This is part 6 in the series “Islam and the West.” Click the link under pages or at the top of the page to read what the purpose of this series is. Only about one blog entry a week is dedicated to this series. There are links to the first five parts of the series at the end of this post.
The children of Abraham are bickering. Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim their religious heritage dating back to Abraham (Ibrahim). All see Adam as the first man, though more secular folk usually look at that as a kind of symbolic story, accepting now the theory of evolution. Yet, despite this commonality, the differences now seem far more important than the similarities. Does that have to be?
From the Jewish perspective, God has made a covenant with the people of Israel. It is a kind of stormy love relationship, where the Israelis need their God, and their God loves his people. The stormy part is that the people often suffer, and stray from the law of their God. Yet God does not let go, and despite centuries of hardship, neither do the Jewish people. The book of Job is illustrative. It is a powerful story with rich, beautiful poetry. God is challenged by Satan (often called just ‘the accuser’) to prove that Job really is a good and devout man. After all, God has blessed Job. Surely, the accuser says, if God took away Job’s belongings, Job would curse him. God takes on this challenge and suddenly Job loses everything, and over time his suffering grows as the accuser convinces God to hit Job harder.
Job’s friends try to console him, and urge him to admit his sins, since God must be punishing him with just cause. Job is convinced his suffering is undeserved, and wishes to make his case to God. In a series of speeches Job debates his friends about God and his nature. Finally God intercedes and chastises Job’s friends for their arrogance, and Job for thinking God should have to answer to him. God is the King of the World, and owes no explanation for how he uses his sovereign power. Job is restored, his wealth doubled. Yet within Job’s character, his inability to just let go of God and curse him, one finds the kernel of that relationship between the people of Israel and their God. Despite suffering and hardship, they are in it together. They are not to question God’s motives or authority. This cements their commitment to tradition and community; their identity has been tested through the ages and yet has persisted. There is no similar case in human history of a traditional tribal God lasting into the modern era, except perhaps for some of the Hindu Gods. Throughout the ancient era empires like that of Babylonia, Alexander, and later Rome, destroyed the religions of tribes living alongside the Jews. The Axial age, as noted in ‘Faith, Philosophy and the Modern Age,” led to a birth of new religions. The Jews have a special history, and they know it.
These ‘people of Israel’, as noted above, trace their heritage back to Abraham. God promises Abraham that because of his worthiness, he will be the father of a great nation. Yet his wife Sarah is too old to have children, and Abraham therefore has a child with Hagar, his wife’s handmaiden, who is named Ishmael. God, however, can work miracles and Sarah later gives birth to Isaac. Afraid that Hagar’s son will lay claim to Abraham’s heritage, Sarah convinces Hagar to take Ishmael and leave. Both Jews and Muslims believe that Ishmael becomes the father of the Arab people, thus tracing the Arab heritage back to Abraham.
Isaac is seen by both Jews and Christians as the true founder of God’s people. In large part this is because Abraham was ordered to kill Isaac in sacrifice, and was prepared to do so, until the angel Gabriel interceded and told him to stop. Abraham had proven his faith, and thus worthy of a covenant with God to assure that a great nation. Also, God does promise that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham’s progeny, and that was fulfilled with Isaac. Yet Sarah’s harshness with Hagar and Ishmael also led God to promise a great progeny for Ishmael, thus meaning that two great peoples, the Jews and the Arabs, would come from Abraham’s seed.
For Muhammad, the era of darkness was one where the Arabs lost site of the fact they were part of God’s covenant with Abraham. That after awhile, the customs were forgotten and the Arabs lost their connection with God. The result was ritual and tradition, sometimes brutal, with a lack of a spiritual core. The Kaaba in Mecca were supposedly built by Abraham/Ibrahim and Ishmael, based on an original building by Adam. It would become, as noted in part four of this series, a polytheistic shrine servicing the commercial needs of the Quraysh in Mecca.
Muhammad hoped his message would unite the Arab people, give them a spiritual center, and lead to dramatic reform of backwards and inhumane customs. He thought the Jews and Christians would buy into this too — after all Jesus (Isu) is a great prophet for Islam, and in fact the one who will come at the end of times to convert the world to Islam. (One can imagine the scene if the Christian fundamentalist faithful come to great Jesus as he returns to earth, only to hear him say, “by the way, I’m a Muslim.”) Jesus/Isu was born to a virgin in the Islamic tradition as well. He simply wasn’t the ‘son of God’ because God cannot have human attributes, and certainly cannot procreate. That would lead to polytheism, and to Muslims the Christian trinity is a rationalized tri-theism.
Islam spread quickly through the Arab world. Early Islam spread in part because Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, would have to put down rival imitations of Muhammad across Arabia. Clearly Muhammad had tapped into a cultural and social need of the Arab people, so quickly did his ideas spread and become imitated. But the quick spread of Islam through force assured that it would be seen as an Arab faith, not one to be embraced by others. Even during Muhammad’s time he realized the Jews would not convert, and while he demanded toleration and good treatment of Christians and Jews (Muhammad counted many as his friends), he changed the direction Muslims should face at prayer time from Jerusalem to Mecca. He realized his teachings would not be embraced by the other ‘children of Abraham.’
It seems a shame that these three faiths, with so much in common, find themselves at odds. Judaism and Islam are praxis-oriented faiths, meaning community, ritual and tradition are important. Thus it’s important for Jews to have their homeland, a place where they can form a true community, something they lacked for almost two millenia. Muslims also find it hard to migrate to non-Muslim countries, as the communal and praxis oriented nature of the religion does not function well when Muslims are in isolation. Christians are a more faith-oriented people (remember the spiritualism of Augustine), meaning they can worship in small communities, and see it as important to win new converts. Such action is akin to an act of violence when used against praxis oriented religions like Judaism and Islam.
As the series continues, the impact of these differences will be explored, especially between Christianity and Islam, as Christianity came to define the cultural traditions of the West, even the secularized “new West” we now encounter. However, at base these religions share a lot, and that should at least give hope to the possibility that peace and even friendship is possible. After all, none of these faiths is going to disappear any time soon.
Other entries in this series:
Part One: Rome and Paul (May 31st)
Part Two: Plotinus and Augustine (June 6)
Part Three: Just and Unjust Wars (June 15)
Part Four: Muhammad and Arabia (June 22)
Part Five: Muhammad and Jihad (June 30)