On Islam Fails to Enlighten

Fr. James Schall’s recently published collection of essays on Islam and violence suffers from reductionist arguments, non-existent evidence, and historical ignorance. It is a book that defeats itself, and is an unfortunate addition to the legacy of an otherwise great scholar.

Fr. James Schall, an American Jesuit who retired from teaching at Georgetown University in 2012, has had a lengthy and exceptional career. His works on Christian life, reason, and revelation remain influential today. Unfortunately, the author is clearly out of his depth on Islam. Instead of giving the reader a clearer understanding of Islam and its relation to violence, his most recent book settles for caricature.

On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 brings together twenty-six of Fr. Schall’s essays, most previously published, about Islam and violence. His years of commentary coalesce around four central themes. First, Fr. Schall argues that we should not approach Islam through a Western or Christian lens, but instead understand Islam on its own terms.

Second, Fr. Schall emphasizes that we must take religion, theology, and philosophy seriously as impetuses for behavior. As early as 1975, Fr. Schall argued that “unless we understand the content and history of religions… we will be unable to see the actual forces that swirl through the political world.” This idea underlies many of his articles dealing with the brutality of ISIS, the 2015 San Bernardino attack, and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. According to Fr. Schall, we cannot pretend that such violence has nothing to do with Islam.

Third, Fr. Schall argues that Islam suffers from voluntarism and occasionalism. In Islam, God is pure will unbound by reason, free from distinctions of good and evil. This is tied to the double truth theory, whereby reason and religion can contradict each other, that Fr. Schall sees in Averroes (d. 1198) and al-Ghazali (d. 1111). There is also no room for secondary causes; everything is a direct act of God, so that his omnipotence might not be challenged. Since God is above all things, he cannot be limited by what are seen as external constraints on his power. This theology and philosophy permit all acts of violence and terrorism by Muslims to submit the world to Islam.

Finally, Fr. Schall repeatedly insists that “those [Muslims] who see this violence as essential to the religion have the better side of the argument and are the better witnesses to what historic Islam stands for.” This understanding is related to his idea that any expansion by Muslims is somehow aggressively expansionist, including the birthing of children, regardless of context or motivation.

While Fr. Schall is right to insist that we understand Islam on its own terms and not dismiss the religious dimension, his essays fail to adhere to these noble goals. His thinking is held hostage by biased or missing sources, historical ignorance, and reductionism at almost every turn. A book providing a line-by-line critique would be needed to address all the theoretical, logical, and historical errors in the essays, so I confine myself here to a few specific criticisms.

No Singular Islam

First, Fr. Schall asks us to think of Islam differently, yet typically speaks of “Islam” as some single, coherent agent. He makes strange statements like “Islam learned… from 9/11” and “Islam says of itself” as though Islam is a person. In fact, it sounds like how a Catholic might say, “The Church teaches X” or “Catholicism says Y,” by appealing to the Magisterium or the Catechism.

As I have argued here before at Public Discourse, this radically misunderstands the nature of religious authority in Islam. Aside from a few basic tenets, we can hardly speak of a single, coherent Islam divorced from the myriad interpretations of its religious scholars. Such statements also cannot explain the Sunni-Shia divide. Fr. Schall’s thinking also falsely assumes that theology is a primary concern for Muslims as it is for Christians. Islam, however, is more concerned with practice than theology, as best captured in the phrase bi-la kayf (without how). The Muslim theologian al-Ash‘ari (d. 936) and others often used this term to avoid introducing anthropomorphism into discussions of how God, who remains above human comprehension, is depicted in the Qur‘an. By downplaying theology, Muslims hoped to avoid going “mad…prying into God’s secrets” as St. Gregory of Nazianzus once said of Christians.

Speaking of al-Ash‘ari, Fr. Schall seems to believe that all Muslims are adamant Ash‘arites. Your average Muslim, like many of your average Christians knows little of such theological details. More importantly, the author appears unaware of Maturidism, the other dominant, orthodox Sunni theological school, which tones down the determinism and occasionalism in al-Ash‘ari. Many Muslims subscribe to this version in practice. Finally, and even more strangely, Fr. Schall continuously calls for a papal encyclical “entitled ‘What Is Islam?’” to explain Islam to us. I should not need to point out that the pope has no infallible authority to define what other religions are or say. If he wants a clarification of the Church’s present view of Islam, he may consult the Catechism (CCC 841), although I agree with him that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, theologically speaking.

Islam and Violence

As for the claim that terrorists like ISIS best exemplify the inner logic of Islam, Fr. Schall never provides any substantial evidence. There is no engagement with Qur’anic verses, hardly any mention of the hadith literature, and no debate with the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence. De-radicalization programs in Europe and America also reveal that extremism often involves more than just theology or philosophy. The book is heavy with assertions without supporting examples.

Even when evidence does appear, it is typically misleading or inaccurate. For example, Fr. Schall repeatedly mentions that Islam divides the world into Dar al-Harb (the abode of war) and Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam). While such distinctions exist, the historical record shows that the reality is more complex. Many jurists of the Shafiʿi school, unlike Hanafis and Malikis, stressed security and freedom to practice Islam over the application of Islamic law in determining Dar al-Islam. Medieval scholars like al-Kasani (d. 1191) held that formerly Muslim lands remained part of Dar al-Islam so long as Muslims lived in security and had an Islamic judge to oversee Islamic legal matters. Al-Mawardi (d. 1058), Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), and al-Shashi (d. 976) held similar views. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) and most other Hanbali scholars also believed in some type of third category that may or may not require tribute. The point to take away is that these ideas were debated and none could ever claim infallible authority.

The Complexity of Islam’s History

Furthermore, hardly a mention is made of colonialism, nationalism, economics, social issues, or individual psychology as contributing or sometimes primary factors. Instead of the complexity of history, one gets a simple narrative that ties the battles of Vienna (1683) and Lepanto (1571) in a nice neat line of Muslim expansion to the present time. Fr. Schall’s sweeping generalizations belie an ignorance of Middle Eastern history. He regularly relies on the largely misinformed Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc (d. 1953) and Benedictine priest and professor of physics Stanley Jaki (d. 2009) when discussing Islam and modernity. Jaki argues that Islam could not give rise to science because of al-Ash‘ari’s occasionalism, but this presumes that most Muslims really believed in it. It also ignores the legacy of medieval Muslim scientists and mathematicians like al-Khwarizmi, al-Kashi, al-Dinawari, Ibn Bassāl, and Ibn Bajjah.

Marwa Elshakry at the University of Chicago has also written extensively on how Muslim thinkers interacted positively and negatively with modern scientific theories. Muhammad Abduh, the famous Egyptian Grand Mufti who died in 1905, welcomed and reconciled Darwinian theory with Islam. Fr. Schall asks us to follow Machiavelli in actually studying “what men do do,” yet he hardly seems to follow his own advice.

There is a mild development of thought as the essays progress. Fr. Schall begins to incorporate more nuanced arguments and scholarly opinions, such as those of Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir. He even seems to see the possibility that Islam might be able to “synchronize reason and faith,” and he also acknowledges that Islam lacks a central teaching and interpretive authority. Yet, instead of developing this latter crucial point, he does almost nothing with it. The essays continue to mostly speak of some essentialist Islam, while infrequently mentioning competing Muslim interpretations.

To seriously engage with the absence of a teaching authority would undermine his entire conceptualization of Islam and its relationship to violence, since Islam would no longer have one voice but many equal claimants. Fr. Schall is correct to insist that Muslim terrorists legitimate their actions with the Qur‘an and other Islamic sources, but it does not therefore follow that their interpretation is correct, especially since plenty of evidence can be found to support the opposite. The Qur‘an itself in Sura 3:7 says that some verses are clear, while others are unspecific or allegorical. Determining which is which has been a long debate among Muslims. Furthermore, the historical experience of the Ottomans and Andalusian Spain also indicates that the vicious totalitarianism of ISIS is not typical.

“Sketchy Knowledge” of Islam

One often wonders throughout the book with whom is Fr. Schall even arguing. He constantly references “people” who do not take religious motivations seriously or have ignored Muslim violence. One really wants to know who these “people” are. Michael Sells has written about religious violence in the Balkans, Hugh Goddard about the history of Muslim-Christian relations, and Farhad Khosrokhavar about the radicalization of Muslim youth in France. All of these writings and more were available at different points in Fr. Schall’s career, yet no mention is made of any of them. Not even the well-known French scholar and Melkite priest Louis Massignon (d. 1962), whose views are said to have significantly influenced Vatican II, is mentioned.

Instead, Fr. Schall often turns to Fox News and pseudo-experts like Robert Spencer and Bill O’Reilly. Perhaps such lackluster sources explain some of his odder statements. For example, he speaks glowingly of the “impressive” Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is a de facto military dictator. He naively calls Sisi a good Muslim leader simply for visiting the families of Coptic martyrs. He appears unaware of Sisi’s human rights abuses and his realpolitik cultivation of Coptic relations.

A final perplexing aspect is that Fr. Schall imputes an undue malevolence to all Muslims’ desire to make the world Muslim regardless of their attitudes towards violence, yet he does not provide an explanation for why the Catholic desire to make the world Christian is dissimilar. Indeed, many Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century were viewed by Muslims as conspiratorial expansionists, just as Fr. Schall and others view Muslims today. The essays could have benefitted from a stronger comparative lens.

In the end, Fr. Schall is more polemical than he would like to admit. His book contains some reasonable disagreements with Muslims about the ultimate truthfulness of their religion. He is also right that ideas have consequences, that problematic ideas exist in the Islamic corpus, and that inter-faith dialogue should not shy away from difficult topics like religious liberty. Yet, these points need so much clarification and contextualization that they are ultimately misleading on their own. The book will only convince those who already agree with its assumptions, while those it purports to argue with will find nothing new or persuasive.

Fr. Schall began the book by saying he had a “sketchy knowledge” of Islam when he started writing. Regrettably, nearly two decades later, a “sketchy knowledge” still describes that thinking.

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