"That [series] was running every week for a few years. I tried to make each article short, and the total of 108 articles covered all basic information about Islam that I could think of. I just covered it like a complete course." From an interview with the Nigerian Tribune, 2009.
Among Muslims: Articles in the Catholic Weekly Independent
- Names of God
- Names in O.T.
- Names in N.T. I
- Names in N.T. II
- Are they synonymous?
- Names common to God and man
- "Creator" from eternity?
- Eternal and temporal names
- "god" applicable to anything else?
- The greatest /most proper name
- They lead us to God? Al-Ghazâlî
- They lead us to God? Aquinas
- Islamic Biblical names compared
- Allah or God?
- Is Allâh God
- Who inspired the Qur'ân?
- "Bi-smi Llâhi" - "In the name of God"
- God, how near, how far?
- True and undefiled religion
- Wait until you are called
- Who is Jesus?
- Who is Muhammad?
- Recognizing one another
- What is the Qur'an?
- Scripture inspiration
- A religious classic
- Qur'an contents
- The Qur'an and God
- The Qur'an and spirits
- The Muslim Community
- The People of God
- Who shall be saved?
- The wider people of God
- The Last Day
- The fate of the dead
- The Kingdom of God
- Need for dialogue
- Fasting again
- Eating together
- Sharing food
- The Qur'ân 1:2
- The Qur'ân 1:3
- The Qur'ân 1:4
- The Qur'ân 1:5a
- The Qur'ân 1:5b
- The Qur'ân 1:6
- The Qur'ân 1:7
- Do Muslims misunderstand the Qur'ân?
- Qur'ân reference to the Bible
- Qur'ân mention of Bible books
- Qur'ân recognition of Bible
- Why do Muslims not accept the Bible?
- Muslim faulting of the Bible I
- Muslim faulting the Bible II
- Muslim reinterpreting of the Bible
- Muslim defence of the Qur'ân
- Problem with different Bible translations
- Problem with Bible teachings
- Christian answer to this problem
- New interpretation of the Qur'ân?
- Problem with books contained in Bible
- Qur'ân recognition of the Church?
- "God's community"
- Muslims and the Church
- Can Islam change?
- Muslims and teaching authority
- Birth of John the Baptist and Mary
- The Annunciation
- Jesus' life
- Jesus' death
- Interpretation of Jesus' death
- Jesus' second coming
- Titles of Jesus
- More titles of Jesus
- More titles of Jesus
- More titles of Jesus
- Denials of Jesus
- More Qur'ânic denials
- Debate about Jesus
- Arguments against divinity of Christ
- Other Muslim arguments
- Muslim respect for Jesus
- Ali Merad on Jesus
- Christian reaction
- More on Christian reaction
- Root of problem with divinity of Jesus
- Root of problem with the Incarnation
- Can God have a Son? I
- Can God have a Son? II
- Can God have a Son? III
- Can God have a Son? IV
- Mary in Muslim tradition, 1
- Mary in Muslim tradition, 2
- Mary in Muslim tradition, 3
- Mary in Muslim tradition, 4
- The Christian Mary
- Mary, a bridge to the Muslims, 1
- Mary, a bridge to Muslims, 2
- "The ruination of my people"
1: The names of God
The names of God are important for Muslims. The Qur'ân says: "God has the beautiful names; so call on him by them" (7:180; cf. 17:110; 20:8; 59:24). Mosques and shrines are constructed where God's name can be recalled or recited (20:114; 22:28,34,40; 24:36). God's name is majestic and honorable (55:78). People are to "praise him by his great name" (56:74,96; 79:52) or "his most high name" (78:1), "in the morning and in the evening" (76:25). Doing this brings prosperity (87:15). People should also call God's name on their food (5:4; 6:118-138). Noah was told to enter the ark "in the name of God" (11:41). Muammad received the command to "recite in the name of your Lord" (96:1)
Very early in the history of Islam a adîth claimed that "God has 99 names, 100 minus 1. He is the Odd [= unique] and loves the odd number. Whoever counts them enters Paradise." So Muslims searched the Qur'ân for these names and meditated on them on a rosary of 99 beads. In the living room of many a Muslim's house you will see these names all written in decorative Arabic script on a framed chart.
Of these names only 73 are found in the Qur'ân; 15 others derive from verbs or nouns used of God in the Qur'ân; 11 are entirely outside the Qur'ân, although some of them correspond to Qur'ânic ideas. Besides these names many others could be discovered in the Qur'ân. Allâh is usually the first name, but in some lists it is the 100th.
Commentaries on the divine names have been written by such men as al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111). Much speculation arose as to the proper use of divine names, their relative importance, their distinction in meaning, whether they designate different divine realities etc.
It will be of interest to us that God's names are also a concern of Christians. In his Summa theologiae Thomas Aquinas wrote a question (I, 13) of 12 articles on the names of God, and wrote another book commenting on the Divine names by a sixth century author going by the name of Dionysius. In coming articles we will look at Muslim and Christian ideas about the divine names.
2: God's name in the Old Testament
God would not tell his name to Jacob after wrestling with him (Gen 32:30; compare Jud 13:18). But he revealed to Moses the name Yahweh ("the one who is", Ex 3:15 etc.). This is a name that the Jews never pronounce because of reverence. In the Hebrew Bible they replaced the vowels with those of Adonai (Lord/ Master) and read Adonai in its place. The consonants of Yahweh, combined with the vowels of Adonai, give the bastardized word "Jehovah", which the Jews never used. Educated Christians know better, but there are many ignorant evangelists and chorus writers who still popularize this false name.
God's name is great, from farthest east to farthest west (Mal 1:11); It is wonderful (Ps 8:2,10), holy and awesome (Ps 111:9 etc.), lasting forever (Ps 135:13). We are not to profane it or take it in vain (Ex 18;3,21 etc.). Zechariah says that when the Day of Yahweh comes, "Yahweh will be the one and only and his name the one name" (14:9).
We are to praise, bless, glorify and sing to God's name, because the name stands for God himself, who is worthy of all praise. We are also to ask his help: "All who call on the name of Yahweh will be saved" (Joel 3:5; cf. Ps 124:8). Because of his name we are forgiven (Ps 25:11; 79:9 etc.), guided (Ps 23:3; 31:4), saved (Ps 54:23; 106:8; 109:21 etc.) and brought to victory (Ps 44:6; 99:25 etc.).
That is because God has sworn not to abandon us (1 S 12:21), the Messiah came in his name (Ps 118:26; Mic 5:3 etc.) and we ourselves bear his name (Jer 14:9 etc.). He dwells in his Temple and holy city (1 K 8:16,29 etc.), which today we take as the Church and the individual Christian. In the service of his name (Dt 18:5,7,22; 1 Chr 23:13) we bless people (2 S 6:18; Ps 129:8 etc.), prophets speak (Dt 18:19-22; Jer 11:21 etc.) and Elijah cursed (2 K 2:24). Under certain circumstances people swear by God's name (Dt 6:13; 10:20). We may even be hated because of his name (Is 66:5), but in the end his name will triumph (Is 52:5-6).
Therefore we know (Ps 9:11; 91:14 etc.), love (Ps 5:12; 69:37; 119:132 etc.), respect (Ps 61:6; 86:11; 102:22 etc.), seek (Ps 83:17), trust (Ps 33:21), rejoice (Ps 89:13,17) and boast in (Ps 20:6; Mic 4:5) his name, declaring it to one and all (Ps 22:23).
3: Sacred names in the New Testament
The first petition Jesus put in the Our Father is "Hallowed be your name". He says he made the Father's name known to his disciples (Jn 17:6,26) and prayed his Father to guard them in his name (Jn 17:11-12). Other Old Testament teachings on the name of the Father are repeated.
The New Testament emphasizes the name of Jesus, who comes in the Father's name (Mt 21:9 etc.) and acts in the Father's name (Jn 10:25). The Gentiles hope in the name of Jesus (Mt 12:21). We are to believe in it (Jn 1:12; 2:23; 3:18; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13), be baptized in it (Mt 28:19 etc.), hold onto it (Rev 2:13), not deny it (Rev 3:8), ask anything of the father in it (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:24,26) and do all in it (Col 3:17). By it we receive the Spirit (Jn 16:23), we have life (Jn 20:31), are justified (1 Cor 6:11) and forgiven (Ac 10:43; 22:16; 1 Jn 2:12). In no other name is there salvation (Ac 4:12); so we glory in it (1 Pt 4:16) and it is "written on our foreheads" (Rev 14:1; 22:4).
We gather in his name (Mt 18:20; 1 Cor 5:4) and call on it in our needs (Ac 9:14; Col 1:2). The apostles left home for it (Mt 19:29) and preached it (Ac 8:12; 9:15; 16:18; 1 Cor 1:10; 2 Th 2:6; Rm 1:5; 3 Jn 7) with boldness (Ac 9:27-28), prophesied, exorcized, did miracles in his name (Mt 7:22 etc.), and anointed the sick in his name (Ja 5:14).
They also suffered because of Jesus' name (Mt 10:22; 24:9; Mk 13:13; Lk 21:12,17; Jn 15:21; Ac 5:41; 9:16; 1 Pet 4:14; Rev 2:3). Many will come falsely in his name (Mt 24:5 etc.). But his holy name (Lk 1:49) will be glorified (Ac 19:17; 2 Th 1:12) above all other name and every knee will bend at it (Phl 2:9; Hb 1:4), for his name is "Word of God" (Rev 19:13) and "King of kings & Lord of lords" (Rev 19:16)
Jesus has at least 101 names. See my Powerful Titles of Jesus in the Bible, for devotional prayer (Lagos: Dominican Publications, 1994).
4: Should God have a name?
That is the first question Thomas Aquinas asks about the divine names. In heaven we won't need names, because we will see God face to face. But in this life our knowledge is expressed in words. These words or names reflect the indirect knowledge we have of God: We know God (1) as the source or cause of all that exists, (2) in a negative way as Someone who is free from all the imperfections of creatures, and (3) by way of superiority, that all his perfections infinitely surpass whatever similar perfections we find in creatures. All God's names fall into one of these three categories.
Some were of the opinion that we cannot name God as he is, but only as he acts. For example, when we say God is good we must mean that he is the cause of goodness. But Thomas rejects this opinion, because God is not good simply because he causes goodness in others, but because he is supremely good in himself before his goodness could ever overflow to others. Yet it is true that we have only a faint idea of God's own goodness, and our language can never come near to expressing the fulness of his being.
Muslim classification of the divine names is from a different standpoint: (1) Some of them, they say, are negative, (2) others refer to his essence, (3) others to his eternal attributes, and (4) finally others to attributes describing his action in time. This classification reflects a view common in Islamic theology that God's essence is really distinct from his attributes, and the attributes (at least 14 of them) really distinct from one another. This is totally alien from Catholic teaching, as we will see later.
5: Are all God's names synonymous?
Both Thomas Aquinas and the great Muslim theologian al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) raise the same question, and both answer in the negative. But their arguments are not the same.
Thomas' point of departure is that God is absolutely simple, having no parts or divisibility. So all the different names of God refer to the same reality, but they have different meanings because they do not directly represent the simple reality of God but our own human ideas about God. Since our knowledge of God comes from our knowledge of creatures which have many different perfections, our ideas about God are many; so we have many different names for God with different meanings but standing for one simple reality.
Thomas repeats that some of these names are negative, saying what God is not; others refer to him as the source of different effects in creation, and still others refer directly to what he is in himself.
Al-Ghazâlî likewise argues that the 99 names the Muslims give to God each have different meanings because of different concepts or more general or specific applications of the same concept. He gives the example of ghâfir, meaning simply to be forgiving, ghafûr, forgiving many sins, and ghaffâr, forgiving repeatedly.
Some Muslim theologians (the Mu`tazilites) and philosophers agree with Thomas (and Catholic belief) in saying that everything in God is absolutely one, but al-Ghazâlî and most others hold that God's essence, his eternal attributes (like knowledge, power), and perhaps his actions in time are all really distinct from one another. This is a more serious challenge to God's unity than the Christian Trinity.
6: Do names common to God and man have the same meaning?
Many of God's names are also used of men, for example: "just", "merciful", "wise". Do these names mean the same thing in both cases? Thomas Aquinas answers no, because on the human level all these perfections are distinct from the essence of man (he can have them or not have them) and distinct from one another (he can have one without the others), whereas in God they all exist as one in the undivided fullness of God's being. Besides, these names adequately express human reality, but fall short of signifying the full reality of God.
On the other hand, these names do not have totally different meanings when applied to God and man, but apply analogously. Since all our names for God are taken from creatures, they apply to God as he is the cause of the perfections signified, and as he possesses these perfections in a superior, perfect way.
The Muslim theologian al-Ghazâlî likewise denies that names of human perfections apply to God with the same meaning, but he has none of the distinctions and reasons that Thomas has. His starting point is Qur'ân 44:11: "There is nothing like Him" (compare Isaiah 40:25). He says that only God has the special perfection of power, life, sight etc., and that "no one knows God but God, and no one can imagine that he knows him unless he is God himself or someone like him; but since nothing is like him, no one outside himself knows him."
Al-Ghazâlî admits, however, that we know God in some inadequate way, and he advises people to meditate on the names of God so that they can be drawn near to God like the angels (Q 4:172).
7: Was God "Creator" even before he created the world?
Muslim philosophers and theologians have much struggled with the question of how names apply to God which refer to his action in time, such as "Creator". Was God "Creator" even before he created the world?
The philosopher Ibn-Sînâ (Avicenna) argued that the universe must have existed from eternity, because for God to begin a new action would imply change in God: from non-action to action. If God is changeless, Ibn-Sînâ argued, then he must have been creating from eternity. By creation, Ibn-Sînâ means sustaining creatures in existence, which is a continuous action.
Were we to press the logic of Ibn-Sînâ, we would have to say that God's action of creation is identical with his being and is necessary. In that case, God could not exist without creatures, and if creatures are necessary for God they must be an extension of his being. That means that everything is God. Such a position (common to much Indian and Asian thought) is called pantheism.
Muslim theologians tried to answer Ibn-Sînâ, but none of their answers are as good as those of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas cuts through Ibn-Sînâ's argument by analysing the meaning and kinds of relation. Since any relationship is between two things, we can have (1) the case when on both sides the relationship exists only in the mind, such as the relationship of identity between a man and a rational animal, (2) the case when the relationship is real on both sides, such as 2 + 2 = 4, (3) the case when the relationship is real on one side and not on the other, such between knowledge which is a real relationship to the thing known, whereas the thing known is not really related to the knower.
The last case applies to the relationship between God and the world. The world is really related to God by dependency, but there is no real relationship on the part of God to the world, since in the act of creation what is new is totally on the side of the creature, and God does not change at all.
8: Examples of eternal and temporal names
If, as we have seen, some names apply to God eternally and others only in time, what are some examples? Thomas Aquinas gives "Saviour", "Creator" and "Lord". These names do not apply to God for eternity, but only while there are creatures in existence. The name "Lord" implies a real relationship of creatures to God, even though being Lord is not a real relationship of God to creatures. Nevertheless he is really Lord, because the title "Lord" refers to a real relationship of creatures to himself, just like something is really known without any change in itself but only in the knower.
On the other hand, God is eternally knowing and loving, because he first of all knows and loves himself, and by extension creatures.
The Muslim theologian al-Juwaynî also takes up the question whether God was Creator from eternity or only in time. He says that some Muslim teachers say that God was always Creator, because the name refers to his being, but al-Juwaynî prefers to say that "Creator" means "someone to whom a creature belongs"; it affirms nothing about the essence of God but merely affirms the existence of creation dependent on God. This position is in agreement with Thomas Aquinas.
9: Can the name "god" be applied to anything besides God?
Both Muslim and Christian theologians take up this question. The Muslim answer is simple; the name has only two applications: (1) It refers to the true God, or (2) it is a name only, corresponding to no reality (the case of false gods). "Apart from Him you only worship names invented by you and your fathers" (Q 12:40; cf. 7:71; 53:23).
Thomas Aquinas, however, gives three cases where the name "god" can be applied: (1) the true God, (2) gods according to the false opinion of those who worship them; these however can be more than mere names; they may be spirits or physical objects or natural powers; (3) those who bear the image of God by participation, either by nature or by grace.
Thus Psalm 82 says: "I said, 'You are all gods'," and angels are often called gods in the Old Testament. That does not mean they should be worshiped; in fact, in the New Testament we avoid calling angels "gods". Nevertheless, we say that we are all "children of God" and have a "divine life" by baptism. "You share the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). That is a claim that Muslims consider blasphemy, but is the the highest treasure of the Christian Faith.
10: What is the greatest /most proper name of God?"
"What is the greatest name of God?", ask Muslim theologians. "What is the most proper name of God?", asks Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas answers "He who is", translating the name Yahweh given to Moses in Exodus 3:13. He gives three reasons for the excellence of this name: (1) It signifies the essence God which is existence, as is true of nothing else. (2) It is the most universal name, since every other name refers to some particular aspect of his being. (3) It is expressed in the present tense, referring to the eternity of God who is present to all the past and future.
The Muslim, al-Ghazâlî, does not see anything special in the name wâjid (existing), only that God has all that is necessary for him to exist and lacks nothing. On the other hand, he says that Allâh is the greatest name of God, because it refers to his self-existence and includes all others.
Fakhraddîn ar-Râzî (d. 1209), in a treatise on the names of God, gives a variety of opinions: (1) There is no greatest name of God, but they are all equal. (2) There is greatest name and it is, according to different opinions, either Huwa (Himself), Allâh, Dhû-l-jalâl wa-l-ikrâm (Majestic and Honourable, Q 55;27; 80:13), or some other non-Arabic name [He rejects this possibility], (3) God has a greatest name, but it is not known to us, although he could reveal it to someone by a mystic experience.
In popular Muslim usage, the names of God are represented by numbers written in a magic square and used in amulets. Even serious people like al-Ghazâlî believed in their efficacy; he gives a story how a woman had a safe delivery by looking at one such magic square.
Christians believe there is power in the name of God and the name of Jesus, but we do not make amulets. At most we have representations of the humanity of Jesus in a picture or a cross.
11: How can God's names lead us to God? Al-Ghazâlî
The Muslim al-Ghazâlî says: "The perfection and happiness of man is to be reshaped with the moral qualities and beauty of God, with his attributes and names, as far as this is possible." The lowest level of realizing this is to be able to call the names, like a parrot; the second is to understand their meaning, as any ignorant Arab; the next level is to believe that these names apply to God, as an unschooled Muslim; a further level is to understand the technical meanings of the names and apply them to God with all one's heart, as learned Muslims do.
"But the virtues of the pious are the vices of those who are drawn near to God." The latter exceed the former in three ways: 1) by understanding the inner meaning of the names with clarity and certitude, 2) by an awe for what these names represent and 3) by a strong desire to imitate or reproduce somehow these qualities in one's own life so as to be drawn as close as possible to God.
Al-Ghazâlî then goes on to emphasize the infinite disparity between Creator and creatures. This makes the whole enterprise of drawing near to God by imitating his attributes seem futile. Al-Ghazâlî does not answer the problem. What does St. Thomas Aquinas say about it?
12: How can God's names lead us to God?
We saw the Muslim viewpoint of al-Ghazâlî. Let us now see how St. Thomas Aquinas handles this question in his Commentary on the Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius.
Thomas answers by distinguishing various kinds of knowledge: Comprehensive knowledge is exhaustive and complete; only God has this kind of knowledge of himself. The next best kind of knowledge is contemplation, by which we see the essence of something and know what it really is; we will have that kind of knowledge in the next life, but not here on the way.
In this life we can know God's existence and something about him by reason, but we know him still better by faith in his revelation. Living faith includes love and is a mystical illumination of the mind by God in darkness. It is illumination, lifting us away from sin by a holy desire for God, and surpassing all we know by reason; it is also darkness, because we cannot see God's brightness, yet our glimpse of faith makes everything else pale in comparison.
Christian life is not simply "being drawn near" to God, as the Qur'ân proposes, but union with God, something that Islam does not admit. Union with God, fundamentally by sanctifying grace and actively by faith and love, is a deification: Divinity belongs principally to God, but to a rational creature secondarily and by way of participation (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). Our participation in God's nature is derived from the perfect union of God with man in Jesus, true God and true man.
Our Christian life of faith is a communion with God as he continuously manifests himself to us in our study of divine truth and in life. Because of the various ways he does this he has different names.
13: What is the content of the divine titles in Islam and in the Bible, and how do they compare
It would be tedious to list all the divine titles in both traditions, because many of them express the same idea in slightly different ways, which can only be understood in the original language. Since the New Testament is so unique, let us first make a comparison between the names of God found in the Old Testament and in the Islamic list of 99.
In both traditions there is a series of names referring to God in himself as existing, true, unique, living holy, bright, eternal etc. Other names refer to his glory, power and exalted greatness. Then some describe him as creator and powerful king of the universe, who knows everything that is going on. Very many names describe God's goodness and kindness and how he helps us in our needs and protects us from danger. Others refer to his justice, his punishment of the evil and his forgiveness of the repentant.
The Psalter differs from the Islamic list by its free use of anthropomorphic poetic terms, reflecting the use of many more such terms elsewhere in the Old Testament. This is more than a matter of language. The Psalter, like the rest of the Old Testament, presents God as bonded to his people and close to them in a very familiar way. The Psalter also uses many terms to present a military image of God, absent in the Qur'ân. Also the Old Testament depiction of God as Saviour does not find any easy Islamic correspondence.
The Islamic 99 names of God are more abstract and sparing in anthropomorphism than the Psalter. As for content, the Islamic names lay greater emphasis on the omnipotence and knowledge of God more than does the Psalter or the Old Testament in general. Expectedly, given the time of the appearance of the Qur'ân, there is explicit reference to the resurrection, absent in the Psalter.
14: Allah or God?
Muslims worship Allah. Is that the same as the God that Christians worship? Hausa speaking Christians have taken "Allah" as their word for God. But the same name does not have to represent the same thing. After all, fufu is different depending where it its served. A new book circulating in Nigeria says that the Muslim Allah is not the same as the Christian God /Allah /Olorun /Chukwu... Is that correct? Let us see if the Muslim description of God matches the Christians' one.
The Qur'an says that Allah is the creator of the world: heaven and earth (7:54, 65:12). He is the judge of all men and will reward or punish them on the last day. Even now he acts in his own way and his own time to right wrongs and help people (3:160, 9:51).
Do Christians believe anything different? The Catholic Church does not think so. The Vatican II document on the Church (LG), n. 16:
"The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."
Vatican II also says:
They worship God, who is living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men (NA 3).
So we believe in and worship the same God as the Muslims, even though we disagree about the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ.
For Catholics, this Vatican II statement is definitive, but further clarification can be made. Do the Jews, following only the Old Testament, worship the same God as we do? The God of the Old Testament is not "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ". But God spoke to the Jews first through the prophets before speaking to them through his Son (Heb. 1:1). The New Testament is a fuller revelation of the God of the Old Testament.
Even the Qur'ân says as much: "God does not speak to any mortal except through sign-language (way) or from behind a veil" (42:51). The Qur'ân does not envisage such open revelation as Christians experience when God speaks to them through his Son.
But there are still objections to identifying Allâh with God. - More next section.
15: Again, is Allâh God?
G.J.O. Moshay, in Who is this Allâh? affirms that the Allâh of the Qur'ân is not the God of the Bible. His argument? According to the Qur'ân and Muslim belief, Allâh dictated the Qur'ân to Muammad. But the Qur'ân is full of errors and wicked exhortations, such as to violence. Such teaching cannot come from the Biblical God. Therefore Allâh is not the Biblical God, but must be some Arabian demon.
Let us look at this argument part by part. Let's assume that a demon dictated the Qur'ân. A demon has to talk about what people already have some idea about. He has to start with the truth before trying to twist it. The demon at Caparanum had to admit "I know who you are: the Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24). Which God? The true God. "You believe in the one God - that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and the ytremble with fear (James 2:19).
Moshay wrongly concludes that because a demon dictated the Qur'ân, the Qur'ân cannot be talking about the true God. - More on this next section.
16: Who inspired the Qur'ân?
The Muslims claim Allâh. G.J.O. Moshay says that Allâh is a demon because of the wicked things contained in the Qur'ân. Most Catholic scholars of the Qur'ân (and they are many) would not agree that the Qur'ân is all that wicked (more about that another time), but with few exceptions they maintain that the Qur'ân falls short of Christian moral standards and Christian revelation of God's being (the Trinity) and character (his indwelling love). Besides there are a few explicit contradictions to Christian teaching, such as "Jesus is only a servant of God" (Qur'ân 43:59), and the denial of the crucifixion (4:156-158).
Because of these errors and shortcomings, is it necessary to say that a demon inspired the Qur'ân? And on the other side, because of the many beautiful things the Qur'ân has to say about God, Jesus and Mary, is it necessary to say that God inspired the book?
The problem is in the nature of prophecy. God can inspire - in some broad sense, as he does to every person - and send his truth. But "whatever is received is received according to the manner of the recipient" (St. Thomas Aquinas). Not only is the message contexualized, cast in a certain culture, but also the message stands a good chance of getting garbled in the transmission, unless God specially preserves from error, as in Biblical revelation.
Muammad could have had some real experience of God, but, in Christian judgement, was not exempt from expressing it with the weaknesses of the Arabian attitudes of his time.
17: "Bi-smi llâhi" - "In the name of God"
That is what we hear Muslims say every time they pray or begin a Qur'ân passage or begin to kill an animal, eat, travel or do anything else significant. The phrase is an appeal for God's help, a dedication of an activity to God, and can also be understood as an oath: "By the name of God", backing up the truth or rightness of what one is about to say.
God's name stands for his presence blessing and protecting those who call on him. Anything undertaken without invoking the name of God is exposed to all sorts of danger and failure, but God's protection assures a good outcome.
Calling on God's name implies being on good terms with him by submitting to his will. That is the first meaning of "islâm".
Christians likewise call on the name of God and glorify his name. The difference is that we also call on the name of Jesus, and make the sign of the cross in the name of the Trinity.
18: God, how near, how far?
Have you ever watched a Muslim pray? He starts out standing proud, in any public place, and proclaims that God is great (Allahu akbar). Then he bows down and puts his forehead on the ground. By his body movements he tells us that God is great above all, and we should honour him, no matter what anyone else thinks. He is also telling us that all humans are but dust and ashes like the ground itself before the almighty greatness of God. This is the Islamic vision: a God who is all, separated by an infinite distance from his servants who are nothing.
Christians have - or should have - the same attitude. But they should have something more: a sense that God has come down to us and lifted us up to share his intimate life. Baptism gives us the dignity of brotherhood with Jesus Immanuel (God with us). We share his life in the sacraments, especially Communion, and meet his Spirit in prayer and whenever we do anything for our neighbour.
Familiarity breeds contempt when we come close to God but our hearts are elsewhere. That is why many Christians seem to have less respect for God than Muslims. But when we receive God's sacred gifts with humble faith and deep love, then we have greater respect for him, for his sacraments and for our neighbours, small and big.
Does love make the difference? Read the next section.
19: True and undefiled religion
Most Muslims seem to take their religious observances seriously. They demand some time out for their prayers and a suitable place. They wash themselves before praying and make sure they are suitably dressed. Often after prayers a Muslim may sit for some time reciting extra prayers, caught up with a deep sense of awe at the greatness of the God he is worshiping. Some Muslims can be seen with their Qur'ans at night, not just reading it, but praying it, somewhat like the way we pray the Psalms. All this makes Islam a mystical religion - one which puts people in contact with God.
But Muslims are also very active and practical, steeped in trading and politics. They boast of being owners of this world as well as the next, and try to regulate everything in society according to what they think is God's law.
Christians too have their mystical moments: whether in quiet prayer alone or clapping and singing in an ecstatic crowd, but they have a different perspective: Mystical experience is secondary to the love of God, so that a Christian is less concerned about distractions or good feelings in prayer. Christians are also active in working for a better and more just world, but realize that fighting for rights is not the most effective way of getting them, and that if people have real love for one another they will easily respect their rights, even those of strangers.
How can we love strangers? Read the next section.
20: Wait until you are called
To get through to the top man who can help you, you usually have to wait long and have someone else speak for you before being admitted. Muslims are very conscious of God's greatness. He is infinitely above anything we can imagine. We are his unworthy creatures, full stop! According to Islam we cannot pretend to be his friends, or to share his nature, or to be temples of his Spirit. All that is blasphemy. Muslims are proud to bow down to God in complete submission as nothing more than his servants. Because they give God his rights, he makes them the rightful masters of the earth and heirs of Paradise. Those who do not bow down to God are excluded from this reward and do not have the same rights. The wide distance between God and his servants entails a wide distance between believers and non-believers.
Christians also believe in God and bow down to him in worship, although Muslims sometimes do not recognize this as genuine belief and worship. But Christians also have bridged the distance between God and man through Jesus his Son. They share his nature and are his close friends. Closeness with God translates into close love of neighbour, including strangers, because God loves all and is present in all.
Does Jesus make the difference? Read the next section.
21: Who is Jesus?
You often hear from Muslim beggars the words "Saboda annabi Isa" - "for the sake of the prophet Jesus".
The Qur'an has many wonderful things to say about Jesus, particularly about his annunciation and birth of the Virgin Mary. It says he ascended to heaven, but never was crucified. It also firmly denies that he is God or the Son of God.
For most Muslims the strongest argument against the divinity of Jesus is the Qur'anic argument that he is clearly human: He ate, drank, walked around etc. And a human mortal cannot be God. Likewise Jesus cannot be worshiped as "Son of God", since a son would be distinct from God and less than God.
The Qur'an never asks the question or raises the possibility that the humanity of Jesus could be united with the divine Word of God in one person, even though it does call him the "Word of God" (2:155). Muhammad seems not to have understood the implications of this title.
Muslim and Christian beliefs sharply diverge about who Jesus is. With our Muslim friends we have to explain clearly where we differ, and allow God to move them beyond their own beliefs in his own time.
And what of Muhammad? Read the next section.
22: Who is Muhammad?
You often hear from Muslim beggars the words "Saboda annabi Muhammadu".
Muhammad was born around 570, started preaching in Mecca in 610, moved to Medina in 620 and died in 632.
At first Muhammad claimed only to be a "reminder" and a "warner" (Qur'an 74:2, 87:9), preaching religious truths that are obvious to anyone: that God is the creator and master of all, that he demands justice and kindness to the poor, and that he will judge all on the last day.
Muhammad demanded to be recognized as God's spokesman, like other prophets the Arabs knew of, both Biblical and of Arab tradition. Later, in a bid to win recognition from the Jews and Christians, he claimed to be not merely one more prophet among many, but the successor of all the previous prophets, bringing God's final revelation to mankind.
This obvious echo of Hebrews 1:1 was the very reason that Christians could not accept this claim, since it meant that Jesus was no longer the final word of God to mankind.
Nevertheless Muhammad had many good things to say. How far can Christians go in recognizing Muhammad? Read the next section.
23: Recognizing one another
We often hear Muslims say, "We recognize all the prophets, including Jesus. Why can't you recognize Muhammad?" It sounds like Muslims are broad minded, while Christians are narrow.
But how far do Muslims recognize Jesus? To say that he is a prophet stops far short of the Christian faith in Jesus as a divine savior.
How far do Christians recognize Muhammad? Christian teaching has nothing explicitly to say about Muhammad, but Paul tells us to "test everything and adhere to the good" (1 Thes 5:21). When we examine the life of Muhammad we find some things we do not admire, but many other things we do. John-Paul II said in Ankara on 30 November 1979:
When I think of the spiritual heritage of Islam and the value it has for man and society, its capacity of offering, particularly to the young, guidance for life, filling the gap left by materialism, and giving a reliable foundation to social and juridical organization, I wonder if it is not urgent.. to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us (Os. Romano, 3-12-79, p.19).
For this accomplishment we do recognize Muhammad as a religious leader. But that falls short of Muslim belief that he brought the final revelation of God.
What is the Qur'an? Read the next section.
24: What is the Qur'ân?
The Qur'an is the holy book of Islam, like the Bible for Christians. True enough, but that does not do full justice to the Muslim idea of the Qur'an.
If we read the Qur'an it sounds like a collection of sermons, exhorting people to believe and to obey certain commandments. This preaching is illustrated by many stories, some familiar to us from the Bible (but not exactly the same). What is remarkable about all these sermons is that they tell us next to nothing about the life of Muhammad. He is not even presented as the speaker, but the Qur'an claims to be the speech of God sent down from heaven and delivered by Muhammad.
Muslims generally say that Muhammad had nothing to do with the composition of the Qur'an. It is purely the word of God, made book. It compares with the Christian idea of the word of God made man. Muslim reverence for the Qur'an is somewhat like Christian reverence for Jesus.
What do Catholics think of the Bible and the Qur'an? Read the next section.
25: Scripture inspiration
Catholics look upon the Bible as God's word spoken in the human language of people with definite personalities and culture. These human writers are truly authors of the books of the Bible and put their own outlook and style into what they wrote. Yet, because they wrote under God's continual influence and guidance, God is the primary author of the Bible, 100% of it, and each human writer is the secondary author of what he wrote, 100% of it.
The Catholic idea is tied to our belief that Jesus is the Word of God who became truly and fully man; so everything human becomes sacred and can be utilized by God. So all the talents of human writers are put to use by God in composing Scripture.
Most Muslims and some fundamentalist Christians allow no place for human authorship of Scripture. They say it was written on tablets in heaven and simply dictated to the human instrument. God's word does not become a fully human book.
Catholics certainly can find the Qur'an an admirable book, but they differ from Muslims: 1) regarding its divine authorship, 2) regarding its claim to be in no way a human product.
What do we admire about the Qur'an? Read the next section.
26: The Qur'ân: a religious classic
The Qur'an is probably the most widely printed book after the Bible. Muslims and non-Muslims are attracted to it because of its Arabic style, which has rhythm and impact. The Qur'an itself claims to be a literary miracle, so beautiful and inspiring that it cannot be imitated (Q. 18:88, 28:49, 11:13, 2:23). The Qur'an appeals to no other miracle to prove the validity of Muhammad's mission than the Qur'an.
Non-Arabs may find it hard to appreciate the beauty of the Qur'an. But Arabs and non-Arabs who are struck with its beauty must ask themselves: 1) Is this beauty unique? Many people are similarly struck by the beauty of other classics, such as the music of Mozart. 2) Is not every great work of art unique and cannot be imitated? - again take Mozart's music. 3) What is more important in Scripture, the beautiful language or the content?
The Qur'an's contents are also admirable. Read the next section.
27: Qur'ân contents
Many who read the Qur'an for the first time comment that it is repetitious and disorganized. As a written book, this is true, but the Qur'an was not primarily a written document but a collection of sermons delivered to different audiences at different times. A priest who preaches many retreats here and there is bound to repeat himself, and an unedited collection of his sermons would also appear disorganized.
The Qur'an has much to say about God, angels and spirits, the prophets of old, Muhammad as a prophet, the last judgement, Heaven and Hell, regulations on prayer, fasting, community support, pilgrimage, marriage and divorce, inheritance, forbidden food and drink, trading & lending, warfare, and various punishments.
A Christian who reads the Qur'an would have no quarrel with over 90% of it. Some passages, in fact, he would like to treasure in his heart. He would find stumbling blocks: 1) certain assertions about Jesus, 2) some statements about Muhammad as the final prophet and his privileges, 3) some details about Biblical persons and events, 4) some laws about worship and life in general.
Living among Muslims, we must admit our differences, but emphasize what is common.
What do we say about God? Read the next section.
28: The Qur'ân and God
God is above and beyond amd different from all that we see and touch in this world. That is the most basic teaching of the Qur'an. It is what we refer to as the "transcendence" of God.
At the other end of the spectrum we find "materialists" who say there is no God and nothing beyond what we experience in this world.
In between we find those who say God is in the world. That is what we mean by the "immanence" of God. But what do people mean by saying "God is in the world"?
Some mean that God and the world are indistinguishable. He is just a force within and part of the world. In the film "Star Wars" you hear the blessing "May the Force be with you". If you listen to Hare Krishnas or Buddhists you will hear talk of "God" and the "Lord of all", but what they mean is the a spiritual force that is part of the world. For them we are all God, and the purpose of the spiritual life is to come into contact and union with the divine force within us. The most subversive thing about the film "The Last Temptation of Christ" is not Jesus' fictitious romance with Mary Magdalene, but his preaching that he is God because we all are God if we only realize it an exploit our divine power.
Christians teach that God is "in the world". He is everywhere: "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). But he is not the same as the world. Jesus' divine and human natures are always distinct, although within one person. Our life of grace is always a gift, and not our birthright. The Trinity dwells in us, but we are not the Trinity.
Christian "immanence" is combined with "transcendence": Let God be God! - something we share with Muslims.
What of angels?- Read the next section.
29: The Qur'ân and spirits
The Qur'an takes the world of spirits seriously. That is one of the most important attractions that Islam has for Africans, who are strongly aware of the influence of evil spirits.
People trained in science and philosophy have the habit of looking for a simple physical explanation of what other people attribute to spirits. If you have malaria, you take medicine; you don't resort to exorcism. Such an approach is good because it looks for what is really true. But it risks ignoring the sometimes real activity of spirits, and overlooks the real fears that many people have of demonic activities.
From a Biblical background, the Qur'an speaks of angels (malak/ mala'ika) and their opposites, the fallen angels or satans. There is a chief Satan (Shaytan), also called Iblis (= the Greek diabolos). Addressing Arab traditional background, the Qur'an talks of "jinn" (where we get the English "gin" = "spirits"), who inspire diviners and poets and sometimes make people mad by possessing them. Solomon is said to have tamed the jinn and made them his servants (21:78-82; 34:12-14; 38:36-40).
Muslims try to calm their fear of spirits by trust in God: "I seek refuge in the Lord of men, the King of men, the God of men, from the evil of the sly Tempter, who whispers into the minds of men, (speaking through) jinn or men" (Qur'an 114).
Christians also trust in God, but have the additional assurance of victory in Jesus, who "abolished every principality, every ruling force and power" (1 Cor 15:24; cf. 2:6; Eph 1:21, Col 1:16, 2:15, 1 Pet 3:22).
What of prophets? Read the next section.
One of the paradoxes of Islam is that God does not share his attributes with anyone, but in fact his authority is mediated through a prophet, who speaks God's commands and receives obedience in the name of God.
The Qur'an says, "Obey God, and obey his Messenger" (64:12 etc.). It also calls Muhammad khâtam an-nabiyyîn (33:40 "seal of the prophets"), which originally may have meant "one confirming previous prophets", but is commonly interpreted by Muslims as "the final prophet". On the Last Day God permits some, including angels (53:25-6), to intercede for the believers who are guilty of sin (2:255, 10:3, 19:87, 21:109, 34:23). Muslims generally regard Muhammad as one of the chief intercessors on the Day of Judgement, sometimes citing 21:107: "We have sent you as a (conveyer of) mercy to mankind". They never mention his name without adding: "Sallâ-llâh `alayhi wa-sallam" ("God bless him and give him peace"), as the Qur'ân tells them to do (33:56). They revere him as a model (33:21), the perfect man and the best of God's creatures. Some go so far as to say "In the beginning was Muhammad" - the first creation of God, in the form of light; the light came into Adam and was passed on through his descendants until it was born as the Prophet.
On the other hand, Muhammad is told to ask pardon for his own sins and the sins of the believers (47:19).
Clearly, Muslims look upon Muhammad not just as a messenger of God, but also, to a limited extent, as a mediator of his mercy and forgiveness.
The world is looking for a sign of God's mercy and forgiveness in today's world. The Qur'an calls Jesus and Mary a "sign for the world" (21:90, 23:50). Christians see the Church as the continuing visible presence of Jesus in the world today, sacramentally conveying the full mercy of God to the world.
What of the Muslim community? Read the next section.
31: The Muslim Community
Another paradox in Islam is the combination of individual responsibility with community solidarity. Addressing Muhammad, the Qur'an says: "If they call you a liar, say: 'My deeds are mine, and yours are yours; you are not responsible for what I do, and I am not responsible for what you do" (10:41). In God's judgement, "No one bears another's burden" (6:164, 17:15, 35:18, 39:7, 53:38).
The Qur'an says that "all men were one community until God sent the prophets"; they then divided on religious grounds (2:113, 10:19). Yet, "if God wanted, he could make you all one community" (5:48, 11:118, 16:93). To the Muslims it is said, "You are the best community raised up among mankind, commanding what is good and forbidding what is evil" (3:110).
Muslims are "brothers in religion" (9:11). Throughout the Qur'an, warfare is commanded only against hostile unbelievers. Revenge equal to the offence is permitted (2:178,194), but Muslims are urged rather to forgive (2:263, 16:126, 28:54, 42:40, 41:34-5). Muslims are reminded: "The Believers are brothers; so settle among your brothers and fear God" (49:10). "Hold on together to the rope of God, and do not split up. Remember God's favour to you. You were enemies and he reconciled your hearts; by his grace you became brothers" (3:103). Muslims are constantly urged to give zakat to help the community and its poor members. The Medinans are praised for welcoming refugees from Mecca and supporting them even though they were suffering from poverty themselves (59:9).
Who are the people of God? Read the next section.
32: The People of God
The Qur'an says of the Jews that "God has favoured you above all the world" (2:47,122, 7:140, 5:20, 44:32, 45:16). He did this by making a covenant with them (2:63,83,93, 3:187, 4:154, 5:12,70, 20:80,86).
Yet, echoing Old Testament prophets and some words of Jesus in the New Testament, the Qur'an accuses the Jews, most of them, of being unfaithful to the covenant in the past (with O.T. examples) and in the present. They are accused of infidelity because they did not accept the preaching of Muhammad: "You will find that the most hostile people to the Believers are the Jews and the Associators, while you will find that the most friendly people to the Believers are those who call themselves Christians. That is because there are priests and monks among them who are not proud. When they hear what was revealed to the Prophet, you see their eyes streaming with tears because they recognized it as true. They say, 'Lord, we believe; inscribe us among your witnesses'" (5:82-3). In other words, these Christians are praised because they became Muslims.
As for other Jews and Christians, "they say that no one will enter Paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian. That is what they imagine... But whoever submits his face to God and does good will have his reward with his Lord" (2:111-12). "Those who take God, his Messenger and the believers as their allies are the party of God, and they shall be victorious" (5:56; cf. 58:22). "If anyone looks for any religion besides Islam it will not be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the lost" (3:85). Thus many Muslims conclude that they are the People of God. Others are not if they knowingly reject Muhammad's as a prophet.
Some Christians hold a similar narrow view. No one can be saved unless the person believes in Jesus as his Saviour and is baptized. That excludes Muslims.
The Catholic Church and some Muslims have a wider view of who will enter Paradise. Read the next section.
33: Who shall be saved?
The Qur'an says, "Those who believe (the Muslims), the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabi'ans who believe in God and the Last Day and do good will have their reward with their Lord. They have nothing to fear and will not come to shame" (2:62; 5:69).
Fazlur Rahman, in Major themes of the Qur'an, observes that the vast majority of Muslim commentators exercise themselves fruitlessly to avoid having to admit the obvious meaning. Muhammad Talbi (of Tunisia) is of the same opinion that this verse admits a plurality of ways to salvation. Theirs may be a minority opinion among Muslims, but it is a respectable one.
Karl Rahner observed that it is much more challenging to Christianity than to any other religion to admit the possibility of salvation of non-Christians, because no other religion holds so absolutely that it is the only valid revelation of the living God (Theological Investigations, 5, p.116).
Nevertheless there has been a consistent theological tradition from the beginning of the Church to the present which holds that the Holy Spirit offers every person without exception the possibility of drawing on the saving grace that Jesus won for all on the cross (Vatican II: "The Church in the Modern World", n.22).
Read the next section.
34: The wider People of God
Islam and Christianity make mutually exclusive claims about what makes someone belong to the People of God.
For most Muslims, one must believe in God and accept Muhammad as a Prophet and follow his teaching. If someone does not know about Muhammad (by invincible ignorance), the person is excused and can be saved by following an earlier religion, such as Judaism or Christianity. Some liberal thinkers, as we saw last week, simply admit many ways of salvation.
For Christianity, one must believe in God and in Jesus as Saviour and follow what he commands. Yet Vatican II ("The Church", n.16) says: "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day.
"Even though many people do not know Jesus, his power and grace touches their lives, because "through him all things were made". He is the Alpha and the Omega (beginning and end) and Lord of all creation. No one can escape the influence of his Spirit. He acts secretly in people's hearts, calling them to union with the Father in perfect love.
So Muslims who respond to this call and do what is good implicitly accept God's plan of salvation through Jesus, and are sanctified by his grace.
What of the Last Day? Read the next section.
35: The Last Day
The Last Day is one of the most important themes in the Qur'an. The hour comes suddenly (6:31; 7:187; 12:107; 22:55; 43:66; 47:18). It is heralded by a shout (36:53), a thunderclap (80:33), or the blast of a trumpet (69:13; 74:8; 78:18; 39:68). The mountains then dissolve into dust, the seas boil up, the sun is darkened, the stars fall, and the sky is rolled up. God comes to judge preceded by angels in ranks (78:38; 89:22) or circling his throne and praising him (39:75).
The Bible has a very similar description of the Last Day: The Day of Yahweh will be accompanied by cosmic signs: earthquake (Am 8:8; Is 2:10; Jr 4:24), solar eclipse (Am 8:9; Jr 4:23), and similar imagery which should not be taken literally (Is 13:10,13, 34:4; Ez 32:7-8; Jl 2:10-11; 3:3-4; 4:15-16; Hab 3:6; Zp 1:15; cf. Mt 24:29; Rv 6:12-14). In the New Testament the "Day of the Lord (Yahweh)" (1 Co 5:5; 2 Co 1:14; 1 The 5:2; 2 The 2:2; cf. 2 P 3:10) becomes the "Day of Christ" (Ph 1:6,10; 2:16), or simply the "Day" (1 Co 3:13; 1 The 5:4; cf. Hb 10:25), "that Day" (2 The 1:10; 2 Tm 1:12,18, 4:8; cf. Mt 7:22, 24:36; Lk 10:12, 21:34), the "Day of the Son of man" (Lk 17:22-24,26), the "Day of God" (2 P 3:12), the "Day of visitation (1 P 2:12), the "great Day" (Jd 6; Rv 6:17, 16:14), or the "last Day" (Jn 6:39,40,44,54, 11:24, 12:48).
What happens to the dead? Read the next section.
36: The fate of the dead
At the end of the word, according to the Qur'an, the graves are opened and people are judged. The records of a man's deeds are opened; the good deeds are weighed against the bad (101:6-9; 7:8ff). A good man receives his book in his right hand and the bad man in his left hand or behind his back (84:7-12; 69:19-32). A man's wealth or friends will be of no use then in influencing the judge (82:19; 31:33; 35:18; 44:41; 53:38; 99:6). There are vivid descriptions of Hell (jahannam) or the Fire (an-nâr). Unbelievers stay there eternally. All Muslims will go there, but God will rescue those who fear him (19:71-72).
Before the Last Day no one is in Heaven or Hell, but the souls are waiting near their graves. The only exception may be martyrs: "Do not say that those who are killed for the sake of God are dead. They are alive" (2:154), "enjoying their reward with their Lord" (3:169). Some interpret this as a description of the future, while others would say that martyrs are raised up and admitted to Paradise ahead of time.
Christians too believe in the general resurrection of the dead (Rm 2:6; 1 Co 15:44). Yet they also believe that the souls of the dead are immediately judged and given their due: the vision of God in Heaven (possibly after a delay for purification) or the suffering of Hell. Paul speaks of death as bringing him immediate union with Christ: "I want to be gone and to be with Christ, and this is by far the stronger desire" (Ph 1:23). "We are full of confidence, then, and long instead to be exiled from the body and to be at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:7). See also Lk 16:22 (on Lazarus) & 23:43 (the good thief).
Likewise Christ's descent to Hades (1 Pt 3:18-19; cf. Mt 12;40; Ac 2:24,31; Rm 10:7; Ep 4:9), is primarily to collect the deceased "holy ones" who were waiting for Christ (cf. Mt 27:52). Hb 11:39-40 makes is clear that the holy ones of the Old Testament could not enter heaven ahead of Christ. Christ went in first, and we follow: "What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church of first-born sons, enrolled as citizens of heaven" (Hb 12:22-23).
What is Heaven like? Read the next section.
Paradise (firdaws - a Persian word meaning garden; al-janna in Arabic) is a place of delight (2:25; 4:57; 11:108; 43:68-73; 47:15ff; 56:10-26). The people of Paradise are served fruits, good food and wine that does not intoxicate, and have the use of beautiful women (ûr 44:54; 52:20; 55:72; 56:23; cf. 37:48; 38:52; 55:56-8; 56:35-40; 78:33), who may be wives (13:23; 40:8; 36:56; 43:70) or "purified spouses" (2:25; 3:15; 4:57) . They are at peace with everyone, and enjoy the vision of God (75:23). Yet most Muslim theologians say that seeing God is only an occasional activity.
In the New Testament, heaven is the name used for where Jesus is now (Mt 26:64; Mk 14:62; Lk 22:69; Ac 7:55; Rm 8:34; Ep 1:20; Col 3:1; 1 Pt 3:22). The Christian is a citizen of heaven (Phl 3:20) and looks forward to a home God will build for him there (2 Co 5:1-5). There is the Christian's inheritance (1 Pt 1:4), his reward (Mt 5:12) and treasure (Mt 6:20; Col 1:5). The Father and Jesus prepare dwellings in heaven for the disciples (Jn 14:1-3). The names of the disciples are written in the records of heaven (Lk 10:20), and those who rise with Christ are taken with him to heaven (1 The 4:16ff). In heaven our bodies are incorruptible, glorious, powerful and spiritual (1 Cor 15:42-49). "At the resurrection men and women do not marry; no, they are like the angels in heaven" (Mt 22:30). There we share the glory of Christ (Rm 8:18; 1 Co 15:40; Phl 3:21; Col 3:4; 2 The 2:14). In heaven faith gives way to vision (1 Cor 13:12), the constant beatific vision of God which satisfies every desire and includes fellowship with all others in heaven. Of all this Paul says: "What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, what the mind of man cannot visualize; all that God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9).
What of the Kingdom of God now? Read the next section.
38: The Kingdom of God
The Qur'an says, "When God's help and victory come, and you see people entering the religion of God in droves, then shout in praise to God" (110). This verse is regarded by many commentators as associated with Muhammad's conquest of Mecca.
"(The Christians and Jews) wish to put out the light of God by their speech, but God will only bring his light to perfection, even though the unbelievers do not like it. He sent his Prophet with guidance and the true religion to make it triumph over every (other) religion, even though the polytheists do not like it" (9:32-33; cf. 48:28; 61:9).
Many Muslims take these verses as a prediction of the eventual establishment of God's rule (Islam) over the whole earth. Not everyone must become Muslim, but be subject to Islamic rule where perfect justice is expected. This is God's kingdom on earth, a prelude to Paradise in the next life.
Christians too look forward not only to happiness in the life to come, but also the establishment of God's kingdom on earth. This includes faith in God, love of neighbor, and social justice, well-being and development. We are aware that social institutions will never be perfect. Still, we rejoice that God's promises have begun to be realized: We have the "first-fruits of the Spirit" (Rm 8:23), the indwelling of the Trinity, and the flourishing of wisdom and good conduct.
How can Christians and Muslims live together? Read the next section.
39: Need for dialogue
Dialogue, in a general sense, is a sharing of convictions, beliefs, ideas and opinions with the aim of communing in the truth. It concerns outlooks and values which are not mere scientific propositions but deeply cherished personal tenets, in one way or another pertaining to religion Hence dialogue is more than a scientific exchange or a comparison of religions. It is far removed from inter-religious debate. To share in order to commune in the truth presupposes a loving respect for the other person, and a hope that a meeting of minds is possible, even at a limited, slowly evolving pace. This implies a recognition that the other person has a basically good intelligence and will and already has some grasp of the truth.
Dialogue, therefore, is a refined activity that requires optimum conditions to operate. The first requirement of dialogue is tolerance and religious liberty. That is why any move towards dialogue has to begin by verifying the existence of religious liberty.
The meaning and extent of religious liberty has varied a great deal from century to century and culture to culture and is still debated. In Christian and Islamic tradition with which we are concerned, religious liberty has never been fully admitted without some qualifications.
First of all, it has never been a Muslim or a Christian position that people are free before God too accept or reject his revelation. Revelation imposes an obligation. Pope Gregory XVI in the early 19th century said, "Freedom of conscience must not be confused with the freedom to have no conscience." On religious freedom in Christianity and Islam, see Views, chs. 1 & 2.
"Good morning", "Good evening", "Eku iȘe", "Eku nawo" etc. Greetings are wonderful ways of showing our good wishes to others. To refuse to greet is a sign of hostility or disdain. "If you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Do not even the gentiles do as much?" (Mt 5:47-8).
Christians do not have any fixed religious greeting. In the Mass we hear "The Lord be with you!"; that is a special greeting and blessing reserved to a priest or a deacon; others don't say it. Nevertheless we should invoke God's blessings whenever called for: "God bless you!", "God reward you!" etc.
Muslims have an Arabic religious greeting: "As-salâmu `alaykum", meaning "Peace be with you," always said by the senior or the one who comes in. The answer is "Wa-`alaykum as-salâm" - "And with you be peace." It is a beautiful formula, and we should not hesitate to answer or give it when with Muslms.
Yet we need not confine ourselves to this particular greeting when we are with Muslims. We can greet them in any words that express our good wishes, and also our faith, to them.
Most of the time Christians and Muslims go their separate ways to pray. It is quite right to hold to a kind of prayer that expresses our own faith.
Sometimes, however, we get thrown together for prayer: at a wedding, a wake or burial, at a govermental ceremony, in a school, when one's neighbour is sick or in a crisis.
On these occasions we are not expected to do Muslim Șalât, but we can observe it respectfully, just as Muslims attending Mass do not receive Communion. But on such occasions there are usually a lot of spontaneous prayers and blessings. There is no harm in saying "Amen" or "Amîn" to these, or adding our own prayer if we are invited. We can pray for a Muslim sick person, even invoking the name of Jesus.
Muslims are not very much used to spontaneous prayers for the sick, but if they visit a Christian patient and want to add their own prayers to thse of the Christians, just calling on God in their own words to help the sick person, there is no reason to object.
But we should not accept charms from Muslims or run to them (or any non-Catholics) for prayers as if they have some special powers that are not in the Catholic Church.
In 1992 Lent and RamaČan coincided, and Muslims could wish each other "happy fasting". But Muslim rules of fasting are fixed and uniform: no eating or drinking in the daytime at all. Christian fasting is not so fixed: The Catholic Church says "only one full meal in the day". Some Catholics and some other Churches embark on a "dry fast", which is more like the Muslim fast.
What do we answer if a Muslim asks us why we are taking a snack at noon when we are supposed to be fasting? There is no reason to be ashamed of eating a little during our fast. Fasting is meant to tame nature, not kill it; and we have to take something to work reasonably during the day. Catholicism is a religion of moderation, avoiding extremes.
We can also explain that in Islam too, jihâd dispenses from fasting. Many modern Muslims interpret jihâd as including work for urgent national development. The idea is that progress and workers' (& drivers') safety should not suffer because of fasting.
43: Fasting again
Muslims have a number of voluntary devotional fasts apart from RamaČân. We may happen to offer them something to eat and find them excusing themselves because they are fasting. Let us not imagine that they are making excuses because they are forbidden to eat the food of Christians. They are not. The Qur'ân 5:5 says that Muslims may eat the food of Christians and Jews, and the latter may eat the food of Muslims.
In the case of a voluntary Muslim fast, it is easy to excuse one another while we eat and they fast.
In some parts of the North, however, we can find oursleves in the midst of a sea of Muslims who are doing the obligatory fast of RamaČân, and there we are eating. It can be embarrassing. We should not feel obliged to conform; some fanatical Muslim countries would prohibit everyone from eating in public. Nevertheless, out of courtesy we should not be ostentatious about eating in such circumstances; that would rub in our differences.
Moreover, when we are living closely with Muslims who are fasting, it would be an act of Christian love to fast in solidarity with them - and for them.
44: Eating together
Taking food with someone is a sign of acceptance. It happens across boundaries of nation, tribe and religion, but sometimes hostilities prevent it.
Does our Christian faith prevent us from taking food Muslims offer us? The answer is no.
Some Christians do object if a Muslim offers him meat from the ram slaughtered at the time of the „ajj pilgrimage. They quote 1 Cor 8, where Paul talks about food dedicated to false gods. First we have to be very clear the Allâh is not a false god, but is the same God we worship, although we know him in his Trinitarian fullness. Secondly, the slaughtering of a ram at the time of pilgrimage is not a sacrifice in the Biblical or Christian sense. The animal is not offered or consecrated to God; it is merely slain in obedience to a Qur'anic command.
So we can accept food from Muslims without any problem. What of their accepting our food? - Next section.
45: Sharing food
Can a Muslim accept food that we offer him? Qur'ân 5:5 is clear: "As of today it is legitimate for you to partake of good things to eat. The food of those who were given Scripture before you [Jews and Christians] is legitimate for you, and your food is legitimate for them."
Muslims may, however, find reason to refuse some food we offer them if it is on the forbidden list. The earliest list, in Qur'ân 116:115 (also 6:145 & 2:173) mentions animals found dead, blood, pig meat, and food dedicated to a deity other than Allâh (cf. 6:119 & 5:3).
The last item is rephrased in 6:121 as "Do not eat what has not had the name of Allâh pronounced over it." For this reason Muslims always say "Bi-smi llah" before cutting the throat of an animal. Many Muslims go so far as not to eat meat slaughtered by non-Muslims, because they may not have followed Muslim ritual in slaughtering. But if they are hungry and there is nothing else to eat, they may dispense themselves from this prohibition (Qur'ân 6:119; 5:3 etc.).
A later text, Qur'ân 5:3, adds to the list of forbidden foods: animals that are strangled, clubbed, fallen to death, gorged (by the horn of another animal), or killed by wild animals - unless purified.
46: The Qur'ân 1:2
The opening sura (chapter) of the Qur'ân begins: "In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate". [See last week.] Verse 2 reads "Praise be to God, the Lord of the universe".
Praise is a basic theme in the Qur'ân. Two Arabic words (amd and subân) occur as nowns or verbs respectively 77 and 100 times. Most of the Qur'ân deals with how people should behave in this life. This would be very tedious without frequently turning to God. Thinking of the problems of this life weighs us down, but thinking of God refreshes us. In most cases praise of God in the Qur'ân is motivated by the wonders of God's creation: the universe and the mystery of human life. Sometimes it is occasioned by a favour God does for his people.
The Qur'ân's level of praise is very much like that of the Psalms. Christians have additional reason for praise, in the words of Jesus: "I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children" (Mt 11:25; lK 10:21).
47: The Qur'ân 1:3
The Qur'ân 1:3 praises God as "Lord of the universe". This description of God, like so many others in the Qur'ân, shows that Muslims are dealing with the same God as Christians or followers of many other religions that have an idea of God.
The Arabic word for Lord (Rabb) is of Mesopotamian origin and is used occasionally in the Hebrew Old Testament for a human "lord". From the 1st century A.D. "Rabbi" (my lord) became a common term for a Jewish Reverend. It must have been used likewise for the clergy in Jewish-Christian circles, with whom Muammad had contact. At the same time came to be used of God, the supreme Lord.
The Qur'ân criticises the Christians for calling their religious leaders and Jesus "Rabbi" instead of God alone (9:31). In this it is possibly echoing Mt 8:10: "You must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers." But Jesus defended the use of this title for himself: "You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am" (Jn 13:13). Nevertheless he said he came not to be served but to serve.
48: The Qur'ân 1:4
The Qur'ân 1:4 praises God as "King/owner of the day of judgement" (Mâliki yawm ad-dîn). Among the most frequent themes of the Qur'ân, after the oneness of God, comes the day of judgement. Judgement is meant to inspire fear as well as hope.
This fear and hope can be of a servile kind (that of a slave to a master), when its object is sensory punishments or rewards. A filial fear or hope (that of a child to a parent) has God himself as its object; it is good to hope to be united with God and to fear offending him, because we love him so much.
The Qur'ân, like the Old Testament, talks of both kinds of fear. The New Testament emphasises filial fear, but also preaches the tragedy of the loss of God and the fire and torture of Hell.
As for hope, how many Christians run after any prophet who can promise them success, security and blessings in this life; every slight failure makes them fall away and run to another. That is because they do not look for the good of God himself and persevere under difficulties, as Jesus preached in the parable of the sower (Mt 13:21).
49: The Qur'ân 1:5a
The Qur'ân 1:5 continues: "You are the one we serve". For Islam, as in Christianity, "service" is another word for worship. For Muslims, service is not giving God anything, but simply obeying him. Obedience is the keynote of man's relationship with God. Sacrifice does not reach him, only the obedience by which it is carried out. The same for the rituals of prayer. Obedience is the fulfilment of the Law.
In Christianity love is the fulfilment of the Law and the keynote of our relationship with God, although obedience to his commands is still important.
Love and obedience are service of God and are expressed in many sorts of service, especially, in "liturgy", the work of God's people in direct relationship to him by praise, thanksgiving, petition and contrition, all in union with Jesus who gives our human worship a divine value and power.
50: The Qur'ân 1:5b
The Qur'ân 1:5 continues: "You are the one to whom we turn for help". Asking for help expresses our dependence on God. This makes us ask ourselves whether we turn to God when all else fails or we turn to him first. Muslims and Christians would say we turn to God first. But then some fall into the problem of whether we depend on man or on God, on creatures or the Creator. They then abandon trying to help themselves.
Christians hold that God helps us directly, but also through our own efforts and through the help of others. "God helps those who help themselves." Christian theology, particularly under Thomas Aquinas, developed the idea of secondary or instrumental causality, something not found in Islamic theology. It means that God gives creatures a real participation in his own power, and he acts in an through them.
We pray "Give us this day our daily bread", but we know that it will be given to us through our labour.
51: The Qur'ân 1:6
The Qur'ân 1:6 continues: "Guide us on the straight path". Muslims understand this as referring to Islamic beliefs and way of life. Yet the image of "path" or "way" is also a Biblical one. Psalm 119:1 reads "Blessed are those whose way is blameless", where "way" means following God's Law. Psalm 1 is a contrast between the "path that sinners tred" and "the path of the upright". Jesus similarly spoke of the "wide way" to destruction and the "narrow way" that leads to life (Mt 7:14). More importantly, Jesus said "I am the way" (Jn 14:6), because he is one with the Father, came from the Father, reveals the Father, and leads us to the Father. Acts 9:2 speaks of the "followers of the Way" to mean Christians.
Guidance is an important Qur'ânic concept. It is the nearest that Islamic thought comes to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. Muslims tend to restrict guidance to God's revelation in the Qur'ân. But this verse is more open-ended, meaning that God can guide people today to the truth.
We pray that Jesus, "the rising Sun from on high, will give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace" (Lk 1:78-79).
52: The Qur'ân 1:7
The Qur'ân 1:7 continues: "[Guide us on the path] of those you have shown favour, not those you are angry with, and not those who go astray". The popular Jalâlayn commentary identifies these three groups quite simply: They are the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians respectively. The more sophisticated BayČâwî says that favour means the true faith and every other blessing; for him the true faith is Islam, but also Judaism and Christianity "as it was originally", since he thinks these religions were corrupted before the coming of Islam. For BayČâwî those God are angry with are those who sin by not carrying out God's commands, while those who go astray are those with wrong belief.
Christians, in a similar way, must choose between two ways, as spoken about last week. There is a right way and a wrong way, but there are several requirements for being on the right way, and there are many ways of going wrong. It is not enough to "accept Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour"; we must also belong to the Church, and we must also have good actions. Lack of any of these puts us on the wrong way.
53: Have the Muslims misunderstood the Qur'ân?
Have the Muslims misunderstood the Qur'ân? Take the idea that Christians should not have the same rights as Muslims where Muslims are dominant or women should not have the same rights as men. Sometimes people challenge Muslims that they are not being really Islamic in adopting this and other positions. It is question of methodology. What basis could anyone have for saying that Muslims are not following the Qur'ân on these questions?
One way is to quote Qur'ânic passages contradicting these positions. Another way would be to show that these positions contradict the Bible, if we can expect Muslims to believe the Bible. A third way would be to convince Muslims that these positions are absurd in the light of the social wisdom held by nearly all in the world today.
Let us look at the first method. It is very easy to line up one set of Qur'ân passages on one side of an argument and another set for the opposition. Classical Muslim commentators admitted contradictions in the Qur'ân and said that a later passage overrules an earlier passage. Modern Muslims usually deny that there is any contradiction in the Qur'ân, and try to find an interpretation that will harmonize all passages. They come up with a variety of solutions, but quote the „adîth that "difference of opinion is from God's mercy".
In fact, it is almost impossible to make an air-tight argument from the Qur'ân which would exclude any other possible interpretation. We can present texts, but cannot say absolutely that the Muslims are wrong in the interpretations they hold onto. - The following weeks the other methods.
54: Qur'ân reference to the Bible
Many Christians have tried to convince Muslims that they should accept the Bible because of what the Qur'ân says about it. Unfortunately, Muslims quote other Qur'ân passages which they quote to argue that the original books given to Moses, David and Jesus are not the same as our Bible. There is no air-tight argument from the Qur'ân forcing Muslims to accept the Bible. Nevertheless we can make a probable case from some Qur'ânic passages:
"Believers, believe in God and his Messenger and the Scripture he revealed to his Messenger and in the Scripture he revealed before" (4:136). Reference is made to the "first pages, the pages of Abraham and Moses" (87:19; cf. 53:36-37; 20:133). "We gave Moses the Scripture that they might be rightly guided" (23:49; cf. 6:154). The child Jesus is quoted as saying: "I am the servant of God. He gave me the Scripture and made me a prophet (19:30). Muammad is told: "If you are in doubt about what we have revealed to you, ask those who recite the Scripture [revealed] before you" (10:94). These people are referred to as "the people of the Book/Scripture".
55: Qur'ân mention of Bible books
We continue the Qur'ânic case in favour of the Bible: Later on, when Muammad was in Medina, the Qur'ân distinguishes between Jews and Christians, and names various books: "We revealed the Torah (of Moses), containing guidance and light; by it the prophets who submit [to God], the rabbis and masters judge the Jews" (5:43). "We gave David the Psalms" (4:163; 17:55; cf. 21:105). "Then we sent Jesus, following them, confirming the Torah which they already had, and we gave him the Gospel, containing guidance and light" (5:46; cf. 3:50; 57:27).
Besides the Torah, Psalms and Gospel, we hear of other books. God is said to have "taught him [Jesus] the Scripture, the Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel" (19:48; 3:48; 5:110); the latter three appear as additional to the "Scripture/ Book". Previous messengers "came with the Proofs, the Psalms and the shining Scripture" (3:184; 35:25; cf. 16:44). Commentators argue about the meaning of "the Proofs" (bayyinât), sometimes taking them as "miracles" (Pickthall), but they are listed here among other books. We also hear of the "pages of Abraham and Moses" (See last week) and "the Psalms of the people of old" (26:196). These Psalms seem to be different from those of David, and are referred to when speaking to the Meccans (54:43,52). There is also the Furqân of Moses (2:53; 21:48), from a Syriac word meaning "salvation". The same term, with the Arabic connotation of "discrimination", is applied to the Qur'ân (2:185; 3:4; 8:29,41; 25:1).
One thing is sure. Muammad had no direct contact with the Bible, and many of the terms referring to various inspired books are vague and cannot be precisely identified.
56: Qur'ân recognition of Bible
The Qur'ân is said to confirm and conform to previous Scripture: "Before you (Muammad) we only sent men who received inspiration; you [people], ask the holders of the Recollection (Christians & Jews) if you do not know. [We gave them] Proofs and Psalms, and revealed to you [Muammad] the Recollection to explain to people what was revealed to them" (16:43-44). "Nothing is said to you but what was said to the Messengers before you" (41:43). "Before this was the Scripture of Moses, a guide and a mercy. This Scripture (the Qur'ân) confirms it in the Arabic language" (46:12). The "Children of Israel" are warned: "Believe in what I have revealed (the Qur'ân), confirming [the Scripture] you already have" (2:41). "We revealed to you [Muammad] a Scripture with truth, confirming what they already have, as we revealed the Torah and the Gospel before as guidance to mankind, and we revealed the Furqân" (3:3-4). "This Qur'ân is not invented apart from God, but it is a confirmation and an explanation of the Scripture they already have" (10:37).
Does the Qur'ân recognize the Scripture of the Jews and Christians as authentic? It seems to do so. The Jews are warned: "Do you command [other] people to practice piety and forget about yourselves, while you are reciting from Scripture?" (2:44). And as the Jews were told to settle cases among themselves according to the Torah (5:44), so we read: "Let the people of the Gospel settle cases according to what God revealed in it" (5:47). "Had the people of Scripture.. upheld the Torah and the Gospel and what was revealed to them from their Lord, they would prosper up and down.. Say, 'People of Scripture, you will get nowhere until you uphold the Torah and the Gospel and what was revealed to you from your Lord" (5:65-68).
These passages (which go on to ask Jews and Christians to believe in the Qur'ân) and others we saw last week presuppose that the Jews and Christians at the time of Muammad had authentic Scriptures. Why then do Muslims today not accept the Bible? - Next section.
57: Why do Muslims not accept the Bible?
There are several reasons. One is the Qur'ân's accusation that some Jews hide the truth about the Bible: "Those to whom we gave the Scripture know it as they know their own sons, but some of them deliberately hide the truth" (2:146; cf. 2:42,140,159,174; 3:71; 5:15).
Again, the Qur'ân also accuses Jews and Christians of distorting the Scripture. In the following passages it is not clear whether the Bible or the Qur'ân is meant: The Jews are blamed because "they distort the words from their context and they forgot part of what they had been reminded of" (5:13; cf. 4:46; 5:41). Likewise, "among those who say 'We are Christians', we accepted their covenant. But they have forgotten part of what they had been reminded of" (5:14). Some Jews "who do evil substitute the word with another that was not spoken to them" (2:58; cf. 7:162). "They hear the words of God (Qur'ân?), then deliberately distort it after understanding it" (2:75).
More clearly with reference to the Bible, we read: "Some Scripture people are blamed for "acting as if they are reciting from the Scripture, so that you will believe it is from Scripture, but it is not from the Scripture. They say 'This is from God', but it is not from God" (3:78). - More reasons next section.
58: Muslim faulting of the Bible I
So far we have seen that Muslims reject the Bible because the Qur'ân alleges oral misrepresentation of a sound Biblical text. But the Qur'ân goes further: "Woe to those who write Scripture with their hands and then say 'This is from God', to make a small profit thereby. Woe to them for what they write with their hands and woe to them for what they gain" (2:79). This accusation has to do with the text itself, but the passage does not specify how widespread such forgery could be.
Forgery, or inventing and falsely claiming revelation, was the major accusation the Jews and others made against Muammad, and Muammad in turn made against the Jews. For example, they said of him: "He is only a man who forged a lie against God; so we do not believe in him" (23:38; cf. 10:37-38; 11:13,35; 12:111; 16:101; 17:73; 21:5; 25:4; 26:8; 28:36; 32:3; 34:8,43; 42:24; 46:8).
The Qur'ân condemns forgery as the greatest sin: "Who is more unjust than someone who forges a lie against God or says 'I have received revelation', when nothing was revealed to him?" (2:93; cf. 2:21,44; 7:37,89; 10:17; 11:18-21; 18:15; 20:61; 29:68; 61:7). The pagan Meccans and others in past history are accused of this crime in inventing false gods (6:112; 5:103; 6:24,112,137-140; 7:152; 10:30,60,69; 11:50; 16:87,105; 28:75; 29:13; 46:28). These passages have nothing to do with Scripture.
The Qur'ân also accuses the Jews of forging claims of revelation: "Do not forge a lie as your tongues claim that this is permitted and that is forbidden, trying to forge a lie against God" (16:116; cf. 3:24; 4:50; 5:113; 7:53; 10:30,60; 10:59; 16:56; 20:61). But oral claims are not the same as tampering with a written text. So Muslims turn to other arguments to reject the authenticity of the Bible.
59: Muslim faulting of the Bible II
Another important reason why Muslims question the authenticity of the Bible is the Qur'ân's claim that the Bible predicted the coming of Muammad. It talks of the good Jews "who follow the Ummî prophet whom they find written about in their books, the Torah and the Gospel" (7:157). Again, "Jesus, son of Mary, said, 'Children of Israel, I am a messenger of God to you, confirming the Torah which you have and announcing to you a messenger who will come after me, whose name is Amad" (61:6).
But the Bible contains no such prediction. Therefore some Muslims assert that the Bible was tampered with and the predictions removed. The stories of the boy Muammad's travels to Syria with his uncle tell of his visit with the monk Bâira who kept these predictions in a hidden book.
Besides, the Bible affirms the divinity of Jesus and his death on the cross to save mankind. All of this the Qur'ân, as Muslims generally interpret it, denies.
Furthermore, the Old Testament tells many scandalous stories about the sins of the patriarchs or prophets. But Muslims generally believe that prophets are immune from sin.
Again, the Qur'ân speaks in the singular of "the Gospel delivered to Jesus". What of the four Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? What of the Acts and all the epistles and the Apocalypse? The Qur'ân makes no mention of them. How then can they be Scripture?
Also, because there are different translations, sometimes based on incertitude or conflicts in interpretation, Muslims argue that the Bible is untrustworthy.
60: Muslim reinterpreting of the Bible
Rather than rejecting the Bible wholesale, some Muslims try to read their own interpretations into certain Biblical passages. One is Deuteronomy 19, where Moses says: "From among yourselves, from among your own brothers, Yahweh your God will raise up a prophet like me; you will listen to him" (Dt 19:14-15). Yahweh continues: "From their own brothers I shall raise up a prophet like yourself; I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him. Anyone who refuses to listen to my words, spoken by him in my name, will have to render an account to me" (Dt 19:18-19).
The Jews expected such a prophet. John the Baptist denied that he was the one (Jn 1:21). The New Testament says that Jesus is the prophet foretold by Moses (Jn 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-26).
Another passage Muslims misinterpret is Jesus' promise of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). They say he really meant Muammad. Anyone with just an ordinary acquaintance with the Gospel according to John would not accept this interpretation.
What case then can we make with the Muslims regarding the Bible? - Next section.
61: Muslim defence of the Qur'ân
To summarize what we said in previous weeks, the Qur'ân recognizes that Moses, David and Jesus conveyed a revelation contained in various books of Scripture. The Qur'ân also notes that many Jews in particular did not accept Muammad as a prophet or the Qur'ân as revelation, and it accuses them of distorting the Scripture when they read or repeat it; it is not clear which Scripture is meant, the Qur'ân or the Bible. One passage (2:79) accuses some of them of even writing some forged passages and passing them off as Scripture. Nevertheless, the Qur'ân recognizes that the Jews and Christians at the time of Muammad had authentic Scripture according to which they should settle their own disputes (5:44-47). And "If you are in doubt about what we have revealed to you, ask those who recite the Scripture [revealed] before you" (10:94).
Some contemporary Muslim writers (e.g. Muhammad Talbi and Muhammad Arkoun), in discussing Qur'ânic passages that are often quoted to show that Islam is violent, insist on the principle that many Qur'ânic passages address a particular problem facing the Muslim community at that time; these passages should not be universalized for all time and all places. The passages apply only their special historical context.
In the same way, just as the distortion or forgery alleged to have taken place at Medina in the lifetime of Muammad was no reason to question the authenticity of the Bible then, so it should not be grounds for questioning the authenticity of the Bible today. This is especially so, since the Bible is authenticated by many manuscripts dating before the time of Muammad.
Yet Muslims over the centuries have maintained that the Bible is untrusworthy. What of their other objections? - Next section.
62: Muslims' problem with different Bible translations
Some Muslims are fond of quoting Christian authors who talk about the difficulty of translating the Bible. Some of the original words are rare and their meaning is uncertain. There are many small differences among the early manuscripts of the Bible. So they conclude that we cannot rely on the Bible and must turn to the Qur'ân for the clear and final message of God.
We can reply that only certain details of the Biblical text are obscure. The main message is quite clear, and many of the fine points that may escape the ordinary reader have been clarified by Biblical scholars. The disagreements among Christian denominations are not disagreements about the Biblical text, but about its theological interpretation.
We can also point out that there are many obscure words in the Qur'ân whose meaning can only be guessed. There is little difference among manuscripts of the Qur'ân because, according to Muslim tradition, when Muslims were quarreling over discrepant copies of the Qur'ân, the caliph `Umar established a commission to issue an official edition and had all the other manuscripts burned. He thus destroyed the evidence of probably small differences such as we have for the Bible.
63: Muslims' problem with Bible teachings
The biggest reason Muslims have for rejecting the Bible are some of its teachings which conflict with the teaching of the Qur'ân. The first of these is its absence of any predictions of Muammad, which the Qur'ân says are there (7:157; 61:6). Another is the teaching that Jesus is divine as well as human, and that he was crucified for the salvation of the world. Another are stories such as Noah's drunkedness (Gen 9:20-21) and Lot's drunkenness and incest (Gen 19:30-38), whereas the Qur'ân considers these men sinless like all the prophets.
We have seen that some Muslims try to interpret the Bible in a Muslim sense to harmonize certain conflicts, for instance by finding in Deuteronomy 19 and John 14-16 predictions of Muammad. But they find that Christians reject these interpretations as unwarranted Biblically and contrary to Christian tradition.
Likewise, some Christians try to interpret the Qur'ân in a Christian sense in an attempt to show that it does not really deny the divinity of Christ, his crucifixion etc. But they find no acceptance for these ideas among Muslims. It would be just as absurd to tell Muslims they have misunderstood the Qur'ân on these questions as it would be to tell Christians that the Nicean Creed is a mininterpretation of the Gospel.
What approach then can Christians take regarding these conflicting teachings of two books which both claim to be the word of God? - Next section.
64: Christian answer to this problem
What approach then can Christians take regarding these conflicting teachings of two books which both claim to be the word of God? First of all, Christians have no warrant to concede that the Qur'ân is the word of God. To admit that would be to become a Muslim. Yet, recognizing Muslims' freedom of belief and their sincerity in thinking that the Qur'ân is the word of God, we have to treat their sacred book with respect and accept anything in the Qur'ân that agrees with our Christian faith.
Where we meet conflicting teaching we get nowhere in dialogue by rejecting the Qur'ân outright as erroneous or, what is worse, diabolical. We can make some progress in reducing the gap between our beliefs by analysing the teachings of the Qur'ân and of the Bible, especially in their historical context. More on that later, when we discuss some of these beliefs.
We can also suggest to our Muslims friends some approaches to a broader interpretation to the Qur'ân. We should be aware, however, that Muslims generally regard the Qur'ân as the heavenly word of God sent down and dictated to Muammad by Gabriel. They are therefore extremely sensitive to anything that would suggest diluting the message of the Qur'ân. - Next section on these approaches.
65: How Muslims can interpret the Qur'ân differently
Sometimes more progress about doctrinal conflicts can be made by a dialogue about the method of interpreting the Qur'ân than by debating about the precise meaning of certain texts.
To give a broader interpretation to some passages in the Qur'ân we can suggest, as some Muslims have said, that the Qur'ân, apart from its claim to be revelation, is a book adapted to a people of a particular culture and level of understanding. It tells stories with which they are familiar, sometimes legends or embellished history, to illustrate certain points. And it speaks to them using their own ideas of the world about them and of other religions to make certain points, without affirming that these ideas are adequate representations of reality. By distinguishing between the essential meaning of the Qur'ân and the form of expression it took in a particular historical context, Muslims could be freeer in their interpretation of the Qur'ân.
The same point becomes clear from the fact that the Qur'ân does not claim merely to be "sent down" from heaven (tanzîl), but also to have come to Muammad by way of inspiration or inward suggestion (way). The latter word is often used for sign language or a suggestion to do something without saying any words at all (19:11; 6:112; 16:68; 99:2-5; 41:12; 11:36; 23:27; 20:77; 26:52; 26:63; 7:160; 16:123). Sometimes Muammad was suddenly inspired with an idea, but had to spend time struggling to find words for it (73:1-8; 75:16-19). He was told not to rush into expressing it but to take time and allow God to bring the formulation to maturity. Thus the Qur'ân is often called "guidance" (hudâ). In other words, the Qur'ân would seem to claim that it is a divine message which Muammad had to express in words that had meaning to him as a man of his own time and culture.
66: Muslims' problem with books contained in Bible
Besides doctrinal conflicts, Muslims find trouble with the Bible because it contains books not mentioned in the Qur'ân. Muslims know of the Torah of Moses and the Psalms, but they would have to take the word of Jews and Christians to identify these with the first five books of the Bible and the 150 Biblical Psalms. The Qur'ân says nothing about the historical, prophetical or wisdom books of the Old Testament (unless under the vague term "the Wisdom"). It speaks of the Gospel of Jesus, but Muslims would have a hard time identifying that with the four Gospels of the New Testament, to say nothing of the remainder of the New Testament.
The only Qur'ânic basis for Muslims' taking the word of Christians (or Jews) on these matters is the Qur'ân passage: "If you are in doubt about what we have revealed to you, ask those who recite the Scripture [revealed] before you" (10:94).
The point is one that Catholics often bring up to Protestants: that Scripture alone is not capable of determining which books belong to the Bible. We must ask the Church. To what extent does the Qur'ân recognize the Church? - Next section.
67: Qur'ân recognition of the Church?
To what extent does the Qur'ân recognize the Church, apart from the Bible? The Qur'ân does not use the word "Church", and speaks in the main of "Christians" (NaȘârâ). For example, they are among those "who believe in God and the last day and do good; they will have their reward with their Lord with nothing to fear and no cause for shame" (2:62; 5:69). "You will find those who love the Believers [Muslims] most are those who say we are Christians; that is because among them are priests and monks who are not proud" (5:72; the next verse explains that they are not proud because they accept Islam). "We placed in the hearts of those who followed Jesus kindness and mercy as well as monasticism. They invented this; we enjoined on them only to seek the favour of God. But they did not observe it well. We gave those of them who believed their reward, but many of them are wicked" (57:67). "If God did not defend some people by means of others hermitages would be destroyed along with synagogues, prayer houses and mosques where the name of God is much invoked" (22:40).
Besides attacking Christians for their doctrines (4:171; 5:17,72-75; 9:30-32), the Qur'ân attacks the claims of some Christians: "The Jews and the Christians say 'We are sons of God and his beloved'. Answer: 'Then why does he punish you for your sins? You are only mortals whom he has created'" (5:17). "They say no one will enter Paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian; that is their fancy. Tell them 'Bring proof if you are right'" (2:111).
There are, however, some texts which refer to Christians as a community. - Next section.
68: "God's community"
A few Qur'ânic texts refer to Christians as a community. There is the concept of an original or ideal unity in one community of all true believers in God, which later unfortunately broke up: "[Messengers], this community (umma) of yours is one, and I am its Lord; so revere me. But they broke apart into sects, each party rejoicing in its own tenets" (23:52-53). Those who received Scripture only broke up after they received the Proof (bayyina)" (98:4; cf. 2:213; 10:19). "We accepted the covenant of those who say we are Christians, but they forgot part of what they had been told and we sowed enmity and hatred among them until the day of Resurrection when God will let them see what they were doing" (5:14).
The Muslim community is presented as the embodiment of the one community that God intended: "This community of yours is one community and I am your Lord; so worship me" (21:92; 23:52). While Muslims are "the best community out of mankind, commanding the good and forbidding the evil" (3:110), "among Scripture people there is an upright community, reciting God's signs through the night and prostrating" (3:113). Jesus is presented as saying to God about his followers: "I was a witness for them while I was with them, but when you took me to yourself [by death] you became their guardian" (5:117).
With relation to the Muslims, we hear: "The Jews or Christians will not be happy with you until you follow their sect (milla); but if you follow their fancies after the knowledge which has come to you, you will not have God as an ally or helper" (2:120; cf. 2:135-140; 3:61-67). "You who believe, do not take Jews or Christians as allies; they are allies to one another; whoever makes an alliance with them is one of them" (5:51). "If God wanted, he could have made you one community (umma); but he causes those he wishes to go astray and guides those he wishes" (16:93; cf. 5:48; 11:118; 42:8).
Besides referring to the Christian community as a sect, the Qur'ân recognizes its "priests" (? abâr) and monks (9:31,34), but objects to their exploiting people for money and to Christians calling them "lords" (bishops? 9:31,34; cf. 3:64,80).
69: Muslims and the Church
Up to now we have seen that the Qur'ân refers Muslims to a vaguely described Jewish and Christian Scripture, leaving them in considerable perplexity about the status of the Church's Bible. We come back to a key verse: "If you are in doubt about what we have revealed to you, ask those who recite the Scripture [revealed] before you" (10:94). Recitation, in the Qur'ân, refers normally to public preaching rather than private reading, and would be done, in the Qur'ânic context, by Christian priests or monks. The Qur'ân gives little idea about Christian organization and leadership, but regarding Scriptural authenticity or any other question about Christianity, Muslims ultimately have to deal with the Church and its authoritative witness, and not the Bible.
Of Muslims, the Qur'ân says: "We have made you a moderate community so as to be witnesses to mankind" (2:143; 22:78). Christian witness, of course, is not a Qur'ânic theme, but Muslims should expect the Christian community, if it has any fidelity to Jesus, to be a vibrant witness in the present world. In fact, the phrase so common in the Qur'ân, "people of Scripture", is an inadequate representation of the Christian community, whose identity comes from an organic unity with the living Jesus, manifested primarily through witness rather than in any book. Christians themselves are the only version of the Bible most Muslims will ever read.
How authentic and how powerful is our witness?
70: Can Islam change?
The question of Biblical authenticity, like any other difference between Muslims and Christians, brings up the question whether Islam can change, whether any revision of positions is possible, and whether any change of thinking has gone on among Muslims.
We raised this question before, and said there are several reasons for which Muslims may change their views. One way is to find Qur'ânic passages favouring a change of view. Another way would be to show that their views contradict the Bible, if we can expect Muslims to believe the Bible; we have seen that this way may go so far, but in the end a Muslim does not feel compelled to accept everything in the Bible.
A third way is for Muslims to come to the conviction that certain traditional attitudes are absurd in the light of the social wisdom held by nearly all in the world today. This way has great influence in the world today. For example, throughout the 20th century the rights and dignity of women have been stressed in many countries, and considerable improvement has been made. Muslims were sensitive to being called backward in this regard, and have joined the bandwaggon in supporting women's rights. Some go on the attack and say that the Islam (even with some notable Qur'ânic restrictions) enhances the position of women more than any other system. - Some more examples next section.
Another area where Muslims have reacted against traditional views in their community is the question of Qadar, which refers to God's determination of events in the world. In most Muslim societies military rule was the norm and the people had no way of resisting; so Qadar took the form of passive fatalism, accepting everything as from the hand of God without regard to human responsibility. Some rulers even promoted this interpretation, so as to eliminate opposition.
This attitude became an embarrassment when Muslim societies fell behind the resdt of the world in economic and political development. So in the 20th century, at least, there has been a strong reaction against an exaggerated interpretation of Qadar. Muslims writers now stress free will and human responsibility and urge people to be active and creative. They argue that fatalism has no foundation in the Qur'ân.
A similar change of attitude has taken place with regard to "democracy", which many Muslims took as the explanation for the progress of non-Muslim countries. Rather than simply borrow an alien concept, most Muslim writers have looked to the Qur'ân and Muslim tradition to find reasons compelling them to adopt a form of democracy. In this they especially develop the Qur'ânic notion of consultation (shûrâ), which they say should extend from the grass-roots to the top of society. - Other adaptations, next section.
We saw last week how "democracy" has become an important lead-word in Muslim circles, even if the reality drags behind in most Muslim countries.
Another concept which Muslims have espoused in modern times, but not quite with the same unanimity, is religious freedom. How often we hear Muslims quote the Qur'ân: "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). Classical commentators said that this verse was abrogated by "the verse of the sword" (9:5). But modern commentators interpret bellicose verses like this as applying only to particular situations where the Muslims were under attack and had to defend themselves.
Muslim law (Sharî`a) has traditionally recognized certain rights to Christians and Jews living among Muslims. Today in Egypt some spokesmen of the Muslim Brothers have said that such toleration was conditioned on Christians' living up to God's covenant with them; but they have broken it and no longer have a right to toleration. That is why this group goes around burning Churches. But such a position is held only by a minority of Muslims. Others are loud in condemning this attitude. But Muslims, like Protestants, have no living doctrinal authority, and everyone can interpret the Qur'ân as he likes. That is why it is difficult for Muslims to come to a consensus on this matter.
Nevertheless, world opinion and the principles of human rights enshrined in the United Nations statutes do have influence on Muslim society, and fewer and fewer Muslims would defend open religious discrimination today.
73: Muslims and teaching authority
From the discussion of the past few weeks we have seen that Muslims can and do change their positions, particularly under the influence of world opinion, but nearly always with reference to their own sources, the Qur'ân and the „adîth.
Similar changes have taken place in the Catholic Church. St. Thomas Aquinas, reflecting the opinion of his day, said that if someone wants to leave the Catholic Church he could be "compelled" to live up to his baptismal promises. But the experience of the Church in subsequent centuries led to a different practice and its official adoption in the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty.
The Muslim world cannot have a "Vatican II", because Islam does not provide for any living teaching authority, such as Catholics have in their bishops. But there have been various world meetings of Muslims which have issued declarations about religious liberty and other matters. These have not won universal acceptance by Muslims and have not gone far enough. But the Holy Spirit is the Lord of history, even though unknown by Muslims as a divine person, and we can expect surprises in God's own time.
74: The Qur'ân on the birth of John the Baptist and Mary
I want to begin a series on Jesus in Islam, beginning with John the Baptist and Mary. The Qur'ân (3:38-41, 19:2-15, 21:89-90) gives a resumé of the birth of John the Baptist, emphasizing the power of God to do what seems impossible, to give a barren couple a child. John himself "will proclaim as true a Word from God; he will be noble, chaste and a worthy prophet" (3:39). Details of John's and Zechariah's lives and deaths are added by Islamic historical tradition, partly reflecting the Gospels, partly apocryphal.
The Qur'ân 3:33 ff. describes the birth of Mary. She is said to be the daughter of `Imrân, seemingly out of confusion with Miryam, the sister of Moses, whose father was Amran (Num 26:59), although the Tradition literature clearly distinguishes the two Marys. She was dedicated to the Lord and presented in the Temple. (There is no Biblical parallel for this, even though the Church celebrates a feast of the Presentation of Mary. It is found in the apocryphal Book of James.) There she is raised by Zechariah.
75: The Annunciation
The Qur'ân tells the story of the Annunciation twice, in 19:16 ff. and 3:42 ff. Mary withdrew to "an eastern place" where she stayed "behind a curtain". The angel (name not mentioned, but Muslim commentators say it is Gabriel) appears to her in the form of a handsome man who says, "God has chosen you and purified you, and chosen you above all women" (lit. "above the women of the world"). She recoils in fear, but is reassured and told that she would have a child. She protests that no man has touched her and she is not a harlot, and the angel tells her that all God has to do is say "Be" and it is. Muslim tradition greatly elaborates the Annunciation story, adding that the Spirit, Gabriel, breathed into Mary's sleeve, causing her pregnancy. The 13th century writer Ibn-`Arabî therefore speculated that Jesus is half-man, half angel.
According to the Qur'ân, Mary withdrew to "a faraway place" where she gave birth. The pains of delivery made her despair, but God told her not to be sad but to shake the palm tree where she rested and eat the dates and drink from a stream that appeared. When she brought the child home she was accused of being unchaste. Mary simply pointed to the child, who proceeded to preach a sermon about his prophetic mission. Some of these details are found in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and in the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
The Qur'ân also attacks the Jews for a "monstrous calumny" against Mary, presumably calling her a harlot (4:156).
Ath-Tha`labî, who wrote a collection of Muslim traditions about the prophets, relates a tradition that the four best women in the history of the world are Mary, the mother of Jesus, Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, Khadîja, the first wife of Muammad, and Fâłima, his daughter. Bukhârî, author of the foremost collection of tradition („adîth), explains that Mary was the best woman in her time, while Khadîja was the best woman of her own time (vol.4, p. 200). No comparisons are made except when speaking of Fâłima, who is called "the first lady (sayyida) of the women of Paradise". Ibn-Athîr, Amad ibn-„anbal and Abû-Ja`far ał-Ăabarî, other collectors of „adîth, add the qualification: Fâłima is the "first lady of the women of Paradise, after Mary daughter of `Imrân". Yet other „adîth give the preponderance of honour to Fâłima.
Geoffry Parrinder, a liberal Protestant, in his book Jesus in the Qur'ân, tries to argue that the virginal conception of Jesus is not necessarily taught either in the Bible or the Qur'ân His arguments may hold good from a simple exegetical point of view, although by stretching the text from its more obvious meaning. The main objection against his arguments is that they go against constant Christian and Muslim interpretation. For Christians their interpretation relies on the Spirit's guidance of the Church in understanding the Scriptures. For Muslims it is simply a question of consensus, and it is as easy to ask Muslims to revise this teaching as it is to ask them to consider whether they would want to accept another religion.
77: Jesus' life
Kenneth Cragg observes that, while the Gospels are Passion narratives with an introduction, the Qur'ânic Jesus is a nativity story with an appendix. Of Jesus' public life there are only vague allusions. Qur'ân 3:49 says: "I shape birds for you from clay and breath on them and they become birds, by God's permission. I heal the blind and the lepers and raise the dead, by God's permission." God is said to have taught him "the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel" (3:48; cf. 3:3,65, 5:46,110, 57:27). He also "made licit some things that had been forbidden" (3:50). Failing in his appeal to get the Jews to worship God alone and obey him as God's messenger, "Jesus sensed unbelief in them and said, 'Who are my helpers (anȘâr) for the sake of God?" The disciples (awâriyûn) said, 'We are God's helpers. We believe in God; bear witness that we are Muslims'" (3:52; cf. 5:111). The discourse continues, still about Jesus, but another dimension has been superimposed, that of Muammad addressing his own people. The faithful rally to him in the struggle against the unbelievers. In the end God will make the believers triumph and punish the unbelievers (3:53-58).
We may see either the multiplication of the loaves or the last supper or Peter's vision (Acts 10:9) in the following elusive pericope: "The disciples said, 'Jesus, son of Mary, can your Lord send us a table from heaven?' He said, 'Fear God, if you are believers." They replied, 'We wish to eat and put our hearts at rest, knowing that you are true to us, while we are witnesses to it.' Jesus son of Mary said, 'God, our Lord, make a table come down from heaven which will be a feast for the least and the greatest of us, and will be a sign from you. Provide for us, since you are the best provider.' God said, 'I am sending the table down to you. Any of you who disbelieve after this I will punish as I never punished anyone before in the world'" (5:112-115).
78: Jesus' death
Regarding the death of Jesus, there are the words Jesus is to have said in the cradle, "Peace be on me the day of my birth, the day I die and the day I am risen back alive" (19:23). In another place God says, "Jesus, I am going to take you (mutawaffî-ka, normally meaning "cause to die") and raise you up to myself" (3:55; cf. 5:117). Yet when it comes to the crucifixion, we find the following verses in the midst of a section excoriating the Jews: "[And they are to be blamed] for their unbelief and for saying 'We have killed the Messiah, Jesus on of Mary, a messenger of God.' They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it was only to appear so to them. Those who differ about him are not sure about him. They have no knowledge of him, but are only following fantasy. They certainly did not kill him, but God lifted him up to himself" (Q 4:156-158).
This passage has given rise to endless comment, particularly on the words shubbiha la-hum ("it was made to appear to them"). This is a passive verb, here translated as impersonal. Most older commentators translate it personally, meaning "He [a substitute] was made to appear to them [like Jesus]" and was crucified in his stead (Ăabarî, Ibn-Athîr, Ibn-Kathîr etc.). The 12th century commentator az-Zamakhsharî summarizes this view:
The Jews gathered to kill him. Then God told him he would take him up to heaven and cleanse him from the company of the Jews. So Jesus said to his companions, "Which of you will volunteer to have my likeness cast on him and be killed by being crucified and then go to Paradise?" One of them said, "I will", and Jesus' likeness was cast on him and he was killed by being crucified. Another opinion is that Jesus had a hypocritical disciples and when the Jews wanted to kill Jesus the disciple said, "I will show you where he is." When they entered Jesus' house, Jesus was taken up and his likeness cast on the hypocrite. The Jews grabbed and killed him, thinking he was Jesus. [Other opinions next section]
79: Interpretation of Jesus' death
Az-Zamakhsharî, who related the common opinion that Judas or someone else was crucified in place of Jesus, belonged to the Mu`tazilite school of theology which emphasized the absolute justice of God. He was the first to offer an alternative interpretation, giving a grammatical argument for an impersonal reading ("It was made to appear to them" - that they crucified Jesus).
Az-Zamakhsharî's disciple, al-BayČâwî (d. 1286) repeated the traditional opinion as well as az-Zamakhsharî's impersonal reading, and went a step further by speculating that no one was killed at all, but only a false rumour was circulated to the effect. He goes on to mention among the differing uncertain opinions the [Nestorian] theory that Jesus' humanity was crucified, but his divinity taken up. Fakhraddîn ar-Râzî (d. 1209), another Mu`tazilite, and many later commentators leave the question open whether or not anyone was substituted for Jesus on the cross.
In any case, practically all Muslims say that Jesus did not die on the cross. The common opinion is that he did not die at all, but was taken up to heaven alive. He will come again near the end of time to preach Islam, then die and rise in the general resurrection. Those who follow this opinion interpret the word mutawaffî-ka either as taking Jesus alive to heaven when the Jews wanted to kill him, or as referring to Jesus' death when he comes again.
The Ahmadiyya sect is known chiefly for its teaching that Jesus escaped crucifixion, migrated to Kashmir, died at the age of 120 and is buried at Srinagar. They believe that their founder, Guilam Ahmad (d. 1908) is the Mahdî ("divinely guided" eschatological reformer of religion), Jesus and Muammad come again, and the avatar of Krishna all rolled in one. For this claim to be a prophet and more than a prophet, the World Muslim League rejected Ahmadis as Muslims, and Saudi Arabia will not give them visas to come on pilgrimage.
80: Jesus' second coming
Some modern Muslims, especially Shî`ites, also hold that Jesus died and only his spirit was taken up to heaven. Even Ăabarî in the 10th century mentions such a view. But the generality of Muslims await the second coming of Jesus like an Elijah before the end of time.
The second coming of Jesus is not at all a clear Qur'ânic teaching. The only verse in support of it is 43:61: "[Jesus] is a knowledge (read `ilm) of the hour", by whose descent the hour is known. A clearer variant reading is: "He is a sign (read `alam) of the hour". Islamic tradition has elaborated a mass of detail about Jesus' second coming. He will marry and have children, break crosses, kill pigs, kill the antichrist (Dajjâl), revive Islam, and finally die and be buried next to Muammad. Some traditions identify Jesus with the expected Mahdî; others distinguish the two, as does popular African Islamic belief. at the last judgement Jesus will be a witness against Christians who took him and his Mother to be gods (Q 5:116-118).
81: Titles of Jesus
Although denying that Jesus is God or a son of God, the Qur'ân gives him a series of honourable titles, some of which even hint at his divinity, but are not understood as such by Muslims.
One of these titles is the Jewish term for a prophet (nabî - 2:87,253; 3:48-51; 5:46,110; 4:63-66; 57:27; 61:6. See also the lists in 2:136; 3:84; 4:162; 6:85; 33:7; 42:13). The commoner Arabic term for a messenger (rasûl) is also used (2:87,253, 3:49,53, 4:157,171, 5:75,111, 57:27, 61:6).
He is called Messiah (masî) eleven times, but as a personal name with no idea of the Biblical meaning of "the anointed one". The classical commentators show the same ignorance.
Three times Jesus is called the servant/slave of God (`Abdallâh - 4:172, 19:30, 43:59), meaning simply a creature indebted to God. The messianic resonances of Isaiah's suffering servant are absent in the Qur'ân.
In two passages Jesus is called a word (kalima) of God: "The angels said, 'Mary, God makes an announcement to you of a word from himself whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, outstanding in this world and the next, and one of those drawn near [to God]'" (3:45). Again: "The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, is only a messenger of God and his word which he projected to Mary, and a spirit from himself" (4:171). Since in the early centuries of Islam Christians used this verse to try to convince Muslims of the divinity of Jesus, Muslim commentators have come up with a variety of interpretations that harmonize with the general Qur'ânic denial of the divinity of Jesus. The most common argument is by reference to Qur'ân 19:35, which says, "It is not fitting for God to take a son for himself... He only says 'Be', and it is"; the "word" is taken to mean this command to be, creating Jesus without a human father.
82: More titles of Jesus
In Qur'ân 4:171 Jesus is also called a spirit from God. In 19:17 - "We sent to her our spirit, which appeared to her as a well shaped man" - the reference is to the messenger-angel announcing that she is to be the mother of Jesus. Possibly referring to Jesus is the verse, "We breathed into her from our spirit and made her and her son a sing for the world" (21:91; cf. 66;12). In common Muslim usage Jesus is given the title Rûallâh (Spirit of God).
In other uses of the word "spirit", the Qur'ân says that God confirmed or support Jesus with the "holy spirit "(rû al-qudus, literally: "spirit of the Holy": 2:87,253, 5:110), but Muslim tradition understands this "holy spirit" as the angel Gabriel, as in 19:17, quoted above. While many passages about Qur'ânic revelation seem to suppose direct revelation to Muammad, elsewhere the "spirit" is mentioned as a mediator: "The spirit of holiness [holy spirit] sent it down from your Lord with truth" (16:102). "The faithful spirit brought it down" (26:293). Qur'ân 2:97 explicitly refers to Gabriel as the medium of revelation.
These varying usages of the word "spirit": a supporting spirit, a spirit who reveals (Gabriel?) and the spirit of God (Jesus), make us wonder if Muammad thought God had several spirits, of different orders. When some Arabs prompted by Jewish rabbis asked him what is the spirit, he answered, "The spirit is by/in the command of my Lord" (17:85), which an mean, "The spirit is sent as the Lord commands", as in 16:2: "By his command he sends the angels with the spirit upon those servants of his whom he chooses." Various speculations have been made to indicate more precisely what the Qur'ân means by "spirit" and how the various usages came about. But nothing certain can be said, and it seems the Qur'ân simply had a fluid vague idea of "spirit" and applied it to Jesus possibly because some Judaeo-Christians were using the term of him.
83: More titles of Jesus
Qur'ân 3:45, quoted above, describes Jesus as outstanding (wajîh). This word comes from wajh, meaning face, and indicates being in the forefront, eminent or highly honoured.
The same verse says that he is one of those drawn near (muqarrab). In 7:114 and 26:42 this word is used by Pharaoh who promises the magicians that they will be rewarded and become members of his inner circle if they perform better than Moses. Elsewhere it is used of men who are admitted to Paradise and are drawn near to God (83:21,28, 56:88), and of angels (4:172) who, like Jesus, do not disdain to be called servants of God.
Qur'ân 19:21 gives Jesus two more titles when Gabriel tells Mary God's intentions: "We are to make him a sign for mankind and a mercy from us." The word âya, "sign", means a miracle (as in the Gospel of John), and was later used for a "verse" of the Qur'ân, each of which is considered a miraculous sign from God. Muslim commentators take "sign" in this verse to mean the miraculous conception of Jesus. In 3:50 Jesus says, "I came to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God and obey me." This may refer to any of the miracles of Jesus. In 23:50 God says, "We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign". Verse 21:90 makes it more embracing: "We made her and her son a sign for the world." This verse answers the argument of some modern Muslims that Jesus was sent only to the Jews and his religion is not for the whole world. For the universality of Muammad's mission see Q 12:104, 38:87, 68:52, 81:37 (the Qur'ân a "reminder for mankind"), 21:107 (Muammad a "mercy to mankind"), 25:1 ("a warner of mankind"), 34:28 ("a preacher and warner to all men").
84: More titles of Jesus
Sura 43 contains excerpts of a dispute Muammad had with the Meccans who did not want to believe in him. He told the stories of Abraham and of Moses to argue his point, and then took up the story of Jesus: "When the Son of Mary is cited as a parable, your people turn away from him" (43:57). "He is only a servant whom we have favoured and made a parable for the Sons of Israel" (43:59). The word for parable, mathal, is a variant of the Hebrew mashal. It is also used with the meaning of example. The idea is that the prophetic career of Jesus is seen as a type of that of Muammad from which parallels can be drawn. Likewise a mathal is drawn between Jesus and Adam, in that "Adam was created from the earth and God said 'Be' and he was" (3:59). It would be an extension of the Qur'ânic meaning to say that Jesus is an example for all to follow.
Important to Islamic eschatology is the role of a witness in giving the final just judgement. There are human witnesses, such as the prophets who note how people receive their message, and above all God is the witness of everything. In 5:117 Jesus is said to be a witness to his people as long as he was among them, and in 4:159 it is said that Jesus will be a witness over all People of the Book (Jews and Christians) on the day of resurrection.
Finally, the annunciation-infancy narrative of sura 19 adds the title blessed: "He made me blessed wherever I am" (19:21)
85: Denials about Jesus
Besides giving Jesus honorific titles, the Qur'ân is concerned with rejecting what it considers exaggerations. We have seen the title "Servant of God" (4:172, 19:30). In 43:59 it is used as a term of limitation: "He is only [nothing more than] a servant of God."
The Qur'ân has no word for the adjective "divine" or for the abstraction "divinity". Therefore the issue is whether God and Jesus are the same or different. "They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Messiah, son of Mary'. The Messiah himself said, 'sons of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord. If anyone associates another with God, God will shut heaven against him and his abode will be hell..." (5:72; cf. 5:17).
Jesus' divinity is also attacked as part of a Trinity consisting of God, jesus and Mary: "God said, 'Jesus son of Mary, did you tell the people, "Take me and my Mother as gods besides God"?'" (5:116; cf. 4:171). Elsewhere the Qur'ân curses those who affirm a trinity: "They are unbelievers who say that God is a third of three. There is only one God. If they do no cease their talk a painful punishment will come on the unbelievers among them" (5:73).
The same passage goes on to argue why Jesus cannot be God: "The Messiah son of mary was only a messenger in a series of messengers and his mother was faithful. They both ate food" (5:75). This is the basic argument repeated in different words by all Muslim apologist to this day: Jesus cannot be God because it is evident that he is human.
86: More Qur'ânic denials
Jesus' divine sonship is explicitly denied as well:" "Do no say three. Stop; it is better for you. God is only one God. he is too glorious to have a son. His is everything in heaven and on earth" (4:171). Likewise: "God cannot take for himself a son. He is too glorious. If he decides a matter he only says, 'Be', and it is" (19:35; cf. 9:30, 10:68; 19:88; 112:4). Moreover, "How can he have a son when he has no wife?" (6:101; cf. 72:3).
The Qur'ân's repudiation of Jesus' divine sonship goes along with the condemnation of the Arabian traditional belief in "daughters of God". "Should he take daughters from what he created, but give you sons? If one of the [unbelievers] is informed of the birth of what they assign to the Merciful One, his face hangs darkened and he chokes up" (43:16; cf. 37:149-157).
The last word on this topic, however, is the astonishing statement: "Say, 'If the Merciful One had a son, I would be the first to worship him'" (43:81).
87: Debate about Jesus
Debate between Muslims and Christians began right in the lifetime of Muammad. Two particular instances are recorded: the Muslim apologetic before the Ethiopian emperor where a group of Muslims had fled from Mecca, and again, towards the end of Muammad's life, when a delegation of Christians from Najrân in Yemen came with their bishop to make a treaty with Muammad.
In the first instance two messengers came to Ethiopia from Mecca demanding the extradition of the refugees. In the course of their defense, the refugees said that Jesus is "the servant and messenger of God and his spirit and word which he cast into the Virgin Mary." This reply is quoting Qur'ân 4:171, which all agree belongs to the Medinan period, after the Ethiopian episode. The Ethiopian emperor is asserted to have agreed that Jesus is no more than what the Muslims said. The account of this episode (in Ibn-Hishâm) dates from 200 years later, and its is understandable that the oral tradition would be affected by Muslim-Christian debates well after the event in question.
In the account of Muammad's meeting with the Christian delegation from Najrân three different opinions about Jesus are ascribed to the supposedly divided delegation: 1) He is God, 2) He is the son of God, 3) He is a third of three. The account plausibly says that all the Qur'ânic passages combatting these notions - which we have seen above - were revealed on this occasion. When the Najrân visitors remained unconvinced by these Qur'ânic arguments, Muammad proposed that each side should invoke God's curse on the side that is wrong. The Christians refused this proposal and asked to be allowed to go in peace, with each party holding to his own religion. This Muammad agreed to.
88: Muslim arguments against divinity of Christ
Over the centuries Muslim polemics against Christianity have continued to utilize Qur'ânic misconceptions and refutations of Christian teaching. Muslim arguments against the divinity of Christ almost universally show no comprehension of the Christian idea of his consubstantiality with the Father or of his distinct human and divine natures. The fundamental argument is evidence that he was human. At first only Qur'ânic data was used. Later all the incidents in the gospels showing Jesus' inferiority to the Father - used before by the Arians - were brought in. For example, he prayed and was tempted, tired etc.
Another sort of argument was developed to refute Christian citations of New Testament passages that show the divinity of Jesus. These are explained away as metaphorical exaggerations reflecting theopathic mystical experience. In recent times Muslim make extensive use of any Western rationalist criticism of the New Testament which could lend support to their position. On the other hand, the New Testament itself is attacked as a distortion of Jesus teaching by Paul and others. Any passage which is unacceptable can simply be dismissed as a corruption, on the basis of certain Qur'ân verses which are themselves not altogether clear:
[The Jews] distort words from their meanings, and they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded of... We made a covenant with those who say, "We are Christians", but they have forgotten a portion of what they were reminded of... People of the Book, our messenger has come to you, making clear to you many things in the Book you have been concealing and many others you have been effacing (5:13-15; cf. 2:42,75-79,140,159,174, 3:71; 6:91).
89: Other Muslim arguments
Again, Muslims had recourse to purely rational or philosophical arguments to press their points: Three cannot be one, and conversely. It is unjust to punish one man (Jesus) for the sins of others. He didn't save the world, because evil continues. What would happen to the world if God died for three days? etc.
Finally, the Ahmadiyya movement takes a unique approach against Christian Christology by attempting to downplay or attack the person of Jesus, at least as he is portrayed in the gospels. It denies the virgin birth of Jesus, saying his father was Joseph. It interprets Jesus' miracles of healing the sick as simply a spiritual, not a physical healing. Even the Qur'ânic assertion that Jesus spoke from the cradle to defend his mother (19:29) is interpreted as referring to Jesus' speech when he was grown. In the Ahmadiyya book of A.D. Ajijola, The myth of the cross, Jesus' teaching in the New Testament is attacked under the chapter headings "Superstition in the Gospels" and "Doubtful Ethics of the New Testament". Jesus is accused of rudeness to the woman of Canaan (Mt 15:21-26) and to his Mother (Jn 2:1-4 & Mt 12:47-48). other alleged sins of Jesus are offering wine to people (Jn 2:8), telling lies about gong up to Jerusalem (Jn 7:8-10) and being too intimate with a woman (Lk 7:137-38). Moreover he took baptism from John for the forgiveness of sins.
90: Muslim respect for Jesus
While still firmly rejecting the divinity of Jesus, some Muslims have gone far beyond the usual interpretation of the Qur'ân and look upon Jesus as someone unique and special and more than a prophet. Let us look at a few samples.
Àûfic tradition, utilizing gospel accounts out of context and amplifying on them, had early made Jesus into a wandering ascetic and preacher, like a Buddhist monk. One of the earliest and most famous Àûfis, al-Hallâj (d. 922), while not speculating about the person of Jesus, was enthraled by the mystery of the cross. His guiding ideal was union with God through an all absorbing love, a love which could not find expression in enjoyment but only in suffering and the cross. A line from one of his poems reads: "I will die in the religion of the cross. I need go no more to Mecca or Medina." And so he died, crucified as a heretic.
Ibn-`Arabî (d. 1240), who was noted for esoteric tendencies, speculated specifically about Jesus. He is responsible for popularizing the title "the seal of saints" (khâtam al-anbiyâ') to correspond with Muammad's title "the seal of prophets" (Q 33:40, and Ubayy's variant of 61:6). Muammad's prerogative is to have come with definitive legislative prophesy. Jesus' prerogative, at his second coming, will be to come with definitive holiness, sealing all holiness from Adam to the end of time.
Two books by Egyptian Muslims in the 1950s provoked much attention at the time and continue to be commented on. The are `Abbâs Mamûd al-`Aqqâd's Abqariya al-masî (The genius of the Messiah) and Kâmil „usayn's Qarya čâlima (The wicked city). Both books utilize the gospels as authentic historical sources and present sympathetically and forcefully Jesus' moral teaching and example. The second centres particularly on the trial and condemnation of Jesus. both books, however, skilfully skirt the issue whether Jesus actually died on the cross.
91: Ali Merad on Jesus
A final sample of Muslim admiration of Jesus is Ali Merad's "Christ according to the Qur'ân", published in Encounter, n. 69 (November 1980). This contemporary Algerian first affirms his belief in the Qur'ân and in the negative assertions it makes about Jesus. He takes these at their face value, in line with mainstream Muslim interpretation.
Surveying the positive titles given to Jesus, Merad observes that, unlike other prophets, including Muammad, the Qur'ân never calls Jesus bashar (earthly mortal being), even though he is said to have eaten food (5:75). That the Qur'ân presents Jesus as more than merely human is shown in the titles kalima (word) and rû (spirit). Merad argues that verses 3:45 and 4:171 should be taken literally as asserting that Jesus is the word of God, not that he was created by the word of God. Likewise he is called God's spirit breathed into Mary (21:91; 66:12), when one would have expected the word nafs, the usual Qur'ânic term for the immortal soul. He concluded that the term rû (15:29; 38:72) suggests "a spiritual nature infinitely more eminent than ordinary natures". Of Adam too God says, "I breathed into him of my spirit" (15:29; 38:72), bot only Jesus is called the word of God and the spirit of God. Merad goes on to give four other Qur'ânic indications of Jesus' surpassing greatness:
1. The Qur'ân states that the Envoys differ in rank (2:253). It mentions in a special way Moses ("to whom God spoke") and Jesus, Son of Mary, to whom God gave "clear signs" (bayyinât, 2;253; 43:63), and whom he assisted by the Holy Spirit (rû al-qudus, 2:87,253).
2. Christ is an Envoy to whom God conferred an eminent prestige (wajîhan) in this world and in the next (3:45). This term, according to all commentators, implies holiness in the one it qualifies and the grace of intercession.
3. He is quoted among those who are "near stationed", the intimate associates of the Lord (muqarrabûn, 3;45). Archangels are similarly designated by this term.
4. To him alone are attributed acts such as to create (yakhluq), and to bring to life the death (yuyî), by the leave of God, of course (3:49). but to be attributed with such things - not accorded to other Prophets - places Christ above the ordinary condition of the "envoys of God" and raises him to a level never attained by other men.
Merad concludes that, while these texts do no attribute divinity to Jesus, they give him a very high status which cannot exactly be defined. He observes that for a Muslim "the nature of mystery is more familiar than is generally realized".
92: Christian reaction
Right from the time of St. John of Damascus (675-753) we see the use of Christian reading of the Qur'ân. He says:
since you say that Christ is Word and Spirit of God, how do you scold us as Associators? For the Word and the Spirit is inseparable each from the one in whom they have their origin; if therefore the Word is in God it is obvious that he is God as well. If, on the other hand, this is outside God, then God, according to you, is without word and without spirit. Thus trying to avoid making associates to God you have mutilated him.
The same approach, to interpret the Qur'ân to make it fit Christian dogmas, has found exponents in every age. In this century we have, for example, Ignazio di Matteo arguing that the Qur'ân never denies the Trinity, the divinity of Christ or his crucifixion. The same approach is amplified by Giulio Bassetti-Sani, who finds grammatical ways around the Qur'ânic denials of Christian dogmas and sees in their place germs of Christian teaching on the divinity of Christ. These could not have been understood in their full meaning by Muammad and his audience. But shining the light of Christian revelation on the Qur'ân unlocks its deeper Christian meaning, just as it does for the Old Testament.
A Christian reading of the Qur'ân may find philological and literary support and even some historical plausibility. but it runs counter to the mainstream and practically all the side-streams of Muslim thought over the centuries. If ever there was a consensus in the Muslim world, it is on the rejection of the Christian dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the redemptive death of Christ. A Christian interpretation of the Qur'ân will not build any bridge to Muslims, but merely provoke them to reject it as a distortion of what they believe. Christian interpretations may make sense only to a Muslim who is well on the way to becoming a Christian.
93: More on Christian reaction
In a realistic exchange of views between Christians and Muslims the faith and the dogmas of each must be respected and the differences admitted. Just as Muslims cannot expect Christians to recognize in Muammad all the prerogatives that Muslims attribute to him, so Christians cannot expect Muslims to recognize in Jesus all the prerogatives that Christians attribute to him.
Christians rejoice to see how far the Qur'ân and Muslim tradition go in honouring Jesus and asserting his dignity. Yet they are sad at the tremendous gap between Islamic and Christian theology, from the name `îsâ versus the Hebrew Yashû`, to the divergent histories of his life and opposing dogmas concerning him. Even Muslims who speak of Jesus with maximum reverence fall far short of what Christians would like to hear.
Sadness is an understandable and inevitable reaction on both sides to differences of belief. It needs to be tempered by tolerance and respect grounded in love for the other person.
Christians, however, suffer an additional unnecessary pain when they see this respect lacking, when their differences of belief are attributed to obstinate rejection of evident truth.
It must be admitted that the Qur'ân itself, although not depicting orthodox Christian beliefs, gives occasion to such accusation when it curses those who assert the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity (Q 5:72-73, quoted under "negative Christology" above).
Christians also find offensive the unwillingness of many Muslims to look at Christianity on its own terms, in its Scripture and orthodox tradition and in the scientific textual and historical studies made on these. Instead they judge Christianity exclusively through the perspective of the Qur'ân and subsequent apologetics which greatly amplify the negative criticism it contains. Christian dogmas on the Incarnation and the Trinity are not understood and are described superficially and with distortion, so that Christians are not considered monotheists. The Bible is considered falsified, except for some passages that express Islamic ideas, but the 16th century forgery, the Gospel of Barnabas, is held up as closest to the original gospel. Rather than utilizing the wealth of authentic Christian scholarship, these Muslims appeal to secular Western authors who share their criticism of Christianity, such as Renan, Bertrand Russell, Will Durant etc.
94: Why Islam shrinks from the divinity of Jesus
The Qur'ân, as we have seen, sees any claim that Jesus is God or son of God as setting up another divinity alongside and separate from Allah. The problem here is the lack of a notion of consubstantiality.
Yet Qur'ânic thinking moves in the direction of consubstantiality when it calls Jesus the Word and the Spirit of God. Even the few Muslims who take this literally interpret it according to the "analogy of faith". It can mean anything short of divinity.
In its ever repeated rejection of polytheism and polytheists, the Qur'ân uses variants of the word shirk (sharing). Associates (andâd, shurakâ') are depicted as encroachers on divine terrain, diverting to themselves what men owe to God. For example, "Some men take associates (andâd) beneath God and love them as they would love God. But those who believe are stronger in their love for God" (2:165). "From their harvest and flocks they set aside a portion and said, 'This is for God' - so they claim - and this is for their associates with him. But what was destined for the associates does not reach God, and what was destined for God reaches those they associated with him" (6:136). The intercession of these associate is declared useless (e.g. 30:13).
Both the Qur'ân and common Muslim understanding are dominated by a strong sense of the greatness of God and his absolute mastery over all creation. Even though angels and prophets may be "drawn near" to God (muqarrabûn, 3:45, 4:172, 56:11 etc.), they remain in a state of absolute subjection and servitude. Between the Creator and creatures there is an unbridgeable gap.
95: Why Muslims have a problem with the Incarnation
Islamic emphasis on the gap between God and men contrasts not only with the Christian idea of the Incarnation, but also with the whole incarnational principle. The assertion in 2 Peter 1:4 that we are sharers in the divine nature (cf. also Jn 1:12, 1 Cor 1:9, 1 Jn 1:3 etc.) is equally shocking to Islamic sensitivity. In the history of Àûfism, al-Hallâj (d. 922) was condemned for teaching, among other things, divine indwelling. Christian ideas of supernatural life, sanctifying grace, infused virtues and the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit are completely alien to Islam. Also absent is the idea of man as the image of God, even on the natural level. "There is nothing like Him" (Q 42;11).
Islam, in common with mystic tradition of Asia and the Catholic West, is dominated by the contemplation of God's greatness. The more one concentrates on God, the more everything else seems to fade into insignificance by comparison. for Buddhism this world is only an illusion. St. Catherine of Siena heard God say, "I am he who is; you are she who is not". St. John of the Cross built his mystical teaching around the concept of "all and nothing".
Yet Catholic mysticism was balanced by the Incarnation. St. Teresa of Avila would never agree to a form of prayer which excluded the humanity of Jesus from its purview. For all the Muslim polemical accusations that Christianity is other-worldly, its is Christianity that insists on the reality of creation and on its dignity in mirroring the Creator, on the lowest level as a "trace", on the human level as an "image", and on the level of grace by "indwelling" and eventually "glory" (See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q.45, a.7; q.93, esp. a.4). All these forms of participation in God's perfection presuppose an analogy of proportionality to balance the analogy of attribution. by the latter alone our exalting God evaporates creatures; by the former we see, with Irenaeus, that the glory of God is man fully developed.
Christianity and Islam converge in many ways, bringing an exhilarating relief to their otherwise divergent and often confrontational courses. The differences derive from two different unarticulated assumptions regarding the relationship between God and creation. Christianity assumes that God is the supreme Existent, but that the derived existence of his creatures is a distinct reality of its own participating in God's being. Islam assumes that God alone is truly existent, while all else to which we attribute existence has only a borrowed and hardly real existence.
This explains why the Qur'ân is considered God's own heavenly product down to the last word, with no human input whatsoever. With no instrumental secondary causality, God cannot enter any common enterprise with his creatures. That is why the question of sources of Qur'ânic narratives and external influence is excluded from discussion, and why there is no need to take outside historical sources, like the New Testament and apocrypha, into consideration.
This also explains why Jesus' exalted status and various wonderful titles are only signs of God's drawing him near, without any intrinsic worthiness entitling him to anything. Jesus is fundamentally just a servant of God, and all his miracles are simply God's direct work.
When Muammad conquered Mecca and ordered the Ka`ba to be cleansed of all its idols, he directed that the images of Jesus and Mary be spared and kept there. They have since disappeared from the Ka`ba, but the images of Jesus and Mary remain in the Qur'ân and Islamic tradition. The images are there, but not the reality of the persons they represent. We pray that the Lord who moves secretly in the midst of the Muslim community may hasten the revelation of his person to them.
97: Can God have a Son? (from Thomas Aquinas, Q.D.
Can God have a Son? That is a question Muslims answer with a "No", but Catholics answer with a "Yes". We say "Yes" because we believe in what God has revealed about himself. But we can also offer explanations to show that this belief is not foolish, but reasonable.
It is a general law of nature that energy communicates itself as much as it is able to do so. The more powerful a thing is, the more it can act and spread itself. In the case of God, he is pure and perfect act, and therefore is in a position to communicate himself more than any other power. He does so through his creation, which shares in his goodness to the extent that God freely decides for each creature. But in having a Son, he communicates his own very nature. Any child that we know is distinct from its father and mother because each has a distinct body. But God, having no body, cannot have a Son that is distinct from his own being.
How does he generate a Son? Since God is pure intelligence, he knows himself perfectly and has a perfect concept of himself. This concept or Word that completely expresses himself is his Son, one in being with himself, but distinct as word from speaker.
So we maintain that God has generative power in the most perfect way. He is not sterile. He is not alone with himself. (See St. Thomas, De Potentia, question 2.)
98: Can God have a Son? Objections and answers
1. When we say that the Father generates the Son, this seems to imply that the Son is produced by the Father. But that goes against the Creed which says "Begotten not made". Reply: This objection applies to material things, where any new thing, living or non-living, is a distinct thing from its maker or parent. But the Son is part of the Father's own being and eternally emerges from within the Father's being. Therefore he is not made and cannot be called a product of the Father.
2. But the act of generation implies giving and receiving, where the receiver absorbs or takes on the nature of the giver. Such a receiver must therefore be material, and that is impossible in God who is pure spirit. Reply: The Son receives the divine nature by complete identification with it, not by sharing in it, the way a material creature shares in a common nature (e.g. man shares in hum1nity; he is not humanity itself).
3. If there are a Father and a Son in God they must somehow be really distinct. The difference between them cannot be the divine essence which is common to both. Therefore it must be something additional to the divine essence, and in that case God would have components, which is impossible. Reply: The Father and the Son are not distinguished by an addition to their essence, since their distinction is is a relationship of origin which is not really distinct from the divine essence. Number, which presupposes matter, does not apply to God. Trinity in Unity describes the richness of God's essence, without introducing numerically distinct parts.
Number arises by division of measurable matter, as when we cut something into two. Thus counting applies strictly to material things of the same species, such as "three men" or "four dogs," which are spatially distinct yet share the same general nature; By extension it applies to different things within a single genus, such as "three animals," referring to a dog, a cat and a goat, or "three angels," each of which is a different species. When we say "three divine persons," we are beyond quantifiable reality and are talking about different relationships within the indivisible all-perfect reality of God.
99: Can God have a Son? More objections and answers
4. Any power is perfected by its act. To say that God has generative power implies that he is perfected by his act of generation of a Son, and this implies a distinction of potency and act, which is impossible in God. Reply: In God, potency and act are not distinct. He is always fully in act and there is no distinction in him between what is perfection and what is perfectible .
5. Generative power is not worthy of God; rather it is unworthy of him, since it is found in the most base living things. The lower you look the stronger it is, such as among worms and flies. Angels, on the other hand, have no generative power. Reply: Generation in creatures implies a multitude sharing in one species, so that no individual owns the species, whereas each angel is king of its own species and shares it with no one else.
6. But he has no wife, and no part can be cut off from him. Reply: This objection applies only to material generation.
In the Incarnation and birth of Jesus, the eternal Word of God, without any change in himself, added to his own person a human nature. Mary conceived by by the Holy Spirit's fashioning the human nature of Jesus from her ovum without any sperm from man or from God (who, being immaterial, has no sexual matter). Therefore God can in no way be called the husband of Mary. In his divine nature Jesus is Son and equal with the Father from eternity. His human nature is created and is less than the Father, but since it is part of one divine person we worship him also in his body and blood.
100: Can God have a Son? More objections and answers
7. If God is infinitely potent, he should be able to have an infinite number of children. God has only one Son because his one Word or Son completely and exhaustively expresses the nature of the Father. Reply: If there were to be many children, each would be distinct from the others by representing the Father in some partial way. The Son is a unique individual by the very fact that he is Son, and sonship cannot be multiplied in God without introducing matter.
8. Anything that borrows a characteristic from another is in itself deprived of this characteristic, as in the case of things that are heated or lighted from without. Then, if the Son is said to receive the divine nature from the Father, he must be totally non-being of himself. But there can be no non-being in God. Reply: This objection holds where there is borrowing from a distinct being, but in the case of God, the Father and the Son are one single being.
9. The Son has nothing but what he receives from the Father, and that is the divine essence. But, since there can be no generation of the divine essence, there is nothing else by which to distinguish the Son from the Father. Reply: The Son's reception of the divine essence includes a relationship to the Father, distinguishing him from the Father, even though this relationship is not really distinct from their essence.
10. If the Father generates, he must do so by his own nature. But this same nature also belongs to the Son and the Holy Spirit. So there is no reason not to say that they also generate. Reply: The divine nature in the Father includes the relationship of speaking or generating, but in the Son it includes the opposite relationship of being spoken or being born. So the same nature is in each person in a different way.
11. The more something is perfect, the less need for many individuals of the same kind. Thus technical advances eliminate the need for many workers, enabling a few or just one to do the job. Therefore, in God utter simplicity would seem more perfect than trinity. Reply: God does not exist in order to accomplish some purpose or do some job outside himself. He is completely self-sufficient and exists only for himself. Yet it is fitting for him to communicate himself as much as possible. Thus he gives creatures a finite likeness of his own goodness, but the Son is his perfect and natural likeness.
12. Generation is a kind of change. But there is no change in God. Reply: Generation involves change only where a nature is being materially multiplied, which is not the case in God.
101: Mary in Muslim tradition, 1
The „adîth literature of Islam goes much further than the Qur'ân in talking about Mary. Many biblical and apocryphal details have been assembled in a readable form in the QiȘaȘ al-anbiyâ' (Stories of the prophets) by ath-Tha`labî.
To begin with, Mathan (the grandfather of Joseph in Matthew's genealogy) is said to be the father of Joseph and of `Imrân, whose wife is „anna (Anne), the parents of Mary. „anna's sister, `Ishbâ` (Elizabeth), is the wife of Zachariah. „anna was barren and prayed for a child, promising to dedicate it to the service of the Lord in the Temple. The custom was to place such dedicated boys (Girls were not eligible) in the Temple until puberty, when they were given the choice of staying or leaving.
Mary was born and is said to have grown into the most beautiful woman of her time. Some adîths claiming the authority of Muammad say that every human child is touched by Satan when it is born, and it cries out from Satan's touch. The only exceptions are Mary and her son. A variant of this adîth is that Satan pierces every child in its side when it is born, except Jesus and his mother. A curtain was placed around them so that he pierced the curtain without touching them. In their lives they were not affected by any sins, as are the rest of mankind. Later, talking about John the Baptist, ath-Tha`labî says that he also was never touched by sin.
102: Mary in Muslim tradition, 2
In spite of the ban on girls, Mary was presented in the Temple. Lots were cast to see who would look after her. Zachariah won, and kept her in a mirab, which was a room in the Temple accessible only by a high door reached with a ladder, like the Ka`ba in Mecca. Zachariah kept the door locked and only opened it to bring her food and drink. Whenever he came he found out-of-season fruits brought to her by God.
When Zachariah became to old to look after Mary, lots were cast again, and the turn fell to Joseph, son of Mathan, the carpenter, who was also dedicated to the Temple service. He was sad at the burden this would place on him, but Mary told him not to worry; God will provide.
At this time the two used to go every day to fetch water from a cavern. One day Joseph said he had enough water and did not need to go. Mary went alone and in the cavern met Gabriel. The dialogue transpired as narrated in the Qur'ân (19:16 ff. & 3:42 ff.). Then Gabriel breathed into the sleeve of a cloak Mary had left aside. When Mary put on the cloak she conceived Jesus. [The 13th century writer Ibn-`Arabî therefore speculates that Jesus is half-man, half angel.]
Joseph was the first to notice Mary's pregnancy and was in a quandary. He knew her goodness and innocence, yet he was confronted by a fact. Finally he summoned up courage to question her. Can a plant sprout without a seed, or a tree grow without rain? Can a child be conceived without a father? Mary answered yes to all these questions, explaining that it is easy for God who created these directly in the first place to do so again. Joseph was satisfied with her answer and looked after her, doing her work for her.
Mary then visited her aunt, the mother of John. Each recognized that the other was pregnant, and the aunt (named Ishbâ`) said that what is in my womb bows down to what is in your womb.
103: Mary in Muslim tradition, 3
God then inspired Mary to leave her people because if she gave birth among them they would trouble and maybe even kill her. Joseph heard of accusations made against her, so took her on his donkey to a place near the Egyptian border; others say Bethlehem. Near a dry palm tree she went into labour. A variant story has it that Joseph doubted and thought of killing her on the way, but Gabriel told him that the child was from the Holy Spirit.
The dry palm tree became fresh with fruit and water appeared beneath it. Joseph got wood and lit a fire to keep the mother and child warm, since it was winter.
At the birth of Jesus all the idols in the world fell over, and the devils, who used to speak to men through these idols, went to Iblîs, the chief devil, in consternation. Iblîs searched the whole world for three hours and found out about the birth. He wanted to go near, but could not because angels were everywhere around. He was sad that he could not pierce this child as he did every other new-born.
Some people began to believe in Jesus because they saw his star, predicted "in the book of Daniel". They came with gold, myrrh and frankincense: gold because it represented the best man of his time, myrrh because it is medicinal and Jesus healed the sick, frankincense because its smoke goes up to heaven as Jesus was taken up to heaven.
Herod wanted to kill Jesus and asked to be informed of his whereabouts, but the visitors were told to return by another way.
God told Mary to return with the child to her people, and if asked about him to say she is fasting, which included silence. Joseph took Mary and the child to a cave for 40 days until she was purified. Mary was accused by her people, but the child spoke, as the Qur'ân describes (3:46, 5:110, 19:29), but not again until he was of age. Because Herod still was looking to kill the child, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
104: Mary in Muslim tradition, 4
Ath-Tha`labî relates many miracle stories during Jesus' infancy and adulthood. Mary figures in some stories, as in two variants of the Cana miracle.
After Jesus seemed to be killed and was taken up to heaven, he is said to have returned, appearing to Mary Magdalene and then to the apostles. He sent them out to the corners of the earth and then went back to God.
Mary lived on for six more years, having been entrusted to John and Peter. In Rome the emperor "Mârût" (Nero) killed Peter and Andrew, while John fled with Mary. Mârût and his soldiers pursued them, but at a point in the road the earth opened and Mary and John disappeared into it. The emperor and his men dug in the spot but found nothing. So, rather abruptly, ends the story of Mary.
105: The Christian Mary
The Christian idea of Mary is very different from the Muslim idea of Mary because the Christian idea of Jesus is so different.
The Christian idea of Jesus is different because Christianity has a different idea of how God relates to the world. God manifests himself not just in prophetic words, but in the Word that expresses his whole being. The Word became flesh.
In becoming man, God becomes the central player in the whole drama of human history. The burden and struggle of sin and suffering of all the human race became his burden and struggle, and his victory became the victory of the whole human race.
Mary was and is not a mere spectator to this drama, or even a worshipping admirer like the shepherds at Bethlehem. Her own part was intimately connected with that of Jesus from the beginning, not just biologically, but by her free act of faith and consent: "Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38), making her worthy of being called "blessed among women" (1:42). Because of the hypostatic union of the divine nature communicated to Jesus by the Father and the human nature given to him by Mary, Mary is truly the "mother of the Lord" (Lk 1:43, or "mother of God" (Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D.).
She is also our mother. Mary standing by the cross, under the tree of redemption, is shown as the antitype of Eve. She is the real "mother of all the living" (Gen 3:20), because she conceived, nurtured and escorted to his final "hour" the one who gave new life to all, including herself. In so doing she is also the "woman" through whom Satan's head was crushed (Gen 3:15).
Mary's faith and submission to God is the result of God's grace preserving her form all sin from the moment of her conception. Her perfect Christian life, centring around the mission of her Son, made her worthy of sharing the full victory of Jesus once it was one; so she enjoys the life of the resurrection in her own body, as we are taught in the dogma of her Assumption.
106: Mary, a bridge to the Muslims, 1
Muslims accept that Mary is the sinless, virgin mother of Jesus, and that she is blessed more than all women. Mary, for Muslims and Christians, is not an independent prophet standing on her own, but all her status and greatness come form her involvement in the live of her Son.
Victory over sin has implications: God's holiness must be present in an extraordinary way if, according to Islam, not only is Jesus immune form sin from his conception, but also his Mother and his associate, John the Baptist. Christians know that this is because God joined the human nature of Jesus to his own divine Word, which Muslims find incomprehensible. Muslims, nevertheless, can approach and enjoy the fragrance of this mystery even if they are too cautious to recognize the source.
The human figures of Jesus and Mary are complementary, male and female. Some Muslims, like Christians, may find a first attraction in mary which leads them to Jesus, while others may come to appreciate Mary through Jesus. Although the theological grounds are debated in Islam, Muslims recognize the power of a holy person, whether in this life or the next, to intercede with God for others. Muslims would not see Jesus as a mediator between God and men as developed in Hebrew 5-10, but would see him as we see Mary, another human being whose prayers God permits to be very effective because of their excelling holiness. In Algeria and Lebanon Muslims are known to pray to Mary in their needs. While praying over Muslims, as we are sometimes asked to do,it would be very fitting to include prayer to Mary. She is the one who can lead them to a fuller knowledge of Jesus.
107: Mary, a bridge to the Muslims, 2
We have a strange link with Islam in the devotion to our Lady of Fatima. Fatima is a town in Portugal where Mary is said to have appeared, but it is also the name of Muammad's daughter. the Muslims ruled Spain and Portugal for many years, and the name Fatima, according to legend, was given to the town by an Arab prince in honour of his daughter who also bore the name Fatima. Muammad's Fâłima was married to `Alî, who is specially revered by the Shî`ites, but is recognized, as we have seen, by all Muslims as one of the four best women of all time. Mary's appearances at the town of Fatima have the effect of associating Muammad's daughter with Mary as a kind of sister, just as Muslims have already recognized on their part.
The Catholic Church is not about to canonize the daughter of Muammad, even though she suffered a lot in her life and may possibly have been a holy woman, but the Church seems to recognize more than just a coincidence or equivocation of names between the town of Mary's appearances and the daughter of Muammad. (See Fulton J. Sheen, The world's first love, ch. 17, "Mary and the Muslims".) Sometimes Christian girls take the name Fatima, after our Lady of Fatima. The latter is the name of the cathedral in Jos, the parish in Gusau, and a parish in Makurdi. There is also the congregation of Fatima Sisters in Jos. The use of the title "our Lady of Fatima" can serve as a reminder to Muslims of the association of Fatima with Mary, giving them added reason to approach her. We too can be reminded by the title "our Lady of Fatima" to pray to Mary to draw Christians to share her relationship with Jesus, founded on faith and love.
108: Muslim caution
Muammad said: "The ruination of my people will come from the learned man who is a scoundrel and from the pious worshipper who is ignorant." cited by al-Maghîlî