Love & Thanks,
To speak of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the “three Abrahamic faiths,” the “three religions of the Book,” or the “three monotheisms” obscures rather than illuminates. These familiar tropes ought to be retired.
In recent years, it has been frequently suggested that there is a relationship between Christianity and Islam that is analogous-some would say, virtually identical-to what Rabbi David Novak has called the “common border” between Judaism and Christianity.’ Islamic regard for Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mary is often cited as an example of this alleged affinity. Yet as the eminent French scholar Alain Besancon has pointed out:
The Abraham of Genesis is not the Ibrahim of the Qur’an; Moses is not Moussa. As for Jesus, he appears, as Issa, out of place and out of time, without reference to the landscape of Israel. His mother, Mary, or Mariam, identified as the sister of Aaron, gives birth to him under a palm tree. Then Issa performs several miracles, which seem to have been drawn from the apocryphal gospels, and announces the future coming of Muhammad.
Jesus is indeed granted a position of honor in the Qur’an, but this Jesus is not the Jesus in whom Christians proclaim their faith. The Jesus/Issa of the Qur’an promulgates the same message as the earlier prophets—Adam, Abraham, Lot, and the rest Indeed, all possess the same knowledge and proclaim the same message, which is Islam. Like the rest, lssa is sent to preach the oneness of God. He is emphatically no Trinitarian, not an “associator”; “do not say Three,” he protests. Nor is he the son of God, but a simple mortal. Nor is he a mediator between earthly men and their heavenly Father, because Islam knows not the concept of mediation. Nor, since in Islam it is unimaginable that a messenger of God can be vanquished, does he die on the cross; a double is substituted for him.
Besancon’s reference to what appear to be Qur’anic borrowings from the apocryphal gospels raises, for a twenty-first-century audience, the question posed by St. John Damascene in the eighth century: that is, whether Islam ought to be understood, in terms of the history of religions, as a heretical offshoot of Christianity that came into being when defective Christologies (i.e., theologies of the nature, person, and mission of Christ) intersected with ideas culled from pre-Islamic Arabic tribal religions and off-brand forms of Judaism, all of which were then forged into a new religious system by the genius of Muhammad.’ But that is an argument for another time and place. So is wrestling with St. Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century refusal to concede a parallelism between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, which was based on Thomas’s conviction that Muhammad taught great falsehoods.’ Suffice it to say that Islam’s deep theological structure includes themes that render the notion of “three Abrahamic faiths” ultimately misleading in understanding Islam’s faith and practice—particularly if this trope is understood in the popular imagination as a matter of three equivalent legs propping up a single monotheistic stool.
Take, for example, the question of Islamic supersessionism: Islam’s claim that it supersedes Judaism and Christianity, both of which are finally unveiled, in the revelation to Muhammad, as false (or, at best, deeply distorted) religions.’ This, of course, Christianity cannot accept, for it is a cardinal tenet of Christian doctrine that God’s self-revelation culminates in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ; no further revelation can be imagined. This bedrock Christian conviction—that God’s revelation has been completed in Christ, in the sense that nothing essential for the world’s salvation will be revealed after Christ—also helps identify another defect of the “three Abrahamic faiths” trope. In a Christian understanding of salvation history, Abraham is not only the great ancestor; he also points toward the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes, which will emerge from Abraham’s stock, the People of Israel—a fulfillment Christians believe God accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Abraham and Son of David. From a Christian point of view, Abraham cannot point beyond the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham: which is to say, Abraham cannot point toward a post-Christian revelation to Muhammad (or anyone else, for that matter). For Christians, in other words, the word “Abrahamic” does not designate merely origin and patrimony; it includes finality and destiny—Abraham points to what God intended for humanity by choosing Abraham, and that is the gift of God’s Son through the People of Israel. (To think “Abrahamic” solely in terms of origin also poses problems for Jewish self-understanding, but exploring that would take us too for afield here.)
Despite the supersessionist claims that some Christians have made throughout history vis-a-vis Judaism, no orthodox Christian holds that God’s self-revelation in Christ negates God’s self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel. Islam, by contrast, takes a radically supersessionist view of both Judaism and Christianity, claiming that the final revelation to Muhammad de facto trumps, by way of supersession, any prior revelatory value (so to speak) that might be found in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament.
Thus Islamic supersessionism has a built-in tendency to set in motion a dynamic of conflict with Judaism and Christianity that is not “required” vis-a-vis Islam by the deep theological structure of Judaism and Christianity—although, to be sure, Christians have taken an aggressive and bloody-minded posture toward Islam on many occasions over the past fourteen hundred years, an aggressiveness that has left deep resentments in the Islamic world and a historic burden of conscience among more thoughtful Christians. Nor should it be thought that Islamic supersessionism necessarily requires violent conflict between Islam and “the rest,” although that is a face of itself that Islam has displayed throughout its history; and in the contemporary world, that face has led to what Samuel Huntington describes as Islam’s “bloody borders:” Still, as Bernard Lewis writes, “Since its first emergence from Arabia in the seventh century, Islam has been in almost continuous conflict with Christendom, through the original Muslim conquests and the Christian reconquests, through jihad and crusade, the Turkish advance, and the European expansion. Though Islam has fought many wars on many frontiers, it was the wars against Christendom which were the longest and most devastating, and which came to loom in Muslim awareness as the great jihad par excellence.”‘ That Islamic supersessionism was an important theological source of this “almost continuous conflict” need not be doubted, although other factors were obviously in play.
This supersessionism, and the conflicts it has engendered, lead Lewis and others to suggest that we need a new reading of world history. It is striking to look through a standard reference work like the Motes Atlas of World History and find so little on Islam, much less on the world-historical ebb and flow of Islam-versus-the-rest. Yet, Lewis suggests, that ebb and flow, underwritten by a certain understanding of Islamic supersessionism, is one of the primary story lines of the last millennium and a half. To take but one example: We tend to think of the rise of European colonialism and imperialism as the product of intra-European economic, political, demographic, and religious dynamics—the quest for wealth; the Great Power game; the ques tion of what to do with younger sons in an age of primogeniture; the missionary imperative. Lewis suggests that we see European expansion as some Muslims likely saw it: as a great flanking movement in response to Islamic advances into the continent of Europe:
When Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut he explained that he had come “in search of Christians and spices.” It was a fair summary of the motives that had sent the Portuguese to Asia, as perhaps also, with appropriate adjustments, of the jihad to which the Portuguese voyages were a long-delayed reply. The sentiment of Christian struggle was strong among the Portuguese who sailed to the East The great voyages of discovery were seen as a religious war, a continuation of the Crusades and of the Reconquest, and against the same enemy. In eastern waters, it was Muslim rulers—in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and India—who were the chief opponents of the Portuguese, and whose domination they ended. After the Portuguese came the other maritime peoples of the West, who together established a west European ascendancy in Africa and southern Asia that lasted until the twentieth century?
Or, as Lewis asks later in his narrative, were the Barbary pirates who so exercised Thomas Jefferson
independent operators out for loot, as is suggested by the term “pirates”-and most of our history books? Or are they more accurately understood, in a long view of history, as “privateers” in the ongoing jihad against Christendom, engaging in a maritime form of asymmetrical warfare against the first frigates of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps at a time when Muslim power was in retreat?
Islamic supersessionism is one of the theological ideas that distinguishes Islam from Judaism and Christianity in an important way. It is also an idea that has had profound consequences in history. When an Ottoman Muslim historian referred to the Poles who had come to the rescue of Vienna in 1683 as “the people of hell,” he was drawing on one powerful strand of a tradition of religious thought that dated back a millennium-even as he foreshadowed Osama bin Laden.
Islam is further distinguished by its understanding of the nature of its sacred text, the Qur’an, an understanding that further illustrates the deficiencies of the “three monotheistic religions” trope. The English-speaking world owes a great deal, culturally, to the Authorized or King James version of the Bible, whose imprint can be found as far from King James’s committee as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Yet that debt is minimal compared to the debt that Islam, and Islamic culture, owe to the Qur’an. As one Muslim translator puts it,
The Qur’an was the starting point for all the Islamic sciences: Arabic grammar was developed to serve the Qur’an, the study of Arabic phonetics was pursued in order to determine the exact pronunciation of Qur’anic words, the science of Arabic rhetoric was developed in order to describe the features of the inimitable style of the Qur’an, the art of Arabic calligraphy was cultivated through writing down the Qur’an, the Qur’an is the basis of Islamic law and theology; indeed, as the celebrated fifteenth-century scholar and author Suyuti said, “Everything is based on the Qur’an? The entire religious life of the Muslim world is built around the text of the Qur’an.”
The Qur’an is, then, one of the most influential books in the history of humanity. Yet it is Islam’s understanding of the Qur’an’s origins that further sets Islam in contrast to Judaism and Christianity. For the origin of the Qur’an, as Muslims understand it, is not analogous to the origin of the Bible, according to Judaism and Christianity. That distinction about origins leads to a different understanding of the nature of the sacred text, and thence to further differences.
One prominent Christian understanding of biblical inspiration was expressed by the bishops of the Catholic Church gathered in the Second Vatican Council in these terms: “The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more?'” That Christian theological understanding of “inspiration”-which would not be foreign to Judaism-provides for the possibility of the interpretation of sacred texts, and indeed for the development of doctrine in light of an evolving understanding of the full meaning of Scripture. The Qur’an, by contrast, is understood by Muslims to be dictated, word for word and syllable for syllable, so that there is no question of “exegesis,” as Jews and Christians would use the term; nor is there any possibility of a postscriptural development of doctrine.” The priority in Islam is on jurisprudence, the debate of experts in Islamic law on the applicability of texts to circumstances (for example, in the issuing of a fatwa).
The Bible is a moral teacher that calls faithful Jews and Christians to use their reason in understanding the meaning and import of its moral teaching, including the commandments; Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, many of the prophets, and Jesus him self wrestle with the meaning of God’s purposes and commands in the Old and New Testaments. Islam’s holy book, by contrast, is described by an influential Egyptian Islamic activist in these terms: “The Qur’an for mankind is like a manual for a machine?'” Reverence for the Qur’an has produced some of the most beautiful calligraphy the world has ever seen. The Islamic understanding of the Qur’an as dictated does not, however, lend itself easily to other kinds of beauty: the beauty of spiritual and moral wrestling with the meaning of sacred text, and the beauty of insight that comes from that wrestling.
Alain Besancon takes us even further into the heart of the matter when he draws yet another important theological distinction between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other:
Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian concept of God, is “Father” i.e., a personal God capable of a reciprocal and loving relationship with men. The one God of the Qur’an, the God who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him “Father” would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feeling to Him would be suspect.
If God is not “Father,” then it is difficult to imagine the human person as having been made “in the image of God.” And that, in turn, puts great strain on any idea of an intimacy between faith and reason. In Judaism and Christianity, men and women are bound to God in many ways, including speech and argument. To take the primal example: in Genesis, God “speaks” forth his creation; Adam’s speech, by which he names the animals, gives the primordial man his first hint of his distinctive status in creation and of his distinctive relationship to the creator. In Islam, by contrast, participation in the Creator’s creative work is not a characteristic of the human-divine relationship, which is defined by submission to the majesty of God, who neither begets nor is begotten (as the inscriptions inside the magnificent Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem remind the visitor or pilgrim). According to Islam, the Jewish and Christian understanding of God limits God’s omnipotence.
Thus, from a theological point of view, Islam is “other” in relationship to Christianity and Judaism in a way that Christianity and Judaism cannot be to one another. These theological differences help explain the dramatically different stance that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam take toward conversions from their communities. Jews mourn the conversion of a Jew to Christianity, as Christians mourn the conversion of one of their number to Judaism. But this is mourning within the family, as it were: the Jewish convert to Christianity is understood to have prematurely identified the Messiah for whose coming both Jews and Christians long; the Christian convert to Judaism is thought to have misunderstood the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus Christ. The Muslim convert to Judaism or Christianity is, by contrast, liable at least in principle to death.
The late Pope John Paul II, whom much of the world recognized as an apostle of genuine interreligious dialogue, recognized this difference. In one of his most personal statements, the international bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul (so open contrasted since April 2005 with his “hardline” successor) expressed his admiration for “the religiosity of Muslims” and his admiration for their “fidelity to prayer.” As he put it, “The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at Mr But prior to this, John Paul II had cut to the core theological issue:
Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Qur’an, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.
Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Qur’an, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.
Islamic theological anthropology—Islam’s theologically driven concept of the human person—yields, in turn, a view of the just society that seems to be different from that of Judaism and Christianity. Islamic theological anthropology is one root of what Efraim Karsh has termed “the fusion of religious and temporal authority” in Islam, a fusion that is not peripheral to Islamic self-understanding. That fusion has, in turn, led to what harsh calls “Islam’s millenarian imperial experience—and, one might add, the millenarian political expectations of some Muslims today. Islamic theological anthropology also helps explain Islam’s traditional division of the human world into the “House of Islam,” the “God-hallowed realm” that embodies God’s purposes on earth, and the “House of War,” which is composed of all those who have not yet submitted to Allah and his Prophet From there, it is but a short step to the Muslim conviction that, as Bernard Lewis writes, “The Islamic state [is] the only truly legitimate power on earth and the Islamic community the sole repository of truth and enlightenment, surrounded on all sides by an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief”‘
That theological anthropology, and the fusion of religious and temporal authority to which it leads, is also one of the roots of Islam’s difficulties in creating the cultural conditions for the possibility of social pluralism, which sociologist Peter Berger defines as “the coexistence in civic peace of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups, with social interaction between them.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine genuine pluralism—”creeds intelligibly in conflict,” as John Courtney Murray describes it, or the engagement of differences within the bond of civility, to cite Richard John Neuhaus’s formula—in a classic Islamic conception of the just society. For in the just society as classic Islam envisions it, even the “peoples of the Book,” those Jews and Christians who are putatively the other two legs on the monotheistic stool, are second-class citizens: dhimmis, whose social, economic, and political circumstances eventually deteriorate to the point where conversion becomes a means of survival.
Islam’s concept of the just society was also deeply influenced by its foundational historical experience. As Bernard Lewis puts it, “The Founder of Islam was his own Constantine, and founded his own state and empire. He did not therefore create-or need to create-a church. The dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, had no equivalent in Islam”‘ In the English-speaking world, we often think of Magna Carta-the enforcement of limitations on autocratic royal power by the nobility of England-as the starting point for what would evolve into western liberties. Yet a strong case can be made that the more decisive moment took place in 1076, 139 years before King John conceded to the English barons. For when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the emperor Henry IV and set in motion a process that confirmed the independence of the Catholic Church from the power of the state in the ordering of the Church’s internal affairs, he set firmly in the cultural subsoil of the West a distinction between political and priestly power. Why was that “dichotomy” of regnum and sacerdotium, political power and spiritual authority, so crucial in the history of the West? Because, by putting limits on political power, it created conditions for the possibility of the social pluralism of the medieval world, which in turn shaped the public terrain from which democracy eventually grew.’
It goes-or should go-without saying that Islam has, over the centuries, given meaning and purpose to hundreds of millions of lives that have been nobly and decently lived. Islam has given the world architectural and decorative beauty, magnificent poetry, a lived experience of racial comity that puts a lot of the rest of the world to shame, important philosophers, a profound mystical tradition, and much, much more. Yet it is also true that, throughout the world today, Islam is in the midst of what Main Besancon aptly describes as “a long-delayed, wrenching, and still far from accomplished encounter with modernity.” That struggle with modernity created, as we shall see in a moment, a struggle within Islam, an intra-Islamic civil war. When that struggle spilled out from the House of Islam, it became one of the defining dynamics of the history of our time-and eventually left a great gash in the ground in lower Manhattan.
The Islamic encounter with modernity has been so wrenching-and so volatile-because it intensified, even as it reflected, certain problems built deep into the theological structure of Islam from the beginning. That, in turn, led to patterns of confrontation that seem, at the moment, qualitatively different from the strained relationship between Christianity and modernity in the early phase of their encounter. In fact, and despite the conflicts of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution in Europe, Christianity’s convictions about the rationality built into the world by the world’s creator were one important source of “modernity,” if by that term we mean the scientific method, historical-critical study of ancient texts, and government by the arts of persuasion, to take but three examples. Are there, in Islam’s theological self-understanding, themes analogous to Christianity’s theologically driven convictions about the rationality of the world, themes that could, over time, make Islam’s encounter with modernity fruitful for both Islam and for the modern world? The answer to that question will play a large role in shaping the course of the human future.
Whether Islam can evolve into a religion capable of providing religious warrants for genuine pluralism is-to take the most immediately urgent issue-one of the great questions on which the future of the twenty-first century will turn.That question engages both Islam’s distinctive history and questions of theological anthropology deeply embedded in the structure of Islamic self-understanding. Those questions further underscore the disutility of the idea of the ‘three Abrahamic faiths”-a notion invented by twentieth-century intellectuals, not an idea with any deep roots in Islamic (or Christian, or Jewish) thought.