Christianity and Islam: A Common Heritage?

Recently two prominent American bishops joined two leading Shiite Muslim scholars in Iran in issuing a statement on weapons of mass destruction. According to the statement, “Christianity and Islam cherish a common heritage that emphasizes, above all, love and respect for the life dignity, and welfare of all members of the human community.” It went on to say that “Catholicism and Shia Islam hold a common commitment to peaceful coexistence and mutual respect,” and concluded with a commitment to “our mutual intention to engage in sustained dialogue based on our shared values.”

This emphasis on the shared heritage of Christianity and Islam is fairly representative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ stance on Islam—namely, that Islam is a sister faith with which we have a close affinity. For example, at the Muslim-Catholic National Plenary Dialogue in October of 2012, keynote speaker Fr. Tom Michel, S.J., entitled his talk “Living Our Faith Together.” Fr. Michel explained that he was uncertain whether the plenary theme was supposed to be “Living Our Faith Together” or “Living Our Faiths Together,” but he preferred the former because “we are already united.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Christians are being butchered by the hundreds and thousands by their “partners in faith.” As Islamic terrorism spreads across the globe, Church leaders might want to reconsider the common-ground-with-Islam policy that has been in place since Vatican II. It’s one thing to affirm the common humanity shared by Christians and Muslims; it’s another thing altogether to assert that they share a common belief system—as in “Living Our Faith Together.”

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That approach is fraught with difficulties. What’s the interfaith common ground on jihad? On the equality of men and women? On amputation for theft? On the doctrine that Islam should reign supreme over all other religions? Is it wise to emphasize our “shared values” with a religion that inspires so many to maim and murder? To use an analogy, why would you want to tout your common ground with the local bully who beats his wife and intimidates his neighbors?

To ask a more basic question, why would you want to advertise your “common heritage” with a made-up religion? Even if Islam did not have a long history of depredations, in what sense does it qualify as a revealed religion—other than the fact that it claims as much for itself? Do the Catholic participants in the Muslim-Catholic dialogue believe that Muhammad actually received a revelation from God? If they don’t, then they are in danger of being involved in a pretense. Why do the claims of Islam merit so much serious consideration—let alone respect and esteem—if its founder was the perpetrator of such a massive fraud?

Despite all the fashionable talk about our shared heritage, there is no organic connection between Islam and Christianity as there is between Christianity and Judaism. Muhammad borrowed ideas and stories from the Torah and the Gospels, but the Koran can hardly be considered an outgrowth or fulfillment of either. It’s more accurate to say that Muhammad hitched a ride on the Jewish and Christian traditions. He saw them, in other words, as a vehicle for his own aspiration. And that aspiration—which jumps out from almost every page of the Koran—was to be a prophet.

Initially, Muhammad seemed content to be accepted as a prophet within the Jewish tradition, but when he was rebuffed by the Jews of Medina, it became apparent that his motivation was simply to be a prophet at any cost. Muhammad began to accuse the Jews and Christians of having distorted and falsified the revelations that were given to them, and he presented the Koran as the pristine revelation that the Jews and Christians had been guilty of distorting.

And what was the revelation? Ali Sina, the author of Understanding Muhammad, puts it this way:

What was his message? The message was that he had become a messenger and people had to believe in him…. Beyond that there is no other message. (p. 15)

Sina exaggerates, but not by much. Although the Koran also emphasizes the oneness of God, the only really new element not to be found in existing revelations is that Muhammad is a prophet—and not only that, but the “seal of the prophets.” The odd thing is that there is no prophecy in the Koran. Other than promising unbelievers that they will end up in hell, the Koran does not foretell anything of note. The prophet’s main message, repeated over and over, is precisely that he is a prophet.

Read the Koran and test this for yourself. The most frequently repeated phrases are “Believe God and His Prophet,” “Obey God and His Prophet,” and variations thereof. Sometimes the words “Messenger” and “Apostle” are substituted for “Prophet,” but they are all just different ways of saying “Muhammad.” In short the Koran never fails to remind its readers that Muhammad is a prophet.

Moreover, this prophet is on very intimate terms with the Almighty. Almost every time that Allah is mentioned in the Koran, Muhammad (under the title the “Apostle,” the “Messenger,” or the “Prophet”) is mentioned in the same breath. This too is odd. In fact, it borders on the sacrilegious. The greatest sin in Islam is the sin of “shirk”—that is, the crime of associating anyone with Allah. In order to refute the doctrine of the Trinity, the Koran emphasizes that Allah has no partners. Yet Muhammad links himself with Allah on almost every page—sometimes to the point that Allah begins to seem like a junior partner. Sina puts the matter rather starkly:

Islam is nothing but Muhammadanism. Muslims claim that they worship no one but Allah. Since Allah was only Muhammad’s alter ego, his other alias and invisible sock-puppet, in practice, it’s Muhammad whom they worship. (p. 7)

Prince Caetani, an early twentieth-century scholar of Islam, makes the same point in a slightly more elegant way:

It is thus the person of Mohammed that stands out above all in the front rank, till to God is given a secondary position in His capacity as the auxiliary of the Prophet. He is no longer the Supreme Being, for whose service everything should be sacrificed, but rather the all-powerful Being who aids the Prophet in his political mission, who facilitates his victories, consoles him in defeat, assists him in unravelling all the mundane and worldly complications of a great Empire over men, and helps him smooth over the difficulties which rise up every day as he works out these new phases of his prophetic and political career. (Cited in Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim, p. 88.)

In Caetani’s view, Allah becomes little more than a “deus ex machina” who supplies Muhammad with “revelations of convenience.” These were revelations that seem tailored to get Muhammad out of a jam or to resolve a dispute in his favor. Here’s a sampling:

  • After the Battle of Badr, a dispute arose over the division of spoils. Muhammad promptly received a revelation that “the spoils belong to God and the Apostle.” (8:1)
  • He received a revelation allowing him to marry his own daughter-in-law. (33:37)
  • Another revelation allowed Muhammad to marry as many wives as he desired. (33:50)
  • In another revelation, Allah freed Muhammad from his oath to one of his wives that he would stay away from his concubine, Mary (66:1-4).

After one such revelation, his young wife, Aisha, remarked: “Truly thy Lord makes haste to do thy bidding.”

After the Swiss voted in favor of banning minarets in their country, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, chided the voters: “I wonder,” he said, “…if they have ever opened the Qur’an.” One could ask the same question of the USCCB dialoguers. Because if you do read the Koran, one thing you can’t miss is the centrality of Muhammad. In a large sense, it’s all about him. Although Muhammad was careful not to refer to himself by name (he does so only on four occasions), see how many times the “Prophet,” the “Apostle,” and the “Messenger” are mentioned. The same is true of the Sira and the Hadith—the two other main sources of Islam. They are dominated by the person of Muhammad. Or consider this directive from Reliance of the Traveller, the definitive manual of Islamic law:

Allah has favored him above all the other prophets and made him the highest of mankind, rejecting anyone’s attesting to the divine oneness by saying “There is no god but Allah,” unless they also attest to the Prophet by saying “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” (v 2.1)

In short, you can’t have one without the other.

Other prophets were anxious to call attention to God, Muhammad seemed more anxious to call attention to his own prophethood. The Koran seems to be constructed not so much to serve the needs of the people of God, but to serve the needs of one individual’s rather large ego. The Koran’s obsession with the status of Muhammad suggests that it is an entirely human creation devised largely for the purpose of furthering the aims and ambitions of one man. After all, if Muhammad is the true author of the Koran, the words “Obey Allah and his Prophet” can just as well be translated as “Obey Allah and Me.”

One can find many resemblances between the Koran and the Torah and a handful of similarities between the Koran and the Gospels, but one can also find compelling evidence within its pages that it is, in fact, the “invented tale” that its author takes great pains to deny. (For examples of these denials see 11:13, 12:112, 32:1-2, 34:43.)

This being the case, Catholic bishops ought to be careful that, in their eagerness to show respect for Islam, they do not go overboard on the matter of “common ground” and “shared heritage.” What is the point of affirming your unity with a belief system that largely developed out of one man’s megalomania? What does it matter if Muslims revere Jesus, if the Jesus they revere was introduced into the Koran for the purpose of denying the claims of Jesus of Nazareth while enhancing the claims of Muhammad the prophet?

Muslims refer to the Koran as the “Holy Koran.” So also do numerous Western leaders including presidents, prime ministers, and four-stars U.S. generals. Bishops, however, should be more cautious about assigning sacred status to a book of such dubious origins. If the chief purpose of dialogue is to allow clerics of different faiths to congratulate each other on their shared open-mindedness, then it helps to concentrate on the mutual heritage aspect and to avoid the obvious stumbling blocks. But “let’s pretend” is not a very sound basis on which to move both parties closer to the truth.

What currently seems like the height of enlightened sensitivity on the part of bishops may eventually look like a display of simple foolishness. And, considering how rapidly our illusions about Islam are being deflated by the march of events, “eventually” seems due to arrive well ahead of schedule.

Editor’s note: The sign in the photo above reads “Stop – Yes to ban of minarets” sponsored by the Swiss People’s Party and posted during the fall 2009 referendum over whether minarets on new mosques should be banned in Switzerland. (Photo credit: REUTERS / Arnd Wiegmann)


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