(Letter to Charlene Law continued.....)
So, Charlene, this letter could go on indefinitely. The comparison of two such rich traditions is practically inexhaustible, but I imagine you and anyone else who reads this is close to exhaustion with the effort. There are so many things yet to compare.
Poetry is one of the great Arabic arts, but strangely not music. Music is central to Christian worship, but has almost no place in the Muslim liturgy beyond the Muezzin’s call to prayer. Theater and even musical notation developed in the christian world and in more recent times have entered into the Muslim world. Orchestral and Symphonic music has yet to make a dent in the world of Islam. Islamic calligraphy is exquisite, but beyond that there is no portraiture and certainly no sculpture. Things that we in the West regard as normal visual arts are forbidden.
History is essential to the educated Christian. The monks of Christian Europe carefully preserved the pre-Christian pagan traditions, believing that all cultures, no matter how disparate, were expressions of human longing for and reflection of the divine. There is no truth that is not of interest to Christian scholarship. Islamic scholarship has no interest in the non-Islamic roots of its culture. When the science of archaeology was in its infancy, Muslims thought it pretty amusing that all those Englishmen, and Germans were so intrigued by piles of old stones. What good were they? The ruins of ages past had and have no appeal for devout Muslims.
In fact most orthodox Muslims would deny that they have any roots that are non-Islamic. History start with Muhammad. There was a period in the beginning of the Islamic period when this was not true, but Islamic scholarship made the decision around 1200 AD, that what was not in the Koran and the Hadith were not worth learning. If Allah thought them important, he would mentioned it.
The particular effect of this decision is incalculable for a very simple reason: Aristotle! From Aristotle we dhimmis in the Dar al Harb -- the non-Islamic world -- learned one very simple idea. The world is real. At exactly the time that Islamic scholars, most particularly al-Ghazali, the great Muslim Jurist (born in Iran 1058, died 1111) were denying that Greek philosophy had anything to offer Islam. Thomas Aquinas, an Italian priest of the Dominican order (1225-1274), was using Aristotelian methods to explain Christianity. Aquinas became the guide of Christianity and Western culture until my youth. As a result Aristotle was taught in every Catholic university and seminary for perhaps 600 years.
Aristotle taught that things were real. That may not seem very important to you if you are a westerner, but there are countless religions that believe the world is a sort of illusion. The investigation of the world around us is therefore of limited value. If things are real, they are worth investigating. Enter science and the scientific method. (If you are curious about this, may I suggest the book “Aristotle’s Children” by Richard E. Rubenstein, Harvest Books, 2003)
There is a philosophy called nominalism. It holds that something is what it is only because it is so called. This belief extends into the world of religion; God becomes the great nominalist. Things are so because He says they are so. Hence, the world exists only as an illusion, and God being absolutely sovereign could forget about the world and, Poof! No more world. The same applies to morality. Murder, theft, adultery, all wrong because God says so. If one morning the Almighty decided that murder and theft and adultery were fine things, well, they would from that point on be fine things. He is after all, sovereign.
There is a classic question asked by philosophers and irritating third-graders, “Can God make a stone so big He Himself could not move it?” The Islamic answer would be, of course He is God. He can do whatever He wants. The Catholic and Jewish answer is, “Certainly not!” Creation itself is a reflection of God and to think that God could and would change His mind about existence is to think that one could stand in front of a mirror, raising one’s arm and expect the arm reflected in the mirror to remain un-raised.
God has no limits or law beyond Himself, but He is His own law, and as the Christian scriptures say “He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim2:13). This extends to moral law, or natural law. The Ten Commandments are not arbitrary, they are reflections of the very nature of God, who is perfect existence. There are lots of liturgical and religious laws that can change, but the essential natural law that is available to all humanity and is expressed in the Ten Commandments.
This belief that God is not creation, but at the same time is not divorced from creation brings us to the great the deepest and the most insurmountable difference between Islam and Christianity: the Fatherhood of God.
Shortly after the Muslims conquered the Christian city of Jerusalem in 638 AD they built the Dome of the Rock, the golden dome that one sees in so many pictures of Jerusalem.(691) It was built to keep Muslims from being seduced by the beauty of Constantine’s church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulcher) with its shining golden dome. The Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the temple of Solomon, and was intended to make a powerful statement that Islam was restoring the religion of Abraham without its Jewish and Christian additions. Inside, in truly beautiful arabic calligraphy around the dome is written “He (Allah) begets not nor was he begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him. Allah has no companion.” (Koran 19:35–37)
God is absolutely alone. He has no son, and has no need of companions. There could not be a clearer juxtaposition of the deepest difference between the God of Christianity and Allah. The God of Jesus is love. The God of Muhammad is other. He is faceless, he is sovereign, he is not bounded by love law or reason. The God of Jesus is bounded by His sacrificial love for His creation, humanity in particular. He has stooped to love us with real love, love unto death.
The central prayer of Muhammad and Islam is the Shahadah: There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The central prayer of Jesus is the Our Father. “Our Father who are in heaven.” The very prayer “Our Father” is a form of shirq in Islam. Shirq is to place partners alongside God. Shirq is an unforgivable crime. God may forgive any sin except for shirq. It is a sentence of damnation to die in a state of shirq.
In other words, to say the Our Father, to claim divinity not only for Jesus, but, at least potentially for all humanity makes one worthy of eternal death and hellfire. To reconcile the Christian world with the Muslim world, the prayer “Our Father” must be obliterated.
Next week, some of the myths of history!