Jordan Denari Duffner announces that “many Muslims describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’” in her previously reviewed recent book Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic. This ubiquitous distortion of Islam’s Arabic etymology sets the tone for a book whose uncritical regurgitation of shopworn Islamic apologetic myths belies the worth of her numerous credentials from Saudi-funded Georgetown University.
“Both ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ come from the root s-l-m, which means peace,” Duffner writes in a common misperception. Yet Islamic sources themselves and scions of Islamic studies like Daniel Pipes have accurately noted that Islam actually means “submission” in Arabic, a definition her book only indirectly indicates. “Islam is the act of giving one’s self over to God, and aligning one’s own will with God’s; a Muslim is a person who willfully undertakes this act of devotion, and experiences the peace that comes with it,” she writes.
Islam as peace comports with Duffner’s false claims that in Islam, “Rahma—compassion, ‘feeling with’—is God’s very essence,” and that the “Qur’an explicitly identifies rahma” as “God’s primary quality and essential, defining attribute.” She therefore asserts that “[f]or Muslims, God’s love is at the center of their religion” and that the “shared emphasis on God’s mercy is the strongest and most apparent similarity between Islam and Christianity.” “No created thing is outside the realm of God’s rahma,” she adds, while overlooking predestination’s domination of Islamic theology. Only a reference to her college discussions with Georgetown’s Muslim chaplain over the “tension between free will and predestination” tangentially touches this topic.
Duffner’s shallow analysis receives clear refutation from the book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, a tour de force by her fellow Catholic and Georgetown alumnus Robert Reilly. He documented how predestination corresponds to mainstream Sunni Islamic theology’s voluntarist understanding of God as an inscrutable will demanding blind human obedience. Accordingly, God’s 99 names in Islam designate several often contradictory attributes (e.g. the “Humiliator” versus the “Most Compassionate”), none of which define any essence in God. Starkly confirming Reilly, Georgetown University Professor Jonathan Brown, another Georgetown alumnus and a Muslim convert, has more accurately analyzed God’s relationship with humanity under Islam in master-slave terms.
Such Islamic demands for slavish submission cast grave doubts upon Duffner’s visions of Christian-Muslim dialogue. “Because we are made in God’s image, and because we have received his love, we are called to imitate God’s way of dialogue in our interactions with our fellow humans,” she declares, in reliance upon biblical doctrines. Duffner compares Christian “talk about how each person is created in God’s image and likeness” derived from Genesis 1:26 with Muslims speaking “of how God’s breath, or spirit, resides in each person,” as Quran 15:28-29 suggests. Yet as Reilly has noted, mainstream Islamic doctrine clearly rejects as blasphemy this biblical imago dei and its corollaries that human reason is a means for seeking communion with an essentially loving God.
Duffner’s own writing calls into question the role of reason for Muslims discussing religious doctrine. As Reilly has examined, a central medieval debate in Islam between those who sought to reconcile reason with religion and their voluntarist opponents concerned whether the Quran was coeternal with God or created at a particular time. “Muslims believe that God’s Word is eternal, preexistent, and unchanging,” she writes, in blithe acceptance of this view that ultimately dominated Sunni Islam and foreclosed critical Quran analysis.
As Duffner elaborates, in Christianity, Jesus’ “incarnation—God becoming human—is the divine manifesting itself in our created world” while for “Islam, the revelation of the Qur’an is like the incarnation in Christianity.” Thus “[f]or Muslims, listening to or reciting passages of the Qur’an resembles Catholics’ experience of receiving the Eucharist—the Body of Jesus Christ—in Mass.” While Catholics “rush to pick up a consecrated Host and immediately eat it after accidentally dropping it on the floor, Muslims avoid letting their Word of God, the Qur’an, touch the ground.”
Duffner’s uncritical restatement of Islamic scriptural doctrine begs several serious questions about whether any book such as the Quran can merit the same reverence Christians bestow upon the incarnation. Considerable scholarship has refuted Islamic teachings about the Quran’s origins as a miracle of Arabic literature. Christian analysts have also condemned the Quran’s biography of Jesus as a “product of fable, imagination and ignorance,” with elements that first appeared in pre-Quranic documents rejected by early Christians as heretical. For example, she gushes that “Islamic tradition contains beautiful, miraculous stories about Jesus” such as how he “transformed a clay bird into a living one” in Quran 3:49, yet this story originates in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
With Duffner’s naïve embrace of the Quran, she overlooks several disturbing and dangerous Islamic doctrines. For example, she notes that Islam’s five daily prayers or “Salah always includes Surat al-Fatiha, the Qur’an’s brief opening chapter.” This indicates that:
Surat al-Fatiha plays a central role in Muslim life. The Prophet Muhammad considered this short chapter to contain the whole of the Quran’s message. Surat al-Fatiha is a staple in the prayer life of Muslims to an even greater extent than the Lord’s Prayer is for Christians.
Duffner enthuses that Surat al-Fatiha “consists of only twenty-nine words in Arabic, but it mentions God’s mercy four times,” yet there is more to this Quran sura than meets the eye. Surat al-Fatiha’s translation in her book calls for God to “Guide us on the straight path/The path of those whom You have blessed/Not of those against whom there is displeasure/Nor of those who go astray.” Yet numerous Islamic authorities throughout history have interpreted the Islam’s “straight path” or sharia as opposing Jews and Christians, understood respectively as “those against whom there is displeasure” and “who go astray.”
Duffner also notes Quran 5:32 in order to claim that the “preservation and protection of human life is at the core of Islam’s moral and ethical teaching.” From this verse comes “To save a life is to save all of humanity,” the motto of Syria’s White Helmets, an “organization of civilians who attempt to rescue their fellow Syrians harmed in the civil war.” As is common among Islam apologists, Duffner fails to note Quran 5:32’s exception for fitna or a vaguely-defined “corruption [done] in the land,” a crime punishable by Quran 5:33’s brutal death penalty.
Duffner has a similar half-truth approach to Quran 5:82. With yet another common Islamic apologetic, she claims that here “God reminds the Muslim community of their similarities with Christians.” However this verse’s description of Jews as the “most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers” in Islam is central to Islam’s long tradition of antisemitism.
Duffner’s questionable interpretation of verses such as Quran 4:36 is that the “Qur’an emphasizes the equality of all people before God, whether they be male or female, free or enslaved people, or of various races.” Yet how can the “free or enslaved” under Islam referenced by this verse be equal, an important question for Brown, one of the authorities listed in her book. Brown has previously scandalously justified slavery (including rape), given that Muhammad, Islam’s “perfect man” per Quran 33:21, owned slaves, according to canonical sources.
Duffner herself notes Quran 21:107’s description of Muhammad as a “mercy to the world” while discussing his moral statue in Islam. “Muslims look to the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who they view as the ideal role model for living out God’s message.” Muslims “remember the Prophet as a generous person, always inclined toward forgiveness and gentleness. He was prayerful, extremely frugal, and funny, too.”
Indeed, Duffner’s uncritical equation of Catholic understanding of Jesus’ mother Mary with Islamic understanding of Muhammad will shock many:
Mary and Muhammad also have parallel roles in Catholicism and Islam, respectively. Neither are divine, but rather they are sinless, human individuals who live out God’s will perfectly. They serve as the vessels through which God’s divine Word enters the world. According to Catholic teaching, Mary was born without sin, and in Islamic tradition, Muhammad’s heart was scrubbed clean of his sin before he began receiving God’s revelations at age forty.
No critical comments in Duffner’s writing question her vision of a Muhammad and Islam “scrubbed clean.” Her fallacy that “Muhammad’s community was built on ideals of equality and religious pluralism” rests on common canards about the “Constitution of Medina” and Quran 2:256, the “clearest statement about freedom of religion in any religious scripture.” “In general, the Muslim world was more tolerant of religious diversity than Christian Europe,” she concludes while ignoring that centuries of Muslim domination have transformed Christianity’s historic Middle East heartland and other countries into Muslim-majority societies. She praises a 2014 open letter’s disingenuous claims that the “brutality of the so-called Islamic State is in total opposition to Islamic teachings,” even as the letter affirms Islamic doctrines of jihad and a caliphate’s global Islamic rule. Its Muslim scholar endorsers such as Sheik Abdullah Bin Bayyah, former Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Gomaa, and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri are no one’s idea of Muslim “moderates.”
Duffner asserts that her book’s “image of Islam may be unfamiliar, but it is the one the Catholic Church wants us to see.” Her book indicates that she has a soulmate in the current Pope Francis, but various Catholic saints who throughout history condemned Muhammad for creating a false faith inciting religious warfare and rapacious desires would beg to differ. After all, past Catholic heroes did not defend Christendom against Islamic invasions for nothing. Duffner has unintentionally provided a service by clearly stating basic, albeit astonishing, Islamic doctrines, but their dangerous implications demand greater scrutiny from those who have more skepticism and less love for the Quran.