City of Brass

The second excerpt from the book Between Allah and Jesus is up at Beliefnet and it continues the debate between the characters Isa (a Sunni muslim), Evan (a evangelical Christian), and Father Hereema (A Jesuit priest).

The dialogue continues the debate about whether Christians and Muslims indeed revere the same God, and further explore the differences and similarities in an analogy between the Word of God in Islam (the Qur’an) and in Christianity (Jesus AS).

My blog colleague Robert flags the following exchange between Isa and Fr. Hereema (to follow this conversation, though, it’s critical that the reader read the excerpts in full):

‘Isa then intervened: “But if the God of the Christians is the God of the Jews, then the God of Muslims is the God of the Christians because he is also the God of the Jews. If two things are both equal to a common third thing, they are equal to each other. That is a basic rule of logic.”

“And not just abstract logic but concrete history,” added Fr. Heerema. “Because both Christians and Muslims learned who God was from the Jews, from the people of Abraham. Both received the truth about God from the same source. Even though they disagreed about many things later, they still have that common source. If a river forks into two or three streams downstream, it’s still the same water.”

This is an interesting exchange, especially because the use of the river analogy is more significant that I think the author intended. Two branches of a river may have a common source, but one may be tainted or dammed. The question is, which one? From the muslim perspective, the Christian branch was indeed tainted by a simple act: of translation. As the dialogue continues:

(Fr. Hereema) “I think we disagree with you about that. We believe in the primacy of the person, the power of the person, the value of the person first of all.”

(Isa) “Perhaps that is because you do not understand the power of a book,” ‘Isa retorted. “We do. We Muslims understand the power of the Word, the spoken word. It is like the power of music. And in that way, I think perhaps we understand even your book, your Bible, better than you do.”

(…) Your book, your Bible, was once very powerful in your culture, was it not? It was once much more like the Qur’an in that way. Your old King James Bible: everyone read it and loved it and knew it and believed it and memorized it and preached from it and recited it. It had power over your souls and over your culture. It used to sing in your souls. And now it no longer sings.

The point Isa is trying to make, in his blunt and arrogant way*, is that the Source of revelation in Islam remains in the original form, whereas in Christianity it has been filtered. Thus, the taint of the translator enters the Message and thus biases it. As Isa says earlier in the debate,

“It says ‘The Qur’an’ on the title page. But it is not the Qur’an. It is a translation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is in Arabic, not English. A translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an. All it can do is communicate some of the meaning of the Qur’an.”

Of course, the moment the Qur’an is read by a human being, the same thing happens to the Message of Revelation as happened to the Bible – it is translated, and filtered, and biased – by the human mind. This is why two muslims, say myself and Osama bin Laden, might read the same verses of the Qur’an and come away with opposite conclusions.

The question of the Source is important, surely – it’s no small thing to emphasize that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity do indeed have the same Source. But the question of which branch you are on is more important. That’s just as true in an intra-faith context as it is in an inter-faith context!

It’s interesting that many Christians deny that there is even a shared Source at all, which is something that Isa spends a lot of wasted energy in the dialogue trying to confront and change in Evan’s mind. Robert comments,

I think the reason is that we are caught up in the differences that have arisen between our two religions that to admit a common source feels like we are conceding our differences.

To some extent I think it is important that we emphasize the differences, though – there’s no reason we can’t admit to a shared origin and still agree to disagree downstream. The thing that confuses me is why Christians are more invested in denying that Source outright. Robert, maybe you can shed some more light on that? Why the recalcitrance to say, “yes, same God – different theology” ? In that regard, I found the character of Evan far more representative than Fr. Hereema of Christian attitudes towards Islam.

One last note – Robert asks about “associators”, but to be honest Isa’s argument about that (which I won’t excerpt here) didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The term “associator” has to do more with the concept of shirk, which is idolatry. As many muslims still consider Christians to be polytheists as Christians do who deny that we have a shared God, so that’s really where that comes from- associating the non-Divine (ie, Jesus) with the Divine (God). I think we covered that though in the last excerpt.

(*note – I really find the Isa character to be unsympathetic and frankly offensive at times. I understand he exists to be a muslim archetype with which to challenge Christians, but his personality as written is so abrasive that it’s almost a stereotype. Unfortunately, I can speak from experience that it’s not an entirely inaccurate stereotype; I’ve met many such self-styled theologians in college and online.)

Related – all my posts in this series of dialogues with Robert about the book.

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