Just as it’s not a good idea to read too much into the cross tattooed on the bicep of the otherwise threatening biker at the bar, it’s best not to read too much into the occasional concessions toward Christianity we find in Islam.
For some Catholics, it seems to be enough to hear that, as Nostra Aetate tells us, Muslims “revere” Jesus and “honor” Mary. I can’t remember the number of times that some hopeful Catholic has pointed out to me that there’s a whole chapter named after Mary in the Koran, or that Mary is mentioned more than any other women in that book. Supposedly, that somehow compensates for all the verses in the Koran that call for crucifixions, beheadings, and amputations, and for the fact that Christians who live in Muslim lands generally lead a precarious existence.
In the grasping-for-straws department, one of the items most frequently on display is the claim that Muslims have more or less the same moral code that governs traditional Christians. For example, in Nostra Aetate we read not only that Muslims honor Jesus and Mary, but that “they value the moral life.” Likewise, numerous Catholic writers have made the case that Muslims are our natural allies in the culture wars because they oppose abortion, adultery, and pornography, and value modesty and chastity.
To be sure, many Muslims families, especially in the U.S., don’t seem that different from Christian families. They pray regularly, attend weekly services, give to charities, and raise polite children. As a result it’s easy to conclude that Islamic family values and Christian family values are essentially the same. But in reality, there is a world of difference between the two. To get a better picture of Islamic family values, it’s advisable to look at Muslim countries or at those parts of the West that are rapidly falling under Islamic influence.
Take Great Britain. A new UK website designed to help Muslim men find second wives has more than 100,000 users. And it’s estimated that there are already as many as 20,000 polygamous marriages among British Muslims. In addition to polygamy there are many other practices that one would be hard pressed to find in Christian families: tens of thousands of cases of female genital mutilation, forced marriages to first cousins, and women shrouded in burqas.
But let’s focus on polygamy. It’s not simply an incidental item that happens to be found in Arab cultures, rather it’s a central element in the Islamic system. The practice is completely in accord with sharia law and with the Koran. In the Koran, Muslim men are allowed up to four wives at one time. Muhammad, however, received a special revelation from Allah permitting him to have as many wives as he wanted. Since Muhammad is considered the perfect man, and the model of proper conduct, there is no theological ground for opposing polygamy. Of course, a great many Muslim men don’t practice polygamy, but that’s not because the practice is considered improper, it’s because many men can’t afford to support more than one wife. But it’s always a possibility. The standard Egyptian marriage contract contains spaces for the husband to fill in the names of wives number one, two, and three, just in case.
Christianity introduced a revolution in the relationship between men and women. It erased the inequality between the sexes that practices such as polygamy reinforced. And it raised marriage between one man and one woman to the level of a sacrament. Under the influence of Christianity, polygamy became unlawful in the West and in many other parts of the world as well. On the other hand, the faith that Muhammad introduced retained and reinforced the practice by giving it a religious sanction. Moreover, polygamy is no mere relic of the past. With the modern day resurgence of Islam, the practice is spreading. A Western convert to Islam can be suddenly transported back to a time when a man could rule his household much as a caliph ruled his harem.
Why did Muhammad reject the Christian vision of marriage? A theologian might trace it back to his rejection of the Trinity. Just as the Incarnation elevates our understanding of man, the doctrine of the Trinity elevates our understanding of marriage and family. The shared love between the three persons of the Trinity becomes the model for marriage and family. But there is no such heavenly model in Islam. In Muhammad’s book, Allah is a solitary God and must remain so. Thus:
So believe in God and His apostles and do not say “three”… God is but one God. God forbid that He should have a Son!” (4: 171)
The Koran provides no theological basis for understanding marriage as a one-man-one-woman proposition. But theology may not have been the deciding factor. Muhammad may also have had personal motives for preferring polygamy to monogamy. It is very possible that he simply did not want to limit himself to one wife. Scholars of Islam designate a number of Muhammad’s revelations as “revelations of convenience”—that is, revelations that worked to his personal advantage or helped him to resolve a family conflict. The revelation that allowed him to marry his own daughter-in-law falls into that category, and so does the revelation that permitted him to have an unlimited number of wives (and sex slaves).
But there is yet a third motive that needs to be considered. As numerous scholars have noted, totalitarian systems look upon the traditional two-parent family as a rival. The fear is that family loyalty may take precedence over the “higher” loyalty that one owes to the state. Tyrants know that the bonds of affection that develop in a family may prove stronger than one’s allegiance to the ruling ideology, or to Big Brother, or to Dear Leader.
This was certainly the case with Nazism. Through organizations such as the Hitler Youth, the Nazis sought to transfer a child’s loyalty from his parents to the state. Likewise, communists looked upon the traditional family as nothing more than a reactionary holdover from the days of bourgeois morality. Communists had no qualms about urging children to act as informants on their parents, and in Stalinist Russia one such informant—thirteen-year-old Pavlik Morozov—was elevated to the status of a national hero.
As the modern secular state becomes increasingly totalitarian, it also begins to look upon the family as a rival to its aim of achieving complete control over citizens. Thus the state seeks through various means to undermine the purpose of marriage (e.g., by promoting abortions), and to disrupt the relationship between husband and wife (e.g., by making women financially dependent on the state). Meanwhile, the media—which often acts as an agent of the state– can be counted on to extol unorthodox family arrangements. These days, sitcoms about traditional families are as verboten as cigarette commercials.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Islam, which is a totalitarian system par excellence, favors the polygamous family structure. Through sharia law, Islam seeks to control every aspect of an individual’s life. As its advocates insist, Islam is not just a religion, it is a complete way of life. Moreover, it’s a purpose-driven life. It’s meant to be lived in service to the ideology of jihad for the sake of Allah. As Nonie Darwish puts it in Wholly Different, “In Islam, after believing in Allah, the number one priority for a Muslim believer is not family; it is jihad.” Consequently, “a man who is devoted to his wife and children in a monogamous marriage is a threat to jihad.”
Darwish argues that the Christian ideal of exclusive and permanent loyalty between man and wife is at odds with the aims of Islam. Marriage so conceived is a rival to the single-minded pursuit of jihad. But a polygamous marriage is not. For one thing, the husband has no obligation to remain loyal to one wife. Just as important, a polygamous family by its very nature is riven with internal rivalries. It lacks the organic unity which might allow it to stand as a rival to the ideology of jihad.
According to Darwish and other former Muslims, the structure of polygamous families (combined with the knowledge that one’s monogamous marriage can be suddenly transformed into a multiple one) makes for divided loyalties and dysfunctional families. It pits wife against wife, step-brother against step-brother, and mother-in-law, against daughter-in-law.
In addition, Islamic theology creates rivalries between a husband’s current wife/wives and his brides-to-be in paradise. In order to insure that Muslim men will never be satisfied with their current wife or wives, they are promised more polygamy with more desirable partners in the next world. Of course, the only sure fire way of securing brides in paradise is by committing jihad for the sake of Allah. Thus, as Darwish puts it, “Islam has substituted love of jihad and martyrdom for love of family.”
A recent example of Darwish’s observation is provided by Sayfulla Saipov, the jihadist who killed eight people on a New York City bike path by running them down with a truck. Saipov is a family man, but only in the most limited sense of the term. He has a wife and three children, but he also had jihad on his mind. Unlike the ordinary soldier who hopes to return from the battlefield to rejoin his wife and children, this “soldier of ISIS” was intent on joining his brides in paradise instead. The promise of perfect wives in paradise tends to weaken the ties to one’s family here on earth. Moreover, as Muhammad understood, such a promise is an efficient mechanism for insuring that there will always be an abundant supply of recruits for the jihad.
Not all Muslims are so minded, of course. They are not interested in polygamy or jihad, and they may have their doubts about the existence of the 72 virgins. Some Muslim marriages, as Darwish readily admits, “are happy and successful.” Some Muslims manage to rise above ideology and to ignore the misogynistic teachings of Islam.
Still, on the whole, Islamic family relation are far more dysfunctional than Western citizens realize. Polygamy is not the only problem. Child marriage is common, and so are forced marriages. In Iran and other Shia Muslim societies, temporary marriage (a form of prostitution) is legal. And 91 percent of all honor violence worldwide is committed by Muslims.
On that subject, Islamic law states that there is no penalty for a mother or father who kills their child, and no penalty for a grandmother or grandfather who kills their children’s children (Reliance of the Traveller, o1.4). Conversely, a child may kill a parent for the sake of honor. Sons often take part in killing their mothers (or sisters) who have jeopardized family honor in some way or other. In The Stoning of Soraya M.—a film based on a true story—the father and the son of an accused wife and mother are the ones who throw the first stones. In the West Bank, parents deliberately raise their children to become suicide bombers. This also is for the sake of honor, because, as one might expect in a system that revolves around jihad, great honor redounds to the parents of martyrs.
If the Soviets and the Nazis encouraged children to betray their parents, the Islamic system teaches that any family member may be sacrificed by any other family member for the sake of Allah and the jihad. Child against parent, parent against child, husband against wife, brother against sister, wife against wife: it’s a sinister system. And it should not be compared to the Christian family ideal.
It’s true, of course, that families in Western societies are often troubled and destructive. But in the Christian and post-Christian world, family dysfunction is not a function of Christian values. It’s a departure from them. The troubles that afflict modern families are largely the result of acting out the anti-Christian and anti-family values of the secular society.
Christians are far from perfect. They are not immune to folly or to sin. But Christian family values are no more like Islamic values than they are like Nazi family values or Soviet family values. Catholics who draw a false equivalence between the two decidedly different visions of family life represented by Islam and Christianity ought to know better. And they ought to stop doing it.