Barriers to Dialogue

Muslims have suffered a long time from ignorant and biased media presentation in the Western world, which often quite unfairly takes the activities and outbursts of fanatics with all sorts of axes to grind as being representative of Islam. It is the old fallacy of judging the truth and worth of a faith by the behaviour of its most ignorant or extreme or eccentric members. Nobody would take the IRA bombers in Ireland, for example, as being good representatives of Roman Catholic Christianity.

Christians have only to consider the differences between St. Peter and St. Paul, a Byzantine Emperor, a Borgia Pope, Francis of Assisi, Oliver Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, John and Charles Wesley, William Booth, Mary Baker Eddy, Pope John Paul II, Ian Paisley, and Mother Theresa for a few prominent examples of famous Christians to realize how different various representatives are, and how far-perhaps-they wander in thought and style from the founder of their faith. The same differences are true of individual Muslims, and their thoughts and style.

Muslims are so often portrayed as being militant fanatics, the enemies of Jews and Christians that people in the West are often very surprised to discover that Islam in fact claims to be a continuation and reform of the Judaic and Christian faiths.

‘To those who believe in God and His messengers, and make no distinction between any of the messengers, We shall soon grant their due rewards.’  (Surah 4:152).

‘O people of the Book, you have no ground to stand on unless you stand fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from God.’  (Surah 5:68).

People of all three faiths based on that of Abraham worship the same God, whether they call Him ‘I am that I am’ (Jehovah), ‘Our Father which art in Heaven,’ or ‘Allah (the Almighty) the Compassionate, the Merciful.’ Non-Muslims may be surprised to discover the strong respect shown to Jesus (pbuh) in the Islamic tradition, or to find out that Islam has anything to do with Jesus (pbuh) at all. At the same time, there is certainly a resistance in Islam to certain of the doctrines the Church has taught about Jesus (pbuh), and the Zionist aspect of Jewish nationalism, both of which Muslims feel should be actively opposed.

Some people try to understand Islam without its Jewish or Christian background. Others argue that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was heavily influenced by those faiths but merely presented an ignorant or garbled version of them. They assume Muhammad (pbuh) wrote the Qur’an himself, and where it offers different details from the Old or New Testaments, that he either did not fully understand what those older faiths had taught, or simply made mistakes. Muslims, of course take a completely different point of view.

We have a simple statement of our creed - the shahadah. The first part states our faith: ‘La ilaha il-Allah’ - ‘There is no God but the Almighty.’  We affirm that there is only One God - the Almighty, the Absolute. We believe that by logic and definition there cannot be more than one Supreme Being. We emphasize that the ‘three religions’ of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all sprang from the same small patch of sand, the same region and background, and do in truth worship the same Divine Being. The founders and eminent messengers even all share the same family tree - Abraham (pbuh), Moses (pbuh), David (pbuh), Jesus (pbuh), Muhammad (pbuh). Jews, Christians and Muslims are all ‘People of the Book’, that is, the revealed words of God.

Muslims most certainly do not worship the Prophet (pbuh) and do not believe that their religion originated with him. The origin of Islam is God, and all true religions are revelations from the One and the Same God, which He set in existence Himself when he communed with the first human beings. We maintain that all human beings who believe in the One True God and submit their lives to Him are natural Muslims, even if they do not perform the rituals of Islam. Many Jews and Christians would object to saying ‘I am a Muslim,’ but would happily say ‘I am submitted to the One True God,’ which really means the same thing.

What makes a Muslim specifically a Muslim is the second part of our statement of faith - ‘wa Muhammad ar-rasul Allah’ - that Muhammad (pbuh) was a genuine messenger of God, as were all the other prophets. Moreover, we believe that God’s revelation to humanity was completed through Muhammad (pbuh). In other words, he was as genuine a prophet as Moses or Jesus, and he was the last prophet. This is borne out by the fact that during the centuries since he lived, there have been countless examples of inspired persons, but no other prophets.

We claim that not one word of the Qur’ an was an invention from his mind, but was direct revelation from that same One True God Who had been sending other revelations to humanity throughout all human history. Therefore, if the teaching of the Qur’an differs in any way from previous scriptures, we feel it must be because those scriptures have been rendered incorrect for some reason. God cannot be wrong; people can.

The Qur’an was sent some six hundred years after the earthly life of Jesus (pbuh). Islam was not a new religion or a competitor to either Judaism or Christianity, but was intended as a purification and re-establishment of those revealed faiths. Therefore we do not deny or reject the teachings and messages of Jesus (pbuh), but we challenge some of the theology taught about him. We believe that what was taught by all the prophets was quite consistent with the Originator of their messages being the one and the same Almighty Being, and that what was revealed to Muhammad (pbuh) was also consistent with it. The Qur’an was intended specifically to reform religious thought and to bring believers back from the rival and false faith of Trinitarianism (which evolved from previous Triad worship) to the purity of the ‘old’ monotheism of all the prophets. Islam therefore inevitably comes into conflict and rivalry with those Jews and Christians who have closed their minds to the possibility of further revelation and ignore the prophet of the sixth century CE, and the Christians who choose to ignore the very clear revelation to Dhu’l Fikl (See Ezekiel, Chapter 18). Muslims claim that both these ‘Peoples of the Book’ have fallen into errors and the real truth has been distorted, for various vested interests.

The Prophet (pbuh), contemplating his relationship to the famous Biblical messengers, likened himself not to an innovator, but to the final brick in a beautiful building.
‘The parable of myself and the messengers before me is like that of a person who constructed a building, and built it fine and well, and made it complete but for one brick in one of its corners. People walked round it, and the building pleased them, and they said: ‘But for that one brick, your building would have been perfect.’ Muhammad (pbuh) said: ‘I am that final brick.’ (Hadith Muslim 5674, on the authority of Abu Hurayrah).

Another point to consider when commencing a study of Islam is that whereas the West has for some time developed an agnostic frame of mind, Muslims-who base their faith upon the truth of every word in the Qur’an-do not share this scepticism. Many Christians, for example, have accepted the tenets of scientific materialism as their real faith, and feel uncomfortable trying to reconcile the existence of such things as angels, ghosts, miracles and the virgin birth of Jesus with their knowledge of modern science. Scientific rationalists and materialists have tried to eliminate God completely from their ‘system.’ Belief in spiritual things has been regarded as a foolish superstition, to be driven out by education. God only ‘existed’ in the ‘gaps’ in our knowledge, gaps which were rapidly being filled.

Muslims see things differently. If the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is true, for example, they do not then see a choice between a universe with God and a universe without God; they see, rather, the choice between a universe with God, or no universe at all. If there was a Big Bang, what was it that banged, and where was it, and why did it ‘bang,’ and what caused its material to exist?

Moreover, Muslims feel that people who cannot conceive of there being any other existence over and above our physical world are only partially aware, ‘blinkered,’ and rather unfortunate-for they are only taking into account a fraction of that which makes up the created universe.

Muslims take for granted the existence of living entities and spirit forces that are not human beings, and acknowledge that in the past many people misguidedly worshipped them. Some of those forces might be good and benign, and were invoked to promote human welfare as guardians and aids to health and fertility; but many others were regarded as dangerous and best avoided or placated. Worship and placation of all these forces, whether including the notion of a Supreme Deity or not, was the practice of Paganism. These entities were believed to inhabit all sorts of places-some of them living unseen but side by side with human beings, others inhabiting particular natural features or sanctuaries built in natural surroundings whose very nature inspired awe and reverence (mountain tops, desert oases, sources of rivers).

Shrines and sanctuaries, and symbolic objects which either represented spirit presence or provided a focal point where spirit powers could actually materialise, were to be found everywhere in the ancient world-from huge temples to humble household shelves.
Makkah, the holy city of Islam, did not come into existence as a special place created by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) for Muslims. It had been a place of religious pilgrimage for centuries before his birth. Muslim traditions link its origin with the creation of a shrine to the One True God by the first man, Adam (pbuh); and its rebuilding with the Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) and his son Ismail (pbuh). Thus the origin of the Ka’bah (or Cube - the name taken from its shape), was with the ‘submitted ones’, the monotheists, the Jewish ‘People of the Revelation’. This connection became severed when the site fell into idolatry and triadism. Over the centuries an amazing assembly of cult objects had been gathered together there. It was said that by the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)  there were no less than 360 of these so-called deities with cult objects inside and around this temple. There was an ancient tradition of a hajj, an annual pilgrimage long before the revelation of Islam, with people travelling vast distances to venerate all the idols.

In the sixth century CE the Arab tribe dominant in that region, the Quraysh, promoted the concept of hums, the people of the sanctuary. They refused to allow people to bring food with them into the sacred area, and insisted that those who came to circumambulate the House should either wear special garments (which they provided) or go round naked. They had to leave their own clothes at Arafat. If they refused nakedness, they had to relinquish their garments after the rites, for they could never be worn again. 

Most of the Ka’bah ‘gods’ were of enormous antiquity, intimately involved with the fertility of the earth, a matter of life and death in those sun-scorched barren deserts. Where theological systems evolved, the chief pagan deities seem to have been the Divine Father-frequently represented by an obelisk (a solidified ray of the creative force of the sun); and the Divine Mother-a composite deity representing female fertility combined with the fertility of the soil, known by many names and understood in many aspects, but always basically the Earth-Mother, linked in some mystical way to the Moon.
Along with these powerful Mother-Father source figures went belief in a third divine entity, making the system into a triad. This was another composite deity, the annually renewing Son, conceived by the Earth-Mother, or by a pure mortal woman in some spiritual way, and born on earth as a human being who was at the same time more than human. This man-god personified the link between the realm of spiritual and physical, and also symbolised vegetation and its seasonal cycle. Frequently, throughout the ancient world, the king or ruler of the people would represent or be regarded as the living incarnation of this entity, and on his death would achieve divine status. In many societies, he was actually required to be sacrificed before he lost his own virility, for the good of the land. An example was the Heb-Sed festival in Pharaonic Egypt.

This man-god was usually said to have been born on or around December 25th, to coincide with the winter solstice. At some time during the year, usually at the vernal or autumnal equinox, he would be slain, laid in a tomb and then resurrected, so that his blood could be shed upon the earth in order to maintain or restore its fertility. His resurrection was a sign to his worshippers that because he gave his life and shed his blood for them, and was resurrected from death, therefore, if they identified with him in some mystical way, they too would be saved from death and would enjoy eternal life.
Some celebrated this resurrection with the advent of new growth at the spring equinox, and others celebrated the sacrificial death of the man-god at the autumn equinox, when harvest processions took place, fires were built and his body burned or dismembered, and his ashes or blood and remains scattered on the fields. Sometimes his flesh was eaten and his blood drunk-a cannibalistic act later replaced by eating and drinking symbolic bread and wine.

Sometimes it was believed that God who was life-force had been temporarily defeated by his enemy, who frequently represented the ‘dark side’ of himself. With this victory the life of the earth seemed dead, until the saviour-son came along to slay the enemy and either bring back the dead god, or himself become the dead god restored.

This man-god was regarded as a Baal (meaning ‘Lord’ or ‘Saviour’), a deliverer of Nature and also the Great Hope of humanity, for his death and rising again promised great things to those who believed in him. Religious people could put themselves into a trance-like state in which they felt themselves to be in mystical communion with him, and most members of the worshippers of the triads of the Mystery Religious underwent a moment of initiation regarded as being ‘born again,’ in which the opening of psychical awareness played a dramatic and vivid part.

Such devotees, overwhelmed by the emotion and awe at the various psychic phenomena associated with their experiences, turned from scepticism and doubt to fervent enthusiasm, and were consequently tempted to look down on and pity those who remained outside this experience. It was said that an initiated thief would fare better in the next world than an uninitiated person of good character, because that moment of awareness and unification with the divine saviour had saved him and bought him back (or redeemed him) from the powers of sin and the devil.

Triads or Trinities were commonplace for all the early civilised peoples of the ancient world in and around the Middle East, from Babylon and Assyria to Egypt and beyond.
Yet Muslims maintain that from the most obscure reaches of history’s dim past the people who had been specially called and set apart understood quite a different divine truth-that there was only One God, the Absolute and Indivisible Creator of all things, including the natural laws of the planet, who could and did reveal things about Himself from time to time to certain specific people. These people submitted themselves to the logic of His worship, and despised the worship of idols and images made by human hands.

They did their best to counter the pagan culture of the fertility triads, regarding those systems as the grossest form of blasphemy, pernicious because they were the results of people becoming enslaved to lesser and possibly evil entities, and insidious because they were so attractive to the superstitious and uneducated mind, particularly when influenced by the very real psychic phenomena associated with these spirit entities, who involved themselves with human beings for reasons of their own.

One of the most dangerous aspects of Baal Triad-worship was the increasingly blind fanaticism that went with it; the great moral truths of kindness, compassion, honour, humility and right living were frequently eroded by a servile and increasingly overwhelming devotion to a saviour-god; in the end, normal life hardly mattered at all-what counted was ritual, prayers and sacrifices, asceticism, all the things that represented the individual totally giving up his or her self to the worship of that saviour-god.

Many lone voices raised against Baalism are known to us through the pages of the Old Testament, the numerous prophets of the Jewish faith who tried to teach the priesthood that it had been corrupted by the emotional lure of Baalism and had misinterpreted the will of God. All these prophets are acknowledged in the Qur’an, and are regarded by Muslims as being Muslim before Muhammad (pbuh). Throughout Biblical history, they had done their best to counter Baalism in all its forms and manifestations, and to establish the correct principles for un-superstitious worship of God hand in hand with an honourable life-style pleasing to God.

They were always respected by those who realised that what they taught was true, but most of them fell foul of the official cultic priests at the various shrines, for obvious reasons.

A famous speech of the Prophet Amos (pbuh), for example, declares: ‘Thus says the Lord: I hate and loathe your religious festivals?when you burn offerings to Me I do not enjoy your gifts, and I take no notice of your richest sacrifice.’ (Amos 5:21). What God required was not more sacrifices but more justice and right living. ‘Let judgement run down as water and righteousness as a mighty stream.’ (Amos 5:24).

The priests were frequently wealthy, and obviously wished to maintain the status quo. Inevitably, many of the prophets met savage and unpleasant deaths at their hands, a fact commented upon by Jesus (pbuh) contemplating his own probable fate when he challenged the Temple cultus at Jerusalem in his own time.

‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who stones the prophets and kills those who are sent to you. How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers its chickens under its wing, but you would not.’ (St. Matthew’s Gospel 23:37; St. Luke’s Gospel 13:34).

Like so many before him, Jesus (pbuh) also met with persecution largely due to the machinations of misled or corrupt priests. Muslims believe that Jesus (pbuh) was one of the staunchest, bravest and most outspoken of the messengers of God, and that it was his very outspokenness and closeness to God that caused priests such as Caiaphas to wish to have him done away with.

His followers were encouraged after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus’ (pbuh) body to continue his message, and the ‘headquarters’ Church of Jerusalem under the leadership of Christ’s brother James was highly respected as a devout and charitable reform movement totally dedicated to service of God. But somehow, within decades of his earthly life, James and his church had been declared ‘heretical’ and Jesus (pbuh) had been translated into yet another manifestation of the very dying and rising mystery saviours he had been sent as messenger to preach against.

By the time the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was born, in 570 CE, Jesus’ (pbuh) message had been inextricably interwoven with the elite mystery-cult trinitarian systems, and the Church had become split into fanatical and intolerant sects. The original ‘Jewish-Christian’ believers-who maintained the original message and purity-were regarded as inferior to the Gentile/pagan cultus believers who spread the faith rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, their concept of Jesus being more or less identical to that of the dying and rising saviour-god-hero Mithras/Adonis.

No-one should imagine that Islam arose in a religious vacuum. The People of God’s Revelation, both Jews and Christians, were to be found throughout the entire Arabian peninsula at this time, and were highly active both in the fight against paganism and in the performance of charitable deeds through their submission to the One God. Jews had settled in Arabia as far back as the fall of Samaria in 721 BC. (They also settled a military colony in Aswan in upper Egypt at this time.) More Jews migrated there in the sixth century BC at the time of the fall of Jerusalem and the Exile. Jewish settlements as far as Mesopotamia still survive to the present day. In the first two centuries of the Christian Era the pagan Romans were so utterly ruthless in their repression of the Jews that few remained in Palestine. There was a large Jewish colony in the Yemen from well before the coming of the Prophet (pbuh), and at least one ruling king there submitted and became a Jew. By the time of the Prophet (pbuh)  Jews dominated the economic life of the Hijaz and held the best land (e.g. the oases of Tayma, Fadak and Wadi al-Qura). They formed around half the population of Yathrib/Madinah. The homeless refugees had become wealthy landowners and controlled much of the finance and trade-for example, a Jew named Samuel controlled the fair of Tayma, and a Jewish tribe controlled the market at Madinah.

Arabian Christianity was as old as Christianity itself - St. Paul is known to have visited the Christian community in Damascus, St. Thomas evangelised Edessa in Iraq. The four chief centres of Arab Christians were the Yemen, Syria, Hira, and Abyssinia. The Yemen was ruled by a Christian, Abraha the viceregent of the Negus of Abyssinia, who raided the Hijaz and threatened to destroy the Ka’bah in 570. There were at least two Christian tribes in the Hijaz-the Judham and ‘Udhra, and some of the Quraysh were Christians.
By the time of the Prophet (pbuh) there were many rival sorts of Christians seeking converts in Arabia-the three main groups being Greek Orthodox (the Byzantines), Monophysite and Nestorian. Monophysites believed that Jesus (pbuh) was the Divine Word, and Nestorians believed he had two natures within him, his Divine Origin with God (the Father) and true human nature because he was born as a human being from a human mother.

All Christians were highly active, appointing priests and deacons to each tribe, founding places of worship and monasteries for refuge, healing and education. Priests and monks who fasted, prayed, gave charity, helped the sick, and fed and watered travellers were familiar sights on all the caravan routes of Arabia. While the Prophet (pbuh) was a youth, King Nu’man of Hira was converted to Christianity. Tradition records the Prophet’s (pbuh) contact with monks, and even that desert monks provided him with tunics.

However, the history of Christianity in Arab lands was not edifying, but one of extremism and politics, of regular persecution of one sect by the other. Monophysites steadfastly refused to accept the doctrine of two natures in the Christ, despite the Emperors and Church Councils insisting on these rulings. Bishops were driven out (by other Christians), monks expelled from their monasteries, citizens imprisoned, tortured and driven from their homes-all by other Christians. Many died of starvation and exposure.
The Arab chief Harith bravely went to the Byzantine Christian Emperor Justinian at Constantinople to ask for a Monophysite bishop for his people. In 563 he took a letter which included the sentence: ‘The Trinity is One Divinity, One Nature, One Essence. Those who will not accept this should be anathematized.’ Two bishops in Constantinople refused to sign this, so Harith declared them heretics, stating that he and his Arab armies accepted the true doctrine of the Oneness of God.

After Harith’s death his son Mundhir championed the Monophysite Christians, and defended them in the bay of Persia (Hira). He also visited the Byzantine Emperor in 580, to make a plea for peace amongst the Christian Sects. His attempts were defeated by Christian fanaticism, and he ended up a prisoner of the Greeks in Constantinople. His son Nu’man swore enmity to all Greeks, and was also captured. They were both exiled to Sicily.

It was against this background that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was born in c. 570, as the Christians were paving the way for their own downfall. The Byzantines stood for tyranny and injustice in Arab eyes; when later Muslims preached deliverance from the Byzantines they were welcomed as liberators.

The followers of Jesus (pbuh) who remained true to the ‘old faith’ were highly recommended by Allah in the Qur’an, and were assured that they would attain paradise for their faith and way of life. However, Christians who had made the fundamental error of giving up belief in the One True God for the trinitarian faith which made the Virgin Mary into a ‘wife of God’ or ‘mother of God’ and the Prophet Jesus (pbuh) into God’s ‘Son’ were regarded as being no better than all the Baalists of the past, and their false beliefs were to be resisted just as stoutly.

Interestingly enough, icons of Jesus (pbuh) and his mother Mary as wife and son of God were said to have been included amongst the many idols in the Ka’bah shrine. Here, however, they were not regarded as the most important manifestations. The chief deity was identified as al-Lah (the Almighty, the Powerful One, frequently assimilated with Dushrat the Watcher, a manifestation of the Sun); and there were three chief goddesses said to have been either his wives or daughters, al-Uzzah (the Moon, planet Venus, evening star, and force of purity and love-the one usually identified with the Virgin Mary, incidentally, and also with the Egyptian goddess Isis); al-Lat (the life-force), and Manat (fortune, the decider of fate).

Yet despite the widespread veneration of all the Ka’bah entities by the Arab tribes, there were still plenty of Arab monotheists who resisted the trinitarian doctrines, the idols and sacred stones and pieces of wood. They were known as hanifs, and their faith was called hanifiyyah. They loved and respected the Ka’bah for its original intention and history as a shrine to the One True God, and made a deliberate decision to turn their backs on all the idol-worship and triads of paganism, to seek out the true and original faith revealed to Ibrahim (pbuh), the Patriarch of both Jews and Arabs.
Some leading hanifs converted to Christianity, for example the Quraysh merchant, Uthman b. Huwayrith, who offered himself as a king, promising to get favourable trading terms with the Byzantines, but the tribe rejected his proposal out of hand.
Another example was Waraqah b.Nawfal of the tribe of Asad, a famous scholar and poet, who had translated the Gospel into Arabic.

The hanifs were treated with mixed feelings by the guardians of the famous cultic centres, such as Makkah, or Petra to the north (where the high place to al-Uzzah on the hilltop called ed-Deir had by this time been made into a Church of the Virgin), or Mt Carmel or the Mediterranean coast-where the Virgin is still venerated as ‘Star of the Sea’ to this day.

One of these hanifs was Zayd b. Amr, the half-brother of Khattab b. Nufayl, by rather strange circumstances. Nufayl had two wives-Umm Khattab and Umm Amr. When Nufayl died, Umm Khattab married her co-wife’s son Amr, and Zayd was their child. Khattab and his family were extremely devout pagans worshipping al-Uzzah, and when Zayd began to show a consuming interest in the old monotheism of the Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh), the family was divided. Khattab was not only ascetic and devout, he also had a fiery temper. Zayd’s search for the truth seemed to him to be gross impertinence and dangerous blasphemy against his ancestral deities.  When he realised Zayd wished to travel further afield in search of knowledge he made Zayd’s wife, Safiyah (Umm Kurz) bint Hadram, promise to tell him every time he started making preparations, so that he could stop him. When Zayd refused to give way, but started a bold mission of public preaching against the pagan idols, Khattab lost patience and hounded him out of Makkah, forcing him to live up in the hills. He even organised a gang of zealots to keep their eyes open for him and drive him off should he ever try to come near the Ka’bah. This did not diminish Zayd’s urge to preach the One True God, however, or to continue his quest for knowledge.

Eventually Zayd did leave Safiyah and his children Sa’id and Atikah, and travelled as far afield as Mosul in Iraq, and Syria, questioning all the scholars and monks that he met. He found that many of them were in a state of high excitement for they believed, that a new prophet who would be called Ahmad (and who had been prophesied by Jesus (pbuh) himself)  was about to be made manifest.  They urged Zayd to return to Makkah and find him. Zayd began his return, but was ambushed and killed in the territory of Lakhm in Southern Syria.

When Waraqah heard of Zayd’s tragic death, he wrote a funeral elegy and predicted his assured place in Paradise. This Zayd was none other than the uncle of the famous Muslim Umar b. Khattab, who in due course became Caliph of all Islam.

Originally published on Sister Ruquaiyyah’s website at http://members.aol.com/Ruqaiyyah/ and reprinted in The American Muslim with the permission of the author.

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