ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Standing in the Other Believer’s Shoes

How do Muslims see God, Jesus and the cross?

In 1990, the Roman Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies published an interesting yet unassuming book by Father Robert Caspar and a group of Christians living in Tunisia. Entitled Trying to Answer Questions, it offered a novel approach to responding to certain questions Muslims raise about aspects of Christian faith and life.

The following is based in part upon the very creative work of that book.

Understanding God. In the countries of the Middle East, when Christians make the sign of the cross, before saying “Amen,” they always add the words “one God.” They do this to make clear to the Muslims among whom they live that Christians truly believe in one God.

At the heart of Islam is the frequent and public profession of monotheism, or belief in one God. “There is no god but God” begins almost every Muslim prayer. Most Muslims misunderstand Christian references to God as Father, Son and Spirit as a profession of polytheism; they seriously question if Christians are really believers.

Muslims are used to using the words “father” and “son” in their primary meaning as describing human relationships flowing from sexual love and procreation – they have no tradition of using them analogously, with spiritual meanings, as Christians do.

Although Muslims prayerfully recite many names and attributes for the one God, “Father” is not one of them. What Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer” is truly that – a distinctive way of talking to and thinking about God that was taught to us by Jesus.

The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, blames Christians for speaking of three in connection with God and in some places seems to consider the three to be God, Jesus and Mary. Perhaps this reflects the Muslims’ rejection of some early and obscure Christian heresy.

Christians reassure Muslims of their own monotheism when they recite the Nicean Creed, which begins, “We believe in one God…,” and when they add the words “one God” to the sign of the cross.

When Christians try to explain what they mean by the Trinity, they usually employ the ancient Greek philosophical vocabulary of “person,” “substance” and “nature” – the words used in the dogmatic definitions of the Trinity. Muslim religious culture, unlike Christian, has not grown historically out of the Greco-Roman world; for Muslims these words have no clear meaning. Another difficulty is that these technical theological terms have radically different ordinary meanings in modern-day usage.

In the past Baghdad’s Christian Arabs searched for metaphors that would explain the Trinity to Muslims. One metaphor often used was “fire.” Fire is one substance, yet at the same time it is heat, flame and light.

All words and images are inadequate to convey the mystery of God, but we still have to try as best we can.

Understanding Jesus. The first major sanctuary built by Islam, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, has an elaborate, formal inscription in classical Arabic set in mosaic around its inner walls. It says in part “0 you People of the Book, overstep not bounds in your religion, and of God speak only the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle of God, and his Word which he conveyed into Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from him. Believe therefore in God and his apostles, and say not Three. It will be better for you. God is only one God. Far be it from his glory that he should have a son.”

Clearly this is also a charge to the devout Muslim not to accept the distinctive teachings of Christians about God and Jesus. Yet, ironically, it refers to Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ) and as the Word of God.

Islam holds Jesus in high esteem, but does not see Jesus as Christianity does. The Qur’an has many references to Jesus. Many accord with Christian belief – that Jesus was foretold by John the Baptist, was born of a virgin, Mary, worked miracles, was rejected by his own people and will come again at the end of time.

Other references to Jesus in the Qur’an are not accepted by Christians – that Jesus was not killed but miraculously spared by God, that Jesus announced the coming of Muhammad and that Jesus denied that he ever called himself God.

For Muslims, Jesus has an outstanding place among the prophets, second only to that of Muhammad. But, unlike Mary, Jesus does not have a great role to play in the religious and devotional life of Muslims.

Perhaps this is because, from the Muslim point of view, the followers of Jesus have exaggerated his life, committed blasphemy by divinizing him and done terrible things to Muslims over the centuries under the banner of Jesus’ cross.

Since the absolute transcendence of God is a core belief and teaching of Islam, the Christian assertion that Jesus is both true man and true God is contradictory, unintelligible and repugnant to Muslims.

Here too, Christians are so used to professing their faith that Jesus is “true God and true man” that they don’t realize how baffling the juxtaposition of these words may sound to those who do not share their faith.

Historically, the followers of Jesus came to this insight of faith with the aid of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus’ resurrection his disciples understood that the Jesus whom they had known and loved was Savior and Lord.

Muslims err if they think that Christians profess faith in the deification of a man, Jesus; Christians believe that God himself became man out of love. This is the mystery of the Incarnation.

Some early Christian Arabs used an analogy to explain Jesus. Muslims believe that the Word of God is eternal in God and was revealed in scripture – the holy Qur’an. Christians believe that the Word of God is eternal in God and was revealed in a human being – Jesus the Christ. The Eternal Word became not a book, but a man.

Understanding the Cross. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul boldly proclaimed: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God&#133we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Of course these words were written about 600 years before the birth of Islam, but they apply to Muslims, for whom Christ crucified is indeed a stumbling block and foolishness.

It is inconceivable for them that God would allow one of his prophets to be killed. All the stories of the prophets, in the Islamic tradition, follow the same pattern: the prophet is sent to a nation and is rejected by it, except for a few; people want to kill the prophet, but he is miraculously saved by God.

The Qur’an itself formally denies that Jesus was really crucified; it states “They [the Jews] did not kill him; they did not crucify him; but they had the impression of doing so.” Muslim tradition is not clear as to how this was achieved, but it firmly holds that God took Jesus up to heaven out of the reach of his enemies and that he will come again at the end of time.

The good Muslim is somewhat like one of the downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus, except that the Muslim is so overwhelmed by the notion of the death of Jesus that he rejects the very fact of it.

The faith of Jesus’ disciples was restored by a recollection of the words of the Hebrew scriptures and the powerful presence of the Lord. The followers of Jesus, strengthened by the resurrection, found rich and varied ways to interpret the meaning of his death on the cross.

The New Testament depicts Jesus as the suffering servant spoken of by the prophet Isaiah; Jesus is the paschal lamb offered in sacrifice for our salvation; Jesus’ blood seals the new covenant between God and the new Israel; Jesus makes the great sin-offering of his life in atonement for his people.

Later Christian theology advanced the notions of Jesus’ paying the penalty of sin to redeem us and Jesus substituting himself in punishment for sinful humankind.

All of this tradition is relatively unknown to devout Muslims. Unless they have the opportunity to learn more about the Jesus not only of the Qur’an but of the Gospels, unless they come to a deep understanding of the dynamics of obedience and love that prompted the Lord to give even his life for his friends, unless they are guided by the Spirit into an understanding of the mystery of the resurrection, their very faith in the power and providence of the one God can not help but prompt them to recoil from the Christian proclamation of the cross.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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