It is not every year that Muslims observe Ramadan while Christians celebrate Easter and Jews celebrate Passover. Muslims follow a lunar calendar—a year of twelve cycles of the moon, not the solar calendar marked by Earth’s orbit around the sun. This means that the Islamic year is a bit shorter (by about 11 to 12 days) than the solar year and consequently that Ramadan starts earlier each year. This year Ramadan began in the midst of Lent and will conclude in the midst of Easter Season. With the disturbing recent news about the persecution of Christians in Egypt and Nigeria, it is perhaps fitting to remind readers that—despite the acts of small numbers of militants—Christians need not fear Muslims. Indeed Christians might even learn from them.
The idea of mutual learning represents a different approach to Muslim-Christian relations. Typically, Christians and Muslims think in terms either of polemics or dialogue. On the one hand, the internet is abuzz with Muslim-Christian dispute. Hundreds of Islamic websites, YouTube channels, Instagram feeds, and twitter accounts advance “dawah,” a form of Muslim evangelism that is not limited to apologetics but often includes polemical attacks on the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the Bible.
Christians often respond in kind, and not always with an apologetic of love. Certain apologists caricature and scorn the Qur’an and the records of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds known as the hadith. We are told that the Qur’an preaches a cruel and vengeful God and that Muhammad was guilty of the worst sort of sexual immorality. Some Catholics participate in this polemical game. Now most “dawah practitioners” and Christian apologists claim that they do not mean to spread hate, but only to preach the truth. Nevertheless, the image they give of the other is not authentic. Indeed sometimes it is hardly recognizable.
On the other hand, the Church hierarchy, especially after Vatican II, is dedicated to religious dialogue of the sort that is accommodating and generous. We saw this firsthand during a Vatican dialogue in which we participated some years ago at the leading Sunni Egyptian Islamic institution al-Azhar. This meeting set the scene for Pope Francis’s later visit to Egypt and, eventually, to a meeting with the head of al-Azhar (Ahmad al-Tayyeb) in Abu Dhabi where together they signed the document Human Fraternity. This document opens with a reminder of the dignity of all people:
In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace.
This sort of religious dialogue underlines the importance and virtue of finding common values and common teachings, and emphasizing these as a way of building friendship. It marks a stark contrast from the earlier history of religious competition between Muslims and Christians, and from the polemics between Muslims and Christians on Twitter.
Still, this dialogue does run the risk of being overly accommodating at the level of belief because of the mistaken assumption that this will make joint advocacy on several pressing social issues easier. But since belief and actions—or faith and works, to use the proper theological terms—are intimately related in both Islam and Christianity, separating one from another is an arbitrary act. Take out the engine, the car will still run for some feet or even a mile, but it will ultimately grind to a stop. “O mighty souverain,” the Russian thinker Vladimir Solovyov has one character declare in his Tale of the Antichrist, “what we cherish most in Christianity is Christ Himself. Him and whatever comes from Him, since we know that in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
So, is there another approach to Muslim-Christian relations? We suggest that there is indeed a third way, a way which precludes neither evangelism nor dialogue, but makes the most of both. It can be thought of as an exercise in sacred hospitality, offered and received, built upon a disposition of listening and attentiveness. We can seek out knowledge in places where we might not expect to find it. We recall that Islamic tradition knows of a hadith (whose authenticity, admittedly, is questionable), according to which Muhammad said: “Seek knowledge, even unto China.” We might say, “Seek knowledge, even unto Arabia.”
Our first calling as Christian believers is to be attentive to Scripture and the Church, but Scripture itself invites us to listen for wisdom wherever it is found. What knowledge or wisdom can we find in Islam, once we pay attention? Together the McGrath Institute of Church Life at the University of Notre Dame and the Oasis Foundation of Milan have sought to model this “third way” by producing a series of short videos on the Church and Islam as part of the Reasons for Our Hope project. The Introduction to these videos explains our motivation:
Why have we taken this step? Because we know that many Muslims are not satisfied with the usual stereotypes about Christianity. They look for something deeper. No less importantly, we are convinced that Christians can reach a new understanding of their faith by taking Muslim questions seriously.
The first three of these animated videos present Jesus as he appears in Islam and Christianity. In the opening video we quote the famous French Dominican priest, Jacques Jomier, who compares the contrasting views of Jesus to two mosaics, explaining that with the same colored stones profoundly different mosaics can be fashioned. In each case, however, there is a coherence and beauty to the presentation, the mosaic, of Jesus.
For Muslims, Jesus is one in a line of prophets, indeed one of the great prophets in this line. God guides the world, out of his mercy, through prophets. Humans can find signs that point to God’s existence and his attributes in nature. Many, however, miss these signs because of their sinfulness. As the Qur’an explains, “The human soul commands one to evil” (Q 12:53). God, however, does not give up on humans. He sends prophets who preach to them of God’s oneness and sovereignty. Some of these prophets, including Jesus, bring a heavenly book to share with their people. The verses of this book are known as ayat, the verse same word used for the signs in nature (the rain, the mountains, the human faculties of sight, hearing, and thinking) that point to a Creator. God guides both through “signs” in the world and the “signs” in Scripture.
Jesus plays a special role in this pattern of divine guidance. He brings a heavenly book, known in Arabic as the injil (from Greek euangelion, or “Gospel”) and produces miracles (also known in certain places as ayat). Thus Jesus is venerated as a messenger of God’s mercy.
The nature of Jesus’s miracles as reported by the Qur’an is also revealing. The most notable is his Virgin Birth. The Qur’an, in separate chapters (or Surahs) describes the annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In chapter 3 angels tell Mary “God gives you good news of a word from Him whose name is the Christ, Jesus the son of Mary” (Q 3:45). Elsewhere the Qur’an speaks of God’s creating Jesus by breathing into Mary (Q 21:91). Thus, Jesus is not simply the bearer of miracles (ayat) in the Qur’an. He is himself a miracle.
In some ways this is a profoundly different vision of Jesus from that which the Church has taught us. Indeed there are some places where the Jesus of Qur’an not only differs from the Jesus of Christianity, he even seems to rebuke Christians. For example, in chapter five God asks Jesus, “Did you say to the people: ‘Take me and my mother as two gods apart from God’?” Jesus responds, “Glory be to you! It is not for me to say that which I have no right to say” (Q 5:116). In the following verse he seems to wash his hands of the Christians: “I only said to them that which You commanded me to say: ‘Worship God my Lord and your Lord’” (Q 5:117).
Thus, it would be wrong to say simply that Christians and Muslims have a common faith in Jesus. The Jesus of the Qur’an is not Son of God, and not savior of the world. Indeed, the Qur’an (at least according to the common Muslim understanding) denies entirely the death of Jesus. This is why one of the “Reasons for Our Hope” videos asks whether we should speak of the Crucifixion or the “Crucifiction” in the Qur’an. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in some ways the Jesus of the Qur’an is an anti-Christian figure.
Here one seems to arrive at an impasse. It is insufficient and untrue to imagine that the figure of Jesus is “common” to, or “shared” by, Christians and Muslims. Yet it is unfruitful and ungenerous simply to condemn Muslims for rejecting the Church’s teaching on Christ. Happily, there is a third way.
The videos of “Reasons for Our Hope” intend to show to Christians the coherence and beauty of Islamic teaching on Jesus for Muslims. At the same time, they intend to show to Muslims the coherence and beauty of Christian teaching on Jesus for Christians. Learning about the other, and learning to love the other, can lead Christians to strengthen, and not weaken, their own Christian convictions. The videos can also help Muslims to transcend the common Islamic polemic that would make Christians into tritheists who deified the human Jesus and who have been led astray by a false Scripture.
Ultimately, everything rests on the quality of the questions. There are in fact polemical questions which are totally uninteresting, although they perhaps need to be answered (yet remember of Jesus’s silence in front of Herod!). And there are other questions that are not only perfectly legitimate, but can help us grow in the understanding of our own faith, such as “How can you affirm monotheism and believe that Jesus is the son of God” or “How can Jesus die on the cross if he is God?” Sometimes it is only the intonation that marks the difference. Perhaps the answers that we are trying to convey in Reasons for our Hope will be helpful to some Muslims in their spiritual quest. Or perhaps they will not, only God knows. But for sure they will enrich us.
The confluence of the holy seasons of Easter and Ramadan this year might be an opportunity for Christians and Muslims to learn about each other in a way that is still charitable, without falling into simple pluralism. Indeed, it is perhaps more charitable to allow both the Gospel and Islamic teaching be as they are, and not artificially combine them into what they are not. In other words, Christians and Muslims do not need to agree, but they might learn to disagree well.
EDITORIAL NOTE: You can view the "Reasons for Our Hope" videos and subscribe to their YouTube channel here.