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Sister Religions — but don’t pick the ugly one.

  

By James Byrne 

It is sometimes claimed by Muslims that Islam is Christianity’s sister religion, and that Islam, coming later on the scene, updates and replaces it.  It is logical that Christians should become Muslims, their argument runs.  Both are religions of peace, and the teachings of Jesus are incorporated in the Qur’an.  Jesus is a great man in the Qur’an. He is highly regarded. 

Well, is this true?  Let us look at each religion. 

Christianity 

Well, to start off with, Jesus himself didn’t start a new religion.  He was a teacher.  He taught in the language and custom of his hearers; that is to say, a contemporary Jewish context.  At a personal level his teaching was practical, simple, and, even now, modern.  Examine yourself; suspend judgment; don’t put others into categories; act peacefully — these are examples.  With regard to the community his teaching must have been revolutionary.  God is not a kind of summit-stone on a pyramid of religious Law; he is to be found within ourselves.  Our approach to God is not material, and therefore should not be applied to the material world.  A religious state is not a possible state of affairs. 

Jesus seems to sense the danger of abstract nouns, and often tries to avoid them, turning a question back on the questioner.  When he is asked: ‘Are you the Son of God?’ he replies: ‘That’s what you say.’ He is aware of the danger of assigning a quality by invoking a name.  If  you say the word ‘God’ to me, he infers, you are making an abstraction.  The word ‘Father’ is a word we can understand:  I am the Son of Man.  This distrust of abstract nouns is very clear.  It seems to be the guiding principle behind his choice of the parable form.  Jesus doesn’t like revealing ‘Truth’.  He likes telling stories which illuminate the living of a life. 

Jesus was also a mystic.   He reveals this side of himself  when he is speaking to a group of people close to him and who know the way in which he thinks.  It is quite clear that he regards all things as being interconnected.  When he considers nature, he speaks of it almost in terms of a consciousness looking at itself.  Everything is itself, but is also, in some deep way, part of a great totality.  ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.’ It is the same teaching contained in the Hindu Upanishads.  Literality is only one way of expressing something.   

The teachings of Jesus were, ironically, turned into a state religion which, for most of its history, ignored those very teachings. Indeed, private reading of them was forbidden to the ordinary layman.  The Church became the very thing against which Jesus had warned: a pyramid of religious doctrine with an invented Christ as the summit-stone.  It behaved with great barbarity. 

As the western world has become more secular, Christianity has been able to adapt.  Its inner core — the teachings of Jesus, independent of time and place — is a part of the world wisdom literature.  There is even speculation that the teaching ascribed to ‘Jesus’ is in fact the teaching of no one man, but a compilation of the words of many.  That doesn’t matter.  (It was similarly held that one of the great books of China, the Tao Te Ching, was written by an old sage, Lao Tzu, at the request of the Gatekeeper, as he left the kingdom.  This is a lovely fable of its origins within an allegory of death.  The book is almost certainly a compilation.  That doesn’t matter either.) 

We are fortunate today, at least in the West.  We have the freedom to read the wisdom of the present and the past wherever we may find it.  We don’t need to be shackled to a belief system in order to satisfy the commands of a jealous god.  We don’t need to interpret the world under the yoke of the past. We don’t really understand yet how free we are. 

Now let us look at the Qur’an, the text of Islam.  Surely we find the same metaphysical depth in this as we find in the Gospels, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching.

 

Islam 

Would that we did.  When we look at the Qur’an we are looking at a text which is, we are told, divine not in inspiration but in every single literal word.  It is as God spoke it, via an angel, into Muhammad’s ear.  Its Truth is here and now.  Marmaduke Pickthall, enthralled by its poetry, made an

English translation in 1930.  He said that the beauty and poetry of the original could not be translated.   Other translators attempted the same task.  Actually, the translations differ only in minor respects. 

So Islam was, from the very start, an attempt to found a religion on the evolving text of the Qur’an.  And so it has been since.  The newcomer to the Qur’an, not knowing what to expect, can approach the text with the following options: a) believing that it is what it says it is, that is, the direct Word of God: b) suspending disbelief to allow any evidence of its divinity to emerge: c) believing that it is what it says it is not; that is, the writing of a man. 

I was very interested in Islam.  I thought to myself, this is a world apart from materialism and nationalism.  Accordingly, I began to read the Qur’an.  I took the second approach; that of suspending disbelief to let any evidence of a divine authorship appear.  When I had finished I was thoroughly convinced that it was a humanly written book.  What convinced me?  Enough has been said on other pages of its advocacy of violence and its contradiction.  No; what convinced me that it was not of divine origin was that it changes as the condition of the prophet changes.  The divine statement follows the fortunes of the man to whom it is given, as a cart follows the horse.  This, to me, was the deathblow to any notion of a divine inspiration, let alone a divine authorship. 

One begins to read critically once one is sure that it is a human text.  One begins to see the strategy of its construction very clearly: the past is roped in to confirm the divine authorship.  Prophets (including Jesus) are drawn in to support the Final Prophet’s claim.  The pre-muslim biblical past becomes (retrospectively) muslim.  And then there are those mysterious verses, now expunged but well-documented long before Rushdie’s novel, which allowed an approach to Allah via local gods.  This is regarded as the ultimate anathema in Islam. (Presumably they were written when Mohammad was in a weak position, their purpose being to propitiate.  When he was stronger, and the local gods extirpated, these verses could be written out.)   

The question comes to mind: this is; why does this text wish to appear to be the divine word?  I don’t know the answer to that; perhaps it can be read in the history of Islam.  

The history of Islam is one of rapid imperial expansion, a so-called ‘golden age’ in which the wealth of conquered cultures was digested, and then a slow stagnation which continues to this day.  

The Qur’an teaches that it is itself a complete guide to life — religious and secular — under servitude to God; it also teaches the manner in which this servitude should be conducted.  From this has grown an immense literature which is part commentary and part jurisprudence; it allows judgments on what is lawful and what is unlawful, on what is Islamic and what is unIslamic.  An outsider finds this body of religious/legal knowledge rather eerie; it has the semblance of a complete and integrated structure, but at its heart it is empty.  Paradoxically, in that emptiness within the vortex of commentary, one can find instances of true piety. 

We have seen that Christianity, as a religion, is an accretion upon (and against) the teachings of Jesus.  These stand when the religion fails.  Secularization, contrary to superficial expectation, actually allows the humanity of the teachings of Jesus to be perceived more clearly.  What of Islam?   

Islam is different: it began as a religion.  Religion is its all.  (The very word religion means to bind back, or to bind again.) If one removed the religion from it, very little would be left.  It has no real metaphysical depth beyond its religious context.  History may be a guide.  When the slowly-crumbling Ottoman Empire drew to its end, Kamal Attaturk abolished the Caliphate and founded a civil state.  What this example means for the future remains to be seen.

 

 

Conclusion 

The teachings of Jesus belong not to Christianity alone but to the world corpus of philosophical literature, free of the need for belief and common to mankind.   

Islam is a religion and, keeping truth with itself, would find itself incapable of being anything other than a religion.  It is founded on the very mind-set of belief.  Its name, Islam, means, literally, subjection:  to be thrown under.   It describes the ideal state, which exists between a believer and God.  The idea that it is derived from the word ‘peace’ is untrue. Converts to it seek its certainty and its way of life.  Apostates from it seek freedom from it.  Islam is only distantly related to Christianity.  It does not fulfil or supersede it.  That is an untruth put about to win converts. 

Finally, we should look at the age in which we are.  In the West, we have remarkable freedom.  This is relatively new.  Fifty years ago, in the United States, a man convicted of homosexuality could be forced to undergo brain surgery.  In the 1930’s, in Great Britain, a (working class) woman could be sent to a mental hospital for life for having an illegitimate child.  The power of the Church was broken in Ireland only recently, and even now women seeking abortion after rape have to travel abroad.  So freedom is a new thing.  We have to learn to live with it.  In the absence of an external system of discipline — which is a major part of any religion — the art of self-discipline has to be learnt.  This may take generations.  Different realities have to be lived, and, where there is no hope of heaven and no fear of hell, different aspirations have to be sought; different fears have to be understood.

 

 

“I must live by my own system or be enslaved by that of another man.”  —William Blake

 

 

 

 

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