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In practice Christians and Muslims can work together. But our thinking is worlds apart

The Koran is believed to be the immutable word of God, and so, unlike the Bible, cannot be seen historically

By on Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Rageh Omaar pictured in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Rageh Omaar pictured in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

The third and final part of Rageh Omaar’s documentary on the Life of Muhammad (you can watch it here) struck me as tending towards the hagiographical. This is not altogether surprising – if a believer makes a film about the person he believes to be a prophet, one would expect him to put the prophet’s best foot forward.

All the arguments tended to soften the received picture of Muhammad, and each interpretation was in his favour. The massacre of the Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, that changed sides was “controversial”, we were told. The usual controversial stuff is dealt with, such as the story of his wife Aisha, whom he allegedly married when she was but nine years old. It seems she was not nine years old, or there again she might have been – but at this distance in time it is rather hard to tell, isn’t it?

I personally do not want to get into those arguments, and I sympathise with Muslim attempts to defend themselves from what they rightly see as moral slurs against their prophet. I was a little peeved, however, to hear (26 minutes in) that the stoning of adulterers was a custom borrowed from Christianity. Actually, no: I do not think a single Christian has ever stoned anyone for adultery; and the founder of the Church rescued one such unfortunate woman from stoning.

More seriously, at 39 minutes in, we had Professor Tariq Ramadan getting to the nub of the whole question, which I spoke of in a previous post. Speaking of jihad, he said: “We have to contextualise this.” I could not agree more. The text – the Koran – has to be seen in context, that is, historically. But – forgive me if I am wrong about this – how can you see the uncreated word of God as in any way related to history?

The programme then went on, not for the first time, to contradict itself. It suggested that jihad was something to be seen in the context of seventh century Arabia; then it argued that jihad was in fact, according to the mind of Muhammad and his contemporaries, a completely peaceful activity that had nothing to do with fighting, but was more a moral striving. This gave the impression that the programme wanted to have it both ways. Well, you can’t.

Let me give a further example not touched upon here. The Koran fully approves the use of the death penalty for a number of offences; I am not making a sectarian point – so does the Bible. However, contemporary Christians campaign against the death penalty and support its abolition; in so doing they have no sense whatever that they are trying to abolish something that is willed by God, because we see that the death penalty in the law of Moses is very clearly a thing of its time, whose time has passed. Muslims who are against the death penalty never campaign for its abolition but for a moratorium (see here): the end product is the same, but there is this important ideological difference. They cannot argue that the death penalty is per se unjust, as it is willed by God in the Koran and the Koran, unlike the Bible, is immutable.

From this example you can see that I see no difficulty in Christian and Muslim co-operation in practice; but our presuppositions are worlds apart. A lot of Christian polemics are directed at what Muslims do – this is a mistake, I believe, as most Muslims are leading blameless lives. Rather, I think we should shine a critical light on Muslim thought patterns, because these are profoundly at variance with western and Christian ways of thinking.

  • Andre

    A welcome article, however we have to be a little bit braver than this and tell Muslims their religion is wrong. A plain, old fashioned, historical  mistake. Faced with judgment how will the individual Christian respond when asked by Christ, ‘What did you do to help me redeem these people?’ Saying, well I sort of let them go their own way so as not to offend them – as often they get violent – won’t cut it. 

  • ms catholic state

    Muslims are always suggesting online that I convert to Islam…..but I suggest to them that they should convert to Catholicism instead….the one True Faith established by Christ God Himself. 

    Not only Muslims, but post-Christian secularists too are all in need of the truth of Catholicism.  Let’s not keep our Faith to ourselves. 

  • ms catholic state

    Muslims are always suggesting online that I convert to Islam…..but I suggest to them that they should convert to Catholicism instead….the one True Faith established by Christ God Himself. 

    Not only Muslims, but post-Christian secularists too are all in need of the truth of Catholicism.  Let’s not keep our Faith to ourselves. 

  • Murat

    You are mistaken in so many ways.  Firstly, of course, Islam is about the direct relationship between a human and the Creator.  There is no person coming in between who may tell a Muslim what he is to believe.   We have no priests as intermediaries.   Yes, we must have regard to the views of scholars, but in the ultimate analysis conscience reigns supreme. 

    Therefore it is a mistake to say “Muslims believe..” just as much as it is to say that “Christians believe…”  It is quite permissible for a Muslim to believe that that a human judge or jury is capable of error and on that basis that human judges should never impose the death penalty. That hapepns to be my belief and that of many jurists  who happen to be Muslims.  Yes, there are places where that argument will not cut much ice – for example in Saudi Arabia – just as there are others in so-called Christian jurisdictions – Texas being a case in point – where it was a Muslim survivor of a recent massacre who asked the Governor to commute the death sentence – which the Governor did not do.

    By all means shine a critical light on Islamic thought – but you must accept that Muslims will do the same to Christan thought.  I for one, find the doctrine of original sin, or the denial of entry into Paradise of little babies whose parents have neglected to pour water on their heads with a ritual incantation, wholly incompatible with the concept of an infinitely just and infinitely compassionate creator, which latter concept also leads to the conclusion that Christians who seek to do the Almighty’s will in accordance with such revelation as He has permitted them to receive have as good a chance or better of attaining Paradise as I do.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Hang on a sec, Murat: Texas is not a Christian jurisdiction. The United States is a  secular state. Though of course I do accept your claim that many Christians in America support the death penalty.
    Your belief re the death penalty mirrors what I said in the post and what Tariq Ramadan thinks as well. The death penalty is practically outlawed because of the danger of human error. But you cannot claim with me that the death penalty is abhorrent to God – or can you?

  • David Lindsay

    We need to re-learn structured daily prayer, setting aside one day in seven, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimage, the global community of faith as the primary focus of personal allegiance and locus of personal identity, the lesser outward and greater inward struggle, the need for a comprehensive and coherent critique of both capitalism and Marxism, the coherence between faith and reason, and a consequent integrated view of art and science. The answer to the challenge of the Sunna is Sacred Tradition. The answer to the challenge of the Imamate is the Petrine Office. The answer to the challenge of Sufism is our own tradition of mysticism and monasticism. Liberal Catholics will be the last to see the point.

  • AJ

    “tending towards the hagiographical.”
    I agree. The structure of the programme seemed to follow a pattern of: an objection to Islam is raised, followed by several minutes of refutation. I suspect a similar programme about Catholicism would have been just the opposite: a good point about it raised, followed by ten minute’s Catholic-bashing. (And such a programme would quite possibly have been presented by either a militant atheist or a liberal Catholic with a vendetta against Catholic orthodoxy)

    Still, the programme was interesting, and its bias was perhaps more obvious than insidious.

  • Recusant

    Murat, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states that we cannot claim unbaptised babies are denied entry to heaven, but rather are entrusted to the mercy of God. Secondly, original sin is (as Chesterton said) the only doctrine that can be proven by reading the newspaper. Thirdly, does not calling baptism a “ritual incantation” cross over from criticism to abuse?

  • LocutusOP

    I’m not a theologian and I have often wondered this myself, so this is not a challenge to you…Although I very much would like clarification on this. We’ll actually be having catechism classes this autumn/winter so it’s possible that I’ll get an answer there, but here goes.

    It’s my understanding that the death penalty was not abolished because its “time had passed”, but rather because of 2 reasons:
    1) That even though some sins are punishable by death, it is up to God to punish sins by death, which I gather means through hell fire.
    2) That we cannot impose death on others since we are imperfect ourselves and imposing the death penalty makes it impossible for a sinner to seek forgiveness, conversion, atonement and grace. Indeed, Jesus Christ did not dispute the stoning of the adulterous woman, but simply pointed out that those willing to stone might in other circumstances have been the ones being stoned.

    So it’s my understanding that the Christian view on why the death penalty should not be imposed has nothing to do with it being unjust. Indeed, the just penalty in some cases is still death as per the Mosaic law, but imperfect beings are not capable of imposing this ultimate penalty, and for that reason we leave it to God.

    Does anybody have a clue on this?…Of course, the catechism “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty”, although it does not advocate it as penalty, but rather as a last recourse to defend human lives.

    I would just like to point out that I am entirely against the use of the death penalty, but not because its time “has passed”.

  • Jackson

    This article does not make sense.  It just seems to be random thoughts pieced together. 

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I disagree. I think the realisation that the death penalty is not acceptable has developed as human beings have rationally reflected in the light of revelation. It cannot be reconciled with the love and mercy of God. I have written about this somewhere, but cannot remember where. It may be in this book, perhaps chapter 4.
    The essential point is that revelation cannot exist in a vacuum but is always historically understood.

  • Parasum

    To adapt a little:

    “All the arguments tended to soften the received picture of Herr Hitler, and
    each interpretation was in his favour. The massacre of the Jews was “controversial”, we were told.”

    In past centuries, Mohammed was seen as a very evil man – rightly. At present, so is Herr Hitler. But if Mohammed can be whitewashed/rehabilitated – something which much easier to do when his crimes and vileness are in the remote past, & his advocates’ values are not endangered by him. Give Hitler a few centuries, & he will be remembered as an outstanding European statesman. This country, & others, need to stand up to Islam. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during WW2 was a strong pro-Nazi – so unless the Church today should co-operate with the Nazis of today, to co-operate with today’s Muslims is an insane & obscene suggestion, a kick in the face for those Christians whom these people persecute & kill. All the reasons against rehabilitating Hitler also go against working together with the followers of the false prophet Mohammed. “Those who wallow in filth, will be defiled by it”.  A Church that works with those wno hate and despise the Gospel, is no Church.

  • Parasum

    That description of the Magisterium’s “thinking” shows that its position makes no sense: for the M. totally ignores the use & defence of torture by the Church, & the use of the DP by the Church. So the squeamishness of the Magisterium needs to be confronted with the facts. Burning heretics alive did not stop St.Pius V being canonised; there are a good many beatified & canonised Inquisitors. So the use of the DP for heresy, & therefore for lesser crimes like murder, etc., can’t be opposed to the Catholic Faith. 

    Compassion is good – what is not good, but extremely bad & worthy of the very severest denunciation, is any approach to the Church’s past that prettifies it in order to bring it into conformity with the current ideas of the Church & Magisterium. To deny that the Church deliberately & officially & for reasons it found entirely Christian, right, valid & defencible used the DP, and had no qualms about doing so – once it had got used to the practice, after 1100 or so; earlier generations had severely denounced the very idea of executing heretics: Nicholas I & Wazo of Liege come to mind – is simply dishonest, and evidence of a lack of faith; for a Church with faith in God does not need to airbrush inconvenient details from its history, as it knows God is greater even than its history.
    The Church accepted the DP in the past. If the Church was wrong – & it was beginning to accept the DP by the time Siricius of Rome & St. Martin of Tours protested against the execution of Priscillian in 385,over 1600 years ago – on what basis can anyone be confident the Church is right in its teaching now ? Archbishop Lefebvre asked this very question – no answer came. The Church cannot keep on shredding its credibility – it has to take responsibility for what it teaches & does. And just now, it takes no responsibility for either.

  • LocutusOP

    Surely the Catholic church (or any other) won’t get very far by claiming that the time for certain teachings has passed (and I don’t believe it does either). That does sound very relativistic to me – the very relativism that the Church opposes.

    Who is to decide when the time has passed then? And why should we draw the line at just the death penalty? The same might also be said of divorce, as many enemies of doctrine claim.

    I think most people equate “eye for an eye, life for a life” with what they would regard as natural justice. But the Christian is called to forego the quest for justice and opt for mercy and forgiveness, leaving the doling out of justice to God.

    Jesus’ words of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, “judge not, and you be not judged, for what judgement you judge, you will be judged   and “bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” seem to be incompatible with the quest for natural justice and hence the death penalty, and in fact, they seem very unambiguous.

    Of course, there are other logical reasons to oppose the death penalty but from a Christian perspective they should be almost irrelevant. My main point is that we should not try to argue against the death penalty based on the notion that the time for such laws has passed because that would introduce a relativism into the debate from which it might be difficult to escape.

    For the same reason, we ought to admit that if the death penalty has been used – or justified – for any other reason than to protect further human lives then this has been done against the will of the new covenant.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    This problem – eg the fact that God in the OT “allowed” polygamy but then seemingly changed his mind, greatly excercised the thgeologians of the Middle Ages. But this problem has disappeared today – no Catholic worries about eating pork, do they? The answer is because revelation is seen as a historical event not outside history. Whole books can be written about this, but perhaps the best place to start is with the Vatican II document Dei Verbum….

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Your comment is what Ed West calls the reductio ad Hitlerum.You miss my basic point: let us not argue about what Muslims do, or what they beleive, rather let us look at the presuppositions of their faith and challenge those. This will in the long run be far more profitable.

  • Jp

    There are many Catholics who oppose the death penalty on religious grounds and others who support it for the same reason. No religion – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism — is black and white, notwithstanding the author’s righteousness in presupposing the beliefs of others.

    I can understand the frustration of insufficient clarity on nine year old girls in the seventh century, given the Church’s unholy record with nine year old boys in the 20th and 21st centuries. Like the author, I personally don’t want to get into those arguments.

    I do agree that it might be best to stay away from the Hitler talk. It was our Pope who actually wore the German army uniform. It is our Cathedrals in which the Nazis prayed for victory. It is under our Cross that they and their hate were buried.

  • Siobhan

    Parasum thank you for your excellent post. I have no idea how any Christian can honestly think that Christianity and Islam ate fundamentally all about serving the same God albeit in slightly different ways. I have no doubt that many individual Muslims are good and well intentioned people but personally I take exception to Islam being called a religion. No doubt some of the crazier stories in the press are pure stirring moves but the fact remains while individual Christians have and do still carry out evil and murderous attacks they have no mandate to do so from their founder Jesus Christ. The same can not be said of the founder of Islam. I fear the future very much when we live in a society that can present a white wash of a belief system that is currently at the centre of trouble world wide i.e Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan etc. No matter what line anyone personally takes on the current abuse scandal within the church, is there anyone out there who believes the secular media is giving a fair and balanced viewpoint of it all?

  • Parasum

    “Your comment is what Ed West calls the reductio ad Hitlerum.”

    I think not. In 1500, the current admiration for “the prophet” (!), less that 50 years after the taking of COnstantinople, & not 20 years after the massacre of the inhabitants of Otranto, would have seemed unlikely. The Ottoman advance into Europe was not finished in 1500. 500 years later, Jesus Christ is lucky if He’s not dismissed out of hand in a nominally Christian country, & Mohammed is admired. If Mohammed can be re-assessed and admired – so can Hitler, who was not so very different from Mohammed.

    That the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem co-operated closely with Berlin during WW2 is a fact. That Muslim preachers have adopted lies like the blood libel, and persecuted Christians, and still persecute them, are also facts. How Muslims act, speak, think about others, is not irrelevant to whether we can work with them. It’s quite true that many are not Fascists or persecutors – but it would be anything but wise to  co-operate with people who intend no good to us. “Charity believes all things” – but it doesn’t tumble into a trap with a big fat gormless smile on its face. There were many big fat gormless smiles for Communism; many ecclesiastics showed such great love for their enemies, that they forget to love their tortured & dying brethren in Christ. Having seen just a little bit of that attitude here, I don’t want the Church to adopt the same silly unwisdom towards Islam. There is a real danger of  this happening.

    As for the presuppositions of their religion: what is there to discuss ? Either Jesus Son of Mary is as they say, or as we say: He cannot both be crucified, and not crucified, God Incarnate & not God Incarnate. Of the law of contradiction prevents the Mass being both an abominable blasphemy heinously insulting to the Atonement wrought by Christ, and the Church’s denial of this description of it; how is the law of contradiction not valid when we compare Muslim & Catholic statements ? Either the Koran supercedes the Torah & the Gospel, as the Koran claims; or it does not.

  • AnAnonymousCoward

    “No religion – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism — is black and white,
    notwithstanding the author’s righteousness in presupposing the beliefs
    of others.”

    People have differening interpretation based on numerous factors, many of which are non-religious. That is a factor against religion. Well then Quantum Field Theory must be wrong too because there are differening interpretations by scientists.

    “I do agree that it might be best to stay away from the Hitler talk. It
    was our Pope who actually wore the German army uniform. It is our
    Cathedrals in which the Nazis prayed for victory. It is under our Cross
    that they and their hate were buried”

    Well I don’t know. The Nazis thought MORE of their swastika then the cross. The Cross had anyway become a cultural symbol of Europe. Take the use of the cross in Buddhist/Agnostic/Shinto Japan where people often wear a cross but usually have no idea what it represents. Hitler Youth was a compulsory organisation founded on secular principles. The Pope however did not belong to the Nazi Party itself, nor did he willingly make a choice to be a Hitler Jugend – it was compulsory. His predecessor was an anti-Nazi activist. So your argument’s hypothesis has also been falsified that way. JP II and the current Holy Father have done far more for the cause of human freedom, equality and justice than any Secular Humanist organisation which is just a bigot’s club.

  • Parasum

    “let us not argue about what Muslims do, or what they beleive…..”

    That is folly – what they do shows what their presuppositions are. Refusing to look at their belief is the folly that has got us into our present mess, so that we are dhimmis already, without even being in a Muslim country.

    As for the alleged “reductio ad Hitlerum” – if the CH censors posts in which alleged *reductiones* are shown to be no such thing, but are instead shown be to assertions of fact, that is for the CH (or its online editors) to do. If the clergy want to ignore facts about Islam, they must not expect the rest of us to join in.

  • Parasum

    But: how is the Teaching Church going to undo so many centuries of very clear and very active support for the DP & torture ?

    Isn’t it ever so slightly dishonest for the Teaching Church to pretend that did not happen – or has it adopted the Soviet view of history, allowing it to change the official past every so often as the changing needs of the official ideology may require ?

    “For the same reason, we ought to admit that if the death penalty has been used – or justified – for any other reason than to protect further human lives then this has been done against the will of the new covenant”.

    Then if the Teaching Church was wrong on this matter, which is certainly a matter of faith or of morals, on what principle is the Church to be trusted on other moral issues ? If the Church, on a matter of morals, cannot teach without falling into error, it is an abuse of language to call it infallible, since it plainly nothing of the kind. Why should people who try extremely hard to avoid using contraceptives, because the Magisterium forbids the use of them, do so, often at great personal cost, if the Teaching Church, in her all too fallible wisdom, has got this wrong ? She may at present insist she is right, & possibly she is; but if she has to eat her words 300 years in future, she will have been wrong, and be wrong now. She is only infallible, until she comes clean and admits to being in error. This is not impressive.

  • Ronk

     You seem to think that the Catholic Church teaches “that the death penalty is per se unjust”. It never has and it never will.