Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Christianity and Islam:
What Common Ground? Part I

March 3, 2008 

The clash of cultures between Christianity and Islam dates back to Muhammad…. The clash is not just a matter of dissimilar cultures. Many Muslims and Christians do not know what they themselves believe. Consequently, their reactions are improper since their information is inaccurate. Confusion through politically correct ecumenism and relativism has prolonged ignorance. (Ergun M. Caner and Emir F. Caner, Unveiling Islam, Kregel Publications, 2002, p. 202.) 

The “Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders” to the heads of Christian churches everywhere, sent on October 13, 2007 probably touched very few Christians in the pews. Just another highfalutin discussion about arcane matters of theology, they might have thought if they knew or thought about it at all. 

However, this letter deserves the careful attention of every Christian believer for a number of reasons. It tells us a great deal about the state of Muslim-Christian relations today, a topic that is, or should be, of interest to everyone. The responses from Christian leaders also reveal some important things about the state of Christianity.  

A Gesture of Goodwill?

This letter referred to as “A Common Word Between Us and You” (Koran, 3:64) was addressed by name to 27 church officials, beginning with Pope Benedict VXI, and including the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.  

The opening (summary) explains that the theme of this “Common Word” is the recognition that Muslims and Christians make up more than half of the world’s population, and therefore the future of the world depends on peace between these two faith communities. 

Much of their letter is devoted to showing that on the basis of the Muslim and Christian scriptures the two religions have in common the foundation for peace in this twofold principle: “love of the one God and love of the neighbour.” Among other sources, they mention the Koran, 3:64, and the Bible, Mark 12: 29-31. 

They assure Christians that they, too, recognize Jesus as the Messiah, though not in the same way as Christians do, but as mentioned in the Koran 4:171 -- while pointing out that Christians themselves never all agreed about Jesus Christ’s true nature. They write: 

As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them – so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes…. 

So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.  Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill…. 

What do we make of this invitation that on the surface is a gesture of goodwill and friendship of one major world religion to another? How can we refuse to accept such a gesture? Are we not all in favour of peace and goodwill?  

There are two serious problems with this letter. In the first place, it gives a biased and incomplete reading of the Koran and the other scriptures of Islam. Secondly, it ignores the history of intolerance and violence of Islam as well as the present state of Christian-Muslim relations in countries where Islam is the ruling ideology.   

Let the Koran Speak

First of all, the authors present only those sections of the Koran that mention goodwill towards the people of the Book (Jews and Christians). In doing so, they fail to mention that the Koran (and the hadith) is severe in rejecting what orthodox (in distinction from liberal) Christians consider to be the heart of the biblical revelation. Central in this revelation are the teachings about the Trinity, the nature of Christ, salvation by grace, the authority of the Bible, the distinction between church/mosque and state, freedom of religion, and a host of other issues that derive from these starting points. 

The letter writers assure us that they honour Christ as an important apostle. However, they deny the heart of historic biblical religion, namely, that Christ is one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, who took on our human nature to be the Mediator between a holy and just God and us sinful human beings.  

This mystery of divine love is beyond our understanding, but to deny its truth is to deny the heart of the Christian faith. Christ himself is clear on that, and so are the New Testament epistles. As St. Paul stresses throughout all his writings:  If Christ did not die and rise again, our faith is in vain. (See, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:12-19) 

In other words, what this “common word” really amounts to is telling Christians that we should ignore what lies at the core of our faith and embrace the Muslim understanding of the love of God and of the neighbour. Can you imagine what would happen if Christians would begin a discussion with Muslims by telling them that they should set aside their belief in the Koran and in the prophet Muhammad because their understanding of both is seriously flawed?  

To rightly evaluate the opinions expressed in this Muslim letter, we need to have some idea of what the Koran says about the nature of the Christian faith. Following are a few key Koranic verses which are clear in condemning that which concerns the heart of the Christian faith.

The Koran states that Jesus was no more than an apostle and that “God forbid that He should have a son” (4:171), that it is a falsehood and a “monstrous blasphemy” to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (18: 4,5; 19:88), that such believers are cursed and “shall forfeit their souls.”(11:18 - 21), and that they “imitate the infidels of old. God confound them! How perverse they are!” (9.30). 

What About Freedom of Religion

The letter states at the outset that the words in the Koran “that none of us shall take others for lords beside God, mean ‘that none of us should obey the other in disobedience to what God has commanded,’ This relates to the Second Commandment because justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbour.” (pp. 2-3)

In this connection they quote the well-known verse from the Koran “Let there be no   compulsion in religion.” (2:256) But this claim must be tested against other instructions in the Islamic scriptures and its practices, which clearly have trumped (“abrogated”) this freedom verse. Following are a few such verses that are considered authoritative and unchangeable by the mainstream Muslims whom these leaders purport to represent. 

When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and turn to prayer, allow them to go their way.  God is forgiving and merciful. (9:5) 

Fight against such as those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe in neither God nor the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His apostle have forbidden, and do not embrace the true Faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued.  (9: 29) 

Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number.  God does not guide the wrongdoers. (5:51) 

Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion reigns supreme. But if they desist, fight none except the evil-doers. (2:  

The hadith, which contains the story of the life and sayings of Muhammad, provides plenty of evidence of violence and intolerance toward non-Muslims. Here are a few quotations taken from the hadith collection of Sahih al Bukhari, the authoritative books on Sunni Islam:  

Allah’s Apostle said, “Know that paradise is under the shades of swords.”  

Allah’s Apostle said, “I have been ordered to fight with the people till they say, ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,’ and whoever says, ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah,’ his life and property will be spared by me…” 

Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.
(Quoted in Norman L, Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam; The Crescent in Light of the Cross, p. 326.) 

Let’s be Honest

These and many other statements in the Koran and the hadith reveal a harsh attitude to those Christians who hold to a view of the Bible rooted in the historic Christian faith and confessions. Nonetheless, the authors of this “Common Word” letter write, I assume with a straight face, the following high-minded admonition to us Christians: 

Never before have Muslims delivered this kind of definitive consensus statement on Christianity. Rather than engage in polemic, the signatories have adopted the traditional and mainstream Islamic position of respecting the Christian scripture and calling Christians to be more, not less, faithful to it. 

This summary statement sheds a great deal of light on the difficulties facing Christians who want to have an open and honest discussion with Muslim leaders. For every assertion in the preceding paragraph is untrue. 

Their letter is not a consensus statement on Christianity, but a falsification of it.  It is highly polemic. The “traditional and mainstream Islamic position” is not one of respecting the Christian scripture. Its calling on Christians to be more faithful to the Bible is hypocritical and, to put it mildly, in bad taste. 

Rather than contributing to a better understanding between two religious communities, it muddies the waters. Not surprisingly, it is also contributing to the confusion and division within the Christian community itself. (More about that in my next column.) 

They write that they are in favour of justice and freedom of religion. But why then do they not in unmistakable language expose and condemn the indiscriminate killing and mutilation of thousands of victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, all done in the name of Islam? And why do they not similarly condemn the persecution of Christians and other non-Muslims in Islam-ruled countries, where conversion from Islam is a capital offence? 

If they would back up their fine-sounding words with deeds, they would demonstrate their good faith and thereby truly advance mutual trust and goodwill. Until they do that, Christians should treat this Open Letter for what it is, a piece of blatant propaganda.



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