Mises on Islam

Much has been written since September 11, 2001, on the subject of Islam. Although it is true that Muslims have always written in defense of their religion just as Christians have always written against it, the debate has intensified since Muslim terrorists, who, right or wrong, always act in the name of their religion, flew airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings.

Ever since that fateful day, both groups have been writing feverishly. Muslims have been writing favorably of their religion in attempt to dispel the notion that they are all terrorists. Christians have been writing unfavorably of Islam in order to show its proclivity toward violence, but also to counter the politically-correct propaganda that Christ and Mohammad were both prophets of God, the Bible and the Koran are equally Scripture, and that one religion is just as good as another.

As acknowledged by both Muslims and Christians, there are a number of differences between Islam and Christianity. According to Christianity, Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He was God manifest in the flesh. He was crucified, and died on the cross as the atonement for the sin of the world. He was buried, and after three days he rose from the dead. According to Islam, Jesus Christ was just a prophet (and a lesser one than Mohammad). God has no son. Jesus Christ was not crucified. He did not die on the cross. There is no atonement for sin. Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead. And not only that, many references in the Bible to Jesus Christ are applied by Muslims to Mohammad. These differences are insurmountable. There is no “third way” or “happy medium.”

But in spite of these religious differences, Muslims and Christians can still peacefully coexist just as Muslims and Buddhists can peacefully coexist and Christians and atheists can peacefully coexist. What usually hinders this peaceful coexistence is the state. When the state has an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, controls the education system or the news media, prohibits individual liberty and free expression, or unites with religion — tensions unnecessarily arise between cultures and religions in different countries.

The free market allows adherents of different religions (or no religion) to come together peaceably. No one has made this point more cogently than the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881—1973). Nevertheless, Mises, who was born a Jew in the Hapsburg Empire, but was culturally a European Christian, did recognize that freedom flourishes best not in Islamic civilizations, but in Christian societies.

Mises did not shy away from mentioning religion throughout his writings. On the subject of organized religion and its institutions, he was sometimes very critical. However, this does not mean that he was anti-religion. Many Christian thinkers (including this one) who write about religion are also sometimes very critical of organized religion and its institutions.

Although one of his grandfathers had been a rabbi, Mises was not a synagogue attendee. He was an agnostic, believing that no one could know about God. But unlike many who are irreligious, Mises was knowledgeable about religion. He mentions the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of various sects. He also refers to religious personages and events in history. The volume and detail of his references to religion evidence that he did not parrot mistaken notions about religion that the typical atheist or agnostic puts forth. In fact, the references to atheism and agnosticism throughout Mises’ books are either neutral or negative. There is not one positive statement to be found.

Sometimes Mises criticizes both religion and atheism at the same time for the same economic fallacies. Both Christian socialism and atheist socialism have brought about the “present state of confusion” in the world today. Both pious Christians and “radical atheists rejected the market economy.” Both divines and atheists rejected “the ideas of laissez faire.” Professor Hayek exposed the “authoritarian character of the socialist schemes,” whether advocated by “atheists or by misguided believers.”

According to Mises: “The popular attacks upon the social philosophy of the Enlightenment and the utilitarian doctrine as taught by the classical economists did not originate from Christian theology, but from theistic, atheistic, and antitheistic reasoning.” It would therefore be a “serious mistake to conclude that the sciences of human action” and liberalism are “antitheistic and hostile to religion.”

Although somewhat dated, Mises’ comments on Islam are insightful and unvarnished. His opinions can be considered unbiased since he is writing from the perspective of an economist and a historian, and not as an advocate of any particular religion.

Next to Christianity and Judaism, Mises mentions the religion of Islam more than any other. And he does so throughout his writings. The following is a summary of every reference to Islam in Mises’ books.

The Muslim god “Allah” is mentioned once. The Muslim “holy book,” the Koran, is referred to twice. The founder of Islam, Mohammed, is mentioned directly by name only twice, both times as just a man. Mises also refers to Mohammed one time by the title of “the Prophet.” Otherwise it is “the creed of Mohammed,” “the teachings of Mohammad,” “Mohammedan countries,” or “Mohammed’s paradise.” The followers of Mohammad are thrice termed “Mohammedans” The usual term Mises uses is “Moslem,” but once each he says “Islamitic peoples,” “Moslem peoples,” and “Muslim.” The religion of Islam is usually called by that name, but also “the Moslem religion” and “the creed of Mohammed.” We also read of “Muslim countries,” “Islamic zealotism,” “Moslem armies,” and “Saracen warriors,” which refers to the Muslim opponents of the Crusaders in the Middle Ages. As to a Muslim practicing the tenets of his religion, the only thing Mises mentions is a pious Muslim making “a pilgrimage to the Prophet’s tomb at Mecca.” He also once quotes another author who refers to a mosque and the Koran.

References by Mises to Islam that are not in a neutral sense are usually negative. The Hapsburg Empire was the shield against the “threat of Islam” to the West. In the Middle Ages, “Christians of the East were forced to accept the creed of Mohammed” and “Moslems persecuted the Jews on account of their religion.” Muslim armies “conquered a great part of the Mediterranean area,” believing that “their God was for the big, well-equipped, and skillfully led battalions.” The Muslim conquerors of Africa and Spain were “fanatical and intolerant.” Muslims of the Middle East espouse “fatalist teachings” and “interventionism.” “Laissez-faire philosophy” does not appeal to them.” “Marxism finds it easy to ally with Islamic zealotism.” They have never known “any form of government other than unlimited absolutism.” Muslim countries lacked “institutions of safeguarding the individual’s rights,” although Mises does credit them with being free from a caste system. To those who compared the rapid expansion of Socialism to that of Christianity, Mises considered as more appropriate “a comparison with Islam, which inspired the sons of the desert to lay waste ancient civilizations, cloaked their destructive fury with an ethical ideology, and stiffened their courage with rigid fatalism.”

Mises regarded Islam as a dead religion that is despiritualized — prescribing prayers, fasts, rituals, legal forms, and external rules that offer nothing to the mind and suppress the soul. The longest statement about Islam in all of Mises’ writings explains the reason for the state he perceives it to be in: “The religion of Islam has not changed since the days of the Arab conquests. Their literature, their philosophies continue to repeat the old ideas and do not penetrate beyond the circle of theology. One looks in vain among them for men and movements such as Western Christianity has produced in each century. They maintain their identity only by rejecting everything foreign and u2018different,’ by traditionalism and conservatism. Only their hatred of everything foreign rouses them to great deeds from time to time. All new sects, even the new doctrines which arise with them, are nothing more than echoes of this fight against the foreign, the new, the infidel.”

Aside from all Muslims converting to Christianity or all Christians converting to Islam, the only real way for both groups to live in harmony is a decrease in the power of the state and an increase in freedom and liberty. The free market is not hindered by any color, culture, or creed.

[Thanks to Professor Paul Gottfried for helpful suggestions on this article.]