What is Islam? Part 1

Islam has strode across the earth like a force of nature for the last fourteen centuries.  It stormed out of one of the most barren places on earth, the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, during the seventh century and took what had been one of the richest and most civilized areas of the planet (Syria, Mesopotamia, and North Africa) from what remained of the Roman Empire and cut the Mediterranean Sea, the great highway of the classical world since the days of Homer and the first Greek colonies some 1,300 years before, in two; cutting the northern and western shores from the eastern and southern shores in a stark division that would last to the age of Napoleon and culturally and religiously continues into our own day.  The armies of Islam also turned east and removed the Sassanian Persian Empire which had stood for four centuries and was the successor state of the more ancient realm established by Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes.  Over the succeeding centuries the advance of Islam caused the vast majority of Christians from the Tigris to the Straits of Gibraltar on the southern shore of the Mediterranean to apostasize  while it completely swamped the old Zoroastrian religion of Iran and drove its remaining adherents underground far from their ancient homeland.  In short Islam utterly changed the face of the world, and in a very short period of time from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the eighth century.  But what is Islam?

Islam has, at its root and core, several commonalities with the Catholic understanding of the universe and it is important to understand these things in order to understand where Islam came from, why it has been so successful, and what its destiny may be.  There are of course stark divisions as well that have led to the permanent divide between the Catholic and the Islamic worldview down through the centuries.  But I must say that the commonalities are intriguing though, in this age of political correctness, they are often either exaggerated or completely ignored.  So let us start with Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with non Christian religions and examine its short section on Islam:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

The first thing I would like to tackle is the short second paragraph.  The attitude of ‘forgetfulness’ toward the history of conflict between the Church and Islam seems vastly out of place in our own day and time, especially in the era that has followed the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.  But we must remember that this document was composed in the early 1960s: fifteen years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran that started the current incarnation of Islamic militancy which is at the moment ripping the Middle East to shreds and having follow on effects throughout the globe.  That age was an age of (misplaced) optimism regarding the human condition.  Islam was viewed as a spent political force not only in the West, but in large swathes of the Middle East as well since everything seemed to be subsumed into the then current global Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.  There was optimism among the hierarchy of the Church that the world seemed to be changing at such a rapid pace that this age old religio-political conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds that had animated the life of Europe and the Middle East from the seventh to the nineteenth century might simply disappear.  Subsequent history shows this belief to have been mistaken.

Now to return to the first paragraph.  It’s declarations are obviously true.  I would only add to it that the belief in the immortality of the human soul is also common between the Faith of the Catholic Church and the Islam.  So what is the source of these commonalities?  Islam emerged in a Catholic milieu.  The Catholic Church was the dominant force in the Middle East, North Africa and southern and western Europe at the dawn of the seventh century.  It is hard for us who live in the twenty first century to conceive of a Catholic Middle East, but in those days it was taken for granted.  And it was also true that by the beginning of the seventh century the Church had spread out of the Roman Empire and far beyond the Mediterranean basin.  The only outside worldly opposition came from the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Persian Empire but even there were a sizable Christian presence existed, heretical and schismatic though it was, and these Christians were sending missionaries along the Silk Road as far east as China.  The world seemed to be opening itself up to the Catholic Church, but there were dark clouds as well.

The Church was plagued by division, schism, and heresy.  They had in fact dogged it since the Apostolic age but exploded into a theological ferment once Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.  They all revolved around the nature of the person of Jesus Christ.  These seem like obscure controversies today, and are often portrayed by militant atheistic historians who have dominated the field since the so called ‘Enlightenment’ as three centuries of arguing over nothing, a joke.  But they were not a joke.  They were deadly serious.  If one is in error concerning the nature of Jesus Christ then one is in error concerning the nature of God, the nature of his relationship with Himself and with the universe that He created, the nature and destiny of man and of his relationship with God.

These controversies and errors were rife in the Eastern Roman Empire and had spread out beyond its borders.  They had defined cultural and religious life in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia for three centuries by the time that Islam came into being and would have been well known along the caravan trails of Arabia down as far as the oasis towns of Yathrib (Medina) and Mecca.  This was the milieu that Islam came out of.  And it explains partly where these commonalities that Nostra Aetate speaks of have their origin.  In the next part I will take a closer look at this Catholic milieu from which Islam emerged and at its founder Muhammad.

Pray the Rosary, pray the Joyful Mysteries on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

Saint John of Damascus

December 4 is the Feast Day in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church of the man generally considered to be the last of the Fathers of the Church: Saint John Damascene.  John of Damascus was born in the year 676 and died in 754; his life spanned one of the great hinge points in the history of the world.  The classical world of Mediterranean unity that had sprung up with the poems of Homer thirteen centuries before, continued and flourished with the expansion of Greek culture, colonization, and the might of the Roman Empire which built the highways on which the Church traveled in its first great expansion was now dead.  Islam had come out of the desert four decades before John of Damascus’ birth and during his lifetime it split the Mediterranean in two, a rupture that persists to this day many long centuries later.

Saint John Damascene was a great opponent of Leo the Isaurian’s iconoclast heresy and a strong defender of the veneration of holy images but what earned him the title of last Father of the Church was his compilation of the Orthodox Faith.  In it he catalogues and summarizes the works of the Fathers and the decisions of all of the Councils of the first theologically turbulent seven centuries of the Church’s existence.  It is a marvelous summary of Christian antiquity, an era that was then at its end, and it helped to set the foundation for the maintenance of the Church in the medieval age that was at that moment being born.  Interestingly Saint John Damascene seems to regard Islam as another of the Christian heresies, a claim echoed in the twentieth century by Hilaire Belloc in The Great Heresies (I don’t receive a dime from Amazon, but this book is seriously worth reading by anyone interested in confronting the enemies of the Catholic Church).  There is much evidence I think to support the supposition that, at its beginning at least, Islam was at least greatly influenced by the anti-Trinitarian heresies that had so troubled the Greek East for the three centuries before its birth.  I will do a post on that subject at some other time.

John Damascene was a figure of some note in the court of the Ummayad caliphs in Damascus, holding the position of minister of finance for a time.  He was the last great figure of the Greek East to have gained an influence over the whole Church, East and West, and his life marked the end of an era in the history of the Church and the world.  The land of his birth is the now tortured country of Syria.  Saint John Damascene pray for us and for your native land, that its people return to the True Faith of the fathers of the fathers of their fathers.

Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, for its liberty and its salvation and the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome, and for the conversion of the Muslim people.