To Rome through Mecca

It has long been the practice for Christians and Muslims to look at what they have in common. David Pinault suggests that a better way is to look at how they differ.

Left: St. Peter's Basilica, Città del Vaticano, Vatican City (Chad Greiter/Unsplash.com); right: Worshippers at the Grand mosque in Mecca (Wikipedia)

“For it was the study of Islam that helped me to a fresh appreciation of the Catholic Christian heritage and identity I embrace.” — David Pinault, The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian Companion to the Study of Islam (Ignatius Press 2018), 387.

“I have…noted that although Islamic scripture refers to Jesus almost a hundred times, it is usually to condemn Christians for what they believe about him. Thus the Koran insists that he is not divine, not the Son of God, not a member of the Trinity or someone who died on the Cross.” — David Pinault, The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch, 283.

I.

At first sight, the notion that a good way to learn about Christianity is first to learn about Islam seems odd. David Pinault, a professor at the University of Santa Clara, however, makes a good case for this novel approach. He recognizes that, on first hearing, few Catholic or Christian students know much about their own faith, let alone about Islam. Muslim students, for their part, know practically nothing about Christianity. To make this approach feasible, Pinault must discreetly teach both the Bible and the Koran to both Christian and Muslim students—and often their parents. But, as he systematically builds his argument on the basis of actual teaching experience and in his frequent travels in the Muslim world, the reader soon finds that the careful study of what the Koran actually holds can best be understood in the light of what Christianity holds about itself. In the process, Pinault gives a good rundown of the main features of Islam; likewise, he has a solid grasp on Christian theology. He knows the fundamental teachings of Catholicism; he often refers to the Catechism or to the Catholic Study Bible. 

Pinault knows the various languages relevant to a study of Islam. He has interviewed many Muslim leaders and students. He has been to Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, and any number of other Muslin centers in Asia, Africa, Europe and America. He has lectured widely on Islam. He takes his undergraduate classes to attend Muslim services in mosques near to his campus. He wants his students to see first-hand the nature and intensity of Muslim worship. In all of this analysis, he is careful to state accurately what Muslims hold and why they hold it. He discusses how the differing Muslim sects (Sunnis, Shiites, Wahbabis, and Sufis) are configured. He has read widely in Muslim literature and theology.

II.

Pinault takes the reader step by step through the Koran. He knows its historical composition—the pre-Koranic poetic texts of Arabia, the early Mecca texts and the later Medina texts. He knows the particulars of the life of Mohammed. He is also familiar with often bloody Muslim history as well as its glories. He is not afraid to agree with a Muslim position if he thinks that it is true; nor is he afraid to disagree with one. In many cases, as he cites, one can be a serious danger because of the prevalence of Muslim blasphemy laws which threaten death to those who criticize Allah or Mohammed. He calls to mind the number of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others who have been killed under these laws. If Christians or Jews are tolerated in Muslim lands, it is with the condition that they pay a fine and accept second-class citizenship. Many are given the choice of death or conversion to Islam.

The point of this book, however, is the effort required to see just how Islam and Christianity are different. Pinault is leery of much formal Muslim-Christian dialogue sessions because they really do not face these differences squarely. To see this difference between Islam and Christianity, we need to know accurately what each teaches about itself and about each other. Pinault notes that a Muslim can find many references to Jesus, Mary, and the Old Testament in the Koran, but a Christian cannot find out anything about Islam in reading Scripture. This inability is obvious, of course, as Mohammed does not live until the seventh century after Christ. As Islam expanded from Arabia, it conquered many Christian lands in Africa, Asia, and Europe where it had to come to terms with subjected Christian populations. In general it did so by tolerating them but at the price of an annual tax or other restrictions. Except for surviving remnants, most of these conquered peoples eventually converted to Islam to form the some forty Muslim states in today’s world.

Over the twelve centuries since Islam was founded, a large literature has arisen among Muslims themselves that attempt to show why Islam is superior to Christianity. Pinault explains why Muslim theology dictates the rejection of the central teachings of Christianity: the Trinity and the Incarnation. In Muslim theology, Jesus Christ cannot be God. He is at best a well-known prophet. His mother Mary is a noble and pious lady. In addition, Jesus certainly did not die on the Cross because God cannot suffer. If He suffered, as the Christians claim, then according to Islamic teachings He cannot be God. Further, the Son certainly cannot be one Person of the Trinity because Allah is one and omnipotent. In short, Christian reasoning about the three Persons in the one God and the two natures of Christ, who Himself is one of these divine Persons, has to be rejected. Pinault thus shows the Christian student how important it is to understand his own theology.

Pinault does not refer to Robert Reilly’s book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, so he does not get too much into the metaphysics and philosophy that undergirds the Christian position. Nor does he cite Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture which in part dealt with Islam and its inadequate philosophy (Benedict XVI is cited once as seeking permission to build a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia). But Pinault is quite clear on the importance of these differences. It is worth noting here that modern atheists and modern Muslims agree that Christ could not have been divine.

III.

The question of what the Koran is as a book and of who wrote it is a vital one. The Koran, in Islam, is supposed to be the direct wording of Allah so that it seems more parallel to Christ as Word than to a humanly written book. Technically, in Muslim thought, Mohammed had nothing to do with the content or wording of the Koran. But the redaction of the Koran, its arrangement of long and short chapters, makes it clear that it was put together as one work at a time later than Mohammed. Pinault writes:

Islam does not involve simply a rejection of the Jahiliyah (pre-Muslim) tradition in which Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah was raised or a repudiation of the Jewish and Christian faiths that caught his interest as a young man. Rather the message he presented in the Koran is one that I characterize as ’selective appropriation’. By this I mean that he incorporated into his Islamic message whatever conformed to his ideology, while he discarded whatever was incongruent with his doctrine of tawhid (strict monotheism). (54)

Once a student understands this principle, the reasons given for many of the actions of Muslims become clear. The questions then revert to the validity of Mohammed’s metaphysics and the coherence of its own revelation.

A fascinating aspect of the Koran has to do with passages that contradict other passages or reason. To explain this problem, largely following twelfth-century Muslims scholar al Ghazelli, Muslim thinkers reverted to a voluntarist conception of Allah. This notion meant that an all-powerful Allah was not limited by the distinction between good and evil, by reason, or even by his own previous decrees. Pinault often returns to this key issue. The Muslim solution was to say that, in principle, what governed action was the later decree of Allah. In other words, Allah could contradict himself—otherwise he would not be all-powerful. Logically, on this basis, anything could be the opposite of what it is. This view goes a long way to explain the lack of science and order in Muslim society and history.

Thus, if Mohammed seemed in his early years to be a peace maker, in his later years he was definitely a warrior and advocate of violence in expanding Islam. The purpose of the Muslim religion is to submit the whole world to Allah by whatever means necessary. If it takes centuries, that is fine; the mission abides over time. There is no doubt that the Koran advocates force in the name of Allah, even though Mohammed in his early years thought of more peaceful ways. Much of the modern impetus to ISIS and other radical Muslim forces are rooted in this issue. So long as the Koran is read as a command of Allah, this view will return again and again as the authentic position of the Koran.

Pinault takes ideas seriously. He states what Muslims believe and examines it for its internal and external coherence. He does the same for Christian positions. In conclusion, one can judge the insight and worth of this book—both as a teaching of Christian students about Christianity and as presenting Islam as it is—in these words:

Rather than proving that Jesus was not divine, the New Testament verses that are so mocked by Muslims simply illuminate a deity radically at odds with anything Koranic scripture dared conceive: a God who so loves our world that he entrusts to us a Son who suffers among us in weakness and self-emptying love. (316)

We have here in this very excellent book a way that allows Christians to see themselves alongside of Muslims in a way that allows Muslims to see themselves and Christianity. It has long been the practice for Christians and Muslims to look at what they have in common. Pinault suggests that a better way is to look at how they differ. It is in the light of the truth that we need to see what Muslims and Christians really hold about themselves and each other. This book is faithful to that much desired goal.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 170 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

3 Comments

  1. Schall identifies and quotes a key point in Pinault’s new book: “Rather than proving that Jesus was not divine, the New Testament verses that are so mocked by Muslims simply illuminate a deity radically at odds with anything Koranic scripture dared conceive: a God who so loves our world that he entrusts to us a Son who suffers among us in weakness and self-emptying love (316).”

    But there is a proof of sorts. Islamic scholarship has had centuries to rationalize itself. Take a peek: In my own (detailed but non-specialist) diggings I found that even Christ’s reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete and the Comforter, is understood by Muslim scholars as actually referring to the coming of the final Prophet Mohammed (e.g., this from Maulana Muhammad Ali, Muhammad the Prophet, 1984]).

    How so? Digging still further we find that the Greek term “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) is substituted by Muslim commentators with their presumably correct “Periclyte,” the Greek form of Ahmad or Mohammed (this from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, 1983). With this discovery and correction of pre-Islamic biblical error, Christ becomes a prophet only, the last in line before the coming of Mohammed, the final prophet.

    If it is read at all, the Bible is read through the lens of the Qur’an. So much for interreligious dialogue. The greatest asymmetry between Christianity and Islam is the mistake of comparing the Bible to the Qur’an. Apples and oranges. The accurate comparison is between the divine and incarnate Christ and the divinely-dictated Qur’an—which is held by Muslims to be “un-created” and part of the very essence of the Divinity. To compare texts alone, as among apples-and-apples “peoples of the book,” is already to misunderstand and concede too much.

  2. It is quite astounding that most Muslims even accept the triviality that is the Koran. There is no there there! Yes a comparison is a worthwhile endeavor. Let’s hope Muslims listen and read. Mass conversion is a real possibility. Keep piling straws. The camel’s back will finally break one of these days.

    • Some years ago, I spent some time looking into Moslem propaganda directed at Christians on the Internet. Not from desire to convert, simply because I have some interest in Internet progaganda, and in theirs at the time.

      They make much use of what they claim to be an ancient apocryphal gospel, The ‘Gospel’ of Barnabas.

      Internal evidence makes it clear that it is actually from some time in the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, and mentions Mohammed by name.

      I think that its existence and use are of interest to anyone with an interest in this topic.

      Many truly apocryphal works are of great interest to a Christian, e.g. Thomas, Acts of Pilate, and some of course reflect extra-scriptural church traditions.

      This is of course to exclude the more lurid Gnostic ones, many of which appear to reflect a Buddhist influence (the Pleroma, spheres of being, etc., all concepts very close to Buddhist thought at the time).

      Those were all, however, much earlier.

      Personally, who am I to judge, but I believe that anyone who states that Al’lah and our triune God are basically identical (a common claim by Christian ‘progressives’) is in grave error.

      Moderators, excuse my not using a fixed handle this time, just think the contemporary use of ‘Barnabas’ is relevant. Given the timing, I would expect that it was fabricated for or by the Turks, to aid in the conversion of newly conquered populations at the time.

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