Sullivan – The West, Mediterranean Islam, and the Search for a New Beginning
The West, Mediterranean Islam, and the Search for a New Beginning
Antony T. Sullivan
Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
(Read to the Annual Meeting of The Philadelphia Society, April, 1999)
"The levanter increased in intensity…the wind that had brought the Moors, the smell of the
desert…and the dreams of men who had left to search for the unknown…"
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
These are not propitious times to attempt to comment objectively on Islam. (1) Currently, there is
so very much that gets in the way. In the West, Islam has come to be widely identified with
terrorism, and frequently is assumed to constitute a surrogate, perhaps in tandem with Confucian
China, for the late USSR as a geostrategic threat to the United States. In the Muslim world, a small
minority of extremists disfigure the third and perhaps most historically tolerant of the three
monotheistic revelations by invoking putative religious sanctions for actions which are neither more
nor less than baldly criminal. Terrorism by individuals who call themselves Muslims, it must be
clearly understood, constitutes first and foremost a direct attack on the tolerance, compassion and
mercy that historically have characterized Islam both as creed and practice. (2) Indeed, one might
argue that an important source of the Western rediscovery during the Renaissance of the dignity
and rights of man was through an Arab Muslim as uncovered and promulgated by the Italian
humanist Pico della Mirandola in his "Oration on the Dignity of Man." (3) Unfortunately, the hard
reality now is that in both the West and in Islamdom (to use Marshall Hodgson’s phrase), religions
and civilizations have become increasingly reified. Today, precious little effort is being given
anywhere to acquiring understanding of supposedly homogeneous and inimical "Others." (4) I
submit that unless Christians and Muslims begin to hear each other when they whisper prayers to
their common God, they indeed are likely to meet on obscure battlefields around the world. (5)
Surely, any war of civilizations or religions is not one that either side will win. As a new century
impends, I suggest that Christians and Muslims alike need to attempt a new beginning.(6)
It may be especially important for Westerners to understand that the Quran specifically forbids any
imposition of Islam on non-Muslims by force. On the subject of religious toleration, the Quran is
categorical: "There shall be no compulsion," it states, "in matters of faith" (2:256). The Quran
endorses free will as represented by the freedom it accords each individual to choose whether to
believe or not to believe. "The truth is from your Lord," the Quran states, "so let him who pleases
believe; and let him who pleases disbelieve" (18:29). And the Quran states elsewhere: "Say: O
Mankind! Indeed there has come to you the truth from your Lord. Whosoever, therefore, chooses
to follow the Right Path, follows it but for his own good, and whosoever chooses to go astray, goes
astray but to his own hurt" (10: 108). To the degree to which Muslims or self-proclaimed Islamic
regimes have in fact violated such injunctions prescribing toleration and religious pluralism, they
have grossly transgressed against the most fundamental tenets of Islam itself. (7)
In these remarks, I propose (1) to suggest new paradigms for Westerners and Christians to start to
think about Islam, (2) to note key aspects of Muslim belief and practice, and (3) to demonstrate
how the Islamic concept of Jihad should and should not be understood. Inter alia, I shall place
emphasis on commonalities between Christianity and Islam, and suggest how Western and Muslim
conservatives may assist the Abrahamic traditions to move into the new century as companions
rather than as enemies.
Note that I use the word "Abrahamic." Muslims understand their faith as pure and unadulterated
Abrahamic monotheism, purged of the textual deformations and/or theological misunderstandings
which they believe have compromised Judaism and Christianity. One should note that for some
years after he began his mission in 610 A. D., Muhammad had no idea that he would in fact
establish a new and separate Abrahamic monotheism. Rather, he understood his charge to be only
the same as that given to the many prophets whom he emphasized had come before him. His
mission, Muhammad believed, was simply that very ancient, semitic one of calling upon a fallen
humankind to repent of sin and discover the love and mercy of what in Arabic is al-Lah, the one
and only God. (8) Revelations to Muhammad included important portions of both the Jewish and
Christian scriptures which were duly incorporated into the Qur’an. Only in early 624 did
Muhammad direct that the direction of prayer be turned away from Jerusalem, toward which all
Muslims had previously prayed, in favor of the Arabian commercial capital of Mecca. By this
dramatic gesture of replacing Jerusalem with Mecca as the direction of prayer, Muhammad
denominated Islam as a monotheism separate and distinct from the two Abrahamic revelations
which preceded it and to which it owes so much.
Concerning Abrahamic faiths and civilization, let me go further. I would suggest that the civilization
of the contemporary West might more accurately be designated as "Abrahamic" than as
"Judaeo-Christian." Clearly, Judaeo-Christian is a rubric that excludes Islam from the congeries of
values which Jews and Christians are presumed to share. In that sense, Judaeo-Christian is not only
inaccurate but may in fact contribute to the apparent polarization in recent years between the West
and a stereotypical, alien Muslim enemy. Rarely understood in the West (and today occasionally
denied in the Islamic world) is the fact that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity a long,
common history, and many of the same religious beliefs and cultural orientations. In the words of
Imam Muhammad Abd al-Raouf, Muslims believe in the "Christian Gospel, the Christian Prophet
[Jesus Christ], his twelve Apostles, his mother’s purity, and his miraculous birth…Above all, we
share a belief in…our common God." (9) Most bluntly put, without Judaism and Christianity having
preceded it, Islam as revealed and practiced would simply be inconceivable. (10)
In passing, one might note that "Judaeo-Christian" is a category invented and widely disseminated
only during the past four decades. As late as the l950’s, the operative term for describing the
heritage of the West was "Graeco-Roman." Precisely how and why "Judaeo-Christian" came to
replace "Graeco-Roman" is a story awaiting an author. (11) With some 6 million Muslims now in
the United States as against 5.6 million Jews, and major immigrant Muslim communities in Western
Europe, the time may be ripe to rethink how we may most accurately describe civilizations and
categorize the monotheistic faiths. What is most important to keep clearly in mind is that especially
today, Islam is fully in and of the West, just as the West has become in and of Islam.
One should always remember that Islam was revealed and first adopted within exactly the same
semitic ethos and general geographic location as were Judaism and Christianity.
Like them, Islam was born not far from the Mediterranean, and like the prior Abrahamic
revelations has been profoundly shaped over 1400 years by its interactions with the other
monotheistic faiths which ring the Mediterranean. In other words, Islam should be understood
religiously, and Arab Islam culturally, as part of that same Mediterranean civilization which has also
so profoundly shaped Judaism and Christianity. As one illustration of what I have in mind when I
say this, I strongly recommend the two magnificent volumes first published in 1949 by the great
French historian Charles Braudel, La Mediterranee et le monde mediterraneen a l’epoque de
Philippe II. (12) Why a strong argument can be made that the "West" (despite current headlines)
does not stop at the Bosporous, (13) but at the Indus, is amply demonstrated by Braudel’s massive
The location of the eastern terminus of the West is a point worth pondering. On this score, the
views of Confucian and Hindu civilization as to where the West ends (or begins) are apposite. Both
China and India consider the West to constitute one civilizational block derived from three
constituent parts: Byzantium, Europe, and the world of Mediterranean Islam. In other words, for
the very different civilizations located to its east, Western civilization is most emphatically not made
up only of Europe and North America but consists also of both Arab Christianity and the Arab
Muslim world. Concerning this other, more capacious definition of the West, our distinguished
colleague Leonard Liggio recently commented to me: "That [also] is my view."
And Liggio aptly continued: "When Islam arose it adopted (especially in Syria) the Hellenistic
culture which Byzantium and Europe were rejecting. Islam carried logic, philosophy and science
beyond the Hellenistic legacy. Eventually Islam passed on the classical intellectual tradition to
Europe….Europe built on the shoulders of the Islamic part of that tradition. Similarly, Islam built on
the capitalism and commerce of Hellenistic tradition and for centuries was far ahead of Byzantium
and Europe. Later, Islam was burdened by the domination of Ottoman rule. In a sense, Islam
became like Byzantium–one large empire rather than the European continuity of the Islamic
tradition of many different political centers…." (14) In all of this, Liggio’s fundamental point is that
the "Abrahamic faiths" have each been shaped by and may be considered the "successors" to
Hellenistic civilization, and that the cultures shaped or spawned by Judaism, Christianity and Arab
Islam must each be regarded as part of that larger civilizational ecumene which I have
metaphorically suggested has its frontier on the Indus rather than on the Bosporous.
At the same time, note should be taken of the fact that less than one in five of the world’s more than
one billion Muslims are Arabs. The vast majority of Muslims are concentrated in south and
southeast Asia. For example, there are more Muslims in Malaysia (185 million) than there are in all
of the Arab world. Certainly, Muslims in India, and the Muslims in China, Malaysia and Indonesia,
have helped to develop and/or have participated historically in cultures radically different from those
that ring the Mediterranean and extend into northern Europe and North America.
Nevertheless, when individuals such as Professor Samuel P. Huntington speak of an impending
"clash of civilizations" (15) pitting Islam against the West, it is not the vast majority of the world’s
Muslims located in south Asia that they primarily have in mind. Rather, their concern centers on the
minority of Arab Muslims who, with their Christian Arab brothers, inhabit the southern and eastern
Mediterranean basin. Why 250 million Arab Muslims, living in weak and largely undemocratic
states frequently suffering from bankrupt economies and collapsing infrastructures, should be in a
position to mount any civilizational conflict with anyone Huntington himself never makes clear. (16)
In his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and
Schuster, 1996), Professor Huntington repeated in modified form his hypothesis first advanced in
Foreign Affairs in 1993 (17) predicting a clash between Islamic and Confucian civilizations on the
one hand and the West on the other. (18) But what is perhaps most interesting, and apparently not
widely understood, is that in 1997 Huntington repudiated his earlier identification of Islam and
China as the new enemies of America: "[T]he United States lacks any single country or threat
against which it can convincingly counterpose itself," Huntington wrote two years ago. "Islamic
fundamentalism is too diffuse and too remote geographically." (19) He added that it may have been
the very absence of any foreign threat, Muslim or otherwise, that created the psychological space
for American extremists to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. (20) Unfortunately, this
is very much like closing the barn door after the horses have been stolen. Perceptions of a
substantial portion of the American establishment seem to have been formed based on the
inaccurate prognostications of a menacing Islamic "Other" which Professor Huntington originally
made in 1993. (21)
Now allow me to comment briefly on what Islam is and what it is not.
First, a few linguistic explanations. In Arabic, the verbal noun "Islam" means "submission," in the
broadest and most profound sense. A "Muslim" is one who submits to the One who created him
and to whom he knows he must return. The name "Muhammad" means "he who is highly praised."
The Western term commonly used in the early decades of this century to denominate Islam,
"Muhammadanism," is radically misleading since it may imply either that Muhammad simply
invented what soon became a world religion without benefit of any divine revelation, or that
Muslims somehow believe that Muhammad was divine in a fashion similar to the Christian
understanding of the nature of Christ. In other words, the proper word to use in reference to the
faith of those who call themselves Muslims is "Islam," not "Muhammadanism" or (worse)
"Mahound," the latter being the pejorative term characteristic of medieval Christian polemics against
the third Abrahamic revelation.
Here, I can do no more than summarize very briefly the principal pillars of Muslim belief, and
suggest how profoundly Christianity shaped the nature of the Quranic revelation.
The principal articles of Islamic faith are (1) that "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his
Prophet; (2) prayer (performed either individually or communally) five times daily and beginning
with the first hint of morning light; (3) total abstinence from food and physical pleasures during
daylight hours of the holy month of Ramadan; (4) annual payment of the religious tax of zakat,
generally understood to be equivalent to 2.5 percent of one’s net worth; and (5) making of the hajj,
or pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in a believer’s lifetime. On these five fundamental pillars of
Islam all Muslims, everywhere, agree, and hold that without subscribing to and observance of these
principles one cannot consider oneself to be a Muslim.
Much of what characterizes Islamic culture and which shapes the lives of individual Muslims, is the
attempt to emulate the practices of the Prophet Muhammad as reported in the six medieval Sunni
collections of hadith of what the Prophet is supposed to have said and did when confronted by the
most various of human situations. Shi’a Muslims have their own collections of hadith but the
principle is the same. For all Muslims, the attempt to imitate the sunna, or words and deeds of the
Prophet, is fundamental to a life of virtue and one pleasing to almighty God.
Time will permit only a hint of the vast reservoir of faith that Christianity and Islam share.
The specific vehicle for the revelation to Muhammad of what Muslims believe to be the literal word
of God was the Archangel Gabriel. In the hadith, or tradition, Gabriel is spoken of as al-Namus
al-akbar, of "the greatest spirit," and to be the same spirit who once appeared to Moses. Gabriel is
described as the messenger (al-rasul) through whom God spoke to all of His prophets from
Abraham to Jesus Christ. And the Virgin Mary is a major figure in the Quran.
Thus: "And when the angels said, O Mary, surely Allah has chosen thee and purified thee" (3:41).
Or again: "When the angels said, O Mary, surely Allah gives thee good news with a word from Him
of one whose name is the Messiah" (3:44). And once more: "Surely I [Mary] have vowed a fast to
the Beneficent God, so I shall not speak to any man today" (19:26). Muslims hold Mary in the
highest regard as the God-touched mother of Him whom they consider to be one of the greatest
prophets, and who Himself is a subject of substantial Quranic reference.
Jesus, the Quran states, is "worthy of regard in this world and the hereafter, and is one of those
drawn nigh to God" (3:44). In reference to the mission of Jesus, the Quran quotes Jesus as saying,
"I said to them naught save what as Thou did command me: Serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord;
and I was a witness of them as long as I was among them, but when Thou didst cause me to die,
Thou was the watcher over them, and Thou art witness of all things" (5: 116,117). And concerning
the crucifixion of Jesus, the Quran states: "O Jesus! I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My
presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve and make those who follow thee above those who
disbelieve to the Day of Resurrection" (3:54). In relation to Jesus Christ, Muslims believe that the
Christ depicted in the Quran was the last and greatest in the long line of prophets who preceded
Muhammad, and whose work Muhammad definitely completed as the final prophet, or "seal" of all
the prophets, that God has sent to mankind.
All of this may be suggestive of new ways in which Christians and Jews in the West might begin to
think about Islam, but it fails spiritually to penetrate the nature of Islamic religiosity. For such
spiritual penetration, one can perhaps most usefully turn to the marvelous book by Professor Peter
Kreeft of Boston College, Ecumenical Jihad (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996). Here, Kreeft
offers an imaginary dialogue between himself in the role of a contemporary non-Muslim and
misinformed Westerner and the Prophet Muhammad. The exchange which Kreeft presents is of
considerable rhetorical power, and suggests that at least some Western Christians are beginning to
penetrate to the spiritual core of Islam. (22)
The exchange with Muhammad begins when a departing Buddha, with whom Kreeft had just
completed a discussion, says, "This [next] man will teach you more about religion than Confucius or
[I]…He will teach you the heart and soul of all true religion." Kreeft confesses to being "shocked"
by this, since the man who now appeared before him was clearly Muhammad. "So I asked
[Muhammad]," Kreeft writes, "What is the heart and soul of all true religion?" And the answer
"came from [him] in a single word: "Islam-surrender-and the peace that comes from surrender, the
peace that the world cannot give, that comes only from total surrender to the will of God. This is
the heart and soul of all true religion…The only true first step is adoration, the bent knee and the
bent spirit, surrender, Islam."
Muhammad goes on to utter a warning: "You [Westerners] are not winning your world, you are not
winning your jihad, your spiritual warfare; your world is sliding down the road to Hell. Why? Why
have you lost a century to the devil? [It is] because you prattle about yourselves and your freedoms
and your rights and your self-fulfillment rather than forgetting yourself and adoring and obeying the
Lord…the child you must become again if you are to enter His Kingdom. The saying is His, not
mine. I am only his prophet. He is the One than whom there is no other. La ilaha ill-Allah." And
Muhammad then fell to his knees, Kreeft writes, "and bowed his back and prayed." And Kreeft
Kreeft: "The comfortably condescending cultural chauvinism with which I had always unconsciously
viewed those holy Arabic words and that holy Arabic deed seemed to have suddenly died in me…I
wondered…whether my world could ever be saved in any other way…I suspected then that the
explosive growth of Islam in our time might be due to a simpler cause than any sociologist had yet
discovered: that God blesses obedience and faithfulness, especially when surrounded by unfaithful
and disobedient cultures." Meanwhile, Muhammad had more to say.
Muhammad: "The religion I taught my people was the simplest one in the world. There are times
that call for complexity, and there are times that call for simplicity. Today is a time when ‘simplistic’
is the favorite sneer word of a decadent, arrogant, corrupt, and aggressively anti-God
establishment. So what time do you think it is today?"
Kreeft: "I had nothing to say, so Muhammad answered his own question."
Muhammad: "It is time for a jihad, a holy war, a spiritual war. Rather, it is time to wake up to the
fact that, whether you like it or not, you are in the middle of one."
Kreeft: "But we are commanded to love our enemies, not to make war."
Muhammad: "We love our human enemies, we war against our spirit enemies."
Kreeft: "Aren’t Muslims famous for confusing the two and fighting literal holy wars?"
Muhammad: "Some. About three percent of Muslims in the world believe that jihad means physical
war, killing infidels. But the Quran make it quite clear that this war is first within oneself and against
one’s own sins and infidelities."
Kreeft: "But your people, the Arabs, are world-famous for violence."
Muhammad: "Unlike your people in Northern Ireland, I suppose."
Kreeft: But your whole history is full of–"
Muhammad: "Crusades and inquisitions and forced conversions and anti-Semitism and religious
Kreeft: "I quickly realized that my ‘argument’ was going nowhere except to blow up in my face."
Thereupon, Kreeft writes, Muhammad continued more gently.
Muhammad: "Let me try to explain. Islam and jihad are intrinsically connected. For Islam means
not only ‘submission’ but also ‘peace,’ the peace that the world cannot give, the peace that only
God can give, when we submit to Him. And this submission requires the inner jihad, a war on our
war against God. So we get the paradoxical result that peace (Islam) is attained only through war
(jihad). And this peace also leads to war, because the submission that is this peace requires us to
obey God’s will, and God’s will for us is to become spiritual warriors against evil." (23)
Especially in recent decades, no term has perhaps been more misunderstood by Muslims and
non-Muslims alike than the word jihad. Among both Muslim extremists on the one hand and the
general public in the West on the other, jihad has come to be associated with military conflict, the
use of force, and compulsion and intolerance generally. All conceptions of jihad which place
primary emphasis on violence are radically anti-Quranic, and themselves now constitute major
impediments to any new beginning in Muslim-Western relations. (24)
In the West, far too many commentators expostulate about Islam who have no knowledge of
Arabic. In fact, it is a useful exercise to analyze the various meanings of jihad as offered in the two
best Arabic-English dictionaries available, as I recently did at some length in another paper. The
dictionaries to which I refer are Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Beirut:
Librairie du Liban, 3rd edition, 1980), and William Edward Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon
(Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 3rd edition, 1980). Here, let me simply note that the Arabic root of the
word jihad— –means variously to try, to endeavor, to strive, to exert effort, and/or
to put oneself out. In the four classes of verbs in which the root appears, only one (verb class three)
incorporates any notion whatsoever of military activity. Even here, warfare is only a tertiary
meaning. Both Wehr and Lane agree that the principal meaning of (the class three
verb) is to "endeavor" or to "strive" in primarily moral or spiritual ways.
The fact of the matter is that jihad has been historically understood by Muslims as of two different
sorts, one far more important than the other. The "greater" jihad, or most important jihad, is simply
the eternal struggle of each individual human soul against temptation and the wiles of Satan. The
"lesser" jihad, now much emphasized but downplayed in Islamic history, is the conduct of defensive
war to protect the Islamic community. On the permissibility of defensive war only, the Quran is
explicit: "And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you," the Quran states, "and
be not aggressive; for surely Allah loves not the aggressors" (2:19). Fighting, the Quran explains, is
permitted by Muslims only against people "who broke their oaths and aimed at the expulsion of the
Prophet and they attacked you first" (9:13). And when defensive religious war is unavoidable, the
Quran makes clear that no advantage should be taken of the situation to amass booty. "Let those
fight in the way of Allah," it observes, "who sell this world’s life for the Hereafter" (4:74). Above all,
the Quran emphasizes that peace is much to be preferred to military conflict: "If [one’s enemies}
incline to peace, incline thou also to it and trust in Allah…And if they intend to deceive thee–then
surely Allah is sufficient for thee" (8:61, 62). In fact, the Quranic understanding of jihad has much in
common with the Christian notion of "just war." (25)
If it is difficult to discuss Islam objectively today, it may be more difficult yet to persuade many that
the contemporary Islamic revival–so glibly represented by much of the Western media as
constituting medieval fanaticism and political extremism–is in fact something radically different. The
truth is that at least in the Arab world, "Islamic fundamentalism" is now primarily a politically
moderate phenomenon which is supportive of traditional values and morality, endorses limited and
responsive government, and emphasizes the importance to economic development of private
property and entrepreneurship. (26) The Islamic revival has been considerably more successful
than were the secular Arab nationalists of yore in bringing women out of the home and into both
politics and civil society. Most important for American conservatives to understand is that the vast
majority of individuals and groups involved in the contemporary Islamic revival articulate a
conservative agenda which accords priority to the "permanent things," to the "wisdom of the
ancestors," and to cultural orientations profoundly inimical to precisely the secularist radicalism
which Kreeft deplores. To date, only the Vatican among major Western institutions has recognized
this truth. Here, I refer to Pope John Paul 11’s recent cooperation with major Muslim countries
(Libya and Iran being two) at both the Cairo Conference on Population and the Beijing Conference
on Women. (27)
Let me state the matter bluntly. Much of the return to an activist religious faith by Muslims
worldwide should be understood by American conservatives to be very good news indeed. The
Islamic revival has largely purged Muslim countries (with the notable exceptions of Syria and Iraq)
of the socialist nationalism once symbolized by Gamal Abdul Nasir of Egypt. Islamic movements
have everywhere taken the initiative in reactivating that civil society, or "Third Sector," which
Nasirist statism had done so much to destroy. Today, Islamist Arab intellectuals are spearheading
discussion concerning limitation of the power of the state, and how an appropriate equilibrium
between liberty and community may be established. Everywhere, Islamist intellectuals are
articulating notions of culture, tradition and society strikingly congruent with the world view of the
late Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, and the scholarship of the distinguished American student of
Third World societies, Professor Grace Goodell of The Johns Hopkins University. The reassertion
of conservatism in the Islamic world should be understood by American conservatives to constitute
an opportunity to recruit new allies among moderate Islamists in order more effectively to confront
the radical secularism of late modernity which is now so prevalent everywhere. (28)
In this regard, let me report the establishment in 1997 of a unique international association of
distinguished Christian and Muslim scholars of conservative and/or culturally traditionalist inclination
committed to common investigation of the permanent things. The association of which I speak is the
Circle of Tradition and Progress, which is currently organizing an international conference to be
held in London. Christian members of the Circle’s Steering Committee include such individuals as
Charles Butterworth, David Burrell, Louis Cantori, John Esposito, Leonard Liggio, and Antony T.
Sullivan. Muslim members of the Steering Committee are predominantly Egyptian and include such
eminent Arab intellectuals as Kamal Abu al Magd, Muhammad Amara, Tariq al Bishri, Adel
Hussein, Fahmi Huweidi and Yusuf Qaradawi. Most fundamentally, the objective of the research,
conferences and publications which the Circle projects is to reintegrate Mediterranean and Arab
Islam within that ancient Western ecumene of which it long constituted an important part.
Specifically, the Circle’s goal is to do so precisely within the parameters of cultural conservatism,
democratic governance and individual liberty to which members of the Philadelphia Society
subscribe. I invite you to interest yourselves in our work.
To provide a more substantive notion of what the Circle is about, it may be useful to quote from its
founding statement. Thus: "Implicit in the modernist project derived substantially from the European
Enlightenment is an arrogant and naive insistence that human fulfillment can be achieved solely on
materialistic bases, and a belief in the absolute autonomy of human reason and in man’s presumed
ability to transcend his moral and cultural systems in isolation from any belief in transcendence. The
Circle [proposes to focus] on the preservation of religious and traditional values and [to work for]
progress in the Muslim world, the West, and elsewhere. Among much else, the Circle [will seek to
encourage] a societal holism [which] will incorporate accountable and democratic government,
basic individual liberty and human rights, and an economic system that is both free and humane.
What [the Circle] proposes is to reestablish an equilibrium between the spiritual and the material,
and reclaim for our time what have been called the ‘permanent things.’ Most broadly, the intention
of the Circle is to foster intellectual activities designed to rectify the modern rupture between
economics and ethics, reason and religion, and man and God. Above all, [the Circle] hope[s] to
encourage greater understanding between religions and to contribute to reconciliation of peoples
and to international cooperation." (29) This founding statement of the Circle of Tradition and
Progress specifically cites such individuals as Edmund Burke, Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk and
Gerhart Niemeyer as providing much of its inspiration.
On the threshold of a new century, it seems especially appropriate that all of the children of
Abraham endeavor to reject religious, cultural or geostrategic polarization. Rather, it now seems
imperative that each of the monotheistic faiths seek to create the conditions that may facilitate the
undertaking of common campaigns to address the problems of late modernity that currently
confront them all. On this score as on so much else, Imam Abd al-Raouf offers good counsel. "We
earnestly urge [our friends in the West]," he writes, "to go back to God, to turn their face to
Him…What was morally right for Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad must be the
same for us–whether we live in America, Europe, Asia, or Africa. We all should remember that we
are brothers, members of the [same] human family. [Therefore] let us live together in peace…" (30)
The activities of the Circle of Tradition and Progress are merely one (conservative) attempt to
foster realization of exactly those objectives.
(1) For their counsel or comments on aspects of this paper, I am grateful to Leonard J. Hochberg,
Robert L. Houbeck, Jr., Leonard P. Liggio, and Stephen J. Tonsor.
(2) For one judicious recent essay on terrorism, see Bernard Lewis, "License to Kill: Usama bin
Ladin’s Declaration of Jihad," Foreign Affairs, November/December 1998. Lewis observes that
"At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder. At no point do they even
consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders." Lewis also takes note of Islam’s generally
excellent record of toleration of non-Muslim religious communities, especially when that record is
contrasted with that of medieval Christianity where, as Lewis notes, "evictions of Jews
and…Muslims [by Christians] were normal and frequent" (p.19). It is unfortunate that this
dispassionate essay was accorded so lurid a title.
(3) See Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and John Herman Randall, Jr., eds., Renaissance
Philosophy of Man: Selections in Translation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956,
p.223. Pico stated: "I have read in the records of the Arabians, reverend Fathers, that Abdala
[Abd Allah] the Saracen, when questioned as to what on this stage of the world, as it were, could
be seen most worthy of wonder, replied: ‘There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man’."
Speculation as to the identity of this Abd Allah has ranged from a blood relative of the Prophet
Muhammad to the Abbasid era humanist Ibn Qutaiba, author of Khalq al Insan, or The Creation of
Man. Given the arguments that I make below in this paper, it may be of interest to know that Pico
had planned his "Oration" as the introductory speech at a public disputation he had hoped to have
in Rome on a set of 900 theses that he had published. This speech was never delivered because
Pope Innocent V111 suspended the proposed disputation and appointed a commission to examine
the orthodoxy of Pico’s theses. Some were condemned as heretical, quite possibly because they
were considered "syncretist" (or tending to find a common body of truth that unites all of the
Abrahamic belief systems). Evidently, resistance to recognition of and dialogue with a putatively
religious "Other" is not a phenomenon unique to the late 20th century.
(4) In the West as far as Islam is concerned, demonization has recently seemed to be the order of
the day. For example, Conor Cruise O’Brien writes that Muslim society "looks profoundly
repulsive…It looks repulsive because it is repulsive…Arab society is sick…A Westerner who claims
to admire Muslim society, while still adhering to Western values, is either a hypocrite or an
ignoramus or a bit of both." (See O’Brien, The Times [London], 11 May 1989). Probably,
O’Brien would consider the arguments advanced in this paper as silly, and the author a cultural
(5) Such confrontation is exactly what some propagandists in the West seem to desire. For one
particularly misinformed opinion of Islam which can only enhance the likelihood of religious or
civilizational conflict, see the special section on "Islam and the West" in Chronicles: A Magazine
of American Culture, February 1999, pp. 10-23. This section of Chronicles contains essays by
Thomas Fleming, Editor of the magazine, and James George Jatras (described as a "policy analyst"
in the U.S. Senate), Harold O.J. Brown, and Srdja Trifkovic. For many years, Chronicles and its
Editor have been staunch partisans of Serbia and defenders of the Serbian military campaign
against Muslims in the Balkans.
(6) For a summary of the stereotypes and the legacy of policy blunders which impede the United
States from encouraging such a new beginning, see Augustus Richard Norton, "Rethinking United
States Policy Toward the Muslim World," Current History, February 1999, pp. 51-58.
(7) Concerning violations by imperfect mortals of divine prescriptions, it may be useful to recall an
observation by the Muslim Imam Muhammad Abd al-Raouf. Just as in Christianity where "injustice,
corruption and bloodletting have been committed in the name of a faith that teaches love,
tenderness, and sympathy," so in Islam, Abd al-Raouf noted, the commandments of the faith and
the practice of individual Muslims have often been at variance. "One must make a distinction
between the ideal and the reality, and between Muslims in the ideal and Muslims as they actually
behave," Abd al-Raouf argued. "There is often a gap between the ideal and its application…there is
and has almost always been a gap between Islam and the Muslims." (See al-Raouf, A Muslim’s
Reflections on Democratic Capitalism, Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1984, p. 21).
(8) Immediately after Muhammad’s receipt of the very first of God’s revelations, a learned Christian
friend, one Waraqa ibn Naufal, told Muhammad’s wife Khadija to assure her deeply worried
husband that he was not in fact insane but had indeed received a message from on high. "Holy!
Holy!," Waraqa exclaimed. "If you have spoken the truth to me, O khadija, there has come to him
the greatest namus [the Greek nomos] who came to Moses aforetime, and lo, he is the prophet of
his people" (Ibn Ishaq, Sira 153, in Alfred Guillaume (trans. and ed.), The Life of Muhammad,
Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1955, p. 107). Waraqa hurried over to the new prophet and
kissed him on the forehead. However, Waraqa warned Muhammad that his people were likely to
reject his message and to send him into exile. In that regard, Waraqa expressed regret that, given
his age, he was unlikely to be alive to assist Muhammad when his time of troubles came.
Christians–and Muslims–in the late 20th century might do well to recall this story of
Christian-Muslim collaboration at the birth of the third Abrahamic revelation. Might what once was
become again a reality?
(9) Ibid., p. 69.
(10) Concerning the use of "Abrahamic" rather than "Judaeo-Christian" to describe the
monotheistic traditions, there is good news to report. The traditionalist Howard Center for Family,
Religion and Society (Rockford, Illinois) now emphasizes that its international conference program
places emphasis on bringing together "all" of the "scattered children of Abraham: Jews, Sunni and
Shiite Muslims, and Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, and Mormons."
(11) Concerning the idea of Graeco-Roman civilization, see David Gress, From Plato to Nato:
The Idea of the West and its Opponents, New York: Free Press, 1998. Certainly, Gress would
prefer the designation of the West as Judaeo-Christian rather than Graeco-Roman, despite his
ascription to Roman law of a major role in the shaping of Western society. Gress’s discomfort with
the category of Graeco-Roman is due to the fact that he associates the putative ideals of classical
Greece (which the Roman Empire helped to disseminate) with the "radical" (Voltaire) rather than
"sceptical" (Montesquieu, David Hume) Enlightenment, and with 20th century American liberalism.
In particular, Gress identifies the formation of the West more with Christian ethics and Germanic
ideas of limited power than he does with such "abstract" notions as democracy and tolerance
whose source he believes a traditional but flawed Grand Narrative located in classical Greece.
Above all, Gress maintains that since the Enlightenment the West has erred because it has used the
myth of ancient Greece as a "replacement for Christianity" (p. 60). There is no significant
appreciation in Gress’s book of the major role that Islam and the Arabs have played in the
establishment and development of Western civilization. On the contrary, Gress follows Samuel P.
Huntington in treating Islam as an alien and potentially enemy Other (see especially pp.527-534).
For one insightful critique of Gress’s argument which echoes criticisms made earlier by James Kurth
of Samuel Huntington’s hypothesis of a looming "conflict of civilizations," see Morton A. Kaplan,
"What is the West?", The World and I, Vol. 13, No. 12, December 1998, pp.14-15. Kaplan
points out that classical Greek science was derived from North Africa and the Middle East, and
that Christianity is hardly a Western invention. Kaplan implicitly argues for retention of the category
of "Graeco-Roman" as a proper designation of the essence of the West. Echoing Kurth, Kaplan
maintains that today the most dangerous enemies of the West are not outside it but "within its very
bowels" in the form or irrationalism, relativism, and the collapse of faith.
(12) This book was originally published in Paris by librairie Armand Colin. One recent English
translation was published by the University of California Press in 1995.
(13) For a recent analysis of how problematic the traditional notion is of a peninsular European
continent and culture terminating neatly at the Bosporous, see J.G.A. Pocock, "What Do We Mean
By Europe?", The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1997.
(14) Liggio to Sullivan, electronic mail, 1 November 1998.
(15) The very concept of "civilization" is of course a highly problematic one. In commenting on the
seminal work of the sociologist and philosopher of history Pitirim Sorokin, Bruce G. Brander
observes: "Sorokin…does not focus on ‘civilizations.’ That term proved too vague and varied for
scientific use….[There is] no way to pin down the term for precise investigation…every civilization
contains a multitude of factors…from imported religions to contradictory philosophies and alien
modes of dress…to toys and tools and food also common in other cultures, and work occupations
pursued universally. So a ‘civilization,’ to [Sorokin], far from making up a cultural unity, is only a
vast and complex dump of related and unrelated factors…[he] dispensed with the concept
altogether" (See Brander, Staring Into Chaos: Explorations in the Decline of Western
Civilization, Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1998, p. 254.) Instead of the idea of
"civilization," Sorokin offered the hypothesis of perpetually recurring "cultural supersystems" which
he denominated as "ideational," "sensate," and "integral" and which, he maintained, were common
to Arabic and Confucian cultures as well as to the West. What Sorokin did was to explicate the
historical laws which he believed determined the destinies of all cultures, and thereby made a case
for a scholarly focus on the similarities among "civilizations" rather than on the differences that divide
them. Especially given Huntington’s original thesis of an impending "conflict of civilizations,"
Sorokin’s work (expressed in greatest detail in his four-volume Social and Cultural Dynamics,
New York: American Book, 1937-1941) deserves renewed attention.
(16) For one insightful critique of Huntington which emphasizes that nationalities and ethnicities, not
civilizations, will prove the major strategic and military contenders in the future, see John Gray,
"Global Utopias and Clashing Civilizations: Misunderstanding the Present," International Affairs,
(17) See "The Clash of Civilizations?," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.
(18) One major error obvious in Huntington’s book is that in his discussion of the Muslim world,
the author constantly uses the terms "Islam" and "Muslims" in both a descriptive and causative
sense, with no apparent effort to separate the two or make any delineation between one and the
other. For example, it is certainly accurate to apply the word "Islamic" to countries such as Saudi
Arabia or Egypt where the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim. Such is an example
of an appropriate descriptive usage. But Huntington also employs "Muslim" and "Islamic" as
causative categories, specifically alloting to "Muslims" or "Islam" the responsibility for producing
acts of violence and warfare. "Muslims are engaged in more intergroup violence than non-Muslims,"
he writes. "Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards" (Clash, pp. 257-58). The fact is that
such reified categories as "Islam" or "Muslims," used to denote agency, simply do not hold water.
As suggested above, violence, terrorism or aggressive warfare have little or nothing to do with
Islam as a religion or as a social system, or with the practice of their faith by individual Muslims.
Rather, such behavior, to the extent that it exists, relates to a congeries of economic, demographic
and social causes that have nothing to do with religion. The irony is that the very evidence that
Huntington himself presents suggests that the turbulence in Middle Eastern and South Asian
societies relates directly to rapid demographic increase, feeble or negative economic growth, and a
variety of real or imagined societal blockages that have radicalized some of the recent immigrants to
the large cities in the region who are convinced that they have no future. The primacy of social,
economic and political factors in fostering terrorism remains the case despite the proclamations by
some terrorists that they have acted in the name of Islam. Professor Huntington has done a
disservice to objective understanding in the West of the Middle East and South Asia by ascribing to
Islam a role that in fact is contradictory to it. In particular, it is disturbing that Professor Huntington
has seen fit to repeat the old canard that "Islam has from the start been a religion of the sword and
[has glorified] military virtues" (Clash, p.263). The truth is quite the opposite.
(19) See Huntington, "The Erosion of American National Interests," Foreign Affairs,
September/October 1997, p.32.
(20) loc. cit., p. 31.
(21) For a more balanced discussion of this entire subject and a gentle explanation of why many
Muslims today are critical of the West, see Kurshid Ahmad, "Islam and the West: Confrontation or
Cooperation?", The Muslim World, January-April 1995.
(22) Kreeft’s observations illustrate well Karen Armstrong’s argument that "For the first time,
people all over the world are beginning to find inspiration in more than one religion…The barriers of
geographical distance, hostility and fear, which once kept the religions in separate, watertight
compartments, are beginning to fall…this is a hopeful development." (See Armstrong, Muhammad:
A Biography of the Prophet, San Francisco: Harper, 1992, pp. 9-10). Armstrong’s book
constitutes a stunning intellectual achievement marked by enormous spiritual penetration. It is simply
the best study available for anyone new to the subject who desires a basic understanding of
Muhammad and Islam.
(23) Pp. 98-102. For one echo of what Kreeft has to say by a prominent Muslim, see Kurshid
Ahmad, "The Nature of Islamic Resurgence," in John L. Esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Ahmad states: "Had Western culture been based on
Christianity, on morality, on faith…contact and conflict [between the West and the Muslim world]
would have been different. But this [has not been] the case [with the West]. The choice is between
the Divine Principle and a secular materialist culture…In fact those human beings who are
concerned over the spiritual and moral crisis of our times should heave a sigh or relief over Islamic
resurgence, and not be put off or scared by it" (p.228).
(24) For the best scholarly study of jihad available in English, see Rudolph Peters, Jihad in
Classical and Modern Islam, Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1966.
(25) For one excellent recent study of the idea of just war in Christianity and Islam, see James
Turner Johnson, The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions, University Park:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
(26) The Qur’an emphatically endorses the individual’s right to hold private property, as long as all
property owners understand that their "ownership" is in fact a trusteeship held from God to which
all things ultimately belong. The Qur’an and hadith also prescribe free trade and oppose price fixing.
According to Islamic law, entrepreneurship is obligatory, both to satisfy immediate economic needs
and to create capital. Indeed, to accumulate capital is considered to be of greater value than
engaging in "extra" acts of worship. On this last point, see especially Abd al-Hayy al-Kattani, Kitab
Nizam al-Hukuma al-Nabawiyya, also known as Al-Taratib al-Idariyya [The System of
Prophetic Government], (Beirut, A.H. 1347), Vol. 2, especially pp. 3 and 24.
(27) As related to the general argument of this paper as well as well as to these last points, I cannot
recommend too highly an essay by Hadley Arkes, "Life Watch: Report from an Exotic Place,"
Crisis, March 1999. Arkes writes: "…[T]he president of the United Nations Association of New
York was apparently surprised when she was told by a young [Muslim] that the [Q]ur’an, as a
source of Islamic law, prohibits homosexuality. According to the young delegate, [the president]
simply suggested to him, with a wink, ‘that moderate Muslims should interpret [their teachings] in a
way that respects every human being’s right to enjoy his or her own body without interference or
discrimination." Arkes adds that "cultural relativism" was a doctrine formed in the West and
"projected into the so-called backward countries, most of whom did not see anything the least
‘relative’ or uncertain about their own way of life…Yet, wonder to behold, it [is] the countries of the
East [who are]…now learning to speak their resistance in the language of natural rights, a language
that the elites in the West no longer take seriously. In the final turnabout, these countries now offer
their remonstrance and manifesto in the name of that God who endowed us with certain ‘unalienable
rights,’ anchored in the proposition that ‘all men are created equal’."
(28) Concerning the possibility of forming an international ecumenical alliance to combat radical
secularism, some recent comments by Allan Carlson, President of the Howard Center, are
suggestive. In a speech entitled "The Family of Faith Today: Shaping the Global Future" which he
delivered in the Philippines on 27-28 March 1999, Mr. Carlson reported: "During the 1997 United
Nations Habitat conference in Nairobi, [a]…coalition of conservative Christians and Orthodox
Muslims took form, much to the consternation of the conference leaders. As a report by NGO
Family Voice, a group affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, related: "The
interest of [Muslim] nations [in our work] was often quite pointed. For example, during an informal
‘hallway’ discussion…, the Iranian Ambassador noted…that ‘your group is different from the others’
and inquired whether our position on the family was merely ‘political posturing’ or was ‘based on a
deeper spiritual foundation.’ He suggested that his people would benefit immensely from meeting
with Americans who believed in the importance of both the family and spirituality."
(29) See the MESA Newsletter, August 1997, p.11.
(30) Abd al-Raouf, op. cit., p. 67.