I hope that everyone is having a great 2018. Recently I’ve been reading many medieval Christian polemics against Islam. When reading medieval Christian literature, we can’t ignore what St. Thomas Aquinas says. Sadly, I must admit the Angelic Doctor dropped the ball on this one; at least according to what he wrote in the Summa Contra Gentiles. This won’t be popular amongst my Traditional Catholic friends but I believe that I have a good argument on this one.
Why did Muhammad’s early followers drop their traditional religion and embrace Islam? While I agree with many medieval writers regarding Islam, the statements by St. Thomas I find troubling. In Summa Contra Gentiles book one, chapter 6, paragraph 4, the Angelic Doctor writes:
On the other hand, those who founded sects committed to erroneous doctrines proceeded in a way that is opposite to this, The point is clear in the case of Muhammad. He seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure to which the concupiscence of the flesh goads us. His teaching also contained precepts that were in conformity with his promises, and he gave free rein to carnal pleasure. In all this, as is not unexpected, he was obeyed by carnal men.
Later in the same paragraph he says:
On the contrary, Muhammad said that he was sent in the power of his arms—which are signs not lacking even to robbers and tyrants. What is more, no wise men, men trained in things divine and human, believed in him from the beginning, Those who believed in him were brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Muhammad forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms.
St. Thomas contradicts himself here. In the first part he says that Muhammad promised fleshly carnal pleasures to those who followed him but in the second portion he refers to “violence of his arms”. Regarding fleshly carnal pleasures, the most one could say is that certain followers were seduced in this way. It’s too general to use as an overall statement. Regarding force of arms, Muslims haven’t traditionally forced people to become Muslim. Forced conversion is condemned by Islam in the same way forced baptism is condemned by Christianity. They’ve both been done by both groups in the past on rare occasion but never endorsed by their respective religious scholars or authorities.
Here is my theory on why Muhammad’s followers followed his religion and rejected their previous ones. They converted simply because Islam was a step up from what they had. This is true if one accepts the traditional account of Muhammad being from Mecca surrounded by idol worshippers. This is also true if one accepts the revisionist theory of Islam originating in Petra where he would have been surrounded by heretical Christian and Jewish groups.
This is also the reason that I seek to bring the truth to the Muslims. I believe that I’m offering something better than what they have. I don’t blame St. Thomas for his errors on Islam since he didn’t have access to all of the sources, in the same way author of the Quran didn’t have access to traditional Christian or Jewish sources. In the 13th century, one certainly couldn’t go and order the Sira or Hadith off of Amazon. In the same way, someone from the 7th century couldn’t embrace Catholic Christianity if they’ve never been exposed to it.
There is little evidence in Islamic sources that Muhammad or any of the other early Muslims came into contact with any large groups of Catholics. The possible exception was a brief encounter with a group of Christians from Najran who were aligned with the Byzantine Empire which embraced the Catholic faith. Apart from that, there is not much. Muhammad had a Coptic monophysite wife and met briefly with Waraqa ibn Nawful who was a Nestorian Priest. Neither of them were Catholic. Muhammad obviously encountered some Gnostics because the Quran borrows from Gnostic literature. There is a document from 634 AD which is called the Doctrina Jacobi which indicates that Muhammad didn’t die in 632 AD, but was alive leading the Arabs in the early stages of their conquests; in this case, the conquest of the holy land. However, at this point in Muhammad’s life, the Quran would have already been fully revealed so it wouldn’t matter at this point. It was also at the tail end of his life and he probably didn’t have enough time to assess things.
Besides those brief episodes, it was either polytheism or other heretical monotheistic groups. They chose Islam. As St. Thomas said, they were ignorant of divine teaching.
This is also the same reason that Muslims should embrace Catholicism. It has the Scriptural, historical, theological and philosophical grounding that Islam lacks. St. Thomas was wrong in his assessment of Islam but we don’t need to go by what he said today. We can simply go by the facts and evidence before us.