October 13, 2007

Not So Much in Common After All

"In A Common Word Between Us and You, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals have unanimously come together for the first time since the days of the Prophet to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam. . . . [T]he signatories to this message come from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. Every major Islamic country or region in the world is represented in this message, which is addressed to the leaders of all the world’s churches, and indeed to all Christians everywhere."

Thus summarizes the official website hosting this unprecedented letter from "Muslims" to "Christians." Having read a couple of articles on this, as well as the document itself, I have the following thoughts.

1) They begin by insisting that "The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians." This suggests that there is present (or at least potential) strife between the two. In spite of what the military actions against terrorists might be taken to suggest, it is not the case that the West is in a general war against the religion of Islam, much less that Christians are. For this reason, a peace offering may be seen as rather mundane, though comforting for those Christians who see too much "Islam" in terrorist camps. However, this would be a far more momentous letter if its signatories included members of Hamas, al-Qaeda, or any of the other numerous Muslim-run groups who presently believe that peace is not the answer to the differences between us.

2) I notice that the major, traditional Islamic nations are under-represented here, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia. In fact, the list of signers largely comes from the more secular and westernized nations, and USA representatives make up a large part of the list. I have to wonder if the signers of this represent the more liberal side of Islam, and what the majority view is within those who are committed to the authority of the Qur'an.

3) This document goes beyond an appeal to mere social and political harmony, it seeks to make a case for some level of theological unity. In the opening page they appeal to Sura 3:64 (in the Qur'an) to say we should "Come to a common word between us and you." Interestingly, if we actually browse this book for ourselves we find the following texts shortly after this:

O people of the Scripture [Jews and Christians], why do you mix truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know? (3:71)

And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers. (3:85)

4) One of the primary tenants of our supposed unity is our "love of God." Unfortunately, God is scarcely defined, but therein lays the difference with Christianity. G-O-D is just three consecutive letters of our alphabet. It is the meaning that you pour into them that is important, and Christianity and Islam pour from the apple and orange juice pitchers. I suspect that if "God" has gone to the trouble to give us the very specific information about Himself that we find in the Bible OR Qur'an, then He's likely to get rather cranky if we assume we can worship Him according to the standards of the other contradictory book.

5) In spite of their desire to find unity in God, they do a curious thing. No less than 17 times they quote Qur'anic passages that end by stating that God has no "partner" or "associate." But what is meant by this? Do we just have unity because neither religion is polytheistic? If we are to take the Qur'an seriously, then including these passages undercuts this whole ecumenical project. Let's let the Qur'an speak for itself. Observe Sura 5:72-75:

Certainly they disbelieve who say: Allah, He is the Messiah, son of Mary. And the Messiah said: O Children of Israel, serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Surely whoever associates (others) with Allah, Allah has forbidden to him the Garden and his abode is the Fire. And for the wrongdoers there will be no helpers. Certainly they disbelieve who say: Allah is the third of the three. And there is no God but One God. And if they desist not from what they say, a painful chastisement will surely befall such of them as disbelieve. Will they not then turn to Allah and ask His forgiveness? And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. And his mother was a truthful woman. They both used to eat food. See how We make the messages clear to them! then behold, how they are turned away!

It seems they cannot help but jab (consciously or unconsciously) at the primary belief about God that stands between us: Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity.

6) With the "no partner" quotes, they even (gratuitously it seems) include one verse that ends with this text: "Each soul earneth only on its own account, nor doth any laden bear another's load." (Sura 6:164) I take this as a thinly veiled rebuke of the Christian doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and probably was meant as such by Muhammad.

7) The Bible is quoted numerous times — both Old and New Testaments — as though it is a valid source of divine authority. Verses from Matthew and Mark are particularly quoted. But these are books that speak of the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus, which they deny, and that show the Father and Son in an intimate, unique relationship, the thought of which they abhor. Indeed, the very idea that God should have a "son" is explicitly rebuked in the Qur'an. Now, just what has survived the corruption that Muhammad claimed had come to the Gospel of Jesus? Perhaps just the sections they cite? In that event, let's look at the immediately surrounding text of one particular saying of Jesus they cite in both books (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-33).

What is interesting is that immediately before the verses they cite we see Jesus echoing the Old Testament refrain, "I Am the God of Abraham Isaac, and Jacob." Why is this significant? Because Ishmael, who they believe themselves to be descendents of, who rivals Isaac in importance in the Qur'an, and is generally listed in this company, is not even mentioned here! And immediately after their cited verses we see Jesus making the case that the Messiah is to be in some way prior to, and Lord over, David. The Qur'an affirms Jesus as Messiah, but reserves Lordship for God alone and does not grant that Jesus, as a mere man, could preexist His own birth.

8) Another appeal to unity is made stating that "Muhammad brought nothing fundamentally or essentially new." This is done by reference to Suras such as the following:

Naught is said to thee (Muhammad) but what already was said to the messengers before thee. (41:43)

I am no new thing among the messengers of God. (46:9)

We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. (5:48)

If this were true, and Muhammad were essentially underscoring the prior revelation, then we might simply put the Qur'an aside and go with the original teachings we already have. Unfortunately, that won't play for Islam, since the unique and conflicting doctrines found in the Qur'an are indispensable parts of the true religion. In practice, for them, it is the Bible that may be set aside, since it must of necessity be a corrupt and/or misunderstood book. In order to sympathize with the Christian apathy towards Muhammad's claim to stand for Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, I would ask them to contemplate their own response to the claim that Baha'i is the true expression of Islam, bringing nothing essentially new to it.

9) When justifying the unique Muslim interpretation of Jesus as Messiah they insert this parenthetical comment: "but Christians themselves anyway have never all agreed with each other on Jesus Christ's nature." So, since Christians differ over Jesus, then why not allow the Muslim view of Him into the pale of orthodoxy? The problem with this is that with all the differences that Christians may have in their theology, none of them comes even close to teaching the purely human view of Jesus that Islam maintains. Even the most challenging disputes from the first few centuries of the church never were based upon the idea that Jesus was "just a messenger" (i.e., just a man). In fact, there is almost universal agreement within Christendom on exactly this point. Rome, Orthodoxy, and Protestants alike can comfortably unite in reciting something like the ancient Nicene Creed, which states:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

Pretty specific, and poles apart from the understanding taught in the Qur'an.

10) In the final pages of the letter we read, "As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes." Perhaps before they seek to pursue the finer points of theological unity with Christians they should begin by working to stop the Christian persecution in the many countries where their religion dominates. That would be at least one thing about which we could get excited.



At 10/14/2007 10:04 AM, Blogger mattghg said...

I feel the letter is more likely playing to the gallery of those non-Christians in the west who may be counted on to wave away Christian complaint at the tendentiousness of this document (which you ably point out) as only so much 'intolerant fundamentalism' or similar. Good post.

At 10/14/2007 12:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That's a very good point. I hate to second-guess people's motives, but you know exactly how Muslims and non-Christians are going to respond to us "fundies" who inevitably nitpick over this "tolerant" and "gracious" gesture. If I had to ascribe a consciously bad motive to it, I might suggest that it was meant to bait Christians into looking like the bad guys. Nice PR move by a religion that has had some public opinion setbacks of late. However, I am more inclined to think it is just an ecumenical action by the kinder and gentler side of the religion (perhaps the liberals), who are not so much concerned for doctrinal precision as they are with just getting along and not being proselytized and browbeaten.

At 10/14/2007 5:40 PM, Blogger Ben said...

3:64 includes this phrase "if they turn away" Check the context in which it is used in the Qur'an.

Ibn Kathir's Tafsir for this verse includes Moe's letter to the Byzantine Emperor. The nasty phrase is included. What was Surah At-Tauba about anyway?

First the letter, then the invasion. This pattern is followed with the letter to the Persian Emperor and Umar's dispatch of the army.

Its an extortion letter, plain and simple. That's why my new blog dissecting it is called "Go Burn With Muhammad".

At 10/14/2007 10:38 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I hate to be overly speculative where this letter is concerned, but in consulting my Qur'an (from Saudi Arabia) it does include commentary at this very point regarding such a letter sent to the Emperor from Muhammad. Why the ... coincidental aggression after sending such letters? I will leave that to readers such as yourself to decide.

At 10/17/2007 12:26 AM, Blogger IrishFarmer said...

A surgically precise cut, straight into the meat of the letter. Insightful and well-written, as per your standard M.O.

Keep it up.

At 10/17/2007 2:30 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks IrishFarmer. And thanks again for the link. By the way, for any who like debate with atheists served up piping hot, Farmer's blog is worth a tumble.


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