Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Paul Jackson, S.J.
The aim of this article is to get an idea of the Christian Story and then of the Muslim Story. Both will be given in the broadest of outlines. The question a Christian or a Muslim reader is invited to ask is: "Do I recognize my story as it is told here?" Complete agreement is not the aim. After all, do any two people tell a story in exactly the same way? This is even more true when the stories themselves are different.

The Christian Story
God created heaven and earth and everything on the face of the earth. Finally, He created human beings, Adam and Eve, in His own image and likeness. They sinned, however, by disobeying His explicit command, and He drove them out of the Garden of Eden. The man had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow, and the woman had to endure the pangs of childbirth. God promised to send someone to defeat the wily serpent, Satan, who had tricked Eve into sinning, followed by Adam. Their son, Cain, killed his brother Abel. The whole long chain of human sin continued. Things got so bad that God finally destroyed human beings by sending a flood, except for Noah and his family, as well as the animals saved along with them in the Ark.

The next great event was the call of Abraham who was to become the model of all who believed in God as uniquely One. Through his son, Isaac, he became the father of the Jewish people. God tested him by requiring him to sacrifice his son Isaac but, at the last minute, He intervened to save the boy, as Abraham had been completely and utterly obedient to His command. God greatly blessed Abraham.

Joseph was providentially sold into slavery and ended up as second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. He was thus able to save his whole family when famine struck the land. After many generations had passed, a later Pharaoh made slaves of the Hebrews and forced them to work ever harder. God chose Moses to lead His chosen people out of slavery in Egypt by means of mighty deeds, including leading the people safely through the parted waters of the Red Sea. After a long sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai, Joshua led the next generation of Hebrews into the Promised Land, after crossing the Jordan River, which parted before them. God first sent Judges to rule over the people and, when they pined for a king, He gave them Saul, followed by David, Solomon and others. He promised David that a ruler would come from his family and initiate an everlasting kingdom. Solomon built Him a magnificent temple.

Even though the prophets repeatedly called the people back to faith in God, to repentance for their sinful behaviour, and to the practice of justice, they were stiff-necked and turned a deaf ear to them. God then sent the Jewish people into exile in Babylon. The prophets assured them that God would lead them back to the Promised Land one day. God made use of Cyrus the Great to do so.

After the return from exile, the Chosen People still had much to suffer at the hands of foreign invaders. The Maccabees fought for the freedom of their people so they could practise the Law given to them by God through Moses. When Jesus was born, the Holy Land was part of the Roman Empire. There was a Roman Governor and Herod was a puppet king.

The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to Mary to invite her to become the mother of Jesus. Gabriel told her that Jesus would be conceived miraculously, without the agency of a human father, and would be called the Son of the Most High. Mary agreed. God informed her fiancé, Joseph, of this miraculous event in a dream, and told him to take Mary as his wife. Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem and was placed in a manger.

When Jesus grew up and was about thirty years of age he went to the river Jordan and was baptised by John the Baptist. A voice was heard from heaven saying, “This is My Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. He then went into the desert, fasted for forty days, and resisted the temptations of the Devil. After this, he went around preaching, especially in Galilee, announcing that the Kingdom of God had come. He also cured many who were sick, blind, deaf, dumb or lame, and even raised some dead people to life. Disciples gathered around him and he chose twelve of them whom he called ‘Apostles.’ He also had the habit of rising early and going to a quiet place to pray to God Whom he addressed as Abba, Father. Moreover, when his Apostles asked him to teach them how to pray, he told them to begin by saying, Our Father in heaven…

Huge crowds of people flocked to hear his words and be cured. They even wanted to make him king. They thought he was the promised Messiah. His Apostles also believed he was the Messiah. They thought that he would drive out the Romans and establish a kingdom in which they would have the top jobs. The Jewish religious leaders did not like what they saw and plotted to have him arrested, brought before Pilate, the Roman Governor, and put to death. His followers fled. When he was crucified only one disciple, John, was at the scene, as well as his mother, Mary, and some other women. He was hurriedly buried, as the Sabbath was approaching. The Apostles were dejected and frightened. They gathered together in an upper room. All their dreams had been shattered! Their whole dejected frame of mind was realistically portrayed by two disciples walking to Emmaus. Then the unheard of happened. Jesus appeared in his glorified and risen body to Mary Magdalene, to the Apostles, and to the disciples on the way to Emmaus! He would suddenly appear in a room, but he also ate before their very eyes. There was a mysterious aura about him which evoked respect and awe. He finally departed from them, promising that he would send them the Holy Spirit. This he did on Pentecost Sunday and, filled with the Spirit, the Apostles went outside and boldly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and Risen Lord. Thousands of people believed and became followers of this new Way. This was the beginning of the Christian community.

The Muslim Story
The Muslim story has many similarities. The creation, sin and expulsion from Eden of both Adam and Eve are along the same lines as the Christian story. The first major divergence occurs at the time of Abraham’s sacrifice. Although the Quran does not name the son who was about to be sacrificed, Muslims believe it was Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, the father of the Arabs. Both Abraham and Ishmael travelled to Mecca, where they built the Ka`ba.

The story of Joseph is narrated in great detail. Moses is accepted as God’s special apostle sent to the Jewish people. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was given to Moses by God. The book of Psalms was given to King David. Many of the figures found in the Bible, beginning with Adam, and including Abraham, David and Solomon, are mentioned in the Quran, and they are referred to as prophets or apostles.

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that God would bestow a son on her without her having intercourse. When Jesus was born, he spoke miraculously from the cradle, and even breathed on little clay birds and brought them to life. When Jesus grew up he went around preaching, miraculously curing people and raising the dead. He is considered a great prophet and apostle, as God bestowed the Gospel upon him. He was also referred to as the Messiah, Isa Masih. He was handed over by the jealous Jewish leaders to be crucified. God, however, did not allow them to put to death a prophet of his eminence. He raised him up to heaven and substituted someone else in his place. His second coming will be a portent of the Day of Judgement.

Muhammad’s father died before he was born and his mother died when he was about six years of age. His paternal uncle, Abu Talib, brought him up and became his guardian. As a young man, he began to work for Khadija, the widow of a rich merchant. Impressed by his sincerity, she married him. She was about forty years old, and he was twenty-five. Muhammad had developed the habit of praying in a cave on Mt. Hira, near Mecca. On one occasion the angel Gabriel appeared to him and began the process of revealing the Quran to him. Khadija was the first to believe that God had spoken to him. His cousin, Ali, also believed in him, as well as some other family members; a few distinguished people, like Abu Bakr, and a number of poor people and slaves. As his influence increased so too did the opposition of the leading Meccan families. They thought his uncompromising teaching about the uniqueness of God and his branding the gods and goddesses as mere ‘names’ would have an adverse effect on their prosperity. Why would pilgrims flock to Mecca and the Ka`ba if the images of all the gods and goddesses were removed? A persecution began. Eventually Muhammad migrated 400 kilometres north to Yathrib, which became known as Medina, at the invitation of the people of that city. This occurred in the year 622 A.D., and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina Muhammad acquired the role of political leader in addition to that of being a prophet and religious leader. Circumstances compelled him to fight several battles. Eventually he returned victoriously to Mecca, where he issued a general amnesty. He returned to Medina. He led the farewell pilgrimage to Mecca early in 632. On his return to Medina he fell ill and died on 8th June 632. As he was the Seal of the Prophets, the line of prophets came to an end with him. Abu Bakr succeeded him as Caliph, the religious and political leader of the Muslim community.

Growth of the Communities
Before outlining in brief the growth of these two communities, it should be pointed out that the early part of the Christian story is, in fact, the Jewish story. Whereas Christians accepted Jesus as the prophet and promised Davidic Messiah, Jews considered him to be no more than an itinerant rabbi. They are still waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond but, for the first three centuries, it had no political power. From time to time there were persecutions in the Roman Empire during which large numbers of Christians were put to death. At the religious level, however, the Church quickly became organized into units known as dioceses according to a hierarchical structure. Each diocese was headed by a bishop who had priests and deacons to assist him. The Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope, was the leader of the Universal Church.

Because of challenges in understanding the reality of Jesus, believed by Christians to be the Son of God, several different interpretations arose. Hence an Ecumenical Council of all the bishops was convoked in Nicea in 325 in which the orthodox understanding was elaborated. This was further refined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. There have been a number of ecumenical councils down the centuries, usually called to clarify or combat some heretical interpretation. The last one, Vatican II, was held between 1962-65. It was not called to combat any heresy, but to enable the Church to face up to the realities of the modern world and to understand its position and role in the world. It was a great modernising council.

After the Roman Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian, the Catholic Church gained political power. It fully endorsed and supported the Crusades. It used the Inquisition in order to eradicate heresy. Catholics and Protestants were engaged in the wars of religion that swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. The Pope was also the leader of what was known as the Papal States. Some Popes of this period even took to the battlefield. Christians made use of their status in the colonial powers in order to foster the spread of Christianity, though there were also times when European political power subjugated Christian missions, as happened in South America.

The present policies of the Catholic Church are based on the documents of Vatican II. While the Church insists on its right to propose and teach moral values, based on the Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person, in both the private and public domains, it eschews direct political power. It strongly advocates religious freedom, whereby a person is free to follow his or her religion; to propose it to others; and even to change it. This was not always so, as the sixteenth-century Inquisition reminds us.

Islam, on the other hand, quickly spread, as a religion and as a political power, beyond Arabia after the death of Muhammad. His successor, Abu Bakr, inherited a combined religious and political leadership role in 632 A.D. After quelling some local revolts he sent armies under extremely capable commanders to fight against the Byzantine and Persian empires. The combination of personal hardiness and fighting ability, when harnessed to capable military leadership, proved irresistible. The Caliph’s forces conquered Egypt, moved across North Africa and crossed over into Spain. They penetrated to Central Asia and to Sindh. At the same time Arab traders, who had embraced Islam, carried their religion to the shores of Southern India and beyond. The Caliphate lasted until 1258 when it gave way, formally as well as in reality, to numerous regional sultanates. Three great Muslim empires arose on the world scene: the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire and the Mughal Empire. It was the Ottoman Empire which was in direct conflict with Europe, particularly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Ottoman Empire considered itself as the successor of the Baghdad Caliphate and was often referred to as the Turkish Caliphate. Attaturk formally abolished this situation in 1924 when he set about reshaping Turkey as a modern nation state.

Right from the time of the death of the Prophet the Muslim community has experienced its own inner tensions. Some Muslims thought that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, should succeed him as Caliph. Others followed the Arab custom of accepting, as the new tribal chief, a man chosen by the elders of the tribe. In this instance, Abu Bakr was chosen as Caliph. Struggles did take place, at the battle of Siffin, for example, but it was the killing of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet, along with his family members and a handful of retainers at Karbala, as he was making his way to Kufa, that fractured the community. This occurred in 680 A.D., (10th Muharram, 61 A.H., according to the Muslim calendar). Those who sided with Ali and his family are called Shias, while those who accepted Abu Bakr and his successors are called Sunnis. These latter form the great majority of the Muslim community. It was the martyrdom of Husain at Karbala that drove the wedge between these two groups. Even down to the present day there have been sporadic outbursts of sectarian violence. The Fatimids in Egypt and the Safavids in Persia were Shia dynasties. Present-day Iran is almost totally Shia, and about 60% of Iraqis are Shias, and Lebanon has an influential number of Shias.

During the period of European colonial expansion many Muslim countries came under colonial rule. After the Second World War these countries gained their freedom. They have different forms of government. Because of oil reserves, a number of Arab countries have become very rich and influential. This was due to the high demand for oil. Islamic law, in varying degrees, forms the legal framework for much of the lives of people living in these countries.

Efforts to Understand
Christians have the Bible as their scripture, while Muslims have the Quran. The Bible contains the Hebrew Bible of the Jews as well as the Greek New Testament, the specific scripture of the Christians. Christians see the fulfilment of God’s promises embodied in Jesus. The New Testament is a record of this fulfilment. For Muslims, the Quran is the final revealed Word of God and, as such, abrogates all previous scriptures. For Christians, Jesus is the Word of God in the fullest possible sense, while the Bible, though believed to be the Word of God, is considered to be so in a secondary and derived sense. While Christian traditions refer mainly to the early practices of the community, Muslims have a vast literary record of traditions which are said to go back to the words and deeds of Muhammad

Both the Bible and the Quran are given texts. Anyone can read them, either in the original languages or in translation, with the caveat that Muslims regard any translation of the Quran as simply giving its sense or meaning, but not as being the actual Quran. Christians do not make this distinction because, for them, the primary Word of God is Jesus. Textually, of course, the original Hebrew and Greek versions have precedence over any translation.

The texts are fixed documents, but the people who read them differ greatly. For example, they span many centuries, some twenty for Christians and fourteen for Muslims. They also differ according to language, race and culture. There are also the differences according to intellectual ability and language skills. Down the centuries there have been many believers who were illiterate and could not read their scripture. Each person reads – or listens to – scripture in the context of his or her total background. With the passing of the centuries many learned people have shared their reading and understanding of their scripture by writing commentaries. It is no secret that more commentaries have been written on the Bible and the Quran than on any other books. Indeed, the more serious and comprehensive commentaries often constituted the lifetime’s work of an individual scholar. They would work from the text in its original language and study the commentaries of previous scholars before giving their considered opinion. This means that individuals, with their own perspectives, whether of the Bible or the Quran, wrote all such commentaries. They were naturally influenced by the prevailing attitudes and assumptions of their particular age, locality and the community to which they belonged. The collective efforts of all such scholars constitute an enormous effort to understand these two books.

If we step back for a moment and look at another area of human knowledge we may get some insights about how to evaluate scripture commentaries. Take our understanding of what our earth looks like, for example. The ancient Hebrews thought the earth was supported on pillars and had a vast sea beneath it and a dome above it – the firmament – above which were more waters. Suspended in the firmament were the sun, moon and stars. If we trace the history of mapping we see how gradually ever more accurate maps came to be produced. We can see clearly the shapes of the continents. If we make use of a globe we get a more accurate picture of their relative sizes. Nowadays anybody with an Internet connection can go to Google Earth and zoom onto locations anywhere on the face of the earth, which is initially presented in the form of a globe which you can rotate as you like. If you are prepared to pay some $400.00 you can gain access to a much more detailed picture of anything on the face of the earth. This is because of the cameras in satellites. Never before has such detailed information been available, and on such a wide scale.

Has there been a comparable development in the accuracy of scripture commentaries? This is not a legitimate question. All forms of mapping, right up to Google Earth, are sense representations, whereas scripture commentaries are essentially directed to understanding the meaning of scripture. What can be said is that the tools needed for this work have become more potent with our vastly increased knowledge of languages, geography, history, culture and various social and economic dynamics. Let us take a simple example from the Bible. For more than fifteen centuries Christians unquestioningly accepted the first three chapters of Genesis as a literal account of creation. Nowadays Christian scripture scholars make a distinction. They say that these chapters affirm, as a religious truth, that God is the Creator of our earth and of the entire universe, but the description of how it took place is a mythical one. It is a story. It also attempts to explain the all-pervasive nature of sin by tracing it back to the very beginning of the human race. According to this understanding, Adam and Eve are mythical prototypes, not historical persons. In order to gain some understanding of the whole process of creation one has to make use of a variety of scientific disciplines. As a corollary of this, for example, the Catholic Church has had to admit that the assumptions that underpinned the condemnation of Galileo were incorrect.

In both Christianity and Islam there have always been varied theological currents which were intimately associated with particular philosophical schools. It is not possible to go into these in detail, but it is important to realize the existence of this variety. It is also important to notice that, while theological studies are important in both religious traditions, Muslim scholars have devoted a much greater proportion of their time and energy to studying Islamic Law than Christians have devoted to the study of Canon Law. On the other hand, because of difficulties in understanding the divine and human natures of Jesus, Christians have devoted much more time and effort to theological questions than have their Muslim counterparts.

One more dimension of both religious traditions has to be mentioned. This is the spiritual dimension. Both Christianity and Islam have long lists of recognized saints, usually called Sufis in Islam. Both have important traditions of religious orders, usually called silsilas in India. In both communities there are vast numbers of people who attach great importance to particular saints and are devoted to them. They seek their intercession for their various needs and look up to them as models of saintly behaviour. Moreover, the saints and their disciples, in both Christianity and Islam, have left behind a vast literary output of their understanding of what it means to make the worship of God the very centre of their lives. In both traditions this worship finds its flowering in service. It is not possible to over-emphasize the importance of the spiritual riches of holiness as constituting the lifeblood of both traditions. They provide comfort for hearts and nourishment for souls.

To sum up, we have listened to the stories of both Christianity and Islam. We have seen how both religious communities have grown and spread. We took note of the Bible and Quran as being the sacred religious texts of the two communities, pointing out the Christian understanding of the pre-eminence of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, over the text of the Bible. Finally, we noted that, although the texts are there for one and all to read, their interpretation, for a whole variety of factors, has varied. Hence we should not be surprised if, in our own day and age, various interpretations are found. Their legitimacy depends on their fidelity to the texts of the Bible and the Quran. Any particular passage has to be seen in its specific context and in the more general context of the text as a whole. This is what hermeneutics is all about.

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