There are lots of questions today about Islam. We hear the reports and wonder how it’s all going to end. This set of articles is meant to explore the various sides of Islam and to do so in a way that is meaningful for Christians. Islam actually holds out great possibilities for Christians to reconsider who they are in general and in relation to Islam in particular.
Christians have had their own questions about Islam long before current events. After all, the Qur’an speaks of Jesus and Mary. Does this mean that Islam is a kind of Christianity?
The tendency was to see Islam as a heresy. All that’s now in the past. The Second Vatican Council opened up positive new vistas in the Church’s relation with others, and yet Christians today remain poorly informed about Islam. To be sure, Muslims know little about Christianity. Each side can view the other with suspicion and fear, and yet each has so much to gain from learning about the faith of the other. It’s not a risk to one’s own faith to discover that of the other. Christians, in discovering Islam as Christians, will see new ways to partner with Muslims for common goals and even to grow together towards God.
Along with Christians, Muslims worship the God who is the creator of all things and who is also active in history, sustaining all those who turn to Him. Like Christians, Muslims follow the God who befriended Abraham. Like Christians, Muslims implore God’s help throughout the day. Like Christians, they have a sense of living in God’s presence. Like Christians, they hope to exist in harmony with God and with neighbor. Like Christians, they feel sad for those who do not know the sweetness of life with God. Along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, Muslims are our natural partners in the faith‐based effort to build up a world of peace and justice where all can listen attentively to the voice of God as a basic human right.
Yet things are never given. How are Christians to live out a common destiny with Muslims? We still often think of religion in terms of territory: Christianity in the West in ambiguous relation with the Abode of Islam centered in the Middle East, each side seeking to expand its cultural sway. That formula is no longer viable in today’s world. Christians and Muslims are spread across the globe, living together in both cities and countryside. Both communities exist on the world stage without a specific national or cultural identity. There are no boundaries that separate them other than the illusionary ones they conjure up.
Still, what’s the point? Why do we need to learn about others? Isn’t it enough to coexist and not think too much about the religious beliefs and practices of others? Coexistence is a noble goal, but it’s not enough in this age of pluralism. We simply cannot avoid the multiplicity of perspectives that barrage us online. How are we to engage them? A common approach in universities is to expose students to everything as if everything is the same.
This only leaves students bewildered. If it’s all the same, what’s the point? The problem here is that they lose their sense of self. It’s good to be open to others, but pluralism is a slippery slope to nihilism. How, then, to approach pluralism in terms of meaningful differences? We’re not limited to two choices: either rejecting others or pretending that we’re all the same. There’s a third choice: discovering ourselves as we discover the other.
This series of articles on Islam is meant to help Christians decide how they want to live in the world together with Muslims. There’s no escaping the fact that Christians will live in the world together with Muslims. The question is how. Christian-Muslim relations could remain at the level of mutual ignorance and suspicion or rise to that of mutual discovery.
There is a precedent to consider. The philosophy of Aristotle was introduced into Christian Europe in the High Middle Ages. Some saw it as a threat to the faith. Wouldn’t it force the mystery of Christianity to take a back seat to the logic of rationalism? In the end Thomas Aquinas realized that Aristotle offered the Church a great opportunity for theological renewal. The philosophy of Aristotle would not replace Christianity but actually enrich it. These articles will suggest that Christians have a similar possibility in relation to Islam.
This is not to overlook the tough questions, including that of the relation of Islam to violence especially against fellow Christians. What is Islam? And how does it align with and diverge from Christian life? Islam, like Christianity, is a vast tradition with a wide range of trends from the legal to the mystical. Our goal here is simply to prime the pump for further Christian exploration of Islam and the ways in which we can hear God speaking to us today.
In what follows, we look at various sides of Islam in order to provide Christians with the conceptual tools to think about Islam in relation to Christianity. What does Islam say about prophets and prayer? How do Muslims conceive of God? Does philosophy have place in Islam? What about meditation and mystical contemplation? Do Muslims see God in all things? What about jihad and martyrdom? What are the moral teachings of Islam? Does Islam allow for violence? What is shari‘a and do Muslims want the state to implement it?
How do Muslims view God’s mercy? Does one need to be a Muslim to receive it? Is there a clear position in Islam on religious freedom and human rights? And what about sin? Do Muslims see humans as fallen and flawed but still redeemable creatures? How exactly is salvation achieved according to Islam? These are some of the topics to be explored in this series of articles. We begin by considering Islam’s understanding of prophetic history in the following article.