Friday, July 22, 2005

Explosions in Egypt: What is Going On from a Religious Perspective?

Seven explosions have been set off at an Egyptian resort, killing at least 36 people and injuring 100 more. What is going on? What lay behind this global fit of insanity?

I have pointed out that the war on terrorism is not in a war on Islam. Muslims the world over are as victimized and repulsed by the spasm of violence and bloodshed that his been unleashed by radicals acting in the name of their religion as the rest of the world. Islamofascists like Osama bin Laden are not friends of the Islamic faith. They are perverters of it.

But it's also true that there are components of Muslim belief that lend themselves peculiarly to the kinds of radicalism we are seeing right now. I want to make particular mention of three of them here.

For one thing, Islam is intensely legalistic. In contrast with the Judeo-Christian tradition from which it sprang, Islam doesn't believe in salvation by grace. Salvation by grace (or, by God's charity), a fundamental tenet of both Judaism and Christianity, holds that we cannot earn a place in God's kingdom. That is a gift God grants to those with faith in Him. Of Abraham, the father of all three faiths, for example, the Old Testament book of Genesis says (and the New Testament book of Romans reiterates) that he "believed," that is, entrusted himself to God, "and God reckoned it to him as righteousness." God counted Abraham right with Himself not because Abraham adhered to a set of rules, but because he believed in God.

This theme is carried through into the New Testament. The most famous passage there finds Jesus telling a teacher of Jewish law that God so loved the human race that He gave His Son--Jesus--so that all who believes in Him won't perish, but live with God forever. (John 3:16)

Islam is a religion of rigid rules. They don't commend violence as a means of salvation, to be sure. But whenever salvation becomes a product of performance, its adherents or would-be adherents become potentially susceptible to the legalistic prodding of persuasive imams who tell them, "Do this and a special place in heaven is yours." It's been widely reported that the September 11 hijackers were promised special places in heaven with many subserviet wives if they would kill.

Islam also puts much stock in God revealing Himself to single individuals. Both Judaism and Christianity are intensely community-oriented faiths. While the Biblical tradition finds God revealing Himself to individuals, such revelations are always to be confirmed by the community of believers. Absent that confirmation and the affirmation of the Biblical witness, claims that one has received some revelation from God is suspect.

Islam, by contrast, is, like Mormonism, the result of what's thought to be God's self-disclosure to a single individual. In Islam's case, the entire faith is thought to have been revealed whole cloth only to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, over a twenty-three year period. The Bible, by contrast, has many human authors inspired by God, the inspiration of whom over a period of centuries has been continuously tested and affirmed by the Jewish and Christian communities. With Islam's "lone ranger" tradition in its background, it has been susceptible to firebrand religionists who claim that they too, have a particular individual revelation of God's will, even ones that advocate cowardly violence. This is why we hear of individual firebrand imams issuing edicts of war and condemnation against those with whom they disagree.

Yet another tenet of conventional Islam that gets misused by the Islamofascists stems from the Muslim view of prayer to and communion with God. In the Christian faith, God accepts our inarticulate sighs, even when we have no idea what to pray, as legitimate prayer. (Romans 8:26-29) But in Islam, only prayer during its five commanded daily times of prayer which is offered with the exact words given in the Koran--and only in Arabic--is acceptable to Allah. (What a contrast to the God we Christians meet through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, we learn that God is big enough and compassionate enough to reach down to us and hear us in our languages, even when our words and our minds are jumbled.)

This Muslim teaching works against the religion's adherents integrating with larger communities. And this, in turn, is one reason that many Muslim communities in Europe have become almost countries within countries, breeding grounds for self-righteous religious superiority, resentments, hatred, and the teaching of hate.

The violence perpretrated by Christians against Muslims in the Balkans in recent years, the sectarian violence between Christian bodies that long afflicted Northern Ireland, and the reprehensible history of the Crusades are just a few examples demonstrating that Christianity, as much as any religion, can be perverted and turned into a tool of violence by misinformed or malevolent people.

And Islam in its pure forms does not condone or in any way justify the horrors perpetreated by terrorists today.

But these three factors--legalism, the Islamic view of God's self-disclosure, and the penchant toward isolation--have played a part in making Islam a hotbed for radicalization.

When one adds legitimate reasons for Islamic anger with the democratic West to these illegitimate perversions of Islam, one finds an explosive formula for the creation of radicalism.

[For posts on related subjects, click below:

Can Democracy Take Root in the Muslim World? (August, 2004)

My Take on 'Imperial Hubris' (November, 2004)

Reactions to Newsweek Koran Story (May, 2005)

Chilling Incident (September, 2004)

Christmas, Eid, and Holiday Stamps (November, 2004)

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1 (December, 2004)]


Mark Congdon said...


There's one characteristic of Islam that you left off your list. It's one that is shared by other religions, even to some degree Christianity, but is more pronounced in Islam, and is used by the rogue imams you speak of to lend themselves credence.

I am speaking of the inconsistency, even directly contradictory statements, in the Qur'an.

This also brings into question your statement that Islam doesn't "commend violence as a means to salvation". It all depends on what parts of the Qur'an you pay attention to. Some statements in the Qur'an give very specific instructions to convert the world through violence, and destroy the infidels who don't believe.

The Qur'an is also clear that those who die in the process of destroying the infidels will be given direct entrance to heaven. In a religion where entrance to heaven, even for the most holy, is otherwise very uncertain, martyrdom is therefore a very attractive option. It is the only way to be certain of one's eternal destiny.

So, even though one is not required to be a militant to be a true Muslim, being a militant is not really a distortion of Islam... just an alternate interpretation of a very confusing holy book.

Mark C.

Mark Daniels said...

You make an interesting point, Mark, and I appreciate your taking the time to write.

Umm Zaid said...


A lot of what you said doesn't ring true, but then again, that's what I expect when I read items by non-Muslims about Islam (well meaning or not)... or non Jews about Judaism. But this is so blatantly false I have to comment:

///But in Islam, only prayer during its five commanded daily times of prayer which is offered with the exact words given in the Koran--and only in Arabic--is acceptable to Allah.///

This is just out and out not true. I hope you only wrote that out of ignorance and not an attempt to misguide your readers about Islam (sorry, it's hard to tell and I don't know you or your blog; I find it appalling that this post was linked by someone who calls herself a Muslim, however).

We have two main types of prayer in Islam. The first is salah which is the five times daily Arabic ritual prayer you mention above; it's not unlike the three times daily davening in Hebrew that Jews do.

The second type is du'a or supplication. It can be done anywhere, anytime, and in any language -- in the heart / mind or outloud or in writing or whatever.

This is elementary knowledge of Islam.

As is the fact that in Islam, salvation is dependent on the Grace and Mercy of God, no matter how much non Muslims try to distort it into something else...