When I began college (a great many years ago), my first dormitory roommate was a young man named Mohamed; he was from the country of Jordan. After we had shared a room for a few weeks and had talked about other things, one day out of the blue he asked me, “We Muslims have great respect for your prophet Jesus; why don’t you Christians have any respect for our prophet Muhammad?”
No one could identify the difference between our two religions more distinctly.
Islam could be considered a Christian heresy, like Arianism and Nestorianism, or like some of the newer developments in Christianity. Both religions believe in one God. Both consider him eternal and unchanging, all-powerful, knowing all things, present everywhere. Both consider him good and holy and merciful and the source of all that is good. Both regard the one God as Creator of all that exists, and both define evil as corruption of the good things made by God. Both look to him as the giver of all laws, the One who has the right to tell people how to behave and to punish people for breaking his laws. Both religions await a Day of Judgment with a resurrection of all people, followed by heaven for God’s people and eternal punishment for God’s enemies. Both believe that God has spoken to his people through prophets. Indeed, when the teachings of Christianity are reduced to the verbs, “Trust and Obey,” no distinction remains between Christian teachings and Muslim teachings.
Muslims believe that Islam is the first and original religion, the only true religion, and that all other religions are corruptions of that true religion. Muslims believe that Adam and Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, but that their message was changed by their followers. Muhammad’s prophetic messages, received as the Qur’an, teach that God is one and has no equal. The Qur’an clearly states that God has no Son. God sends messengers, but God has never sent a Savior. Each person is required to work out his or her own salvation by obeying God’s commands. As in Christianity, the commands can be reduced to two laws: be faithful to God, and love and help your neighbors. Anyone who can say—and truly believe—that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet is a Muslim.
Muhammad was born in Mecca, a city in Arabia, around the year 570. The city of Mecca contained many religious people: some worshipped many gods, others were Jews, and others were Christians. Even the Christians were divided into groups that argued with one another. Muhammad wanted to know the truth, so he sought God in prayer and meditation, asking to be sent the truth. Evidently, Muhammad never heard or heeded Saint Paul’s warning in Galatians 1 to avoid anyone, even an angel, who brings a different gospel. A being of light appeared to Muhammad, telling him to recite, and began passing on to Muhammad messages the being said came from God. Those messages, when written, were preserved as the Qur’an.
More than half the people in the world today are either Christian or Muslim, although both religions include many nominal followers who are labeled as Christian or Muslim according to culture and family tradition, not according to their top priorities. In some places, the two growing religions confront one another violently, as in Nigeria, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. At first, Muhammad and his followers had greater respect for Jews and Christians than they had for polytheists. “People of the Book,” as they were called, were allowed to continue to practice their religion, although they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were barred from most government jobs. Some converted to Islam because they saw no difference between the two religions; others converted for economic reasons. Islam quickly became a majority religion in many parts of west Asia and north Africa.
Observant Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca. They donate two percent of their net worth (not their income) every year to assist the poor. They fast during daylight hours one month of the year, showing their commitment to God and their awareness of the problems of the poor. They seek, at least once in their lifetime, to take part in a pilgrimage to Mecca. They try to obey the commandments of God, which are encompassed in a legal system called Shariah. This system can vary from region to region, because religious questions (for most Muslims) are answered in a four-step process. First: what does the Qur’an say? Second, what do the history and traditions about Muhammad reveal? Third, what precedents have been set when the question has been asked before? Fourth, what does common sense (guided by the Qur’an and the traditions) suggest? Religious experts provide answers according to this path, and even governments are expected to follow the understanding of the experts. Muslim countries vary considerably in the amount of influence Shariah has over national and local laws. Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran under the Ayatollah, and Saudi Arabia are more tied to Shariah as declared by the experts than are Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries that are largely Muslim in population.
Muslims agree about God, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. They disagree about many other things—for example, about whether God created the world quickly a few thousand years ago or worked through evolution through many millions of years, about the place of women in society and government, and about the use of violence to overthrow worldly and unholy entities in the world. Like Christianity, Islam is divided into competing groups that sometimes are more rigorously opposed to one another than they are to groups outside of Islam.
In two coming posts, I will describe the political history of Islam and the Muslim understanding of the world today. J.