October 7, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is based on an interview with Bernard Lewis, author of Islam: The Religion and the People (Wharton School Publishing).
For many Christians, Islam is as mysterious and unsettling as the invisible voice calling Muslims to daily prayer.
Despite its nearly 1,400 years of existence, the religion that worships Allah and follows the teachings of Muhammad remains something of a partial picture in the West. The result is misunderstanding, fear of the unknown and even distrust. More than one Christian has peered upon the star and crescent moon atop the minarets of a mosque and remarked how much it reminds them of the hammer and sickle and red star that has come to symbolize communism.
The Two Universal, Exclusive Religions
Then there is this: Christianity and Islam are the two major religions which each hold that their truths are not only universal but also exclusive and final. It also is the sacred call of the Christian and the Muslim to spread their beliefs to a world that needs to hear their message. This leads to an inherent friction born of a “we’re right, you’re wrong” competition that is not only preached but practiced.
Bernard Lewis, one of the West’s leading experts on Islam, explained it this way in his new book, “Islam,” co-written by Buntzie Ellis Churchill:
“For both Christians and Muslims ... it is their sacred duty not to keep [their faith] selfishly for themselves, like the Jews or the Hindus, but to bring them to all mankind, overcoming and removing or destroying whatever obstacles may be in the way.”
This shared ultimatum, however, is where the similarity between the two faiths ends. Lewis, who is Jewish, does an exemplary job analyzing both the connections and fractures between the two faiths in his book.
While not an apologist for Islam, Lewis tends to show its positive side by pointing out Christianity’s flaws. But overall he is balanced and brings needed insight to a subject that he said suffers from the spread of “a lot of false information about Islam.”
“There are things worse than ignorance and that is wrong knowledge,” he said.
Lewis, 92, hesitates to estimate the number of Americans who have a working knowledge of Islam, offering only that the percentage is low. That lack of knowledge is one of the primary reasons he wrote the book, to emphasize the importance of a historically-correct understanding of the religion.
The Growth of Radical Islam – In America
The other reason is that Islam has become more of a modern issue. In Europe especially, the faith continues to grow in urban centers, but is increasingly found in the United States.
“[I]t’s moving in that direction,” he said, adding that the brand of Islam being practiced in the U.S. tends to be of a more radical variety, at least where it is growing the fastest.
“Imagine a Muslim family living in Detroit,” Lewis said. “They would want a grounding in their religion, which is normal, so they look around for evening classes, which are almost all controlled by radical groups.”
Among other modern concerns, Lewis covers the increase of radicalism played out through terrorism.
Suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism are condemned by the majority of the Muslim world, Lewis said, but “not as much as one would wish. They condemn it, but they do so very cautiously, because they’re afraid.”
The problem is the radical groups have acquired incredible influence through oil money, he said, adding that until fairly recently the ultra-violent end of the religion’s practitioners would have been considered the “lunatic fringe.”
Lewis touches on these topics in his book, but for the most part concentrates on educating readers about the history and practices of Islam, including such cultural issues as dress, language, economics and politics.
The Non-Separation of Church and State
To understand Islam, Lewis notes, the popular dichotomy of religion and government has to be rejected.
Lewis differentiates between Christianity and Christendom, explaining the latter as the part of the world in which Christianity prevails. It can be separated because Christianity and culture can be split into distinct categories, such as separation of church and state.
Islam, however, cannot be separated into state and church, Lewis explains. There is no Islamdom per se, because everything comes under submission to the Koran, the holy book of Islam. He writes,
“In Christendom, God and emperor, state and church, were distinct – sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict, sometimes joined, sometimes separate, sometimes one dominant, sometimes the other, but always two. In Islam, the prophet [Muhammad] who brought the holy book and founded the faith also founded and headed the first Muslim state, and both promulgated and enforced the one all-embracing holy law. There is therefore an interpretation of religion and politics, affecting government and law, identity and loyalty, to a degree without parallel in Judeo-Christian history.”
The Third Conquest
The West, meanwhile, is increasingly shaped by Islam, Lewis said.
“Look at Europe; Muslims are now on their third attempt to take over Europe,” he said. “First was medieval times ... the second was the Ottoman Turks conquering of Constantinople and advancing as far as Vienna, so this is the third time. Only this time the conquest is by migration, increasing numbers settling in Europe, by demography (i.e. population increase based on increasing number of Muslim children being born) and now by conversion.”
Islam’s success so far may hinge on its “purity,” meaning that the fundamentals of the faith are being followed fairly closely to what Muhammad dictated.
“Christianity has gone through the process of secularization; Islam has not,” Lewis said. “Islam is now in its early 15th century and a lot of processes that Christendom has gone through Islam has not gone through.”
Will it ever? Not if the most radically fundamentalist of Muslims have their way. In their minds, the greatest events are yet to come.
The End Times
Lewis paints a scary scenario of the impending Islamic end times, similar to the Christian apocalypse, as two trends gain prominence. First, Islamic militants like Osama bin Laden preach that Islam is in the final days of its jihad (holy war) against the infidels, which includes Christians and anyone else not proclaiming Islam as the only religion of truth.
“In this final phase, the world of the infidels was divided between the Soviet Union and the United States,” Lewis said. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Osama said, ‘We have destroyed the more dangerous of the two.’ He is saying that the next one, the U.S., will be easy.”
The second worrisome aspect of Islamic fundamentalism began in the 1980s as Iran gained power through revolution.
“It now looks to me like the Iranian Revolution is entering the Stalin or Napoleonic stage of ruthless dictatorship,” Lewis said.
Combine the fundamentalist thought and actions of bin Laden and Iran with the teachings on Islamic end times and you have a dangerous mix.
“There will be a struggle between good and evil and an anti-Christ type character will appear on the earth,” Lewis said. “Ahmadinejad, who is head of Iran, believes that time is now. From their point of view, the war has broken out and now they have to win it.”
He continued, “During the cold war both the United States and Soviet Union had weapons of mass destruction, which led to MAD (mutual assured destruction). Each knew if they used them then the other would, too. MAD was a deterrent with the Soviets.”
Not the case with radical Muslims.
“With these people it’s not a deterrent but an inducement,” Lewis said. “They believe there will be the final struggle, which they want. So [nuclear war] is more like exaltation.”
The final threat?
“I suppose it’s that Islam is taken over by radicals and that radical Islam takes over the West,” Lewis said. “They destroy each other and everything else gets contested by the Indians or the Chinese.”