Religion 101

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.)



The U.S. population is overwhelmingly a Christian population (78% according to a recent Pew Forum survey), which of course means that all other religions also present within the U.S. are, by definition, “minority religions” (no matter how large they might be on the wider, global scene). Perhaps unsurprisingly, many average Americans’ familiarity with these other faiths pursued by a few of their neighbors tends to be a bit on the thin side.

Many who are unfamiliar with the specifics of, say, Judaism and Islam may simply assume that such “other” religions are probably radically, perhaps even unimaginably different from each other — completely alien faiths, with little to no common ground or similarities of belief and practice.

But those who may possess only a casual familiarity with either Judaism or Islam might be very surprised to discover just how much common ground these two faiths actually share, or how many striking similarities and provocative parallels exist between them.

In my previous blog entry, I began a sort of “Top Ten” list of such shared Judaic/Islamic similarities. That list now continues below:

3.  Jews and Muslims both believe in angels.  The religious worldviews of Judaism and Islam each make room for nonhuman heavenly denizens generally referred to as “angels,” supernatural beings created by God to serve as his messengers (or to otherwise perform divinely directed deeds).

Both the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud (rabbinic literature) are filled with accounts involving angelic activity of various sorts, including that of the angel Gabriel, the angel Michael, and others unnamed. Likewise, the Quran speaks of angels as God’s created messengers and functionaries, including Mikail (Michael), Israfil (Raphael), and many others; indeed, the very revelation of the Quran to Muhammad was itself facilitated by Jibril (Gabriel), the greatest member of the angelic hierarchy.

Yet another similarity shared between Judaism and Islam is that both faiths sternly warn against regarding angels as objects of worship per se, or as themselves being on par with God; to do so would be to commit the sin of idolatry.

4.  Jews and Muslims both believe in prophets and divine revelations.  Judaism and Islam each accept the idea that God communicates directly to humanity through the agency of prophets, or human beings chosen by God to serve as “mouthpieces” through whom the divine will may be communicated to human communities. (Contrary to common colloquial use, the term “prophet” refers not to a foreteller of the future, but literally translated simply means “one who speaks for God.”)

For Judaism, Moses is the prophet par excellence, since it was to — and through — Moses that God revealed the Torah (“law,” “instruction,” “teaching”), the extensive body of binding commandments that serve as the basis for the divine covenant established between God and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The first five books of the Bible, which contain this material, are collectively referred to as the Torah (or alternatively as “the five books of Moses”). The second or middle section of the Hebrew Bible, known as Nevi’im (“the Prophets”) contains accounts of such important subsequent prophets in later Israelite history as Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and many others.

For Islam, Muhammad is the prophet through whom God revealed the Quran (“recitation”), the holy book which Muslims revere as the literal word of God and as the final divine revelation to be bequeathed to humankind; the prophet Muhammad is therefore regarded by Muslims as the last prophet through whom God will speak to humanity. Islam recognizes the reality and validity of previous divine revelations from God to other peoples in other times; the Quran recognizes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, Jesus, and other biblical figures (along with some additional, non-biblical figures) as true prophets through whom God spoke to his creation, even while it then goes on to add Muhammad as the final figure in that list, after whom prophecy and revelation come to a close.

Of course, for all they may share in common with regard to revelation and prophecy, there remain important differences among the three Abrahamic faiths. While Islam accepts the legitimacy of such previous divine revelations as those which resulted in the Jewish and the Christian scriptures, it maintains that those scriptures have become so distorted over the course of the intervening centuries that the Torah and the gospels, as they have come down to us (and as we have them now), no longer accurately reflect the actual content of those original formative revelations.

This means that the Jewish and Christian scriptures as they now exist are no longer accurate or reliable, and insofar as Judaism and Christianity are based upon those scriptures, those religions have become riddled with errors. In the Muslim view, the revelation of the Quran served to correct all of those errors and distortions that had crept into those older scriptures (for example, clearing up the erroneous Christian view of Jesus as being an incarnation of God, or the Son of God, or a resurrected divine savior; Muslims believe Jesus was a great prophet or messenger of God, but certainly not God himself, or in any sense divine).

Of course, Judaism fully agrees with Islam that Jesus was not a divine savior, or God incarnate. On the other hand, Judaism disagrees with Islam’s core belief in Muhammad as being a genuine prophet, or in the Quran as representing an authentic divine revelation. Jews obviously reject the Islamic claim that the infallible Quran “corrects errors” that have crept into the Hebrew Bible. So, there certainly remain important, even non-negotiable theological matters upon which Jews and Muslims must simply “agree to disagree.”

Nevertheless, at base, both Judaism and Islam believe in a God (the same God) who reveals himself to his human creations by speaking to them through the agency of human prophets. Chosen by God to serve as his “mouthpieces,” such prophets have, from time to time throughout history, delivered messages from God to entire human communities.

For such communities — the Jews, for example, or the Muslims — these divine revelations have given rise to scriptures, which have come to be regarded by their respective communities as uniquely holy and authoritative , insofar as they are held to contain and express the very word and will of God.

(To be continued, in Part Three.)



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.)