Book Review: Not Peace But A Sword

bookNot Peace But A Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam is a hard book to evaluate. First and foremost, I am not an expert on Islam. I’ve taken a single world religions course at the university level, and studied the history of the Byzantine Empire which involved studying Islam, but not as a primary focus. The author of this book is an eastern Christian – Robert Spencer is a Melkite Catholic. According to Wikipedia, he’s known for his criticism of Islam.

I’ll save you the trouble of reading further if you’re short on time: this is a very good book, and I recommend reading it with the caveat that if you do not know about Islam, it should not be the only book you read – it should be accompanied by a book that is more charitable to Muslims and Islam.

I think I will deal with my impressions of his book in a numbered list:

1. People do not perfectly exemplify their religion

Not Peace But A Sword is trying to show what a “pure” Muslim ought to believe. In the same way, one could write about Christian doctrine and conclude what a “pure” Christian ought to believe, but the likelihood of finding someone who A) completely and utterly assents to your interpretation and B) exemplifies perfectly those traits is slim to none. Robert Spencer’s book does not acknowledge this, though I’m sure he himself would agree. His portrait of Islam is an artificially constructed “ideal.”

2.  Drawing conclusions from what people “should” believe is dangerous

Easy example: In the United States, a majority of people identify as “Christian.” Based on this, and the fact that the United States is a democratic republic, we might expect to find that schools teach Christianity. Or we might expect to find abortion outlawed. Or we might expect that adultery is illegal. Or that same-sex unions are not called marriage. Yet we don’t.

So, Robert Spencer convincingly explains, for example, why Muslims should not believe in genuine cooperation with non-Muslims. He uses Islamic authorities – the Qu’ran, life of Muhammad, hadiths and the opinions of the nine Muslim juridical schools – to back up his explanation. But it does not follow that all Muslims believe what they should believe. Despite the indisputable support of Muslim religious authorities for many terrible things, lay people in all religions can and do form their own opinions.

3. Religions are not all the same

Robert Spencer does a great job of taking several of his “key” issues with Islam – particularly Islam’s distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims and men and women; Islam’s very different understanding of God and the role of reason in faith – and making the point that these are not isolated issues. Many Westerners assume that all religions are the same and we have a tendency to read our opinions back onto other religions. I’ve experienced this growing up in Canada; many people told me that religions are all the same.

Understand this: Religions are not the same. When you say that, you’re being incredibly ignorant. It’s a tourist attitude; travel extensively for small enough amounts of time and everything starts to look the same. It’s when you live or contemplate living in different countries that you see the differences. It’s the same with religion.

Robert Spencer does a fantastic job of showing the ways in which Islam differs from Christianity in a whole range of issues, including ones commonly assumed to be, well, common. If you think Christianity and Islam are the same or incredibly similar, read this book!

4. Don’t forget the other side

Robert Spencer is writing to people who see Islam as a sister religion of fellow worshipers. He wants to correct that view with a sharp dose of reality drawn from authoritative Islamic teaching. If you have a rosy view of Islam, read this book! If you abhor Islam already, find another book to read first – a book that shows you what to appreciate about Muslims.  Otherwise, in the words of Yoda, “Fear turns to anger, anger leads to hate, hate… leads to suffering.”

I can’t overstate how important this is: you need a full picture. You won’t get that from Robert Spencer (or pretty much any one author.)  For instance, Robert Spencer could have written about the Open Mosque, or that Egyptian Muslims formed a human shield to protect churches from terrorist attacks for Christmas 2011. But he didn’t; and those stories need to be told.

4. How now shall we live?

Robert Spencer makes the case that Islam is a frightening, dangerous force. If that is so, where do we go from here? How do we work, collaborate with and love our Muslim neighbors? The book spends less time on that, suggesting that we can still work together but need to do so with our eyes open.

All Robert Spencer gives us (in a debate transcript affixed to the end of the book) are are some thoughtless comments based on assumptions about universal human rights and current American laws. Great, the current law and current set of human rights are on our side! Yet neither law nor the framework of human rights provides an easy escape for us. Robert Spencer may bemoan polygamy as contrary to American law, but what if the law changed? He would still be against polygamy, but no longer have the law on his side. Or what if marriage became a universal human right, such that already having a wife (or husband) was no barrier to acquiring another?  These things are malleable, made by human beings, and ever changeable. Neither of these is an unchanging or unbiased standard.

Here, I think, Robert Spencer missed an opportunity to point us back to the Gospel. He repeatedly reminds us that Muhammad is a perfect example for Muslims – Christians have their own perfect, timeless example, in Christ. This would have been a beautiful contrast to his explanation of Islam, in keeping with his stated audience, and given Christians a model of love to share with our Muslim neighbors. It is partly because he does not do this that his work falls short.

Final Verdict:

Read this book. But don’t read it alone. Robert Spencer makes many great points, and really shows why Islam is different, misunderstood and dangerous. As Christians, though, that shouldn’t be enough for us. We also need to know how to love our Muslim neighbors, what is true and good in Islam (no matter how small,) and what we can do to witness to Muslims.

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