May 20, 2009
Many Christians and quite a few well-intentioned Muslims are trying to find common ground between the two faiths as a starting point for realizing peace, mutual respect, and cooperation. On both sides of the divide are those who insist that both faiths worship the same God and so this common faith in God should bring people together. Pope Benedict reiterated this theme on his recent visit to the Middle East, where he told Muslims,
“Here the paths of the world’s three great monotheistic religions meet, reminding us what they share in common. Each believe in One God, creator and ruler of all. . . . Those who confess His name are entrusted with the task of striving tirelessly for righteousness while imitating His forgiveness, for both are intrinsically oriented to the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of the human family. For this reason, it is paramount that those who adore the One God should show themselves to be both grounded in and directed towards the unity of the entire human family.”
If this concept resonates with you, then the following encounters recorded in the sacred texts of the world’s two largest religions are quite relevant.
First from Jesus, the founder of Christianity:
A teacher of the Law came up and tried to trap Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “What do the scriptures say? How do you interpret them?
The man answered, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”
You are right,” Jesus replied, “do this and you will live.”
(This story from Luke, Chapter 10, will be continued below.)
From Muhammad, the founder of Islam:
Allah’s apostle was asked, “What is the best deed?” He replied, “To believe in Allah and his apostle.” The questioner then asked, “What is the next (in goodness)?” He replied, “To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah’s cause.” (Al Bukhari, Vol. 1, No. 25)
Both of these major religions hold that reverence for God is the highest act one can perform. But what’s next? In Christianity, it is love of neighbor, while in Islam it is fighting. So right at the point of the second most important thing in the two religions there is a juncture. One might object that this may just be an indication of a small variation of priorities, that priorities three and two may be reversed or something. Sadly, this is not the case. The same reliable Al Bukhari hadith lists the third most important thing for Muslims is to make the pilgrimage to Mecca – a pagan ritual which from before Islam even came on the scene was the principle source of revenue for the city. In Christianity, the third and subsequent most important values after loving ones neighbor all came from the ancient “Ten Commandments,” and all relate to relations with other people – respecting parents, not bearing false witness, not committing adultery, and not stealing. (See Matthew 19:16-22)
Who is my Neighbor?
Not only do Christianity and Islam disagree on the top priorities for religious life, when it comes to defining ones neighbor, they couldn’t be farther apart. The story about Jesus, quoted above, continues with a definition of who is my neighbor. Jesus tells the story of “The Good Samaritan,” which is an expression known around the world. What may not be appreciated is that, to Jesus’ Jewish audience, the Samaritan was racially and religiously alien. (The Samaritans were those left behind when the Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and they built their own temple to God on Mount Gerizim to the north, in defiance of the Jewish religion centered in Jerusalem.)
Jesus answered, “There was once a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him, and beat him up, leaving him half dead. It so happened that a [Jewish] priest was going down that road; but when he saw the man, he walked on by on the other side. In the same way a Levite [the Jewish priestly order] also came there, went over and looked at the man, and then walked on by on the other side. But a Samaritan who was traveling that way came upon the man, and when he saw him, his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds, and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Take care of him,’ he told the innkeeper, ‘and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on him.’”
And Jesus concluded, “In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man attacked by the robbers?”
The teacher of the Law answered, “The one who was kind to him.”
Jesus replied, “You go, then, and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37)
So the Good Samaritan was someone who reached across racial and religious differences to help someone in need out of human compassion. What does the Quran say about relationships with ones neighbor? Three commands stand out:
Muhammad is God’s apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another. (Surah 48:29)
Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. (Surah 9:123)
Believers do not make friends with any but your own people. (3:118) (See also 3:28, 4:139, and 5:51)
One will search the Quran in vain for any command to love or show compassion for ones neighbor if that neighbor isn’t a Muslim. Muhammad never visited the grave of his own mother who died a non-Muslim, and there is an entire Surah in the Quran condemning his uncle Abu-Lahab who cared for him as a child, simply because his uncle never accepted Islam: “May the hands of Abu-Lahab perish! May he himself perish!” (Surah 111)
The Golden Rule
The active demonstration of loving ones neighbor is embodied in the “Golden Rule.” The source of this command is Jesus’ first public sermon (Matthew 5 and Luke 6), where He said, “Do for others just what you want them to do for you.” The context of others includes enemies and people who curse you. Jesus points out that even sinners are kind to fellow sinners, so there is nothing meritorious about being nice just to colleagues.
President Obama made the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame in May, 2009, emphasizing the need for all people to work together and find common ground. He said, “For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism, in Islam and Hinduism, in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated.” Unfortunately, the President may have missed the limited nature of the Islamic “golden rule” which is found in the Bukhari hadith, Vol. 1, Number 12:
The Prophet said, “None of you will have faith till he wishes for his (Muslim) brother what he likes for himself.”
So in Islam, kindness is extended only to fellow Muslims. Is the Golden Rule restrictive in other faiths? Here is a summary of the Golden Rule statements for the other religious faiths that President Obama identified:
Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary.
Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: do not to others that which if done to thee would cause pain.
Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.
Humanism: Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you.
Based on the evidence available, the priorities in Islam are distinctly and uniquely different from other religious views after their claim to worship the same God. 1) Warfare takes precedence over love of neighbor; 2) friendship differentiates believers from non-believers; and 3) kindness is reserved for fellow Muslims only. If these conclusions are true, there is little beyond the Islamic claim to be worshiping the same God that demonstrates that Muslims truly share any common ground with the other Abrahamic faiths. I welcome fact-based arguments by Muslims to the contrary.
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