Friday, February 12, 2016

Christianity and Islam, part II

(For my first two entries in this Lenten series that explain why I am doing this, go here and here.)

There are several topics of theology that I want to cover in my (hopefully not vain) attempt to bring some clarity on the teachings of Islam to my readers. I was debating at this juncture how best to dive into this topic, and I concluded that perhaps the best place to start is the concept of God.

Muslims refer to God as Allah.The term Allāh is derived from a contraction of the Arabic definite article al- "the" and ilāh "deity, god" to al-lāh meaning "the deity" or "the God." Despite claims to the contrary, this does not refer specifically to God as an "Islamic" God like a Baal or a Poseidon. Allah cannot be pluralized and references a key concept in Islam that God is unique and can have no partner. The term Allah is very closely related to the Aramaic name for God, Allaha, and the Hebrew, Elohim.

In Islam, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, who created everything for a purpose or reason. Humans were created for a single purpose: to worship Him. To that end, God sent messengers to guide people to the fulfillment of that purpose. These prophets included (amongst many others across time) Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.  Muslims believe that all of them taught a consistent message  about God by affirming His greatness as Creator and guiding people to worship Him alone.

Muslims believe that Muhammad was the final Prophet of Allah. Muhammad supposedly, was asked about God, and the answer came in the form of the Qu'ran, "Say, He is God, the One, God the Eternal. He begot no one, nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.'" (Qu'ran 112: 1-4).

Now, at this point, one can see some similarities with Christianity, and also some serious departures. Christians certainly believe in One God. Certainly the great She'ma in Judiasm is "The LORD your God, the Lord is ONE." Christians believe the one God to be a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance but different persons. Certainly, the Nicene Creed clearly states that Jesus was the Only Begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God and Light from Light. This makes Muslims start twitching because they assert that Jesus never referred to himself as God, and that this is a later corruption by Christians of the Prophet Jesus' message of the One, True God. (I will touch on Islam's belief about Jesus in a later blog entry.) While they believe Jesus was a Great Prophet, they believe that equating Jesus as God is to give Allah a partner, which is perhaps the most grave sin in Islamic theology.

Islam believes that its own understanding of God is distinct from all other religions in various respects since they say that Islam is the pure and clear understanding of monotheism. All other religions found some way to corrupt or hide the truth of the Oneness of God, sometimes intentionally sometimes unintentionally. For example:

"He is God: there is no god other than Him. It is He who knows what is hidden as well as what is in the open. He is the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy. He is God: there is no god other than Him, the Controller, the Holy One, Source of Peace, Granter of Security, Guardian over all, the Almighty, the Compeller, the Truly Great; God is far above anything they consider to be His partner. He is God, the Creator, the Originator, the Shaper. The best names belong to Him. Everything in the heavens and earth glorifies Him: He is the Almighty, the Wise. (Qu'ran 59: 22-24)."

Now, I do not see, if given only the above quote, that Christians would necessarily disagree with any of those descriptors. Certainly, at Mass every Sunday we hear the words of the Old Testament during the Eucharist, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the Highest." The big exception, being, of course, Jesus, the Incarnation of God, but Christians do not believe that Jesus is a separate God, being of one substance with the Father. The Church went through all that with the Arian heresy, where Arius the monk is asserted to have made the claim that "There was a time when Jesus was not," meaning that Jesus was a creation in time, like as we are. This is why the Nicene Creed is so important in the history of the Church.

I will close this blog entry by noting one thing. Do notice the centrality of Mercy in the above passage. Being that the Pope has proclaimed this year to be the Year of Mercy, that is something to consider. Mercy as a primary attribute of God is sometimes an image lost in Western Christianity's history, particularly if you come from a strain of Christianity that fixates on an image of God as very angry, particular of the various strains of Puritanism or Calvinism that are grounded in sermons like "sinners in the hand of an angry God" (which to be fair to Jonathan Edwards was an homelitical anomaly for him, as most of his sermons were actually quite exegetical and pastoral).

For Muslims though, God as Mercy and God as Gracious or Compassionate is a central theme (though sadly somewhat lost in more extreme forms of Islam). Before reciting any chapter of the Qu'ran, a Muslim must always say "بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ" (pronounced b-ismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīmi) which means ""In the name of God, the Most Compassionate (or Gracious), the Most Merciful."

When you read the Bible or Pray to God, do you view God as Merciful? Is that an image that you associate freely with God? I know in my own case, that is not so much the case. If I had to list the top three attributes of God that come to my mind, I would probably use words like "just," "Father," or "love." Mercy is something I would tend to see as something I am commanded to do to others like the Golden Rule or helping the poor. But, why is that? Because is God is mercy, and we are called to be like God.

So, this Lent in the Year of Mercy, ponder whether you view God as Merciful. If not, ask yourself why. The answer may surprise you.

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