Acton Institute Powerblog

Let’s Stop Expecting Islam to be Christian

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islam_christianityOne of the hot new trends in religious opinion today is to advocate for an “Islamic reformation.” This past weekend the Wall Street Journal ran two articles on the subject: “Islam’s Improbable Reformer” and “Why Islam Needs a Reformation.” Presumably, the assumption is that an Islamic Reformation would bring about the same beneficial changes as the Protestant Reformation.

As a committed Protestant (Reformed, Evangelical, Southern Baptist) I believe the Reformation was indeed one of the most significant, and largely beneficial, events in world history. But I imagine it must irk my Catholic friends to hear the implied claim that modern radical Jihadism is similar to the Catholic Church of the early Renaissance era. (In an ironic twist, some people claim that, in many ways, ISIS is the Islamic equivalent of Protestant Reformers.)

The reality, though, is that no one calling for an Islamic reformation wants Muslims to become like Calvinists of 16th century Geneva; what they want is for Muslims to be like the Episcopalians of Boston circa 1965. Those calling for reform of Islam want Islam to be like liberal mainline Christianity: all the trappings of the faith without all that pesky doctrine that might stir up trouble.

The problem with this idea—apart from it being tone-deaf and offensive to two world religions—is that it relies on the completely untenable foundation of assuming Islam is similar in relevant ways to Christianity.

The dominance of Christianity in the West has caused it be viewed as the default template for generic “religion.” All genuine religions are assumed to be, at their core, much like Christianity: respectful of the intrinsic dignity of all humans, desirous of individual liberty and global peace, compatible with liberal democracy and pluralism, etc.

This is why people like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York can say that the Islamic State extremists “do not represent genuine Islamic thought” but are “a particularly perverted form of Islam.” Dolan added,

These are not pure, these are not real Muslims. Now what we need and what Pope Francis has led the world in saying, is we need the temperate, moderate, genuine forces of Islam to rise up and say this — they do not represent us. Now, that’s beginning to happen. God can bring good out of evil.

Notice the assumption being made. Temperance, moderation, and nonviolence are what we need, therefore any violence associated with Islam must be blamed on those who are not real Muslims. Cardinal Dolan is both a spiritual leader and a politician (in the best sense of the term). As a politician, this statement makes sense: frame the issue in terms that you find acceptable. But as a matter of historical truth, the idea that Islam is naturally “temperate” and “moderate” is simply not true.

There are indeed temperate, moderate followers of Islam. And we should hope their number increases in proportion to the number who are neither temperate nor moderate. But to claim that moderates alone are “real Muslims” is an act of historical and religious revisionism that is fooling no one—except, perhaps, us Westerners.

Another recent example of this confused thinking about Islam comes from the evangelical theologian Richard Mouw. Writing in First Things, Mouw says:

I read recently that some young Muslims in the United States are complaining that what goes on in their mosques is not “American” enough. They say that the patterns of worship and religious education seem designed to preserve the connections to the countries from which their Muslim communities emigrated, while these young folks want their faith to guide them in their lives in America. Shouldn’t their leaders be doing more, they ask, to help them understand how their faith applies to the country of which they are now citizens?

I say: Good for them. I hope they succeed in getting a positive response from their elders.

Notice how Mouw expects Islamic leaders to tailor faith traditions to fit the sensibilities of an American audience. This is a common, and very Western, way of thinking about religion, and even beliefs in general.

Those of us in the West have a peculiar habit of thinking that because we prefer a certain set of beliefs that all those beliefs must be compatible with each other. For instance, take our belief that women should have the same political rights as men. There is no reason to assume that belief is compatible with the tenets of Islam, a faith that doesn’t separate the political from the religious. But since we have no intention of abandoning our belief in universal suffrage, we expect that Islam either embraces that belief already or will change to accommodate it in the future. The implication is that all religions (and this includes Christianity) are expected to be flexible and change in accordance with whatever “modern,” “progressive,” or “enlightened” views society has decided to embrace.

This idea is embedded in every call for an “Islamic reformation.” The assumption is not only that Islam can change to be made more compatible with our most cherished beliefs, but that in doing so the religion will become more true to it’s nature as a religion.

What undergirds this idea is the belief that Islam is essentially just a heretical form of Christianity. While it can never be changed in a way that brings it within the Christian fold, it can be “reformed” to become more like orthodox Christianity in its embrace of modernism and compatibility with pluralism.

We in the West are constantly shocked that Muslims throughout the non-Western world do not share this eccentric view of Islam as a Christian heresy. We assume they must have some sort of “false consciousness,” for why else would they not want Islam to be more like Christianity? Don’t they understand the nature of religion? Don’t they understand their own religion?

If fact, they do understand their own belief system—much more than we do. Whatever “true” Islam is, it is not another form of Christianity.

We can certainly take sides in the intra-religious debate and champion the Muslims whose views align most closely with our own. But we should not be foolish enough to think that a “reformation” of Islam is necessarily going to make it more compatible with Western ideals. Perhaps instead of expecting Islam to change to suit our preferences, we should be working to provide the world a better alternative. As Daniel Johnson wrote in The New Criterion in 2008,

If Islam is now the problem … then the solution can only be a conservative one. Islam will not overwhelm a society that draws its morality from biblical and its rationality from classical sources. The West does not need an Islamic revolution, but a Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman renaissance.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Veritas

    Equality of opportunity should be an offshoot of equality of essence. Unfortunately the western secular view denies the transcendence of a being making it a utilitarian concept of opportunity only. However, I do not see how Islam, which ranks nonbelievers below political and status of believers, stays consistent with the ideal of equality of essence. Equality of essence would imply that all lives matter equally under God, and are to be valued. I do not see this in the Islamic world in practice, or even ias a concept.

    • anon

      Your perspective of “utilitarian concept” is interesting. Equality of essence/worth can be used as a utilitarian concept if we understand it as a right of universal human dignity. What the great Wisdom Teachers of the world said about reciprocity—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…..So, for example…this would mean that the United States does not have the right to freedom and security at the expense of other nations right to freedom and security. It means that the wealth for the wealthy nations cannot come by exploitation of the wealth of other nations. It means that justice and law cannot be manipulated by the powerful elite for the benefit of the power elites but must serve the interest and benefit of all….especially privileging the weaker members of society.

      Islam—is not just theology(nature of God) it is a complete ethical/moral code of conduct in matters that range from family relations to relations between nations—from principles that govern economics to those that govern charity…etc…etc.
      Today, most Muslim-majority countries are run on secular ideas—not ones based on the ethico-moral principles of Islam—-even though this is often the claim.

      Non-Believers—In Western countries—those who are citizens of the nation can join the military (and have other rights) that are not given to those who are residents of the nation but not citizens. In the Islamic system. those who are not Muslims were also exempt from the military—yet they and their property were promised protection. They also had the freedom to practice their own system of laws/justice (with their own courts etc) and did not have to follow Sharia. (A freedom/right that the West does not yet offer)
      While the West bases its concept on rights and privileges—the Islamic system is based on responsibility and obligations. So, a “citizen/resident” does not just have rights—but also has obligations. Those who are more privileged have more responsibilities—therefore, if by being a Muslim one has privilege—then the responsibility is also heavy (for example, the protection of the nation) but without the privilege of being Muslim, the responsibility is less (exemptions).

      • “wealth for the wealthy nations cannot come by exploitation of the wealth of other nations.”

        Western wealth did not come from exploiting other nations. That is Marxism, not Islam. Western wealth came from innovation that resulted from freedom and capitalism and created new wealth.

  • Jennifer P

    Good article. Joe Carter makes some excellent points.

    If you look at the levels of violence and harshness in Muslim countries you will find that it the most extreme in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia (countries with little influence from the Christian West) and the least extreme in places like Lebanon and Tunisia (countries with the most influence from the Christian West).

    Islam is just not Judaism or Christianity. Islamic countries are not just like Western countries. Western-style reform would be wonderful, but it’s just wishful thinking. If you spend some time reading the Qua-ran you just don’t find the message of forgiveness and love for neighbor.

  • Trevor Thomas

    Christianity has spread liberty and truth. And thus, innovation, prosperity, and justice are some of its fruit. Islam has spread tyranny and lies. And thus, spread, among other things, death, poverty, and despair. See: and:

  • mike flynn

    Great analysis of the Western elites’ head in the ground approach to a dangerous problem.
    Funny thing, the elites and opinion leaders tend to be genrally godless, and more specifically anti-christian. Yet, do they realize the behavior they would see all islam “reform” to is profoundly the message of Jesus Christ risen? Do they at all have a clue they are preaching judeo-christian values?

  • Stephen Manning

    In my years of reading about Islam, the Koran, the Muslim prophet and his life, the hadith and sharia, and 1400 years of recorded Muslim behavior in history, I have found no reason to see this religion as anything other than an imperialistic theocracy with the goal of global domination.

  • James Stagg

    Excellent. Mr. Carter. Hopefully Cdl. Dolan and Pope Francis will one day learn to reserve their private opinions to themselves. Maybe that will happen shortly before Islam swamps the rest of the world.

  • Actually, equality of opportunity is merely one of the logical conclusions of the Christian idea of equality which says we are all equal before God. God values all people equally. The consequences of that are that the authority to govern must come from the consent of the people and the state must treat all citizens equally.

    • anon

      What you are proposing is that “equality” is equivalent to “same”. However to treat people who are inherently unequal as “same” is injustice. For the concept of “equality” (equivalent human worth) to be just (as well as moral)—one must take into consideration the reality that human beings are NOT equal(same) in circumstance—for example, a child born in a wealthy house is not equal to a child born in a poor house—and this circumstance has to do with the will of God. So, in oreder to balance the inequality of circumstance—one needs to place more obligations on those who have more privilege and to give more privilege to those who have less.

      • That understanding of equality is what has kept the Muslim world poor for so long. It demands an equal distribution of wealth and destroys individualism. Almost all of the poorest nations in the world are Muslim. Helmut Schoeck provides the details in “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.”

        • anon

          No–poverty in the Non-Western world comes from unfair/unjust exploitation by the West for their own luxury and greed.
          In the Islamic system—making a profit is encouraged—but this is balanced by the obligation to charity. In Islam there is the obligatory charity and the voluntary charity. Obligatory charity is a duty (5 pillars). Thus—wealth belongs to God, because it is God who gives and takes the blessings and trails in our life.(circumstances) Therefore, those who have received more blessings from God—have more obligations to share than those who have not……
          The right to make a profit is balanced by the obligation to charity. This is beneficial to the economic system as it prevents hoarding—the more the wealth is circulated in society, the more the prosperity. The more hoarding of wealth in the hands of a few—the more poverty…..

          • You are spouting the standard Marxist line. But economics has been proving Marx wrong for a century and a half. Muslim nations will continue to be among the poorest in the world as long as they embrace Marxism. BTW, check out the fall in the standards of living of Iran and Saudi Arabia over the past 40 years. Iran has ¼ the standard it enjoyed under the Shah and the Saudi’s are at about ½ what they had in the 1980’s. And that’s all because of their Marxist/Muslim economics.

    • anon

      Authority—In Islam/Quran—each individual has “God-given authority”—this authority comes with the obligation (Trusteeship) of intentions and conduct that benefit–and not harm—all of God’s creations. This right and obligation is between each human being and God with none in between. In order to accomplish this goal—human beings can organize their societies as they wish—in whatever system of governance they choose—but the core responsibility remains. This responsibility is accomplished through ethical/moral conduct which is laid out in law. Thus, a lawful society that works for the benefit and restrains from the harm of all of God’s creation (including other human beings) is one that is the ideal society to strive for—irrespective of its political structure……

  • In 1600 the standards of living of the West and the Muslim world world were roughly equal. Then the West invented capitalism and began growing its wealth. By the 20th century the West was 30 times wealthier than the Muslim world and had created modern science. The Muslim world made a little progress, but mostly by purchasing Western inventions. If that isn’t progress or modern, I don’t know what is.

  • bdlaacmm

    I so agree with the last paragraph of this article! We need to put our own house in order, so that the world will flock to us, instead of to any alternative. Christianity needs no make-over – all the West needs is to rediscover Christ anew. Our church leaders, our preachers, and our pew-fillers – all need to think and act like Christians of the First Century, and to realize just how amazing is our Faith, how revolutionary, how beautiful, how potent a force for good… but most of all, to simply rediscover Christ.

    Do that, and Islamic extremism will attract nobody. How could anything compete with the genuine Good News?

  • BXVI

    Rigorous self-examination is required for true reform to occur. But Islam cannot withstand rigorous self-examination. If Muslims ever decide to apply reason in a self-examination of their religion, they will realize it is a theological house of cards, and Islam will collapse on itself. This is what we must work towards. Unfortunately, we are neither challenging the thological and historical basis of Islam, nor are we providing an attractive alternative. We need to be doing both.

  • gerastaman

    My goodness, does anyone here read history? Islam is not reformable. Its founder, Mohamed the pedophile, murder rapist, hateful evil man gave his spiritual seed to those who follow him. It is anti-grace. Ignorant western politicians call islam “a religion of peace.” By its very nature, it is a theodicy and that is not a religion but a political movement. Observe the last 1400 years of this so called peaceful entity-wherever it has borders, made and continues to make war. In the mid 18th century, St Kosmas the Martyr and prophet from Aetolia said, “in the year 2015–that Muslims shall invade Europe.” We must return to the ORTHODOX TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH and live interior lives so that we may be truly free people in Christ true God and Saviour. In this way will Islam be defeated. If we continue to engage in spiritual pap, and ignore worship in spirit and truth, we shall become slaves. As for the nonsensical anti-islamophobia bill passed in Canada, please understand the significance- truth shall be subjected to political correctness.