Within this scheme, where to locate Islam? For Christians and Jews alike, the difficulty—and the embarrassment—lie in the indisputable fact that Islam believes in one God, eternal, almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, merciful. Is not this formula, which I have adapted from the Christian credo, continuous with the words spoken by the Lord when He passed before Moses on Mount Sinai at the second giving of the Ten Commandments? Yes. But those same Ten Commandments open by identifying God as the liberator of His people in a particular historical situation: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In the God of the Qur’an, there is no such history.
Nor is that the only problem that presents itself if one tries to approach Islam as a revealed religion, at least as Christians and Jews understand the term. The Christian Church believes that it is the desire of the revealed God to manifest Himself and communicate His message of redemption, letting man know of the truths that elude the grasp of the human mind unaided by grace. To the revelation contained in the Hebrew Bible, the Christians added a “new testament,” while continuing to recognize the full authority of the document given before the arrival of their messiah.
Muslims also hold that they received a revelation. It is conceived, however, not as part of a historical narrative but as the transmission of an eternally preexisting text. In this transmission, the prophet, Muhammad, does not play a role akin to that of Moses and Jesus. He does nothing but receive texts, which he repeats as if under dictation. As opposed to the Bible, which Christians declare to have been “inspired,” the Qur’an is uncreated. It is the uncreated Word of God.
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Thus, for a Christian as for a Jew, there can be no continuity between the Bible and the Qur’an. The point holds even for those passages reflecting an evident concurrence on the idea of the one God. Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian conception of God, is “Father”—i.e., a personal God capable of a reciprocal and loving relation with men. The one God of the Qur’an, the God Who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him “Father” would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feelings to Him would be suspect.
Are Muslims, then, like Jews and Christians, “children of Abraham”? The Abraham whom Islam claims for itself is yet another messenger—and a Muslim. He is not the common father first of Israel and then of Christians who share his faith. Indeed, since the truth, according to the Qur’an, was given totally on the first day and to the first man, it is inconceivable that Abraham could have played the founding role assigned to him by Jews and Christians. Rather, the Ibrahim of the Qur’an takes part in Muslim worship by building the Ka’ba temple and instituting the pilgrimage to Mecca. Far from Muhammad sharing the faith of Abraham, it is Abraham who holds the faith of Muhammad.
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Much fun has been made, wrongly, of the Muslim notion of paradise. Admittedly, it is not like the Jewish or Christian notion, which envisions an eternity participating in the life of the divine. In the other-world of Islam, God remains separate and inaccessible, but man finds there forgiveness, peace, “satisfaction.” If biblical religion suggests a road map that originates in a garden, Eden, and finishes in a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Qur’an charts a return to the garden. Ancient mythologies are replete with similar images: idealized banquets with flowing cups, beautiful virgins and young men, a climate of heavenly satiety in which all desire is fulfilled.
In concordance with natural religion (and with the Hellenistic substratum on which Islam was built), Muslim religious life offers more than one model of piety. For the truly devout, two ways are open, just as in the Greco-Roman world: philosophy (Arab falsafa, itself heavily impregnated with neo-Platonism) and mysticism. Less rigorous souls, with the help of the law and moderate observance of the “five pillars” of Islam, can adhere to a mild but perfectly sufficient religious regimen. This is surely a great advantage over the two biblical religions, which expect of believers a greater scrupulousness and a deeper introspection; it is also, once more, reminiscent of ancient paganism, whose rites were designed to ornament and to enhance the individual’s natural, spontaneous sense of the divine.
From this perspective, two facts about Islam that always astonished medieval Christians seem not so astonishing after all: the difficulty of converting Muslims, and the stubborn attachment to their faith of even the most superficially observant. From the Muslim point of view, it was absurd to become a Christian, because Christianity was a religion of the past whose best parts had been included in and superseded by Islam. Even more basically, Christianity was anti-natural: just as Manuel’s Muslim debater insisted, its moral requirements exceeded human capacities, and its central mysteries defied reason.
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Of all the contemporary expressions hinting at a consanguinity between the Qur’an and the Bible, the falsest may be “religions of the Book.” This phrase is itself of Islamic origin, but it has nothing to do with what it is widely and misleadingly supposed to suggest. It refers, rather, to a special legal category, “people of the Book,” that provided an exception for Christians and Jews to the general rule decreeing death or slavery for those who refused to convert to Islam. Instead, these groups (as well as two other peoples in possession of a scripture, namely Sabians and Zoroastrians) were allowed to retain their property and to continue to reside in Muslim lands with the second-class status of dhimmi.
That such expressions can be so lightly employed is a sign that elements of the Christian world are no longer capable of distinguishing clearly between their own religion and Islam. Are we returning to the times of John of Damascus, when it was possible to entertain the deluded thought that Islam might itself be a form of Christianity? It is not inconceivable. History records more than one instance of a Christian church unconsciously drifting toward Islam when it does not know any longer what it believes in, or why. This was precisely the fate of the Monophysites in Egypt, the Nestorians in Syria, the Donatists in North Africa, the Arians in Spain.
Islam is not some primitive, simplistic, unworked-out religion. It is neither a “religion of camel drivers” nor a religion of soft and malleable borders. To the contrary, it is an extremely strong religion, with a specific and highly crystallized conception of the relation between man and God. That conception is no less coherent than the Jewish and Christian conceptions; but it is quite opposed to them. Although some Christians may imagine that, because Muslims worship the common God of Israel, Islam and Christianity are closer than either is to paganism, this is not the case. In fact, Christianity and Islam are paradoxically but radically separated by the same God.
It follows that the effort to engage in “dialogue” with Muslims has been set on a mistaken course. The early Church fathers deemed the works of Virgil and Plato a preparatio evangelica—preparation for the Gospel, for the truth of Christianity. The Qur’an is neither a preparation for biblical religion nor a retroactive endorsement of it. In approaching Muslims, self-respecting Christians and others would do better to rely on what remains within Islam of natural religion—and of religious virtue—and to take into account the common humanity that Muslims share with all people everywhere.