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.