Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus on Islam and Reform

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Commenting on a prior post by Paul Zummo on “Religious Egalitarianism”, I had cited the provocative comment of the late Fr. James Neuhaus:

Yet more troubling is the message that Islam, in order to become less of a threat to the world, must relativize its claim to possess the truth. That plays directly into the hands of Muslim rigorists who pose as the defenders of the uncompromised and uncompromisible truth and who call for death to the infidels. If Islam is to become tolerant and respectful of other religions, it must be as the result of a development that comes from within the truth of Islam, not as a result of relativizing or abandoning that truth. Is Islam capable of such a religious development? Nobody knows. But, if the choice is between compromising Islamic truth or a war of civilizations, it is almost certain that the winner among Muslims will be the hard-core Islamism that [Bernard] Lewis rightly views as such a great threat.

Christianity is more, not less, vibrantly Christian as a result of coming to understand more fully the mysterious and loving ways of God in His dealings also with non-Christians. Although the story of this development is complex, the important truth is that tolerance and mutual respect are religious, not secular, achievements. I will say it again: the reason we do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God is that we believe it is against the will of God to kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God. Christians have come to believe that. We must hope that more and more Muslims will come to believe that. That will not happen, however, if they are told that coming to believe that will make them less faithful Muslims.

I was asked by a reader to expand on Neuhaus’ remarks, and as I’ve no wish to hijack Paul’s post (particularly as it wasn’t about Islam per se), here’s some further food for thought.

What does Neuhaus mean? — My guess here is that Neuhaus is referring to the fact that many critics of religion in evaluating religious issues today, operate on the equation that

“universal claims to truth, in the form of divine revelation” = “fundamentalism” = “religious extremism”

and that one necessarily and irrevocably leads to the other. Such an equation cannot be dismissed out of hand. With respect to Christianity, the tendency is to refer to such historical moments as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the French “Wars of Religion” (1562-98), the “Thirty Years War” (1618-1648) — centuries where, if it was not otherwise directed toward outward expansion was engaged in interminable infighting between Catholics and Protestants. And with respect to Islam, we need only point to its history of conquest by the sword.

The Boston Globe journalist and ex-priest James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword) asserts that the real solution for Christian antisemitism lies in a theological dismantling of Christianity itself and is innate claims of supercessionism. As Fr. Edward Flannery notes in Anguish of the Jews, the “Chosen people”‘s claim to divine election and self-imposed segregation has been perceived as an insufferable arrogance down through the centuries. Ditto for Islam’s notion of being the original AND final revelation (a correction to Judaism and Christianity) motivating its desire to subjugate the globe.

From such a perspective, laims to divine revelation serve only as recipies for religious extremism, to be countered by a moderation — a theological downsizing and relativization of its religious claims. Here I happen to agree with Neuhaus: we shouldn’t expect Muslims to be any more receptive to this call for religious dismantling than Christians and Jews.

I don’t think we can dismiss Neuhaus as deluded here. He has recommended “a careful and critical reading” of Bat Ye’or’s , long before this kind of writing became a fashionable cottage industry post-911 by less-reputable “scholars”. In fact, he also touches on this matter in his review of Ye’Or’s book (“The Approaching Century of Religion” First Things 76: October 1997):

Of the two assertive and culture-forming religions in the contemporary world, Christianity has enormous advantages over Islam, quite apart from the question of theological truth. There are approximately twice as many Christians as Muslims (two billion and one billion, respectively). Christianity is growing at least as fast as Islam and has greater evangelizing prospects, notably in Asia, especially if China really opens up. Moreover, today’s world is not hospitable to jihad in the form of conquest, but is increasingly susceptible to the communications technology mastered by the Christian West. Moreover, the Christian movement is on the far side of modernity, having gone through and survived, not without severe damage, its secularizing and explicitly antireligious impulses. Islam, by contrast, has for three centuries been largely left out; it has been the object rather than the subject of world-historical change. As that intrepid scholar Bernard Lewis reminds us, Islam views the dar al-harb of Christendom as the Great Satan, meaning the Great Tempter. Militant Islamism is driven by suspicion and ressentiment. Which can make the world a very dangerous place, as it is already a very dangerous in, for instance, the Middle East.

A great question facing Islam–and for us as we face Islam–is whether there are authentically Islamic sources that can religiously legitimate democracy and religious pluralism. From the beginning, Christianity has had the great asset of what some derisively call its “dualism”–the conceptual resource for distinguishing between spiritual and temporal authority, which has given it enormous flexibility in relating to different political and cultural circumstances from Theodosius to Hildebrand to the religion clause of the U.S. Constitution. Islam is emphatically monistic. That is a great asset when joined to military and political power in the course of conquest, but a disabling weakness under the conditions of postmodernity.

This truth impressed me at a recent conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in which we were examining Islam and the democratic prospect in various parts of the world. As I write, the secular Kemalists (after Kemal Ataturk, who established the republic in 1923) have replaced an Islam-friendly government, and have done so in the name of democracy. The Kemalists control the army, and one Turkish participant at the conference observed with a straight face, “Turkey is in the peculiar circumstance that we may need a military dictatorship in order to preserve democracy.” The assumption is that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It is an assumption that is given additional credibility by the Islamist insurgency in many Muslim countries. Of course there are other and very large parts of the Islamic world, such as Indonesia. I expect Bernard Lewis is right, however, in saying that any substantive change in Islamic doctrine must come from the Middle East, the world surrounding Mecca and Islam’s constituting sacred story, a world still steeped in the Arab and Bedouin mindset of the Prophet.

Many Muslims will most likely perceive any call from non-Muslims to evaluate their truth claims as a bigoted threat. Many but not all. As Neuhaus observes, Islam is still in its chronological infancy as a religious tradition — it has not yet begun to address religious pluralism to the degree that Christianity has. Here I think we should be mindful of Neuhaus’ concern: Christianity’s own engagement with religious pluralism — in the form of the problematic theologies of the Presbyterian John Hick and Catholics like Roger Haight and Paul Knitter — has not been particularly healthy or beneficial for Christianity. See “Perils of Pluralism” by John Allen Jr. for a summary of the CDF’s engagements and then-Ratzinger’s own book <Truth And Tolerance: Christian Belief And World Religions (Ignatius, 2004). We should be wary, then, of any recommendations by liberals of a relativist prescription that has done such immense damage to Christianity.

Neuhaus entertains the notion of “authentically Islamic sources that can religiously legitimate democracy and religious pluralism”. In 2008, his colleague George Weigel registered a similar hope for Islamic renewal in his book, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism — not for an “Islamic Luther”, but rather someone along the lines of Leo XIII:

“… toward the possibility of a religious leader who reaches back into the deeper philosophical resources of his tradition in order to broker a critical agreement with Enlightenment political thought, and to shape his tradition’s encounter with the economic and political institutions of modernity.”

Are Muslims capable of this endeavor? — Pope Benedict seems to thinks so. For the Pope, “Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends”; Nostrae Aetate‘s statement on Islam remains “the Magna Carta of the [Christian-Muslim] dialogue” (address to the Muslim community of Cologne, August 2005).

To the issue of Christian/Muslim antagonism and whether popes should envision themselves as defenders of the West against Islamization, Benedict responds: “Today we are living in a completely different world, in which the battle lines are drawn differently. In this world, radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other.” (Light of the World 2010).

For some earlier posts on this topic, see: “Pope Benedict, Islam and the Prospect of Reform” (4/3/07); Readings in Islam: “Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition” (07/02/07).

Some readings from Muslim sources (responding to the challenge of terrorism ‘from within’)

More to explorer

God Bless Bishop Strickland

The Joy of Pillaging

Great lunch hour game.

Saint of the Day Quote: Saint Bertilla Boscardin

Here I am Lord, to do your will, whatever comes.


  1. Pope Benedict made a valiant attempt to move the question of Islam onto the plane of reason, but the evidence indicates that he has failed. The better Muslims are in fact the same ones who do not understand or act on the tenets of their belief system. Reforming Islam is a lost cause, their hope of salvation lies in becoming Christians. Mark Shea nailed with his article on Islam and the Koran some time ago, in which he points out that Islam is a man-made system. Thus if one wants to find the bits about honouring one’s parents its there along with the bits about waging eternal war on the infidels. When he’s good he’s really good.

  2. In my partially-educated opinion, there is some hope for Islam reforming itself *if* it can reach back to the era of 800-1100, the time of its greatest intellectual/philosophical ferment. It was a lot more flexible (not to mention humanist) before the various madh’habs succeeded in painting the religion into a corner. Khalid Abou El Fadl at UCLA has been diligently trying to retrieve such from the Islamic past.

  3. Christopher,

    Christ is in our midst!

    Thank you so much for this post. Recently I have been having several conversations directly related to this matter. More to follow…

  4. “Khalid Abou El Fadl at UCLA has been diligently trying to retrieve such from the Islamic past.”

    Considering that it is Islam’s “Ideal Man,” Allah’s “beautiful pattern of conduct” for those who want to please it, it looks like Fadl been “diligently trying to deceive,” not “retrieve.”

    Yup, I thought that name rang a bell; here’s a link to a post I wrote in response to his lies back in 2005:

    Here’s more from the horse’s mouth:

  5. “a critical agreement with Enlightenment political thought…”

    I’m not sure that “brokering” such an agreement is a good thing, either for Christians or Muslims.

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