“Teachers who teach Western education? We will kill them! We will kill them in front of their students and tell the students to henceforth [sic] study the Koran,” declared Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, which killed 46 students in a boarding school on July 6 (Time, July 19).
Willingly or not, men cannot but obey the logic inherent in their ideas, and all the more as they truly believe in the ideas they profess to believe. Muslims are no exception. To understand Islam means to grasp its core principles, from which inevitable consequences logically result.
I am no theologian, nor a specialist of Islamic studies, but Muslims themselves keep referring to the unique greatness of Allah and to his unsurpassable power as the two basic tenets of their faith. However merciful Allah may be, he is so infinitely great that no man can even begin to grasp what he is (not to mention form an image of him); and Allah is so infinitely powerful that not only is there nothing conceivable that he cannot do, but he must be conceived of as the only being in the universe who is endowed with any real power (which is why he is the one and only god).
Let us consider these two assertions for a moment.
The first implies, to use philosophical terms, that Allah is a totally transcendent being, unknown and unknowable, whose creatures cannot say they understand him, as it would amount to the sacrilegious claim to be somehow his equal. One shows proper reverence to Allah only if one gives up any semblance or hope of knowing his designs, while professing that Allah’s will is always right, and his designs good. Only one man has ever known more, and he was Muhammad, the prophet of Allah, whose words and deeds are always inspired by Allah and therefore whose example is to be forever remembered and followed to the letter. (Whatever the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, which deal mainly with the legitimacy of political dissent and social rebellion, the Shi’ites being more prone to unrest, they share the same basic belief about Allah and man’s relationship to him.)
At this point one may say Christians are no different, nor generally speaking can any man be who entertains religious beliefs: Would there be gods if the faithful thought of themselves as being somehow the equals of their gods? To mention only Christianity, of course there can be no Christian denial of God’s transcendence. But the similarity stops there, for the belief in God’s transcendence must be instantly matched with the blindingly obvious fact that the God of the Christians, far from being a faraway unreachable God, has chosen to show Himself so close to His creatures that He could become a man, and so fully a man that He could die on the Cross. Could there be a more telling symbol of the extraordinary closeness between men and God, a more convincing proof of His ultimate willingness to have men follow Him out of understanding rather than sheer obedience, than the fact that, not only was man created in the image of God, but God could become a man (without ceasing to be God)? On the contrary for the Muslims, Jesus is at best a prophet amongst others, and secondary ones at that, since the only true one, as the shahada plainly states, is Muhammad.
This basic difference is exemplified in many lesser differences. Would there be any theology—literally a science of God, and a fully legitimate science—if the Christian God had not chosen to forfeit some of His transcendence? Quite the contrary, how could Islam allow the development of such a science without contradicting its basic dogma of the absolute transcendence of Allah? For the same reason, Islamic clerics cannot be priests, intermediaries between Allah and man, but only men who know more about what is allowed or forbidden, because they have a more extensive knowledge of all the words of Allah as well as all the words and deeds of his prophet—which does not mean they have a particular qualification for interpreting them. Even in paradise all men remain men whose reward is not a more intimate connection with Allah but fine comforts and fine women. Having a mystic relationship with God is the ultimate grace awarded a Christian, while Islam claims such a relationship is an unholy and punishable claim to a particular knowledge of Allah. The Sufis are deviants, never presented as models, and mere logic has it that Sufism reeks of a hidden influence of Christianity upon some Islamic intellectuals. Last but not least, the obvious inability of Muslims to unite, in spite of their claim to be carrying the same banner, cannot but be traced back to the logical impossibility for the faithful to acknowledge the existence of a man (with the single exception of Muhammad, of course, but he is dead) who could unite them by claiming some kind of authorized knowledge of Allah.
Let us turn now to the second fundamental tenet of Mohammedanism. For all the People of the Book, God as the creator of all things is not only a supremely wise but supremely powerful being. But there are two ways to look at his power.
His power may be understood as just another aspect of his wisdom, such wisdom being so supernaturally perfect that it is power in and of itself: God’s words by themselves create all things. But God’s power may be conceived as so infinite that truth itself, or wisdom, depends on what he wants it to be. (Things are what they are because God wills them to be such.) Muslims obviously think it insulting to Allah to believe he has to stoop to whatever man may conceive as wisdom, as if there were something, such as reason, preempting his power. This definition of Allah as omnipotence is the reason why he is thoroughly incomprehensible to men: His power is the true reason for his transcendence.
Again it may be argued that there is no Christian who does not acknowledge the boundless power of God. But, for Christians, God has not only allowed men to partake of some of His wisdom (instead of belittling them with His power), He has—out of sheer love with nothing less than the very attribute of His own perfection—endowed them with freedom, a freedom obviously meant to allow them to fulfill the perfection of their own nature, but so close to His that it enables them to repudiate Him. Of course, God’s Will eventually will be done, but only because human freedom geared to human goals—to sin—is self-defeating. The Christian God does not want His creatures to be His puppets; He wants them to be His coadjutors.
Which is exactly what is both unthinkable and sacrilegious to Muslims: One cannot, unless one is unfaithful to Allah, think of man as equal to Allah, as having any kind of power enabling him to resist the power of Allah. In other words, only Allah is supposed to wield any real power: Everything that is, everything that occurs in the whole universe is merely a manifestation of his all-powerful will (the basic belief usually referred to as Islamic fatalism). Which raises a curious question: Why has Allah created some men unfaithful to him—literally, infidels?
One only needs to consider these two assertions—the impossibility of understanding Allah and his being primarily power—to answer the question of the plausibility of a “moderate Islam,” to use the standard phrase of the media. I shall take it as meaning an Islam respectful of other creeds, and particularly of Christianity. For centuries Islam has been accused of a particularly pronounced intolerance, frequently fanaticism. Can this charge be sustained?
It could be argued that all monotheistic religions are intolerant: True believers by definition believe their god to be the only one, and one sincere belief excludes another. That being said, and again essentially comparing Islam with Christianity, it quickly becomes obvious there are two kinds of intolerance.
There can be no more illogical accusation leveled at Christianity than that of deliberately attempting to force Christian faith upon nonbelievers. No doubt Christians are bent on converting heathens, but what is conversion? First, conversion is not forcing someone to be other than he is and to do what he wouldn’t otherwise do; it is not another word for taming. (Lions are not converted by their tamer.) It is the fulfillment of man’s own nature; it is coming to understand what one, wittingly or not, tends by nature to be. And it is realizing that Jesus descended among men to show them what their true nature was, for He wanted to be a man, and a perfect one, the model of a man. And second, because conversion is somehow understanding what one really is, no one but the convert can achieve his own conversion. The understanding is his and can only be his, even if he is given an incentive from the outside. This amounts to saying there can be no conversion but a free one: God made men free so that they would be His willing followers. After all, Jesus set the pace by refusing to use the power He could have wielded as God to achieve the conversion of the Jews.
The reason Christianity has so often been accused of fostering fanaticism may, as I see it, be traced back first to some Christians’ definitely un-Christian zealotry (or hidden purposes) and, second, to a confusion between intolerance and reluctance to condone institutionalizing a market for religious ideas. After all, a teacher in a classroom does not shoot the pupil who answers that two plus two equals five, but he nonetheless prevents him from spreading the notion that it could, and keeps repeating that two plus two can only equal four. (If one may indict Christianity today with anything, it is for going too far in its tolerance of the most hostile creeds on its own turf.)
The case of Islam is simply the reverse: Considering its own inner logic, Islam can only be, at best, intolerant and, at worst, fanatical.
The case hinges upon the basic dogma I constantly refer to, that men are not supposed to have any understanding of Allah’s will, nor any will of their own, and are nothing but constant manifestations of the power of God, like puppets hanging on strings controlled by their puppeteer. Therefore, conversion to Islam can by no means consist of an inner transformation, but in a man being remade by Allah the merciful (it is unthinkable that a man be able to transform himself) so that he henceforth obeys new rules of conduct. Why would man change otherwise? There is no reason for men, who have been made by Allah, to be other than what they are, unless Allah wants them to be other. And how could Islamic conversion have anything to do with the Christian one, since aiming to become an image, be it imperfect, of Allah is in itself blasphemous, sinful? Islam means not conversion but submission to orders that are wise and good, because Allah has issued them. (This, again, raises the question, How can mankind, which is merely Allah’s puppet, be made up of anything but the faithful?)
Then faced with a reluctance to comply, what is the proselytizing Muslim’s only logical attitude? His is an impossible mission: How can he make attractive a totally unknowable and mercilessly demanding Allah? He cannot teach why one must obey Allah, since any claim to understanding Allah’s commands is not only preposterous but sacrilegious. He cannot communicate Allah’s wisdom, since such wisdom is impenetrable to the wisest of human beings. He cannot teach others to love their fellow men, since Allah alone is worthy of devotion. He cannot appeal to the good will of his listeners, since no man can claim to have a will (good or not) of his own, not to mention a will able to resist Allah’s. He can only demand blind obedience to Allah’s commands and blind imitation of Muhammad’s behavior, which is what he himself exhibits. Moreover, he cannot even be really patient about obtaining such obedience, since any delay in obeying Allah’s orders is tantamount to the futile and sacrilegious endeavor to challenge Allah: It is unthinkable that the enlisted man ask for time to think about his officer’s orders before executing them. This is why one can convert others by the saber, for force is the only argument left when one refuses to comply with the command issued by the only all-wise and all-powerful being. Tolerance is unthinkable: At most, the infidel may, out of sheer generosity, be allowed to live as a dog, for he is hardly a man, and a dog cannot be expected to worship Allah.
From the same logical point of view, Islam is doomed to force its way throughout the world. For sheer naked force is inherently insecure, and can safely rule only when all possible resistance has been subdued and its sources eradicated. Sheer force is doomed to indefinite domination: Jihad is in the nature of Islam.
I have not claimed that all Muslims behave this way, but only that such is the pure logic of Islam. Which means at least two questions remain: Why is it that not all Muslims go as far as the logic of their faith leads them? And why is it that such logic still appeals to a great many, so that the reservoir for terrorism is always full?
To the first question I have two tentative answers. On one hand, there are many Muslims who pay only lip service to Islam, just as there are many Catholics who only attend Mass at Christmas. Are the Saudi princes devoted Mohammedans, or are they funding terrorism to be allowed to keep drinking whiskey behind the walls of their luxurious compounds? And I have not considered mixed forms of Islam, like Indonesia’s. On the other hand, Muhammad saw dissimulation as perfectly normal in situations where force was not on the side of the believers, and recommended waiting for a time when they would stand a better chance to win (in other words, stooping to conquer). For Islam, tolerance is an unfortunate constraint.
To the second question, my equally tentative answer would be essentially psychological. I cannot help feeling that, today, such a simple and aggressive creed caters naturally to would-be leaders in need of a cause, on the one hand, and, on the other, to masses in need of ready-made importance, dissatisfied with their lives but unable and/or unwilling to find themselves at fault for it, and hence only too happy to be presented with other people to hate as responsible for their dissatisfaction. I am tempted to see resentment, feeding the hatred of the West’s achievements, as the human passion spurring today the spread of Islam, just as had previously been the case with communism. Would it be that Allah has created infidels so that forcing submission and killing the undaunted could be the utmost homage to a god who only demands obedience—as well as the easiest way to relieve the faithful’s thirst for dignity?