The Muslim-Christian meetings that are organized in an effort to find a common ground between the two faiths usually focus on a few points that are essential to both parties. The dialogue meetings are always concluded with glowing compliments and positive remarks, yet without much success in conveying the perspectives of these important points that each party holds to the other side. We are of the opinion that the primary factor undermining the success is simply a lack of knowledge of some critical concepts about the other’s faith. This lack of knowledge leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions. If the concepts and the terminology used by one party are perceived differently by the other, then we cannot expect much productivity from these interfaith dialogue meetings. Therefore, in this article, our objective is to discuss some tenets of the Christian and Muslim faiths which we feel have not been sufficiently understood and which hence hinder the success of dialogue attempts. Although not an exhaustive list, an important subset of these points of miscommunication is as follows:
1. Is “Allah” the same god as the God of the Bible?
2. Trinity and Tawhid (oneness).
3. The divinity of Jesus (pbuh) and the concept of Prophethood.
4. The authenticity of Holy Scriptures.
We will now briefly touch upon these four points in the same order given above.
A frequently-asked question by Christians in such meetings is if the word “Allah” refers to the same Deity mentioned in the Bible. The answer to this question is different for each side. According to Islamic teachings, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, Who sent prophets throughout history to mankind, speaks in the Bible as well as in the Qur’an. Thus, the answer is undoubtedly a “yes” for the Muslims. On the other hand, we cannot expect the Christians to accept this answer with similar enthusiasm, as this would also mean that they accept the Qur’an as the Word of God.
The Names and Attributes of Allah as they are mentioned in the Bible are very few compared to the many found in the Qur’an and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Despite the fact that these Attributes and Names are similar, the Christian understanding of God shifts from the God of the Old Testament that commands an “eye for an eye” to a very compassionate God presented in the New Testament. Naturally, when a Christian hears the word “God,” he or she immediately begins to think, what kind of a God figure is being referred to? Is He like that of the Old or the New Testament?
To make things more complicated, the word “Lord” is sometimes used to refer to “Jesus” in Christianity. Thus, in a Muslim-Christian Dialogue the two sides may have significant differences in the very concept of God, the first article of faith. The key to successful communication on this topic is probably to discuss the Attributes and the Names of Allah as they are presented in the Bible and the Qur’an. This should be done without confusing the issue by discussing the personality or the claimed divinity of Jesus. The similarities in the way the Creator describes Himself in both Books will surprise the parties and clearly show that it is the same Divine Being Who is speaking in both Books.
Trinity is often misunderstood by Muslim populations, including some learned men of religion. Most of the time, it is portrayed as believing in three gods or in three deities. However, as is well known, Christianity is a monotheistic religion, not a polytheistic one. The confusion comes from the fact that the godhead of Trinity has three distinct characters. But, to a Christian believer, these three characters are like three different manifestations of the same Divine Being on different platforms. In one of the most-quoted verses of the Bible, Jesus says “Father and I are one.” So, to a Christian, Jesus is the manifestation of the Heavenly Deity on Earth. This may be the grounds for many other disagreements between the Muslims and Christians about the personality of Jesus, but it certainly does not make Christianity a polytheistic religion.
This is, in a way, good news for the dialogue efforts. The most important article of faith is shared by both sides, which is the fact that God is One. He is the Creator of the Heavens and Earth, Almighty, All-Knowing, Pre-Eternal, Everlasting God that we all worship.
The oneness of God is not the only tenet shared by these two major world religions. The list indeed is very long. According to most Christian denominations, God will judge us on our deeds on the Day of Judgment and He has an eternal life prepared for us. The good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. But, we all count on His Mercy rather than on our own deeds or acts of worship for our salvation. The concept of the Hereafter and the Day of Judgment are the most central articles to both faiths after the Oneness of God.
Many Muslims simply fail to understand how central the divinity of Jesus is to the Christian faith in most denominations. It is not very uncommon for Muslim speakers to start their speeches by claiming that Islam respects Jesus so much so that it considers him as one of the five major prophets of God. It is in fact a great blasphemy for a Christian to consider Jesus as less than divine. As much as Muslims disagree with it, the idea that Jesus was sent to earth by God as His beloved son and that he died on the cross as a ransom for the sins of believers are main tenets of the Christian faith and they are as central as the Trinity itself. For a Christian to accept that Jesus was indeed a man just like us, and/or he was actually not crucified is the same as abandoning the Christian faith in its most orthodox form as practiced by majority of churches.
On the other hand, the high respect paid to the institution of prophethood in Islam, both for the major and minor prophets, is not shared by the Christian scripts. The Old Testament contains many accounts of major acts of sin committed by the prophets. The life style of the prophets depicted in these stories very often does not resemble that of God’s chosen people, contrary to their counterparts in the Qur’an. Consequently, it is very difficult for a Christian individual to feel the same high respect that a Muslim feels for the prophets. Therefore, calling Jesus a prophet in an attempt to find a common ground with Christians backfires for two reasons; first anything less than divinity for Jesus is not acceptable to a Christian mind; second the institution of prophethood is not as lofty for a Christian as it is for a Muslim.
Where is the common grounds regarding this matter? As mentioned above, the divinity of Jesus should not be addressed by the Muslim side at all. Neither should they insist on calling Jesus a prophet. A more productive approach for the Muslim side would perhaps be to emphasize the fact Islam recognizes Jesus as the promised Messiah and as the Word of God (Kalematullah, Qur’an: 4:171), and that he has been strengthened with the Holy Sprit (Ruh-ul Qudus, Qur’an: 2:87 and 2:253). He indeed has a very special place among the other prophets in the Qur’an.
Christians have a diverse opinion as to how much and what parts of the Bible were inspired by God. The opinions on this matter extend from those who believe that each and every word in the Bible is inspired and hence binding to those who value the words of Jesus above the rest, as those are indicated in red ink in the “red lettered” Bible. Most Christians are probably of the opinion that even though the actual quotations from Jesus in the red lettered New Testament are few, the Bible is inspired by God in its entirety. Even the ones who do not agree with this statement would at least believe that the Bible is a book of good guidance as a whole. One way or another, the definitions of what is the Word of God, what is inspired, and what is from holy men who proclaimed the divine message throughout history are not profoundly important concepts to the faith of a Christian on the personal level. What matters is the fact that the Bible was written by so many authors over a period of thousands of years and that they all confirm each other. This is what it makes the Bible good guidance.
For the Muslims, however, it is simply not acceptable to found a religion on information that is doubtful in its authenticity. Religious principles can only be derived from the Holy Qur’an, every word of which is believed to have been revealed, and the examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad. Thus, Muslims again approach the Christian Scriptures on the matter of authenticity with severe criticism. In general, Christians do not see the need for a word by word authenticity in a religious Scripture for the foundations of the religion to be strong. In fact, they think that this is hardly possible as the Bible was written by 66 different authors. It is very much expected and acceptable that some parts of the book should be the words of holy men who committed themselves to spreading it to others, in the form of letters and such, mixed with the inspired words by God. Word by word revelation, as happened with Muhammad, on the other hand, is a new concept that Christians only become familiar when they talk to their Muslim friends. Therefore, the Muslim challenge to the Christian mind on this matter does not mean much more than the fact that it is another point which Muslims use to attack the foundations of Christian faith.
A more productive approach in a Muslim-Christian dialogue would be to point out the fact that the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are shared in the teachings of the Qur’an. The Ten Commandments revealed to Moses are laid out and detailed in the first several chapters of the Qur’an. The message of Jesus , the love and compassion that he had for others, regardless of who they were, his embracing of even the lowest in rank in the society and the giving of the glad tidings to the pious; all of these principles were also preached by Prophet Muhammad. Emphasizing the parallelism between the Bible and the Qur’an in the spirit of their teachings and not in their wording would be a much more productive approach than scrutinizing these books for authenticity in expectation that our Christian friends will have a higher respect for the Qur’an.
Furthermore, simple mistakes made in the selection of terminology can be misleading. The same word in the English language can bring quite different concepts and connotations to the minds of Muslims and Christians. Obviously the selection of the language determines the terminology. Each Biblical word in English has a long history in the minds of the people who speak this language. It is impossible not to get caught up in these connotations when Biblical terms are used to translate Qur’anic concepts into the English language. For instance, each of the words “grace,” “Lord,” and “saint” have deeply rooted meanings in the Christian tradition, which may be used as translation of Arabic words “ihsan,” “Rab,” and “wali.” However, these English and Arabic words do not overlap exactly in meaning. Islamic concepts like “rububiyah” are impossible to translate with one word. If one uses a made-up word to translate these Islamic terms, then the translation loses its religious flavor and its influencing power on the reader. On the other hand, if Biblical words are used, then it becomes impossible for the Christian mind not to get caught up in the Biblical connotations of these words. Therefore, one should not think that conveying Islamic concepts to Christians is a matter of having perfect translations. It will take many years before Islam establishes its own vocabulary in the English language amongst the native speakers of this language with well-understood meanings, as it did in many other cultures throughout the history. Considering the short history of indigenous Muslims in the West, particularly in English-speaking countries, the growth of Islamic media and their circulation is very encouraging.
Sincere efforts of dialogue should always start by learning the other party’s fundamentals of faith and what is most dear to them. Christian-Muslim dialogues, in our opinion, can be much more productive if the four points discussed above are carefully addressed during these meetings. First, Muslims should be very sensitive when discussing the personality of Jesus, who is not just a prophet to Christians, but everything that Christianity is built on. It should be clearly spelled out that calling Jesus a prophet is literally attacking the very foundations of Christianity and it should be avoided. Furthermore, the Trinity is a concept that is misunderstood by Muslims. It is in fact true, as often pointed out by Muslims, that Christian clergymen have difficulty explaining the concept of Trinity to themselves. But, this does not mean that the subject of Trinity, particularly the divinity of Jesus is a trivial matter to the followers of the faith. On the contrary, it is something very important and something taken to heart without question by the Christians. It is an issue of faith rather than reasoning. Therefore, Muslims should not try to explain this point with logic. There is nothing to be gained on this point in terms of finding a common ground with Christians and it will be a deal breaker if insisted upon.
The Christian side can also do their homework by paying attention particularly to the concepts of prophethood, and the Attributes and Names of God in Islam. As they study Islam, it will become clear that a prophet has a much loftier place in the mind of a Muslim than it ever has to a Christian. Also, the Attributes of Allah mentioned in the Qur’an are not different than those in the Bible, but only there is more information about who God is in the Qur’an than there is in the Bible. The faith that Muslims have in the prophets of the Old Testament and the second coming of J esus are two more crucial points that Christians can quickly discover to their surprise. Dwelling on these points first before the problematic ones listed above may be a good starting point for successful dialogue.