Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Christianity & Islam: similarities & differences

Christianity and Islam are the two religions with the most followers worldwide. Do they have much in common?

by Lydia Green

"Woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands and then say: 'This is from Allah' - that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written."

Ibn Hazm, who lived in Spain between the late ninth and early tenth century, was one of the first Muslims to produce a comprehensive criticism of the Bible. He believed the Quranic passage above referred directly to Christians, who he accused of falsifying parts of the Bible. For Ibn Hazm, the Bible was also riddled with inaccuracies. He claimed that the details of the story of Joseph do not add up "either in themselves or when taken together with his brother Judah’s story," and although the Bible predicted that it would take four generations and four hundred years for Abraham's children to come out of bondage, in fact it took 239 years but a great number of generations. Since God never errs, said Ibn Hazm, this could only be a mistaken transmission or a forgery. Hence the Bible simply cannot be considered a reliable source. 

Ibn Hazm also commented on the many theological impossibilities in the Bible. One such example is the reprehensible behaviour of which the prophets are accused in the Bible but which is not present in the Quran. Lot, for instance is said to have slept with his daughters who then gave birth to two sons of his and Jacob slept with Leah mistaking her for her sister and thus also begetting illegitimate children. In Ibn Hazm's opinion it is impossible that the messengers of God could have been guilty of such behaviour - "God forbid", he says "that Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon would come from such birth, and this is what necessarily proves that this Bible was invented by a heretic who made fun of religions". He also rejected the anthropomorphism of God in the Bible as similarly flawed: that God would have made man "in his image" was simply unimaginable, as was the idea that he should need to rest on the seventh day. 

Only one chapter of the Torah was written down by Moses for the people of Israel, claimed Ibn Hazm. As a result Muslims should only believe in those parts of the Bible that are corroborated in the Quran, while Jews and Christians in turn should trust in the Quran as the only text whose reliability is assured. 

Since a very early stage in the development of the Islamic faith, the Quran had been considered the actual word of God. Against such a text the Bible, imperfect and, in Ibn Hazm’s view, probably also incomplete, could simply not compete. On top of this, many Muslims held that the Bible itself predicted the coming of Islam with the verse "righteous slaves who shall inherit the earth” which is thought to refer to the Muslim believers who shall, inherit "paradise, the world or even the Holy Land". 

Ibn Hazm’s words marked the first attempt by a Muslim to wrestle comprehensively with the theology of Christianity. Now the worlds two largest religions, the debates between these faiths have grown both in scope and in sophistication, and yet and the arguments put forward by Ibn Hazm are still amongst the most bitter bones of contention. 

The Trinity and God the Son 
Another major source of debate between the two faiths is the Trinitarian doctrine; that is, the idea that God is simultaneously three (God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit) and one, since Christianity is a monotheistic faith. The erroneous nature of this doctrine is clearly stated in the Quran, the text states: "those who say 'God is a third of three' have become truth concealers" and "The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was the only Messenger of God and His Word that He committed to Mary and a Spirit from Him. So have faith in God and his messenger and do not say "three." Refrain, it is better for you. God is One God". Yet, as Sachiko Murata and William Chittick pointed out in their book The Vision of Islam, the Christian God is one and three at the same time, and "few if any Christians would hold that they have faith in other than a single God." 

Similarly unacceptable for Muslims is the idea that God could have had a son. This idea tends to be seen by Muslims as describing a physical son born of a mother. For this to be the case, they argue, God would have had to have a female companion. The idea that a supreme (and genderless) God could have taken an actual human partner seems highly improbable and yet, as Mamura and Chittick write: "it may be that some Christians have thought that God has taken a wife, or that he somehow impregnated the Virgin Mary, giving birth to his son. But no Christian theologian ever imagined such a thing. For Christian's, Jesus's sonship is a reality, but it cannot be taken in a physical sense." 

The implication of God being a father in a literal sense is also that he would have been a son, since to have a son one must have had a father. The Quran clearly refutes such possibilities: "Say: He is God, One - God, the Everlasting Refuge. He did not give birth, nor was he given birth to, and He has no equal." Despite this, Jesus does appear in the Qur’an and is one of its most esteemed prophets. 

Undeniable similarities 
Both faiths believe in a line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, who bring messages to people through scripture and revelation. They both hold that God chose to create the world at a certain time (and thus that it has a beginning) and that he will end it on the Day of Judgement, and of course both carry the conviction that those who have lived according to God’s law will go to Heaven with those who did not going to Hell. These fundamental similarities may go some way to mitigating the more profound divergences and both high-profile Christian and Muslim theologians have made concerted efforts to bring believers together using this common ground. 

A Christian example of such a move is Hans Kung, who recently said “the...church must, in my opinion, also respect that the one whose name is absent from the same declaration out of embarrassment, although he and he alone led Muslims to pray to this one God, so that once again through him, Muhammad the Prophet, this God has spoken to mankind.” 

Equally, the Muslim website acommonword.com has used quotes from the Qur’an and Bible to highlight the similarities in their doctrines on love: They compare Islam's prophet Mohammed’s statement that "none of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself" with the Bible’s statements on love of God and one’s neighbour. Differences do exist between the religions, yet the gulf is far narrower than many would have us think. 

Of course, what we have looked at here are theological differences between the two faiths. In everyday interactions, contrasting cultures and world-views, which may or may not have a theological basis, cause some of the greatest conflicts. If at times Christianity and Islam seem to be separated by an unbreachable chasm, at other times the similarities which bind these sister religions at their core shine through. As the Bible came before the Qur'an it does not comment on Islam, but Qur'anic references to Christianity, although hostile to certain doctrines, carry an overall message of toleration and good-will: "Those who have faith, and those of the Jews, the Christians and the Sabaeans - whoso has faith in God and the Last Day and works wholesome deeds - their wage awaits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be upon them, neither shall they sorrow." @LydiaGreen17
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