According to a recent Pew Forum survey, 78.4% of the U.S. population self-identifies as Christian — clearly an overwhelming majority. By contrast, Jews account for only 1.7% and Muslims a mere 0.6% of the population.
Overwhelming majorities (of whatever sort) sometimes pay little attention to, and may actually know very little about, the tiny minorities around them. This, of course, often holds true regarding religious majorities and minorities; a lot of American Christians know relatively little about Judaism, and even less about Islam.
Knowing so little about them, many Americans may wrongly assume that Jews and Muslims have almost nothing in common, religiously speaking, with each other. Many might be surprised to learn that there is actually a significant amount of common ground shared by these two faiths.
In my two previous blog entries (Part One and Part Two of this five-part series), I began enumerating the first four of ten noteworthy similarities between Judaism and Islam, with which readers unfamiliar with either faith might be unaware. That “top ten” list now continues below:
5. Jews and Muslims both believe in the resurrection of the dead, in a day of judgment, and in heaven and hell. Christians share these beliefs as well, making them a commonality among all three Abrahamic religions. While the specific details (and particular interpretations thereof) may vary among individual sects, branches, and denominations, probably most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in some variant of this whole package or cluster of related religious ideas about the afterlife and the end of time (or the end of the world, at least as we know it).
The generally accepted idea, which developed initially within Judaism and then was subsequently inherited by both Christianity and Islam (insofar as those two later faiths share Semitic theological roots), is that there will come a day when God will collectively raise from the dead every person who has ever lived, and then individually pronounce divine judgment upon every living soul.
All who are deemed adequately righteous in God’s eyes — those who have sufficiently satisfied the necessary divine criteria (conceived variously by the different religions) — will enjoy eternal bliss in heaven. Conversely, all whom God deems unrighteous are judged and sentenced accordingly; those who are found irredeemably guilty of having failed to meet the divinely mandated minimum standards (conceived differently by different religions, but required for entry into paradise) will instead suffer eternal torment in hell.
Again, there are variant understandings of just precisely what all of that really means, or just exactly how it will all actually play out, among the three major Semitic religions (not to mention among their numerous internal subdivisions). But that basic kernel or core idea is present in some form within each of them, and plays an important role within their respective theologies.
This entire cluster of beliefs about “last things” also sharply distinguishes the three Abrahamic faiths from other major world religions, which may maintain fundamentally and radically different beliefs of their own about the nature of the afterlife, or of ultimate human destiny (for example, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh beliefs in reincarnation).
6. Jews and Muslims both regard Jerusalem as a holy city. (Christians do too, of course.) It would be difficult to overstate the central importance for Judaism of the city of Jerusalem. The capital of Israel today and one of the world’s oldest cities, Jerusalem was originally established (according to biblical tradition) by King David as his capital city approximately three thousand years ago (circa 1000 B.C.).
David’s son, King Solomon, established the first Temple there, making Jerusalem the religious center of the Jewish universe — a status which the ancient city continues to enjoy today, despite the Temple having been destroyed twice (the First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians; the rebuilt Second Temple was subsequently destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D).
Even though the Temple remains a long-vanished thing of the past, Jerusalem today remains a city of profound religious history and meaning for Judaism. The Temple Mount (the original site of both Temples), with its famous Western or “Wailing” Wall (the ancient remains of a Temple courtyard wall) continues to attract pilgrims by the thousands, who come to pray — as they have for centuries — in the presence of what Jews still regard as the holiest place on Earth.
The city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is, of course, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, and also the locus of the well-known Hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca (as one of the “Five Pillars” of Islam, it is religiously incumbent upon every Muslim who is able to do so to make the formal pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime). It should therefore come as no surprise that, in Islam, Mecca is regarded as the holiest city.
The nearby city of Medina, home to Muhammad’s tomb and a refuge to which Muhammad and his companions were forced to flee due to increasing persecution in Mecca — a watershed event in the birth of Islam, referred to as the Hijra (“flight,” “migration”) — is an optional addition to the Hajj which many Muslim pilgrims also undertake. Medina is therefore understandably revered as the second holiest city in Islam.
For Muslims, Jerusalem is also a sacred site; in fact, it ranks as Islam’s third holiest city, right after Mecca and Medina.
Islam recognizes the validity of previous revelations from God to previous prophets throughout history, including biblical history, and Jerusalem figured prominently as a holy city to those earlier prophets.
Jerusalem also figures prominently in the story of Muhammad’s miraculous night journey and ascension, according to which the archangel Jibril (Gabriel) transported Muhammad first from Mecca to Jerusalem (for prayer), and then from Jerusalem to heaven (where he met and spoke with some of those previous prophets), all in a single night.
Jerusalem was also the first qibla (“direction”) that Muslims were instructed to face during their prayers, until a later divine revelation received by Muhammad subsequently resulted in changing the direction faced for Islamic prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Today, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the sacred site not only of the Western (“Wailing”) Wall — the sole remaining remnant of Judaism’s Second Temple — but also of Islam’s al-Aqsa mosque, as well as its Dome of the Rock shrine.
Built upon the site of the long-vanished Jewish Temple — the “rock” of the shrine’s name being the Temple’s actual Foundation Stone (which Jews believe marks the site of the Temple’s Holy of Holies or inner sanctum, making it the holiest site in Judaism) — the Dome of the Rock is believed by Muslims to mark the spot in Jerusalem to which Muhammad had been transported during his miraculous night flight, and from which he subsequently ascended to heaven for a brief visit, as described previously.
The nearby al-Aqsa mosque is Islam’s third holiest house of worship, after Mecca’s Grand Mosque (home of the Kaaba and focus of the Hajj pilgrimage) and Medina’s Mosque of the Prophet (home of Muhammad’s tomb).
(To be continued, in Part Four.)