By Marvin Olasky

Is a rule-obsessed religion that denies original sin and the need for grace compatible with freedom?

In the November 2011 Levitt Letter, the first half of this article appeared, edited to fit the space. Here is the article in its entirety.

The United States replied to 9/11 with not only military might but the hope that Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries would gain freedom. A WORLD cover in 2005 showed an Iraqi voter making an ink-fingered peace sign. Television networks this year showcased demonstrators for freedom in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

But with democratic experiments stalling, more Americans are asking basic questions: Do many devout Muslims, for theological reasons, see liberty as an enemy? Is it historical accident that societies with a Protestant base have typically developed free institutions, and societies with a Muslim base typically have not?

To examine these questions we could use a brief foray into the comparative religion course that I taught for a decade at the University of Texas, where I tried to explain the basic Christian story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.

In a class of 30, at the western edge of the Bible Belt, only a handful knew the biblical belief that we are helpless in our sins and that our only hope lies in God’s grace because of Christ’s sacrifice. Most students identified Christianity with a set of moralistic rules: Obey them and you’re good.

Oddly enough, what they saw as Christianity is more like Islam. Muslims do not recognize original sin. They contend that Allah through his prophet Mohammed laid out the rules for moral living, and that we are naturally capable of following all of them. To quote from one typical and popular Muslim website,, “A believer . . . has the conviction that there is no other means of success and salvation for him except purity of soul and righteousness of behavior.”

Christians say only Christ meets that standard. (This is why “substitutionary atonement” is a crucial doctrine.) Muslims say they can meet it.
Islam’s non-recognition of original sin, and consequent assumption that we can be sinless, leads Mubasher Ahmad of the Islamic Research Foundation International to conclude that it’s possible “to eliminate suffering caused by humans.” Muslims believe Allah has set out rules that can lead to a just society: sharia law. The other alternative, a society of liberty, will bring pain but no gain: Liberty for what, to disobey Allah’s rules?

Christians don’t think a set of rules will make things right. The whole Old Testament shows that. God cares about what’s in man’s heart—and liberty reveals it. Will we love and trust God in our trials, or go our own way? The verdict of Scripture: Apart from God’s grace, we go our own way.

Muslims, though, see God’s tests not as primarily a push for us to cry out for mercy, but as a placement exam for heaven. As theologian Ousman Ahmad writes, “The harder the test you undergo and pass, the higher reward you will get on the day of judgment. . . . The easier the test which is passed, the lower the reward.”

The difference between the two religions is profound. Christians emphasize God’s grace in changing people like Jacob and Joseph who were liars and braggarts, people like Samson and Paul who relied on their own strength or their own intelligence, people like Gideon and Peter who through God’s grace lost their fear and became bold and courageous. These individuals had to become aware of their own transgressions and limitations. They had to be broken, because often we don’t realize how much we need God until we have no other alternative.

Let’s follow this trail for a moment. We do not reach God: He reaches us, often when we are desperate. The goal is to end up in the right place, and not necessarily to receive a star for perfect attendance along the way. God values heart obedience, which shows up when we are free to disobey, above the pressured, collective bowing and prostrating that typifies Islamic obedience—so governments should not force us to go through the motions.
The Bible story is troubling to devout Muslims. Christians read in the Bible honest reporting about twisted, sinful individuals whom God chose not because of their own righteousness but because of His love. Muslims, though, see a record of great heroes that Jews and Christians somehow twisted during centuries of transmission. Since original sin does not exist, why does the Bible tell the stories of so many sinners?

What to Christians makes the Bible ring true—its record of how Noah got drunk, Lot committed incest, etc.—is exactly what makes it ring false to Muslims. Muslims believe that Allah picked biblical leaders to carry His messages because of their strong character, which enabled them to obey the rules. In Christianity the last shall be first. In Islam the first shall be first.

Muslims respect Jesus as one of perhaps 124,000 messengers or prophets Allah has sent, and one of the 25 listed in the Koran, but not as our Redeemer: Since we have no compulsion to sin we have no need of one. Christians know that Jesus was “pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” Muslims ask, How can wounds heal others? Militant Muslims want to pierce others.

In short, Christians want man to be given enough freedom to come close to hanging himself, so that realizing his sin he turns to God. Muslims say man is good but will go wrong if given freedom.

(The foregoing appeared in the November 2011 Levitt Letter. Below is the continuation of the article.)

How does this work out in practice for devout Muslims? Since they think we can be sinless if we have strong character and follow all the rules, the rules (mostly taken from the Hadith, which are Mohammed’s sayings) are specific.

Let’s start with prayer, which is highly rule-driven. Each time of prayer is made up of units containing set sequences of standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating while reciting verses from the Koran or other prayer formulas. The sequences are repeated twice at dawn prayer, three times at sunset prayer, and four times at noon, afternoon, and evening prayers. No deviation allowed.

Other rules emphasize humility, and that’s not bad: Islam forbids boasting about good deeds or the contributions made to build a mosque. Muslims are forbidden to build over graves, make them high, put lights over them, or write on them. Men are not to wear gold, and no one is to wear clothes that attract attention.

Some rules are for reasons of health and safety, and those are not bad. Muslims are not to urinate into stagnant water, or defecate on the side of the road or where people draw water. A Muslim is forbidden to hold small stones between two fingers and throw them because this could cause injury to eyes or teeth. A Muslim is not to walk through the marketplace carrying a sharp weapon unless it is properly covered.

Some rules seem designed to build community, and those are not bad. Muslims are not to sit between two people without their permission, or to greet only those they know, because both those known and those unknown should be greeted.

But one problem with a rule-driven religion is that adherents often think the rules will save them. Another is that rules multiply. Many Islamic websites contain numerous, detailed dos and don’ts. For example, one questioner asked a cleric, “Is it permissible to kill insects that may be found in the house, such as ants, cockroaches and the like, by burning them?” The answer was, “If these insects are harmful, they may be killed with insecticides, but not with fire.” That’s because fire, according to Muhammad, was to be used only on rats, scorpions, crows, kites [like hawks], and mad dogs.”

For the devout, the specificity of Islamic law is ferocious. Categories of law codes on the website, which represents the views of Iraq’s influential Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hussaini Sistani, include specifics on “Pure and Mixed Water, Kurr water, Under-Kurr Water, Running Water, Rain Water, [and] Well Water.” Headings under “Things which make a fast void” include “Sexual Intercourse, Istimna (Masturbation), Ascribing Lies to Allah and His Prophet, Letting Dust Reach One’s Throat, Immersing One’s Head in Water, Enema, [and] Vomiting.”

Also, under the heading “Method of Slaughtering Animals,” categories include “Conditions of Slaughtering Animals. Method of Slaughtering a Camel, Acts while Slaughtering Animals, Hunting with Weapons, Hunting with a Hunting Dog, Hunting of Fish and Locusts, Rules of Things Allowed to Eat and Drink, Eating Manners, Acts which are unworthy to do while taking a meal, Manners of Drinking Water.”

That list only suggests the great multitude of rules. The Koran includes food requirements, rules concerning marriage and divorce, penalties for crimes, and commercial regulations. Islam’s many rules seem arbitrary to non-Muslims—but as one website states at the end of its long list, “There are more commands and prohibitions which came for the benefit and happiness of individuals and mankind as a whole.”

Muslims ordinarily do not gain from their religion a sense of liberty. They do frequently gain a suspicion of literary and intellectual diversity. For example, many Muslims wonder how the Bible could be an inspired work when many different authors produced it over a period of more than a thousand years. They ask why four separate Gospels tell the story of Christ’s life and death: Wouldn’t three of the four likely be false? They view the Koran, produced through one mediator, as much more credible.

Christianity by its very nature is about the one and the many, monotheism with a trinity. Muslims see the tension in holding firmly to both, and they are right. That tension has pushed Christians to build a society that emphasizes both unity and diversity and in that way reflects the Trinity. The U.S. Constitution created a separation of powers, forbidding the federal government from preferring any religion, but Mohammed united religious, political, and military power, and Muslim leaders ever since have aspired to do the same.

This Muslim emphasis on tawhid—making everything united—has enormous cultural and governmental implications. Without a sense of original sin, Muslims do not grasp Lord Acton’s idea that (among humans) power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In Muslim countries a system of checks and balances seems redundant. Originally, Islamic countries had no separation between religious and civil law, between Islam and the state. That’s how Muslims want things to be once again.

Because Islam in many ways trains people not to govern themselves but to be governed by dictates, Muslim countries frequently have dictators in charge. Abraham questioned God about the destruction of Sodom, but even the word Islam means “submission.” Those who don’t submit jeopardize their lives: Hisham Kassem of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights says, “It’s not safe to think in this part of the world.”

Although the Koran states that “there is no compulsion in religion,” Islamic nations often interpret that to mean that “there is no competition in religion” within their borders. Here’s a typical Muslim definition of freedom (from Mumtaz Ali Khan, an Indian sociology professor and cabinet minister): “Freedom of religion means the right of an individual to practice, profess, and propagate his religion. . . . Freedom of expression means the liberty that every individual has to convey his thoughts. . . . But he should not express his views in a manner that offends the feelings of the general community to which he belongs.”

A Muslim who becomes a Christian offends his general community. A Christian who evangelizes in Muslim countries offends the community. Some say Christians should be shunned. Others say they should die. In that environment, devout Muslims have shot or knifed critics of Islam, even gentle critics like Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.

Historically, Muslims have usually not killed the civilians they conquered. Usually, for almost 1,500 years, they have given Jews and Christians living in Muslim-ruled lands a special status as dhimmis (Arabic for “protected people”). The word dhimmi became historically significant in A.D. 628 when Muhammad’s forces defeated a Jewish tribe that lived at the oasis of Khaybar and made with them a treaty known as the dhimma. The treaty allowed Jews to continue cultivating their oasis, as long as they gave Mohammed half of their produce.

Crucially, Muhammad reserved the right to break the deal and expel the Jews whenever he wished. That agreement has served as a model for Muslims over the centuries. Dhimmis, as historian Bat Ye’or has shown, typically had to pay discriminatory taxes acknowledging publicly their status as second-class citizens. They were on the hook for additional sums payable on Islamic demand. They had to supply forced labor on demand. They were ineligible for any public office and were without the right even to testify in legal battles.

Dhimmis were not allowed to construct new places of worship, but sometimes received permission to worship in buildings that predated Muslim conquest. (The buildings had to be dilapidated, with no crosses or bell-ringing allowed, and Muslims able to ransack them at will.) Dhimmis were not allowed to possess weapons, marry Muslim women, meet with others on the streets, or ride horses or camels (the two “noble animals”). Dhimmis had to wear special clothes, walk with eyes lowered, and accept being pushed aside by Muslims.

The Muslim goal in collecting taxes from dhimmis was to maximize not only revenue but abuse. North African 19th-century theologian al-Maghali advised that dhimmis be assembled on tax day “in the lowest and dirtiest place,” with threatening officials placed above the dhimmis “so that it seems to them, as well as to the others, that our object is to degrade them.” With the stage set, al-Maghali advised, officials could play out a little drama of dragging dhimmis “one by one (to the official responsible) for the exacting of payment. . . . This is the way that the friends of the Lord, of the first and last generations will act toward their infidel enemies.”

Should Islam triumph, that’s what Christians and Jews can expect from Muslim rulers.

Muslims, like Christians, divide people into believers and nonbelievers, but the Islamic conception of future relations between the two is very different. Christians believe that final Christian victory will come only when Christ returns. For Muslims, though, the world is divided into the dar al-Harb, land controlled by non-Muslims that forms the “territory of war,” and the dar al-Islam, the land where Islamic law prevails. This is a permanent state of war, although there may be truces, because it is man’s might that will make Islam supreme throughout the world.

In Islam, therefore, a peace is not a peace, and a truce should not last longer than 10 years. A time of peace longer than a decade is occasion not for relaxation but for feeling inadequate and fidgety. Infidels should never be allowed to rest on their laurels, famed 14th-century Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyya asserted: Any land they possess is held illegitimately. This means that jihad is not aggression but retrieving what is Islam’s legitimate possession. The dar al-Harb has no right to exist.

Muslims have long understood the difference between the Islamic and Christian agendas, and the way that Muslim centralism can contribute to a mission of permanent war. Medieval philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote, “In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and the obligation to convert everyone to Islam either by persuasion or by force.”

Should Islam as a religion escape responsibility for 9/11? The terrorists who became infamous were not generic Muslims but largely came out of a radical Sunni Muslim movement founded by Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792). Wahhabis from the start were willing to kill civilians who opposed them. They did just that in the city of Qarbala in 1801, leaving 2,000 ordinary folks dead. In recent years Wahhabis have worked to overthrow “the American empire”: They have trained a generation of students for that pursuit through a network of madrassas (religious boarding schools) funded by Saudi oil money.

It’s clear that the 9/11 terrorists were familiar with bloody Koran verses. For instance, Sura 8:39, “And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah.” Or 9:14, “Fight them, Allah will punish them by your hands and bring them to disgrace.” Or 9:29, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah . . . until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” The terrorists were also familiar with Islam’s history: Christianity initially spread through nonaggressive means, especially the blood of martyrs, while Islam initially spread at least in part through military conflict, with the blood of its opponents often flowing.

It’s clear that the 9/11 terrorists were familiar with Koranic verses promising that good things will happen to all who die in a campaign to spread Islam. “Those who fly in Allah’s way and are then slain or die,” Sura 22:58 promises, “Allah will most certainly grant them a goodly sustenance, and most surely Allah is the best Giver of sustenance.” Some were familiar with the thinking of the 11th-century Persian philosopher Avicenna, who suggested that spreading Islam by any means creates the greatest good for the greatest number in the life to come, and any suffering inflicted in this life is minor compared to the joy to come.

But an additional facet is also important. That enormous list of what to do and what not to do raises the question of what happens to those who break some rules. Some Muslims are relaxed about that, believing that daily ritual practices will cover over a multitude of sins. But some become frenzied when they break the rules—and they have so many to break. The 9/11 hijackers evidently took advantage of America’s freedom to break lots of Koranic rules by having alcohol, prostitutes, and much besides. Their actions condemned them to hell, in Muslim thinking—but they had a “get out of jail free” card called jihad.

The notebooks of two of the terrorists showed their goal on Sept. 11, 2001: “Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone. . . . Those few hours that are left you in your life are very few. From there you will begin to live the happy life, the infinite paradise. . . . Read al-Tawba and Anfal [traditional war chapters from the Koran] and reflect on their meanings and remember all of the things that Allah has promised for the martyrs. . . . Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty, and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’ They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing.”

One fiery ending would purportedly make up for a multitude of sins.

Devout Muslims and devout Christians can agree and work together on some things but are worlds apart. What hope for peace do we have?
Comparative religion again: The Bible has survived two centuries of attacks by anti-Christian scholars who depict it as the cut-and-paste work of unskilled editors. Recent research and analysis has undercut much of their critique. Ironically, the Koran is much more susceptible than the Bible to such “higher criticism.”

The authorized view is still that we should have faith in the Koran because Allah literally spoke it to the angel Jibreel, who in turn gave it directly to Muhammad over a 22-year period. Muhammad in turn supposedly dictated the message to a scribe, and had his associates commit various chapters to memory. But ex-Muslim scholars such as Ibn Warraq (of Pakistani origin but living in the West) and Western scholars such as John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, and Michael Cook have discussed the Koran’s questionable and slow origins in the seventh century, and its possible alterations over the next two.

Such criticism of the Koran has not gone far, though, because writers who pursue such questions lower their life expectancy. And yet, the future of peace in the Middle East may depend not on supposed theological “moderates” besting the radicals but on both moderates and radicals losing faith in Islam. Events of the past decade suggest that those who called Islam “a religion of peace” were overly optimistic. We’ve learned over the past 10 years that the road to peace is for fervent Muslims to give up their fervency

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