Religion 101

In my previous blog entries, I addressed poll results indicating that a surprisingly large percentage of Americans are unaware of the fact that Judaism is older than both Christianity and Islam, and are also unable to identify which Islamic countries actually have the world’s largest Muslim populations (to the surprise of many Americans, they’re not even Middle Eastern countries).

Such gaps as these in our common religious knowledge (or in popular “religious literacy”) are merely symptomatic of an even deeper and more widespread general unfamiliarity, on the part of many Americans, with some of the most basic characteristics of both Judaism and Islam (to say nothing of our similar widespread lack of familiarity with the basics of even more exotic yet equally prominent major world religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism).

Many average Americans would therefore probably be very surprised to learn that Judaism and Islam actually share a pretty substantial amount of religious ground in common with each other. Certainly a sizable percentage of the students who enter my community college world religions courses each semester are often startled to discover that so many similar religious beliefs and parallel religious practices are actually shared between Jews and Muslims.

For example, just off the top of my head, I can think of at least ten significant things that Judaism and Islam either share in common outright, or for which both religions at least possess some strikingly similar mutual parallels:

1.  Jews and Muslims both worship the same God.  Both Judaism and Islam are staunchly monotheistic, believing in the existence of one — and only one — God. Many Americans understand that Jews and Christians worship the same God; however, they may be unaware that Muslims also worship that very same God.

Allah is not the personal name of some altogether separate and distinctly different deity (like Odin or Thor, or Zeus or Apollo, or Vishnu or Shiva); the term Allah does not specify some peculiar, foreign, alien, or uniquely Arabian god. Rather, Allah is merely — and quite literally — the Arabic word which means “God.” (Arab Christians, for example, refer quite naturally and unselfconsciously to their explicitly biblical God as “Allah,” since for them that unloaded term is nothing other than simply Arabic for “God.”)

The Quran, Islam’s holy book, discusses Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus, and other biblical figures; in doing so, the Islamic scripture itself makes it abundantly clear that the God of Muhammad, and the God of Jesus, and the God of Israel are all the selfsame God. Since the Muslim God is also the Judeo-Christian God, Allah is in fact identical with — and not different from — the Hebrew God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Indeed, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are together regarded as “Abrahamic” religions, insofar as all three of them share common roots, which are traditionally traced back to the ancient Hebrew patriarch Abraham. (As founded by Muhammad in the 7th century AD, Islam was born in Arabia, and both Jews and Arabs are likewise classed as “Semitic” peoples; each group is traditionally regarded as descended from Shem, a son of Noah.)

2.  Jews and Muslims both reject specifically Christian beliefs about Jesus.  Christianity is likewise an Abrahamic monotheism, believing in the same single supreme God as its two Semitic cousins. However, the Christian faith also maintains certain uniquely characteristic religious claims about Jesus Christ, and this gives rise to another shared commonality between Judaism and Islam: they both flatly reject those uniquely Christian claims about Jesus.

Such characteristically Christian beliefs as the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and the unique role and status of Jesus as being a literal Son of God and a divine savior are all regarded by both Jews and Muslims alike as not only patently false, but even as downright blasphemous.

Christianity maintains that Jesus is, in some sense, a divine incarnation of God himself — the second Person in a divine Trinity, consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and hence coequal with, and even identical to, God himself. Judaism and Islam each see such radical claims as both nonsensical (in their view, God simply does not become incarnate as an individual human being), as well as idolatrous (by essentially equating a human being — in this case, Jesus — with the divine, making him coequal with or identical to God).

From the perspectives of both Judaism and Islam, such extreme beliefs about Jesus are seen as being utterly inconsistent with the sort of genuine, radical, and uncompromising monotheism upon which both Judaism and Islam absolutely insist, as non-negotiable core articles of faith. For Jews and Muslims alike, God is One, and not in any sense Three; for them, Christianity’s belief in the Trinity smacks of an unacceptable “tri-theism.”

For their part, Muslims do regard Jesus as a very great prophet indeed, but as nothing more elevated or holy than that — a mere mortal, nothing more. Jews take an even dimmer view of the matter, seeing Jesus as at best a failed wannabe messiah, or at worst as a false prophet.

In either case, for both Judaism and Islam alike, Jesus is no savior, is not divine, was never resurrected, and is not God incarnate (or the literal Son of God) in any sense whatsoever. Upon such matters, Jews and Muslims are in full agreement with each other.

(To be continued, in Part Two.)


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