By Senayt Gaim
Why are these spiritual cousins always in conflict?
Christianity and Islam
Why are these spiritual cousins always in conflict?
The history of Islam and Christianity – breaking modern misconceptions about the religions.
Christianity and Islam are like two cousins, always fighting pettily and ignoring their common Abrahamic grandfather screaming in the background for them to behave. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the misconceptions of Islam by Christians and non-Christians alike has been greatly influenced by a number of terrorist attacks shown in the media over the last twenty years. There were, within a few years of each other, the attack on the New York World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the recent January terrorist attacks in Paris, both portraying Islam in a negative light without the slightest knowledge of the tenets and teachings of Islam. Many Muslims also feel that the Western world media has recreated Islam to look like a violent, xenophobic, and aggressive religion. How can two religions that have so much in common always be at each other’s throats? Let’s break through some common misconceptions of Islam and Christianity to see the similarities and differences between these two spiritual cousins.
- Misconception: The Muslim “Allah” is not the same as the Christian “God”?
Christianity and Islam are rooted in Judaism. The father and mother of all three religions started with Adam and Eve. All share the common fathers of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. Allah (in Arabic) refers to the God of not just the Muslims, but the God of the Christians and Jews (even Arab Christians know Him by no other name). In Islamic tradition, there are 99 Names of God each of which describe a distinct characteristic of Allah. Many Jews and Christians believe “Yahweh” to be the original holy name but “Yahweh” is a title and not a name, and it means “The LORD”.
“I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘the LORD’ (Yahweh) I was not known to them.” Exodus 6:3
The closest Hebrew word to the Arabic “Allah” would be “Elowah”, which is derived from the Aramaic word “Alaha” used by Hebrew speaking Muslims, and has been used by Arabic Jews. It is the same word, and it has been part of Hebrew language for at least 15 centuries, long before Arabic.
2. Misconception: All Christians believe the same thing.
Jesus was the son of God. The Trinity (not in the Bible), a critical doctrine of mainstream Christianity denoting “the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit”, posits that God is made up of those 3 things in one. Another Christian symbol, the cross (also not in the Bible), which is today one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world, was also not used until the 5th century. That’s probably all that Christians have in common. Christians hardly agree on anything, which is why there are roughly 41,000 different Christian denominations in the world. Christianity is made up of different cultures, doctrines, traditions, and practices, making it one of the most diverse religions.
Jesus once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Christianity was originally a Jewish grassroots philosophy that later became a powerhouse religion with the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Christianity became a religious rationalization for the exercise of power and was used to expand and maintain an empire. Somewhere in between tradition, private interpretation of the bible and a power struggle lays the problems of the Christian denominations.
Let’s talk about Christianity in the historical text. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died as a Jew. The term Christian wasn’t formed until much later by the church. In fact, the Bible was not made until 367 AD (over 350 years after Jesus died) when church father Athanasius first decided which 66 books (chapters) should and should not be included in the Bible. The most popular English bible, The King James Version, translated from the Erasmus Greek Bible, was an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England. The Church of England, formed so that Henry VIII could divorce his wife in the 1530s (divorce was not allowed in the Catholic Church), broke off and formed what is now the Anglican denomination. Other churches such as the Ethiopian Orthodox church have 81 books instead of 66 books; an extra 15 chapters were added into their bible.
Christians historically had disagreements that often led to debates and divisions within churches and denominations. These disagreements can be a combination of many things including different interpretations of the bible, tradition, politics, and power. They have been divided into thousands of denominations, endless churches and communities— such as the Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and Baptists to name a few; each passionate about their own opinions.
- Misconception: Muslims don’t believe in Jesus.
First, we must understand who Jesus is and why he is important to all three Abrahamic religions. Historically, Jesus never proclaimed to be Christian. He was Jewish and his followers were Jews. The Jewish book, the Torah (also known as the 5 books of Moses), ends looking for a messiah to save the Jews from the current Roman occupation and return them to their previous golden period. They later reject Jesus as a messiah because he didn’t complete the task, which according to the prophets Isaiah and Ezehiel is “of returning Jews to their homeland, rebuilding the temple, and redeeming the Jews.” Rather than redeeming the Jews, he died and promised a second coming. Since he was considered to have “contradicted” the laws of the Torah by making false statements of God; He was therefore considered a false prophet under Jewish law.
The Christian story about Jesus begins in the New Testament of the Bible. The New Testament starts with the birth of a Jewish Jesus from the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. At the age of 33, Jesus is betrayed by one of his followers and given to the Roman king, Pontius Pilate, to be hung on the cross. According to the Christian belief, he died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of human kind. According to the Bible, God raised him from the dead. He is seated at the right hand of the Father and will ultimately return to judge people at the end of times. Christians believe not only is Jesus the messiah (who will save the world) but he is also the son of God.
Muslims have very similar beliefs to Christians. They believe in the same God that created the Ten Commandments and also the same prophets. Muslims believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin. They even believe that Jesus will return by descending from Heaven and kill the Anti-Christ on Judgement day. So where does the biggest difference lie?
Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Most Christians are Trinitarian, and believe that Jesus is divine and one of three parts of one God. Christians believe that Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, crucified and resurrected.
Islam teaches that Jesus was one of the most important prophets of God but was a human being. Muslims do not believe that he is the Son of God, nor that he is divine. In Islam, Jesus was a human prophet who, like all the other prophets, tried to bring his people to worship God. Muslims believe that Jesus was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary and created by God without a human father. Muslims also believe that Jesus was condemned to crucifixion but was then miraculously saved. God transformed Simon of Cyrene to appear like Jesus, and it was he who was crucified. Jesus was never killed but was raised up by God unto the heavens instead.
- Misconception: Muslims are religiously intolerant.
Islam, by western standards is one of the most misunderstood religions today because of the media and how it’s portrayed. Historically, Christians and Muslims have peacefully co-existed. Early Islamic governments gave non-Muslims, including Christians, some legal rights as subjects of Islamic government. Sometimes the negative aspect has received greater emphasis in the history of Muslim relations with Christians but religious tolerance has always remained a part of Islamic and Christian law.
The Arabic term “Islam” is rooted from aslama, which means “to surrender oneself”. Islam’s main focus has always been in justice, peace, and brotherhood. The major misconception of Islam by Christians and non-Christians alike has been greatly influenced by a number of terrorist attacks portrayed in the media in the last twenty years. The newest conflict between the two religions has been the power of the media. If you have watched the news lately, the mass media have centered their reporting on the more menacing and extreme aspects of Islam. Sadly, millions of Christians have accepted the distortions and propaganda as fact without the slightest knowledge of the tenets and teachings of Islam.
- Misconception: Muslim women don’t have any rights.
Almost 1500 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad would have been considered a feminist. He was improving the rights of women in the 7th century. Before Islam, the local custom was to bury alive unwanted female newborns; Islam prohibited that practice. Women had only been possessions of their husbands but the Prophet Muhammad demanded girls be educated and have the right to own land. Even his wives had careers. Historically, the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife was a merchant who hired Muhammad to work for her.
But on the other hand, women were not exactly equal to men according to the Quran. In the Quran, they didn’t focus so much on the word “equality” as much as they do “justice”. Justice is nothing more than a balanced implementation of rights and duties according to Islam. Many thinkers in both the east and the west advocate it based on a lack of understanding, especially when the speaker attributes this idea of equality to the Quran and to Islam. Islam teaches that both men and women are equal in the spiritual sight of God but not exactly equal physically.
While men and women have equal rights as a general principle, the specific rights and responsibilities granted to them are not identical. Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).
—Quran , 4:34
The equality between men and women is also seen in that the Quran gives them equal rights but in different ways. In the Quran, Allah assigns to man a moral responsibility for his family. Men are the protectors and maintainers of women. Neglecting one’s own dependents is reason enough for a man to be considered a sinner. Even if the couple divorce, the man must guarantee his ex-wife’s financial security.
Since women in Islam are generally categorized as the weaker, softer, and more emotional sex, according to the Quran, they need to be protected at all times; first by their father then by their husband. But it doesn’t mean they are limited to roles as wives and mothers. The Quran encourages the woman to make her house her first priority but there is no prohibition whatsoever on women working to earn a living. In fact, in the early period of Islam, both the sexes were fully active in different fields of life, from housework to agriculture and horticulture; and from worship in the mosque to the battleground. Women were everywhere and active. Women took part in social, political, and military affairs as well.
Back to the question at hand, do Muslim women have rights? It’s a difficult question to answer because it’s based upon personal interpretation. The way a woman is perceived by her traditional community doesn’t always have to do with religion. It can be interpreted by the understanding of the local culture. Islam covers many lands with many diverse cultures. Each one of these Islamic nations has its own distinct culture. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are prohibited to walk outside unless a male is with her at all times. But nowhere is this mentioned in the Quran. Saudi Arabia is the only Muslim country that bans women from driving. This is a cultural custom not a religious one. Another example is dress. Islam tells women to dress modestly, in a way that does not show extremities to any man except family members. However, the Quran doesn’t specify what dress form that is. In some Muslim countries, women wear a hijab (covering of the head) in others such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, all women are required to wear black and be completely covered from head to toe. In other countries, like Turkey, you are not required to wear the hijab even. Different countries have their own rules, and they use religion to justify it. No two cultures are alike.
Christianity and Islam share a historical and traditional connection, with some theological differences. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, while Christianity is the biggest. Clearly, the need for mutual understanding and appreciation between Christians and Muslims becomes ever more imperative. It’s not all negative; there has been a positive and important change in Christian-Muslim relations in the last few decades that isn’t being fairly represented in the media. There has been an increase in the institutionalization of Christian-Muslim cooperation for peace, justice, and the relief of human suffering. In any case, Christianity, the older, influential cousin, should stop and listen to Grandfather Abraham- “to try and appreciate its younger cousin, Islam” by finding a tolerant way to work together and build a stronger more unified family unit.