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On Christmas, Christianity And Islam: Basic Similarities And Differences

Tomorrow more than a billion Christians will be celebrating Christmas all over the world.  For Tewahdos, the big day falls on January 7.  A day of intense joy for some; a quite day of contemplation and prayers for others; still a nightmare for others, Christmas – whatever secular accretions it has acquired over the years and however commercialized it may have become in certain countries it will continue to have great religious and cultural significance to devout Christians as an event that commemorates the approximate birth of Jesus (pbuh).  Muslims do not celebrate Christmas but are impacted by it particularly those who live in a predominantly non-Muslim country like the US who are likely to be asked a series of religious questions such as:  do you celebrate Christmas; do you believe in Jesus; have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, etc…

Simple curiosity drives these questions (not animosity) but the depth of ignorance of Islam, Muslims, and other cultures that they reveal can be estimated by the fact that not a single Eritrean has ever asked me these questions.  But before you pat yourself on the back (if you are an Eritrean Christian), you need to remember that Americans and westerners as a whole had had little interaction with Muslims. It is not unusual at all for an American to grow into adulthood without making an acquaintance with a single Muslim and without learning a single authentic fact about Islam though he/she will have imbibed an avalanche of caricatured and stereotyped version of Islam by the time he learns to walk and talk. 

In contrast, the life of the average Eritrean Christian is intimately intertwined with that of his/her Muslim compatriot.  Very few grow up without befriending a Muslim here or a Muslima there and without hearing the melodious Azan chanted 5 times a day from a nearby Mosque.  Some Eritrean Christians have close relatives and even immediate families that are Muslims.  The struggle for independence added deeper dimensions to these experiences and the relationship continues to this day.  All these factors make it relatively easy for Eritrean Christians to know more about Islam and Muslims (and vice versa).

But how much do we really know of each other’s faith? If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that we do not even know the central tenets of our own religion let alone those of a different faith! Despite the constant interaction between the two co-religionists, surprisingly few know enough (in my estimation) about the other to even sustain a sensible discussion for any length of time.  Of course, not all of us can be (or need be) scholars of religion and God forbid I am not pretending to be one by writing this article but I think we owe it to ourselves to be informed about the basic beliefs of the two faiths that together make up over half of the world’s population!

Not only is such knowledge useful in itself but its absence can have negative consequences because the less we know of each other’s beliefs, the more we are likely to conjure up false images of one another and the easier it will be for bigots to spread their venom.  Conversely, the more we know about each other’s beliefs and traditions in their true light, the more forgiving and understanding we will be of each other. At least that is my hope and that is why I wanted to write this article.

Christmas seemed to me a good time to share thoughts on the subject because as I said earlier it tends to trigger religious questions but if you are already well versed with the fundamentals of these two great Semitic religions, do not waste time reading my article because in this article I am confining myself exclusively to the most basic beliefs of the two religions and to only a handful of those (with special attention given to areas of convergence and points of divergence). Specifically, we will look at the concept of God in both religions, the scriptures used, the nature of Christ, and sin and Salvation (in that order.)  

Concept of God

Christianity and Islam (along with Judaism) belong to what is sometimes collectively referred to as “the monotheistic trio of Abrahamic faiths”.  Both Christians and Muslims believe in a single unique God although not in the same exact fashion. Christian monotheism finds expression in a triune God or trinity which is a belief that there are three distinct divine persons within a single Godhead.  Slight differences exist in the wording used in various denominations but essentially all major branches of Christianity believe that “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.” 

The mystery of trinity has caused many heresies in Christianity and to this day the laity or laities find it difficult to understand.  Christian scholars have wrestled with the concept for centuries and whole books have been written to explain it but in the end, most scholars concede that it remains a mystery that must be accepted by faith. Much simpler, Islamic monotheism by contrast is tightly encapsulated within the first part of the Shahada statement which affirms that “there is no god but Allah”.  This is called Tawhid in Arabic which incidentally has etymological similarity to Tewahedo which means “unified” or “being made one.”  Both Tritheism which according to Wikipedia is the “the belief that there are three distinct, powerful gods, who form a triad” and trinity (one God – three divine persons) are rejected in Islam. Muslims believe in one unique indivisible God who has no partner or partners in any size, shape or form.

The two faiths converge on what they consider to be the general attributes of God.  Both believe in an omniscient, omnipotent, eternally existing, uncreated, all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing Deity who created the universe out of nothing. Theologians call this divine act “creatio ex nihilo” (creation out of nothing). This doctrine of a created universe clashed with the prevailing view of many scientists who until recently believed that the universe had no beginning. Though an unproven theory, the view had become a default or a de facto view of scientists to such an extent that Einstein changed his equation to harmonize it with this theory which goes to show that scientists will sometimes break their own code of conduct to satisfy their bias.  He later regretted what he did.

Nonetheless, theologians (and believing scientists) were unable to effectively counter this theory except for pointing to the grand design of the universe as evidence of a creator. Then bang!  Two related theories came to the rescue; namely the theory of the big bang and that of an expanding universe. The former pointed to the finitude of the universe (a universe with a beginning); the latter to its dynamism. 

These discoveries caused great unease in the minds of some scientists because of their potential theological implications.  Scientists began to ask anew: if the universe had a beginning as these theories seem to establish, then how did it come into being?  “Hey, we can answer the question”, came the triumphant response from theologians … haven’t we been telling you for centuries that the universe was created by God’s will?  Now that you have been forced to accept the universe had a beginning, isn’t it time to consider the possibility that it may also have been created by a Divine being?

Steeped as they were in a materialistic view of the universe, scientists (some – not all) were unprepared and unwilling (psychologically speaking) to regard the God hypothesis as a plausible explanation but they were clearly thrown on the defensive.  In answer, some scientists scrambled to formulate (concoct) their own mythical world of multiple universes (multiverse) and baby universes to explain it away.  But the mere fact that scientists felt the need to come up with an alternate explanation was a great victory for theologians who for the first time in recent history could present their beliefs as scientifically plausible. This turning of tables that favored theologians was very articulately and candidly expressed by the noted cosmologist Robert Jastrow, an agnostic himself, in the following words: 

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

“a band of theologians” were not the only ones at the peak of course but all ordinary believers were there too … but being a Muslim or a Christian is not just about being a theist or a believer in one God but also entails belief in many other teachings that are spelled out in detail in divinely inspired scriptures which brings us to the next item we will consider.

Quran and the Bible

Islam and Christianity are both scripture based religions i.e. all their teachings, laws, and principles are primarily derived from their scriptures. Christians have their Bible; Muslims their Quran.  Both believe that God communicated with humanity directly through those scriptures. For Muslims, the Quran is the veritable word of God and the speaker is invariably and always God (Allah).  For Christians, the Bible is also the word of God written by inspired authors over a period of time. 

The Quran was originally delivered in Arabic and is still available in the same language.  The Bible, in contrast, exists only in translations (originals were lost) but it has been translated into many languages and can be found in the farthest corners of earth. The Arabic Quran is also widespread but its translations are not as widely available as the Bible. 

The three major branches of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) differ in the number of books they include in their biblical canons. The Tewahedo Bible contains the largest number of books (81) followed by the Catholic Bible (73).  The Protestant Bible contains only 66 books. For Muslims there is only one Quran with 114 chapters for all schools of thought. Both the Quran and the Bible deal with many common themes such as belief in a chain of prophets, in angels, in the Day of Judgment and a long list of do’s and don’ts.  The Quran teaches that Jesus was a great prophet of God while the Christian church teaches that he was/is divine -a subject we turn to next.

Nature of Jesus

Both Muslims and Christians love and revere Jesus (pbuh) but they understand his nature and mission differently.  We will look at the latter (the mission) under “sin and salvation”.  In this section, we will just focus on his nature.  According to both Islamic and Christian teaching Jesus was born miraculously of a Virgin Mary.  Christians sometimes challenge Muslims about this arguing that Jesus’s miraculous birth is proof that Jesus is God or the son of God.  In answer, Muslims usually point to the Quran where the question is answered by drawing our attention to Adam who was born without a father and without a mother – a greater miracle of birth than Jesus’s. Muslim scholars build on this idea by postulating that God demonstrated His creative powers through three personalities.  First was Adam who was born without a father and without a mother; then was Eve created without a mother but from a symbolic father (Adam); and finally to complete the picture, Jesus was born with only a mother.  So all possible creative options were demonstrated by how these three humans were born.

Christian beliefs about Jesus’s nature are a little complex.  He is, first of all, a member of the triune God and therefore a God in his own right (God the son).  In Christian theology, he is also considered human.   In what is known as the “hypostatic union”, Jesus is considered 100% human and 100% divine (God-man or man-God). Christians differ very slightly in the exact nature of Christ. The complexity of this belief and its controversial aspects can be judged by the number of councils or meetings that were needed to establish his exact nature. 

First was the council of Nicaea (325 CE) that established Jesus was fully and truly God “co-equal and co-eternal with his father”.  This was followed by the council of Constantinople (381 CE) that concluded that he was also fully or 100% human.  Then the council of Ephesus (431 CE) affirmed that the two natures of Christ exist as an indivisible unity. A little later, the council of Chalcedon (451 CE.) held that the two natures are nonetheless perfectly distinct (note: the Tewahedos and Oriental Orthodoxy in general did not fully endorse all the decisions reached by the Chalcedon council).  Constantine II (581 CE) believed that the two wills were harmonized while Heraclitus (630 CE) held that there was only one will in the two natures of Christ. The Catholic Church maintained that there were two wills in Christ’s two natures that always coincide.

As we can see Christology (the study of the nature or person of Christ) can get quite intricate but hardly had the dust settled on these weighty controversies, a voice arose from across the desert to tell these learned scholars of Christendom that all their labors were for naught and that Jesus was every bit a human being like you and I and that he was neither divine nor the son of a Divine.  To add insult to injury, the voice was that of Muhammad (pbuh) a simple camel rider (and an illiterate to boot) who also claimed to be a prophet of God! This naturally infuriated Christians and the rivalry that took root in those days between these two great religions continues unabated to this day in one form or another. Christians, of course, continued to worship Christ as God but even more consequential is the pivotal role he plays in the Christian notion of…

Sin and Redemption

Christians believe in what is called “original sin.”  This belief holds that the entire humanity has inherited the sin of Adam who brought death into the world (by eating fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge) but that God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life”.  The “begotten Son” is Jesus. This doctrine holds that the magnitude of sin committed by Adam against the perfect justice of God was so great that it requires (required) an equally grand sacrifice by someone who is totally blameless and sinless.  This mission was fulfilled when the word became flesh in Jesus Christ whose death and suffering saved the world. This is called vicarious atonement.  Islam on the other hand in its typical simplicity teaches that sin is not inherited and that Adam and Eve both sinned and both were forgiven by God.  Salvation in Islam is simply defined as having faith in God and doing good deeds.

That concludes our brief glimpse at the similarities and differences between the two religions. Consider it an appetizer that may encourage you to pursue the subject on your own. One thing I try to impress upon my son is the futility of attempting to know everything and the importance of having a good grasp of what one already knows before attempting to move into deeper waters.  I tried to follow my own advice in this article by steering away from deep waters but even in shallower waters, one can unintentionally err or offend.  Please let me know of any errors and I apologize in advance.

Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” Peter once said “But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him “and the Quran repeatedly admonishes us to believe and do good deeds.  That I believe is the essence of all religions. 

Happy Holidays!

ismailomar@cox.net

About Ismail Omer-Ali

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  • Under Nature of Jesus above, please read “Heraclius” not “Heraclitus” and Constantine IV (681) not Constantine II (581). Sorry for the error. Ismail.