Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 1): A Counterfeit Religion?

This post is in response to interest that has been shown to me by friends, family and even a Lutheran pastor, whose 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon I was blessed to hear while on holiday in South Australia. Rather than write separate emails to all, I am writing my reflections (partial and incomplete at this point) here, and will be directing them to it. You also, dear Reader, will thus also have the benefit thereof.

My Lutheran pastor friend, in his sermon, expressed the conviction that Islam was a “counterfeit” copy of the Christian religion – that many of its component elements had the look of authenticity about them – even very convincing authenticity – but that the whole was nevertheless worthless on account of the fact that it was a copy of the Truth, a fake.

This, those who know me will not be surprised to learn, is not my opinion. I believe that there is much that is valuable in the Muslim religion, the principle being that which the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church itself acknowledged 50 years ago this year:

They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, his virgin Mother; at times they even cal on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgement when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. (Nostra Aetate, 3)

Apart from the bit about “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God”, there is nothing this which is not most praiseworthy. (I do note, with a wry smile, that the translator of the above quotation, taken from the Vatican website, seems to have missed the double meaning of the English word “deserts”). Which leads me to think that “counterfeit” and “worthless” are not fair or honest terms that should be used of the Muslim religion (good Lutherans should recall Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment and realise that “neighbour” applies to Muslims as well!). Is there a better term that could be used? A term which stops short of affirming that the Islamic religion – as a whole and in all its parts – is true (for such an affirmation could only be made by a Muslim), and yet nevertheless does not consign all Muslim beliefs to the dustbin as worthless, nor ascribe to Muslims themselves any devious or malicious intention of deception?

To continue the image of a work of art suggested by the Lutheran preacher, I will suggest another term: “restoration”. This is what I mean: It is my understanding that the earliest Muslims truly believed their faith to be the authentic “restoration” of the previously oft revealed and oft forgotten (or, at least, oft corrupted) religion of the worship of the “One God… merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth”. Their claim was, after all, that this One God had revealed himself through a succession of prophets since the time of Adam, including Moses and Jesus. The problem was that those who had received these revelation had failed to properly transmit it. Hence, the whole Muslim program was the “restoration” of this primal monotheistic religion. The original was corrupted and in need of restoration – according to the very pattern of the original. Thus, rather than an attempt to pass off a “counterfeit” religion as the real one, a more charitable and objective view of the original intention of Islam would be to see it as an attempt to “restore” what its adherents honestly viewed as corrupted.

However, to decide this issue, whether Islam is a “counterfeit”, a “restoration” or even, indeed, “the original” monotheism, one must surely use the same method that one would when seeking to ascertain whether a work of art is “original”, “counterfeit” or a “restoration”, ie. one must look to the question of its origins. And hence, ever since I began to work in interfaith relations, and in particular in Muslim/Catholic dialogue, I have attempted to understand the origins of Islam itself. In one of my first dialogues with a Muslim, I recall asking him to recommend a book to help me understand the origins of his religion.

When I began to read his recommendation, however, I found that I was not reading anything like the kind of history to which my university undergraduate training had accustomed me. Rather, it was as if I had asked a Christian about the origin of Christianity and been handed a modern rewriting based on the two volumes of St Luke, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. What I read was the standard story of the origins of Islam, beginning with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and with the revelation of the Qur’an to him by the Angel Gabriel in the cave outside Mecca. Then there was his pilgrimage to Medina, and his victorious return to conquer Mecca. Then, immediately following his death, in a single generation, there is the sudden and seemingly divinely countenanced conquest of the whole Middle East and most of North Africa.

Twelve years ago, when I was just starting out in interfaith dialogue, most of this story was relatively new to me; today, however, just about everyone knows it. And almost no one questions it. Even the worst anti-Muslim diatribes take their cue from it. Whenever anyone critiques aspects of the personal life of the Prophet, or claims that the “Angel” who revealed the Qur’an was really a demon, or says that Islam is a religion that “conquered by the sword”, they are assuming that the classic Muslim story of the origin of Islam is historically factual.

But, you know me. There is a contrariness about me that attracts me to revisionist histories. Still, as the Wikipedia entry for Historical Revisionism points out, “constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history”.

Ever since, as a first year Seminary student, I learned that the biblical account of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews may not be precisely what “really happened” (despite a very excellent cinematic pedigree), I have been an eager student of Biblical and Christian history. I believe that the books of the Christian bible are historical documents, that is, they are a part of human history arising out of given and often identifiable historical contexts, and therefore can reveal a great deal about the times in which these books were written. I am (practically a priori) convinced that since the Christian faith is essentially incarnate and sacramental whatever is demonstrably historically true cannot be at odds with the core elements of Christianity. Thus I do not believe that there is anything in the slightest “blasphemous” about secular scholars in the academy studying, by their own lights of reason, the history of my faith and religion – including its origins.

The same cannot, however, be said in general of the way Muslims regard secular investigation into the historical origins of their religion. They do not, in general, look positively upon such endeavour. The central creed of Islam, for instance, is “There is no God but God” AND “Muhammad is his prophet”. Not, nota bene, “AND the Qur’an is His Word”. Thus, the historicity of Muhammad and his prophetic recitation as the origin of the Qur’an are not just sacrosanct articles of faith for Muslims, they are sacrosanct facts of history – in much the same way as the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and his Resurrection from the dead are both sacrosanct articles of faith and facts of history for Christians. Both religions claim an origin in an historical event. Yet it is for this very reason that the true believer should have nothing to fear from the scholarly, yea even secular, historical investigation of these historical events.

Personally, I believe that a better understanding of the historical origins of Islam would boost, rather than detract from, our overall understanding of its nature. It may, at the very least, reveal that the intention of the founder(s) of Islam was to effect an authentic restoration of the worship of the One, True God, rather than to maliciously foist a counterfeit monotheism upon the world. In what I am about to write from this point on, it is my conviction that good historical scholarship could not possibly reflect negatively upon true and authentic Islam, any more than good historical study into the origins of Christianity could do so (I am, please recall, a huge N.T. Wright fan). On the contrary, it could finally reveal “in the full light of history” (to quote Ernest Renan) what kind of religion Islam really is.

I am going to post this now, although I have some work yet to do before I can post the next part of this reflection. First I have to finish reading a book, and do a little more reflective thinking. So be patient. Give me a week or two.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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