Robert Spencer on Muslim Beliefs and Sources of Extremism
WASHINGTON, D.C., 27 NOV. 2003 (ZENIT).
Catholics have a duty to be
informed about Islam and the challenges it poses to Christianity. So says
Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam who recently co-authored "Inside Islam:
A Guide for Catholics" (Ascension) with Daniel Ali, a convert from Islam.
Spencer shared with ZENIT why he and Ali are dedicated to informing
Christians about one of the most misunderstood and fastest growing faiths
in the world: They see it not only as the Church's chief rival for souls
but as a serious threat to the peace and well-being of the Church and the
Western world in general.
Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and author of two previous books on
Islam, is a board member of Ali's Christian Islamic Forum and an adjunct
fellow with the Free Congress Foundation.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
Spencer: Daniel and I wrote this book in order to help Catholics become
informed about Islam — to clear away common misunderstandings and
distortions and to give Catholics an accurate and complete introduction to
the Islamic faith and the challenges it poses to Christians.
Q: Why is it important for Catholics to understand Islam?
Spencer: Islam increasingly poses a challenge to the Church and every
Christian. By most accounts, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the
world. Even if he or she never meets a Muslim, much less proclaims the
Gospel to one, it is every Christian's duty to become informed about Islam
since that faith is the Church's chief and most energetic present-day
rival for souls.
Q: What is the theology of the Islamic jihad?
Spencer: Jihad literally means "struggle." It is a central duty of every
Muslim. Modern Muslim theologians have spoken of many things as jihads:
defending the faith from critics, supporting its growth and defense
financially, even migrating to non-Muslim lands for the purpose of
But violent jihad is a constant of Islamic history. Many passages of the
Koran and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed are used by radical Muslims
today to justify their actions and gain new recruits. No major Muslim
group has ever repudiated the doctrines of armed jihad. The theology of
jihad, which denies unbelievers equality of human rights and dignity, is
available today for anyone with the will and means to bring it to life.
In a lengthy and well-attested tradition, Mohammed delineates three
choices for nonbelievers — choices which are derived from Koran's Sura
9:29: "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold
that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor
acknowledge the religion of Truth, [even if they are] of the People of the
Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel
Says Mohammed: "Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. ... When you
meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of
action. If they respond to any one of these you also accept it and
withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to [accept] Islam;
if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting
against them. ... If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the
Jizya [the special tax on non-Muslims prescribed by Islamic law]. If they
agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse
to pay the tax, seek Allah's help and fight them."
Q: Can you describe for us some of the different schools within Islam, for
example, Sunni and Shiite, and how their interpretations of Islam differ?
Spencer: Sunnis comprise around 85% of Muslims worldwide. The word "Sunni"
is related to "Sunna," or tradition. Sunni Muslims follow doctrines and
practices derived from the Sunna of the Prophet — that is, the Hadith as
interpreted by Muslim scholars throughout history.
The Wahhabis, who have become famous lately for their role in Saudi Arabia
and global terrorism, are a Sunni subsect. Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab — he
lived from 1703 to 1792 — was a reformer. He wanted to rid Islam of
everything that developed after the first few centuries.
He stressed a literal reading of the Koran and Hadith that made the
Wahhabis a furious, violent sect that even made war against other Muslim
groups it considered heretical. The Wahhabis control Saudi Arabia today
and from there aggressively export Wahhabism around the world.
The second largest Muslim group is the Shiites. The word "Shia" is a short
for "Shiat Ali," or "the party of Ali." This is the largest non-Sunni
sect: the group of Muslims who believed that Ali, the husband of
Mohammed's daughter Fatima, was the Prophet's only rightful successor as
leader of the Muslim community.
Shiites have traditions and practices that are quite distinct from those
of the Sunnis. Notable among these is the belief that the Imams who
succeeded Ali in Mohammed's prophetic line inherited Mohammed's prophetic
spirit. Most Shiites believe that there were 12 such Imams, and that the
last one disappeared from the earth and will return as the Mahdi, a
Messianic figure, at the end of the age.
The Sufis are the mystical sect in Islam, although Shiite Islam also bears
strong marks of mystical influence. The Sufis stress love for Allah and
union with him in terms that often strongly resemble Christian mysticism.
They have been and still are ferociously persecuted as heretics in many
areas of the Islamic world.
Other notable sects include the Bahais of Iran, who have a presence in the
United States as well; the Kharijites of Oman; and the Alawites of Syria.
The larger Muslim groups often consider these sects to be heretics.
Q: When we talk of Islam, many think of the Middle East. What are the main
contrasts with the form of Islam as practiced in African and Asian
Spencer: While there are some differences in how Islam is practiced from
place to place, there is a relative uniformity among Sunni Muslims in
their understanding of the requirements of the faith as delineated by the
Koran and the Sunna, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed that are
second in authority to the Koran itself. Radical Muslims are found
everywhere Islam is found, from Nigeria to Indonesia — as well as in
Western Europe and the United States.
Q: Will the moderate elements within Islam be able to defeat the extremist
interpretations being promoted by some groups?
Spencer: I hope so, but it will be difficult. As the great ex-Muslim
scholar Ibn Warraq has noted, radical Islamic theology "was taken from the
Koran, the Hadith and Islamic tradition. ... We must take seriously what
the Islamists say to understand their motivation, [that] it is the
divinely ordained duty of all Muslims to fight — in the literal sense —
until man-made law has been replaced by God's law, the Shariah, and
Islamic law has conquered the entire world. ... For every text the liberal
Muslims produce, the mullahs will use dozens of counter-examples [that
are] exegetically, philosophically, historically far more legitimate."
Q: How do you see the current and future state of Christian-Muslim
relations? How have Pope John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council
influenced the relationship between the Church and Islam?
Spencer: Many believe that the Holy Father, by his kissing of the Koran,
and Vatican II have taught that all religions worship the one true God to
a greater or lesser degree, and that Muslims are included in the plan of
salvation and thus should not be evangelized. This is in fact not the
The Catechism, working from Vatican II's "Nostra Aetate," does say that,
"the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in
the first place among whom are the Muslims. These profess to hold the
faith of Abraham, and together with us adore one Merciful God, mankind's
judge in the last day."
This is a carefully worded statement. It does not actually say that
Muslims believe in Abraham's faith, but only that they profess to hold the
faith of Abraham.
Professing and possessing are two different things: Certainly there are
many more Christians who profess Christ than there are people who actually
live for him. Nowhere does the Catechism say that Muslims are not eligible
for the salvation that is in Christ, or that the Gospel should not be
preached to them.
A recent article published in La Civiltà Cattolica was most interesting.
Nothing is published in La Civiltà Cattolica without the approval of the
Vatican Secretariat of State — so the article probably corresponds to the
views of some very high placed Vatican officials, if not the ailing Pope
The Civiltà Cattolica piece represents the first indication that any
Catholic Church officials recognize the dimensions of the religious
conflict that jihadists are waging against Christians and others around
The article brushes aside decades of misleading historical revisionism
about the Muslim conquests, daring to point out that "in all the places
where Islam imposed itself by military force, which has few historical
parallels for its rapidity and breadth, Christianity, which had been
extraordinarily vigorous and rooted for centuries, practically disappeared
or was reduced to tiny islands in an endless Islamic sea."
Charity is essential; but it must not be confused with the temptation to
ignore or deny unpleasant truths. This Civiltà Cattolica article is a step
in the right direction. ZE03112725