Incompatibility between Islam and Christianity
By: Dr Muhammad Legenhausen
There are many points on which Islam and Christianity differ. Islam says that Jesus the son of Mary, the Messiah, or Christ, Peace be upon him, is not God. Christianity says that Jesus Christ is God. Islam says that Jesus was not crucified, while Christianity says that he died on the cross. These are examples of diffeiences between Islam and Christianity about Jesus.
There are also differences about God. Christians assert that He is a trinity, three persons in one substance, while Muslims bear witness to tawhid the absolute unity of the Supreme Being, Allah. Muslims say that God revealed Himself through the Arch Angel Gabriel (as) to Prophet Muhammad, may the Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and his progeny, while Christians have often denied this, although there are some recent and quite notable exceptions.
When we look at the differences between Islam and Christianity what we find is not only many points of disagreement, but many different kinds of disagreement. There are even different ways in which the differences must be classified. Some differences are universal among the theologians of the two religions, as when all Muslim scholars assert some proposition, X, and all Christian authorities assert the negation of X.
Some differences are only partial among the theologians, as when the Muslims assert X and the majority, but not all, of the Christians deny X. There are also differences which occur when according to one religion X is the case, while for the other the question of whether X is true or false is left open. For example, there are details about the lives of the Prophets (peace be upon them) which are mentioned in the Torah, but not in the Qur' an, and vice versa. Another kind of classification of differences can be based on who disagrees.
Is it the theologians, the scriptures or the believers in general? When we observe that "Christianity says that God is a trinity," we need to be careflil about what this actually means. The claim that God is a trinity is not to be found in the Gospels, and there are some Christian sects whose believers and theologians deny the trinitarian dogma. Usually, when it is claimed that Christianity says that X, what is meant is that X is counted among the most commonly held beliefs pertaining to Christianity.
Another way to classify the differences between Islam and Christianity is by the object of the disagreement. There are differences of belief, to be sure, but there are also differences is customs, in the symbols used, in moral values, in attitudes, in ritual and in the character of religious experiences. Theologians sometimes seem to forget that religion and religious disagreement amounts to more than a set of doxastic states.
Islam and Christianity differ not only because there are propositions which one asserts and the other denies, but because each of them calls forth different kinds of attitudes, expectations and practices, and because each situates the believer in a different network of traditions. The story of one's life would be written differently by a Muslim and by a Christian, even if the outward occurrences happened to be quite similar. The differences between what might be called the narrative texture of Muslim and Christian lives has far ranging implications, even political implications.
The religions are interwoven with local cultures. In China, for example, many Muslims turn to the Taoist tradition for spiritual wisdom, while remaining faithtul to the Shari'ah. Christian communities, on the other hand, especially in Asia and Africa, are usually associated with the history of missionary activity, although as time passes the local character tends to become more and more prominent.
Often times, especially in Asia and Africa, Muslim and Christian communities come into conflict. Christians often have a Western European orientation, and they see the future of their communities as gradually acquiring the material benefits of the West in the social and political context of Western liberalism. Muslims, on the other hand, are often Participants in a revivalist movement which would see the application of the Shari'ah not only for the regulation of ritual practice and family matters, but as the basis for all areas of law.
This is the most important difference between Christians and Muslims in many parts of the world. The question at issue is how we are to be governed. Muslims would govern themselves according to the law of Allah, in comparison to which man made legislation often appears as a kind of blasphemy. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, are horrified at the thought of the implementation of the Shari'ah, and call for democratic legislation.
This disagreement needs to be explored further by Muslims and Christians as they increasingly encounter one another. In forums for interfaith dialogue, interfaith differences are too often seen in exclusively theological terms, and while there is much misunderstanding to be cleared up regarding theologies, this will not be sufficient to prevent conflict regarding the law.
A Western journalist who visited Afghanistan some months ago reported that "Islamic fundamentalists called Taliban" were patrolling the bazaars with scissors to cut the hair of any man whose hair was considered to be too long. "This is Islamic Law," the journalist reported with disdain. Now, there is no sound basis in Islamic law, whether Sunni or Shi'ite, for forced haircuts. What is taken to be Islamic law by a few and is distasteful to Christians (as well as many Muslims) is too often declared to be official Islamic law. Christians are often unaware of the reformist elements within the ranks of the most "fundamentalist" Islamic movements.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Christians have a right to vote and have elected representatives, although according to some conservative Islamic sects this would be considered impermissible. If the matter is properly understood, many Christians might find that they have nothing to fear form the implementation of the Shari'ah as such, although they may find Some interpretations of Islamic law more to their liking than others.
The moral values embodies in the Shari'ah are often values shared by Muslims and Christians the importance of the family, fair dealing, security of life and property, compassion for the unfortunate. Once Christians learn to recognize these common values in the Shari'ah, they may find that its implementation is by no means incompatible with Christianity.
The lack of understanding which gives rise to opposition to Islamic law is also indicated in a passing remark by one of the greatest contemporary Christian philosophers of religion, William P. Alston. (William P. Alston : Perceiving GOD) Prof Alston writes: "Again, attributing to God the message that Jesus is His Son is not, so far as positive content is concerned, incompatible with attributing to God the message that Mohammad is His prophet, unless the former message also contains the stipulation that the life and work of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation." The incompatibility between the attributions mentioned by Alston arises because of the positive content of the message revealed to the Prophet of Islam (S) in the Surat al-Ikhlas:
In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate
Say: He is Allah, the One, Allah is Absolute,
He begets not, nor is He begotton, And there is nothing like Him.
The denial that Jesus is God, the second person of a divine trinity, may be found in the Qur' an, in hadiths, is agreed upon by all Muslim theologians and by all the Muslims regardless of sectarian differences. But as for the stipulation that the life and work of Jesus Christ (Peace be upon him) is the only way to salvation, there is less in this which is incompatible with Islam than Prof. Alston imagines. It depends, of course, on how one understands the life and work of Jesus.
According to the Muslim's understanding of Christ's life and work, it is a flawless example of complete submission to Allah, as are the lives and works of all His prophets, Peace be upon all of them. And the Muslim can agree that this is indeed the only way to salvation: to be fully committed to accept that His will be done, "on earth as it is in heaven".
In other words, the Muslim can accept that the life and work of Jesus are the only way to salvation, but not insofar as his life and work were different from those of the other prophets, but as they are the same. As they are the same, and that the final messenger sent by God is Muhammad (S), it is the law revealed through him, the Shari'ah, which must be obeyed if we are to live today in the way taught through the life and work of Jesus Christ (A); and in the acceptance of Islamic law, we might aspire to the humility of Jesus, too.