Muslims are pious. They’re pro-life. They’re uncompromising. What’s not to like about their religion?
Plenty, actually. But too many people nowadays assume that to speak about other religions in anything but an uncritical fashion is contrary to Vatican II and to the divine command to love our neighbor. It is a peculiar, albeit common, misconception of our age to think that dispensing with the truth can be an act of charity.
It never truly can be. We must always, as the Apostle says, speak the truth in love—that is, enunciate the realities that we know to be true without rancor, or pride, or arrogance, or condemnation. But we must never think our obligation to be charitable can or should overwhelm our responsibility to bear witness to the truth.
Islam differs fundamentally from Catholicism in its views of God, Christ, and essential moral issues. As Muslim persecution of Christians increases in Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Iraq, Indonesia, and elsewhere, and Muslims become more of a presence in the West, it becomes more essential for Catholics to understand this.
Vastly different concepts of God
The proposition that we worship the same God is affirmed by Vatican II: “Together with us they [Muslims] adore the one merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day” (Lumen Gentium 16). The Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, also affirms this: Allah tells his prophet Muhammed to say to the “People of the Book”—that is, the Jews, Christians, and a few other groups who are considered to have received a genuine revelation from Allah— “Our God and your God is one, and to him we have surrendered” (29:46).
Yet Vatican II could not have meant that Muslims and Catholics have exactly the same doctrine of God; it notes that Muslims “profess” to hold the faith of Abraham, not that they actually hold it.
In fact, the Qur’an and Islamic tradition present a picture of God so different from that of the Bible and Catholic Tradition that it is difficult to maintain the proposition that, apart from some minor creedal differences, they are the same being in both traditions.
Islam denies the Trinity
The most obvious difference between the Christian and Islamic conceptions of God is the Trinity. The Qur’an several times denies the Trinity, or at least attempts to do so. And so in the Muslim holy book, Allah asks Jesus: “O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, ‘Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God’?” (5:116)
The Qur’an has Jesus disclaim any responsibility for Christians worshiping him and his mother: “He said, ‘To thee be glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to. If I indeed said it, thou knowest it, knowing what is within my soul, and I know not what is within thy soul; thou knowest the things unseen” (5:116).
This is not only a human Jesus without a divine nature but also a misapprehension of the Trinity. It is clear that the Qur’an envisions the Trinity not as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three Persons, one God—but as a trio of deities: Allah, Jesus, and Mary. Nonetheless, in another passage, the Qur’an warns Christians not to affirm a triune God: “People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, and say not as to God but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the messenger of God, and his Word that he committed to Mary, and a spirit from him. So believe in God and his messengers, and say not, ‘Three.’ Refrain; better is it for you. God is only one God. Glory be to him—that he should have a son! To him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth; God suffices for a guardian” (4:171).
The assumption behind this verse is that it would somehow limit God if he had a son. Thus in contradiction to the unthinkable proposition that he has a son, Allah says of himself: “To him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth; God suffices for a guardian.” The idea here is that Allah would have a son only if Allah were too weak or insufficient to manage the universe himself and so would need a partner to share the work; but he is all-powerful and doesn’t need any help.
“Refrain; better is it for you.” This may be simply a warning that hellfire awaits those who take Jesus and Mary as Gods besides God, in line with another passage of the Qur’an: “They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the third of three. No god is there but one God. If they refrain not from what they say, there shall afflict those of them that disbelieve a painful chastisement” (5:73). However, given the Qur’an’s exhortation to Muslims to fight Christians “until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled” (9:29), this warning carries a hint of menace.
Of course, Judaism also denies the Trinity, but Catholics would acknowledge that the God of the Jews and of the Christians is the same; given that the two groups share the same Scripture of the Old Testament, it would be difficult to deny this. (A Christian thinker named Marcion in the second century rejected the Old Testament and a substantial portion of the New in order to try to build a case that the God of what was left of the New was not the God of the Old. But his line of thought was declared heretical.)
The gap between the God of Christianity and the God of Islam is much larger. There is no shared Scripture, and Muslims contend that while Jews and Christians worship the same God as they do, both groups have highly corrupted views of his nature.
Allah is not a father
Allah in the Qur’an, in the first place, is not a father. He is above all not the father of Jesus Christ. The Qur’an repeatedly rejects, as an insult to Allah’s transcendent majesty, the idea that Jesus is his son—and, indeed, that he has any son at all.
The Qur’an envisions Allah as a physical being and so dismisses the idea of the divine fatherhood in physical terms. “It is not for God to take a son unto him. Glory be to him! When he decrees a thing, he but says to it ‘Be,’ and it is” (19:35). In other words, Allah has no son because he can create by fiat and so has no need to beget.
What’s more, Allah must not have a son, because he doesn’t have a wife: “The creator of the heavens and the earth—how should he have a son, seeing that he has no consort, and he created all things, and he has knowledge of everything?” (6:101). “He—exalted be our Lord's majesty!—has not taken to himself either consort or a son” (72:3). In line with this, the warnings to Christians to “say not, ‘Three,’” and not to worship Jesus and Mary as gods alongside Allah seem to stem from an assumption that Christians believed that God had taken Mary as his wife and begotten a son, Jesus, after the manner of the old pagan gods.
Though this shows a gross misunderstanding of what the Trinity and the fatherhood of God mean, it generally makes little headway to try to explain this to pious and knowledgeable Muslims. Hearing that the Trinity is composed of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—one God rather than a divine trio of God, Jesus, and Mary—Muslims generally point out that the Qur’anic passage doesn’t mention the Trinity anyway and so cannot be assumed to be referring to it. Pointing out that Christians nevertheless worship Jesus as God, they maintain that their criticism of this as deification of a human being and tantamount to polytheism is still valid. They also point, in a manner reminiscent of the most hardline Protestants, to the Church’s veneration of Mary as evidence that she, too, is worshiped as divine.
Islam rejects the idea of the divine fatherhood in general: in no sense can human beings in the Islamic view be called the children of Allah. The Qur’an dismisses such an idea contemptuously in an explicit rejection of the Jewish and Christian view. Allah first recounts the claim of the Jews and Christians, and then instructs Muhammed (and the Muslims) how to respond to it: “Say the Jews and Christians, ‘We are the sons of God, and His beloved ones.’ Say: ‘Why then does He chastise you for your sins? No; you are mortals, of His creating; He forgives whom He will, and He chastises whom He will.’ For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them; to Him is the homecoming” (5:18).
The Qur’an’s assumption that a father will not punish his children for their wrongdoing is odd, but there it is. Whatever the reasoning, in Islam, God is not the father of human beings. To a pious Muslim, a prayer like the Our Father is utterly alien. A Muslim would consider it presumptuous in the extreme to call Allah his father: Allah is the master of the universe, and human beings are his slaves. The hallmark of Islamic religious observance is obedience, not a transformation of the heart and soul.
Allah the source of good and evil
And the one whom one must obey has inclined mankind to evil as well as good. In the Qur’an, Allah inspires in the soul both “lewdness and godfearing” (91:8). The world-renowned Pakistani Muslim political leader and theologian Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1902–1979), who wrote an influential commentary on the Qur’an, explains that this verse means that “the Creator has imbedded in man’s nature tendencies and inclinations towards both good and evil.”
In other words, in sharp contrast to the Christian understanding that evil is the rejection of God, in Islam, Allah places inclinations to both good and evil within the soul. This is worlds apart from the proposition that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5)—for to place evil in the soul, Allah must have it to give, which would be impossible in the Christian conception, since evil is the absence of God.
The Islamic concept casts the very goodness of God into doubt, as well as the nature of what is good. The grand and powerful Christian conception of a God who is love and who endowed his human creatures with freedom so that they could respond to him in love and who sacrificed himself in order to overcome impediments to their ability to do so is replaced by the idea of a remote God who placed, for reasons unexplained, inclinations toward both good and evil within man’s heart.
But for a believing Muslim, to suggest anything else would be blasphemous. Even to say that Allah in his goodness must act consistently would be to limit his power.
Shortcomings of Islamic morality
What’s more, Islamic morality is quite different from what some ecumenical Catholics assume it to be. Not only does it have much less common ground with Catholic morality than most Catholics assume, but it compares unfavorably even to the decadent West in fostering genuine virtues.
Islamic law regarding artificial contraception is derived from several sayings of Muhammed regarding coitus interruptus (in Islamic law, azl). On one occasion one of the believers asks Muhammed: “O Allah’s Apostle! We get female captives as our share of booty, and we are interested in their prices, what is your opinion about coitus interruptus?” Muhammed answers: “Do you really do that? It is better for you not to do it. No soul that which Allah has destined to exist, but will surely come into existence.”
Some of the early Muslims believed that Muhammed’s saying it was “better for you not to do it” amounted to a prohibition: “Yahya related to me from Malik from Nafi that Abdullah ibn Umar did not practice coitus interruptus and thought that it was disapproved.” Another concluded from Muhammed’s words: “By Allah, [it seems] as if there is upbraiding in it [for azl].”
Unambiguous, however, was the recollection of Jabir, one of Muhammed’s early companions, who in later life recalled: “We used to practice azl during the lifetime of Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him). This [the news of this practice] reached Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him), and he did not forbid us.”
The early Muslim jurist Imam Malik declared the practice impermissible with free women but acceptable with slave girls: “Malik said, “A man does not practice coitus interruptus with a free woman unless she gives her permission. There is no harm in practicing coitus interruptus with a slave-girl without her permission. Someone who has someone else's slave-girl as a wife does not practice coitus interruptus with her unless her people give him permission.”
The contemporary Muslim scholar Sa'diyya Shaikh, a professor of Islamic studies and feminist theory at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, wrote in 2003 about the permissibility of contraception in Islam in terms that contrasted starkly with Catholic teaching:
Contraception has a long history in Islam that needs to be situated in relation to the broader Islamic ethos of marriage and sexuality. In Islam if one chooses to marry, this is not automatically linked to procreation. Within the Islamic view of marriage, an individual has the right to sexual pleasure within marriage, which is independent of one’s choice to have children. This type of approach to sexuality is compatible with a more tolerant approach to contraception and family planning.
Historically the various Islamic legal schools with an overwhelming majority have permitted coitus interruptus as a method of contraception. This was a contraceptive technique practiced by pre-Islamic Arabs and continued to be used during time of the Prophet with his knowledge—and without his prohibition.
Likewise, regarding abortion, the contemporary Islamic scholar Azizah al-Hibri sums up the prevailing view: “The majority of Muslim scholars permit abortion, although they differ on the stage of fetal development beyond which it becomes prohibited.” And, says al-Hibri, all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence “permit abortion for exigencies such as saving the mother’s life.”
In light of all this, it is hard to understand why the idea is so widespread among orthodox Catholics that Muslims would make good partners for action on life issues. In reality, the Islamic moral schema differs so sharply from the Catholic one that they have hardly any common ground at all.
Shi’ite Muslims also practice temporary marriage, which is simply a marriage contract with a deadline, or, in effect, a fig-leaf of morality placed over what is plainly and simply prostitution. “Temporary wives” are commonly found in seminary towns where young men are on their own for the first time and vulnerable to offers of companionship. That this bears only the most glancing resemblance to Catholic morality is epitomized by a diary entry written by the Shi’ite seminarian Aqa Najafi Quchani early in the 20th century, right after he had concluded a temporary marriage:
Fortunately, the woman was at home and I married her for a while. When I had quieted my desire and enjoyed the pleasure of the flesh from my lawful income, I gave the woman the qeran [an old Iranian monetary unit]. . . . It is reported that the Imams have said that whoever makes love legitimately has in effect killed an infidel. That means killing the lascivious spirit. It is obvious that when a talabeh [student] has no problem with the lower half of his body he is happier than a king.
Aqa Najafi Quchani believes that he has engaged in “killing the lascivious spirit” not by resisting it so that it flees but by giving in to it and engaging the services of a prostitute. Then, searching for a comparison for how positively beneficial it is for him to have “made love legitimately” rather than indulged in fornication, he refers to the highest authorities in Shi’ite Islam, the Imams, saying that “whoever makes love legitimately has in effect killed an infidel.”
Choose allies carefully
Secularism is encroaching upon the Church. And it is always good to have allies. At the same time, the best ally is not one who is likely to turn and join one’s enemies in the struggle, or to initiate new hostilities within the alliance once the battle is won. The doctrines of Islam that inculcate among too many Muslims hatred and suspicion of Christianity and Christians have never been reformed or rejected by any Islamic sect. Catholics who believe that their Muslim dialogue partners are entering into the dialogue with an eagerness to accommodate and establish a lasting friendship or partnership proceed at their own risk.
Ultimately, the requirements of charity do not include the denial of the truth. For in the final analysis it is the truth, and only the truth, that will set us free.