franciscan - September 2002
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2002
'The Light which Lightens Everyone': Christianity and Islam
by David Thomas
During the eighth-century expansion of Islam, St John of Damascus portrayed the Saracens as heretics who had borrowed their beliefs from the Bible. During the Crusades, St Francis considered the Moors in such deep need of the gospel that he urged his brothers to risk their lives to preach among them. At the Reformation Martin Luther thought the Turks in Eastern Europe were agents of the devil come to punish sinful Christendom. Today many Christians harbour the sentiment that Muslims are unreasonable and inclined to end differences with violence. How can they be sisters and brothers in faith when they seem so far from the principles on which faith stands?
It is undeniable that the central tenets of Islam are different from the teachings of Christianity. A reading of one of the most important parts of Muslim scripture immediately reveals this:
Say: He is God, the One,
God, who stands alone;
He does not beget and is not begotten,
And like him there is not one.
This is from the Chapter of Purity, from near the end of the Qur’an and, according to the Prophet Muhammad, equal in value to one third of the whole sacred text. It asserts uncompromisingly the oneness of God, his transcendence, invulnerability and disjunction from any other being, and it implies that in the final analysis he cannot be comprehended by finite minds. He is a God who remains mystery.
The Qur’an plays on this fundamental theme throughout its 114 chapters. One recurring modulation is the denial of any relationship that might suggest communion of being between God and another being. In consequence, the Qur’an unequivocally rejects the possibility that Jesus was divine or the Son of God. ‘Jesus son of Mary’ is the title he is usually given, and his virgin birth, miracles of healing and ability to raise the dead are all attributed to the infinite power of God to cause such things to happen, rather than interpreted as signs of the divinity of Jesus.
The Qur’an portrays Jesus as a human prophet who was designated by God as one of his messengers. He fulfilled his calling by declaring God’s will to one community, and in this he was assisted and safeguarded by God. God protected him to such a degree that when his enemies tried to silence him God saved him and took him to himself:
They did not kill him or crucify him,
It appeared so to them.
In these words we see God in his omnipotence thwarting those who attempted to frustrate his plan by doing away with his messenger. But we also see in a single short sentence a denial of the crucifixion, and so of the atonement. It is not easy to see how Christians might accept Muslims as fellow travellers on the path towards complete communion with God.
The stark disparities between Christianity and Islam over their portrayals of Jesus and their accounts of how God has dealt with the world have been firmly at the centre of relations between the two faiths for all their fourteen hundred years of shared existence. And few have seen beyond these to the striking similarities in attitude, which the two faiths share in other aspects of their belief and action. Among these latter are the insistence that God has created the world and cares for it, has shown humankind the path to sanctification and truth, has given human life a moral charge, and intends his creatures to find their fulfilment on earth in relationship with him and in the hereafter in enjoyment of his rewards. There are huge moral and ethical overlaps between the two faiths, and Muslims and Christians can find themselves curiously close in their perception of how the individual interacts with society, and their solutions for social malaise.
A clergy friend who sits on a school governing body has more than once remarked on how well he gets on with the Muslim chair of governors. They happily co-operate to maintain an explicitly religious atmosphere in this church school, which currently admits all its pupils from Muslim homes. Such examples make it less difficult to see how Christians might be able to travel at least some of the road with Muslims.
So we see there are aspects of Islam that decidedly distance Christians, and aspects that hold some promise of shared understanding and co-operation. The same can probably be said about Christianity and any faith. And it explains how, on the one hand, there must be some sense of distance from believers who either do not share cherished beliefs or openly reject them, and yet how, on the other, there may be some inclusivity towards those with common values who may join in projects that enrich society and enhance communal growth. I may not be able to pass the peace to my Muslim friends, but I can hope to build peace with their help and support.
But if I cannot pass the peace, because that implies accepting a Muslim into the body of Christ, can I get beyond the point of rejecting his beliefs and condemning them as either misunderstood borrowings from Christianity (St John of Damascus) or demonic (Luther)? With the help of a fundamental insight from the gospel of John, this may be possible.
In the outline of the Quranic teaching about God given above, there are many elements that Christians might recognise as familiar. Indeed, many elements of the Quranic teaching about Jesus are also remarkably similar to the gospels. If these are only slavish copies of Christian doctrines intentionally though incorrectly taken over by Muhammad, as St John of Damascus judges, then we must condemn Muhammad as a cheat. But if he was sincere and truthful in claiming they were not his conscious composition, we must attribute them to another source, which can only be inspiration. What form this inspiration took requires careful understanding, whether it was the direct inspiration that replaced Muhammad’s human speech with divine (as Muslims believe), or the poetic inspiration that enabled him to mould experiences and heard teachings into unforgettable expressions.
However we explain the Qur’an, if we allow it to be the authentic utterances of a sincere man, then we have to concede the possibility of divine involvement, and to acknowledge that the Qur’an might be a material outcome of that Life which is in the Word of God ‘and is the light of all people’, as John’s gospel teaches. That Life, we should note, does not give light to Christians alone but to everyone. So, in exactly the same way as the saints of the church have been reflections of that light, holy people outside the church have also shone with it, including Muhammad.
We reach an intriguing and exciting paradox: the Qur’an as an outcome of the light of the Word may in its alien way have teachings to balance and enrich those given by Christian scripture, which is also an outcome of the light of the Word. No wonder Islam disturbed John of Damascus, Francis and Luther. For here is teaching that appears to contradict the gospel, but which may still be accepted as bearing the touch of God. Christians should maybe learn how to read with sympathy and humility what the Qur’an says, and bring it into relation with the teachings of the Bible. If this took place, and Muslims mirrored it by studying Christian scripture, we might come to realise our two roads are really one, and find we could come to greet one another on the way with sincere signs of peace. f
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