Comparing Christianity & Islam
Two unsettling facts dominate the relations between Christianity and Islam:
- Dialogue is almost nonexistent. Islam resists ecumenical dialogue more than any other religion. To "proselytize" in any way in a Moslem country is to go to prison.
- Islam once nearly conquered the world, in the early Middle Ages when its empire stretched from Spain to Indonesia, and it looks as if it could do so again. Islamic growth rates in Africa and even America are phenomenal.
In other words, Islam has the world's lowest rate of being converted and one of the world's highest rates of converting.
What accounts for this success? What makes Islam such an attractive creed?
In a word: simplicity. Islam reflects the stark simplicity of the Arabian desert where it was born. A Moslem knows exactly where he stands. To a world more and more confused, Islam comes with a sword that cuts through the Gordian Knot of modern malaise in a single stroke.
That stroke, the striking simplicity of Islam's creed, is summed up in the palindrome (i.e., it reads the same backward as forward) which shatters the silence daily from every mosque and minaret: la illaha illa Allah! "There is no God but Allah!"
Allah, of course, is the same God Jews and Christians worship. Islam is not only a Western, monotheistic religion rather than an Oriental, pantheistic religion, but explicitly bases itself on the historical revelation of the God of the Jews, tracing itself to Ishmael, Isaac's brother, to whom God also promised special blessings according to Genesis. Isaac and Ishmael, Jews and Moslems, have been engaged in sibling rivalry ever since.
The older name that "infidels" gave this religion, "Mohammedanism," is inaccurate, for neither Mohammed nor any of his followers ever claimed Mohammed was anything more than a human prophet. "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet," is the complete Moslem creed.
The code is almost as simple as the creed. The "Five Pillars of Islam" define the duties of every Moslem. They include a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if possible, to commemorate Islam's beginning in 622 A.D. with the "Hegira;" Mohammed's flight from Mecca; fasting; almsgiving; ritual prayer five times a day; and professing the creed, "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet."
In one sense Islam is a simplification of Christianity as Buddhism is a simplification of Hinduism. But in another sense Islam adds to Christianity, for where Jews have only our "Old Testament" Scriptures and Christians add the New Testament, Moslems also add the Koran. They accept the claims of the Jewish prophets to be sent by God. They believe Jesus deepened this revelation and that Mohammed completed it. Mohammed is "the seal of the prophets." He tells you how to live Jesus' ethic (Jesus is seen only as a man, an ethical teacher).
Actually, Islam neither merely simplifies Christianity nor merely adds to it, but reinterprets it—somewhat as Christianity does to Judaism. As the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is not the same as the Jewish one, the Moslem interpretation of the New Testament is not the same as the Christian one; the Koran authoritatively interprets the New Testament as the New interprets the Old.
The Koran itself is the only miracle Mohammed claimed—though perhaps equally miraculous is the fact that Mohammed's wife became his first convert. An illiterate peasant, Mohammed received the Koran by word-for-word dictation from Allah, according to the faith of Islam. When Moslems read the Koran, they become ecstatic with admiration. They say no outsider can appreciate it, nor can it be adequately translated out of Arabic. In this sense, Islam is a bit esoteric, though it is a religion of public revelation in a book.
Islam believes in a single, all-just, all-merciful, all-powerful God who created the world and man, insists on obedience to His will, and promises salvation and immortality to believers and obeyers. In all these ways Islam is like Judaism and Christianity (Western) rather than like Hinduism and Buddhism.
(Eastern). Allah is not a Force but a Person; not merely Being or even merely Consciousness but moral Will. From the Will of Allah comes both the existence of the world by creation and the rule over it, over nature and history by Providence and over human free choice by moral law.
The three crucial Christian doctrines Islam denies are the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Like Judaism, Islam denies Christ's claim to divinity. Allah is one; so how could He be three? Jesus is human; so how could He be divine? "It is unfitting for Allah to have a son," wrote Mohammed, apparently interpreting sonship biologically.
The Koran believes in Christ's virgin birth, but not His resurrection; in His prophetic function (teaching) but not His priestly function (salvation) or His kingly function (ruling); in His moral authority but not His supernatural authority. To Moslems, as with Jews, Christ is the stumbling block. The theology of God the Father and the ethics of human living are essentially the same for Jews, Christians and Moslems. What then is missing? Aren't these the two essentials?
No. What's missing is the link between the two, the "missing link," Christ the Mediator between God and man. Mohammed and the Koran are essentially another Moses (lawgiver) and another law. What's missing is grace, salvation, redemption. What's missing is precisely the essential thing.
There are two kinds of Moslems today, just as there were in the Middle Ages: modernists and orthodox, liberals and fundamentalist, Mutazilites (rationalists) and Mutikalimoun. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas confronted "Latin Averroism," the European copy of the Moslem philosopher Averroes' way of reconciling the Koran with the philosophy of Aristotle by reducing much of the Koran to myth and exalting Aristotle to the authority of Pure Reason. He taught that a literal interpretation of the Koran (which the vast majority of Moslems hold) is proper for the masses, who cannot rise to the level of philosophical abstraction, but for those who can, Aristotle's arguments must prevail over belief in divine providence, creation of the world and individual immortality (all of which Aristotle denied). But Islam, by and large, has resisted this "demythologizing" rationalism far more completely than Judaism and Christianity have in our day.
We have not yet mentioned the most important thing about Islam: What is it to be a Moslem? How do Moslems exist religiously? Here too, as in Moslem theology and ethics, there is a striking simplicity, summarized in the very title of the religion. "Islam" means both "peace" (etymologically connected with the Hebrew shalom) and "submission," or "surrender"; it is the peace that comes from submission to Allah's will. Moslems would applaud T.S. Eliot's choice of Dante's line: "In His will, our peace" as "the profoundest line in all of human literature."
The famous Moslem "fatalism" ("it is the will of Allah"), like the Calvinistic doctrine of Predestination, makes them work harder, not less hard. Moslems, like Christians, believe in man's free will as well as God's sovereignty. Theirs is not the modern fatalism from below, a scientific determinism, but from above. It is energizing and liberating, not squashing. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has produced a rich crop of saints and mystics, especially in the Sufi tradition, which is similar in many ways to the Jewish Hasidic tradition.
Can Moslems be saved? They reject Christ as Savior; yet they seek and love God "Islam" means essentially the "fundamental option" of a whole-hearted "yes" to God. Most Moslems, like most Jews, see Christ only through broken lenses. If God-seeking and God-loving Jews, both before and after Christ's Incarnation, can find God, then surely God-seeking Moslems can too, according to Christ's own promise that "all who seek, find"—whether in this life or the next.
Yet Christ also insists that "no one can come to the Father but by me." Whatever truth Mohammed taught Moslems about God is really present in Christ the Logos, the full revelation of God. If Moslems are saved, they are saved by Christ.
Christians should hope and pray that their separated Islamic brothers and sisters be reunited with our common Father by finding Christ the Way. We cannot stop "proselytizing," for proselytizing means leading our brothers Home.