In my last post I mentioned in passing that "we could do worse than pray
for a revival of traditional Islam".
I realize that that is a rather startling thing for a Catholic to say and
the comment prompted several critical replies.
I intended to elaborate on what I meant by it, but last week brought a
heavy snowstorm to Ohio. As you can imagine, a foot of snow on the ground makes
my job delivering mail that much more arduous, and between the overtime and the
exhaustion I haven’t had a chance to write.
Now that I have a day off let me try.
First, I want to be clear that I am not talking about the emergence of what
everyone calls "moderate Islam", that is, liberal Islam.
There is a chapter in the book I just read, American Islam: the
Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M Barrett, devoted to one
representative of this "progressive Islam", Asra Nomani, a woman who led a
highly publicized drive in Morgantown West Virginia to advance equal treatment
for women in her mosque. She is a defiantly unrepentant unwed mother and one of
the other leaders of the Daughters of Hajar (ie, Hagar), the Islamic feminist
movement she founded, is a lesbian activist.
Whatever injustices toward women that may exist within Islamic communities
the Daughters of Hajar are bound to offend Muslim sensibilities, to prove in the
long run counterproductive. Like other religious liberalisms, the Islamic
variety appeals to a rarified minority and has little attraction for ordinary
Indeed, it is more likely to spark a reaction than to inspire change.
But besides the fact that it is bound to fail there are other reasons for
opposing Islamic liberalism and promoting certain traditional types of
As Catholics we believe that grace is not confined to within the visible
borders of the Church, that "the wind bloweth where it listeth" in the lovely
cadences of King James English.
Thus we may assess movements both within and without the Church based on
whether they are growing toward Truth, Beauty and Goodness or not.
Besides the criterion of whether movements are likely to contribute to the
prospects for "peaceful times", which we pray for in every Divine Liturgy, there
is the criterion of whether they are leading their adherants into greater of
lesser participation in grace, toward or away from the sanctified life that
finds its fullest expression in the Church.
Of course in real life things are seldom perfectly clear; mixed motives
and jumbled content are often intrinsic to lived faith. Even within the Church
there are groups who stress one aspect of the truth at the expense of another or
who combine right doctrine with a hostile and uncharitable spirit.
As most of you know, I disagree with Fr Richard Neuhaus on his reading of
the signs of the times more often than not. And while I disagree with his
assessment of what is and is not a "Catholic moment" in history, it is evident
to me that such moments do exist.
And it is evident to me that they exist everywhere that the Holy Spirit is
leading people into greater truth and love, whether or not that leads to
acceptance of the fullness that is implicit within the Church.
Turning to the new Islamic militancy in its various Wahhabist and Salafi
manifestations I would suggest that a parallel exists in Christian history in
the rise of Calvinism.
Like Islamic fundamentalist militancy, Calvinism was a harsh and narrow
creed, militant, not afraid to use violence, and intent on establishing a
religious commonwealth in this world.
There are many similarities between the rule of Calvin in Geneva, Cromwell
in England, and the Puritan divines in New England with the rule of the Taliban
in Afghanistan or the Wahhabist Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, not least the hostility
toward folk religion, toward art and music, toward all that is human and
charming in the life of the people.
As the Puritans banned Christmas, so the Wahhabists banned the celebration
of the birth of Muhammad. The Calvinists suppressed devotion to the saints and
pilgrimage to holy places, and so have the Muslim fundamentalists.
As I have argued before, humans cannot long endure an ideology that
oppresses the heart, that robs the world of beauty and celebration.
In Christian history, Calvinist rule has never long endured.
The more intellectual heirs of the Calvinists rejected its narrowness and
embraced the opposite errors, unitarianism and universalism. These, and the
later transcendentalism begin with rejection of core components of the ancient
Christian Creeds and go downhill from there, despite occasional glimmers of
light here and there ("mixed motives and jumbled content").
But there was another movement which arose largely in response to Calvinism
which was more clearly Catholic in its intuitions, and which appealed to
ordinary believers in a way the liberal reactions did not.
I speak of the popular movement that was initiated by the Anglican cleric
John Wesley. Wesley reaffirmed the Catholic truth that sanctification was not
just a declaration by God unrelated to the reality of the sin-soaked soul
(Luther’s image of grace was a blanket of snow covering a dung hill) but a real
grace-inspired transformation of the whole person.
And Wesleyan life moved away from the frozen rationalizations of the
Calvinist divines and embraced a warm and human devotional life.
Of course Methodism and its variants had its excesses- extreme
emotionalism, errors about the nature of sanctification and so on- but all in
all it seems undeniable that this was a movement of grace, a Catholic moment in
But are there comparable movements within Islam?
I think there are.
American Islam has a chapter devoted to Sheikh Muhammad Hisham
Kibanni, spiritual leader of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis in the United
To my amazement I read that the Naqshbandi own a farm near Fenton,
Michigan, the town where I grew up. Not only that, but what had been the local
Episcopal church is now their mosque.
I guess I haven’t been to my old town for a while.
Sheikh Kabbani’s Sufi approach to Islam emphasizes love, recognizes the
presence of God in all, and urges tolerance and peace.
He was disturbed, when he came to the US in 1990, by the intolerant tone of
much of what he heard in American mosques.
He has denounced those who spew hate and destruction in the name of Allah,
a stance that has brought death threats.
Yet the Sheikh is no liberal Muslim. Naqshbandi Islam is a deeply rooted
tradition within Islam, rather that a newly minted secular imitation. It is
mystical, not rationalistic; devotional, not dogmatic.
Besides the Naqshbandi, there are other movements- Sufi, Sunni and Shia-
which are traditional expressions of Islam and who view the Wahhabi and Salafi
violence as aberrational, who affirm the traditional Islamic prohibitions
against killing civilians, against slaying Muslims, and against committing
To pray for a revival of these expressions of Islam is to pray not only for
the common good and for peaceful times. It is to pray for the good of souls; it
is to pray movement toward Catholic truth and Catholic charity.
I do not see it as contrary to praying for the conversion of Muslims.