“Say: O People of the Book! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).”
(Holy Qur’an 3:64)
A unique feature of the modern age is the encounter taking place between people who belong to different religious traditions. Unfortunately, some have branded the particular encounter between Muslims and non-Muslims as a “clash of civilizations” when it is actually a “clash of ignorance”. An important aspect of such an encounter is the dialogue between Christians and Muslims – adherents of the two largest faiths in the world – and in this article I present a reflection on how such a dialogue can be approached from the eyes of a Muslim.
The Qur’an instructs Muslims to invite people to the recognition of God but also prescribes a specific manner in which this should be performed:
“Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and debate with them in the most beautiful manner…”
(Holy Qur’an 16:125)
This verse is often taken to refer to what Muslims today call da’wah – summoning people to the faith of Islam - and has taken many forms including preaching, debates, arguments, etc. I ask us to direct our attention especially to the words “debate with them in the most beautiful manner” (jadilhum bi allatee hiya ahsanu) – with emphasis on the term ahsan (the superlative quality of “most beautiful”. In the modern age, I would like to propose a method of dialogue – which is in fact a da`wah based on knowledge as opposed to adversarial debate or polemic – that seeks to fulfill the spirit of the Qur’anic emphasis on beautiful discourse. The objective of such a “da’wah of knowledge” (da’wah ilmiyyah) is to attain “recognition” of one another – something which the Qur’an mentions as the very purpose of human diversity:
“O mankind! We created you from male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (lita‘arafoo).”
(Holy Qur’an 49:13)
This “recognition” (ma‘rifah) can only occur if all participants in the dialogue (as opposed to an adversarial debate) are permitted to clearly present the principles of their faith tradition whereby all parties are able to truly understand each others’ positions. This is the only antidote to the “clash of ignorance” which has sometimes paralyzed such engagements. In light of this objective, I would like to propose some steps a Muslim can take in participating in such a dialogue involving Christians:
1. Familiarity with the theology of Christianity: This does not mean having a superficial understanding, nor does it mean knowing the Bible for the purposes of only refuting Christianity. But it means having a thorough knowledge of Christian doctrines and creeds including the Trinity, Christology, Crucifixion, etc. This means understanding what Christian’s believe and why they believe it. However, understanding is not the same as believing. Just because one understands Christianity very deeply, it does not mean that one subscribes to its truth claims. Many people often confuse the two and for this reason never bother in trying to understand the theological beliefs of other faiths.
2. Familiarity with the theology of Islam (and its various schools of theology and philosophy including Ash‘arite kalam, philosophy, Shi‘ite and Sufi theosophy): Islamic thought and theology has historically not been monolithic but diverse. Knowledge of this theological diversity allows one to locate the symbolic parallels of Christian theology within Islamic theology. A symbolic parallel is the realization that “X” is to Christians what “Y” is to Muslims.
3. Introduce the symbolic parallels in the Muslim-Christian dialogue. This first requires empathizing with the beliefs of the Christian interlocutor. The purpose here is not to debate, attack or confront Christian beliefs, but to actually affirm our understanding of them. Once this is accomplished, then one can introduce the symbolic parallels that are found in Islam. This allows the Christian to appreciate Islamic beliefs for what they are by intellectually proceeding along a line of correspondence – an “intellectual bridge” so to speak – which effectively begins at Christian doctrinal symbolism doctrine and leads to Islamic doctrinal symbolism.
All this may seem abstract at this point, so it helps to demonstrate this method through a practical example. This example will evoke one the most contentious issues which separate Christianity and Islam – the Christian doctrine of the Divine Sonship of Christ – which Muslims reject. However, the application of the above method to this specific Christian belief can actually allow a Christian to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Qur’an being the Word of God for Muslims and likewise, clear up Muslim misconceptions of Christian theology.
Understanding what Jesus as the Son of God means to Christians requires setting aside our biases and pre-conceived notions. It is true that the Qur’an criticizes the notion of God begetting a son and thus Muslims find this belief blasphemous. However, it should be realized that when Christians take Christ as the Son of God – it is not in a literal, biological sense. The Sonship of Christ, for Christians, is not biological or physical but rather intellectual and metaphysical. Christian doctrine actually rejects any notion of biological descent between Jesus and God. Contrary to popular belief, Christians do not revere Jesus as the Son of God merely on account of his virgin birth without a human father. Jesus is called the Son of God by Christians because he is understood to be the human incarnation of a pre-existent entity known as the Logos. It is this pre-existent Logos which is actually called the “Son of God”. The Gospel of John and the early Christian Church fathers often referred to the “Son of God” as the Logos – which literally means “Word”:
“In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomeit.”
(Gospel of John 1:1-5, Holy Bible, New International Version)
The Logos or Word of God, which Christians today call the “Son of God”, is the instrument by which God creates the Cosmos, communicates to humanity, and is that which became incarnate in the historical Jesus. For Christians, the Word of God is called “Son of God” because this Word is “from God” and simultaneously, the Word “is God” because it is of the same essence or nature as God Himself. This latter point was, of course, heavily debated in the first centuries after Christ and the Christian Councils took the position that the Son or Word of God was uncreated, eternal and consubstantial with God Himself (which became known as the “Father”). For Christians, the terms “Son” and “begotten” symbolically serve to express the intellectual and metaphysical relationship between God and His Word. Jesus Christ for Christians is the incarnation of the uncreated, eternal Word of God (Son of God) and thus, Christ is the primary “Revelation” of God for Christians.
Having appreciated the subtleties of Christian theology, the next step is to locate the symbolic parallels, if any, which exist within Islamic theology. Obviously, there is no concept of “Son of God” in the Islamic tradition due to which most interfaith dialogues break down at this point. But an acquaintance with Christian theology – as summarized above – reveals that the term “Son of God” is merely the Christian designation for the “Word of God” or Logos. This latter term, however, is very much present in Islamic theology. Like Christians, Muslims also subscribe to the belief in God’s uncreated and eternal Word (kalimah) or Speech (kalaam). The Qur’an mentions God’s creative Word in many verses such as the following:
They say: “God hath begotten a son.” Glory be to Him – nay to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: everything renders worship to Him. To Him is the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: When he decreeth a matter, He said to it: ‘”Be” and it is.
(Holy Qur’an 2:116-117)
What is interesting about the above verse is that while the Qur’an rejects the literal notion of God giving birth to a son, it does mention the reality of God’s Word, “Be”, by which He creates the heavens and the earth. In Islam, the Holy Qur’an is the revealed Word of God – just as in Christianity, Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. In this sense, there is a clear symbolic parallel between Christ in Christianity and the Qur’an in Islam. In other words, Christ is to Christians what the Qur’an is to Muslims. Interestingly, in the formative period of Islam, there was also a debate about whether the Qur’an was created or uncreated which in many ways paralleled the earlier Christian debates concerning the divinity of the Son or Word of God. The majority Muslim position, which is present in Ash‘arite theology, is that the Qur’an in its substance is the uncreated and eternal Word of God. However, for Muslims, the Word of God is not God; it is merely the Word of God – an eternal attribute of God. But in Christianity, the Word of God is God. This remains one of the major points which separate the Islamic and Christian theology.
All this still serves to establish a parallelism between the Qur’an for Muslims and Christ for Christians and this parallelism, I submit, establishes a way by which adherents of each faith can begin to dialogue and empathize with one another. This has also been pointed out by a many scholars of religion, two of which are quoted below:
“Muslims and Christians have been alienated partly by the fact that both have misunderstood each other’s faith by trying to fit it into their own patterns. The most usual error is to suppose (on both sides) that the roles of Jesus Christ inChristianity and of Muhammad in Islam are comparable… If one is drawing parallels in terms of the structure of the two religions, what corresponds in the Christian scheme to the Qur’an is not the Bible but the person of Christ - it is Christ who is for Christians the revelation of (from) God.”
(Wilferd Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History, New American Library, 1959, 17-18)
“But in order to understand what the Quran means to Muslims and why the Prophet is believed to be unlettered according to Islamic belief, it is more significant to consider this comparison from another point of view. The Word of God in Islam is the Quran; in Christianity it is Christ.”
(Seyyed Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966, 43)
Muslims can better understand Christianity and particularly the role of Christ for Christians by reflecting upon the status of the Qur’an in Islam. Similarly, Christians can better understand the Muslim reverence of the Qur’an by reflecting on the nature of Christ. This gives Muslim and the Christian a starting point within their own religious tradition by which to begin truly understanding and empathizing with the other. For example, the Arabic language of the Qur’an including its sounds, reading, verses, and structure are the symbolic parallel of the “body and blood” of Christ for Christians.
The parallels also extend to the role of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) and the Virgin Mary (peace be upon her). In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is the bearer of the Word of God as the Qur’an and the pure vessel through which the Qur’an was revealed to the world. Similarly, in Christianity, it is the Virgin Mary who is the bearer of the Word of God as Christ and the pure vessel by which Christ was born into the world. The illiteracy of the Prophet parallels the virginity of Mary. Just as the illiteracy of the Prophet demonstrates the miraculous nature of the Qur’an, the virginity of Mary proves the miraculous nature of Christ.
Certain correlations can also be drawn with regards to ritual practices. When a Muslim recalls that Christ is the Word of God for Christians, and that therefore Christ’s body and blood are the expressions of the Divine Word, then the Christian ritual of the Eucharist whereby the Christian partakes in the blood and body of Christ becomes intelligible. The Eucharistic rite, when its symbolism is decoded, is essentially a ritual whereby a Christian “takes in” or “internalizes” the Word of God as represented in Christ. In Islam, there is a similar ritual whereby a Muslim also “internalizes” the Divine Word: this is the very act of Qur’anic recitation – performed even during the salat – whereby the supplicant vocalizes and thus “internalizes” the Word of God as manifest in the Qur’an(Note 1). In the deepest sense, the “Common Word” between Christianity and Islam is the uncreated and eternal “Word of God” around which both faiths are oriented and while this realization does not resolve all the theological differences between the two faiths, it can serve as the basis for a fruitful dialogue.
Far from serving as a dividing line, Muslim and Christian theological beliefs can actually serve as a bridge towards greater and deeper understanding. Rather than debating about the divinity of Christ or the authenticity of the Qur’an, Muslims and Christians would better spend their time understanding and empathizing with each other’s deepest convictions. This is the objective of the “da’wah of knowledge” whereby the principles of each faith tradition can be communicated in “the most beautiful” of ways such that we all may “know one another”.
Such an engagement, of course, does not resolve theological differences nor does it seek to do so. However, the authentic knowledge (ma’rifah) of “self” as well as the “other”, can lead both sides to a deep and profound sense of mutual respect which theological disagreement cannot overcome. In closing, it is best to refer to an example from the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him and his progeny).
One of the earliest Muslim chroniclers, Ibn Ishaq, records that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) received a Christian delegation from Najran in 631 AD. The purpose of this meeting was to engage in theological debate over the nature of Christ. Although the Prophet and the Christians never reached a theological agreement, the Prophet invited and allowed the Christian delegation to pray and accomplish their liturgical rites in his own masjid. This perhaps shows that disagreement on the plane of doctrine (aqeedah) can co-exist with a deeper and more profound sense of respect and empathy on the level of worship (ibadah).
Note 1 - The analogy between the Christian Eucharist and the Islamic salat is also noted by Mahmoud Ayoub in “The Word of God in Islam”, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Volume 31, No. 1-2, 1986, 69-78.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi (The Other in the Light of the One) and Miroslav Volf (Allah: A Christian Response) which provided the inspiration for this article.