Islam, along with Judaism and Christianity, is one of the three great Semitic religions. The fact that they share certain roots, especially in the Old Testament, gives them a certain affinity with each other. Every one of the 99 attributes of God mentioned in the Koran is also mentioned in the Bible. In both books, God's mercy is cited 10 times more often than his judgment. The Koran refers to Mary 34 times and is the only woman it names. Mohammed, Islam's founder and prophet, originally directed his followers to face Jerusalem when they prayed.
The commonality Islam shares with the other two Semitic religions is also borne out in what is called its “Five Pillars": 1) Declaration of Belief; 2) Prayer; 3) Fasting; 4) Almsgiving; 5) Pilgrimage to Mecca. These fundamental requirements of Islam also point to its simplicity and its appeal.
Islam is, at the present moment, out-pacing Christianity in the United States as the fastest growing religion. Recently, and for the first time in history, the number of Muslims throughout the world has exceeded the number of Catholics. No doubt, the simplicity of Islam together with the intense devotion shown by its members helps to explain its appeal. Peter Kreeft suggests, in his book Ecumenical Jihad, that “Islam is growing faster than Christianity in America because Muslims want to be saints more than Christians do.” And, of course, the amount of abortion, adultery, fornication, contraception, sterilization and euthanasia practiced in so-called Christian countries is a scandal.
Pope John Paul II reminds us, in his international best seller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, of words that appear in the Vatican Declaration Nostra Aetate concerning those faithful to Islam: “The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims, who worship one God, living and subsistent, merciful and omnipotent, the Creator of heaven and earth.” He goes on to state that, as a result of their monotheism, “believers in Allah are particularly close to us.” Moreover, he adds, “It is impossible not to admire their fidelity to prayer.” In fact, he suggests that the Muslims’ devotion to prayer is a “model” for Christians who have “deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.”
The ethico-religious significance of the word Islam is the “entire surrender of the will to God.” The participal form (Muslim) refers to “those who have surrendered themselves.” A Muslim, therefore, is one who has surrendered himself to the will of God (Allah). In comparison with Christianity, it may be said that Mary's fiat is also her islam.
Mohammed founded Islam in 611 A.D. after receiving a succession of what he declared to be divine revelations given to him through the angel Gabriel. The most important of these revelations is that there is but one God, Allah. At the time, his people were worshipping 360 gods, one for each day of the Arabian year. The worship of one God was effective in unifying the various tribes of Arabia that otherwise had little basis for unity. At the same time, Mohammed realized that non-Arabs, especially Jews and Christians, were anything but willing subjects for conversion. Ultimately, Mohammed spread his teachings through military conquests.
Herein is the peril of Islam.
The intensely controversial Jihad, mentioned in the Koran, refers to a “Holy War” fought against unbelievers. Mohammed himself led Jihads against alien people. When tribes did not pledge their allegiance to Allah, they were often put to the sword.
Some Muslim scholars, such as Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, have interpreted the concept of a Holy War, or Jihad, as a personal striving for righteousness. Nonetheless, the incident of violent Jihads throughout history, especially against Christians, is cause for deep concern.
On Oct. 7, 1571, one of history's most important naval battles took place, a fierce encounter known as the Battle of Lepanto. An armada of some 300 Muslim ships had been poised to invade and overrun Italy. At that time, St. Pope Pius V had called upon each citizen of Europe to pray the rosary. Despite great odds against it, the Christian fleet, which some historians have characterized as a “pickup group of Catholic ships,” soundly defeated the Muslims. 25,000 Muslims died in the skirmish, as did 8,000 Christians. But an estimated 15,000 Christians, who had been taken captive in Muslim ships, were liberated from slavery. The liturgical celebration of that victory on Oct. 7 is celebrated on that day as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
An interesting story centers on one of the Christian soldiers involved in the Battle of Lepanto who fought gallantly and received three gunshot wounds, one permanently maiming his left hand. Sometime after the fray, he was captured and enslaved by Muslims and taken to Algeria. Having failed several attempts to escape, he was finally freed when his ransom was paid. He returned to his native Spain and wrote the classic Don Quixote. We are referring, of course, to Miguel de Cervantes, who remains to this day the supreme master of the Spanish tongue.
In addition, the village of Fatima, Portugal, where Our Lady appeared, is named after a Muslim princess who took the name of Mohammed's daughter, Fatima. On the occasion of his daughter's death, Mohammed said, “She has the highest place in heaven after the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
In 1981, on May 13, the date of the first Marian apparition at Fatima, a Muslim by the name of Mehmet Ali Agca made an assassination attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II. Writing in the Washington Post six days later, Joseph Kraft remarked that “the root of this terrorist attempt against the Pope is a turbulent Islamic society, pregnant with nasty surprises.”
That turbulence, most unfortunately, has continued to rear its head in various parts of the world. In May of 1996, the Muslim Groupe Islamique Armé faction slew seven Trappist monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. Their “crime” was “evangelizing.” The emir stated: “Monks who live among the working classes can be legitimately killed.” A journalist by the name of Ahmad Kamal writes about two people from Jerusalem who were stoned to death on the road to Mecca. After they were dead, their passes were found to be in order. But the deceased were fair-haired and had cameras. It was easy to assume that they were infidels.
On Dec. 8, 2000, the Australian newspaper The Age reported that 93 Christians were slaughtered in the Moluccas by Muslim extremists. Christian refugees from East Timor who fled to West Timor a little more than a year ago continue to be harassed and even killed by Muslim militants. Saudi Arabia grants no religious freedom whatsoever to its 400,000 Catholic Philippine workers. No one Catholic church exists in that country. Religious meetings in the privacy of one's home are prohibited. This and the possession of religious literature are punishable with imprisonment.
During the 15-year-long war of the Sudanese Muslim government, an estimated two million Christians have died. Iran has arrested and tortured people who have converted from Islam to Christianity. The list goes on and on.
If all sons and daughters of God understand the Holy War (Jihad) as a personal fight against sin within the self, then we can all regard each other as brothers and sisters and live in peace and work together to build a better world. But externalizing this attempt at purification — “ethnic cleansing” as it is sometimes called — is not the work of God, but the work of the devil. The inner Jihad leads to purification and peace; its exterior counterpart brings about discrimination and war.
Don DeMarco teaches philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.