How Islam is Different

A lot gets said about the difference between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Or the difference between the Judeo-Christian heritage and Islam. (I don’t necessarily like that last one, since it conflates Judaism and Christianity in was no one really did until the 20th century.)

Some folks talk about love (I do a bit in my book), some folks talk about violence, some folks talk about the nature of God. There are a lot of differences, and a lot of similarities. Islam draws heavily on biblical stories and shapes them to some very similar, but also some very different, ends.

But if there is a single difference that matters today, it really has to do with the meaning of suffering and the meaning of history. These arise in scripture but also move out and beyond scripture. (In any scripture-bound community, scripture is where to start, but scripture is only a framing story, and it’s only a starting point. Much of faith and practice arises outside scripture itself.)

Let’s look at the Bible. It tells a long story, purportedly from creation through, in the case of the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (with some Aramaic), through to the first two centuries after Persia conquered Babylon and sent the exiles of Israel back home from their banishment along to Tigris. (The Greek version adds a couple of centuries through to the Hasmonean revolt against Greek rule.) I have argued before that the real story of scripture begins with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 — everything else, including the creation, is preamble. This story, from Abraham through to Ezra and Nehemiah, takes place over maybe 1,800 to 2,000 years. And a fair amount of it is myth, that is, less an attempt to covey factual truth than to grapple with the truthful meaning of things.

It is the long story of the calling of a people, of their rise, their fall, their rise, and their fall, and their exile, and their waiting on redemption, or their struggle with living out their redemption. I believe it is important to note that the last words of the Hebrew Bible in the Tanakh are Cyrus’ commands at the end of 2 Chronicles to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem:

23 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up. (2 Chronicles 36:23 ESV)

Israel’s restored sovereignty is very circumscribed in Persia (the story of Esther tells something of this). And the circumscribed nature of that renewed sovereignty would be tested and struggled with when Alexander conquered Persia and his successors imposed Greek culture and thought upon Israel.

The point is, the Hebrew Bible is a long contemplation of the call of God in the face of failure and defeat. God called us, made promises to Abraham — land, patrimony, blessing to the world — and then made promises to David that his kingdom would last forever. What do those promises mean after Assyria and Babylonia? What do those promises mean in the face of defeat, conquest, and exile?

There is no one answer to this. The struggle of Hasmoneans Maccabees against the successors to Alexander (which shows up in part of the Book of Daniel), and the struggles against Rome, show there was messianic and nationalistic component to Israel thought more than 2,000 years ago. Violent struggle is one answer to failure, suffering, and defeat.

But the scripture itself is a mediation on this. What does it mean to be God’s people, to bear God’s promises, given what has happened to us? Note — there are many answers to this question. But one of the brilliant things about the Hebrew Bible is it stares this problem in the face and does not flinch.

The New Testament is an answer to this question. Christianity deals with the problem of promise, suffering, and meaning by flipping everything over. “What do you think you’ve been promised?” the Gospels seem to ask. Yes, you are God’s people and you have been given promises, and they are true — just not in ways that make much rational sense to you. And those promises will be fulfilled, but again, not in ways that make any sense to you. The Savior of the World, the Anointed One who has come to redeem, the King who has come to rule on the throne given to David? He will die upon a cross as a criminal and a rebel. You want to gain the promised Kingdom? Serve and love others.

Part of this is tactical. The followers of Jesus could afford non-violence in a way the Israelites could not. They faced a powerful universal empire which brooked no dissent and crushed all resistance. There was no rebelling against Rome, unless you wanted to seize the “throne,” as Vespasian did in the midst of the Jewish War.

This is not to say Christians don’t use power easily, or even brutally. The writings of the earliest martyrs reflect an interesting approach to the empire — we are willing to suffer for our faith, they say, but we shouldn’t have to because we are the empire’s best citizens. So when empire became theirs, Christians (and the church itself) found power easy to use.

So while the church has always viewed itself as second dispensation of sorts, the fulfillment of promises made long ago along the rivers of Iraq to a shadowy figured named Abram, that long meditation on the meaning of the promises of God in the face of failure, defeat, and exile still remains. It’s a minority voice in Christianity — especially in Christendom — but since the Gospels originally arose as one answer (among many) to that puzzle, it was impossible for the church in Christendom to entirely silence that conversation.

That’s the shared heritage of Christianity and Judaism — a contemplation of the meaning of the promises of God to Abraham in the midst of the failure, defeat, and exile of his descendants, the recipients of that promise.

And there is no one right answer in the here and now. Some answers are better than others. Some answers are more faithful than others. But until the coming judgement, there is no single answer.

This is where Islam leaves the tradition. Taken at face value, the Qur’an is the product of God speaking to Muhammad in Makka and Yathrib over the course of roughly three decades some 1400 years ago. The Qur’an speaks beautifully of the creation of human beings, the expulsion of Satan from the presence of God, the call of Moses, Abraham’s challenge to his idol worshiping people. I still find, in the Qur’an, a powerful set of stories which tell listeners who they are and whose they are.

Caliph Umar praying in Jerusalem.

But those 30-some-odd years of revelation, the career of Muhammad, was up and out. There were failures, and losses, but those were temporary things. And the meaning of temporary, and the faith in the future, is different in a three-decade narrative versus a three-thousand-year narrative. The Qur’an is the story of success (in this it reflects as much the early Abbasid editing as it does the original revelation; make no mistake, the Bible is heavily edited too, and there are places where that is clear), and Islamic history is the story of success. The early Muslims achieved so much in a very short time, emerging from Makka to conquer the Levant, North Africa, Persia, and Spain.

Islam acclimated itself to temporal success. In this, the spread of Islam shadows the spread of the church, which was also upward and seemingly inexorable. The difference is that Christendom spread a lot more slowly, and could fall back, if it chose to — if it found the narrative — of “what does it mean to have the promise of God in the face of failure, defeat, and exile?” It could ask the open-ended question Jeremiah asks in Lamentations. That part of the Hebrew and Christian tradition was not something Islam borrowed heavily from, if at all, in medieval period. When faced with adversity, Muslims tended to ask themselves — “What does it mean to have the promises of God given the guarantee of success?”

Muslims don’t really begin to meditate on failure — real, solid, brutal failure — until the Mongols arrive and devastate Iraq. I think it’s hard to under estimate the destruction and damage the Mongols inflicted upon Dar al Islam. Nothing really comparable ever happened to medieval Christendom, and Ibn Taymiyya’s rather dour and militant theology emerges from this.

In fact, Islam as a faith never really had to stare failure, defeat, conquest, and exile in the face and deal with it theologically, until the 19th century. (Even the Mongol conquerors of Dar al Islam eventually became Muslim, and created new Muslim polities.) Until the arrival of European conquerors and colonizers, Islam never had to face a universal empire that wasn’t itself. And Islam has a different set of theological tools to answer those questions. Revolution, to create a purer world run by Islam as God has promised (and desires), is one answer. And it is, according to the tradition, a faithful one. (This is what the Maccabees did, successfully, against Greek rule, and what the Jewish rebels in AD 70 and again 60 years later failed at.)

Again, I’m not saying Christians and Jews haven’t reached for power, privilege, military might, and statecraft, to try and answer this question of what it means to possess the promises of God. After Constantine, Christendom also never faced a universal empire that wasn’t itself — one of Christendom’s unhappy gifts to secularism.

What Islam lacks, however, is a sense that failure, defeat, conquest, and exile might be permanent conditions that we are redeemed in rather than from. That failure, defeat, conquest, and exile might have meaning in and of themselves, and not simply be something to overcome. Christians and Jews, at least some of us, struggle within this understanding. That is an answer, and it is one readily grounded both in scripture and tradition. Islam still expects an eventual earthly human success; it is written into the understanding of what Man is and what God created us for. As long as that expectation demands the establishment of an earthly kingdom of power and might, looks upon the world and sees a need for that kingdom, then we will be stuck with something like Revolutionaries waving black flags, blowing up tall buildings, and waging war.

(Modernity also has Islam’s inability to deal with failure, defeat, conquest, and exile.)

Some Muslims have transcended this. Sufism arose in Islam for the same reason some Christians became monks and wandered into the desert; to seek rigor and a direct encounter with God in a place where believing and belonging became commonplace, comfortable, and expected. (However, violent opposition among Muslims to Western conquest in the 19th and early 20th centuries was all led and done by Sufis. Make of that what you will.)

So, I have no doubt some Muslims could, looking at the world of modernity, transcend the expectations of scripture and tradition and look past hopes of Muslim rule and build an Islam that saw its hopes as eschatological rather than temporal. (This is something I came to believe as a Muslim.) One way for Muslims to do this would be to consider themselves as living in Makka prior to the hijra (the flight to Madinah), as living under the rule of non-Muslims. To do this would require Muslims to abandon the notion of tactical accommodations with the world and think, not in terms of decades and eventual triumph, but in terms of centuries or even God’s good time. If Sayyed Qutub can undo the “unchanging” relationship between the jahiliyya (The time of ignorance, or the era before Islam) and Islam, and call any secular Muslim state jahiliyya (thus justifying its overthrow), then Muslims have the intellectual tools to begin to consider any place they live as Makka under the rule of the pagan Qureysh. I grant that this is only a metaphor, and a difficult one at that, for pre-hijra Makka is portrayed as a difficult and oppressive place, where individual Muslims who could not be protected by family and clan relationships were often tortured, starved, and killed. There’s a reason the community of Muslims fled to Yathrib, to a place where Islam ruled. Because it was the only place they could be safe.

(And It’s a pity we don’t have a record of what happened to the several dozen Muslims who sought refuge in Christian Ethiopia. Their lives as Muslims living in the midst of Christians could tell us a fair amount about how to be Muslim under such conditions.)

We in the West can little to help this conversation along. Christians, Jews, and secularists have little standing in an argument among Muslims over modernity and the meaning of history. It will take time — some bloody awful time — for Muslims to resolve this. Eventually, I suspect a domesticated Islam will arise that accepts its place as subservient to modernity (this is more or less the Islam that is lived in Saudi Arabia, for example), as willing to live in pagan Makka. Many Muslims will live uneasily with that answer, but they will also live knowing the alternatives are violence and misery.

Which is okay. The church should live uneasily with our domestication too.

2 thoughts on “How Islam is Different

  1. I’m wondering what you as a Christian former Muslim think about how I express why I returned to Christ after some years as a Baha’i. Only Christians know that God could would and did die for us in the same sort of way that every child knows their parents would die for them. I became a Baha’i after growing up Methodist mostly because I didn’t understand the Trinity; upon rereading Mark, I realized how much God loves us, and the Trinity is how that happens – Jesus is God. What do you think?

    • Yeah, I agree! I’m curious — what exactly was it about the Gospel of Mark that convinced you, or spoke to you, about God’s love?

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