Reflections of Jesus and Muhammad, or Distortions?

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On 16 June 2014 the Christian Muslim Forum held a well attended Conference at Abrar House London W1. The speakers included Christian and Muslim clergymen and academics and people involved in interfaith activities. The theme of the Conference was the extent today’s Christians and Muslims reflect the beliefs of Jesus and Mohammed, the Bible and the Qur’an.

The Conference opened with a comparison of Jesus and Mohammed by Julian Bond, the Christian Director of the Christian Muslim Forum and Farouk Peru, a Muslim researcher at Quranology. This revealed theological differences, particularly the view of Jesus in the Bible (the Son of God) and the Qur’an (a prophet of special distinction speaking the Word of God, who “anoints with the truth” and is credited with miracles) though many similarities including a single God and a belief in right action, love, peace and brotherhood.  Neither Jesus nor Mohammed compelled people to change religion. To Muslims Mohammed is the “final messenger”.  Examples were given of mutual respect by Christians and Muslims in the early history of Islam. Read Julian's speech here @julianbond12

Chris Baker, Director of the William Temple Foundation, put today’s hostility between some followers of Islam and Christianity in the context of present day globalisation which has caused social upheavals such as immigration, changes to work practices and education, leading to anxieties and a loss of confidence.  This has also led to different groups trying to assert themselves, sometimes aggressively with some religious groups asserting their feelings of “superiority” over others.  The Conference responded that such feelings of superiority are a misuse of religion as the main world religions encourage good behaviour and we are seeing a breakdown in trust and empathy.  Joint charitable action by Christians and Muslims could do much for inter faith relations. Read Chris' speech here @DrChrisRBaker

The Conference heard from Christian and Muslim clergymen from countries where their religions were in a minority: Christians in Egypt, Iraq and Syria and Muslims in France and England.  In Egypt the Arab Spring has been followed by greater polarisation between the ancient Coptic Christian Church and the majority Muslim community with numerous attacks on Churches. In Iraq, a country where Christianity has been established since the early Church and Christians have contributed significantly to education, science and medicine, churches and monasteries have been attacked and Christians abducted and murdered.   Likewise in Syria, where Christians have been part of the fabric of society since the conversion of St Paul in Damascus, the Christian population has declined to 5% of the population through persecution and displacement.  Common themes in these countries have been the failure to follow the values of the Qur’an, the silence of the majority, the lack of accountability of political leaders, the breakdown in trust, mutual respect and harmony.  The more exclusive religion has become the less the reconciliation between religious groups.  The situation in France and England has been more complex. Islam is flourishing in both countries and Muslims can live their religion more freely than in many Muslim countries.  In France the existence of Muslim ghettoes and perceived inequalities and in England where police stop and search powers are resented, community relations have deteriorated with riots in France. 

Having considered how the values of Jesus and Mohammed have been distorted by their followers, the Conference reflected on how harmony and peace could be created.   Susanne Mitchell, Greater London Presence and Engagement Network, Aliya Azam, Al-Khoei Foundation, Catriona Robertson, London Peace Network were the speakers. Using music as an analogy, Susanne Mitchell showed how the essential elements of harmony are listening, confidence, practice and being in key with God.  Aliya Azam reminded the Conference that the Qur’an speaks of the harmony of the people of the Book and does not destroy earlier revelations.  Humility and knowledge are therefore vital.  Dr Laith Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington agreed that the words of the Qur’an assume one God, one message and all the prophets confirm the one message.  Crimes committed in the name of faith can only encourage secularism and the followers of Islam and Christianity should do more to counteract evil.   Catriona Robertson said that conflict was often about economics, land etc and that the Christian message of loving our neighbours gave the potential for finding solutions to conflict but this involved taking risks. 

Fr Nadim Nassar, Director, Awareness Foundation, concluded the day by considering how we could follow Jesus and Mohammed with concrete actions to bring Christians and Muslim together. The religions do not exist in a vacuum but as part of a culture and we should promote peace and harmony as human values as much a religious ones.  Christians and Muslims, particularly religious leaders, should not be silent when they see persecution and fanaticism.   What is happening in the Middle East is a global issue.  The Conference concluded with agreement that further consideration would be given to the actions to be taken.  These would include monitoring all acts of persecution, highlighting these in the media, particularly TV and approaching senior religious leaders to speak out against violence. 

Philip Littlejohn
Volunteer, Christian Muslim Forum
 
 
 
Harmony
 
What are we doing when we talk about harmony? When we look around the world we see just the opposite: Fear of Islam and Muslims whipped up by media images, the rise of right wing anti-Muslim xenophobia in Europe, Westophobia! Further examples include Muslims fighting Muslims in Syria, Iraq and Egypt! Bokoharam attacking Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, and Christians and Muslims killing each other in The Central African Republic. Imagine a world where the only way people learn about Islam is through the editors of some our tabloid press!
These are just some examples when we don’t have harmony, so what is harmony from a Muslim perspective?
       Harmony lies right at the heart of the self-understanding of Islam because it is one of the group of meanings attached to the triliteral Arabic root s-l-m on which the very term Islam itself is based.  God created the world in the state of Islam,the meaning of islam here is the generic sense’ and that is the way that God wills for the creation.  This state of harmony is based on the concept of abiding peace, which is another derivative of the root s-l-m as typified in the greeting offered by Muslimssalam ‘alayikum – peace and harmony – be with you.  This is the natural state of the whole of creation and it is the responsibility of all human beings to strive to live in this state and thus to promote it within the whole created order.  For human beings, possessed of the dignity of reason and freewill, this can only come about when we conform our wills to the divine will and live the kind of ethical life that God wills.  This is the all-encompassing state of din al-fitra, the natural state of the human being from the time of Adam and Eve onwards.
In the contemporary world Muslims and Christians alike need to be reminded of this basic truth about Islam’s role in relation to diverse human cultures.  The Quran tells us that God created the diversity of human cultures in order that we may know one another and compete in acts of goodness.
‘We have revealed unto you the Scripture with the Truth, as a confirmer of whatever [revealed] Scripture came before it,  ... For each We have appointed a Law and a Way. Had God willed, He could have made you one community… So vie with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return, and He will inform you of that wherein you differed.’ Q.5:48
 
This was the essence of all the revelations that God has sent to the earth, therefore there is an essential harmony between revealed religions.  This links Islam not only to the acknowledged earlier revelations – those sent to Moses and Jesus – but also to the unknown earlier revelations.  There is a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad in which he speaks of God having sent a chain of 124k Prophets to the earth so that all the peoples of the earth have received at least one Prophet and all peoples have thus been guided in essentially the same way.  This was the way that was definitively and universally revealed through the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad.  In this way, we can see that there is a fundamental harmony between all humankind, we form one human family and God has no favourites.  All human beings are called to follow faithfully the Prophets who were sent to them and the ways of life  – that they established.
The Qur’an tells us that if God had so willed, God could have sent only one shari’a to the earth but God chose to reveal different shari’as to different communities to test them as to how faithfully they would follow the path that was laid out for them.  This can be seen in the way in which the Qur’an speaks about the privileged position of the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, or the People of the Earlier Revelations.  They are to be accorded freedom of worship within the Muslim lands and the Christians are praised for their tender-heartedness and humility.
Two qualities that are crucial for harmony are knowledge and humility! The Quran also draws attention to these two fundamental qualities—intensity of worship and depth of humility—that will bring about ‘affection’ between believers of different faiths:
‘You will find the nearest of them [the People of the Book] in affection to those who believe to be those who say: Verily, we are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and they are not proud’ (Q.5:82). Although the Qur’an sees itself as the last and definitive revelation of this perennial message, and thus the best path for all peoples to follow from that time onwards ‘There is no compulsion in religion’, Q.2: 256.
There is no compulsion in matters of religion and so individuals and communities are free to accept this message, based on their reasoned knowledge and understanding of this final message.  Ultimately, God alone knows the human heart and God guides whomsoever God wills to the path that God has chosen for them.  On the Day of Judgement, God alone will be the judge and all will be judged by their obedience to that which God has planted within their hearts.  Indeed, the Qur’an tells us that God will make clear to the communities of revelation on the Day of Judgement those things on which they differ. Someone sitting next to you on a bus may be so close to God  the only criterion of honour in the sight of God: piety and, a fortiori, sanctity.
 
The only criterion by which hierarchical distinction can be established among human beings is taqwa, piety or righteousness, as we are told at 49:13: ‘O mankind, We have created you male and female, and We have made you into tribes and nations in order that you might come to know one another. Truly, in the sight of God, the most honoured amongst you is the most pious amongst you’. Intolerance is fed by an unwarranted sense of superiority; a pious standard of excellence, by contrast, calls not only for tolerance of other ‘tribes and nations’, but also respect for adherents of other religions, and indeed humility towards them in the very measure of their superiority to oneself as regards If Muslims indulge their own ‘desires’ that salvation be restricted to Muslims in the specific, communal sense, then they are making exactly the same error as those Christians and Jews who assert that they, alone, are the ‘chosen people’. So the word ‘submits’, aslama, in 2:112 ‘Rather, whosoever submits (aslama) his purpose to God, and he is virtuous, his reward is with his Lord. No fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve’, should be read in the lexical and not communitarian sense.’
 
Although Islam sees itself as standing in the faith of Abraham, who was neither Jew nor Christian but rather a follower of the pure monotheism taught by Islam in its generic meaning, the story by no means ends there.  The Abrahamic family is but one of the communities within the all-encompassing human family traced back to Adam and Eve.  This means that Islam has an openness to seek out the good and godly ways of life of all human communities and to acknowledge and respect the resonances with the Qur’anic message – the criterion (al-furqan) – that are found there.  No human community stands outside the love, mercy and guidance of God.
This can be seen in Muslim history.  When the message of the Qur’an came to Prophet Muhammad and spread rapidly from Spain and Morocco in the west, to Samarkand and Sind in the east, and throughout the Middle East from Egypt and Syria down through Iraq and Iran to the Yemen, the majority of those who came under Islamic rule were Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.  Although gradually the majority of these peoples converted to Islam, there remain communities following the earlier revelations right up to the present day.  The history of Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule is one of acceptance of their ways of life and freedom to worship.  This is a heritage not sufficiently well known or taught amongst Muslims in the present day and indeed distortions are being propagated by some ignorant and extremist groups amongst Muslims, of which we are all too sadly aware.  When Jews were driven out of southern Europe by the Christian re-conquest of those lands after a period of Muslim rule, they were taken in by the Muslim empires of that time and allowed not only to settle but to establish their way of life anew in their adopted homelands.  These are the Sephardic Jews, who were to be found thriving in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and throughout North Africa until the middle of the 20th century.  This is the spirit of harmonious living together that needs to be stressed and reinvigorated in our own troubled times.
 
We are unfortunately living through a period of lack of authentic leadership in the Muslim world and it would be no exaggeration to say that there is a battle going on for the soul of Islam that demands the reassertion of this harmonious spirit if the world is not to be torn asunder.  If only Muslims could return to and assert this spirit of harmonious living, then we would be reminded of this treasure of human history, which could serve as a role model for other communities.
 
This spirit of Islamic harmony is not just a sociological “learning to get along together” or a form of “tolerating the other.”  It is a much deeper level of spiritual respect for other communities and individuals as being bearers of the divine spirit breathed into all human beings – this is what makes us human.  Although the “bright sun” of the final revelation has appeared in the spiritual firmament from the time of Prophet Muhammad, this is not seen by the Qur’an to destroy the earlier revelations and the communities that follow them but rather to clarify and illuminate what is authentic and godly in them.  This can be exemplified in the way that the Prophet reacted with regard to the Christian delegation from Najran that came to him in Madina.  Although the Qur’an sought to correct elements of their understanding of the place of Jesus and the Prophet entered into a clarifying discussion with them, he still acknowledged their godly status by allowing them to pray in his own mosque in Madina and to go their way in peace when they declined to accept his message.
 
There is thus a spiritual acknowledgement of the godliness of the other as a basis for deep human harmony.  There was a spiritual sharing between Jews, Christians and Muslims under Muslim rule in Spain and some sufi tariqas actually took Jews and Christians into full membership at that time.  Such spiritual harmony means that we can learn the things of God from one another and rejoice that we are all members of the one human family, worshipping the one and only God. If this the true picture of Islamic harmony amonst all peoples then we need to ask why it is not more widely known? Why don’t Muslims know their own religion and history?Why do other people grow up with such a partial and distorted picture of Islam? The key to this must surely be the kind of education that is on offer in schools and madressas, and their equivalence in all our faith communities.. Is it acceptable that a young Muslim grows up in Britain today without a real understanding of Christianity and its place in the history and development of our society? Can we not extend this to include all faiths and non-religious world views? We need to think about adults, who are decision makers, people whoin fluence others, or at least voters in elections; where do they get their knowledge and understanding about Islam and other faiths in our society with the necessary disposition of humiltiy and seeking harmony.
 
Aliya Azam
Al Khoei Foundation-Christian Muslim Forum

 

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