Friday, February 10, 2006

Is There Common Ground?

I have a wonderful friend in the department where I work, a very tolerant and thoughtful Catholic woman whose companionship I have enjoyed for a few years now. We agree on many matters of faith, but in one regard we disagree utterly. She takes part in a community interfaith dialog group out of an honest desire to understand and unite other faiths. She is particularly interested in bridging the gap between Christians and Muslims, and while I applaud her noble intentions, I think this is ultimately doomed. She regards Islam as a religion of peace, and dismisses contradictory evidence in the same way that communists write off their failures -- it's not the religion's fault, people just do it wrong. She has feminist leanings, but when when I pointed out how patriarchal and oppressive Muslim societies are, she writes it off as a matter of taste. I have a feeling she regards my views as backwards and unenlightened, and so an invitation by her today to attend an interfaith conference focusing on the similarities between Christianity and Islam finally led me to write this letter explaining my views. (I tend not to argue with women, because it usually involves a lot of irrationality and hurt feelings -- how husbands put up with this I'll never know -- but I think my friend is different. We'll see if the friendship survives this disagreement.)


I waited a while before I sent the letter, and ended up sending a shorter, milder version (below) of the original. Still, it's been almost three days since I've heard from my friend, which is probably evidence that I should resume my former practice of not arguing with women. Well, women whose company I enjoy, anyway.


Well! Looks like I jumped to conclusions. Said friend was just very busy, and has no problem with the fact that we disagree on this. (Christian women rock!)
Over the last few years, I have read passages of the Quran and writings of its commentators, and it's amazing how similar the Quran is in some respects to the Bible. There are beautiful and fascinating passages in the Quran, and they echo many of the beliefs of Jews and Christians. I am aware that Muslims believe in the angels and accept Jesus as a prophet (but not as the Son of God). The problem arises from the ways in which Islam and Christianity diverge. There are several, but I will mention two of the most significant ones.

1) Unlike Jehovah, Allah does not love all people -- he loves only believers. There are many passages in the Quran about this. Christianity, however, holds that God loves all his children equally, whether they are believers or not. Christianity has the Golden Rule and "love thy enemy." Sadly, I have found no such counterpart in Islam. Rather, the language of the Quran is passive with respect to non-believers: Muslims are not forbidden to be kind toward non-Muslims. The language of the Bible, however, is active: Christians are commanded to love everyone, even their enemies.

2) Virtue is the highest value in Islam. By far. Freedom, one of the cornerstones of Western society, is way down the list. In my readings of Islamic commentary, one common lament is the fact that so much is "sacrificed at the altar of freedom" when stamping out improper behavior is so much more important. There is just no way that a culture that values virtue above all can be compatible with a culture that values freedom. The two are mutually exclusive.

I realize that Muslims all have their own interpretation of their faith. I have met peace-loving Muslims who are wonderful individuals. The problem is the way in which the masses interpret their faith -- that is to ask, what is the aggregate effect of that faith in the world? It only takes a sizable minority to be extremist about those beliefs for conflicts to arise, which is what we see in the world today. But what kinds of things does Islam motivate the masses to do? Well, there isn't a lot of freedom, equality, and prosperity in Islamic nations, and we don't see much contribution to the world in the way of scientific, industrial, or medical innovation. Contrast this with Christianity. Though Christians as a group are far from perfect, the overall affect of the Christian faith in the world has been very positive. For better or for worse, the only tolerable places to live in the world today are those with a Judeo-Christian heritage. You may not want to blame Islam itself for the problems in the Muslim world, but the worth of any movement has to be judged on how well it actually motivates people to do what they're supposed to. If Islam today is not being practiced as it was intended, then it is the duty of correct-thinking Muslims to take their brothers and sisters to task and do everything within their means to put the faith on the right track. People pay lip-service to this, but I am skeptical about the degree to which it is actually happening.

Actually, I will mention one more point on which Muslims and Christians diverge. My understanding of Islam is that faith alone does not warrant salvation. Muslims must also earn salvation through works. This is one of those interpretation problems, and could lead to drastic and desperate behavior by people who fear that they haven't done enough and will spend an eternity in hell. If even just a small percentage of all Muslim people in the world were to take Allah's dislike of non-believers and couple this with the need for works to save them... well, it doesn't take a leap of imagination to see how this could lead to extreme acts to get into paradise.

If you feel like it, you could ask your Muslim acquaintances about this stuff. Ask them if they believe that Allah loves everyone equally, if he loves Christians and Jews and atheists as much as he loves Muslims. Then you could ask them which is more important, for people to be free or for them to obey Allah. I would be interested to know their response.


Blogger Rusticus said...

How'd it turn out?

2/16/2006 4:15 PM  

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