation to appease it will not work.  In the past, military defeat has worked.  This is what stopped the Wahhabi in the 19th century. 

War, though leading to other problems will likely be necessary to deal with this because for many of them, this is the only language they understand.  They have to be defeated militarily.  This is not easy to do with the type of warfare they engage in.  Ultimately, the issue is going to have to be resolved on another level.  A level that will change the way that people look at what they are doing in this world and in the face of the changes happening in it.  Is there hope?  Islam is in chaos. 

A variety of forces within Islam is trying to become the next kalif (a title for any of the religious and civil rulers of the Islamic world, claiming succession from Muhammad).   They all want to be the next center for Islam.  So do the nationalists.  All these forces are pulling on one another with no center as a leader for Islam.  Islam requires a totalitarian system to survive.  It does not survive well with authentic democratic freedom, when people really have freedom of choice.  It has to impose itself through threats of violence a law called rida.  If a Muslim leaves Islam and becomes Christian, they must be killed.  If you do not kill the convert to Christianity when you could have, then you are subject to the law and must be killed.  They depend on that type of totalitarian mentality and political structure.  It cannot work any other way.  If there were true freedom of religion in the Middle East Islam would dissipate. 

Today you cannot carry your own copy of the bible into Saudi Arabia.  Two Philippine women were beheaded because they were caught with a copy of the New Testament.  If democracy can grow in the Middle East and if Christians can find their own identity and find the sense of mission that is inherent to Christianity, it may be possible to evangelize the Middle East so that it can once again become a Christian region.  This is a place where knowledge once flourished.  Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and north Africa were all once Christian.  This needs to be a goal of missionary activity for Christians. 

How do we learn to evangelize Muslims?  How do we learn to preach to them Christ?  We must be able to have an ideological presentation of Christianity and the gospel.  The difference between Islam and Christianity is radical in terms of the way the person is treated with dignity.  This will raise their culture to a whole new level.  The way of public discourse would also elevate the culture by the introduction of Christianity.  We must teach the idea of requiring forgiveness over revenge.  We must teach that revenge is sinful even though some Christians do it.  We must also bring this to the materialistic culture that exists today in Europe and America today. 

These cultures do not have the strength to stand up against Islam.  What the materialistically minded fail to grasp is that they will fall to Islam.  If they think that the Catholic Church or the pope or any other Christian resource has been oppressive to their personal freedom, they haven’t seen anything about freedoms being lost.  This is already going on in Europe.  Recently in Belgium there was an effort to make Arabic the third national language.  The goal is to have Sharia Law in the streets of Paris.  We must have a revitalization of Christianity and from it deliver a Christian culture and mission.  As another sign of hope, in Indonesia, every year 300,000 Muslims become Catholic every Easter.  What is now East Timore, was once 95% Muslim when it was a Portuguese colony.  Once the Portuguese left, it has become 95% Catholic.  Hopefully this is the start of the spread of Christianity to the rest of the Muslim world.  It is up to us and how we let God use us in this mission.  This is winnable only if we are less materialistic and more Christian.