“The Ambiguity of Islam”–Members of ISIS are Authentic Muslims

I commend to the readers of the Bellarmine Forum, a most excellent explication on the truth of Islam by one of the Holy See’s experts on the issue, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. His book, 111 Questions on Islam, is not only timely, but it is essential reading for anyone who not only wishes to understand the current resurgent Islam, but also for anyone who would comment on the current realities. This book review originally appeared several years ago in another publication, but the relevance of the issue calls us to republish it here. As Fr. Samir’s book makes clear, one cannot say that ISIS or other terrorist groups like it are not authentic Muslims, making the “ambiguity of Islam” one of its most deadly aspects.–JMD

Book Review: Samir, S.J., Samir Khalil. 111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir, S.J. on Islam and the West. San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2009) 

Since 9/11, it seems that our country has labored under the constant threat of a resurgent and violent Islam. Consider: March 9, 2010, federal agents arrested Pennsylvanian Colleen R. LaRose, aka “Jihad Jane,” for using the internet to recruit for and assist Muslim terror operations. Consider also the case of native Californian Adam Gadahn (formerly Adam Pearlman), who as a 17-year-old considered life “empty” and converted to Islam. Gadahn is now a senior operative of al Qaeda and on the FBI’s most wanted list. Outside of the Roman Pontiff’s Regensburg Address, there has been little substantive public discussion as to what the real issue is. The worldwide Muslim terror phenomenon is, at its root, theological. Yet, there are a great number of Muslims who are indeed peaceful and seek co-existence in the West. How are we to reconcile the obvious acts of terror committed by Muslims, on the one hand, and the assertions of peace by their co-religionists, on the other? What should be the individual Christian’s posture toward his Muslim neighbors? An Egyptian Jesuit has the answer. The Pope listens to him. So should we.

In the designs of Providence, there are no coincidences. Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., born in Egypt in 1933 and raised in the Arabic culture of the Middle East, is the right man for this time in history. 111 Questions on Islam, is the result of a series of interviews conducted with Fr. Samir by Italian journalists Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid. The book is conveniently divided into sections: “The Foundations of Islam,” “Can Islam Change?,” “The Challenge of Human Rights,” “Islam Among Us,” and “Islam and Christianity.” In addition, there are helpful appendices that trace the chronology of Islam and provide an analysis of Muslims in the European Union and Italy. In all, a scholarly and digestible book that is essential for anyone who cares about engaging one of the most pressing issues of our day.

To engage the Islamic culture, it is imperative to understand it. In Parts I-II, Fr. Samir explains this culture in all its complexity. At the heart of culture is cultus. The cultus of Islam is based upon several very simple principles that are outlined in the Qur’an. In Islamic thought, the Qur’an is considered “the tongue of God” sent upon the earth and completely of divine origin. Fr. Samir explains:

If the Qur’an was indeed “sent down” by Allah, there is no possibility of a critical or historical interpretation, not even for those aspects that are evidently related to the customs of a particular historical period and culture…In the history of Islam, at a certain point, it was decided that it was no longer possible to interpret the text. Hence, today, even the mere attempt to understand its meaning and what message it aims to communicate in a certain context is regarded as a desire to challenge it. And this is a true tragedy for the Islamic world: it is not clear who decided it, but everybody accepts this postulate. Since the eleventh century, the “door of interpretation” has been considered closed to individuals, and nobody can open it any longer (p.42-43).

Couple this aspect of Muslim culture with the conviction that Islam is a well-financed global project that is “at the same time religious, cultural, social, and political.”

However, it must be remembered that there are different schools of thought within Islam and no acknowledged final authority to pronounce on an authentic interpretation. Indeed, this may explain why there is no general condemnation among Muslims for the murderous acts of al Qaeda and others. Here, Fr. Samir has much to say: “We must honestly admit that there are two readings of the Qur’an and the sunna (Islamic traditions connected to Muhammad): one that opts for the verses that encourage tolerance toward other believers, and one that prefers the verses that encourage conflict. Both readings are legitimate” (p.69-70). This has real world results that are terrifying:

This means that when some fanatics kill children, women, and men in the name of pure and authentic Islam, or in the name of the Qur’an or of the Muslim tradition, nobody can tell them: “You are not true and authentic Muslims.” All they can say is: “Your reading of Islam is not ours.” And this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to the present day: violence is a part of it, although it is also possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, but it is also possible to choose violence (p.71).

In Parts III-V, Fr. Samir offers a realistic prescription for co-existence. He offers that Christians must create basic conditions necessary for dialogue on ethical and cultural issues for co-existence. The basis of dialogue with Muslims must be “the common human condition that implies openness to the Mystery, to the religious dimension of life” (p.202). Even here, Fr. Samir is realistic: “we must be aware that we may arrive at some crucial point where, after walking a part of the road together, the two paths separate again” (p.202). Likewise, Fr. Samir believes that Christians need to witness to their faith, and not be ashamed of it.

Finally, the most significant problem for the West in its relationship with the Muslim world is its embrace of the “dictatorship of relativism.” As a result, Muslims see the West as corrupt and decadent. Fr. Samir levels this indictment:

I believe that these aspects of Western culture must be addressed with far more criticism on the part of Christians because they are significant indicators of a society that removed God from its reference points and that considers religion as an ornament in a sort of “parlor room of values”: something interesting—perhaps also original—but irrelevant to one’s life (p. 211).

Truly, the only way to preserve our culture and to establish a lasting peace is a return and adherence to the truths of the Creed. The Creed that, along with the traditions of Greece and Rome, has created our civilization. Someone once quipped that Our Lord commanded us to love our neighbors and our enemies—probably because they are the same people! As Mother of all, the Church “regards the Muslims with esteem.” She commands us to do the same. Deus vult.

(Originally published as “Ecclesia cum Aestimatione Respicit” in Gilbert Magazine, Vol. 13, March 2010. Reproduced here with permission.)

This article, “The Ambiguity of Islam”–Members of ISIS are Authentic Muslims is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • Good review! I just put “111 Questions on Islam” on my “must-read” list.

  • Our culture tells us to esteem ourselves. The Bible tells us to esteem God and others, not ourselves. So how do I esteem a member of ISIS? Esteem = worth, value or opinion, judgment … I am able to reconcile this on the basis of they are of God’s creation and have immortal souls, Deus vult, … therefore, I can esteem them. However, I can only pray for those who believe in the violent aspect of that belief system, and have Faith in our Lord and pray the rosary that they will convert to the nonviolent belief. The Lord may allow this violence because “war is a punishment for sin”. Otherwise, the teaching of the church is challenging in this regard.

  • Darryl says:

    I would be interested in learning more about how you would make a case for “war is punishment for sin.”

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