Chapter 12 -- Dr. Peter Kreeft’s Interpretation of Islam
By Rev. Bassam Michael Madany
Recently, I watched a debate on Islam between Robert Spencer and Professor Peter Kreeft that had taken place at the New Hampshire campus of Thomas More College on 4 November, 2010. Since the subject of Islam and the West remains quite relevant, I am writing this review to illustrate the inability, or unwillingness of some Western intellectuals to recognize the true nature of Islam, namely that it is much more than a religion!
Robert Spencer’s credentials in the study and reporting of Islam are well known. He also has detractors who are unwilling to accept the truth of his analyses. Peter Kreeft is a popular philosophy teacher at Boston College as well as outside the academic community. Here are excerpts from the debate as it was posted on Thomas More College website.[i]
“The authors came at the invitation of Thomas More College’s Edmund Campion Debate Society, which sponsors regular student debates on philosophical and theological issues—most recently the morality of the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the “just war” credentials of the American Revolution.
“On Nov. 4 the topic was “Is the Only Good Muslim a Bad Muslim?” Mr. Spencer came to argue that Islam as codified in the Qur'an and explicated by all authoritative sources aspires to subjugate and oppress ‘unbelievers’ and impose sharia law throughout the world; because sharia law is inimical to religious freedom and to human dignity, we as Catholics should hope that Muslims are not devout enough to advocate it, (as their own faith says they must), by either warlike or peaceful means.
“Dr. Kreeft came to offer his own perspective on the religion of Islam. In his latest book, Between Allah and Jesus (Nottingham, England: IVP Books, 2010), Prof. Kreeft uses the figure of ‘Isa, a devout Muslim studying at Boston College, to highlight the commonalities Kreeft sees between Islamic and Catholic piety, and point up all that we can learn from truly devout adherents of Islam—set in stark contrast to the post-modern, dissenting Catholicism widely accepted at secularized Catholic colleges. Through ‘Isa (whose name is the Arabic form of Jesus, accepted by Muslims as merely a prophet), Kreeft argues that terrorism, military jihad, and the aspiration to subjugate “unbelievers” such as Jews and Christians, are not necessarily germane to the religious lives of Muslims. Isa insists that such manifestations of Islam are perversions of its true spirit, as witch-burnings, inquisitions, and religious wars were distortions of Christian faith.
“Spencer agreed with Kreeft that since Islam is the faith of more than a billion people, he would also like to find a version of that religion which renounces religious oppression, the suppression and mistreatment of women, and the use of violence. ‘Having studied the source materials—the Qur’an, the authentic Hadiths accepted by all Muslims and the teachings of the most authoritative scholars across the Islamic world, I regret that I must say: Such an Islam does not exist. I wish it did. So does Dr. Kreeft. But we must not settle for wishful thinking. There are many peaceful Muslims who do not engage in violent jihad and who support religious freedom, but in doing so they are acting like Catholics who practice birth control or support legal abortion. ‘They are defying their religion, because they do not have the authority to reform it,’ Spencer said.”
This much are my excerpts from the textual account of the debate.
To begin with, I regret the wording of the topic that was debated by Dr. Kreeft and Mr. Spencer: “Is the Only Good Muslim a Bad Muslim”? It is rather confusing and sounds prejudicial; I would have much preferred a simpler topic such as: “Is the Good Muslim the one who no longer takes the Qur’an, and the authentic Hadiths, as normative for the here and now?”
I find myself in complete agreement with Robert Spencer’s understanding of Islam as a worldview that has combined religion, politics, and culture, in one indivisible entity. This has been the view of authorities on Islam like Philip Hitti, Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Bat Ye’or, Jacques Ellul, Daniel Pipes, Efraim Karsh, Fuad Ajami, Ibn Warraq, John Kelsay, and many others. Anyone who has studied the history of Islam would not hesitate to say that it spread primarily by conquest. In fact, Arabs are extremely fond of their Futuhat (Conquests) and point proudly to the fact that within one hundred years after the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., their Empire had spread eastward to the western parts of India, and westward all the way to the Iberian Peninsula. Following the conversion of the Turks to Islam in 10th century, they expanded Daru’l Islam, into the heartland of the Byzantine Empire, and eventually added the Balkans, and parts of Eastern and Central Europe, to their domain. It was during the 19th century that the retreat of Islam began. The Ottomans lost a good deal of their territories in Eastern Europe, and with the British conquest of Islamic-dominated India, the military Futuhat came to an end.
Having studied the history of Islam from its primary sources, and focusing lately on the writings of Arab reformist intellectuals, I find Dr. Kreeft’s view of Islam flawed. He seems to be unacquainted with the tremendous changes that have occurred in the Islamic world since the end of Western colonialism. The many articles and essays of reformist and liberal Arab intellectuals, that have been available on the Internet and elsewhere are exhibiting critical views of Islam and appraising it more honestly than most of its defenders. For instance, recently a Moroccan writer did not hesitate to declare that the Qur’an was only relevant to Muhammad and the early days Islam; but for the present, its teachings are mostly irrelevant. Another intellectual Arab offered a reformist hermeneutical theory that would regard as normative only the Meccan Surahs (610-620), while considering those parts of the Medinan Surahs (622-632), known as “Ayat al-Sayf” (The Sword verses) as no longer applicable to our globalized world!
Peter Kreeft does not mention any such critical insights of Arab intellectuals. I don’t deny that he may have done much reading in Islamic source material. He has an understanding of Sufism and has praise for it. He interacts with many Muslim students at Boston College. But I would venture that such relationships while no doubt pleasant and informative, are not representative of the beliefs of world-wide Islam as a whole. Building an opinion of Islam from such a limited data base fails to offer a truer portrait of Islamic belief, whether ancient, or contemporary. Muslim students in an American academic community also may have learned some Western tolerance and may not want to appear as intolerant or radical as so many Muslims elsewhere in the world.
An attitude that came across in the debate from Dr. Kreeft irritated my sense of propriety to some degree. Often in sparring with Robert Spencer, Dr. Kreeft’s jovial manner of expression and disarming remarks lent a less than serious tone to the gravity of the subject at hand. The vast differences in world view and belief of Western Catholic Christians and Muslims wasn’t given the seriousness it deserved.
Dr. Kreeft attempted to balance Catholic and Islamic centers of authority. While it is true that there is no religious structure in Islam that compares with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church as centered in the Pope and the College of Cardinals, Islam is not lacking authoritative centers either. In the ninth century A. D., during the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, four schools for the interpretation of Islamic Shari’ah came into existence among Sunni Muslims. The University-Mosque of Al-Azhar in Cairo, a one thousand-year institution, has been highly regarded as a major source of orthodox Sunni jurisprudence. As for the Shi’a Muslims, they have their Ayatollahs and Mullahs who expound matters of faith and practice for the believers.
Regarding the issue of whether Christian and Muslims worshipped the same God, Kreeft had a definite opinion. With a triumphant smile on his face, he reached for the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and read Article 841.[ii] This official doctrinal source clearly states: “Muslims … profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.” Peter Kreeft the philosopher chose to refer to a redacted Catholic work promulgated in 1992, which was a fruit of the Second Vatican Council and its policy of Aggiornamento (renewal and modernization). The Roman Catholic Church by publishing this doctrinal document endeavored to bring the faith up-to-date, and make it relevant in the post-WWII era. And in the process made statements about God and Allah that are seriously wanting. And this is a problem for those of us who want to remain true to the scriptural witness. The Protestant way of discussing the issue of God and His nature and worship starts with the Bible as determinative in all matters. Thus biblical theology always trumps philosophical analysis. Said succinctly and simply put, God and Allah are not the same. Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.
Catholic theology was not always thus. Having studied in French Catholic schools during my formative years in Syria, I do not recall any teacher or priest who gave the impression that Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. Eastern Christians throughout the Middle East tenaciously cling to their respective traditions, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Nestorians, or Protestant. They hear the Islamic Azan (Call to Prayer) intoned from the Minarets of mosques. The Muslim hearing this daily intonation is legitimating in his mind the superiority of Allah to all other gods, and the idea that Muhammad is his final prophet. This is anathema to true Christian believers. Eastern Christians in years past, including Catholics, knew instinctively that the “Allah” (the first word in the Azan,) is not the same as the ever-blessed one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What has been slowly happening, however, in certain areas of Christendom today is that syncretism is creeping into too many areas of Christian witness.
My rejection of the thesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is based on Scripture. In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth, Chapter 8, he set forth the following principle about how Christians must regard the deities of non-Christian faiths.
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 8:1-6 (ESV)
Paul’s teaching is clear; non-Christians believe in many “gods” and many “lords;” however, these “gods” and “lords” don’t possess real existence. It is true that Muslims claim to worship one god, and claim he is the same as the Christian’s God. But it must be made clear that their one god Allah is not the same as the Christian Triune God, revealed in Scripture. Paul’s words “yet for us,” as far as Christians are concerned is a verity. There “is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ…” This Pauline formula can be grasped by the learned and unlearned, and is utterly different from this complicated verbiage of the CCC: “Muslims … profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”
It is extremely important to realize that once a Christian accepts the concept of the ‘three Abrahamic faiths,’ he is giving credence to a myth that allows Muslims to claim a lineage to the Biblical Abraham. In fact, there is no reliable historical or archeological ground for asserting, as Muslims do, that Abraham had gone to Mecca with Ishmael, or that the latter is the father of the Arabs. Prior to Islam coming on the scene, the Northern Arabs had no written language, and their culture was exclusively an oral one. The Biblical record relates the journeys of Abraham from southern Mesopotamia, to the land of Haran (in present-day Syria); from there he continued his journey to the south and lived as a nomad in Hebron. Due to famine in the land of Canaan, Abraham went down to Egypt, but he eventually returned to the land of Promise.
The Book of Genesis relates the life of the Patriarch in eleven long chapters 12-25. He died at the age of 175, and his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in Hebron. Ishmael died at the age of 137 according to Genesis 25:17; the biblical text tells us that his children “settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria.” An Abrahamic connection to Islam, while firmly believed by Muslims, is bogus to biblical Christians. The likelihood is that Muhammad was influenced by the various interpretations of Christianity extant in the world he inhabited and he picked and chose, and fancifully elaborated on, parts of the story that fit what he wanted to convey in his newly minted “religion.” It is a stretch for Catholics like Kreeft, or other Christians, to see truly meaningful similarities between Christianity and Islam simply on the idea that they both have something to say about Abraham.
Near the end of the debate, Dr. Kreeft propounded a highly speculative theory of “revelation” that concedes a rather vague legitimacy to Muhammad’s claim. “Private revelations have happened all through Christian history, and the devil loves to get in there and distort the message, to filter it through human fallenness and fill it with flaws. Perhaps that is what happened—that God really did have a message He intended Muhammad to transmit to the Arabs, and a lot of it got through, but it was admixed with other things, that were purely human and even sinful. I don’t claim to know. But large elements of Islam are identical with Judaism and Christianity—because that’s where Mohammad got them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, all three of us worship the same God.” Dr. Kreeft’s claim that “large elements of Islam are identical with Judaism and Christianity” is highly speculative, and cannot not substantiated by a serious study of the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sirat Muhammad (Life of the Prophet). Had he engaged in reading these authoritative documents, he would have discovered that they are utterly different. Unfortunately, his attempt to settle the matter by referring to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is unconvincing,
This five-part scholarly work sums up the discussion with these words:
“Based upon the Scriptural data and the historical evidence the only logical and consistent answer that can be given is that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. These Gods have acted and spoken in contradiction. It is these opposites, in command, in statement, and in nature that are grounds for rejecting the proposal that we worship the same God. They are not one and the same Person or Divinity. “A” cannot be “non-A.” Islam’s Allah is not the same as Christianity’s Allah. They are not the same God!
“Muslims may believe that they worship the same God. However the Quran’s description of Allah’s attributes and characteristics are distinct and different from the Bible’s description of God. While both refer to a One All-Powerful Creator-God their portrayals and characterizations of that God contradict each other.”
[ii] 841 The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."[