Not Merely Islam

C. S. Lewis Assesses the Religion of Mohammed by Jacob Fareed Imam

Living in Christian Oxford as he did and dying in 1963, C. S. Lewis never directly witnessed the growing scale of Islamic immigration to the United Kingdom in the years after World War II. His exposure to Islam was more literary and intellectual than personal and actual.

Daily interactions between Muslims and Christians in Britain (and throughout the West) have increased vastly since Lewis's time, yet mutual understanding has not grown with the same rapidity. Particularly now, as Islamic extremism threatens the West with yet another holy war, Christians must understand Islam apart from polemical analyses. Samuel Huntington argues in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) that both of these world religions grew markedly in the twentieth century in large part because many tried to escape modernity and secularity in tradition-dependent claims to truth. Given that so many settled within these traditions, it would be interesting to examine what a major religious thinker of the time thought about the other religion.

Lewis, as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the twentieth century and somewhat ahead of his time in his familiarity—albeit literary and intellectual—with things Islamic, may assist us in understanding Islam from a Christian perspective.

Historical Understanding

Before we turn to Lewis directly, let us review the general historical understanding of Islam from within the Christian tradition. St. John of Damascus' De Haeresibus (Of Heresies) is the earliest extant robust evaluation of the Islamic faith. John's use of the word "heresy" here amounts to an admission that Muslims, despite their many departures from Christian orthodoxy, are in the same world of discourse as Christians, although the disparities are substantial. The wider Christian world did not discount John's categorization but adopted and continued it—most famously in Dante's Divine Comedy, where Mohammed is placed in the infernal circle of schismatics because he sundered Christian unity in Asia and Africa with his Arabian heresy.

According to Hartmut Bobzin in The Qur'an as Text (Brill, 1996), the idea that Islam is a heresy, even the "epitome of all heresies," and the Qur'an "an awkward figment of Satanic imagination" and a "treasury of heresy," would become popular not only in eighth-century Byzantium, but also in twentieth-century Europe. Many thought the Qur'an held nothing but a mixture of old heresies that earlier church verdicts had refuted.

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther himself declared that Mohammed was one of the heads of the anti-Christ (the pope, of course, was the second head!), and he sought therefore to strengthen preaching against the Islamic "temptation." Catholics, for their part, declared that Islam was merely ritualism devoid of sacraments and mystery. People often heard the idea that the Islamic faith forced Muslims to submit blindly to a tyrannical overlord.

Here we must understand that although the word "Muslim" means "one who submits" or "submissive one," the word holds no negative connotations for Muslims themselves. The mim-sin-lâm root (m, s, and l) that is the basis for Muslim as well as for Islam, which means "submission," connotes a general entrusting of one's wholeness to another. Another word with the same root is salam, peace (a neighbor of the Hebrew word shalom). A Muslim understands himself to submit to Allah that he might be salim—unbroken—and may find peace in the bosom of Allah's law. Thus, a follower of Islam does not primarily think of himself as submitting to an ironclad despot, but as submitting to Allah that peace might indeed flourish.

Nevertheless, "Muslim" was deployed with a pejorative connotation by Christian commentators—though until relatively recently their common designation was not "Muslim" but "Mohammedan." All great heresies are known by their founders (e.g., Marcionism, Arianism, Nestorianism, etc.) and therefore Islam, for as long as it was still considered a Christian heresy, was generally known as Mohammedanism.

Interestingly, prior to becoming a Christian, C. S. Lewis used the word "Moslem," as evidenced by a letter of July 9, 1927. After his conversion, he more typically used the term "Mohammedan," meaning thereby to indicate Islam's position as a heresy rather than an independent religion. In Arthurian Torso (his study of the poetry of Charles Williams) he describes the faith started by Mohammed as "strong, noble, venerable; yet radically mistaken."

By definition, a heresy is a selective and distorting interpretation of an earlier system of thought (the root meaning of "heresy" in Greek is "choice" or "opinion"). Heresies adopt the same basic framework as the source religion, but pervert its essential claims by simplification; thus Lewis claims in Mere Christianity that "it is simple religions that are the made-up ones." "The greatest of such attempts [to simplify religion]," he writes in "Religion Without Dogma,""was that simplification of Jewish and Christian traditions which we call Islam." Thus he shared the traditional (though not the modern) view of Islam as heresy.

This was also the view of G. K. Chesterton, who had a profound influence on Lewis, but Lewis did not adopt the ironic or mocking tone towards the religion that can be found in Chesterton (see "The Flying Inn" or "The New Jerusalem" for examples).

Allah's Untrammeled Will

Many attacks made by Christian theologians against Islam and the Qur'an have produced more heat than light, but those who have genuinely sought to understand the Islamic claims of truth have found two major differences from Christianity: God's Trinitarian nature and the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

For Muslims, it is not only foolish but near damnable to declare a characteristic of Allah's nature; beyond his singularity, a radical monotheism, nothing should be said about his essence. All pronouncements about Allah in the Qur'an find their basis in Allah's will rather than in his nature. To take Surah 10:99 as an example: "And had your Lord willed, those on earth would have believed—all of them entirely." Although a ninth-century Muslim group called the mu'tazilites did affirm and publicly teach the existence of a "natural right," analogous to the "natural law" of Thomistic philosophy, according to George Hourani, "theological subjectivism is the prevailing view of classical Islamic jurisprudence and theology" (The Basis of Authority of Consensus in Sunnite Islam).

Hence, when it comes to the laws of Islam, nothing demands their necessity, as is the case within the Christian tradition, for their basis is not any necessary aspect of God's essence, but rather an ultimately unnecessary and inessential expression of Allah's untrammeled will. Hatred, for instance, could have been declared as valid as love; the superiority of the latter over the former rests solely in Allah's voluntary preference for love, not because he "is love," as in the Christian formulation (1 John 4:8).

Lewis thought the "heavy lucidity" of the Islamic doctrine of "mere Monotheism" was a belief that affirmed "unity in such a way that 'union [between man and God] is breached.'" For mere Monotheism, he explains in Arthurian Torso, "blinds and stifles the mind like noonday sun in the Arabian deserts till we may well 'call on the hills to hide us.'"

These words become all the more telling when we note that the latter phrase comes from Luke's Gospel, where it is found on the lips of Christ as he walks up Golgotha and says to a group of women,

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children; for, behold, the days are coming in which they will say, "Blessed are the barren and the wombs that did not bear and breasts which did not nurse." Then they will say to the mountains, "Fall on us," and to the hills, "Hide us." (23:28–30)

Lewis does not go on to explain why the monotheism of Islam should be so "stifling," but we can get a clue to his meaning from his discussion of the Euthyphro argument in Reflections on the Psalms, where he says that there were "terrible theologians who held that 'God did not command certain things because they are right, but certain things are right because God commanded them.' . . . Such a view of course makes God a mere arbitrary tyrant."

No Foothold for Love

Without a Trinitarian model, love cannot "find a foothold in [God's] own nature," Lewis has Screwtape say in a letter to Wormwood. For a Christian, the basis of law is not willed assertion but love, and the basis of love is the nature of God—a nature eternally and necessarily expressed in self-giving, begetting, and proceeding. To simplify the doctrine of the Trinity down to Unitarian monotheism is to fix the determination of laws on sheer divine volition—as classical Islam would affirm. Without a self-giving, Trinitarian nature, God becomes, in Lewis's view, an arbitrary and inscrutable tyrant, not requiring a freely willed and intelligent response from his followers, but immediate, unquestioning submission.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Annunciation narrative in the Qur'an omits Mary's fiat, "Let it be done to me according to thy word," which Christians have long understood to be the unforced, loving response of "yes" through which the Second Person of the Trinity became flesh. The Marian fiat is, in Christian theology, a personal, holistic welcome of the divine approach, and, as such, an echo at the human level of the loves eternally exchanged at the divine level. It is quite different from an automatic compliance with a supernatural compulsion. As Lewis memorably puts it in The Screwtape Letters, God "cannot ravish. He can only woo."

In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis says that God's "laws have emeth, 'truth,' intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature." If the law is rooted in his nature, then it is a manifestation or an externalization of God's own inward nature—something ready to be internalized by his followers: a palatable part of his being that Christians are to consume and find "sweeter than honey." For Lewis, consuming the law results in delight, the satiation of one's "appetite for God." This phrasing captures the physicality of the longing; every aspect of a human being's nature—both spiritual and carnal—yearns for God.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis memorably depicts a distortion or perversion of this longing for sweetness. Edmund, having met the White Witch and listened to her blandishments, requests Turkish Delight—a means of sensual satisfaction and sweet bliss. Desiring the tasty treat is not wholly wrong, for it is the seeking of a good, namely delight, as the name of the confection itself indicates. Edmund, however, only finds a privation of true Delight, because he seeks it through the Witch and not from its ultimate source. Aslan, whose name means "lion" in Turkish (Lewis found it in "the notes to Lane's Arabian Nights" as he says in a letter of January 22, 1952), stands as the true form of divine Incarnation, and though he is not physically edible, he is certainly physically sensible and familiar. Real joy, Lewis seems to suggest through this subtle word-play, comes in finding the true yet undiscovered Delight of the Turks: the second person of the Trinity.

The Dignity of Matter

Lewis discusses Islam's dismissal of the Incarnation at some length in Arthurian Torso, perhaps his least known work of prose. The book contains several summaries of Arthurian legends written by his late friend, Charles Williams. In one legend, Le Conte du Graal, Williams deliberately makes Islam contemporary with Arthurian Britain. Lewis, affirming the appropriateness of the anachronism, explains that a Saracen foe diametrically opposes the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation:

Islam denies the Incarnation. It will not allow that God has descended into flesh or that Manhood has been exalted into Deity. . . . It stands for all religions that are afraid of matter and afraid of mystery, for all misplaced reverences and misplaced purities that repudiate the body and shrink back from the glowing materialism of the Grail.

The Arthurian quest for the Grail—the chalice in which the Lord's blood was made present at the Last Supper—implies man's recognition of the dignity, not just of spirit, but also of matter, most importantly, the human body, a dignity underwritten by God not just in the act of creation, but in his assuming human flesh at the Annunciation. God "likes matter. He invented it," Lewis dryly remarks in Mere Christianity; and Christ's assumption of a human body is "the grand miracle," on which the whole of Christianity stands or falls.

Lewis's own 1945 novel, That Hideous Strength, also gives attention to the Saracens. Alcasan, a scientist who heads the villainous "National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments," or N.I.C.E., is a French-speaking Arab. His Islamic origin is never explicitly stated but is clearly implied in the title of the ninth chapter: "The Saracen's Head." Before we track this point, we should recall that That Hideous Strength is, as Lewis states in the preface, a narrative rendering of The Abolition of Man—a book in which Lewis draws from the texts of every main religion to validate natural law—every one, that is, except the Qur'an.

Alcasan emerges in the plot as the supposed next phase of human evolution: a Head set on a pole with "less and less body"—truly gnostic and wholly tyrannical. His lack of body is a fictional rendering of the philosophical point Lewis made in The Abolition of Man when he suggested that "by his intellect [man] is mere spirit." But if all he has is a head, he lacks that by which "man is man": for angels and demons also have intellect (spirit), but only man is a rational animal, only man combines the head with the belly. Thus, for Alcasan to have only a head means that he is no longer human, no longer incarnate. Using the acronym is "N.I.C.E." is a philological joke on the part of Lewis: nice is etymologically connected to nescius, "to be ignorant." Alcasan, like N.I.C.E., is ignorant of what it truly means to be human: his spiritual solitude cannot unite with the world, for it is stripped of the world's matter.

This scientist does not have the mediator, that is, the chest, which sits between "cerebral man and visceral man." "Almost free of Nature, attached to her only by the thinnest, finest cord," this Head is not equipped to salvage the organic. Nor is that the intention. Rather, for the next stage of evolution to be realized, the organic must be escaped entirely.

It is reasonable that Lewis alludes to Christ here as well, whom St. Paul considers "the head," yet not a stand-alone Head, for he is the "head of the body." This Head "innervates and vivifies all the members of the body that he controls" says Pope Benedict XVI in his Saint Paul. This Head reconciles all things to God "who is Spirit" (John 4:24). Without the Incarnation, God would have remained completely other, but in Christ the divine and the human are united.

Having this understanding, Professor Filostrato, a member of the N.I.C.E., views Alcasan as a mere arbitrary tyrant, as when he says to Mark, "he will speak to you within this hour, and . . . you will obey." Without the doctrine of the Incarnation, no reasonable evidence exists to proclaim God's essence as Love. The eternal existence of the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love they share—that is, the Father who is the Lover begetting his Beloved, the Son, and the Love that they share, the Holy Spirit, proceeding between the two, has only been revealed to humanity through Immanuel.The Incarnation is the revelation of the Trinity. The Head of the N.I.C.E does not enliven a body but only leads a legion. Filostrato, as his Greek name suggests ("army-lover"), knows his place within the army, the hierarchy; he takes his orders and recognizes people as soldiers who must submit without a participatory element.

No Fall, No Reconciliation

The line "he will speak . . . you will obey" insightfully expounds the anthropic ontology within Islam: Islam has no doctrine of the Fall, the ontological worsening of man has no place within Islamic thought, and thus Islam does not need a miraculous, reconciling Atonement. The Christian notion of sin is replaced with the Islamic notion of crime. Crimes cause no eternal gulf between man and Allah as do sins; Sharia and the Qur'anic commandments attempt to correct one's relationship and orientation to Allah but do not act to reconcile people with God.

Because Islam lacks a robust doctrine of the Fall, it also lacks a doctrine of separation from God, and therefore it lacks hope for greater intimacy with God. Or, as Charles Williams put it, "For if we deny the image we are losing, then clearly there is no loss to be accepted," for "we affirm the image at the very moment of affirming its opposite." If we deny the reality of sin, then we simultaneously deny the chasm between man and God and the prospect of and need for Christ, the True Bridge, providing a path for man to journey from depraved separation to glorious consummation with the Divine.

In his essay "Shelley, Dryden, and Mr. Eliot," Lewis analyzes Percy Bysshe Shelley's understanding of sin as -portrayed in The Revolt of Islam—a poem that, in Shelley's own words, considers "how far a thirst for a happier condition of moral and political society survives among the enlightened and refined"—but not in Islam. Shelley, according to Lewis, considers that it is "self-contempt which arms Hatred with a 'mortal sting.' The man who has once seen darkness in himself will soon seek vengeance on others," and thus, in Lewis's mind, "If a man will not become a Christian," finding forgiveness in Christ's sacrifice, then recognizing one's own wrongdoing is an "excellent recipe for becoming much worse."

Does Lewis believe Muslims to be more inclined to hatred because their religion dismisses the need for forgiveness? The description of the obviously oriental Calor-menes in The Horse and His Boy might suggest so: "they have dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-colored turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people." Cruel seems almost out of place within this otherwise dignified description, but it is in keeping with Lewis's other remarks on Islam.

In his short essay "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?" Lewis says, "If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, "Are you Allah?" he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off." Similarly, in his "Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger," Lewis, explicating the difference in posture towards self-denial between Christianity and Islam, writes that if a man can read the Sermon on the Mount with tranquility and find pleasure in such commands as "turn the other cheek," "such a man is not yet ripe for the Bible; he had better start by learning sense from Islam." This acerbic remark can only refer to the violence demonstrated within the religion.

Perverted Sexuality & Genuine Union

The expression of violence against the body subtly hints at another implication of rejecting the Incarnation, which Lewis explicitly teaches in The Arthurian Torso. There he reveals his understanding that all heresies that deny the Incarnation result in a perverted form of human sexuality; those who forsake the presence of the Lord in the physical world come sooner or later to misunderstand the inherent sanctity of physical acts, with the result that "the law of exchange," of true self-donation, of genuine giving and receiving, becomes impossible: "the strain [i.e., human lineage] gives itself not to another strain but only back to itself." This strain encroaches on freedom and dilutes the will so that the basis of human dignity, the unconfined conscience, can make no decision for itself.

Lewis vividly depicts this twice in The Horse and His Boy, when Aravis is threatened with forced marriage to Ahoshta and when Susan is threatened by compulsory nuptials with Rabadash. There is no question of women choosing their husbands here: they simply must submit. Within Islam, human loves do not image and incarnate the love of God, but they might unveil the unassailable relationship Allah commands with his people.

Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms that the "language of nearly all great mystics . . . confronts us with evidence that the image of marriage, of sexual union, is not only profoundly natural but almost inevitable as a means of expressing the desired union between God and man." (He notes that some of these mystics are Islamic, but he is most assuredly referencing Sufis, for, first, they promote Islamic mysticism and, second, a dear friend of Lewis, Martin Lings, was a Sufi. This order of Muslims, however, is outside this paper's scope.) Eroticism mirrors the heavenly summit of the soul, but not the soul by itself, rather, the embodied soul.

Thus at the end of That Hideous Strength, Jane relinquishes her study of Donne's "triumphant vindication of the body" and instead triumphantly vindicates her own body by giving her whole self to her husband Mark and by receiving his whole self in return—their sexual union is no longer rendered incomplete by contraception. No longer does Mark use her as a mere instrument of indulgence, but now embraces her in a true incarnate union. Union is only a true unity if it is fully self-emptying, fully en-fleshed, and fully incarnate. Because man is both spirit and matter, a social impress of love must be physically expressed, lest it be rendered invalid or not fully ratified due to a lack of outward manifestation. This is what the villains of the N.I.C.E., headed by the bodiless Saracen, fail to understand.

Not Without Hope

Nevertheless, the fact that Islam falls short of the fullness of the Christian doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation does not mean, for Lewis, that all Muslims necessarily reject God.

Here it will be helpful to turn to Lewis's depiction of the Calormenes in the Narnia Chronicles. The Calormenes do not represent a seamless allegory of Islam, because, for example, the statue of Tash in the temple would be considered an intolerable blasphemy according to Islamic thought. But there are a number of hints that leave the Calormene religion as an impression of Islam. The phrase, "Tash, the irresistible, the inexorable," alludes to the Islamic phrase "Allah, the beneficent, the merciful"; and the response to a mention of Tisroc, "May he live forever," mirrors the near-liturgical response to Mohammed's name, "Peace be upon him."

Because Lewis lived in a very different time from ours, he could have gotten away with saying far harsher words about Islam and Muslims than he could today. We should, therefore, remember that his charity is manifest in the fact that his rhetoric does not reflect the typically brutal rhetoric directed against Muslims in his day.

Thus, even if we take the Calormene religion of Tash-worship to be a caricature of Islam, we can see that while Lewis understands Islam to be cruel and militaristic, he does not see its adherents as being all without hope. As Aslan says to the Calormene soldier, the aptly named Emeth, in The Last Battle, "I take to me the services which thou hast done to [Tash] . . . [for] unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek." Emeth thus lives up to his name, for he followed the laws that have "emeth, 'truth', intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in [God's] own nature." Even though he thought he was worshiping Tash and never knowingly worshiped Aslan by name, his commitment to the Calormene religion was no final obstacle to his salvation.

Some Muslims, according to Lewis, do worship Christ, though not explicitly. Taking comfort in the fact that other religions "contain at least some hint of the truth," Lewis did not dismiss Islam as completely anti-Christian. Moreover, in acknowledging Islam as a heresy instead of an independent religion like Hinduism, he gave it a certain dignity in his mind for having been birthed from the root of Christianity. And among the many differences that he notices between the two religions, he also sees a number of structural and ethical similarities, including the fact that both religions reject the caste system, fight discrimination and immoral forms of paganism, praise the mutual triumph over desert dualism, and adhere to the stability found in creedal affirmations (see the letter of January 21, 1940, Arthurian Torso, 125, and the letter of March 21, 1962).

Indeed, Lewis believes that many good truths lie within Islam and within the beauty birthed from the umma—the Islamic community. He also believed that by following, obeying, and loving Allah, Muslims may indeed be searching for and worshiping the true God. "I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or to a very imperfectly conceived true God," he wrote to a Mrs. Johnson on November 8, 1952, "is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow." This statement is less about different religions and more about the followers of those various religions. But a few years later, on February 8,

1956, in a letter to Fr. Griffiths, Lewis wrote,

One often wonders how different the content of our faith will look when we see it in the total context. Might it be as if one were living on an infinite earth? Further knowledge wd. Leave our map of, say, the Atlantic quite correct, but if it turned out to be the estuary of a great river—and the continent thro' wh. that river flowed turned out to be itself an island—off the shores of a still greater continent—and so on! You see what I mean? Not one jot of Revelation will be proved false: but so many new truths might be added."

Lewis does not say that those who believed doctrines contrary to the Christian faith were correct; rather, he insinuates that the totality of knowledge is not held within Revelation and that we ought not dismiss extra-biblical, extra-Christian beliefs with haste.

Although Lewis disagreed with Muslims, he undeniably loved them in person, and although he regarded Islam as heretical, he also respected it as "strong, venerable, [and] noble." But the beauty that he witnessed in his friend Martin Lings did not alter his analysis of the religion. He could not neglect the false and de-humanizing aspects of Islamic belief while trying to promote the true and vivifying faith in the Blessed Trinity and Christ, the Incarnate. 

Jacob Fareed Imam is a Marshall Scholar, doctoral student, and former president of the C. S. Lewis Society at the University of Oxford. He is the managing director at Catholics 4 Truth & Justice.

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Not Merely Islam

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Vanishing Sea of Faith

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