by Fr. Theodore Pulcini
Christianity and Islam share much common ground. Both trace their roots to Abraham. Both believe in prophecy, God’s messengers (apostles), revelation, scripture, the resurrection of dead, and the centrality of religious community. Despite these similarities, however, these two religions have significant differences which we need to be aware of, as true dialogue can be built only on nuanced understanding.
The Understanding of God: Muslims and Christians worship the same God (Allah, the Arabic word for God, is also used by Arab Christians). The basic testimony of Islam states “There is no god but God,” a statement Christians can also affirm. But how Christians and Muslims conceptualize God in their respective theologies is quite different. The emphasis in the Islamic theology of God is on “absolute unity” (tawhiid). Muslims insist that there is no distinction within the Godhead. God is sublimely one. Thus the Islamic polemic against Christianity has centered on the doctrine of the Trinity. Muslims have caricatured Christians as “tri-theists.” As the Qur’an states: “They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a trinity, for there is no God except One God.” (S. 5:76)
The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be adequately expressed within the limitations of human reason. It is an ineffable truth, ultimately not graspable by the human mind. How many heresies in Christian history have arisen because people attempted to detract from the ineffability of the Trinity, to devise doctrines that were more easily “digested” by the human mind. In all humility, we can only say this: God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do not rationally deduce this; we submit to him as Trinity even if we do not completely understand how he can be Trinity, considering it blasphemy to “reduce” God to something we can understand. The purpose of theology is not to “cut God down” to the size of human reason but to elevate human reason to the contemplation of the Divine Mystery, the Mystery which teaches us that the One God exists in three Persons. We render our submission (islaam) to the God beyond understanding.
One way to enable Muslim friends to understand why we believe that God must be a Trinity is to emphasize Christianity’s fundamental teaching that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love can never be exercised in isolation; it is manifested in relationship, and for that reason the God who is Love exists as a “community within himself,” that is, a community of three Persons. The mutual love of these Persons is so perfect that they, though three, are perfectly One.
It is from this same perspective – that God is perfect love – that we should also explain how Jesus can be the Son of God. Such a statement is blasphemous to Muslims; they believe that God is “far above” having a son. On the contrary, Christians see the Sonship of Jesus as a testimony to the divine love, which is so intense that God was content not just to bless his creation from the outside but to sanctify it by humbling himself and becoming part of it through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. By becoming part of the created order, by taking on a full and a complete human nature, God sanctified humanity “from within.” Both Islam and Christianity say that God is totally other and beyond human comprehension, completely beyond the ability of humans to grasp, yet Christians add something completely different: that God so loved the world that he was willing “to come down from his throne” to became part of it, all the while remaining God “on his throne”! In this wonderful assertion, Christianity stands apart from Islam and Judaism in saying that the transcendent God actually became one of us, like us in all things but sin (cf. Hebrews 4:15).
Yet, although we are Trinitarian, we affirm that there is only one God. In fact, the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East always say in Arabic: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the One God.”
The Understanding of Revelation: Christianity believes that God revealed himself and assumed human nature in order to redeem and save us, that is, to impart to us the fullness of life, freed from the destructive effects of sin, both in this age and in the age to come. According to Islam, on the other hand, the purpose of revelation was not to provide redemption but guidance – to provide a straight path through this life, leading to reward in the life to come.
In both Christianity and Islam, the message of revelation is enshrined in sacred scriptures. Christians affirm that the Bible is the Word of God but not that God mechanically transmitted it through people who simply served as passive conduits. Christians hold that the Bible was written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Revelation was thus “filtered” through a human lens and written in human words and within human history. Thus our scriptures refer to historical circumstances but chronicle God’s definitive intervention in human history. In Islam the Qur’an is considered the unmediated word of God. Islam stresses that in receiving his revelation Muhammad was illiterate and hence completely passive. Thus the words of the Qur’an are not his words. He simply recited what was put into his mouth without any input of his own. Muhammad was simply the agent of revelation.
But according to linguistic theory, all communication is mediated. As soon as a thought is put into words, it is a mediated, human construction. The very fact that a thought is put into words means that it is “processed” through a human lens. Most Christians recognize this, aware that God’s thoughts are infinitely above ours. Thus Christians would call the Islamic view of “unmediated revelation” into question on both linguistic and theological grounds.
Islam is much more book-centered than Christianity. The Qur’an is not to Muslims what the New Testament (or the entire Bible) is to Christians. What the Qur’an is to the Muslim, Christ himself is to the Christian. We have a Person-centered – that is, Christ-centered – faith. Christianity proclaims that Jesus Christ himself is God’s Word to humanity. For Islam, God has spoken in a Book: for Christianity, He has spoken in a Person. In Islam, the written Arabic Book is the marvel while, in Christianity, the Person of Christ is the ineffable wonder.
The Understanding of Sin and Salvation: Sin and salvation are central categories in Christian theology and spirituality. Christianity teaches that the effects of original sin have corrupted the world and the human beings who exist in it. In Islam, however, there is no such a thing as original sin. The Qur’an does indeed state that Adam and Eve sinned, but according to Islamic belief, they repented and were fully forgiven so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of the human race.
I believe the Islamic rejection of original sin is really the rejection of a specific understanding (what I would consider to be a narrow understanding) of original sin. Islam rejects the notion that all human beings inherited the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve. This seems unfair to the Muslim: Why should we have to accept guilt for someone else’s disobedience?
To respond to such a question, we Christians must move beyond the understanding of original sin espoused by St. Augustine (+430) and those who followed his thought, according to which “in Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Calvinists later carried this view to an extreme, saying that the result of Adam’s sin is total human depravity – that is, that original sin has made human beings completely incapable of doing anything good without the assistance of divine grace. Such a notion is thoroughly incomprehensible to Muslims.
Eastern Christianity, however, understands original sin in this way: No sin that is committed is without its effect. Every sin disrupts the entire cosmos. Your sin has an effect not only on you but also on everyone and everything else. Any sin that you and I commit has a reverberation throughout the world, just as every puff that one takes on a cigarette pollutes the air that everyone else breathes. So when the Old Testament claims that the sin of the father will be visited upon the children, it is simply describing reality. Sin has a “snowball effect”: it accumulates throughout human history, impacting upon all who are born into the world. What started this off was the sin of Adam and Eve – the first, or original, sin. For the Eastern Christians to say that all suffer the effects of original sin is not to say that all are “born guilty” but rather that all have to deal with the powerful force of sin that has accumulated from the sin of our first parents until the present day.
Salvation means breaking loose from the bonds of sin that have grown stronger through the ages. With sin’s effects everywhere around us, we have an undeniable proclivity to sin. Because Islam has understandably reacted against the narrow understanding of original sin as inherited guilt, it has tended not to be receptive to this more realistic understanding of the pervasive effects of sin on all human beings and thus sees no need for salvation; it cannot understand how Christ’s death and resurrection brings salvation. “Salvation from what?” they ask. Just as it is unthinkable to Muslims that one person should have to shoulder the guilt for another person’s sin, it is unthinkable that another person (in this case, Christ) would be able to pay the penalty for another person’s sins.
Furthermore, because Muslims believe that prophets are sinless (`ima), it seems a blasphemy to them to say that Christ died the shameful death of a sinner on the cross. They therefore deny that it was Jesus that was crucified. (Some maintain that it was Judas, whom God made to look like Jesus so that he would suffer his rightful penalty for his treachery). In making this claim, Muslims see themselves as protecting the prophetic integrity of Jesus. In general, Muslims affirm that Jesus ascended to heaven but deny that he died on the cross.
Because Muslims do not recognize the universal and corruptive power of sin, unleashed as a result of original sin, they see no need for salvation in the Christian sense. What you should do, according to the Islamic view, is simply live a good life, pleasing God in all that you do. Submit to God and follow his directives. Religion, to the Muslim, does not mean salvation from sin; it means following the right path, or the sharii`a, mapped out by Islamic law. While Christianity is a faith concerned primarily with “orthodoxy,” or “right belief,” Islam is a faith concerned primarily with “orthopraxy,” or right practice. It is a religion of law, and it sees Christianity’s rejection of the Law (as taught by St. Paul in his writings, especially Romans and Galatians) as a serious deficiency. This, of course, does not mean that Islam is not concerned with right doctrine or that Christianity is not concerned with right practice. It simply means that the emphasis is different.
That difference in emphasis is very important. If one recognizes the pervasive power of sin, salvation is not just an option; it is a necessity. Christians lament the fact that an incomplete understanding of original sin led early Islam to “throw out the baby with the bath water” with regard to their understanding of sin. By reacting against an “inherited guilt” view of original sin, as described above, they have missed what Christians consider to be the central truth of human existence: that no matter how hard we try to conform to “right practice,” we will fall short of the goal. We cannot live the kind of life that God wants by our own power. And that is why salvation is necessary.
The understanding of religious community: The theme of religious community reverberates in the hearts of both Muslims and Christians. What the Church is to Christians, the umma is to Muslims. Christians and Muslims both consider themselves accountable to a community of faith. It is not enough to believe in isolation; we must link our lives to brothers and sisters in the faith.
Nevertheless, there are noteworthy differences between the Christian and Muslim visions of religious community. There is no ordained ministry or hierarchy in the Islamic umma. Also, in the umma there is more stress on homogeneity, on common pattern of life throughout the Islamic world, regulated by the sharii`a, than in the Christian Church at large. Christians have attempted to “incarnate” Christianity as much as possible in local culture. For example, the Bible, hymns, and liturgical texts are translated into the local language and adjusted to the local culture.
But to be a good Muslim one must learn Arabic as the Qur’an is considered to be untranslatable. Any translation into other languages is regarded only as an interpretation.
Moreover, Muslims and Christians have different understandings of worship. When discussing these differences, we should also note that Muslims are very attentive not just to the interior aspects of worship but to the external aspects as well. In this regard, Muslims have more in common with Eastern Christianity than with Western Christianity, especially Protestantism. Like Eastern Christians, Muslims use their whole body in prayer. Both groups, for instance, make prostrations in their worship. In much of Western Christian worship, what one does with the body seems unimportant. Not so in Islam. The submission of the spirit is symbolized by the submissive gestures of the body, made according to a ritualized pattern. Muslims have a much easier time, therefore, understanding the spirit behind the highly developed liturgical worship of Eastern Christianity.
On Presenting Christianity to Muslims: Let me conclude with just a few observations on how a Christian can best witness to Muslims.
Avoid polemic and argument and never give answers to questions that have not been asked. If you are questioned, “always be prepared,” as the First Epistle of Peter says, “to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:15).
Second, the best way to make people want to know more about Christianity is to attract them to our shared way of life. The first step in witnessing is to build community! What will most impress non-Christians is a vibrant community where faith is strong and people live transformed and full lives. If they do not see that kind of community, why should they even be interested in Christianity? We must manifest a bond and a love among us that will make them wonder why we are different from others in the world. Recall the reaction of the pagans who encountered the first Christians. They marveled, saying, “See how they love one another!”
Keep in mind that for us Christians, the primary law is the Law of Love. Our emphasis on the primacy of love is perplexing to many Muslims. They do not understand it. It seems unjust to them. They feel Christians over-emphasize love, that Christianity’s teaching on love is “lop-sided,” unrealistic, impractical. Yes, Muslims too believe that God is a loving God, but love does not form the “heart” of their understanding of God. To them, above all, God is just; therefore their religious law has some harsh requirements. To them Christianity seems weak.
Love overcomes. It is stronger than any other force on earth. What may seem like weakness is really an unparalleled strength. Therefore the best way to witness to Muslims or any other non-Christian is to love them, to serve them.
Other-Appreciation and Self-Affirmation: Now more than ever, Christians have an obligation to develop an objective, nuanced knowledge of Islam not only for the sake of understanding this important “other” in our midst but also for the sake of better understanding the unique genius of the Christian view of God and humanity and of the relationship between them.
Make no mistake about it: despite areas of common ground, there is a wide theological chasm between Islam and Christianity. It was largely in reaction to an often distorted presentation of Christian doctrine that Islam formed its own doctrinal heritage. Islamic doctrine challenges us to embrace anew those facets of Christian theology which differentiate us from Muslims, especially the mystery of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ, and then to find new and ever more insightful ways of articulating these dogmas. Simple repetition of traditional formulas usually will not suffice to foster greater understanding of Christianity among Muslims (or among Christians, for that matter). In questioning the central Christian doctrines, Islam serves us well: it requires us to focus on those distinctive beliefs that are constitutive of our view of God and the world and to find more effective ways of proclaiming and explaining them.
All the while we must be realistic in our interactions with Muslims; these should always be characterized by consistent reciprocity and genuine partnership, not by triumphalism, ignorance, caricature, or manipulation on either side. We must call each other to consistent integrity and accountability. This kind of relationship is not possible in many other parts of the world. It is possible in the West. We should not neglect the opportunity for re-shaping Christian-Muslim relations. In doing so, we might just be able to provide new models of co-existence and cooperation for the rest of the world to emulate.
Fr. Theodore Pulcini, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, is Associate Professor of Religion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. This is an abbreviated extract from Face to Face: a Guide for Christians Encountering Muslims, published by Light & Life: www.light-n-life.com.
Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50