Two of the questions I am most often asked are, “Why does Islam seem so attractive to converts?” and “Can Islam be defeated?” Not surprisingly, these two questions are interrelated.
There are many elements to Islam that attract Western converts today, including its seeming clarity on right/wrong, its unwavering commitment to monotheism and its appeal to anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiments in our post-Christian culture. But I believe there is an even greater appeal to the heart of fallen human nature.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul speaks of the fallen human heart as the life of the “flesh.” This stands in opposition to “life in the Spirit,” the new nature born in the human heart upon conversion to Christ, when the Spirit of God takes up residence within a person’s spirit and begins transforming him/her into the likeness of Jesus Christ, a lifelong process theologians refer to as “sanctification.”
Islam knows no such process, because it does not believe that human nature is fallen or inherently flawed by a sinful bent, but teaches instead that humans tend to be forgetful and just need regular reminders that their rightful role in life is submission as slaves to Allah. As such, Islam has no equivalent to Paul’s teaching that believers are to “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Col. 3:5; see also Rom. 8:13), but rather proposes that our natural earthly desires are to be harnessed in service to a very “fleshly” Allah.
Islam is such a powerful movement because it is the perfect religion appealing to the flesh. Our fallen hearts naturally lust after the fulfillment of certain basic cravings. Chief among these are three: ego (hubris); power; pleasure. In our natural state, we want to favorably compare ourselves to others, to show that we are better than those around us; we want power to be able to shape the world for our benefit or according to our whims and appetites; we want to enjoy a variety of pleasures the world affords and avoid its pains. Islam caters to these cravings.
As to hubris, the Qur’an teaches Muslims that they are “the best of all peoples ever raised up for mankind” (3:110), and that by contrast the rest of the world (all those who reject Islam, including Christians, Jews, pagans, etc.) are “the worst of all creatures” in Allah’s sight (98:6). This theme woven throughout the Qur’an has produced the supremacist attitude so apparent in Islamic thought down through the centuries, an attitude central to its drive to conquer the world so as to justify the belief that Islam is better than any alternative and that Muslims are better than all non-Muslims.
As to power, Islam preaches a god of absolute might and sovereignty who routinely resorts to force when his creatures refuse to willingly comply with his will. The cry of Muslim armies, Muslim terrorists, and Muslim protagonists all over the world, Allahu akbar, does not mean “God is great,” as so many mistranslate it, but rather “God is greater!” It is not merely a metaphysical claim about a certain god, but rather an in-your-face challenge to all who follow someone or something other than the god of Islam. “Our Allah is greater than whatever you cherish and value most highly, and we wipe your idols off the throne of your lives and replace them with Allah, if you don’t voluntarily submit to Islam.” The Qur’an calls Muslims to “kill and be killed” for the cause of Allah (9:111), and Allah promises his warriors supernatural aid (angels will fight alongside them and strengthen them) so that twenty jihadis will defeat two hundred infidels, and a hundred will defeat a thousand (8:65). According to Islam, the true prophets have always fought and killed for the advancement of Allah’s kingdom. In Sura 8:67, Muhammad declares (as Allah’s mouthpiece), “It is not for a prophet to have captives [of war] until he inflicts a massacre [upon Allah ‘s enemies] in the land.” Allah harnesses the fallen human heart’s penchant for powers over others by giving them free rein to slaughter all who will not bow before their demand to submit to Allah. Such violent compulsion is not a sin when it is used in Allah’s cause.
Lastly, with regard to pleasure, Islam gives Muslim men (who are the masters of their women and children, and therefore have no say in the matter) the booty they collect from their wars against unbelievers, both in terms of material goods and those they have captured as slaves. Slaves could be sold off for financial gain or kept for service. Conquered females could be turned into sex slaves, whether married or virgin. These were part and parcel of the “benefits” Allah granted his faithful jihadis. But of course the greatest pleasures he promised his devotees was that if they were faithful enough to him on earth, he would grant them entrance to an eternal paradise at the Day of Judgment. And what characterizes this Paradise? All the earthly pleasures a fallen heart could ever desire: gardens filled with an unlimited variety of fruit-bearing trees, watered by streams of clear water, wholesome milk, pure honey and robust wine flowing between shaded banks covered with soft mossy rises; an abundance of foods considered rare delicacies in the desert reaches of Arabia; boys available as servants to do the Muslim master’s bidding, whatever that might be; houris (young, beautiful, buxom virgins created by Allah for the dwellers of Paradise, women panting with desire for their respective masters and available at a moment’s notice for sexual coupling, after which they miraculously return to their virginal state (Muslim commentators differ on the minimum number of houris assigned to each Muslim man in Paradise, from dozens to thousands), and if you think that this sexual gymnasium might become tiresome, there are commentators quick to assure readers that in Paradise Muslim men will be capable of ceaseless erections. Allah, of course, is not present, because in his loftiness he cannot condescend to hobnob with his rutting subjects, but he has provided them this erotic elysium as a reward for their unflagging service on earth.
Why does Islam appeal to so many in the West today? Because it gives divine approval to the pursuit of our sinful passions, making them virtuous: it encourages hubris by stroking the egos of Muslims, declaring them the best of humans in Allah’s eyes; it commands them to wield the sword and enjoy their divinely-bestowed power by lording their authority over non-Muslims, demanding that infidels serve them and accept an inferior status before their Muslim overlords; and it promises them unlimited fulfillment of the appetites of the flesh — what they can’t win for themselves through conquest on earth, Allah will supply in spades in heaven, all to be enjoyed without the least tinge of a wounded conscience.
Islam is the perfect religion of the flesh, even if it does promote the death of its followers. Death is only the gateway to infinite enjoyment of carnal pleasures.
Can such a religion be defeated? The answer, of course is yes. But can Islam be defeated by Western civilization as it now stands. I’m afraid the answer to that is no. The post-Christian West has lost the compelling reason for its existence. We still enjoy many of the fruits of the biblical worldview which inspired the fundamentals of Western thought: the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore of equal value and dignity, and imbued with certain inalienable rights, things we today call “human rights.” Yet as Western civilization has become increasingly secular in the last two hundred years, we have consciously jettisoned the metaphysical framework on which our freedoms and successes were built, and assumed that the structure would remain standing. We want to enjoy the good practices we have, but can no longer find the deep justifications for why they must exist. We are like the inhabitants of a great tree that is dying, still enjoying the few fruits that remain on its branches, wondering why the tree is so sickly while we are chopping away at the base of the trunk of the tree in the desire to gather wood for our huts in the branches. We have mindlessly cut ourselves off from the life-giving roots of our majestic tree, but continue to pick the diminishing fruits and hope vainly that the tree will somehow regain her strength.
America and Europe have squandered the legacy of a worldview that brought untold blessing to humanity. We have let slip through our fingers the majestic and profound truths upon which the best of human society has been built: that the God of all creation made human beings as the apple of His eye, and stamped our spirits with His image and likeness; that this God is Love Himself, and from Him flow all things good; that He made us for a relationship with Himself and for one another, to know Him intimately live in love as brothers and sisters; that sin has destroyed this harmony and will only be fully healed by His self-sacrifice to repair the breach caused by human evil; that His incarnation as one of us to bear our sins and draw us to Himself has turned the tide against evil; that we are invited to enjoy the fullness of His redeeming love and to share that with all the world until He returns to bring all things to their appointed end and cleanse His creation once and for all of evil.
This worldview once empowered our forebears and became the foundation of the greatness of Western culture and civilization. But we have gradually walked away from that and replaced it with secular humanism, a notion that there is no God behind this world, that we just exist as human beings with inherent rights granted us by a lifeless, mindless, random universe of matter and energy. We want desperately to believe that we matter, that all human beings matter, that concepts like justice, mercy, kindness, freedom, and love have inherent worth and value, but if in the end we are all just products of random acts of a mindless and uncaring universe, why should anyone care about anyone else, or about “enduring moral principles”? For in the end, everything will blink out of existence in the same way as it randomly came into existence. We may rage against the night for the brief blip of our existence, but soon enough the night wins.
Secular humanism has been hacking away at the trunk of Western civilization for quite a while now. I saw a sad but telling example of this a few months ago in the suburbs of London. Having an afternoon off on a rainy day, I took a hike along the banks of the Thames River till I came upon the town of Teddington in Middlesex. Deciding to follow the pathway into town, I spied a beautiful church rising above the nearby roofs and trees, and determined to spend some time inside. As I walked completely around the perimeter, I could find no main entrance into the sanctuary, only a side entrance into an area called the “Landmark Arts Centre,” where a few people were coming and going. Finally, not seeing any alternative, I walked through that entrance and spoke with a very helpful attendant at the welcome desk. “Isn’t this a church?” I asked. “May I see the sanctuary?”
Former sanctuary of the Church of St. Alban the Martyr
“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” she said. “This hasn’t been a church since the 1990s. It now serves as space for our Landmark Arts Centre, which hosts art displays and social dinners and concerts as part of our effort to support local artists.” I discovered in further conversation and research that the original structure, Church of St. Alban the Martyr was built and dedicated to the glory of God in 1889. Though never formally designated a “cathedral,” it became known informally as “The Cathedral of the Thames Valley.” It is indeed a majestic building, reflecting the religious gratitude of multitudes in constructing such a monument to the grace of God.
However, as British society grew more secular and indifferent to things Christian, St. Alban’s disbanded as a congregation in 1977 (only 90 years after the cornerstone had been laid!) and the building was declared “redundant” (don’t you just love British terminology? — it means “superfluous/no longer needed”). Once a glorious edifice, St. Alban’s deteriorated for some 15 years as a derelict building until locals formed a “robust campaign” to see it restored as an English Heritage site in the 1990s. And so today, the Church of St. Alban the Martyr no longer exists, but has been replaced by the Landmarks Art Centre.
Here’s what the former sanctuary looked like the day I visited in November 2017.
A sad, real-life parable reflecting what has been going on in Western civilization as a whole. The original purpose of the structure has been lost, and now serves a small enterprise that cannot give meaning to that original architectural masterpiece. A cathedral built for the glory of God now fronts as a warehouse to view paintings and sculptures.
Secular humanism cannot breathe meaning and purpose into a civilization built upon a biblical worldview. It can seek to maintain the structure for a while, as it has in America, but sooner or later the grand architecture of rights and blessings we have enjoyed due to the out-working of the gospel will weigh too heavy on the small enterprise of humanism, and post-Christian civilization will collapse upon itself.
So, can Western civilization defeat Islam? Hardly. It is having a hard enough time standing on its own two feet to take on a robust worldview that wishes to knock it over. Certainly, the Western world has enough military power and political resources to restrain the world of Muslim nations and radical jihadi groups, but mere force cannot destroy Islam as an ideology or worldview. Secular humanism is a lightweight against the juggernaut of Islam, which is not just a set of religious beliefs but an all-encompassing worldview, informing all of life for its adherents. What is needed to defeat Islam is exactly what the West has jettisoned — an embrace of the worldview of Christianity.
What is needed to defeat a strong worldview is an even stronger one. What is stronger than a god of hate if not a God of love? What is better than a god who uses and commands brutal force than a God who exhibits and commands self-sacrifice? What is stronger, a god who harnesses the power of temptation to advance his cause, or a God who defeats the power of sin so as to rescue human beings for a higher calling? What is stronger, a god who promises to reward those who kill and are killed in his name, or a God who conquers death by His own death, in order to offer eternal life as a gift to those who come in gratitude? What is a greater worldview: one that commands love for fellow believers and hatred for non-believers, or one that commands love for all neighbors, including enemies?
The religion of Islam will one day crumble into oblivion, because it is built upon a worldly spirituality that opposes the true Kingdom of God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. It will not be other earthly powers that defeat Islam, whether military, political or religious. Only the Church has the message that sounds the death knell of Islam — but it won’t happen primarily by a frontal attack on its tenets and practices. It will come about by the conversions of massive numbers of Muslims who discover that the message of the gospel shines with light and love and truth which Islam has never been able to match, for all its efforts.
Already, over the last forty years Muslims have been leaving Islam in droves. Many turn first to atheism, thinking that if the “final religion given to man” has proven untenable, then no religion can be true. But thousands upon thousands are being exposed to the gospel for the first time in their lives, and discovering to their irrepressible joy that the Arabian prophet cannot hold a candle to the Son of God.
Can Islam be defeated? Yes, and it will, but only when the Church wakes up once again to her true Love, and lives out her mission with a passion to love and reach the lost, including 1.6 billion Muslims! If the last forty years are indicative of what God holds for the future, the tide is already turning. May it be so, Lord Jesus!