The beginning of wisdom, the Psalmist told us millennia ago, is to fear the Lord. I would agree, but would also humbly add something: The beginning of wisdom is also to try to understand an alien tradition with an open mind – open in the sense of not lacking a faith and identity of your own, but having the sensibility to appreciate the faith of others.
Abraham Kuyper’s remarkable book, On Islam, deserves praise for being such a sensible endeavor by a Western Christian theologian to understand the world of Muslims. Written more than a century ago – at a time when terms such as “interfaith dialogue” or “intercultural exchange” were not even on the horizon – the book not only gives us Kuyper’s observations during a monumental journey from Istanbul to Morocco, but also his insights about Islam as a religion.
I read the book as a Muslim and found lots in it to keep in mind. For starters, Kuyper’s comments on the Prophet Muhammad were significant. There has been a trend in the West, since the early Middle Ages, to regard the prophet of Islam as an imposter, a charlatan who created a heretical cult simply to serve his own lust and greed. In On Islam, Kuyper unequivocally disagrees with this negative view. Looking at the birth of Islam, “this unprecedented turn in world history,” and the “unparalleled charisma” of its prophet, he writes:
That it was a deliberate act of deception is unthinkable. Charlatans live a lie; they cannot bring about more than a sham state of affairs for a brief time among a small circle of supporters. No doubt Muhammad was an ecstatic-visionary type, but the sudden flaring (and no less sudden dimming) of the visionary’s brilliance does not provide the power that rules the ages. There must have dwelt in the mind of Muhammad a spiritual power of the first order (p. 167).
Kuyper also gets what this “spiritual power” in Islam really was: a “zealous and resilient call for monotheism.” He realizes, in other words, that the birth of Islam in seventh-century Arabia was primarily a victory of monotheism over paganism – a victory which was preceded first by Judaism, then by Christianity.
Kuyper finds the common monotheism between Islam and Christianity so important that he even envisions an alliance between them against modern day paganism. “There is so much to gain,” he writes, “if we could mutually agree that the opposition between monotheism and polytheism is stronger than that between the Crescent and Cross” (p. 24.).
Besides monotheism – which bonds Judaism, Christianity and Islam – Kuyper also notes a commonality between the latter two: a high reverence for Jesus Christ. While Islam does not accept the divinity of Jesus, the Qur’an still praises him as Messiah, confirms his Virgin Birth, and even defines him as “the Word of God.” Kuyper appreciates this Islamic respect for Jesus, and contrasts it with the post-Christian mood he sees in Europe at his time. “Especially in Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” he observes, “one perceives how Muslims, in their own way and on many counts, value the sacred tradition of the origins of Christianity much more than the Modernist school in Europe” (p. 25).
On Islam is particularly valuable, because it is a Christian theologian’s informed take on Islam, where his own firm faith interplays with his fair observations about another faith.
But isn’t Islam a lethal threat to Christianity, with all the “jihad” campaigns militant Muslims launch on Christian nations? This is a relevant question today, as it was a relevant question in Kuyper’s time. And while giving an answer, Kuyper, in my view, again shows some intercultural wisdom: He understands that militancy among Muslims does not simply arise from their religious doctrines — which are admittedly less peaceful than those of Christianity, as Kuyper contrasts (p. 238) — but also from their political context. In Kuyper’s time, this context was European colonialism, which triggered “animosity against the Christian powers” with its own “harsh treatment of the Muslim” (p. 39).
Kuyper shares various examples of this “harsh treatment of the Muslim” and the reactions it provoked. In Algeria, he explains that the French tried to “dominate the whole domain of public life,” only to encounter “insurmountable objections, particularly from the Islamic population” (p. 269). In Egypt, he describes how British colonialism disrupted ordinary lives, as in the notorious Denshawai incident where British soldiers hunted the pigeons of poor villagers provoking a reaction which they brutally suppressed, only to provoke more resistance (p. 222-223). Kuyper defines the European colonizers in East Asia as “arrogant” as well, and only hopes that his fellow Christians can instill among Muslims a “sense of moral reverence” (p. 40).
In other words, Kuyper is not calling for a Western crusade against Islam, which would provoke only more jihad. He is rather calling for a respectful engagement with Islam, whose echoes I am happy to see today — such as the recent book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear by Rev. Dr. Matthew Kaemingk, a faculty member of Acton University.
Then there are interesting observations of Kuyper on the nature of Islam as a religion. As a Protestant, he likes the lack of a “priestly order,” which makes Islam based solely on “the personal confession of the Muslim” (p. 172). He admires “the duty of benevolence that is sacred to every Muslim,” and which creates “a sense of honesty and faithfulness” (p. 50). And he understands that Islam is a religion that is similar to Judaism – but which lacks the national character of Judaism and aspires for the world (p. 192).
Kuyper also has his criticisms of Islam. He writes about the second-class status that the classical Islamic law gave to Christians and Jews. “The social humiliation Christians were made to endure,” he notes, “was unbearable in the long run,” leading to mass conversion to Islam over the centuries. He can’t be doubted on this, and the second-class (dhimmi) status cannot be defended today. It is just worthwhile to note that this inferior position of Christians and Jews was already elevated to equal citizenship in the late Ottoman Empire that Kuyper visited in the early twentieth century, and what remained from it was a medium of religious pluralism.
Kuyper observed that pluralism in the social life of Istanbul – my city – where “every nation forms an independent entity under its own patriarchate or rabbinate,” and where “Turks rule but do not set the tone.” He also noted that, at the time, all Muslims in Istanbul made up “less than half of its population” (p. 44). Today, Muslims comprise some 99 percent of Istanbul’s population, and the reason is a century-long ethno-religious cleansing caused, not by Islam, but modern-day nationalism.
Kuyper also criticizes Islam’s “tightly restricting legalism” (p. 49). “The strict legalistic and regulated character of Islamic ritual,” he writes, “leads to little more than a shallow deism.” God remains all too transcendent in an “infinite distance,” and humans live “fatalistically foreordained lives” (p. 59). I just can add that these are real problems in mainstream Sunni Islam that also have been criticized by Islam’s own rationalist theologians or spiritualist mystics. (Personally, I compare the legalistic tendency in Islam to Phariseesism as criticized in the Gospels, and I call on my fellow Muslims to study the teachings of Jesus to develop a less literal and more gracious view of religious law.)
No observer is perfect, and some of Kuyper’s sweeping statements about Islam were not fully accurate. “Islam is a religion exclusively for men,” he writes, adding that “women have no share” (p. 213). Maybe this was a conclusion he derived from seeing only men in the mosques, which are really male-dominated places of worship. But women do have a place in Islam as dignified believers and individuals with certain rights – a place which modern-day “Islamic feminists” are trying to elevate.
By journeying the East, one gets “disabused of our chronic notion that our life is the ideal and that we can do no better than export it everywhere else.”
A modern-day reader may also see lots of “stereotyping” in Kuyper’s writings about “the Muslim” or “the Easterner.” His reference to “our superior culture” can further raise red flags. Today, just for these remarks, or for speaking of “Aryans” and “Semites,” one can imagine him begin booed out of a “progressive” American campus for being a “white supremacist.” But like everyone else, Kuyper must be understood in the context of his time – a context to which he apparently tried to bring nuance, fairness, and grace. A grace which made him write, for example, that by journeying the East, one gets “disabused of our chronic notion that our life is the ideal and that we can do no better than export it everywhere else” (p. 301).
Some of the observations of Kuyper that I found particularity interesting were on the cultural similarities between Muslims and Eastern Christians and Jews – in contrast to modern Westerners. For example, in Asia Minor, Kuyper observes that “women of Christian origin wear a veil just like their Muslim sisters.” He also describes the grim authority of men in the family, with examples such as this awkward dinner setting: “Even in Christian families, the husband eats alone at the table and is served by his wife, who sits down with the remaining female staff and the children only when the husband is finished” (p. 83).
From this observation, Kuyper concludes that Eastern Christians have adopted Islam’s patriarchal mores. Similarly, in Morocco, he observes that Oriental Jews “marry off their daughters at five or six years of age” – an absolutely shocking practice for us today. Kuyper again ties this to “the power of Islam,” which must have exerted itself on the Moroccan Jews (p. 259).
However, from a different perspective, it is also possible to see all this patriarchy as not necessarily Islamic, but merely Oriental and pre-modern. In other words one may see it, not as an inherent feature of Islam that Eastern Christians and Jews also adopted, but as Eastern practices that all three religious communities adopted. This distinction between culture and religion is a point very much emphasized by Muslim reformists today, who argue that Islam’s divine core is covered by layers of cultural baggage which can be criticized and forsaken.
All in all, On Islam is an educating and fascinating read. The Acton Institute and the Lexham Press deserve full praise for bringing it to the attention of the English reader. The text is highly readable, not just thanks to careful selection and meticulous translation from a larger body of the original Dutch text, but also thanks to very helpful footnotes that give context to Kuyper’s remarks, and even sometimes correct his factual mistakes. The attentive reader may learn new things from merely these footnotes, such as that the first “Department of Refugees” on Earth was created by the Ottoman Empire, which, in the late nineteenth century, had to host millions of desperate souls fleeing persecution – one of whom, I must say, was my great-grandfather, who was fleeing the Russian onslaught on the northern Caucasus.
On Islam is particularly valuable, because it is a Christian theologian’s informed take on Islam, where his own firm faith interplays with his fair observations about another faith. As the editor of the volume, James D. Bratt, puts it, Kuyper urges his fellow Christians to “throw off the mentality of the Crusades” and to see that “Islam has defects and virtues.” If more people in every religious tradition tried a similar engagement with other traditions, our troubled world could become a much better place.
You may purchase On Islam here.
Featured image used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0). Some changes made (cropping).