Know much about Islam? I’ve seen a variety of conflicting opinions from my Catholic friends around Chicago. There’s a wide range of differences. Some will claim Muslims don’t believe in Jesus, have nothing in common with Christians, and are all terrorists and a “satanic cult started by a pedophile” who worship a “different” God than Christians (supposedly Allah is the “Muslim moon god”) On the other extreme, I’ve seen those who claim Islamic terrorism is not a threat, nobody should criticize Islamic extremists for beating women and putting gays to death in the name of religion, that “radical Christianity is just as bad as radical Islam”, and that Israel is an “illegal” country that rightfully belongs to Muslims (through strangely, my friends who hold this opinion doesn’t seem bothered by the vast areas of the middle east that used to be Christian until Muslims invaded the area and took the land by force) In any case, Islam is once again in the news, and Chicago is home to a considerable Muslim population (especially in southwest Cook Country where I hail from). Perhaps it’s time to sort all this out. Today, I present a middle ground on the matter, giving a basic overview of what Muslims have in common with Catholics, and where we differ.
Islam is one of three major Abrahamic religions (the other two are Jews and Christians), which means we all trace our basic religious beliefs to the prophet Abraham in the old testament. Islam is the last of the three Abrahamic faiths to be founded. It came into existence around 623 A.D. This is somewhat a double sword – it means that we are typically able to interact with and understand religious doctrines of Muslims far easier than we would with a religion such as Hinduism or Buddhist, but it also means there’s greater animosity between Muslims and Judeo-Christian beliefs because of how we often interpret and view the same historical events and religious figures from biblical stories. There are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, meaning there are more of them than any single denomination of Christianity (including the world’s roughly 1.2 billion Catholics) Islam is the second-largest faith in the world after Christianity, and claims to be the fastest growing. Many Islamic countries are also intolerant of people in their country who have non-Islamic faiths. (These facts fly in the face of those who attack Christians and Catholics in public for “forcing their religious views on us” but never dare criticize Islam, supposedly because “there aren’t many Muslims around”.) The word Islam means “submission”, meaning the total surrender of oneself to the will of God. By comparison, the word Catholic means “universal”. What common ground do we have with Muslims?
Surprisingly, Islam is about 80% identical to Catholicism on paper (notice I said on paper, not necessarily in practice). In fact, some Chicago Catholics may be shocked to learn that there are various religious doctrines where Catholics find more common ground with Muslims than with fellow Christians such as evangelical Protestants! Let’s take a look:
For starters, Islam is a monotheist faith. This means that Muslims believe there is only one God, and that He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. The basic gist of Islam is remarkably similar to Catholicism. We both believe that Satan is the enemy of God who is working to corrupt mankind, and and that people need to accept God’s will and must not follow Satan. Catholics and Muslims believe that Heaven and Hell are both real places, that good people will experience eternal paradise, and the wicked will go to hell. Like Catholics – but not Protestants – Muslims believe we judged by our faith in God and by our good works on earth. Muslims believe the Bible (especially the original Torah, Psalms and Gospels) are holy scriptures and inspired by God, and most of the Jewish and Christian prophets, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Joseph, John the Baptist, and Jesus, are accepted as prophets in Islam. (in fact, the only major Islamic prophet who is not a part of Christianity is Mohammed himself). Muslims preach that people should follow the Ten Commandments and the moral teachings of the prophets. Like Catholics, Muslims believe in modern day saints, and believe God choose only men to lead people congregations in prayer.
Similarly, they also refer to the Jesus Christ as “the Messiah” and believe he performed miracles. Islam teaches that Jesus was born miraculously to the Virgin Mary. In perhaps another shocker to Catholics, Muslim teaching on the Virgin Mary is much closer to Catholics than protestants. Mary is considered not only to be in the most exalted category of women, but she is ranked in the highest category of all human beings. Many Muslims see Mary as an ideal servant of God and an example for all humanity to follow. She is venerated in the Qur’an as the most exalted of all women, sometimes even occupying a higher position than Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed. Muslims also believe, like Catholics, in the Immaculate Conception. Even the the Virgin Mary’s name is mentioned 34 times in the Qur’an, more than in the Christian gospels. Like Christians, Muslims believe that an Anti-Christ will appear on Earth before the Day of Judgment, that Jesus Christ will return by descending from Heaven and will kill the Anti-Christ, and that the Day of Judgment will occur and people will be judged with the righteous inheriting the Kingdom of God.
There are two major branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, which are very much the Islamic version of the Catholic and Protestant divide in Christianity. Each have their own unique traditions and different theological beliefs about the rightful successor of Mohammed, and usually they get along and tolerate members of the other faith tradition (and will occasionally pray together), although they are often offended by various things the other sect of Islam does, and extremists in both sects of Islam will accuse the others of “not being true Muslims”
With all those similarities, Islam at first glance sounds practically like a new sect of Christianity. Of course, Islam makes no such claim, and the areas where Muslims differ from Catholics result in a major theological divide that have resulted in huge conflicts worldwide. To truly understand the Muslim mindset, one has to realize exactly what Muslims believe about their own faith, and how they view other faiths.
From the Muslim point of view, Islam is the only “true” religion on earth and all other religious are false. Muslims would argue that all the bible figures that predated Mohammed (from Adam through to Jesus and the apostles) were Muslims, and that Mohammed’s coming was simply the completion of God’s revelation to mankind. Muslims do not believe in ongoing revelation, they believe Mohammed is the final prophet and there are no further prophets after him. They believe only God knows what figures after Mohammed were saints, and that human beings have no way to determine that.
In contrast to other beliefs, the Islamic view on confessing your sins is aligned with what protestants believe, rather than Catholics. Muslims argue that if you have sinned, God already knows this and has seen this, and the Angels have written it down. They believe people must find it in their heart to pray for forgiveness and to confess sins straight to God, saying no mediator is to be used and only God can forgive sins.
Unlike Christians, Muslims totally reject the trinity. Although they believe he was “The Messiah”, Muslims will argue Jesus was a human prophet and not divine. Thus, they are absolutely opposed to worshiping Jesus. The Qur’an says Jesus did not die on the cross, but God made it appear that way, so Muslims reject both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Muslims also believe Jesus was a lesser prophet than Mohammed, and that when Jesus returns, he will defer to Mohammed and side with the Muslims. They likewise argue references in the bible about the coming of the Holy Spirit are actually foreshadowing the coming of Mohammed. When the Qur’an references God, they are referring strictly to God the Father in the Christian bible, and their understanding of what God the Father wants from humans is quite different from Christianity.
Islam rejects a central tenant found in all branches of Christianity (whether they are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) It is the Christian teaching of Original Sin. In Christianity, this means that because of the fall of man after Adam and Eve, Jesus came to be savior of the world and die for our sins. Muslims do not believe Jesus bore a burden for anyone else’s sins. To explain away the parts where the Qur’an and the Bible differ, Muslims believe that Jesus really preached Islam, but his message was corrupted his followers (both intentionally and unintentionally). They will argue that the Bible cannot be trusted because it has been translated from language to language over the years. In areas where the Bible and the Qur’an differ, Muslims will side with the Qur’an’s version of events. Because of this, Muslims say the Qur’an is not holy or a “true” version of the book unless it is printed in its original Arabic, and many Islamic clerics and scholars have memorized the Qur’an from cover to cover.
In a major contrast to Christianity (especially Catholicism where is a major element of our religious culture), images or likenesses of holy figures, prophets, and religious events are not permitted in Islam. Muslims are not permitted to depict the image of God, Jesus, Mohammed, or any prophet for that matter. Because of this, one of the first thing Muslims do when they take over religious buildings of other faiths is to cover up artwork depicting religious scenes, and to destroy statues and other religious imagery. Likewise, there are hardly any movies about Mohammed out there, since Islam does not allow the prophet Mohammed to be depicted on film by an actor. Instead, Islam commands obedience, with includes praying five times a day, and pilgrimages to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended into heaven.
From a Christian point of view, of course, Mohammed is considered to be a false prophet (and mainly remembered for his military prowess) so its hard for Catholics to identify with Islam’s greatest figure. In contrast to Christianity, Muslims are very intolerant of anyone who leaves Islam. They believe ex-Muslims have committed one of the worst sins ever by turning their back on God and the “true” faith, and deserve to die for this “insult” to Islam. Although Muslims welcome converts and there are many examples of forced conversions in recent years (unlikely Christianity where forced conversions and terrorism against non-Christians were common hundreds of years ago but rarely today) Muslims in general are also very suspicious of outsiders in Islamic places, and only Muslims in good standing are allowed to visit Mecca and so on.
Here in Chicago, there have been attempts at Muslim-Catholic dialogue, and one of the first examples was last October at the groundbreaking event “Living Our Faiths Together” at the Catholic Theological Union. It has paved the way for other such talks in the United States. Many Muslims in Chicago will be happy to engage in religious discussions and are friendly towards Christians. It is wrong to suggest all Muslims are extreme or support terrorism. Still, with over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, if it’s true that “only 10% of them are radical”, that means there’s at least 150 million Muslims out there who do not tolerate non-Muslims and want to wipe us out. I certainly think that’s a valid cause for concern for our safety and security. Instead of avoiding Muslims and spreading rumors about what their faith believes, we need to be proactive and learn more about Islam in the United States. For Chicago Catholics and for all Christians, knowledge is our best tool.