July 2015 Print

What Is Islam?

by James Vogel

Any history or description of Islam that is limited to a short article is bound to speak in generalities and over-simplify. That being said, I hope to provide a brief introduction to the nature of Islam and its internal differences. We often speak of Islam as a single, monolithic entity, whereas the reality is much more complex, both in history and today.

What Is Islam?

To say that Islam is simply a religion, albeit false, tells only part of the story. It is simultaneously a set of religious doctrines, a political worldview, a complex series of financial and legal rules, and cultural standards. As Serge Trifkovic put it in The Sword of the Prophet:

“There is ‘Christianity’ and there used to be ‘Christendom,’ but in Islam such a distinction is impossible. To whatever political entity a Muslim believer may belong...he is first and foremost the citizen of Islam, and belongs morally, spiritually, and intellectually, and in principle totally, to the world of belief of which Muhammad is the Prophet, and Mecca is the capital.”

As a religion—or even a Christian heresy, as Belloc claimed—the dogmatic principles are relatively few and straightforward. The entire Muslim creed is said to be summarized in the oft-repeated sentence: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet.” The “five pillars of Islam” include this prayer, other daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca once in one’s life.

Islam appears to be a mix of various tribal pagan religions, bits of Jewish and Christian traditions (the latter seemingly through heretical sects), and Zoroastrianism. Muslims believe in a single God, though they reject the Trinity. As for our Lord, Jesus is a mere prophet who paved the way for Muhammad; his divinity is rejected in no uncertain terms. There is a complex and rich system of angels and demons which is rather different from that of Christianity.

Predestination plays a crucial and central role in Islamic theology. In Islam, God pre-ordained the salvation or damnation of all men from eternity, and nothing an individual man can do is able change His will. Although free will is admitted in theory, it is practically useless. Descriptions of everlasting punishment are brutal and graphic, while the glories of everlasting life are sensual and worldly.

In Islamic morality, some of the gravest sins are apostasy, adultery (though multiple wives are allowed!), idolatry, usury, and false witness against fellow Muslims. Divorce is easy for husbands and almost impossible for wives. Slavery, blood revenge, and subjugation of non-believers are all allowed or promoted.

The notion of jihad, or war for the sake of Allah, is one of the three most important things a man can do according to Muhammad. Far from being a theory relegated to the Quran, the history of the past 1,500 years bears witness to this reality. This is an intrinsic part of the Muslim religion, not an optional or debated issue.

The History of Islam

From a relatively humble beginning in the early seventh century, Muhammad and his followers spread their new religion with a rapidity that is staggering. In the first century of its existence, from the death of Muhammad in 632 to the decisive Battle of Tours in 732, Islam swept across much of the civilized world. In chronological order, the territories conquered included Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Egypt, North Africa, Cyprus, and Spain. Were it not for Charles Martel in France, the Muslims might well have attained their goal of taking Rome.

In a single century, almost all of the Christian East was lost to Islam. It is difficult to calculate the impact of this reality in history. The Catholic Faith, for long over a millennium, has primarily been, and been seen as, something Western. Yes, the Eastern Rites exist, but they are dwarfed in size and influence by the Latin Rite. The question is to what extent this dichotomy was caused by the destruction of the East by Islam. As Trifkovic notes:

“Christians numbered 30 million by A.D. 311, in spite of imperial persecution that often entailed martyrdom. Most of them lived not in Europe but in Asia Minor and Africa, the home of many famous Christian fathers and martyrs, such as Paul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo, Polycarp of Smyrna, Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom of Antioch, and Cyprian of Carthage. The Seven Churches of Revelation were all in Asia Minor.”

Though the European expansion of Islam was halted in 732, Spain would spend much of the next seven centuries in almost constant civil war before finally expelling them in 1492. Meanwhile, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the new religion continued to expand in Asia and Africa: Persia and part of India were conquered, in addition to Cyprus and Sicily. When all was said and done, Islam controlled almost two-thirds of what had previously been the Christian world and the Roman Empire.

The Crusades

The history of Islam would be incomplete without a mention of the Crusades, though it is once again a topic that is complex and worthy of longer studies. Although Muslims controlled the Holy Land, they initially allowed the Christian holy sites to remain open, collecting taxes from the steady stream of pilgrims from Europe. In the eleventh century, however, Muslim sentiment took a dimmer view of Jerusalem, and even called for the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher.

Jerusalem was captured by the Turks in 1070. Shortly thereafter, though the schism between Rome and Constantinople was fresh in everyone’s minds, plans were made to re-take the Holy Land. Pope Urban II formally called the First Crusade in 1095. In 1099, Jerusalem was re-taken by the Christians, but the victory would be (relatively) short-lived. Several other crusades aimed to recover previously Christian lands, but Jerusalem was taken again by the Muslims under Saladin in 1187. Succeeding crusades were more or less unsuccessful.

Islam continued to expand and took Constantinople, once the greatest city in the world, in 1453. The Balkans were next, as well as Hungary. In 1529, the Turks were at the gates of Vienna as Europe was being rent asunder by the Protestant revolt. After several centuries of consolidation and internal disputes, Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. The Ottoman Empire would later crumble after World War I. Islam today has no caliphate and is instead distinguished more by religious, ethnic, and regional differences.

The Lack of Unity

Throughout its history, the civil wars, theological and ethnic, between Muslims have kept Islam from expanding its reach even further than it did. While space prohibits a discussion of the dynastic disputes throughout history, a closer look at the major “denominations” of Islam is revealing. These divisions continue to impact the growth of Islam today.

Many are aware of the main schism between the Sunnis and Shia, which are easily the two largest, though not exclusive, branches of Islam. Sunni Muslims make up to 90 percent (by some estimates) of worldwide Islam; they believe that after the first four caliphs, any righteous Muslim could be made caliph. (The Shia believe, on the contrary, that only certain descendants of Muhammad could fill such a position of authority.)

Although the caliphate no longer exists, the difference between the two schools goes far beyond details in prayers and ablutions. It affects in particular their visions of jihad; Sunni Islam, the “orthodox” interpretation we are most familiar with from history and in most Muslim countries today, openly allows and promotes violence in the cause of Allah. Shia Muslims have a bit of a nuanced approach.

The Shia believe in an imam being mystically hidden by Allah in preparation for the end times. This imam will lead Muslims to a final victory over the entire earth. This apocalyptic eschatological vision can sometimes lead to a double perspective: on the one hand, a certain hesitation to engage the non-Muslim world until said imam appears; on the other hand, a willingness to “speed up” events in the hopes that the end comes soon. (It should be noted that the Sunnis also believe in this figure, but that he is to come, not already here.)

At any rate, as interesting as the internal divisions are, they have played a pivotal role in keeping Islam from presenting a united front to the world. These camps continue to play a pivotal role in Middle East unrest today. The famous El Cid was a master at playing the various Muslim sects against one another in Spain.

A Final Word

The difficulty in converting Muslims to the Faith is an historical fact. Reasons include, but are not limited to, the punishments inflicted on “apostates” in Islam, the striking differences in religions, and the intentional lack of serious self-reflection and criticism inherent to Islam. The centrality of love to Christianity, the life of self-denial and penance, and a non-sensual paradise are immense stumbling blocks. That being said, especially considering the mysterious nature of grace, we may have more opportunities to evangelize in our age than in any before. In that case, the first step is to know something about Islam.


James Vogel is Editor-in-Chief of Angelus Press. He has an M.A. in philosophy from Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has written and lectured on a variety of topics related to history and Catholic culture.