Its Okay to Admit we Don’t See Eye to Eye
I made a comment on a previous post about the fact I don’t accept the texts of Islam as divinely inspired. To people who don’t know much about religion this may seem provocative and even insulting to Muslims, so I thought it worth clarifying. I support efforts to build good relationships between religions. The intention to find common ground we all share is noble, and having respect and compassion for others as human beings is at the core of any good belief system. Ultimately, we are all just people doing our best to understand and live our lives as best we can. The wish to harm another person simply because they come to a different conclusion on these things is a rediculous concept we should all unite against. History has left some deep scars where people have used just this type of reasoning as an excuse for all kinds of savagery.
Nonetheless, its not possible (or necessary) to pretend that the three Abrahamic religions are compatible. With Jews and Christians, the differences in belief are quite easy to understand. Christians fully accept the books of the Torah as divinely inspired – we just believe that they have been fulfilled in Jesus. This also means that we no longer have to live with the very harsh requirements of some of the laws in Leviticus. As Jesus pointed out, he does not replace these laws, but mankind was simply was not able to follow them. Therefore god offered a new way to commune with him, despite us all falling short of the original process for doing so. We call this new way the ‘new covenant’, and this then gives us a second layer to the Jewish scriptures, as the names for gods people have a new equivalent – a new Jerusalem, a new Israel, a new living temple.
The important fact here is that Christians accept the Jewish scripture as they are, word for word. We have a natural understanding of these texts which Jews consider to be wrong, but there is no fundamental difference of opinion about the words themselves. Isaiah’s predictions of the messiah is an obvious example where we understand the old scriptures very differently. These were written around 700 years before Jesus was born, and we have copies of the text from over 100 years before the birth Jesus. I will include a couple here where the christian understanding of these words should be clear;
Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Isaiah 9: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on the inhabitants of a country in shadow dark as death light has blazed forth.You have enlarged the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at harvest time, as they exult when they are dividing the spoils. […] For a son has been born for us, a son has been given to us, and dominion has been laid on his shoulders; and this is the name he has been given, ‘Wonder-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace’
Isaiah 53: 1-12: Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
This last quote was read by Jesus in the synagogue when he returned home to Nazareth of his childhood, and after reading it he said “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. The old books of Judaism are full of references that speak directly and clearly to us as Christians, and which Jesus clearly understood in the same way himself. This is another example from a little later than Isaiah;
Ezekiel 34:11-16:”For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. […] I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.
Jews of course have a different understanding of these words, but they share them with Christians as being true and divinely inspired words. Muslims however believe that the Jewish scriptures are distorted and corrupted. They believe in the prophets of Judaism, but that the accounts of these prophets, and the words recorded by them, were jumbled up by some maligned spirits trying to distort the truth. Likewise they believe Jesus was a prophet, but that his words too were not recorded faithfully, deliberately all jumbled up. I’m not aware of the explanation for why none of the prophets before Mohammed called out that the scriptures were so fatally distorted (presumably they did but this was not recorded, and people carried on reproducing the same distorted texts ?). Although I disagree with their view of the texts being scrambled and find it a strange and spurious claim, I have no reason to be offended by their view. They believe our texts are muddled, we believe their texts are muddled.
These are of course fundamental differences which cannot be hidden away. As Christians we believe that Jesus was the incarnation of god, that the spirit of this human (a “son of man”) was the same spirit through which the whole universe came to be. Jesus himself made this claim, and the letters of Paul which we know were written within 30 years of Jesus life (ie. well within living memory) claimed as much. Likewise the gospels which were written shortly after this repeat this claim explicitly. It was one of the reasons the Jewish leaders of the time wanted him crucified.
I may be biased, but its simply not feasible to argue that Jesus never made this claim. Christianity started growing in a highly literate society. People were versed in latin and greek and events were recorded and shared in letters and many other types of document. No one at the time argued that Jesus had not claimed to be god, and there were plenty of people trying to crush this new religion early on – including the might of Rome itself. As its therefore clear that Jesus claimed to be god, you are only really left with two alternative conclusions – either he is god, or he was crazy*.
Muslims believe that Mohammed was the final prophet and more important than Jesus, which of course means that Jesus could not be god. As such its not surprising perhaps that they claim the scriptures of the tradition they partially adopted must have been distorted – even when recorded by primary and secondary witnesses. For them, only Mohammed received the true account of these things when he went into these fit like states that inspired the Koran. All the other Abrahamic texts may have been initially inspired by god, but were so distorted that you can’t trust any of them.
So its not really contentious for a Christian to claim that the words of Islam are not divinely inspired. Firstly its similar to what Muslims have always claimed about the scriptures of Christians and Jews – the Koran itself explicitly rejects the central tenants of Christianity. Secondly, its what all Christians believe, simply because we believe that Jesus was, is and will always be the same as God. I fully accept that this is a bizarre thing to believe, and when you study history of the likes of the Pharaohs or the Roman Emperors, its natural to see such claims as ridiculous. Nonetheless, we are confident that our exception is the only real exception. All the others were vain, bad or mad.
There is also a comment in the old Jewish books thats probably worth mentioning. Mohammed is said to be a descendant of Ishmael, and there is a section in Genesis 17:19-22 that could be said to predict the arrival of Islam over 2000 years later;
Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.”
This text does not expand on this “great nation” that could be seen as Islam, and we must avoid reading too much into this. But of course the arabs did have one of the greatest empires the world has seen, all in the name of a learned version of Islam. There is in the text a suggestion that this is purely a national flowering more than a religious one, but its really important that this type of speculation never becomes a reason for anyone of any religion to disrespect, harm or deny dignity to anyone. There is another quote from Isaiah (55:8) that reminds us not to be too arrogant about what we think we understand;
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We each can argue our different views, unproductive though that may be. Far better to celebrate the fact we share traditions, that we all believe in one amazing, brilliant, compassionate and merciful god. We should all try to be more like him. More than that, there is nothing wrong with agreeing to disagree.
* There is another possible interpretation for Jesus claim to be god, other than that he was mad. This is that all humans are made in gods image, and are therefore gods. This is quite common in new age belief systems, and they often quotes bits out of the bible out of context to prove it. However this is not the view of any of the Abrahamic religions, and so is not relevant here. Our spirits are indeed made in gods image, and this is a great gift of god that he made us to be higher than the angels. It should go without saying, but this is very different from being the same as god (i.e. him who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent). This clear distinction between god and his creation is something all the Abrahamic religions will firmly agree on. The subject of mystical experiences of union with god will have to wait for another time.