Rémi Brague and Islam

Rémi Brague has just published Sur l’islam. If we think in terms of media categories, we can easily locate our author in the circle of communicating hell, where “learned Islamophobes” are roasting. The author is so aware of this that he begins by denouncing the absurdity of this expression (p. 13-27). His well-written book is a pleasure to read, which is no mean feat given its prodigious erudition. His charm is partly due to a cheerful irony, whose drollery occasionally tempers devastating criticism. This formidable man is a well of science. He knows everything and everything he says is, at least factually, unassailable. When this is not the case, or is only partly the case, he is the first to point it out. In short, his scientific probity is perfect, as is his self-critical capacity, the source of a profound modesty just as real as his false modesty is obvious.

Having carefully read Sur l’islam, pen in hand, I thought it would be useful to make a few comments. [In a different vein, read Fr. Adrien Candiard’s critical review]. The reader’s attention will probably be stimulated if I am transparent from the outset about my point of view and my intentions.

  1. Having devoted a chapter to cultural peace in my latest work, A Philosophy of War, I found in our author’s work material to deepen my own reflection, but also serious cause for concern, as Brague does not seem to me to be likely to help us out of a theological-political impasse whose perilous topography he certainly identifies with implacable rigor.
  2. Without being either an inveterate papolater or a primary and visceral Islamophile, I would still like to attempt a defense and illustration of Pope Francis’ Muslim policy. I might as well start here.
    Our author cites the famous statement dated November 26, 2013, in which the Pope expressed himself as follows: “True Islam and a proper interpretation of the Koran are opposed to all violence” (p. 77). Brague does not say it, but it is obvious that he is absolutely stunned. As a Catholic with a historical knowledge of the question that is as close as possible to perfection as is possible today, we can guess at his shock, and perhaps his dismay. Feelings no doubt shared by others. And, without targeting Francis in particular, Brague nevertheless proceeds to formally refute the Pope’s thesis. It is true that the Holy Father does not have a monopoly on such judgment, although he probably has his own way of understanding it—quite different, no doubt, from that of the average Islamophile.

Brague, not without humor, asks: “Who has the competence, and therefore the right, to make such a distinction [between true and false Islam]? In any case, it’s certainly not the Pope, who, by definition, makes his pronouncements from the outside. What would we say if the Dalai Lama took the liberty of distinguishing ‘true Christianity’ from its counterfeits (p. 78)?” Certainly. But if Christ really is the Son of God, and if the Pope really is the vicar of Christ, then he is certainly competent—intellectually, morally and legally—to make this kind of judgement, which concerns the salvation of mankind. So, even if this kind of assertion (or others) does not engage the Pope’s charism of infallibility, his assertion must undoubtedly be interpreted in a sense that does not simply amount to making him say nonsense which testifies to a complete ignorance of the question.

So as not to delay the presentation of my thesis too long, I give a faithful summary of Rémi Brague’s argument in an appendix. Its inevitable dryness may give the impression of a book more radical and less subtle than it is. Nevertheless, I feel I have neither forced the issue nor hardened the author’s position. Quite the contrary, in fact.

To put it in a nutshell, Brague sees Islam as a totalitarian enterprise (not in the sense of Hannah Arendt, cf. p. 125). Its ultimate goal is the Islamization of the entire planet, i.e., conquest and submission, willingly or by force, to God’s law. The ordinary means of conquest is war (and also “the cradle” [p. 225-227]—demographic submersion). The ordinary means of conversion are discrimination, intimidation, humiliation and vexation.

I have added a lengthy Appendix [at the bottom] to this concise summary, to give an idea of the massiveness and brutal rigor of the historian’s argument, which, I am sad to say, overwhelms defenses and wins conviction—so that, on some ground, his victory is complete. If I did not add this overly-long Appendix, anything I might say afterwards to justify Francis would be dismissed out of hand with a “You dream like he does. Read Brague.” But I have read Brague, and I can prove it. And having read him, I assert that the theological-political problem has not been resolved, even though it should be and, quite possibly, could be. It is only posed with greater precision. For which Brague is to be thanked.

It seems improbable to me that the Pope and all those around him are either crassly ignorant or blind. Thus, the question is: “What exactly can the Pope’s phrase mean in 2013?” What does he mean by the formulas “true Islam” and “proper interpretation of the Koran?” I am merely restating the question here, so as not to lose sight of our ultimate goal. But I do not think we will get the answer by examining Francis’ other statements on the subject, which are no less enigmatic or disconcerting. [For example, the Abu-Dhabi Joint Declaration signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayeb, February 2019.] Thus, let us continue with our author.

Brague tells us that “religion and civilization [are] more closely linked [in Islam] than in Christianity” (p. 48). Indeed, the Prophet is a person who brings from God a system of legislation which man has a duty to obey (p. 61). Unlike the Law of Christ, this Muslim law is not simply made up of general rules that it is up to man to apply, using his conscience and practical reason, such as the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments or the Law of Love. As in the Old Testament and the ancient Jewish law, we are also dealing with much more precise precepts, such as those concerning inheritance, loan contracts and so on. Religion is therefore difficult to conceive of without the adoption of positive legislation, and thus without life within a civil society governed by such legislation. Any other situation is abnormal and needs to be regularized as fast as possible.

Nevertheless, I believe that Islam is much more than the simple observance of a civil-religious law in a more or less totalitarian theocratic state. Otherwise, we would be very close to a “Black Legend,” similar to that which prevails concerning Spain in the Golden Age, and which Brague is right to denounce, after having denounced the “retrospective myth” of Al-Andalus. [Speaking of Spain before the Reconquista, Brague wants to demolish the legend, the “retrospective dream… of a multicultural society where tolerance reigned” (p. 236). He is particularly hard on mythologists: “The paranoid loop is complete: if we cannot find traces of the past as we imagine it, it is because these traces have been erased” (p. 237).] Legend and myth go hand in hand. In a word, a religion, however embedded it must be in a civil society, however “civilized” it may be, is first and foremost a certain spiritual life, a soul. After reading Brague, I confess I did not feel like I had entered a soul, but rather like I had been crushed in a machine, without even understanding how the “machine” would be necessary for the life of the soul—which is probably partly the case—and without being at all convinced that this “mechanical-being” of religious man would be the whole of his religious existence. What our author tells us about the Muslim soul is reduced to the bare minimum. He sees it as “the unreserved surrender of the whole person into the hands of God” (p. 28). One gets the impression that this is the authentic fundamental spiritual attitude, the rest being like an added crust. Yet Brague knows so much that he could say so much more. For example, when he talks about obedience, rather than implicitly placing himself on the side of a liberal critique of servility, he could have emphasized how obedience is a great virtue of religion, even among Christians, when they have not forgotten it. [Christ “humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8); “And whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered (Hebrews 5:8)].

In a religion of the Law, observance of the Law does not go without a religious sense of observance of the Law. It is a relationship of physical union with God through the Law and through submission to His Power. This submission does not like reasoning. Not speculative, or not too speculative, but pure and simple submission to the obvious. For Islam is supposed to be self-evident. It would be obvious if we did not question so much and speculate. Instead of doing metaphysics, do mathematics, astronomy, medicine, music. Hence the hostility or reservations of the great thinkers against Kalam (apologetics), although after all, there is much to meditate on in the wonders of creation, which show the existence of God (Koran, LIX, 1; VII, 185). If man no longer questions, he seems to create an intimate union of the human spirit with his whole body to the will of God, as a kind of possession by the Master. Man seeks union with God and justification, and finds it only through radical obedience. This seems to be the mystical spring and, dare I say it, the “trick” of conviction. And once it is socialized, there is no getting away from it. To enter this soul, perhaps we need to start from the Jewish faith in justification and union through the Law, and remove everything that stands in the way of an easy path to the evidence of a certain emptiness that ensures union.

We need to go back to Psalm 118 to understand the soul of this religion (“Blessed are they… who walk in the law of the Lord”), leaving out certain elements (the Covenant, the Promise, the Messiah) and adding others. What are these others? First of all: “There is no power except in God” (Koran, XVIII, 39). To deny this is to “associate” something with God, which is the gravest of all sins. Associationism is not limited to polytheism. It includes any conception of creation that would tend to diminish this truth that God is “the one, the dominator” (p. 156. Al-wāḥid, al-Qahhar: Koran, XII, 39; XIII, 16; XIV, 48; XXXVIII, 65; XXXIX, 4; XL, 16). God is “pure,” washed clean of what we would associate with him [Brague refers to Daniel Gimaret, Les Noms divins en islam, Exégèse lexicographique et théologique (Paris: Cerf, 1988)].

This tends towards a maximum diminution of second causality in relation to first causality. Brague goes on to quote: “It was not you who killed them, but it was God who killed them. You did not shoot [arrow] when you shot, but it was God who shot“ (p. 202. Koran, VIII, 17.). But it is in this very impoverishment that man hopes to live in divine union. A philosophical analogue could be found in the West in the 14th century. Just as nominalists wanted to protect divine freedom from physis, Ideas, essences, their logic and Hellenic necessity, so Muslims were determined to protect divine sovereignty from all other powers.

More generally, I believe that, in order to enter into the Muslim soul, greater importance should be given to the place of “nature” in this religion. Here we are approaching the heart of the difficulty that the Westerner steeped in postmodernity, however reluctantly, and however learned, has in understanding Islam: the complete elimination of the concept of nature from thought and culture—both in Western postmodern ideology, and in the exaggerated supernaturalism that has been flourishing in Catholic theology for some time now. (Brague is certainly aware of this, having devoted one of his best books to nature in Aristotle). For what Islam clearly shows, and what is precious from a Christian point of view, is that nature is neither supernature, nor a purely logical and very unreal residue obtained by mentally subtracting “concrete essence” minus supernature. Nature is nature. And it exists. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

Brague is a true philosopher, but too often in this book he speaks as if he were merely a historian of ideas and facts. The result is that the theological-political problem is implicitly given a solution that is as simple as it is tragic: there is no solution, but only, in the face of totalitarianism, a choice between submission and resistance—and thus war. If we want to get out of this dilemma, we need to make a philosophical effort that goes beyond mere history. I suggest that we call on (1) the idea of nature, and (2) Thomas Hobbes. We should also bear in mind the idea of original sin, or rather its absence in the Muslim religion.

We must do Brague justice and acknowledge that he reflects at length on the relationship between Islam and nature. He finds it difficult to establish a fully coherent position on this subject, perhaps because it does not exist in his object either? He rightly speaks several times of “natural religion” (pp. 35-36, 50). Islam is said to be a natural religion, indeed the natural religion par excellence, whose purpose is to make known and respected a divine law, which is, after all, natural, for the entire planet. Everyone is supposed to be born a Muslim. There is no better way to describe it than as a natural religion. Islam does not require belief in mysteries. There is nothing a priori implausible about its content. “Islam contains no commandments whose reasons are not accessible to the human mind” (p. 135). The Koran commands: “Fulfill the obligations of Religion as a true believer (hanīf) and according to the nature (fitra) that God has given to men in creating them” (Koran, XXX, 30). It could not be better said that the law centrally comprises the prescriptions of worship and the practice of natural law.

On the question of natural law, Brague exposes the opposing theses of those who say that the notion does not exist in Islam (Patricia Crone, p. 107) and those who say the opposite. He does not take a clear stand between the two. Man possesses a native orientation towards God. According to the hadith, “every child is born according to al-fitra” (quoted on p. 121). This is the first natural law.

It is hard to see how there can be no natural law in Islam, if it is a natural religion of law. This natural law is divine, that of the Creator of Nature, of course. It is true that Islam is afraid of associating Nature with God, as a kind of soul of the world. But it looks for reasons that justify the law socially. And it is precisely a law of peace, a social law. Man’s nature is that of a reasonable social animal. What is more, nature is defined by law and law by nature, so thinking about law cannot exclude nature. Brague himself writes that “adopting true religion consists in surrendering to the evidence of a submission already given from the outset in man’s ‘nature’” (p. 175).

God-Leviathan (the very good Leviathan) through His Prophet and through His Law puts an end to the state of nature and to war, which reigns wherever there is no Law (dār-al-harb) (p. 29). “Mohammed himself said he did not want to bring anything new, but only to remind humanity of what it should never have forgotten” (p. 50. Cf. Koran, XLI, 43; XLVI, 9). Islam presents itself as a return to the origin, to the Idea of Man in God.

Brague rightly notes that Westerners see Islam too much through the Christian lens, even when they do not believe in Christ. But it would be clearer if we understood that the difference between Islam and Christianity is that between a natural and a supernatural religion. There is something natural about Muslim revelation. Since a people cannot live without law, and tend to forget it, there must be prophets, just as there must be great captains, statesmen, doctors, poets and so on. According to Islam, divine revelation to a prophet resembles, Brague tells us, “the way in which, for Neoplatonism, the separate and transcendent Agent Intellect, which contains in act all possible knowledge, ‘pours itself out’… on a purely passive ‘material’ human intellect” (p. 62. Cf. Koran, CXII, 3-4). The Koran is not inspired. It is “dictated” (p. 66).

Brague asks how it is possible that humanity has forgotten its original religion. Islam hardly provides an answer. Forgetting the Law is an analogue of original sin, but is neither thematized nor conceptualized as original sin. Islam is therefore a natural religion without original sin. A theologically literate Christian knows that original sin consists less in an alteration of nature than in the loss of supernatural life. But he understands that because of the vocational elevation to the supernatural order, which is irrevocable but now frustrated, nature is much less functional and balanced after sin than before, and less than it would have been without this vocation, the trace of which remains and paradoxically leads to excess. That is why it is easy to think, in this logic, that the wood of which man is made is crooked, as Luther and Kant say, and that man is a being who must often be led by the rod. Which brings us to Hobbes.

And first of all, from a Hobbesian philosophical point of view, there is no doubt that Islam is “a religion of peace,” because it has a “Leviathan” structure, and because peace is precisely Leviathan’s work and function. The political ruler, the earthly Leviathan, is the image of the divine Leviathan. Leviathan’s function is to put an end to the “state of nature,” to the war of all against all, by repressing “natural rights,” i.e., the assertion of arbitrary individual desires, and by imposing, under threat of punishment, the respect and application of “natural law”, i.e., the law of peace. This function is accomplished first and foremost by disarming subjects, monopolizing force, and merging temporal and spiritual powers. Pacification is Leviathan’s work, and it can only be achieved through a kind of constituent war in which individuals and groups are subjected to sovereign authority.

The brutality of the process in no way excludes, in Hobbes’ eyes, that it is both reasonable and free, even contractual. Like the Hobbesian Leviathan, Islam is ambivalent (“L’ordre philosophique,” in Anoush Ganjipour, L’Ambivalence politique de l’islam, Pasteur ou Léviathan (Paris: Seuil, 2021). Because the terror inspired by the state of nature leads each person to express a demand for power and to promise to submit to an effective and moderate protector in exchange for renouncing the free use of his strength and the free determination of his desires. And the human demand for Power, natural and pathetic, is radicalized and metaphysically founded in a demand for absolute divine Power.

The brutality of the civilizational process does not exclude a certain humanity, piety and fraternity. “Remember… You were enemies and I reconciled your hearts and by my grace you are brothers” (Koran, III, 103).

Finally, the brutality of Leviathan’s peacemaking does not rule out a reasonable constitutionalization process. Leviathan will never be stably established unless it is clearly less frightening (caeteris paribus) than the “state of nature” it allows us to dispense with. Harvey Mansfield has convincingly shown that the modern liberal state is nothing other than “the tamed Prince,” a Machiavellian Prince who differs only slightly from the Hobbesian Leviathan.

First conclusion regarding Pope Francis’ words. A “religion of the Law” will by definition be a “religion of peace,” in the Hobbesian sense of the word, on condition that firstly, divine law is close enough to natural law (= the law of peace—on the perennial contribution of Hobbes to the theory of natural law, see my Préparer l’avenir, Nouvelle philosophie du décideur, pp. 85-116), which, by imposing stable, non-arbitrary obligations or duties, guarantees equally solid, non-arbitrary rights; and secondly, on condition that this law and, above all, its Divine Legislative Power, provide a solid foundation for the legitimacy of powers that are strong enough to ensure the application of this law, against the ever-reborn arbitrariness of individual “rights”—which, under liberal rhetoric, tend only to re-establish the state of nature and the right of the strongest, or even perversion.

We are very much mistaken in believing that it is possible to govern without coercion, i.e., without having the means to use force, and the material and moral possibility to do so if necessary. What is true, however, is that we freely accept constraints and even consent to war, if it seems to us to emanate from a legitimate power and in accordance with the principles of our culture, of our law. Nothing is more damaging to a society, or even to a civilization, than to be seriously mistaken on the subject of the fundamental law of peace.

Thus, when we say that Islam is a religion of war, we are mixing up two things that need to be dissociated. Either we are talking about a constitutive war, by which Power, at the tacit or explicit call of the people, imposes natural law and puts an end to the state of nature born of the claim of individuals or groups to impose so-called natural rights contrary to this law. This constitutive war cannot be blamed on any culture, provided it remains proportionate in the use of means, since without it there is no society. Alternatively, we are talking about a constituted war, between political bodies already internally pacified according to a cultural law respectful of natural law. It is certainly a defect, and more precisely a form of barbarism, if a religion constitutively drives a nation to war against others, except in cases of self-defense. It is therefore absurd to reproach Muslim civilization, like any other, for its constitutive war. Whether or not it is in essence a culture of constituted war is another question. Christianity is unquestionably a culture of peace, yet Christian kingdoms have waged wars on each other in abundance, and wars that could have been avoided with a little moderation and good arbitration. Internal wars between Muslims were no less numerous.

Similarly, the use of violence in war is something normal, or at least inevitable, by definition. And the assessment of “violence” in the use of force is quite subjective. We judge more by sensitivity than by reason. For example, in today’s West, people will be moved to the very top of the state if a non-commissioned officer summarily executes a prisoner during an operation, even if the prisoner is a known criminal (See the Firmin Mahé case of 2005). But the fact that the nation’s security depends on the massive hostage-taking that nuclear deterrence represents seems to trouble no one.

Modern or postmodern Western culture claims to be liberal, in the sense that it puts “freedom-first,” and believes this to be a guaranteed recipe for universal peace. This is a complete illusion. Freedom-first means selfishness and war. Maintaining freedom of action is the first principle of war (Ferdinand Foch, Les Principes de la guerre. Conférences faites à l’École supérieure de guerre). To act well is to do one’s duty, obey, commit, bind, promise and fulfill. It means alienating one’s freedom of action, of course, in order to acquire greater power, dignity, happiness and even a better freedom—a freedom of peace and good, not a freedom of war. To criticize Islam (and also Christianity) in the name of freedom in the first place is to unwittingly praise them, rather than to reproach them justly. The religion of “freedom-first” is a religion of war. It has no lessons to teach anyone.

In saying this, we are not forgetting all that Brague has reminded us (cf. the Appendix below). Our author quotes Malek Bennabi, who, speaking of Islam, speaks of “blissful pride,” of “complacency concerning their religion” (p. 46), as if there were no other functional cultures on earth providing other civilizations with a tolerable approximation to the natural law of peace; yet it is quite clear that Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, among others, and also modern Western humanism in its idealist, Kantian version, are also capable of providing the cultural foundation for the law of peace and legitimate powers. To say this is not to equate all religions, wisdoms or cultures with general relativism. But we must admit the validity of a certain relativism, if by this we mean only that a decent civil peace can be brought about by various cultural means—by various metaphysical interpretations of the law of peace and by various sufficient approximations of its authentic content. This is why the idea that outside Islam there would only be chaos and war, is simply an error of fact, which any other culture would share if it shared the same idea.

Those in the Church who are concerned about the utopian pacifism of a pope unfit for politics might wonder. On the contrary, would not the Pope be diabolically skilled in politics? Would not these words be the very type of the “kiss that kills?” Francis tells Muslim leaders: “Islam is a religion of peace.” How will these leaders respond? Are they going to say: “No, not at all. We are a religion of war. We want to conquer you, make you submit and then convert you through discrimination (just read Rémi Brague’s Sur l’islam)?” Or will they say on the contrary: “Yes, of course, we are a religion of peace.” In the first response, Islam makes itself odious to everyone and what will become of it, if there is war, because today it is technology which largely determines the balance of power (but not only)? In the second response, a Muslim leader is very embarrassed, because he knows perfectly well about everything that Brague reminded us of and he wonders how he can, without ceasing to be Muslim, become a religion of peace, because that is what he would like to be, not out of opportunism, or Western intoxication, but out of religion. But why exactly does he want it by religion?

Averroes can help us find the answer. He says that in certain circumstances, peace is preferable to war (p. 210). But what circumstances are we living in now? We live in the atomic age. Can atomic war be a holy war? Against whom? Against a demonic power, perhaps. But against countries structured by a decent culture, peaceful and respectful, whose only fault is that they are not Muslims? Thus, there is nothing to stop us thinking—indeed, there is every reason to believe—that the circumstances of a technically developed, globalized world capable of total self-destruction render the idea of holy war obsolete. Not because the principles of Islam have changed, but because once a certain historical inflection point has been reached, situations require a different application of the same principles.

The same conclusion can be drawn from the evolution of the Western culture that still dominates the world. The content of its moral and political thought has completely drifted. The Western Leviathan not only claims to be universal, but has completely lost the idea of natural law. Liberalism returns to the state of nature, to the benefit of the great predators. Natural rights are characterized by blasphemy and the monstrous transgression of every natural law. Western Leviathan claims to be universal, and defines itself as absolute power without natural law and against natural law. This Leviathan is infinitely worse than the state of nature, worse than all pagans, worse than all associates. From now on, for the foreseeable duration of history, it constitutes the first of all dangers. If there is still to be a holy war, it will be against it.

But in the face of this common enemy, there is no chance of success without a lasting and even perpetual alliance with other wisdoms and religions. For it is clear that Leviathan is playing politics of the worst kind. Manipulating extremists, it pushes for religious wars everywhere, capitalizing on these conflicts by presenting itself as the only factor for peace. Then, by creating guilt in religions because of these wars, it pushes them to submit to Leviathan’s relativism, to become insignificant, to dissolve into its culture of impotence. But no alliance is possible on the basis of discrimination and the will to conquer, however patiently. If religion’s mortal enemy is the universal Leviathan, and if this universal Leviathan can hardly fail to be a monster, can religion still retain a kind of ambition that would see it bidding for the post of world Leviathan?

The survival of religion is therefore conditional on the suspension of norms, the non-suspension of which would mean the death of religion, pure and simple. If the Book is eternal, it dominates all history, and it would obviously be false if it were to assert that history cannot be what it obviously is. Thus, necessarily, the principle of abrogation must be understood as a principle of suspension, reversible, conditioned to what the interest of religion requires according to circumstances. It seems that this understanding is not contrary to tradition, since if we suppose that the four schools of jurisprudence had had access to knowledge of present situations, their decision would have been, without a doubt, that the more severe and bellicose norms, which Brague has explained to us in detail, would only be valid until the time when, to ensure the good of religion in another way, they would have to be abrogated, i.e., suspend the suspension of the more tolerant and peaceful norms. Frankly, the eternity and inerrancy of the Holy Book are far better guaranteed by a pair of norms that can be valid alternately for the entire duration of time, than by the truly incomprehensible enigma of an eternal Book, some parts of which would be eternally annulled by others, even though they had previously been solemnly enacted.

Natural law has a right to impose itself universally by constituent war, wherever either the state of nature or barbarism reigns. The postmodern Western universal Leviathan is the synthesis of the state of nature and barbarism. And without the union of all civilized people, this abomination has every chance of prevailing, in this century or the next. Under these conditions, it is surely unreasonable to think of using constituent warfare against reasonably constituted peoples and civilizations, as if they were still in a state of nature or barbarism from which only sharia law could remove them.

This is why, if one assumes not even genius, but solid common sense and a good level of political intelligence in Muslim leaders, Pope Francis’ statement no longer comes as a surprise, although it remains disturbing for the historian and disturbing for habits of thought.

Finally, let us note that Brague methodologically accepts the traditional Muslim account of the origins of Islam, without questioning it—thus neatly sidestepping the mountains of discussion that have arisen on the subject over decades of academic work. Perhaps our author is right to skip the discussion of the origins narrative, which would require a whole volume in its own right, but it has to be said that if we accept this traditional narrative, then Brague’s “totalitarian” reading of Islam is almost inevitable. Some will accept it without batting an eyelid as normal, others will reject it indignantly as atrocious. On the other hand, if we were to allow even a modicum of uncertainty about its origins, the situation would be less deadlocked. This too will determine the future. For Muslim leaders are well aware that their apologetic case has been weakened. The Pope knows it too. The Western media say very little about it, and that is strategic. Only a blocked Islam can be used as a scarecrow and a backlash alliance against all the hegemon’s potential rivals. Viewed historically, à la Brague, Islam is a block and peace with it seems impossible. But considered historically, à la Crone, or à la Gallez (without the devastating criticisms of Strauss or Renan, Christianity would never have thought of exploring, and that successfully, the historical credibility of its own sources), Islam is a natural religion, with a natural history, and this might not prevent it from considering itself the true natural religion, especially if it is clear to all those responsible that the strategies required in the 21st century are no longer those that worked until the 17th century. And the relationship between this natural religion and supernatural religion might also be seen in a new light.

Appendix. Summary of Brague’s Argument in Sur l’islam

The Prophet Mohammed is the “beautiful example” (Koran, XXXIII, 21). Yet it is certain that, if we are to believe Muslim tradition and, more generally, the account of the origins of Islam, Muhammad used violence extensively. He never stopped waging war. He had opponents of both sexes murdered (see the assassination of Asma b. Marwan, p. 166). He had prisoners beheaded by the hundreds. He had a prisoner tortured to make him confess to the location of a treasure (p. 57). Precise references to the most authoritative ancient biographies of Muhammad, (p. 283-284). He promised paradise to a warrior who brought him his own father’s head (this was Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah; allusion to the fact in the Koran, LVIII, 22). Brague points out, mercilessly, that “official biographers recount them [this violence] without batting an eyelid, with hagiographic intent” (p. 94). It is obvious, then, that certain forms of violence can always be legitimized by the example of Mohammed, unless we relativize his “example,” and perhaps (perhaps? or not?) depart from a maximal orthodoxy. The leading Muslim thinker, perfectly orthodox, Al-Ghazali, puts it this way: “What Allah does not repress with the Koran, he represses with power” (p. 216).

Life in Islam is a war for faith (Koran, III, 28; XVI, 106). The Hadiths tell us that Mohammed said: “I was ordered to fight people until they testify” (p. 173). The meaning of the word “jihad” is primarily war. “Medieval scholars seem to have agreed on the need for an offensive jihad” (p. 206, plus note 27, p. 312. Brague here honestly points out the limitation of this judgment to the wars of Mohammed’s time). In war, one must give one’s all: Khalid ibn al-Walid admires his troops “more eager for death than you are for life” (p. 195). The Koran approves of this self-sacrifice: “Return to your Creator and kill yourselves, etc.” (in the suicide operations of war, Koran, II, 54). When we say nowadays: “Yes, but those were the Middle Ages,” we forget that those centuries we call the “Middle Ages” were the most brilliant period of Muslim civilization, its golden age. Brague continues: the distinction between the great jihad (the ascetic struggle) and the lesser jihad (the holy war), so often made by Islamophiles, comes from a hadith that is not found in any of the four great authorized collections (p. 200). Cunning, the second most common means of warfare, is as legitimate as violence. The moral law permits lying to enemies: taqiyya (p. 133-134).

Conversion by discussion and persuasion is rather exceptional. If one relied on it above all, it would be the end of religion (p. 143). The vast majority of people are incapable of reasoning, and the only way to moralize them is to subdue them by force, after which they will gradually change their minds and willingly accept what they first accepted by coercion or, hypocritically, by calculation. Historical evidence shows that there is no distinction on the question of violence between “jurists” and “mystics” (Sufis). What is more, Sufism only gained recognition thanks to Al-Ghazali, for whom mysticism, far from opposing legalism, presupposes it and tends to make it acceptable (p. 100-101).

Finally, Sufism has always remained marginal, suspect in the eyes of orthodox Islam. The greatest Muslim thinkers, such as Al-Ghazali or Ibn Khaldun, write coldly that Islam must be accepted willingly or by force (p. 162. Ibn Khaldun, Prolegomena, III, 31: “Holy war is a religious duty, because Islam has a universal mission and all men must convert to it willingly or by force”). The violence of the founder continues in the violence of conquest. Brague recalls the Koran’s “sword verse”: “Shame those who disbelieve… until they pay capitation after humiliating themselves” (p. 51; Koran, IX, 5; IX, 29).

The establishment of a Muslim state was the only way to secure the faith of believers. However, “the aim of holy war is not to convert infidels to Islam, but to subjugate them to it,” our author reminds us, quoting Vladimir Soloviev (p. 174). Conversion, on the other hand, results from the systematic use of pressure tactics, essentially discriminatory taxation. Only if they submit and pay the capitation tax in a situation of humiliation, “making themselves small” (Koran, IX, 29), do dhimmis have the right to escape death. “They must experience this mark of debasement in person, for perhaps they will end up believing in God and his prophet, and then they will be delivered from this ignominious yoke” (p. 181; see also pages 179-181). Brague quotes at length the Baghdadi Jew Ibn Kammuna, speaking during a time of non-Muslim Mongol rule, and liquidated a few years later: “We do not see anyone to this day entering Islam except because he is afraid, etc.” (p. 219; and on the same subject, p. 191. And also the question, “What to do with the recalcitrant?”, p. 204).

It is impossible to dissociate God from Mohammed, or from his followers, for, Brague reminds us, the Koran depicts God as hating all those who do not accept his message or quibble about his signs (p. 18; Koran, XL, 10 and 35 and XXXV, 39). Especially “associators” (associators are nothing but impurity and “defilement”, Koran, IX, 28 and IX, 95). Brague also quotes the Koran: “The skin of the damned once burned will grow back so that it can burn again” (Koran, IV, 56; Brague notes that some thinkers allegorize this passage).


Henri Hude is the former director of the Ethics and Law Department at the Research Center of the Saint-Cyr Military Academy. He is the author of several important works of philosophy, most recently, A Philosophy of War. The French version of this review appeared in the Revue thomiste.


Featured: Muhammad leading Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer. BNF Supplément turc 190 f. 9v (detail); Persian, ca. 1436.