Islam and Perceived Insults to Its Prophet, or “Zeal for thy head will consume me,” with apologies to Ps. 69:9.

Islam does not take kindly to criticism of any kind. As far as I can tell, this is due to inherent factors in its theological claims to perfection, and to the example of its prophet recorded in its sacred traditions. According to Islamic law (sharia’), built upon these traditions and seen by Muslims as perfectly encapsulating Allah’s will for all humanity, any actions rising to the level of blasphemy are punishable by death in this life and eternal fire in the hereafter. Blasphemy may be defined as any action that intentionally demeans Allah or his prophet Muhammad or his sacred word, the Quran. Some examples of this would be:

  • speaking of Allah as a false god, or one of many gods
  • depicting Allah in visual form
  • associating the written Arabic word “Allah” with anything “unworthy”
  • casting aspersions on the character of Muhammad
  • accusing Muhammad of gross sins
  • depicting Muhammad in visual form (this is a more recent ruling; there are examples in early Islam of the prophet being drawn with a face)
  • tearing, burning, or mistreating Quran in any way
  • challenging the full inspiration or truthful nature of the Quran.

Even in regions of the world where sharia’ law is not in place, Muslims seek special protection for the matters they consider most sacred, expecting non-Muslim governments to take forceful action against any non-Muslims who commit blasphemy as defined by Islam. Many take to the streets in peaceful or not-so-peaceful demonstrations, or turn to defacing, ransacking or burning non-Muslim establishments, especially churches, and to injuring or killing non-Muslims as a dramatic expression of their displeasure.

Recently we have seen renewed evidence of this tendency even here in the USA. A few weeks ago a group seeking to challenge worldwide Muslim demands for special exemptions against freedom of expression regarding Islam convened a conference in Garland, TX, dealing with the various visual depictions of Muhammad down through history. In conjunction with this, they held a contest offering a prize for the best cartoon drawing of Muhammad. The winning cartoon was itself a commentary on the challenge to free speech inherent in Islam. It pictures an angry Muhammad facing the cartoonist as he is being drawn, with upraised sword and searing words, “You can’t draw me!” The cartoonist, even as he continues to sketch Muhammad, responds, “That’s why I draw you.”

As this conference was under way, two Muslims from a mosque in Phoenix drove the 1078 mile distance armed with significant ordnance to kill large numbers of conferees, so as to underscore with “the blood of the guilty” that one may not make fun of Islam’s prophet, regardless of the laws of the land. Fortunately they were killed by law enforcement after they had opened fire but before they could commit any significant mayhem. But their actions brought back to mind the deadly attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office in France, the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the riots following publications of “Muhammad cartoons” in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper, and the death fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie back in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini. And these are merely a sample from among a much larger pool unknown to or ignored by the Western press.

After this attack, some moderate Muslims went public with denunciations of the actions of the would-be jihadists. Others did not. Why not?  Because Islam by its very nature requires Muslims to defend the honor of their prophet, using force if necessary. Let me explain.

Theologically, Islam claims to be the perfect religion, revealed by the one true God. Since God is perfect, what He has revealed is perfect. Hence the Quran is by definition unassailable. Likewise, the man chosen and destined by God to be the deliverer of this revelation is also perfect, or at least he is the perfect exemplar of humanity — the Arabic title ascribed to Muhammad, al-Insan al-Kamil, means literally “the perfect human,” the ideal toward which every other human being is to strive. To attack the perfect God, or his perfect revelation, or his chosen prophet is to commit a most grievous sin, and the only earthly punishment harsh enough for such an act is death by execution. In Muslim societies, this is carried out as a matter of course. In non-Muslim societies, if anything is to be done about it to assuage Muslim sensitivities, it must be done by a Muslim willing to “sacrifice himself for the cause.”

Some might say, “But Jesus is insulted within our culture on a daily basis by people who take his name in vain, or depict him as an active homosexual, or who use his image in scurrilous art simply to draw attention to themselves or their cause. Yet, Christians do not riot, rampage or assassinate in response to such insults.” This is true, in large measure due to the example of Jesus himself, who “when reviled did not revile in return,” or worse.  Muhammad’s behavior, though, is another story.

As Muhammad gained power and renown in his day, he also faced a growing list of enemies. Many of these used the old tribal ways of dealing with enemies — creating poems and turns of phrase to mock, scorn, ridicule and taunt their opponent. Muhammad apparently had rather thin skin in this regard, and so we find in the traditions (both ahadith and early biographies) numerous stories where Muhammad seeks or commands the death of those who have insulted him. Here are a few examples:

‘Uqba bin Abu Mu’ayt was an early and vociferous opponent of Muhammad in Mecca, having accosted and insulted him several times before the prophet finally fled to Medina in 622. He had earned Muhammad’s enduring personal wrath. In 624 during the first major military contest between the Muslims and the Meccans, the Battle of Badr, Uqba is captured as a prisoner of war. Muhammad sentences him to death, even though the vast majority of prisoners are ultimately released after ransoms are paid by the Meccans. ‘Uqba pleads for mercy, saying his family needs him. Muhammad is not moved.

…‘Uqba said, “But who will look after my children, O Muhammad?”

“Hell,” he said….”[1]

With no delay, ‘Uqba’s head is severed from his body by one of Muhammad’s Ansari soldiers.

Soon after the Battle of Badr, an Arab Jew from Medina named Ka’b bin al-Ashraf heard of the death of a number of his friends among the fallen fighters from Mecca. Leaving Medina, he stayed with friends in Mecca to share their grief and to compose derisive poems about Muhammad and his followers. Upon his return to Medina, he compounded his offenses by composing suggestive and insulting poems about the Muslim women in town. One day Muhammad groused to his companions, “Who will rid me of Ibn al-Ashraf?” A man named Muhammad bin Maslama stepped forward, declaring, “I will deal with him for you, O apostle of God, I will kill him.” The prophet responded, “Do so if you can.” After a few days of frustration, unable to come up with a good plan, the would-be assassin came back before the prophet confessing his uncertainty of success. Muhammad told him, “All that is incumbent upon you is that you should try.” The man replied, “O apostle of God, we shall have to tell lies,” (i.e., in order to lure the target to an area where they could attack him easily). Muhammad’s declaration of absolution was, “Say what you like, for you are free in this matter.” So Muhammad bin Maslama with a small group of conspirators cooks up a plan, and indeed lures Ka’b from his fortress to an open area where the armed conspirators are waiting. They hack him to death with swords, then return to Muhammad and report to him as he finishes his morning prayers that they had killed God’s enemy.[2]

Since the prophet of Islam is so concerned about his own reputation and stature that he is willing to countenance executions as well as deceptions leading to assassination of enemies, how could his loyal followers of today sit back and allow their prophet’s honor to be tarnished by cartoon-drawers or Quran-burners or those who speak ill of him for his other immoral acts?

The savagery we are seeing today against the West from many core Muslims finds its principal roots not in income inequality, joblessness, Western cultural hegemony, American foreign policy or any other factor external to Islam. At heart, this violence is shaped and fueled by the religious zeal of Muslims following the example of their prophet and his earliest companions.

[1] Ibn Ishaq, The Life of the Prophet, p. 308.

[2] Ibid., p. 368.

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Sacred Barbarism

Much of the cruel barbarity in the religious world today is being perpetrated by self-confessed Muslims. Though many moderate Muslims are beginning to decry the atrocities of Boko Haram, the Taliban, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, AQIM, al-Shabaab, Hamas, Abu Sayyaf, al-Qaeda, etc., these movements continue to proclaim their Islamic bona fides, justifying their beliefs and actions on the basis of sound, authoritative traditions within Islam concerning Muhammad as well as upon standard jihad and retribution texts in the Quran.

Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, for example, have taken to crucifying Christians and to severing hands and feet of those accused of “causing mischief in the land” (a Quranic phrase capable of application to a wide array of disapproved behaviors). Where did they come up with these tortures, and others such as immolation? The short answer: from the traditions of Muhammad and his companions.

Take this story, for instance, from the most highly regarded of the Hadith collections (second only to the Quran in authority for Sunni Muslims), that of Sahih Bukhari. To be fair, Muslims acknowledge that some of the traditions found, even in Bukhari, are doubtful or even spurious, but the following account occurs no less than ten times in Bukhari’s collection, with minor variations. It is widely accepted by the Sunni world:

A group of people from `Ukl (tribe) came to the Prophet and they were living with the people of As-Suffa, but they became ill as the climate of Medina did not suit them, so they said, “O Allah’s Messenger! Provide us with milk.” The Prophet said, I see no other way for you than to use the camels of Allah’s Apostle.” So they went and drank the milk and urine of the camels, (as medicine) and became healthy and fat. Then they killed the shepherd and took the camels away. When a help-seeker came to Allah’s Apostle, he sent some men in their pursuit, and they were captured and brought before mid-day. The Prophet ordered for some iron pieces to be made red hot, and their eyes were branded with them and their hands and feet were cut off and were not cauterized. Then they were put at a place called Al-Harra [a wilderness region outside Medina], and when they asked for water to drink they were not given till they died. (Abu Qilaba said, “Those people committed theft and murder and fought against Allah and His Apostle.”)  — (Bukhari, Vol. 8, Book 82, Hadith 796)

In a related tradition found in Sunan Abu Dawud, we find a short sequel to the above account:

When the Messenger of Allah cut off (the hands and feet of) those who had stolen his camels and he had their eyes put out by fire (heated nails), Allah reprimanded him on that (action), and Allah, the Exalted, revealed: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution or crucifixion.” (Bk 39, Hadith 4357).

This tradition, considered weak by many Muslim jurists (no doubt because it reveals that Allah had to reprimand Muhammad, whom Muslim dogma declares to be the moral exemplar of humanity), provides the rationale for the revelation of the Quranic text found in Sura 5:33:

The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on the opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a great torment is theirs in the Hereafter. (Hilali-Khan translation)

This text, quite clearly, is one which provides modern disciples of Muhammad the justification for the atrocities they are committing with apparently clear consciences. When you add to texts like this the overarching Quranic ethic of retributive justice (“And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” – 2:194), it becomes easy to trace the rationalizations of jihadists who feel that the whole Western world is on a personal quest to eradicate them and Islam as a whole.

It’s no use claiming that all “revealed religions” have texts commanding violence, and thus it’s wrong to single out Muslim atrocities. The pertinent texts in the Bible are all limited in time and scope – they were meant for limited periods of history and cannot be stripped of their context to encourage modern expansionist violence against all non-believers. Primary evidence of this is found in the fact that we don’t see any biblical terrorists anywhere reciting holy texts as they decapitate, maim or incinerate enemies.  For Christians, on top of that, we have direct teachings from Jesus that eschew force or violence as a means to Kingdom expansion. In Islam, however, these incendiary texts are taken by and large to be timeless commands, meant to be in force until the whole world converts or is subjugated to Allah and his prophet. Nothing in the Quranic text itself limits the application of these commands. One may appeal to all the scholars one wishes in order to seek to blunt the plain reading of the text, but most Muslims are not tuned in to the nuanced, tiptoeing dances of moderate scholars while their imams wax eloquent in their Friday sermons about Allah’s pleasure in the spilled blood of the infidel.

The example of the prophet, his commands, the actions of Islam’s caliphs, and the history of Islam on the march all have contributed to making certain forms of barbarism sacred in the minds of today’s disciples of Muhammad. If this is not what moderate Muslims want Islam to be known and reviled for, it’s time to stand up and be counted, not just as individual objectors but as a reform-minded movement that squelches the radicals and sterilizes the religion from any future strains of violent jihadism.

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Modern Islamic Terror — Ancient Roots

Many moderate Muslims and their apologists in the West have challenged the view that the actions and beliefs of ISIS and like-minded terrorist organizations are truly Islamic. Islam, they argue, is a religion of peace and has strict codes calling for the humane treatment of non-Muslims. The real religion, they say, allows only defensive jihad – Muslims may attack only those who have first attacked them; even so, they are to prefer mercy over retribution.

For example, in response to the Atlantic cover story by Graeme Wood “What ISIS Really Wants,” a Muslim professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross (rather ironic!) named Caner Dagli argues that the behavior and religious interpretations of ISIS fall outside the pale of true Islam, and that in fact these extremists do not take seriously the texts and traditions of the religion. However, there seem to be more and more reports of other self-named Muslim groups who carry out similar atrocities. Are they all outside true Islam – illegitimate and un-Islamic? Apparently so, according to these moderates and intellectual elites.

Recently I read of an attack by a small army of Muslims against a wealthy agrarian tribal community in the Middle East. The goal of the attack was to capture, plunder, enslave and kill until the entire community surrendered to the Muslims. The Muslim leader had already executed the elder leader of this tribe in a previous encounter. Now he was intent on conquering the tribe as a whole and claiming for himself and Islam the reportedly sizable treasure that they had hidden in their village. After a significant number of the men of the tribe had been killed by the Muslim army’s surprise attack, the Muslims began to divide up the significant booty as well as to claim the captive women as slaves or wives. However, the reputed treasure could not be located. The Muslim commander found the treasurer of the village and ordered him to reveal its location. When the treasurer refused, the commander ordered that he be tortured until he gave up its whereabouts. The man was stretched out on the ground, and a fired was kindled on his chest which burned until the man was near death, now incoherent with pain and confusion. Unable to extract any helpful information, the commander ordered the treasurer beheaded, and the order was carried out with alacrity. On top of all this, the treasurer’s new bride, considered the beauty of the village, was claimed by the commander as his own possession. It turns out that she was the daughter of the former chieftain of the village, whom the Muslim commander had previously ordered executed. Now she had just lost her husband to torture and murder, and earlier that day had lost her brother in the surprise attack at dawn. As the Muslim army withdrew that evening, they stopped and set up tents so that the commander could “marry” his new bride and seal the deal by consummating the relationship in his tent while the rest of the army waited.

What do moderate Muslims and their apologists say concerning this horrific series of events carried out by other Muslims? Mr. Dagli and many others no doubt would like to argue that these actions were un-Islamic, and that the protagonists are either not really Muslims at all, or that they are at the very least bad Muslims. I wish that were true. Unfortunately it cannot be.

You see, the account I summarized is not a contemporary event. It happened in 629 AD. The commander was Muhammad, the army was his companions (the Muslim faithful), the community attacked was Khaibar, an oasis town some 95 miles north of Medina, populated by Arab Jews. The treasurer’s name was Kinana al-Rabi, and his wife was Safiyya, who subsequently became one of Muhammad’s fourteen wives.* All the details of this story are known even by half-awake Muslims, for this account is celebrated within the Muslim world for its violent victory over Jews, who are routinely vilified in Muslim teaching. One of the regular Arabic rhymes chanted by Muslim crowds whenever Jews are killed by terrorists, or Israel is attacked by Hamas or Hezbollah is: “Khaibar, Khaybar, ya Yahud, jaysh Muhammad sawfa ya’ud” which translates as “Khaybar, Khaybar, O you Jews, the army of Muhammad will return!)

To denounce this event would be to denounce Muhammad, something no Muslim is willing to consider. Indeed, far from being an account about which Muslims are embarrassed, it is one in which they glory. And if Muhammad is held within their thinking to be the “perfect man,” the one whose behaviors are to be imitated by the faithful, then who today appears to be the more true or faithful believer: the ISIS radical, or the Western moderate Muslim?

Apologists for Islam can mewl all they wish, but until the worldwide Muslim community is willing to denounce such stories of their prophet rather than celebrate them, the rest of us will continue to take radicals at their word that they are truly disciples of their religion’s founder, and we Christians will continue to point people to a better Master, in whom alone there is salvation for the world.


* The full story of the attack on Khaibar can be found in the earliest biography of Muhammad (written before any of the collections of Hadith traditions, and generally accepted by Muslims to be the most authoritative sources for information on the actual life of Islam’s prophet), penned over 100 years after the death of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq and handed down to posterity in an edited form by his student Ibn Hisham, translated in 1964 into English by the Arabist and Islamic scholar Alfred Guillaume. See pp. 510-22, 757-8.

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There Are No Islamic Terrorists! — Seriously?

If a thoughtful analysis of the worldview of ISIS indicates that they may be legitimately described as Islamic, why is it the Obama administration (and other pols/talking heads) takes such pains to avoid this language, referring to ISIS and like-minded organizations generically as “violent extremists” or “extremist terrorists”?

There are only two options. 1) They actually firmly believe that the adjective “Islamic” cannot properly be attributed to ISIS; or 2) They either don’t know one way or another, or do know for sure that ISIS really is an expression of Islam but have concluded that to acknowledge this would create more problems for the USA in the world of realpolitik than to continue to pretend otherwise.

In favor of option 1 is the fact that early on the administration adopted this view and has held consistently to it. Apparently knowing so little of the history, theology and practices of Islam, this administration (following sadly in the footsteps of the Bush administration) continues to parrot the simplistic canard that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Cowed by the self-appointed police of political correctness, our leaders shrink from attributing anything negative to Islam for fear of being labeled “Islamophobic.” If a man is determined to wear a blindfold, it comes as no surprise to discover that he cannot see. So our leaders convince themselves that they see nothing truly religious about the motives of ISIS, content to continue stumbling around in a self-imposed darkness. But why, when the evidence is so easy to come by, do our national leaders fail to do their homework, or at least listen to others who have done the work for them?

My best guess is this: as a culture we have become so secular, especially in the halls of political power, that many of our leaders have lost the capacity even to imagine that human beings could truly offer up their lives to an all-consuming, otherworldly religious commitment, and find compelling motivation in living so as to please their god. Instead, in trying to understand what makes ISIS tick, our leaders try to remake ISIS leaders in their own image. Any religious justification for ISIS actions must really be a smokescreen for what truly motivates these individuals: power, greed, recognition – precisely the kinds of earthly goals that motivate our own worldly leadership.

In support of this analysis I would point to the statements of two State Department spokeswomen, as well as that of President Obama, that what is needed to overcome the threat of ISIS is not overwhelming military force but the creation of a positive economic climate in these rogue nations leading to the creation of an abundance of jobs so as to undercut the “root cause” of terror groups like ISIS.  I understand, I think, what they intended – the ranks of ISIS would swell much more slowly with a smaller pool of disenfranchised youth who see no hopeful future in this life and so find the allure of a free and quick ticket to Paradise compelling. Nevertheless, the absolute blindness which refused to recognize the primary magnetism of radical Islam in the lives of disciples of ISIS, insisting instead that the root causes of this movement are economic in nature, is truly breathtaking in its ignorance.

ISIS apparently can’t really be Islamic because we can’t personally imagine a religion inspiring its followers to behave in ways we consider so monstrous, even though the evidence show otherwise. Hence, our leaders continue to refuse to call this terrorist group Islamic.

But in favor of option 2, that our leaders do know the truth (or suspect it) but refuse to label ISIS as Islamic for ulterior reasons, is the fact that some within the administration have argued one or more of the following:

* To call ISIS Islamic would be to confer a dignity upon them that they do not deserve, and erroneously lend them legitimacy in the eyes of others;

* To call them Islamic while we have indicated that we are committed to their destruction would imply that we are at war with Islam at large, a declaration we do not want to make.

* To call them Islamic would alienate our American Muslim community and lead to a potential rise in bias and attacks on Muslims in our country.

None of these arguments is concerned with the truth/falsehood of the claim that ISIS is a legitimate expression of Islam. Instead, they all focus on what the negative consequences might be should the administration make that claim. One can easily understand such concerns.

But are they realistic? As to the first, ISIS could hardly care less what the US government (we are the Great Satan after all) says about it. Its sense of dignity comes from the belief that above all other groups it is honoring God by being his caliphate on earth. As to the second, most of the Muslim world is privy to the dirty secret that some of the practices of Muhammad and the early Muslim community were very unpalatable, if not outright immoral. They are embarrassed and ashamed by ISIS, which it parading these same foul behaviors before the whole world today. Though many would not be happy with the USA “taking out” ISIS, they would rather that happen than have ISIS continue to be a cancer on the reputation of the larger Muslim world.  And regarding the third, although American Muslim lobby groups such as CAIR are quick to cry “Islamophobia!” and to see signs of anti-Muslim discrimination, harassment and persecution at the drop of a hat, the facts show otherwise. Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the majority American community acted with great grace, understanding and compassion toward the minority American Muslim community. Americans are not so dense as to be unable to distinguish between the murderous intent of the ISIS caliphate and the benign desire of Muslim Americans to contribute positively to the American enterprise.

So, in the end, does the Obama administration refuse to call ISIS “Islamic extremists” for ulterior reasons, or because they truly believe the terror group cannot rightly be called “Islamic”? I don’t pretend to know for sure, but I’m inclined to believe they are blinded by their own preconceptions, unable to conceive that such barbaric terrorism could be inspired by any religion, particularly one protected presently by political correctness. The ulterior reasons noted above can still be used (as we have seen from various administration officials) for further support, but they don’t seem strong enough on their own to bear the weight of the administration’s determination to avoid calling ISIS “Islamic” at all costs.

Time will tell whether this and future administrations admit what even some Muslim leaders in the Middle East (such as King Abdullah of Jordan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia) have already said – ISIS is a virulent form of Islam which must be confronted and defeated. It will be up to the Islamic world to deal finally with ISIS and other such terror groups, but the continuing ostrich-like ignorance of the “leader of the free world” cannot give much encouragement to the principal players in this life-and-death drama.

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Can ISIS (and other similar terrorist groups) rightly claim to be Islamic?

Given the obvious unwillingness of the present US administration to use the terms “Islamic/Muslim” as descriptors for ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham/Syria), al-Qaeda, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda wing in Syria) and others, as well as the protestations of some moderate American Muslims that such groups and their behaviors do not represent “true” Islam, it is important to answer this question thoughtfully.

Those who say “No” in answer to this question marshal as their principal argument the bromide that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and what ISIS and other terrorists have concocted is a perversion of Islam that cannot be laid at the feet of the real religion. Unfortunately, the politicians and talking heads who sing this tune know very little of the history and beliefs of Islam. Moderate Muslims who do know something of their own history and theology, on the other hand, and who nevertheless speak of Islam as “the religion of peace,” use those words in a very specialized sense, and hope that no one will look too deeply into what they say.

According to orthodox Sunni Islam, Muhammad is considered the “perfect human,” the role model for all Muslims to emulate. Muhammad commanded his followers to fight the non-Muslim world until all submit and acknowledge the supremacy of Islam. This command came from God, according to the Quran:

 “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah) and (all and every kind of) worship is for Allah (Alone). But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)” – 2:193 (see also 8:39).

 In the ten plus years of his leadership in Medina until his death (622-32), Muhammad ordered some seventy-four raids or battles against non-Muslim groups or communities. According to Islamic sources, he personally led at least twenty-six of these. A few years before his death, Muhammad gathered an army of thirty thousand to march north from Medina seeking conquest of the Byzantine Empire. They camped at Tabuk (NW Arabia), and never met the enemy, but Muhammad’s expansionist intentions were clear. After this, he sent letters to the rulers of surrounding Christian and Persian realms, urging them to “…embrace Islam and you will be safe.” Safe from what, one might ask. Safe from the attack, conquest and plunder of future Muslim armies, which, as history records, was indeed the primary means by which Islam spread so rapidly in the first one hundred years after Muhammad’s death. It should come as no surprise, then, that his followers even today see warfare (jihad) as an appropriate tool (under certain conditions) for the advancement of Islam.

Modern, moderate Muslims correctly assert that, according to Shariah law, jihad of an offensive type can only rightly be ordered by the recognized caliph of Islam (whereas jihad of self-defense needs no official authorization), and that since no caliph has been recognized by the Islamic world since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, no Muslim has the right to call for or engage in a jihad of aggression against non-Muslims. Hence, they say, ISIS is operating as a rogue element, without the consent of the rest of the Muslim world, and thus cannot be considered truly Muslim.

But ISIS has two responses to this. First, they have “recognized” their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who traces his lineage to the Quraysh tribe of Muhammad, as the caliph of the whole Muslim world. He is known to them as Caliph Ibrahim, and ISIS invites the rest of the Muslim world to rally under his leadership. As the new Caliph, he has declared jihad against Islam’s enemies, and so the actions of the armies of ISIS have legitimacy, in their eyes. Second, even if the majority of the Islamic world does not accept al-Baghdadi as its legitimate caliph, the actions of ISIS are defensible on the grounds of self-protection. “We were attacked first,” they might argue, “by Western coalition forces in Iraq and by hypocrites=false Muslims (which in their eyes means principally Shiite Muslims under the direction of Iran, or agents of corrupt Sunni governments, i.e., all the Gulf states), “and so we have the right to wage war in response.”

Yet, one might argue, doesn’t ISIS disqualify itself from legitimacy through its inhumane and barbarous treatment of those it deems enemies? Don’t such actions as mass beheadings, immolation of prisoners, torture, rape, slavery, theft, and gratuitous humiliation of captives demonstrate that this movement is at odds with historic Islam?

Unfortunately, the answer to this as well is negative. ISIS leadership has justified all of its actions firmly on the basis of the commands of Allah found in the Quran and the example (Sunnah) of Muhammad found in Islam’s widely revered Hadith traditions (second only to the Quran in divine authority). It appeals to legal pronouncements made by well-known jurists of Islamic history for support of its barbarity. Its worldview is squarely in the camp of Islam historically. Al-Baghdadi, far from being a fringe revolutionary with a hazy grasp of Islam, earned both a Masters and a Ph.D. degree in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad before briefly serving as an imam and then joining the Sunni insurgency in post-war Iraq. Those who claim that ISIS leadership only uses Islam as a front for pursuing other more mundane ventures are ignorant of the enormous sway this religion holds over the thinking and behavior of al-Baghdadi, who knows the life and teachings of his prophet well.

Early Islamic sources confirm that Muhammad ordered beheadings of enemies, the torture of those refusing to hand over hidden treasure, the amputation of limbs or crucifixion of those who transgressed his laws, the rape of conquered non-Muslim women and their consequent enslavement together with their children, as well as the execution of any adolescent males and adult men who refused to submit to Islam. Of course all of the possessions of those conquered were seized as booty and distributed among the Muslim combatants and wider Islamic community. The practices of immolation and gratuitous humiliation are traced not to Muhammad directly but to his honored successors known as the Rashidun, the four “rightly-guided caliphs” who ruled for the first thirty years after Muhammad’s death. (Examples of all these can be readily found in the early historical sources penned by Muslims, not “haters of Islam.”)

While I readily acknowledge that there is so much more to Islam than this one segment of history and teaching, it is impossible for any honest observer to deny that the horrific practices and frightening goals of ISIS find their foundation squarely in the teaching and practices of Muhammad, and the legacy of his companions who knew him best.

Hence, my answer to the question “Can ISIS rightly claim to be Islamic?” is Yes, as much as any other group citing Muhammad as its source and model. Outside politicians and apologists have no standing to render judgment on what constitutes “true Islam,” and what stands as a perversion. It will be up to the larger Muslim world to define for itself what true Islam stands for, and then to police its own ranks to see that adherents toe the line. Moderates today clamor that the “extremists” have hijacked and perverted their religion. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, decry the moderates as hypocrites who refuse to embrace all the requirements of Islam.  Who will win this debate? Only time will tell, but my money is on the fundamentalists, who have the unchangeable sacred texts of the religion on their side, and who are willing to give up their lives to advance the cause.

That leaves me with one last question: If ISIS genuinely can lay claim to being Islamic, then why won’t the US administration use the phrase “Islamic terrorism/extremism” to describe this group and others operating under the same worldview? My thoughts on that tomorrow….

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Remembering God: A Response to Grace or an Act of Merit?

I attended a wonderful worship service today in a small town in California where I’m presently on sabbatical, writing a book. During the Communion service, the pastor reminded us that every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember – to remember what God in Christ has done for us to win our salvation. He remarked on how easy it is for us to forget the grace of God, and to revert to the fleshly notion that scaling heaven is dependent on our efforts. Regular times at the Communion Table drive through our calloused hearts the truth that salvation is of grace – when Jesus uttered “It is finished” on the cross before his final breath, he meant it. The work of salvation has been wrought by the Son of God, and there is nothing we can add to it, only to receive it by receiving Him, with gratitude and allegiance. Remembrance plays a crucial role in weaning us from the striving of “works righteousness.” In the words of Robert Robinson, penned in 1758:

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

As he was speaking on this topic, my mind jumped to the principal meaning of remembrance in Islam (looming in my mind because of my present book project). The Arabic word dhikr is used by Muslims to signify the call to keep the thought of God front and center in the mind. The command to remember God is found plentifully throughout the Quran. Here’s one representative verse: “O you who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance” (Sura 33:41). But in Islam, remembrance isn’t a way to keep us focused on God’s costly grace; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a way to earn brownie points, either deducting some of our sins from our eternal bank account, or accruing extra merit if we’re already super spiritual. For example, Islamic scholars have determined that the absolute best form of dhikr is reading the Quran – or even better, reciting it from memory. They have calculated (don’t ask me how) that every letter read racks up ten rewards, and since there are about 321,180 letters in the Quran, to read it through completely rings up almost four million “rewards” in your merit bank. (I don’t know for sure, but I assume that various sins have differing values of demerits, so if you have a lot in your debit column, you’ll want to be reading your Quran voraciously.) But there are other ways you can earn rewards as well: repetition of the phrase Subhanallah (Glory to God) a hundred times a day will be the same as earning one hundred good deeds, or erasing one hundred bad deeds. Other phrases also count in like measure. You get the idea. (For a chart of all these “remembrance phrases” and what they ostensibly earn, see this chart as developed by one Muslim who researched the early documents of Islam:

Once again we see the huge chasm between the Christian and Muslim world views. The biblical message announces what steps God has taken to wipe away our sins and adopt us as His beloved children. The quranic message declares what humans must do to overcome the demerits of our sins by using praise of God as a spiritual scrub brush. Grace vs. works. It’s the same old story.

Yesterday I was reading a powerful expose of Muslim theology entitled The Muslim Doctrine of God, authored in 1905 by Samuel Zwemer (who earned the sobriquet “Apostle to the Muslims”), and came across this pithy summation on p. 52: “As regards the moral code Islam is phariseeism translated into Arabic.” So true. So sad. Dhikr is a case in point.

May God raise up a new generation of mission-minded believers whose hearts are tender toward the Muslim world and whose lips are seasoned with the grace of the gospel!

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Muslims More Christian Than Presbyterians? Perhaps in This One Instance!

In a previous post (The Clash of Civilizations — A Snapshot [Part 1]), I alluded to a common understanding in the Muslim world that any land conquered/added to the Islamic kingdom of God must never be relinquished to unbelievers. It belongs to Allah and must be used for His purposes. This understanding is contained in the Arabic term “waqf”, and the Charter of Hamas employs it to justify the persistent effort to destroy the nation of Israel so as to reclaim for Allah the land of Palestine.

Those aware of the recent history of the Presbyterian Church (U.$.A.) may descry a hauntingly similar viewpoint in that denomination’s policy book, known as the Book of Order (BO). Known as “the property trust clause” and found in G-4.0203, it reads in all its glorious legalese:

All property held by or for a congregation, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a congregation or of a higher council or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.).

This decree has been used by denominational leadership to seek to dissuade churches wishing to depart the denomination for more theologically orthodox homes. Many have been told coldly, “You are free to leave the PC (U$A) and join another denomination if you so choose, but all your property and assets (including congregational bank accounts, endowments, etc.) belong to the presbytery (representing the larger denomination) and you must leave them behind. If you try to take them with you, we will take you to court.” Indeed, in some cases this threat has been carried out. In most instances, however, the denomination imposes a cash settlement demand on the congregation to see just how willing the congregation is to pay for its property and buildings a second time. Many congregations, in their longing to be released, bow to the ransom-like demands of their presbyteries (who hold all the power cards), even though it costs them dearly.

The viewpoint of the PC (U$A) is that all these properties belong to the national institution, not to the congregations which have built and paid for them. In belonging to the denomination, these churches have demonstrated an implicit agreement to the property trust clause of the Book of Order, even though they never had any direct or conscious part in affirming that trust. Apparently the denominational leadership believes that the institution exists for its own benefit, and so all resources under its grip must stay within its iron fists, or be released only after suitable recompense has been provided.

For quite some time I have been convinced that the “property trust clause” reveals the PC (U$A)’s idolatrous heart. Notice the declaration “…held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.).” Where is the recognition of Jesus Christ as Head of the Church, not just the PC (USA) but the Church Universal? Where is the understanding that “God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church” (Eph. 1:22, NLT)? Can a denomination rightly say to the people of a member congregation, “You all may belong to Christ, but your church property and assets belong to us!”, all for the purpose of benefitting that denominational institution? If Christ, the Head of the body, is calling a congregation to align itself with a different part of His body catholic, can the diminished part of the body say, “Sorry, you must compensate us first in order to be released”? Such a sense of self-importance, such an obsession with possessions, such an affront to the supremacy of Christ in all things, should not characterize any group that claims to be Christian.

Sadly, when comparing the “property trust clause” with the “waqf” of Islam, the Muslim concept ironically seems more biblical. At least for Islam, the ownership of land and possessions is recognized to be God’s, and to be used for His glory. In the fiefdom of the PC (U$A), it all belongs to the denomination, and must be kept for the “use and benefit” of said denomination, whether in the end that brings any glory to God or not.

Would it not be a witness of grace and catholic unity for the denomination to freely release and bless all congregations seeking to depart, and for such congregations in turn to offer a gift of gratitude to the denomination for its kindness and blessing? In such a scenario, amity among believers would reign, resources would be utilized for the spread of the gospel rather than the litigation of ownership, and the Lord’s authority over all His people would be acknowledged and embraced.

May this embarrassment to the cause of Christ come to an end quickly, being replaced with the desire to outdo one another in showing love and honor (Rom. 12:10).


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