Definition of Irony

Belloc On Islam

Writing about Fr. Samir's book on Islam sent me back to Belloc's The Great Heresies for another look at his view of Islam, in the chapter called "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed." I have to say right off that I don't think "heresy" is a good description for Islam, which seems to me a term only rightly applied to something that appears within a religion. Islam seems less a variant of Christianity or Judaism than a new religion based on both. Of course Belloc uses the antique  and erroneous terms "Mohammedanism" and "Mohammedan" instead of "Islam" and "Muslim" And as always there's a sort of bluster and some sweeping historical conclusions that I suspect are not quite sound enough to justify the confidence with which they're pronounced.

But with all that said, the core of the essay seems perceptive, shrewd, and strikingly prescient. Writing in the late 1930s, Belloc foresaw a serious possibility that Islam would rise from a condition of near-total civilizational collapse and defeat and challenge the West again. He bases this on Islam's continuing spiritual vitality, and contrasts it with the decay of Christianity in Europe.

In Islam there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine—or, at any rate, nothing corresponding to the universal break-up of religion in Europe. The whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present in the masses of Syria and Anatolia, of the East Asian mountains, of Arabia, Egypt and North Africa.

The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed:—but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.

There is nothing in the Mohammedan civilization itself which is hostile to the development of scientific knowledge or of mechanical aptitude. I have seen some good artillery work in the hands of Mohammedan students of that arm; I have seen some of the best driving and maintenance of mechanical road transport conducted by Mohammedans. There is nothing inherent to Mohammedanism to make it incapable of modern science and modern war. Indeed the matter is not worth discussing. It should be self-evident to anyone who has seen the Mohammedan culture at work. That culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it—whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it.

As I write this, of course, a very orthodox and militant Islamic nation, a nation in which Christianity is allowed to exist only precariously at best, is in possession of atomic weapons, and another is making steady progress toward the same goal. Belloc would not have been surprised. Or perhaps he would have been more surprised by the existence of atomic weapons than by Islam's acquisition of them.

The entire chapter can be found online at EWTN, though in a not especially readable format. In fact the whole book is there, but it's one long page(!).


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I have enjoyed these posts on Islam. I had heard before of the 111 Questions on Islam book, and approvingly, but never got around to reading it. In fact, it is a little shameful to admit how little reading I have done in the past ten years about Islam, when, one might think, there have been especially good reasons to get educated.

About Islam and heresy: I believe that Dante, in The Divine Comedy, also treats Mohammed as a heretic -- that is, as a corruptor of the Christian faith -- rather than as the founder of a separate religion. How much can Christianity be bent before it ceases to be Christianity? I suppose it is a matter of debate. (For the record, I think Islam is well beyond the breaking point.)

Actually, he treats him as a schismatic, not a heretic.

E tutti li altri che tu vedi qui,
seminator di scandalo e di scisma
fuor vivi, e però son fessi così.

And all the others here whom you can see
were, when alive, the sowers of dissension
and scandal, and for this they now are split.

That's why they're split in two; Dante also comments on the Sunni/Shiite divide by having Ali there, similarly split.

Gruesome, isn't it?

One more thing:

Lewis somewhere calls Islam the greatest of the Christian heresies; he may have been following Belloc.

This is how the medieval chronicles treat Mohamed (published 1485):

Machomite the duke of Sarasens and Turks was alive at this time. And he was the deceiver of all the world: a false prophet, the messenger of the devil, the foregoer of Anticrist, the fulfiller of heresy, and of all fals men the marvelest...

So it's quite a traditional notion that Belloc is making.

Here's what the chronicle says about the Koran:

"Then he made a book of his law that was called "Alcharon," but he did it by information of 3 of his masters to whom the devil ministered the authority and the cunning. The first master was a Jew, a great astronomer and a necromancer. The second was John of Antioch. The third was Sergius a heritike. And these 3 made an ungracious law & an unhappy one. And what soever was hard of belief and
tedious to do, they left that out of the law. And they put that thing in their law the which the worldly men were prone & ready to do, that is to say Glutonye, Lecchorye, rapyn and such other."

So medieval Christians saw Islam as a mixture of Judaism, magic, and Christian heresy.

Of course one big issue was marriage:
"And also this machomyte ordend that a man shuld haue as mony wyfes as he myght ocupye and fynd and refuse them twys or thries or four tymes and take them ayen. and mony meruelus and fals thynges he mode in his law."

They also tell a funny story about how Mohammed wrote the Koran in gold, tied it to his trained camel, and got the camel to come to him in the middle of the people as if the book came from God. So the medieval tradition really treats him as a simple plain trickster too.

I can see either "heretic" or "schismatic" in a broad sort of way, as it seems pretty apparent that Mohammed's doctrine owes a lot to Judaism and Christianity. But in the ordinary senses of both words you would think someone would have to be a Christian first, before being a heretic or schismatic, especially the latter. I wonder if the medievals simply had the wrong facts about Mohammed's origins.

That medieval stuff is great, Ryan. "And what soever was hard of belief and tedious to do, they left that out of the law." That's really pretty accurate. Islamic doctrine has always struck me as being pretty well tailored to the natural man. Except maybe for the prohibition against alcohol. I don't know if that originated with Mohammed or not.

They probably did have the wrong facts, but it seems that he did go to Syria and run into some Nestorians. I remember someone mentioning that that's where he might have gotten his strong opinions on the Trinity and Christ's divinity from.

But I think what Dante put his finger on is what is most striking about Islam to me: how it very quickly split into two main branches after its founding.

Yes, he definitely had contact with Christianity. There were both Christians and Jews in the area where he was born. And he was definitely saying "no" to the Incarnation and the Trinity in the Koran. Impossible that he just decided to make those points except in reaction, I think.

Yes, I knew that Dante used 'scisma', but in English today I think 'schismatic' is a more moderate term than 'heretic', and I assume that Dante meant something quite strong.

Ryan, it is interesting that you see Mohammed's splitting in reference to the divisions within Islam. I thought Dante had split him because he sinned by splitting the body of Christ -- that is, because Dante saw him as a heretic (or a schismatic, if you wish) within the Christian tradition. It does seem odd, to me, that Dante would damn him for not holding a false religion together.

Thanks for the link to the medieval illustration. I've not seen that before.

I was actually referring more to Ali's splitting regarding the schism within Islam. I'm not sure Dante would agree with moderns that heresy is a worse sin than schism necessarily, but I could be wrong. I actually disagree with that modern tendency: schism often leads to heresy after all. Also, heresy doesn't necessarily place one outside the Church formally, but schism would seem too. Heresy is often privately held, but schism is public and causes great scandal, etc... Of course, the two often go hand in hand.

But sorry for doubting your knowledge of Dante's Italian!

I was wondering about that earlier--which is worse, heresy or schism? My first thought was that heresy is worse, because it poisons the body from within, but once it's formally identified as heresy that danger is much reduced. I suppose it's something of a toss-up. I wonder what Aquinas says about it. Are schismatics and heretics in the same circle in Dante's hell? I may be forced to look it up after supper.

A quick trip to Wikipedia tells me that Dante put schismatics two circles below heretics. Also that he wasn't defining heresy and schism with reference only to Christianity--Ryan notes the treatment of Ali, and Epicurus is among the heretics.

Hmm...Dante seems to agree with Aquinas, so looks like heresy is worse:

On the contrary, That which results from an addition to something else surpasses that thing either in good or in evil. Now heresy results from something being added to schism, for it adds corrupt doctrine, as Jerome declares in the passage quoted above (1, ad 3). Therefore schism is a less grievous sin than unbelief.

"I answer that, The gravity of a sin can be considered in two ways: first, according to the species of that sin, secondly, according to its circumstances. And since particular circumstances are infinite in number, so too they can be varied in an infinite number of ways: wherefore if one were to ask in general which of two sins is the graver, the question must be understood to refer to the gravity derived from the sin's genus. Now the genus or species of a sin is taken from its object, as shown above (I-II, 72, 1; I-II, 73, 3). Wherefore the sin which is opposed to the greater good is, in respect of its genus, more grievous, for instance a sin committed against God is graver than a sin committed against one's neighbor.

Now it is evident that unbelief is a sin committed against God Himself, according as He is Himself the First Truth, on which faith is founded; whereas schism is opposed to ecclesiastical unity, which is a participated good, and a lesser good than God Himself. Wherefore it is manifest that the sin of unbelief is generically more grievous than the sin of schism, although it may happen that a particular schismatic sins more grievously than a particular unbeliever, either because his contempt is greater, or because his sin is a source of greater danger, or for some similar reason."

But I'm not convinced! Because I think schism's object is God too, in as much as one is separating oneself from the body of Christ.

I also think schism is worse in its effects in an age before print, since it just seems more public to me than heresy and thus more likely to cause scandal. Can you imagine how many souls might be saved if East and West could reunite? We're already seeing good results from the Anglican return. Most people are not up on the finer nuances of theology, but they can tell pretty easily that Church has been rent in two.

I guess our comments overlapped--I thought Dante followed Aquinas, too, but he seems to consider schism significantly worse.

Thinking about it a bit more, I suppose I'd agree that schism is worse. Heresy is a sort of poison, and can work somewhat secretly for a long time, but eventually it's going to be corrected, whereas schism, where driven by heresy, makes the heresy permanent. And I guess it's always in some sense heretical--a practical heresy, so to speak, against unity.

Wow, my instincts were right, although I wasn't clever enough to check which circle schismatics were in vs. heretics lol.

Another way to look at it is heresy is a sin of pride. But schism adds a kind of violence so it combines pride and wrath together, which might explain why it's worse to Dante too. Schism is opposed to peace and that's what we pray for in the Agnus Dei.

I was measuring the badness of schism / heresy against its impact on sacramental life. Those in schism, I think, continue to have valid sacraments (SSPX, Orthodox), but heretics (Lutherans, Calvinists) do not.

But it now occurs to me that the validity of the sacraments may have nothing to do with heresy per se, but with traditions (or breakdown of traditions) of ordination, etc. I suppose I am not a very astute theologian.

I think that's correct (about heresy & sacraments). In fact I'm sure it is. I think the only way heresy alone can invalidate a sacrament is by entailing denial of the sacrament. Validity per se depends primarily on apostolic succession (I think). It's funny, I thought much more about these things in the first five or ten years after becoming Catholic. Now I just sorta think "let the hierarchy worry about it, that's what we pay them for." :-)

Another thing: my immediate reaction to the "which is worse?" question is greatly influenced by having come into the Church at a time (1981) when manifest heresy had been running rampant in the Church for a while, with no great effort made to name it, much less discipline it. It did a lot of damage, and I was far from the only one who often thought it would be better if some of these folks would just go on into schism, so everyone would know where they stood.

I can understand that! Although I would venture to say that a lot of what was happening was different from the previous heresies since the dissonance seems to me to have been in moral theology rather than the Creedal dogmas.

Well, yes and no. True, the most visible and explicit denials were in the moral area (specifically sex, as we all know). And there weren't the Christological and similar heresies that had characterized earlier crises. But there was a denial at a sort of sub-dogmatic level--an attack on the whole idea of a transcendent spiritual realm. Without actively denying anything as specific as the Trinity, the whole faith was recast as a branch of psychology and/or literature. I think that was a more serious problem than, say, the rebellion over contraception. It was an attempt to replicate within the Catholic Church what had happened in liberal Protestantism.

I agree--that definitely was a more serious problem. It makes a lot of the other dissonance possible or more likely.

Fortunately, I think that movement is mostly in retreat now.

Yes, I would say so too, but other movements have arise: paganism and militant atheism.

I think they're all of a piece at bottom. Well, no, maybe not of a piece, but they're all rooted in the rejection of Christianity.

As I write this, of course, a very orthodox and militant Islamic nation, a nation in which Christianity is allowed to exist only precariously at best, is in possession of atomic weapons, and another is making steady progress toward the same goal. Belloc would not have been surprised. Or perhaps he would have been more surprised by the existence of atomic weapons than by Islam's acquisition of them.

A battered and severely impoverished China went to the trouble of acquiring the technology of nuclear weapons in 1964. It is not much of an indicator of general levels economic or technological sophistication. Pakistan was motivated to do so by what it lacked: a conventional military which could hold its own against that of India, a country with an economic base many times larger. (India has also surpassed Pakistan in levels of affluence in the last three decades). Iran was motivated to acquire nuclear weapons because the place is run by malevolent loons.

I do not think Belloc has been particularly prescient. The quotation you offer does not describe our current predicament. The Arab world and some adjacent areas have in the post-war period been notable for a failure to advance their comparative economic position (except when possessed of natural resource bonanzas, which lead to distorted development), a comparative failure to develop well-ordered political institutions, and a failure to develop the military power they crave (hence the resort to methods of asymmetric warfare).

An alternative hypothesis is Thomas Sowell's: they have had a recriminatory response to their reversals of fortune over many centuries.

There is a better online version of The Great Heresies online somewhere - I'll have to find it.

I forgot to mention last night that I would be offline today. So I'm online today to mention it.

But just briefly, Art: those (yours/Sowell's vs. Belloc's) don't strike me as contradictory or mutually exclusive views.

It is exclusive. Belloc posits a challenge from the Muslim world for which a facility is their economic development, much as Germany was able to challenge Britain after 1870 and much as China challenges us. Sowell suggests that the truculent and obstreperous aspect of the political culture of the Arab world, as well as the tendency to displace responsibility on certified bogies, is in part a function of failures in economic development.

I read Belloc as saying only that the Islamic world is capable of mounting a challenge, a military one powered by cultural confidence: "There is nothing in the Mohammedan civilization itself which is hostile to the development of scientific knowledge or of mechanical aptitude....There is nothing inherent to Mohammedanism to make it incapable of modern science and modern war."

The example of Soviet Russia, and to a lesser extent that of Communist China of 40 or more years ago, shows that broad and deep economic development is not necessary for a challenge of this sort. Sowell may well be right about the causes of the economic underdevelopment

Since 1949, China has made no attempt to exercise power outside of zones on its border (Kashmir, Korea, Indochina). That may change and we will have to make some accommodations because their resource base has increased so and we are seriously in hock to their sovereign wealth fund.

You had in 1980 25 sovereign countries in the Near East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Of these, eight were oil exporters of note, for which income levels are indifferent indicators of levels of economic development. If my recollection of the World Bank figures published at that time is correct, the median per capita income of the remaining 17 countries was at that time about a quarter of the assessed per capita income of Soviet Russia. Soviet Russia was, by the way, devoting productive resources to its military at a rate characteristic of a country at war, something few countries attempt to sustain for more than a brief run of years. I do not think the contemporary Muslim world is analagous to the old East Bloc.

I don't see that the China example makes the comparison irrelevant. A country doesn't need to make war to be a forceful presence. Given that we (the U.S.) considered, rightly or wrongly, that we had interests in southeast Asia, China was certainly a power with which we had to reckon. That's why it was a big deal when Nixon went to China.

I'm not persuaded by the numbers about per-capita income in the Middle East, because as I said I don't think broad and deep economic development is required for a nation or nations to be forces to contend with. The example of Russia to me supports my argument more than yours: that a government can make itself pretty powerful in the world at large while neglecting (to say the least) its own people. The bigger question to me is whether such a presence can be sustained for very long.

It has been difficult for those specializing in national income accounting to construct valid by which to compare ordinary economies with command economies. It has been even more difficult to compare command economies in transition with ordinary economies or with command economies in stasis. That having been said, Soviet Russia and the Eastern European states (bar Albania) were not examples of chronic underdevelopment but rather examples of developed countries which made use of sorely inefficient means of capital allocation and were also suffering severe environmental damage.

Soviet Russia badly abused its populace. Its military consumed about a quarter of its factors of production, which is, again, very unusual. However, the quantum of goods and services available to its public was satisfactory when compared to norms across the globe. The general standard of living in the Arab world compared unfavorably to that of Latin America in 1980. The standard of living in Eastern Europe most certainly did not. The situation remains much the same in our own time.

With reference to Thomas Sowell's argument, I am not aware of any era in which Slavic Europe acquired, then lost, a position among the world civilizations like that once had by the Muslim Caliphate. Nor am I aware of any Eastern European country which made much use of asymmetric warfare. Nor am I aware of any country which played a role in the political culture of the East Bloc similar to that of Israel or the United States in the Arab world. Nor can I understand how violent political Islam, which is a very culture-bounded phenomenon, is all that analagous to Communism, which developed vigorous followings in every region of the globe and in countries at just about every level of economic sophistication.

If this is to be trusted, the per-capita GDP situation has changed considerably since 1980 (why 1980, btw?). Iran sits considerably higher on this scale than China.

But these numbers seem far less relevant to me than the visible fact of the challenge--the fact of a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Iran, reportedly also developing missiles that would be capable of reaching Europe.

You seem to be saying the challenge doesn't exist. I disagree. Not of course that a country like Iran is a direct military challenge to the U.S., but that authoritarian Islamic regimes are a civilizational challenge to secular Western ones. I'm including the internal challenge reportedly posed by unassimilated Muslim immigration in some places.

I selected 1980 because the East Bloc was more or less intact and because(due to academic study) I have been broadly familiar with the comparative levels of affluence of various parts of the globe at that time.

China in 1980 was stupefyingly poor, with income levels similar to those of India. Iran was not, even apart from its pathological specialization in oil production. In part because stupefyingly poor, it had never behaved as though it aspired to be more than a regional power.

For thirty years it has had one of the world's most dynamic economies and has improved its position vis-a-vis the West greatly. Ditto much of the periphery of the Far East, some of whom (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong) have not only improved their positions but have achieved levels of affluence on par with Europe.

Because of China's enormous labor force, it now has the world's second largest economy (though still far less affluent than Japan, which contains the 3d largest). The quotation you pull from Belloc describes a process of technological and economic advance which China has undergone recently and by which Germany overtook Britain prior to the 1st World War. China has not stopped developing, and it is reasonable to guess it is going to push us aside as the world's pre-eminent power in the next fifty years.

What Belloc describes was also true of Soviet Russia for a time. The trouble the command economies faced was that they could increase output by adding physical capital but that the social processes of economic life were generating comparatively little technological innovation, so you had a secular decline in economic dynamism which set in before these countries had caught up with the West.

I do not say there is not a challenge from Iran or other countries in the region, but the challenge is weird and geared more to gratuitous acts of destruction rather than the projection of power. Iran is a middle income country somewhat more populous than the mean of this world. Countries of that description generally do not seek weapons of mass destruction as they have no use for them and are generally not obsessed with small and largely harmless countries, much less threatening to drop an atom bomb on the major metropolis of said country. Dr. Sowell's thesis is that the political pathology of a country such as Iran or manifest in a paramilitary outfit like the Hezbollah is a function of the fact that they really do not have much in the way of the sort of real world achievements that Malaysia or South Korea possess and that they react by threatening to burn down their neighbors' house.

Sowell's insight may be valid to some degree, but I don't think that's the end of the story. It seems to me that Iran's ambitions go well beyond gratuitous acts of destruction, and that the projection of power is precisely what it has in mind.

What I take from Belloc, in a nutshell is: "People assume that the present (late 1930s) backward state of the Islamic world is permanent. It is not, and there is a strong probability that it will rise again to challenge the West." I think this is true, though clearly it has not caught up with the West economically there are good reasons to think that it won't. Of course there are also good reasons to think we will fall considerably from where we are now.

Sir, Iran has proved itself thus far unable to conquer anything more than small bits of a neighboring country with one-third its population. What it might be able to do is seed nuclear weapons to non-state actors and drop nuclear weapons on metropolitan Tel Aviv. As I said, gratuitous acts of destruction and attempts at blackmail.

As for the posited economic and consequent politico-military advance of the Muslim world: they are taking their time at it. Civilizations have arcs of rise and decline. If Belloc's point is that Occidental hegemony should not be assumed to be permanent and that we cannot rule out the possibility that the Muslim world might succeed us, his point is banal. The possibility of such a succession will be non-zero as long as Muslim civilization exists. I think we are a good deal more likely to face a Chinese or Indian hegemony.

I think the mullahs of Iran are smarter than that. As things are going we will probably find out.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)