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There Is No Pope in Islam

March 5, AD2015 21 Comments

Some time ago I posted on Facebook this criticism of that ubiquitous “Coexist” bumper sticker with the comment, “I need this in magnet form for my car.”

A friend (who, I believe, identifies as atheist/agnostic) replied, “I don’t agree that Muslims are out to get everyone else. I find that suggestion pretty offensive actually.” Upon deeper reflection, my response would be as follows:

I don’t believe that all Muslims “are out to get everyone else.” I would not presume to speak for every single person on the planet who identifies as a Muslim. I do believe, however, that some Muslims are out to get everyone else (if “everyone else” is defined as “everyone who doesn’t follow the ways they consider to be correct”).

The response I most often hear when I express my concern is either that (a) Islam is a religion of peace and does not promote violence, and/or (b) only extremist Muslims believe that non-believers should be killed.

However, the problem with this viewpoint is that Islam is only a religion of peace depending on who is doing the interpreting. Unlike Catholicism, there is no pope in Islam. There is no one person a Muslim can point to and say, “This is the definitive teaching of Islam. Anyone who does not hold to this teaching is not in conformity with the Islamic faith; they are practicing something different.”

A few years ago, President Obama spoke at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and was asked for his take on jihad. Obama replied that jihad “has different meanings in Islam and is subject to different interpretations.”

The President is absolutely correct. In fact, there’s no shortage of differing opinions and interpretations on this subject. The page on the Islamic concept of tattarrus – the killing of non-combatants – at acknowledges that “Opinion appears to be divided among Muslim commentators and theologians. Fatwas (religious rulings by qualified Muslim clerics) differ.”

The site recognizes that a similar difference of opinion exists regarding jihad. While it’s quick to list the passages of the Qur’an that promote peace and forgiveness, it fails to address more problematic passages, such as ones discussed in the Catholic Answers article Endless Jihad: The Truth about Islam and Violence:

The attitude of Islam toward using violence against non-Muslims is clear. Regarding pagans, the Quran says, “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful” (Surah 9:5). This amounts to giving pagans a convert-or-die choice.

Regarding violence against Jews and Christians, the Quran says, “Fight against those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe in neither God nor the last day, who do not forbid what God and his messenger have forbidden, and who do not embrace the true faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued” (Surah 9:29). In other words, violence is to be used against Jews and Christians unless they are willing to pay a special tax and live in subjection to Muslims as second-class citizens. For them the choice is convert, die, or live in subjection.

The Quran also has stern words for Muslims who would be slow and reluctant to attack unbelievers: “Believers, why is it that when you are told: ‘March in the cause of God,’ you linger slothfully in the land? Are you content with this life in preference to the life to come? . . . If you do not go to war, he [God] will punish you sternly, and will replace you by other men” (Surah 9:38-39).

And, of course, there is the promise of reward in the afterlife for waging jihad in this one: “Believers! Shall I point out to you a profitable course that will save you from a woeful scourge? Have faith in God and his messenger, and fight for God’s cause with your wealth and with your persons. . . . He will forgive you your sins and admit you to gardens watered by running streams; he will lodge you in pleasant mansions in the gardens of Eden. This is the supreme triumph” (Surah 61:10-12).

David French, in an article at, writes that there is no “true Islam.” So how can anyone, myself included, definitively say that “Muslims think so-and-so,” or “Islam teaches X and not Y” when it’s all open to individual interpretation?  A Muslim can interpret the Qur’an to say that it’s acceptable to kill non-Muslims, or that it’s unacceptable to kill non-Muslims, and there’s no ultimate authority to tell that person, “No, your interpretation is wrong and is not a reflection of true Islamic teaching.”

Going back to the “Coexist” refutation, I don’t believe that the author’s intent was to say that every single Muslim on the planet would eradicate all non-Muslims if given the chance. The difficulty lies in that enough of them do (e.g., ISIS, Al Qaeda) to make peaceful “coexistence” a pipe dream.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

JoAnna was baptized, raised, and married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but converted to Catholicism in May 2003, on G.K. Chesterton's birthday. She has six terrific kids here on earth, four saints in heaven praying for her, and a wonderful husband who supports her in all things. She enjoys defending the Catholic faith online (in between her duties as chief cook and bottle washer for La Casa Wahlund, and her role as Senior Editor of Catholic Stand). She blogs at and more sporadically at

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