Islam and Christianity

July 14, 1996


Islam and Christianity

When what are widely believed to have been Islamic fundamentalists bombed the American military hotel recently, some of us thought instantly of two Charter Members of this church, Max and Nancy Amos, who have visited their son and his family in Saudi Arabia. When I called them, Max and Nancy had good news: their loved ones were close enough to hear and feel the blast but they were not hurt. Our conversation reminded me that Max had given me, some time ago, a little booklet he brought back from Saudi Arabia called Islam and Christianity. The book ridicules Christianity, boasts of the superiority of Islam, and is obviously written to win converts. It is such a strange mix of sense and nonsense, truth and falsehood, that I thought it might be instructive to share bits and pieces of it this morning.
Before we do, let’s take a capsule refresher course in the religion taught by Mohammed some six centuries after Christ. Mohammed believed himself to be a prophet sent to turn heathen Arabs to the worship of Allah, the one true God. Those who accepted his message were called Moslems or Muslims, from the Arabic, meaning those who submit to God. The word Islam also means submission. Moslems object to being called Mohammedans because they feel the word gives the incorrect impression that they worship Mohammed, but it will does seem at times to Westerners that their veneration of the prophet approaches worship. The friends of Mohammed first wrote down his teachings on any material they could find. Later, they combined these writings to form the holy book of the Moslems, called the Koran.
Parts of the Koran very much resemble the Bible, with stories about characters of the Old Testament and stories from the New about Jesus, who is considered an earlier prophet of God while Mohammed is the last of the prophets. Youngest of all the great religions, Islam in many ways is the simplest and most explicit. Unlike Hinduism and Buddhism, which evolved slowly, Islam came into being in the full light of history and spread with amazing speed. Within a few years of Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D. it had overwhelmed the entire Middle East, and within a century it had spread from Gibraltar to the Himalayas — a huge empire. If it had not been for Charles Martel’s military victories over the invading Moslems near the middle of the 8th century, the entire western world might today be Moslem. Even now the faith known as Islam is embraced by about 1/7th of the Earth’s total population.
The ethical code of the Koran is stringent: lying, stealing, illicit sex, murder, gambling, alcohol, eating pork — all are strictly forbidden. Punishment is based on the Old Testament law of retaliation: an eye for an eye. If you murder, you die — the Saudis beheaded four terrorists just over a month ago, and if they catch the most recent bombers you can expect the same. Polygamy is seen as superior to husband’s having mistresses, and so Moslem males are permitted to marry up to four wives, but the Koran insists they be treated kindly. Honor for parents, protection for widows and orphans, charity to the poor — these are only a few of the high standards of conduct demanded by the prophet. The Koran’s descriptions of Heaven and Hell are vivid. Hell is a place of molten metal, boiling liquids and fire where the punishments are adjusted to fit one’s sins. Some Moslems do not take it literally, just as many Christians view the Hell of their Scripture in figurative rather than literal terms.
Mohammed’s heaven is much more interesting: a huge garden with deep rivers, crystal water, lush fruit and beautiful mansions. The lucky ones eat well and get to drink the wine that was forbidden to them on earth. If you have ever been wearied by too much talk — a risky remark for me to make at this moment — you may appreciate the Koran’s promise that “by the mercy of Allah” no speeches are allowed in heaven, not even at banquets. This Paradise is guaranteed for martyrs of the faith and those who die in holy war, including (in the eyes of some) suicide bombers, and it is filled with unimaginably beautiful young women, fervently eager to bless all such faithful Islamic men, who will be assigned 72 of these houris forever — an incentive which helps to explain why so many young men are willing to become suicide bombers when life on earth is drab and hopeless. (houri [pr. hoo-ree, Robin] literally means “black-eyed, like a gazelle” — great lovely dark eyes).
The Koran is not quite as long as our New Testament, but not many Westerners find it easy reading. Thomas Carlyle, whose own prose style is so difficult it used to drive my Victorian Lit students to despair, considered the Koran to be “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused jumble…. Nothing but a sense of duty,” Carlyle says, “could carry any European through the Koran.” It is probably wise to say such things from a safe distance: Moslems consider the Koran a miracle of language and religion, and reject criticism of it as vehemently as ag ood Southern Baptisat rejects criticism of his own Holy Bible.
It is unfortunate for the Islamic world that we judge their religion by fanatics and militants who are willing to murder innocent men, women and children to make their faith prevail. In fairness, Christians must remember to ask themselves how well their own faith comes off when it is judged only by the horrors of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of thousands of witches, and the violence of militant anti-abortion groups in the name of their religion. Judge Islam by the lives of its finest, as you wish Christianity to be judged, and it comes off quite well. The Five Pillars of Islamic faith certainly make as much sense as some of the elements of our own religion. One is their creedal statement: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” Another is prayer, ideally meant to be practiced five times each day. The closest thing to formal worship is the Friday prayer at noon, when it can be impressive to see in a dimly lighted mosque hundreds of men standing shoulder to shoulder, then kneeling and bending forward until their faces are on the ground.
A third pillar is charity. Mohammed imposed a graduated tax on the rich to help the poor — a kind of welfare state sanctioned by religion. The poor tax was expected to amount to 1/40th of one’s wealth. Observance of the month-long fast of Ramadan is the fourth pillar, when from daybreak to sunset no food or drink is to be consumed and the faithful are to pray and meditate. when it gets dark enough each day so one cannot distinguish a white thread from a black, the faithful can partake again, moderatley, of food and drink. In practice, many Moslems use many of the daylight hour to make up for lost sleep. And finally, every Moslem is expected to take at least one pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, where they unite with the faithful from other countries. Pilgrims take off clothing that might show their status, and put on seamless sheets, to symbolize that all are the same in the holy city.
The Koran preaches that “every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim,” and that idea often worked miracles in the divided and quarreling Arab world. Since one of Mohammed’s wives was black, and he gave his daughter in marriage to a black, Islam’s opposition to racism has made it extremely popular among non-Caucasians. Millions of Africans have embraced the faith, and thousands of black Americans in this country have converted and taken Arabic names. Among the most famous examples are Cassius Clay who became Mohammed Ali, and Lew Alcindor who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The prophet himself spoke against conversion by force: “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” he said. And “Will you then force people to believe when belief can come only from God?” But theory is one thing, practice another, and any Christian who has read deeply in the long history of the Crusades must not blame all Moslems for the atrocities of their militant fundamentalists, who use terror to create Islamic states.
Some of you have heard the muezzin [myoo-ez´-in, Rob] call the faithful to prayer from a minaret, or, sometimes now, from a radio tower. Mohammed himself was very sensitive to sound and disliked bells, so the muezzin sings out rhythmically in Arabic: “God is most great. God is most great. I testify that there is no God but Allah. I testify that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Arise, and pray; arise, and pray; God is great, there is no God but Allah.” Islam penetrates the whole of life from birth to death far more than Christianity does. I have a hunch it is often forgotten, but the faithful are even supposed to invoke the name of Allah before sex, and when a baby is born to whisper in its ear the call to prayer. At a funeral, a loved one may whisper questions in the ear of the dead and give answers for the one who cannot speak: Who is thy God? Allah. What is thy religion? Islam. Who is its prophet? Mohammed — all ways of reminding the dear departed of the proper response to make when angels interrogate him or her in the grave. If you have wondered why Jerusalem, holy to both Jews and Christians, is also holy to Moslems, the answer is that Mohammed visited Jerusalem and its sacred Dome of the Rock, from which he had a vision of a visit to heaven.
Now to the booklet Max shared with me. It was written by one who calls himself Dr. Muhammad Ali Alkhuli, but since I will have to refer to him several times I am going to call him Ali for the sake of brevity. I found his booklet fascinating in its mix of truth, half-truth, and few bizarre falsehood. He enjoys pointing out, first of all, that Christianity uses four different gospels which often contradict one another, and that the Old Testament and the New Testament disagree on some very major doctrines like the nature of God and whether there is an afterlife. This is an offensive charge to Christian fundamentalists, but of course he’s right. What he fails to mention, however, is that the books of the Bible were written over a period of a thousand years, by many different authors, while by comparison the Koran was assembled quickly from the teachings of one man.
Christians who read the Bible with great literalness, and who are convinced it cannot have a single contradiction or error in it, would have a hard time in a debate with Ali. He repeatedly points out contradictions in the Bible — and as every Christian scholar knows, they are present. He says these same scholars admit that the Bible has between 30,000 and 50,000 mostly trivial mistakes in dates, science, geography, and history, whereas “Muslim scholars say that their Book, the Koran, has not a single mistake.” Of course, if claiming infallibility for a book makes it infallible, Ali needs to remember that thousands of fundamentalist Christian ministers make the same claim for their sacred book.
Ali points out that according to Christianity Jesus prayed to be delivered from death, but was humiliated, beaten and crucified. Islam, on the other hand, teaches that God heard the prayer and saved Jesus from the horrors of crucifixion. Which is more honorable to God and Jesus, Ali asks: the Christian story or the Islamic story? As for the heavy emphasis on miracles in many pulpits, Ali says what matters is not the miracles Jesus may have performed, but the teachings he left. I agree with him. We need to hear more about the ethics of daily life than about the feeding of the 5,000 or the walk on water.
No one has to tell us how bitterly the radical Moslems hate America, and how we are, for them, “The Great Satan,” but the list of reasons may be even longer than you know. In addition to the hatred we create simply by being rich and powerful, we nuked Japan, Ali points out, we helped the Jews occupy Palestine, we are forever interfering with third-world countries, and we have infected the whole world with greed, violence and immorality. Here are some of the specifics which are constantly fed to Islamic fundamentalists [I am quoting] : “Sexual liberty started in the Christian West in Europe and America. No control on fornication. No punishment for adultery. Boys and girls practising sex before marriage. Homosexuality has clubs and defenders. Women naked everywhere. Clubs for the nude. All sorts of sexual abnormalities. Prostitution becoming legal. Disgustive unimaginable sexual mania! All that and more, with no word of protest from the church!” That paragraph exhibits the mix I mentioned earlier: some truth, some falsehood, hysterical hyperbole in every other line.
According to this propaganda booklet, the family began to fall apart in the Christian West: husbands with no control over their wives, parents with no control over their children, divorce at the drop of a hat, people selling children, rape, incest, drugs, alcoholism and — for good measure — the guilt of starting two world ewars in less than 25 years that killed over 70 million people. Ali says he feels sorry “for people living in the West…..their media, schools, streets, and the general pattern of their life is godless.” Moslems are not angels, he admits, but their sins cannot even hold a candle to the sins of the West where — among other things — AIDS began. I had thought it began in Africa, but Dr. Ali gives us the credit.
I prefer not to end on a negative note, even with this bizarre pamphlet. Dr. Ali simply lumps all Christian theology together in order to make all of us look as bad as possible, but many of us would agree with him when he scoffs at the idea of original sin and says ‘You do not inherit sin, or pass it on.” He is strangely misinformed when he accuses Christians of drinking wine as an act of worship, whereas Islam prohibits all use of alcohol: it is a rare church that uses actual wine in communion in place of grapejuice. But he touches a vulnerable nerve in our history when he points out that for centuries the Christian church would not allow ordinary people to read the Bible, reserving that privilege for clergy. In contrast, he says, Islam makes reading the Koran an act of worship and all Moslems are encouraged to read it constantly.
I’ve talked about these things because Islamic radicals who blow up airplanes and buses and apartment buildings enrage us so much that we tend to forget the multiplied millions of Moslems who lead quiet and decent lives in obedience to the highest principles of their faith. I do not wish my faith to be judged only by medieval Christian crusaders, Salem witch hunters, con-men who preach on television, or by any of those people in Massachusetts, Florida or Wichita, Kansas who in the name of God killed or tried to kill other Christians for having a different understanding of the Bible. Moslem, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu — every one of the world’s great religions has created millions of noble lives, and — sadly— every one has been betrayed by fanatics. If we fail to remember that, we misjudge all of them. We have enough blind pride in our own traditions, more than enough hate for those of others. The plea this morning is for understanding.

We worship in the name of one who said, “Other sheep I have
which are not of this fold,” and we rejoice when we find them
in the most remote corners of the world. Teach us to be glad
for all who live by the principles of love and justice. Amen.