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Are You Even Aware of How Little You Know about Islam?

Are You Even Aware of How Little You Know about Islam?

UN Photo/Jamil Shamou

William Kilpatrick - published on 10/25/13

Even the most devout Catholics know next to nothing of the second largest religion in the world - and what they think they know is often wrong.

Despite all the emphasis on critical thinking in our schools, American students have long lagged behind students in the rest of the developed world in tests of reading, science, and math.  E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the author of The Knowledge Deficit and other books on education, suggests that the problem lies in the fact that the critical thinking craze was accompanied by a corresponding de-emphasis on factual knowledge.  As Hirsch points out, you can’t think critically unless you have something to think about, and American students have a woefully inadequate store of facts about history, geography, math, science, and grammar, leaving them not only unprepared to compete on international assessment tests but also leaving them unprepared to compete in the global job market.

Western citizens suffer from a similar knowledge deficit about Islam – a deficit that leaves them unprepared to think critically about the global resurgence of Islam in our times.  For reasons to be explained shortly, this knowledge gap is particularly acute among Catholics.  Catholics either know next to nothing about Islam, or else they are depending on a simplistic narrative about Islam that is long on hope and short on facts.

I had an opportunity this summer to test a sample of Catholics on their understanding of Islam; the results were not encouraging.  I administered a twenty question “Knowledge of Islam” survey to 150 members of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) who were enrolled in a month-long training session to prepare them to evangelize students on both Catholic and non-Catholic campuses.  Even though the FOCUS members are, in many respects, the crème-de-la-crème of recent Catholic grads in the U.S., they did poorly on the questionnaire – the average score was 31 out of a possible 100.  The questions, which were in multiple-choice format, had to do with basic facts and definitions with which most Muslims would be familiar.  In light of the rapid expansion of Islam in recent decades, one would think that non-Muslims would also be anxious to familiarize themselves with this basic knowledge.

Why don’t they?  Part of the reason, of course, lies in the normal inclination to inertia.  But in the case of Islam, another factor is in play: after 9/11, a politically correct narrative about Islam was quickly established which had the effect of inducing a certain complacency.  Islam, we were assured, was a religion of peace, and terrorists were misinterpreting their religion. The formula, in effect, excused us from doing our homework. If terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, it follows that there is no particular urgency about bringing oneself up to speed on Islam.

Setting the Record Straight

Many of the responses to the questionnaire seemed to reflect that narrative.  For example, a question about the definition of the word Islam had four possible answers – “peace,” “submission,” “justice,” and “dedication.”  Fifty percent of the FOCUS group answered correctly that Islam means “submission,” but the next most popular choice (35%) was “peace.”  For over a decade, media, governmental, and academic elites have been insisting that Islam means peace, and that narrative still exerts a strong influence over public opinion.

Catholics have their own semi-official narrative about Islam, and in many ways it reinforces the narrative of the secular elites.  Although most Catholics couldn’t quote the relevant paragraph verbatim, most are vaguely aware that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Muslims, together with Catholics, worship the one God.  More informed Catholics – such as the members of FOCUS – are also aware that the Vatican II document,
Nostra Ætate, outlines a handful of beliefs shared by Catholics and Muslims:  both adore the one God, link their faith to Abraham’s, revere Jesus, honor Mary, and value the moral life.

The “Catholic narrative” about Islam, in short, is that the two faiths share a common ground.  “In short,” however, is precisely the problem.  In fact, recent Church documents make no reference to Islam, Muhammad, and the Koran, but speak only briefly of “Muslim” beliefs. How briefly? For some perspective, consider that the Catechism devotes far more space to a discussion of the proper relationship between man and animals than it does to the Church’s relation to Muslims.  Likewise, the brief statement in Nostra Ætate is too general to provide any basis for an adequate understanding of Islam.  Many have suggested it is best understood simply as a gesture of friendship toward Muslims.

Nevertheless, the common-ground narrative seems to have seeped into Catholic consciousness.  Thus, when asked to answer “true” or “false” to the statement “Islam and Christianity both teach the golden rule,” 49 percent of the respondents answered “true.”  In fact, there is no golden rule in Islam; rather, there is one rule for Muslims and another, decidedly harsher, rule for non-Muslims.  But if a Catholic believes that Catholics and Muslims share much in common, then it is reasonable for him to assume that the golden rule (which is found in many other religions and philosophies) should be part of that common core.

What You Don’t Know Can, In Fact, Hurt You

One of the interesting things about multiple choice tests is that they not only reveal what people know, they also reveal how people guess when they don’t know.  Most people, of course, make their guesses based on their existing framework of assumptions.  One of the assumptions that many make about Islam is that because it is a religion it must be similar to other religions.  Thus, when responding to a question about the identity of Jesus, the Catholic test-takers tended to respond from within their own Judeo-Christian framework. Here’s the question:

According to Islamic teaching, Jesus was:

a. a Christian

b. a Jew

c. a Muslim

d. an Essene

e. other

Sixty-nine percent answered “a Jew.”  They apparently assumed that for Muslims, who supposedly believe much the same as Catholics, this would be a non-controversial fact.  For a Muslim, however, to call a great prophet such as Jesus a Jew would be highly problematic.  According to the Koran, the Jews are the greatest enemy of Muslims. Jesus, a Jew? On the contrary, Muslims consider Jesus to be a Muslim. But only 15 percent of the test-takers chose that answer.  When faced with an unknown, the Catholic respondents tended to answer on the assumption that Muslim beliefs would resemble Catholic beliefs.

What difference does it make?  Most of these differences seem innocuous enough.  But a moment’s thought suggests they are not.  If, for example, Jesus is a Muslim, then it may be the case that the Jesus Muslims revere is not the same Jesus that Christians revere.  In fact, the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of the Koran make radically different claims about themselves. It’s not just that the Koranic Jesus makes no claim to be the Son of God – he explicitly denies before Allah that he ever made such a claim. Moreover, in the Koran, Christians who persist in claiming divinity for Jesus are cursed by Allah for their blasphemy. To say that Jesus is divine is, for Muslims, the worst of all blasphemies. As we are beginning to realize, there is a good deal of hostility toward Christians in the Muslim world, and this is one of the main reasons why. When one takes a closer look, the supposed common ground between the two faiths begins to look like quicksand.

It also makes a difference whether the world Islam means “peace” or “submission.”  One of the reasons Muslims find it difficult to leave their neighbors in peace is that, while Muslims are supposed to submit to Allah, non-Muslims are supposed to submit to Muslims.  In the Koran, Muslims are commanded to “Fight those who believe not in Allah… until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).  The jizya is a tax that non-Muslims must pay as a sign of their submission to Muslims.  Under colonial rule and under the subsequent rule of secular strongmen the practice was suspended, but it is now making an unofficial comeback in many Muslim areas where Christians dare not complain about their conditions.

Another “j”-word with which Catholics need to familiarize themselves is jihad.  Although the root of the word means “struggle,” it has always been primarily understood in Muslim tradition as a duty to fight unbelievers.  Recently, however, it has become fashionable for Islamic apologists to recast jihad as an interior spiritual struggle.

Since this dissembling definition of jihad coincides with the Catholic notion of battling with one’s conscience, it fits comfortably into the common ground narrative.  Not surprisingly, many Catholics have been quite willing to accept this recent innovation as the true meaning of jihad.  Thus, textbooks used in Catholic schools define jihad as “a person’s inner struggle to achieve spiritual peace” or as “a personal duty for Muslims who focus on overcoming immorality within themselves.”  One textbook widely used in Catholic colleges says that jihad means striving “to achieve personal betterment,” but then goes on to admit that it can also include “a fair, defensive fight to preserve one’s life and one’s faith.”  But a map at the bottom of the textbook page showing the extent of Muslim “expansion” from 632 to 750 AD gives the lie even to this slightly more honest definition.  What, one wonders, were Muslims doing fighting “defensive” fights 3,000 miles to the east of Arabia and 4,000 miles to the west?

The Reality Beyond the Rose-Colored Glasses

While Catholics in the West today are congratulating themselves on their enlightened “understanding” of Islam, Catholics and other Christians in Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other Muslim countries are experiencing a form of jihad that is a far cry from the interior struggle of the textbooks.  Their experience of jihad is disturbingly similar to the kind of jihad experienced by Christians at the hands of Muslim warriors for the better part of fourteen centuries.

Will Catholics in Europe and America someday find themselves in the same precarious position that Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq now occupy?  If they don’t overcome their knowledge deficit about Islam, that might well happen.  Europe is already undergoing a slow-motion capitulation to Islam. This cultural surrender is due in large part to the fact that European elites are ruled by the same simple-minded and largely fact-free narrative that guides elite thinking in America and in most of the Western world. Their highest priority is not finding out about Islam, but avoiding offense against it. The narrative says Islam is a religion of peace, and facts that conflict with the narrative are routinely suppressed. There is a price to be paid for such folly, and Europe is currently paying the price in the currency of appeasement and self-censorship in the face of rising violence and intimidation.

Catholics are in danger of falling into a similar folly if they are not willing to look beyond the limited scope of the common-ground narrative. As Alexander Pope observed, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Those who understand only a little about a subject seldom understand how little they know and, as Pope suggested, they may pay dearly for their ignorance. Catholics who are trying to get by with only a surface knowledge of Islam may be setting themselves up for an unpleasant surprise.

William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong and, most recently, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, the Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications.  He is on the Board of Experts at

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