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Reconciling Islam & Christianity

india Updated: Oct 04, 2006 11:57 IST
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The amende honorable of the Pope in the form of a sincere regret expressed publicly did go a long way in containing a dangerous confrontation between Islam and Christianity.

But what has gone unnoticed in the chaotic imbroglio is the Pope's invitation to a "frank and sincere dialogue" with the Muslims. Not surprisingly, the Muslims masses under the misguidance of an extremist clergy were busy burning churches and effigies of the Pope, and killing innocent nuns to have concentrated on countering the Pope through "reason" by accepting his invitation.

It is time Muslims realized that violent or emotional reaction to attacks on Islam or its prophet is not the Islamic way.

Now, with the Pope emphasising in his meeting with Muslim envoys that, "the inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims is, in effect, a vital necessity, on which a large part of our future depends", it has become all the more necessary to engage the Church in a "sincere and respectful" debate.

A careful reading of the Pope's September 12 Regensburg address reveals that his entire speech revolved around the necessity "to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith" and it was in this context that the Pope wanted a dialogue "over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an", … "especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three 'Laws' or 'rules of life': the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an."

What are being referred to here are Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Confining ourselves to a hermeneutical discussion on Islam and Christianity, the following are some of theological issues that need to be addressed by the Pope for a meaningful dialogue with Islam.

Claiming Islam to be a continuation of the message brought by Moses and Jesus, the Quran makes categorical statements on the life and person of Christ which have profound implications for Christian theology. First of all, Islam negates the concept of the Original Sin supposedly committed by Adam and Eve that necessitated the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross as vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind. The Quran declares that "no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another" (6:164).

The truth is that it was Paul who perpetuated the belief of salvation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:14) whereas Jesus himself says that God "will reward each person according to what he has done." (Matthew 16:27). In fact the Quran challenges the very idea of crucifixion asserting that Jesus was neither killed nor crucified and that those who believe in his expiatory death "follow nothing but conjecture."(4:157).

On the crucial issue of God the Quran strongly opposes the theanthropic status ascribed to Christ saying that he was no more than a messenger of God (4:171) and that it is blasphemy to believe in Trinity and the divine sonship of Jesus for there is only one God and it does not befit His status to sire a son and, nor does He need to beget a son (5:73-77, 19:88-92, 112:1-4). The Quran also records a future conversation between God and Jesus on the Day of Judgment wherein Jesus forcefully denies having ever claimed divinity either to either himself or his mother Mary (5:116-119).

The truthfulness of this statement can be verified from the fact that in the all the four Gospels of the New Testament Jesus always refers to himself as "Son of Man" emphasising his human nature. (Matthew 8:20, 17:22, 19:28, Mark 9:31, 14:21). Interestingly Bible editors have now excised as interpolation the word "begotten" from the oft-quoted verse John 3:16 which described Jesus as the "only begotten Son." Not just that, the only reference in the entire Bible on Trinity in 1 John 5:7 has also been removed with the unceremonious explanation that the words "the Father, the Word and the Holy spirit, and these three are one" are "not found in any Greek manuscripts before the sixteenth century" (The N I V Quiet Time Bible, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, p.1557).

It is common knowledge that the edifice of present day Christianity is based on Trinity and the begotten sonship of Christ and, with the removal of these foundational doctrines from the Bible, Christianity has come closer to the monotheism of Islam.

But how did these verses not preached by Jesus get interpolated into the Bible? Theologians such as Adolf Von Harnack believe that it was because of the strong influence of Greek philosophy. But the Pope disagrees with Harnack's thesis. In his Regensburg speech he disapprovingly declares, "Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God." 
Such an attempt to de-Hellenize Christianity and "to return to the simple message of the New Testament" says the Pope, "is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed."

Therefore, the reluctance of the Pope to see "reason", and with Biblical scholars of the calibre of Harnack coming to the same conclusion as the Quranic view of Christianity it has to be asked whether the Pope is really interested in a dialogue with Islam.

PS: All quotes from the Pope are from his September 12 Regensburg speech.

A Faizur Rahman is a peace activist and executive committee member, Harmony India, an organisation devoted to secularism and communal amity. He can be reached at a.faizur.rahman@gmail.com .

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