Is Islam a Religion?

I’m a long time veteran of the intra-conservative interventionism vs. non-interventionism debate. I was a non-interventionist before Ron Paul made non-interventionism cool. So I have seen all the recycled arguments over and over and over and over … I say this not so as to debate interventionism vs. non-interventionism here. That is not the purpose of this essay. I say it to provide background as to what brings up the real subject of this essay.

As a veteran of these debates I have seen all the arguments, but one that I have seen increasingly recently is the contention that Islam is not a religion. The idea being that Islam is not “just” a religion but is instead an all-encompassing political ideology that impacts government, law, education, social organization and convention, etc. of which religion is only a part. The more maximalist proponents of this theory will add that establishment of a world Caliphate, domination of those who refuse to go along, intolerance of other religions, etc. is an inherent part of Islam. This “Islam is not a religion” argument is often seen in conjunction with concerns about the imposition of Sharia law at home.

While seldom directly stated, the implication of this line of reasoning is that Islam cannot be treated as simply another religion deserving of tolerance but must be treated as an alien ideology that threatens the very American way of life. (As I will illustrate below, this is a curious line of reasoning. Essentially the argument is that Islam is dangerous because it is illiberal and thus requires an illiberal response.) This argument seems mostly to imply that Islam is a potential problem domestically within our shores, but given that the argument is usually made within the context of debates over foreign policy, it usually has unstated but implied foreign policy implications as well; namely that since Islam is inherently aggressive and bent on world domination, it must be met with an aggressive and forward military response.

Actually, I do believe that there is much truth to the contention that Islam is a broadly encompassing worldview, but the facts of that are not what are in contention here. The issue is whether Islam’s ideological breadth disqualifies it from being a religion. I have two problems with this line of reasoning, the first semantic and the second much more profound.

Two objections

First, semantics. Islam is a religion by any reasonable definition. It deals with a divine being, the afterlife, norms of behavior in this life; it has a holy text, etc. Stating that Islam is not a religion is simply semantic game-playing—and to what end? What difference does it make whether we call Islam a religion or not when we’re asking whether we should invade Syria or institute a burqa ban at home? Clearly the point is to rhetorically strip Islam of its protected status as a religion so as to justify illiberal measures toward it whether at home or abroad. But this presumes the righteousness of liberalism to begin with which leads me to my second point.

I should clarify at this point that when I speak of liberalism I am not talking about Obama- or Hillary-style government regulation, social programs and wealth redistribution. I am speaking of liberalism in its original sense, that post-Enlightenment philosophy that enshrines the virtues of individualism, free-choice, religious tolerance, pluralism, non-establishment, etc. When I speak of illiberalism I mean, roughly, religious particularism whether Islamic or Christian.

So my second objection is philosophical, historical and theological. What the “Islam is not a religion” crowd is doing, whether they realize it or not (and most don’t), is imposing on the definition of religion a philosophical concept that is relatively novel (historically speaking) and that potentially binds theology beforehand. Per their reasoning, in order to be a religion a religion must embrace modernist liberalism. This would have been news to anyone—Christians included—who lived, say, more than 300 years ago, give or take. One commenter I was debating with said that Islam is not a religion because it doesn’t embrace separation of church and state. Really? Are we that historically myopic? Neither did the whole of Christendom until a couple of centuries ago.

By their definition of religion, the Judaism of the Old Testament was not a religion. Was not the Judaism of the Old Testament an all-encompassing system that mixed church and state, had religion-based laws, had a social order dictated by the religion, frowned on pluralism, etc.? The Catholic Church, especially before Vatican II, is not a religion by this definition. Arguably, and it would be hard to argue otherwise, the Protestantism of Luther and Calvin wasn’t a religion either. Was Calvin’s Geneva a bastion of modernist liberalism? The Puritans certainly were not. One would have to look back no further than the Radical Reformation to find widespread Christian denominations that would meet the exacting liberal standards of the “Islam is not a religion” proponents. (And even some of the products of the Radical Reformation, such as the Mennonites, were quite illiberal in many ways internally.)

I hope you see the problem here. I would argue that liberalism is a modern philosophical concept that most modern Christians have read into the pages of the Bible (addressing this idea fully would require a separate essay). I do not think this liberalism is a theological concept that flows from a natural reading of Scripture. The Bible insinuates, if it doesn’t outright dictate, Christian particularism. Christianity should be the broadly encompassing worldview that Islam is accused of being (in type, not in detail of course) and it represents a failure of the modern Church that it is not.

A small but vocal group of Christians are coming around on this. There has been renewed debate in recent years, especially among Reformed believers, between “Two Kingdoms” advocates and those who reject the Two Kingdoms approach. The latter often refer to their opponents as “Radical Two Kingdoms” (R2K for short), although I have never been able to figure out myself what distinguishes Radical Two Kingdoms from plain ol’ Two Kingdoms since all Two Kingdoms advocates are generally referred to by their opponents with the Radical adjective.

This coming around is also occurring in a softer way among many evangelicals, whether they realize it or not, in their embrace of the concept of “Christian worldview” thinking. And the anti-Christian and secularist left has seized upon the rising menace to modernist liberalism that they see in Christian “Dominionism,” a theological term they don’t understand and almost always use incorrectly. (This too is a subject for another essay.)

This idea that Islam is incompatible with America and the West (what used to be called Christendom) because it is illiberal, implies that what truly distinguishes the West from the rest is its liberalism not its Christianity. This may be true and would go a long way toward explaining the sorry state of modern Christianity, but it is to be bemoaned if it is, not celebrated.

I believe modern Christianity is in desperate need of more illiberalism and more adherents who are willing to take it seriously enough that it becomes the broadly encompassing worldview for them that Islam is accused of being for Muslims. Likewise, the problem with Islam is not that it is illiberal. It will not be fixed by embracing liberalism. The problem with Islam is that it is false. It is not Christianity. The hope is not that Muslims will reject their illiberalism and assimilate to become good little liberal Westerners; it is that they will accept Christ. (Again to be clear, when I speak here of illiberalism I do not primarily mean fundamentalism vis-a-vis theological liberalism. I mean Christian particularism vis-a-vis pluralism.)

The implications of my argument are broad, and I plan to flesh them out, God willing, in future essays.

[node:bio/red-phillips body]

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There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Red, I appreciate your thoughts here. You raise interesting points.

Agreed: any religion worth its salt is a comprehensive view of all things human and all things right and wrong. (I've been making this argument for a while in support of the idea that "religion and politics" cannot truly be separated.... they answer many of the same questions)

Agreed: the idea of sep. of church and state is a pretty new one.

Agreed also: the problem with Islam isn't ultimately that it's illiberal, but that it's false. But I did add a qualifier there.... ultimately.

Where I differ:
Even though it took a while for Christians to reason it out, they eventually figured out that institutional separation of church and state makes sense based on biblical principles.
In short, the principle is that we are called to the work of persuasion, not the work of coercion.

Islam wants to coerce wherever it can't persuade (and large segments don't care much about persuading at all!).

The Great Commission is a call to teach ("make disciples" is a teaching word).
So I'm all for seeing the Christian worldview dominate the western world (and the rest too if possible), but this can only happen by persuasion, not coercion.

That being the case, pluralism at the institutional level is a good thing... and it would be awesome if Islam would liberalize. We'd get along fine--though the ultimate problem is that it is a false religion.

Andrew K.'s picture

Maybe I've been out of things too long, but I've never heard anyone say Islam isn't a religion.

However, the idea that Islam isn't 'just' a religion (in the modern Western usage of the word 'religion') is not only very true but something that most definitely needs to be said. I'm a bit confused about how the author equates the two.

Perhaps some are stating this idea (Islam not just a religion) for political or cultural purposes, but anyone who has spent some time living in a Muslim-majority country can testify to its truth.

Quote:
The idea being that Islam is not “just” a religion but is instead an all-encompassing political ideology that impacts government, law, education, social organization and convention, etc. of which religion is only a part.

...and the arts, clothing, architecture, diet, social customs, lack of noise ordinances. Does that leave anything else?

Quote:
Christianity should be the broadly encompassing worldview that Islam is accused of being (in type, not in detail of course) and it represents a failure of the modern Church that it is not.

I personally think one (admittedly minor, in a wider view of things) beauty of Christianity is that we don't impose 1st century Jewish clothing, art, politics, language, etc. on our converts in the way that Islam imposes the 7th century Arabic world on theirs.

神是爱

JT Hoekstra's picture

...with Mormonism in the 1850's.

Allowing Sharia to trump the Constitution would require draconian amendment(s) or conversely, assimilation. That makes the question very political and not at all religious. The fact that Islam has declared itself to be an enemy of our way of life as well as our government system behooves us to define it politically first. Replacing one system of laws with another of a completely different type simply because of ancient books and a warrior lifestyle would be like inviting the-Germans-of-the-30's to burn the capital buildings in one night. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Mormons wanted statehood, so assimilated. (The increasing movement to revert to polygamy, however, will invent a brotherhood with Islam, IMO, but that might be the subject of Back To The Future Part XX).

As Barney Fife said, "nip it in the bud." We would do well to remember the lies of the serpent in the Garden before we are driven from our own country.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

If I understand Red's argument, it has mostly to do with foreign policy and reasons that there is no need to treat Islam as though it was something other than a religion or to define Islam in such a way that all religions are redefined as well.
When it comes to domestic policy we already have rules for keeping religious institutions separate from governing power.

JT Hoekstra's picture

Uhm, yes, it's called the constitution as long as we think of it as religious...

however, there's this...(note the number of 'camps' they estimate there are):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bMgkJya5DQ

If these were skinheads or separatists, they would be shuttered by men in black helicopters just from this footage alone....

Ignore at your family's peril!

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm sure eyes are on them.

Red Phillips's picture

I'm sorry that I am so delinquent in responding, but Aaron I do think you have misunderstood my point. My point is not about foreign policy except ancillarily. It is about domestic policy.

"When it comes to domestic policy we already have rules for keeping religious institutions separate from governing power."

Yes we do. But the relationship between church and state is a political, philosophical, historical AND theological question. And for a Christian it should first and foremost be a theological one. (Sincere Christians can disagree to what extent political, philosophical and historical as well as the actual reality on the ground in any particular situation can influence the theological application, and I don't rule those out as important considerations, but I hope we can agree that theological consideration are preeminent.) What I am suggesting is that philosophy and recent history have guided us to the wrong theological conclusions.

If an alien were to come to earth and you were to hand him a Bible and say “Read this and then tell me what polity it suggests,” I am pretty certain he would not determine democratic pluralism. We have looked to the Bible to justify a philosophical belief we take for granted beforehand due to accident of time and place. We have not sought, imo, to arrive at the right polity by reading from the Bible. I find it particularly troubling that Baptists among others have dogmatized (as in it is an element of the Baptistic distinctives) a recent philosophical invention as if it were Holy Writ.

I intentionally did not suggest any particular policies. What I am suggesting is that we reexamine our mindset. Christians should think first as Christians not post-Enlightenment liberals.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Red wrote:
If an alien were to come to earth and you were to hand him a Bible and say “Read this and then tell me what polity it suggests,” I am pretty certain he would not determine democratic pluralism. We have looked to the Bible to justify a philosophical belief we take for granted beforehand due to accident of time and place. We have not sought, imo, to arrive at the right polity by reading from the Bible. I find it particularly troubling that Baptists among others have dogmatized (as in it is an element of the Baptistic distinctives) a recent philosophical invention as if it were Holy Writ.

I intentionally did not suggest any particular policies. What I am suggesting is that we reexamine our mindset. Christians should think first as Christians not post-Enlightenment liberals.


Without more particulars it's hard to know what to say to this.
By "polity" do you mean church polity or how nations govern?

But an alien reading the Bible is not a good standard for measuring what it teaches. The history of theology conducted by devout believers should carry far more weight. Augustine advocated seeing civil government and church government as separate entitles as far back as the 5th century.
Jesus did say "render unto Ceasar...." So the idea separate spheres of institutional power is not a post Elightenment phenomenon.

Once we understand that church and "powers that be" (Rom.13) are two different things, we're ready to build the rest of our theology of government.
(Though we could start with Gen.9 and a general purpose for the institution of government).

From there, the line of inquiry, it seems to me, is to ask questions like these, in roughly this order:
1. What is human/civil government for?
2. What do we know about human nature individually and collectively that relates to the role of civil government?
3. Where do these realities of human nature, and the lessons of history point as far as the structure of human governments?
4. Other than the perimeter of govt. purpose that these ideas imply, does the Bible teach that any particular form of government is better than another?
5. What do the Scriptures reveal about the ultimate futility of all human government efforts and the need for the reign of Christ to replace them?

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