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Islam & Christianity

This is a tale of two of the world’s foremost and seeming disparate religions – Islam and Christianity. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the chasm between Christian and Muslim has perhaps never seemed wider.

Often forgotten is that both religions can be traced to a single spiritual if not genealogical ancestor – Father Abraham. Both Islam and Christianity are inextricably linked to the even older religious traditions of Judaism. All three faiths point the way to a single God – or Allah. And the history if not the theology of each inevitably has been shaped by the other.

Three purposes, better termed as perspectives, are brought to this discussion:

  • Explicit consideration of linkages between Christianity & Islam – dating back to the earliest years of both religions

  • Brief chronology of Islam – starting with Muhammad and extending to the near-modern era

  • Identification of differences & changes within Islam – as well as commonalities extending down over the last 1-1/2 millenia.

This is a survey of Islam from a distinctive vantage point – that of Christianity. The important thing is neither one of agreement or disagreement with this methodological approach. If there is value, it is in the opportunity for fresh insight.

Setting the Stage

This interwoven account begins with the apostolic church of the early Christian era – in the generation immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles records that, just before his ascension, Jesus instructed his apostles, saying that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Often missed is that Samaria (a land even then of intermarried Jews and Arabs), is immediately placed on a par by the departing Jesus with the mission to the Jewish Judea and to the gentile world of the Roman empire.

After the death of Jesus’ brother James in 62 AD, Jesus’ cousin Symeon assumed leadership of the Jerusalem church. Much of the Jewish church emigrated pre-70 to the Greek city Pella in Transjordan.

Eventually taking the name of Ebionites (or “the poor”), the remnants of the original Jerusalem church also took a neutral stance in the Jewish war with Rome. These Ebionites would eventually also be disenfranchised by their orthodox Christian counterparts.

Ebionites denied the full deity of Christ and rejected the virgin birth (but believed that the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism). Branches of this sect termed Nazarites or “Nozrim” in Hebrew or “Nasrani” in Arabic ended up in what is today Northern Syria, Iraq and Iran with eventual connections to Shii Islam.

A hitching spot where Muhammad is reputed to have tied the steed Al-Buraq that brought him from Mecca to Jerusalem and back
(in a night visit to heaven)

The potential tie-up spot is at the SW corner of the wall around the historic Herodian temple wall and Dome of the Rock.
Tether broadscape

At a low ebb (just before being essentially forced to leave Mecca for Medina), Muhammad has the greatest mystical experience of his life. While sleeping at or near the tombs of Ishmael and Hagar, he is awakened by Gabriel and transported to Jerusalem – the “Remote House” of the People of the Book.

After praying together, Muhammad and Gabriel begin an ascent to the divined throne – through 7 heavens:

1st – presided over by Adam
(where he sees a vision of Hell)
2nd – Jesus and John the Baptist
3rd – Joseph
4th – Enoch
5th & 6th – Moses & Aaron
7th – Abraham

Muhammad is also remembered for saying that on the Last Day the Ka'ba (or sacred black stone) would be moved from Mecca to Jerusalem. In effect, Jerusalem would be paradise.

Constantine & Imperial Christianity

The conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 launched not only the western Catholic church – but also the increasing marginalization of Christians who hailed from the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. This schism became apparent through multiple church conclaves, starting even before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and extending through the 451 Council of Chalcedon.

Suppression of Christian schismatics of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean by the orthodox church of the west would pave the way for the quick and widespread acceptance of Islam in the 7th century. Separated from its eastern roots, Christianity would lose its intellectual energy and fervor.

The homeland of Jesus, the scenes of the Pauline missions, the home of the great defender of the Nicene Creed, the birthplace of Augustine – all would soon abandon their Christian heritage for the more accommodating world of Islam.

Muhammad & Islam

The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in AD 570; he died at 62 years of age in 632. At age 25, Muhammad married a distant relative, the widow Khadijah, after managing her caravan trade. They were married for 25 years and had 6 children. Later, Muhammad would endorse polygamy and took several wives – with an estimated 12 added wives and concubines and one resulting son.

While pagan polytheistic worship prevailed in Arabia, Muhammad had many contacts with Christians and Jews due to his involvement with the caravan trade. He came to desire the application of a more modern concept of a single deity for Arabs as well – initially born from his great respect for the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Around age 40, Muhammad spent much time in meditation. He retreated to a cave and began to receive instruction from archangel Gabriel. Initially, he confided only in his wife Khadijah and her cousin Waraqa ibn Nawfal, a Christian (who compared Muhammad’s experience with that of Moses).

This cousin was a Nassara, essentially an off-shoot of the earlier "Ebionites" or Judeo-Christians who did not accept the full divinity of Christ. Waraka bin Nawfal reportedly was the Ebionite Christian bishop of Mecca and performed the marriage between Muhammad and Khadijah. His influence on Muhammad was instrumental, helping to generate the Qur’an.

After he professed to be a prophet, his favourite concubine would become Miriam, a Coptic Christian. Miriam was also the mother of Muhammad’s favored son Ibrahim.

New Religion & Response

Early on the prophet evidenced little inclination toward developing a new religion, but rather was more intent on bringing and adapting the old faith of One God to Arabs. During this early period, Muslims would perform the salat ritual prayer facing Jerusalem.

By 616, relations between the Meccan establishment and Muhammad’s converts had deteriorated due to opposition toward Islamic theological concepts such as the afterlife and redistributionist economics. A boycott was imposed on marriage and trade with Muslims.

In response to invitation, Muhammad and his followers conducted a migration or hijrah from Mecca to Medina in 622. The Meccan establishment vowed revenge for this abandonment but were defeated in the Battle of Badr (624).

In response to Jewish assistance in the Meccan attack, Muhammad changed the orientation of the salat in January 624. The Prophet told his congregants to turn away from Jerusalem and face Mecca – a sign of independence from the other monotheistic religions of the middle east.

Nonetheless, Jerusalem would figure as an important place for Islam. Jerusalem is the present location of the Dome of the Rock, the place from where Muslims believe that Muhammad visited heaven. Tradition also associates the Rock with Abraham and his son Ishmael – venerated father of the Arab nation through Abraham’s concubine Hagar.

In 625, Muslims were defeated at Battle of Uhud. In retaliation, a Jewish tribe was expelled from Medina for collaborating with Mecca. When the Jewish tribe of Qurayzah sided with Mecca at the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad had seven hundred Jewish men killed, with women and children sold as slaves.

In 628, Muhammad struck for peace with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah reached between Mecca and Medina, becoming the most powerful man in Arabia. By 630, Mecca had violated its treaty but then surrendered, opening the gate to the city to the muslim conquerors. Muhammad was able to take the city without bloodshed or forced conversions. This act of Meccan surrender served as a metaphor for the religion that became known as Islam, which translated means “surrender.”

However, the prophet and his new found power were soon parted. In 632, Muhammad died. He was succeeded by Abu Bakr who was elected as khalifah (or representative).

The Qur’an & Christianity

Since the prophet Muhammad formed his monotheistic beliefs as a result of interaction with Jews and Christians, it is not surprising that both would figure prominently in the Qur’an (or Koran). The entire Qur’an (which means “recitation”) is riddled with references to the Old Testament patriarchs as well as to the life and ministry of Jesus.

Islam and Christianity (as well as Judaism) share many beliefs in common, notably:

  • A common ancestral lineage through Abraham:
  • Belief in a monotheistic God – consistent with Judaism.
  • A Christian notion of the Last Judgment – also central to the early message of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an & The Patriarchs

Throughout the Qur’an, Mohammed repeatedly traces his ancestral and spiritual roots back to Abraham (or Ibrahim). Ibrahim is mentioned 70 times in the Qur’an, often in the company of other patriarches including Noah (Nuh), Ishmael (Isamil), Isaac (Ishaq), and Jacob (Yaqoub). Two samples from the Qur’an:

  • [3.67] Ibrahim was not a Jew nor a Christian but he was (an) upright (man), a Muslim, and he was not one of the polytheists.
  • [3.84] Say: We believe in Allah and what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Ibrahim and Ismail and Ishaq and Yaqoub (Jacob) and the tribes, and what was given to Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus) and to the prophets from their Lord; we do not make any distinction between any of them, and to Him do we submit.

To Muhammad, Abraham is both spiritual and genealogical ancestor to Arab Muslims. Along with other patriarchs of the Old Testament, Muhammad saw Abraham as neither Jew nor Christian.

Christians & Jews

There are about 15 references to Christians in the Qur’an, more than 20 to Jews. Most often passages that mention Christians also include reference to their Jewish counterparts. A couple of examples:

  • [2.62] Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.
  • [3.67] Ibrahim was not a Jew nor a Christian but he was (an) upright (man), a Muslim, and he was not one of the polytheists.

Muhammad could also be critical of these earlier faths; he was well aware of the now several centuries long conflict between early Christians and Jews. To his mind, this conflict did not reflect well on either religion. And orthodox Christians received added approbation because of their increasing adherence to a triune Godhead, a belief that Muhammad believed was equivalent to polytheism.

The Qur’an & Jesus

Jesus (or Isa) is identified more than 25 times in the Qur’an. Two samples illustrate both similarities and clear divergence from orthodox Christianity:

  • [2.87 - part] And most certainly We gave Musa (Moses) the Book and We sent apostles after him one after another; and We gave Isa, the son of Marium, clear arguments and strengthened him with the holy spirit,
  • [[4.171] O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only an apostle of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him; believe therefore in Allah and His apostles, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; Allah is only one God; far be It from His glory that He should have a son, whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His, and Allah is sufficient for a Protector.

The prophet Muhammad repeatedly declares great respect for Jesus and for the Christian New Testament. He describes Jesus as a miracle worker and as strengthened by the holy spirit. Yet for Muhammad, Jesus is also clearly not a part of the Godhead; rather, he is “only an apostle.”

For Muhammad, the mother of Jesus achieves an elevated position. She is “chosen” and “above the women of the world.” While not directly claiming her virginity, Muhammad comes close, saying that she “guarded her chastity.”

In summary, Muhammad readily traces his ancestral and religious roots to the patriarchs of the Hebrew Old Testament, particularly to Abraham (as a true Muslim, or one who submits). Patriarchs extending from the descendents of Abraham to Moses (of the Book) are also revered.

Muhammad demonstrates what amounts a love/hate relationship with Judaism and Christianity. Non-Muslims are eligible for a divine reward but the Prophet is skeptical. Jesus is not divine, not part of a holy trinity, but “only an apostle.” Yet Muhammad attests to Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, including raising others from the dead.

Shapes of Islam After Muhammad

The century after Muhammad’s death proved instrumental in the shaping of Islam – even as we know it today. Two forces were of particular significance – the rapid Muslim conquest of previously Christian cultures in the near east and north Africa coupled with emergent disagreement over the rightful leadership to Islam.

Just six years after the prophet’s death, Jerusalem was captured in 638 (as the 3rd holiest city of Islam). Muslim invaders were often welcomed with open arms – particularly by Christians.

During this period, Arabs proved to be relatively tolerant of other religions (including Jews and Christians), once conquered. Protected subjects (known as dhimmis) paid a poll tax in return for military protection and were allowed to practice their own faith – consistent with the Qur’an. Intense debates about political leadership of the ummah (or community) “played a role in Islam that was similar to the great Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries in Christianity.”

Three main strands would emerge to define up to the present:

  • Sufism – turning its back against on court luxury to live as austerely as the Prophet. While the Qur’an often described a God of strict justice, Sufis emphasized a God of love.
  • Shi‘ah – a self-styled party of ‘Ali (Muhammad’s closest male relative) on the belief that unmah must be led by a direct descendent and who came to protest mainstream Islam to return to the egalitarian spirit of the Qur’an.
  • Sunnis – representing what would become the Muslim majority, revering the four rashidun (rightly guided caliphs) and generally validating the existing Islamic order.

Much as the first century after Christ shaped most of the theological issues present even today, so the first century after Muhammad would prove to unleash the schisms within Islam that have sinced shaped even Middle Eastern and global politics even into the 21st century. Here we see the emergent clash between Shii and Sunni, between introspective and militant Islam.

The Next Millenium

By the 8th century, Islam would reach beyond its original spiritualistic and militaristic roots to become an all-encompassing social and legal system. For a millennium, Islam would offer the world a beacon of learning and hope – as a prime source of innovation and culture through an otherwise bleak era.

Various periods involved varied dynasties with vacillating trends toward Shii and Sunni Islam. This era was punctuated by the Crusades (with Jerusalem conquered in 1099 and then with the Crusaders receiving their come-uppance at the hands of Saladan in 1187).

Islamic ascendancy occurred at a time when medieval and Christian Europe was in the grip of a dark age. The reach of Islam extended further in all directions – to Spain, Russia, and India. Islam was associated with education and culture – including centers of learning in Spain and Egypt.

Inspired by papal initiative, Europe made a run at re-establishing a Christian presence in the holy land – and succeeded for nearly two centuries but at great cost in lives and unholy aggression. But even in this time of failure, the seeds of a Christian and European resurgence were being sown. Never again would Islam be so strong.

Spain in 1492 symbolizes a turning point toward the modern era. This not only is the year in which Columbus discovered America, but is also when the City-state of Granada was defeated by Ferdinand and Isabella as the last Muslim stronghold in Christendom. And in 1492, Jews in Spain were given an Edict of Expulsion to be baptized or deported.

Three New Islamic Empires

By the early 16th century, Christian Europe was experiencing a new awakening. This was the century of the Protestant reformation with the unleashing of a Western capitalist spirit – not to mention cultural renaissance. Muslim empires were in transition as well.

Three great empires bring civilization to the dawn of the modern era were in ascendance:

  • Ottoman Empire – covering Asia Minor, Anatolia, Iraq, Syria, and North Africa. The Ottomans were loyal to Sunni Islam. Politics were based on the Shariah or sacred Muslim law.
  • Safavid Empire – took hold over this same period in Iran. The ruling shahs would make Shiism, previously the faith of an elite minority, the religion of the state.
  • Moghul Empire – developed on the Indian subcontinent, predicated on an all-together different strain of Islam. The Moghuls were tolerant, embracing the universalist philosophical rationalism known as Falsafah plus mystical Sufism.

All three Islamic empires – the Ottomans, Safavids, and Moghuls – represented harbingers of early modern institutions. The empires were governed systematically, with bureaucratic and rational precision.

However, all three also essentially expressed a “conservative spirit” in matters both spiritual and temporal. The subsequent Muslim reaction to Western ascendancy would serve to spawn modern fundamentalism as a reaction to the more liberal and eventually dominant Western ethos.

Into A Modern World

European colonization of Islamic countries began with France occupying Algeria in 1830. Anticipating the end of World War I, the 1915 Sykes-Picot agreement divided the territories of the moribund Ottoman empire between England and France (as protectorates). This agreement was received as an “outrage” since provinces of the Ottoman empire had been promised independence.

Ataturk (1881-1938) had kept the Europeans at bay and set up the independent, secular state of Turkey – closing madrasahs (colleges), suppressing Sufi orders and forcing men and women to wear modern western dress. In Egypt, Muhammad Ali and then Jamal Abd al-Nasser (1918-70) led secular states.

Nasser was for a time militantly anti-Islamic, suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. Sayyid Qutb founded Islamic fundamentalism in the Sunni world and was executed by Nasser in 1966. This event served as inspiration for more radical Muslims to later assassinate Anwar al-Sadat (1981).

In Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi deprived the ulama (or learned men) of endowments, replaced Shariah Muslim law with a civil system, and forbade Islamic dress and the hajj (pilgrimage). The shah was subsequently deposed by the British and replaced by son Muhammad Reza.

As the last shah, the rule of Reza would last until the Iranian Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeni (1978-79). And not too far distanct, Israel was created at end of British Mandate in 1948 via U.N. declaration.


History begets reality. The story does not end with Islam at its formation, Islam at its peak, or even Islam in some of its more contemporary militant expressions – or even the now emerging pushback for possible return toward more pluralistic values.

While the future may remain largely beyond our direct comprehension, there are three key questions raised by this study. We also make a first pass at possible answers:

1. What parallels and differences are there between the formulation of Christianity & Islam? Both Christianity and Islam share the belief in an all-powerful, omniscient and just God. Judaism, Christiantity and Islam all can trace their heritage to a single source – Abraham.

A key difference lies in the relationship between theology and polity. Christianity’s early years were those of an often oppressed minority, followed by imperial and cultural ascendancy.

In contrast, Islam was expressed from a perspecitve of military and political strength from the time of Muhammad forward. From its early quick cultural ascendancy, Islam subsequently foundered in the post-Renaissance era even as a countervailing Christian ethic came into its own as a global economic and military force.

2. In what ways does the historical development of Islam influence current issues? While Christians have (partially) severed themselves from the Hebraic view of a just and jealous God to that of a loving God, Islam adopts the model of a warrior God in Allah. The secular and the profane are more readily conjoined.

However, there are distinct differences in interpretation and resulting cultural values between Shii and Sunni. The Shii is more personal and introspective, the Sunni more outgoing and linked to material success.

3. What is the appropriate response – from the Christian and the Muslim? For the much of the last 1-1/2 millenia, the Christian and Muslim have been in conflict – often due to mischaracterization of the other’s values and cultures. In the name of military and economic conquest, differences have been accentuated and similarities repudiated or ignored.

For the Christian, an appropriate response could be to acknowledge if not embrace the similarities. Individuals of faith are focused on the same object of devotion – the singular Allah/God. What if there truly were multiple streams coursing to this enlightenment?

For the Muslim, the challenge may be to accept the path of the younger Muhammad – the caravan trader, rather than the older and embittered Muhammad – the warrior. Encourage a true marketplace of ideas and ideals where even those who disagree can do so openly and fully respecting the opposing views.

Thank you for your reading of Islam and Christianity.
This monograph does not purport to provide all the answers, nor solve the age-long schisms.
What is suggested is opportunity for a new beginning.
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