Author's Commentary on Islam Book
from Dr. Peter Kreeft
A word about Islam, and a defense of my controversial book about it:
Between Allah and Jesus may well be the most controversial book I have ever written. Two opposite classes of people will be very suspicious of it for the same reason: it treats Islam too positively.
First, secularists and “liberal” or “progressive” Christians. They fear Islam because it is not only a religion but a very, very religious religion. All the things they see wrong with religion, they see exacerbated in Islam: that it is absolutistic, fanatical, exclusivistic, triumphalistic, chauvinistic and militaristic. In other words, it’s too “conservative.”
But I think many conservative Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, will also dislike it because it seems too “liberal,” too optimistic, too naïve. After all, Muhammad was a false prophet and Islam is a heresy that spread by force and fear. Islam is to religion what Nazism is to politics. That is the thesis of many Christian writers on Islam today (e.g. Robert Spencer). What are they missing? How can I justify my more positive “take” on Islam?
I am tempted to feel justified by this double reaction by comparing it with the similar double reaction to Jesus, from both the theological Right and Left of His day. But such an analogy, like all analogies, proves nothing (though it may suggest something). I am also tempted to justify my attitude by comparing it with that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But instead of arguing from authority, I want to explain and justify the main point of my book, which is that Christians should learn something about their own religion from Muslims, something very important and something nearly all Christians seem to have forgotten. I could call it its power, or perhaps its “primitivism.”
When we use the word “primitive,” we almost always confuse two things: (1) “early in history, and therefore simple” and (2) “stupid, clumsy, and embarrassingly bad.” The first meaning does not logically entail the second.
There is a law of history that applies to nearly everything; yet this law is seldom understood. It says that all ‘progress’ concerns means, not ends. Thus progress always comes in the technological sophistication of anything, but not its core, its essence, which is by far the most important.
- Take movies. All movie lovers know that modern movies are so far advanced in technological “bells and whistles” that they make old movies look embarrassingly “hokey.” But movie lovers also know that only one out of a hundred modern movies have plots, characters, or themes that are not shallow compared with the old classics. There are great exceptions (“The Godfather”) but they are just that: exceptions.
- Take art. Modern art is “sophisticated,” even when it cultivates “primitivism.” But primitive art has a power we simply cannot re-invent, because art comes from the soul and the modern soul is shallow as a frying pan.
- Take philosophy. There is a power in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and even in the “pre-Socratics” that has never been equaled, despite the fact that we now have far more adequate techniques of logical analysis.
- Take religion. Each religion’s scriptures have produced trillions of words of commentary, yet they have an unrivalled “primitive” power.
- Take technology itself. Agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the control of fire are far more important to civilization than nuclear bombs, space travel, or computers. And they have an unparalleled power to fascinate a five year old, and the five year old that still lurks in the heart of all of us. The affection of a dog, or the fascination of fire, never ceases to amaze us, but moon rockets do, after a while.
- Take language. Primitive languages like Hebrew are like like giants, and modern languages, though far more complex and sophisticated, struggle in vain to communicate the power in them.
- Take economics. The basic, common sense lessons of work and reward, time management, and supply and demand are far more important, more certain, and more effective than all the different controversial contemporary systems.
- Take the results of successful economics in life. A “primitive” is poor but appreciative and happy. A sophisticated modern is rich but spoiled and bored. Africa is the poorest continent in the world, yet Africans smile more than anyone else. Louisiana is one of the poorest states in America, but the happiest. (This is the result of recent sophisticated scientific studies.)
- Take ethics. “Be good,” “Do unto others,” and “Love people” are more effective, more motivating, and more conscience-compelling than any more sophisticated theory or system.
In all these fields we can say, with Robert Fulgrum, “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten.” Everything else is mere means, mere mechanism.
We can expect the same in religion.
Islam has many problems today. But it is the world’s simplest religion, the world’s most primitive religion, and that is not one of its problems. Its essence is the bare, simple essence or core of all authentic religion: total surrender, total submission, total conformity, to the Will of God. It is the essential formula for sainthood, which is the ultimate end of religion. God designed the whole universe as a saint-making machine, after all. And if we forget that end for one moment, distracted by the gears and wheels; if we forget the end in our concern for superior means; we fall flat on our sophisticated faces.
Yes, Islam is “primitive.” Chesterton says: “The Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom, and therefore belongs to the beginnings, and is felt in the first cold hours before the dawn of civilization; the power that comes out of the wilderness and rides on the whirlwind and breaks the gods of stone; the power before which the eastern nations are prostrate like a pavement; the power before which the primitive prophets run naked and shouting, at once proclaiming and escaping from their god; the fear that is rightly rooted in the beginnings of every religion, true or false: the Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom; but not the end.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dumb Ox)
That Fear of the Lord is the foundation of our religion, though it is not the capstone. It is the beginning, though not the end. But if we try to erect a building on another foundation, it will fall. The most beautiful thing about a plant is its fruit or flower, not its root. But the plant will not grow from any other beginning, it will not grow backwards. Without justice, no real charity. Without the fear of God, no real love of God.
Europe is a spectacular example of a sophisticated, cultured, sensitive, advanced, compassionate continent that is dying because it has repudiated its “primitive” roots. It will soon be a Muslim continent—necessarily so, because it is uprooted while Islam is rooted, and only rooted plants grow.
If we want to grow the Christian field, if we are to expand Christ’s Kingdom, we must recapture those roots, that fear, that absolute abandonment and awe-struck adoration, that “Jesus-Shock” (to quote another book title). We can re-learn it from our separated Abrahamic brothers: from Orthodox Jews and from pious Muslims.