Results tagged “authority” from Reformation21 Blog

Assessing Religious Militancy


We are all distressingly familiar with debates over the nature of Islam. Is it a "religion of peace," or is it a religion of war and conquest? Is it essentially repressive and militant, or are there traditions and movements within Islam that can effectively counter these tendencies? And even if it was once a bad actor, can Islam not undergo a transformation to bring it in line with modern views of freedom, tolerance, and mutual respect?

These debates raise another, more fundamental question: When can a religious system be blamed for the behavior of its adherents? Can we determine whether Islamic teaching itself is the cause of militant behavior and oppressive behavior committed by its adherents, or are their actions a distortion of its teachings? How do we speak conclusively about what Islam or any religion teaches or practices when there are controversies, schools of thought, and disagreements over the meaning and practices of that religion going back centuries?

To bring conceptual clarity to this debate, I propose the following: To determine what a religion teaches, and thus what we can expect at least a significant percentage of its adherents will do, the first step is to determine its source or sources of doctrinal and practical authority. Secondly, one determines whether a given doctrine or practice is a plausible, or legitimate interpretation based upon that authority. From the standpoint of public policy toward a given religion, especially regarding public safety and immigration (which is why we debate the meaning of Islam in the first place), the ability to predict whether adherents will likely act on a given doctrine should be the policy question regarding the "nature" or "essence" of a religion, not whether "all," or even a majority hold to or practice it.

The significance of this distinction cannot be overemphasized. As Christians are well aware, it can be difficult to find specific doctrines or practices that all adherents of a world religion subscribe to unequivocally and without exception, and Islam is no different. However, to identify beliefs and practice on the basis of the received authority of that religion, and doctrines or practices held by a significant percentage of those identifying with a religion over time on the basis of that authority, is not especially problematic. The study of religions would be impossible without the ability to distinguish a range of beliefs and practices that are legitimately inferred from its source(s) of authority from those which may develop over time, but lack such authority.

What then are the sources of authority in Islam? Like Christianity, it has an authoritative revelation, the Qur'an, which was revealed by Allah to his prophet, Muhammad, and is itself eternal and unchanging. Its directives and teachings are thus binding on all Muslims. Again like Christianity, it has an authoritative founder, Muhammad. Among the vast majority of practicing Muslims, there is little or no question as to whether, if Muhammad commanded or engaged in a certain activity, a Muslim should follow it, since not just his revelations, but also his life, is divinely inspired (Q 33:21). So if it is certain that Muhammad engaged in an activity, it is morally permissible for a Muslim to engage in it. (One exception: Muhammad was allowed to have over 4 wives.)

Thus, for a given doctrine or practice associated with Islam, to determine whether it is legitimate or plausible to be believed or followed, one may apply a fairly straightforward test:

The Founding criterion: The doctrine or practice is taught in the Qur'an, or taught or practiced by Muhammad in the hadith, the "narratives" of Muhammad's sayings and actions. Of the two, this one is clearly the more significant.

The Tradition criterion: The doctrine or practice has been taught or observed throughout the history of the religion, especially by its earliest adherents.

If we have the Founding criterion, why do we need the second, the Tradition criterion? It is certainly true that for many Muslims, the first will likely settle the issue. But the second is a potent clarification and reinforcement of the original revelation and actions of Muhammad. The knowledge that a specific practice has been followed since the time of Muhammad carries enormous persuasive force for any Muslim.

This approach to the question of what Islam teaches helps resolve a common mystery, and removes a common misunderstanding. The mystery is how a person who has been a "moderate" or nominal Muslim could become radicalized. Typically, we look for external factors, such as chronic unemployment, social alienation, or criminality. But in many cases, these factors appear to play a negligible role. Some of the major terrorist acts committed since 9/11 have involved Muslims who at one point were well-assimilated, attended high school and college, and were gainfully employed, such as Rizwan Farook (Orlando shooting), Nidal Hassan (Ft. Hood shooting), or the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing), as well as many of the 4,500 Muslims residing in Western countries who joined ISIS.1 Moreover, if non-religious, sociological factors were enough to drive a person to terrorism and militancy, why are there not more Buddhist or Mormon terrorists? Why are there no non-state Christian or Hindu armies conquering cities and beheading those who resist? However, if militancy is a legitimate or plausible interpretation of the Prophet's teaching and practices, there is a perfectly good explanation as to why they behaved as they did: It is a legitimate interpretation of the founding and tradition of Islam.

A common misunderstanding, and indeed a highly dangerous one, is that we merely need to encourage Muslims to adopt a modern understanding of their religion, and the militancy will dissipate over time, just as it supposedly has with Christians, who once displayed the same barbaric tendencies.2 (This explanation was given to me by the academic dean of a major Texan university, viz., Christianity isn't militant only because no one really believes it anymore.) But what is a "modern understanding"? Essentially, it is a recognition of an authority higher than the Founding - the scientific method, "reason," "experience," so-called Enlightenment values, or the deliverances of modern critical methods which would demonstrate that the Qur'an, like the Bible, is merely a human construct. But this is precisely the problem. A person's religion is his ultimate source of knowledge, wisdom, and authority. The modern (really, postmodern) West is essentially asking Muslims to give up their religion in favor of its own. And a modern understanding conflicts not only with the Founding, but with the far deeper and longer, and thus more authoritative Tradition criterion.

Let us now turn to the question of Islamic "militancy," which I will use as shorthand for military conquest in the name of Islam and the subjugation of non-believers.

The Founding criterion asks whether a given doctrine or practice is taught and practiced by the founder in the authoritative texts. The most frequently cited verse in the Qur'an supporting jihad, or holy war, is 9:29 "Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and his apostle nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth (even if they are) of the people of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued." But this is certainly not the only verse. There is also 9:5, "... fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) ..."; and 47:4, "Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks, at length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them)." Conquest in the name of Islam is also supported throughout the hadith. For example, "Allah's Apostle said, 'I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah'. And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla [prayer facing toward Mecca] and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally" (Sahih Bukhari 1:387). Notice the next citation combines both the Founding and the Tradition criteria: "When the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him... He would say: 'Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war...'" (Sahih Muslim 4294).

The hadith confirm that Muhammad led armies, arguably in defense of his rule in Medina, and eventually conquered Mecca, his hometown. On his deathbed, Muhammad ordered the expulsion of Jews and Christians from Arabia, "Two faiths will not live together in the land of the Arabs." He commanded all Muslims "to fight all men until they say 'There is no god but Allah'." He ordered the execution of captured opponents whom he considered traitors, most notably 600 Jews in Medina, and distributed women and children as slaves to his soldiers. We also know from Islamic history that the Rashidun, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, as well as subsequent dynasties conquered vast territories in the name of Islam. Successive victories eventually included the conquest of the Levant, North Africa, the Byzantine Empire, and Spain. But for decisive losses at Tours (732) and Vienna (1683), Europe itself might have been conquered by the armies of the Prophet. Thus, by both the Founding and the Tradition criteria, militancy has been practiced from the beginning, and is perfectly legitimate for any Muslim to engage in. To do otherwise would be to reject the Prophet's example, as well as to repudiate the first centuries of Islam's history, beginning with the earliest adherents who knew him personally.

Should someone ask whether Christian doctrine and practice are compatible with militancy on the Founding criterion, and even on the Tradition criterion, things look markedly different. There are indeed historic instances of forced conversions (Charlemagne's war against the Saxons), and religiously-motivated genocide (the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the first Crusade, as well as various incidents of so-called Christian mobs and armies committing genocide against Jewish communities). But there is nothing resembling this in the life or teachings of Jesus, nor in the lives or teachings of the Apostles as contained in the New Testament (the Founding criterion). None of them led armies. None advocated forced conversions. The use of coercive state power to enforce Christian doctrine would have to wait several hundred years to the time of Constantine.

Thus, even if it is debatable whether Islam itself is militant, depending, of course, on how it is defined, it is certainly not illegitimate or implausible to consider it such, and to raise serious questions as to whether it can ever be reformed.


1. For a much fuller treatment of this question, see Ibn Warraq, "The Root Cause Fallacy," in The Islam in Islamism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology, Kindle ed., (London: New English Review Press, 2017), loc. 532f.

2. Those defending the possibility of a moderate Islam would do well to study recent German analysis of this question. Ahmad Mansour, an "Arab Israeli" residing in Germany, explains in detail not only what it will require to prevent growing radicalization among Muslim youth, but also how it will require massive state intervention. See "Prävention und Deradikalisierung," in Generation Allah: Warum wir im Kampf gegen religiösen Extremismus umdenken müssen, Kindle ed., (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2015), loc. 2309-3130. Hamed Abdel-Samad, a former Muslim and son of an Egyptian Imam, believes that Islam "as a system" simply cannot be separated from its militant heritage (see Ist der Islam noch zu retten? (Munich: Droemer, 2017), p. 298. He now requires a bodyguard while traveling in Muslim neighborhoods in Berlin, a depressing irony.

Nicholas K. Meriwether is Professor of Philosophy at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

"Respect the Authorities": introduction

It was recently my privilege to have published a new book with the title, Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness. The fundamental premise of the work is that the church needs to recover its pilgrim identity, and from that work out its pilgrim activity, cultivating simultaneously a holy separation from and a holy engagement with the world around us. In the book, I try to offer not only a way of understanding that identity and activity, but also to offer ten pilgrim principles for kingdom life in a fallen world. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it is meant to be a relevant and enduring one.

The seventh chapter is entitled, "Respect the Authorities." It seems particularly pertinent in the light of recent events. With the permission of the publishers, I am going to reproduce, over the next few days, that chapter. The outline is the same as for each such chapter: a brief introduction, an assessment of the scriptural framework, a section of summary thoughts, and a series of specific counsels. Please bear in mind that the chapter is slightly out of context as given here. Other chapters in the book also bring appropriate counsels for the present time - chapters that help us to understand the environment, know the enemy, fight the battles, pursue the mission, relieve the suffering, appreciate the beauty, anticipate the destiny, cultivate the identity, and serve the King. If you are interested in more, you can get the book or or Westminster Bookstore, or direct from the publisher. If what follows is helpful, I shall be grateful. Herewith the introduction ...

There are many common misconceptions about the role and priorities of the Lord Jesus Christ's church. Many of those misconceptions arise from a failure to reckon with the identity of the church, not least in its relation to the world. Some people seem to labor under the misapprehension that the church is, or ought to be, a political force, a social force, or an economic force. Listen to some, and you might even imagine that she is a deliberately subversive, if not outrightly a rebel, force. I would go so far as to contend that if we see the church simply or merely as a moral force, we are again falling short of our calling.

All this is to put the church in entirely the wrong sphere, to assess her on entirely the wrong plane. To look for such priorities in the life of the church of Christ is to seek for oranges on an apple tree. The church, by divine design and intention, is a spiritual force, a gospel organism. Her involvement in and impact upon the world socially, politically, and economically may not be insignificant, but it will be substantially incidental. The church does not exist to have a political life or role.

By this I mean that when the church pursues her mission and fights her battles in this world, the specific intention is that sinners will be saved, in the fullest sense of the word: brought into the kingdom of God and trained up in the kingdom of God. What is the effect when that happens? Well, for example, the drunkard ceases to empty his glass. The thieves stop lifting their goods. The fanatics stop idolizing the people and things of the world, as it loses its sparkle in their eyes. The philanderers leave their bits on the side. The pornography consumers clean up their acts. The addicts begin to break their addictions. The lazy begin to work. The distant spouses begin to speak and to love one another. The liars begin to tell the truth. The parent begins to care for the child. The student begins to heed the teacher. The cheat begins to live with integrity.

Nothing is more practical in its impact than salvation! Such things as these are happening all the time on a small numerical scale in the lives of repenting, believing, saved sinners in countless countries on every continent. Suppose that were to happen on a larger scale. What would be its effect?

To take one example, consider the consequences of a revival of religion that took place in Ireland in the nineteenth century through God's blessing on the preaching of W. P. Nicholson. As he declared the gospel in the dockyards of Belfast, men's hearts were touched by the truth, and many were convicted on account of their sin, repenting of their transgressions and trusting in the Lord Jesus. As the work of the Spirit developed, the owners of the Harland and Wolff Shipyard had to open a warehouse to store all the tools returned by the repentant thieves of the dockyard, men who had once thought nothing of walking away with what did not belong to them--one of the unwritten "perks" of the job, as it were.

Similar stories can be told of pubs and brothels bereft of customers, of whole streets characterized by family religion and peace where strife had once reigned, of entire regions transformed by the power of the gospel. It happened in Ephesus when Paul preached the gospel there. The silversmiths of the city--the makers of the idol figurines of Diana--felt robbed of their customers as the appetites of fallen hearts were radically and practically redirected by the power of the Spirit of Christ.

And what would happen in your community? What pubs, bars, and liquor stores would close? What stores would cease trading, and which services would stop being offered? What download patterns would change? What antagonism might ensue? What transformations in schools, workplaces, homes, and streets there would be! But these would be the consequences of the church pursuing her priorities, not a reflection of their shift.

Again, I am not suggesting that individual Christians should be careless or dismissive of their place and opportunities in particular cultures and societies. We are not required by our Christianity to abandon, retire from, neglect, or despair of opportunities in the civic sphere. Indeed, this is one of those areas where Christian salt and light are desperately needed.

In the Old Testament, for example, we have Daniel advising Nebuchadnezzar to "break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity" (Dan. 4:27). Esther, like Daniel a relatively isolated figure under a pagan government, has to face a challenge: "If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Est. 4:14). Stirred to action, Esther uses the position in which God has placed her and the influence He has given her to contend for righteousness. Doing so, she delivers both herself and her people.

In similar fashion, when John the Baptist was calling men to repent, he was asked by tax collectors and soldiers how they ought to live as citizens of God's kingdom: "Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Collect no more than what is appointed for you.' Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, 'And what shall we do?' So he said to them, 'Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages'" (Luke 3:12-14).

Notice that John did not tell the tax collectors to stop collecting tax nor the soldiers to give up their commissions and lay down their weapons. Politicians, officials, businessmen, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and civil servants--nothing prevents them from being Christians and nothing prevents Christians from excelling in those roles, with God's blessing. When William Wilberforce was converted, some well-meaning counselors advised him to retire from politics as a sphere unfit for a child of God. It was John Newton who advised him to stay where God had put him and do all the good that he could. To be sure, someone already converted might find it hard to climb the slippery poles of the political or business realms simply because of the principles (or lack of them) that may be in operation in particular times and places. These things must all be taken into account, as we shall see below.

Nevertheless, we need to recognize that the blessings outlined above are the consequence of the church embracing her priorities, not the result of her altering them. It is not the business of the church as such, or of Christians individually, to get into influential positions with the aim of securing the progress of some political agenda. We do not set out to transform the world apart from the preaching of the gospel. That is potentially to conflate and confuse the priorities of two different kingdoms and quickly leads to the church losing her distinctiveness and effectiveness. Christ's kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and this transforms the perspective of God's people on the world in which they live, their expectations, aims, and approaches. For precisely this reason the Scriptures give such clear light as to how the church of God is to relate to "the powers that be." To be sure, there is much that could be said about the calling and responsibility of those powers, but our focus in the pages that follow will be on the calling and responsibility of the church in relation to those powers.

To come ... the scriptural framework.