Christianity, the Reformation, and Muslims
November 5, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.
A few days ago, we witnessed the 500th anniversary of one of the biggest moments in Christian history. Martin Luther is said to have nailed a document on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany listing nearly 100 criticisms of doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. Through this critique, he was seeking a reform or repair of Christianity. From the outside, it seems that he is using the same approach that is later taken up by Abraham Geiger and other architects of Reform Judaism, as well as similar burgeoning movements in American Islam: understanding, explaining, and living religion through the methods of the secular academy rather in addition to the religious seminary.
Today, we look at Martin Luther’s moment as the trigger that launched what became Protestant Christianity. Today, we can classify global Christianity into four umbrellas: the Catholics, the Protestants, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Heterodox (including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses). While many regard Chicago, like Boston, as a very Irish Catholic city, we have every type of denomination of follower of Jesus, may peace be upon him, in Chicago, including us.
Depending upon who is providing it, some of the major moments, persons, and periods in the story of Christianity, after the departure of Jesus, may peace be upon, include the conversion of Constantine, the Council of Nicaea, the writings of St. Augustine, the Great Schism, the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Protestant Reformation, the European Renaissance, the European Wars of Religion, the Treaty of Westphalia and Empire, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism, Modernity, the growth of Christianity in Asian countries. Within the past century, some of the most influential moments have been, in Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council and the rise of Liberation Theology. If we were to look through an American lens, we would add the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
You might find it interesting that many of the key Christians in the story of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, were classified as non-Christians by “mainstream” Christianity. Many of the decisions were made in “Ecumenical Councils” that were conducted at various times and places over the past centuries. These Councils were meetings of members of the Church, to find answers to certain contemporary questions. The first was the Council of Nicaea (which is now Iznik, Turkey) in 325 CE. The most recent was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) or the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (2016), depending on whether we are looking through the lens of Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
While Heraclius and the Romans were what we in the modern West would categorize as mainstream Christians, the others were not. King Armah, who was titled as “al-Najashi” and the Christians of Najran were said to be Christians of a tradition which branched off from a church which itself did not accept the Council of Chalcedon and thus did not recognize what we might regard as “mainstream” Christianity. Waraqah b. Nawfal and Bahira were Nestorian monks, whose approaches to Christianity became regarded as heresies after the Council of Nicaea, though more officially with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.
This raises questions about the applications of multiple passages in the Qur’an as they relate to Christians. We find the terms “Ahl al-Kitab” (People of the Book) and “Nisara” (People of Nazareth, or Nazarenes) throughout the Qur’an. Many Muslims today identify Christians as either “Isa’i” being followers of Jesus, or “Masiheen,” being followers of the “Masih” or the Christ. In our history of categorizing other faith communities, it seems that we classified people according to their sacred text, the persons they followed, or their locations.
The concept of “People of the Book” is that these populations connect themselves with remnants of past revelations from Allah. The “Book” may refer to the greater “Tablet” that is in God’s possession that is said to contain all the revelations and all the script for all that would happen. More commonly, however, the interpretation is that “Book” refers to each of the Books that Allah has revealed to Messengers, may peace be upon them all.
The Jews are included because of the Tawrat. The Christians are included because of the Injil. There was a period when Hindus were included because of the Upanishads. I do not have enough knowledge to support or object to this, but I suspect that this period was under the rule of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, which is the controversial subject for another time.
Some commentators speak of the Gospels as though they are the same as the “Injil,” that Jesus, may peace be upon him, received. This is a mistake because nobody I am aware of in the umbrella of Christianity claims that the Gospels were revelations to Jesus. Rather they were accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, with focus on his birth and final years, including events after his Crucifixion. Considering how many of the teachings of Jesus in Christianity overlap either with teachings of the Prophet in the Hadith literature or teachings of Jesus found in the Hadith literature, there may be some other connection, perhaps to materials that scholars of Biblical history regard as possible sources of the Gospels. Or, it may be that they were commonly taught in the Prophet’s time with Christian monks or traders.
In any case, these depictions of the People of the Book and the Nazarenes span a whole spectrum of behaviors and relationships. There are those who would love that nothing of good would come to us. There are those among the People of the Book who cry on listening to and recognizing the truth of the Qur’an, believing in the revelations sent to them and you. There are those who hide the truth, even though they recognize it as they recognize their own sons. There are those whom you can entrust with a mountain of Gold. There are those who would not return a single coin to you even they had to hold it with their teeth, and justify their behavior by saying that the sacred law does not apply to you. We are told not to take them as intimates. We are given permission to eat their food as well as (at least for Muslim men) to marry them, and these are the most intimate relationships. We are told that they are closest to us because they have among them priests who humble themselves before God. In history, however, so many of the wars were between Christians and Muslims, including the Crusades. We have passages that state that the Nisara -- and anyone who believes and does right -- will have their reward with their Lord, without need for fear or grief; commentators on these passages assert that they are referring to people who lived before the Prophet Muhammad’s time and revelation.
The most practical way to make sense of these passages -- as well as the passages we understand to speak of the Jews -- is to understand something that should be obvious: there are whole spectrums of Christians. Another point to reflect upon is that the Qur’anic passages are addressing conduct and attitude, not doctrine (though the Qur’an also addresses doctrines around Jesus). It seems that all the Christians at the time of the Prophet, including the Romans, Nestorians, and Alexandrians (the branch that al-Najashi belonged to) were regarded at least as Ahl al-Kitab, even though they had some different beliefs. Today, we tend to regard Protestants as part of Ahl al-Kitab as well, though I do not know it to be the result of scholarly deliberation, as much as it is just consistency or simplicity, in the way that many Christians may regard all self-identifying Muslims as Muslims, including Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, and the Nation of Islam, even though some of these groups do not some of the others as Muslims.
Martin Luther’s efforts also raise questions about reform in Islam. We hear many people calling for a reform in Islam akin to the Protestant Reformation. Most of those calls are from Imperialist stooges who want to break Islam, some are calls from Muslims and non-Muslims who regard Islam as irrelevant or broken. Further, we do not hear as many people calling for a reform of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, except on particular matters like gender and authority; my point is that there is an element of power in this call. We will speak about Muslims and Reform at another time, Insha Allah.
And Allah knows best.