Sacred Violence - in Christianity and Islam,” - by Tony Harwood-Jones

© 2004, You are expected to contact the author for permission
to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.

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3. Affirming that which is held in common...

Acknowledging intelligence, however, is not in itself sufficient for Inter-Religious Dialogue; we must also be able to affirm the religion of the other party. It would be comparatively easy, for instance, to acknowledge the intelligence of Hitler, or of Stalin, but somewhat more complicated to affirm his religion.

The word “religion” probably needs to be clarified. For the purposes of this paper, “religion” is a subtle blend of doctrinal formuli with personal internal orientation. Doctrine on its own, unconnected with real people who believe it and orient their lives to it, becomes sterile, even meaningless. Equally, the internal commitments of real people remain nothing more than instinct unless they are shaped into intelligible words and doctrines. Thus, when we assert that an essential element of Inter-Religious Dialogue is the affirmation of the ~religion” of the other party, both doctrine and life-orientation are implied by the one word.

Christianity and Islam have been in a state of more or less continuous mutual mistrust for fourteen hundred years, despite some significant overlap at the level of pure doctrine. Consider the following statements:
  1. There is an intentional, intelligent Will behind all that exists;
  2. this Divine will can be known by humans, and obeyed;
  3. moreover, this Divine intelligence deliberately chooses certain humans through whom to make itself and its will known;
  4. obeying the Divine Will is the most important goal in human life.
These doctrinal statements could be publicly subscribed to by Christians or Muslims in any age. Ibadiyah and Scarpatti were well-read and diplomatic people, and they knew that this was doctrine shared in common. But, they were also inheritors of the hostility of centuries, and came to their dialogue unprepared to find in the other any inner commitment which they could possibly affirm.

A coincidence turned them both around: On the second day, Ibadiyah slipped out of the conference room to find a place for afternoon salat, one of his five daily times of prayer. Going to his hotel would have taken too long, but the dining room next door was empty and silent, so he went there. Estimating the direction of Mecca, he turned about and found himself looking at the figure of Scarpatti, huddled quietly over his breviary.

“I’m sorry if I have disturbed you,” he said.

Scarpatti closed his book and smiled.

“That’s all right. Are you here for prayer as well?”

“Yes. It is certainly difficult finding time with this unrelenting Western schedule.”

“This Secular Western schedule,” Scarpatti corrected. “If this were a religious conference, prayer would be written into the agenda. However, I suppose my life is still a little easier than yours: I understand Muslims have pretty fixed times for prayer.”

“In the holy Qu’ran God tells us that He does not wish to place a burden on us,6 nonetheless the times of prayer are an ideal which we must follow if we are able to. I find it is not a burden.”

“Well I’ll get out of your way so that you can get started.”

“Oh, please don’t bother. Muslims can pray in a busy railway station if they have to. I am sure that if you are also praying here, I will find this room a much better place to pray in than a station!”

And so Scarpatti finished reading Terce, Sext, and None while Ibadiyah began the rhythmic bowing and standing of salat. They left together.

When next they met, the conversation between them became one of pleasant mutual discovery. They were now able to affirm one another’s “religion” in the fullest sense of the word, for, at least at this level, doctrine and life were integrated. To both of them, belief in the Living God meant a dynamic lifelong relationship with a vital, intelligent, third party. They found it natural to speak of God to one another the way two people might speak of a mutual acquaintance. They rejoiced that God has made Himself and His will known to people. And they agreed that seeking and obeying the will of God is a person’s highest goal.

4. The primary difference between Christianity and Islam:

Of course they also knew roughly where their main doctrinal differences would lie, and were resolved to be as courteous as possible about them.

Ibadiyah, for instance, expected Scarpatti to make frequent references to Jesus, and he was determined to show him that Muslims hold Jesus in very high regard. The Qu’ran, after all, makes mention of Jesus dozens of times, and all of them are very positive. It considers Jesus a messenger of God, calls him the “Messiah” and acknowledges the Virgin Birth. The Qu’ran does, on the other hand, reject the notion that Jesus was the Son of God or “begotten” by God,7 but Ibadiyah was aware that many Christian theologians themselves believed that Jesus never made such a claim for himself, and that it was applied to him by the developing church, so he expected even this would not be much of a problem.

Scarpatti, for his part, expected Ibadiyah to make frequent reference to Muhammad and to the Qu’ran. He knew that Muslims treated both with great reverence, and was quite prepared to respect that in Ibadiyah. He knew, too, that Muhammad never claimed to be anything more than a prophet, and thus, in a spirit of dialogue, was even prepared to accept that Muhammad might have been guided, from time to time, by God, rather in the same way he believed Isaiah, the great prophet of Israel, was so guided. The Qu’ran, which he would willingly have entitled “The Book of the Prophet Muhammad,” might well contain many very Godly passages, by his standards.

This mutual courtesy, this determination to be polite, concealed from both of them a major inter-religious land-mine, which, unawares, they could tread upon at any time.

We have already defined “religion” as the tight interweaving of both doctrine and life-orientation. By stepping politely over a known difference in doctrine, Ibadiyah and Scarpatti masked a profound and far-reaching difference in outlook. In order to understand the rest of their dialogue, we must now examine, with some care, the place where Christian and Islamic doctrines collide:

-- In Christianity, Jesus is absolutely and definitively the expression of the nature, attributes, and purposes of God.

-- In Islam, the Qu’ran is absolutely and definitively the expression of the nature, attributes, and purposes of God.

Of course Christians have other things besides Jesus which they believe reveal God in varying degrees: the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, and the New Testament, the Spirit of God within the Church, the individual conscience, and much more. But it is the Incarnation which distinguishes Christians from all other world Religions. As the New Testament puts it, “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God,... in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,... in him all things hold together,... in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.”8 Christians may argue among themselves about how accurate a portrait the New Testament presents of Jesus, or how successful the church is at representing Jesus in a given generation, but their teaching, their liturgies, and their hearts proclaim loudly that the closer you get to Jesus, the closer you get to God.

Muslims for their part have other things besides the Qu’ran which they believe reveal God’s will in varying degrees: Hadiths, for example (the carefully preserved traditions about Muhammad’s life and teaching), the Shari’a (the code of law regulating daily life), and ijma (a form of consensus within the community of believers). But it is the Qu’ran which distinguishes Islam from all other world Religions. No Muslim sees the Qu’ran as something composed or crafted by the mind of Muhammad. It has a life of its own. It may have come “through” the Prophet, for he initially recited its chapters, but he was just a channel or conduit for something completely initiated and carried out by God himself. “...To you [0 Muhammad],” says the voice of God, “We have revealed the Book which manifests the truth about all things, a guide, a blessing, and good news to those who submit ...”9 and, in another place, “This is a mighty scripture. Falsehood cannot reach it from before or from behind. It is a revelation from a wise and glorious God.”10 Muslims may argue among themselves about the interpretation of some of its passages, about whether it is uncreated and eternal, or created by God in time,11 but every Muslim in the world believes that when you hear the Arabic words of the Qu’ran, you are hearing the actual speech of God.

How intensely the Muslim feels this, at a gut level, is beautifully portrayed in the following account of a Qu’ran recitation. The writer, a Westerner, was taken to a house in a desert village in Mauritania, to hear a bhagi...

The bhagi [he explains] was a holy wanderer who would walk from oasis to oasis in the company of his toothless old father. His eyes were clouded blue almonds. He had been blind from birth and the father had to lead him everywhere.

He knew the whole of the Koran by heart and, when we found him, he was crouched against the mud-brick wall, chanting the suras with an uplifted smile while the father turned the pages of the Book. The words came faster and faster until they tailed off into a continuous hammering rhythm, like a drum solo. The father flipped over the pages, and the people in the crowd began to sway with a ‘lost’ look, as though they were on the verge of trance.

Suddenly the bhagi stopped. There was a moment of absolute silence. The next verse he began to enunciate very, very slowly, twisting his tongue around the gutturals, flinging the words, one by one, at the audience, who caught them as messages from ‘out there’.

The father rested his head against his son’s shoulder, and let out a deep sigh.12

This vignette carries the impact it does, because the people, despite the desert, despite the blindness, despite the poverty, have been carried by the Qu’ran into the presence of God. It is God’s own words they are hearing; for them the words have a greater Truth than the very dust in which they are sitting.

Nor must a Muslim be sitting in the dust to respond to the Qu’ran in this visceral way. Far away from the desert, in offices, and factories, and kitchens, the Qu’ran is the Muslim’s life-orientation. Try reading any book by a Muslim, at least in English: whether it be brassy polemic or thoroughgoing philosophy, it will have the truth of the Qu’ran as a basic premise.

Continued...