Hilaire Belloc included Islam in his book The Great Heresies, stating that the Islamic religion “was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy. It was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing.”
David Pinault’s recently published book The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam (Ignatius Press, 2018), explains why Muhammad ended up borrowing so much from Christianity while adamantly rejecting Incarnation and Trinity. As the book takes the reader from pre-Islamic Arabia to the environment in which Muhammad founded and spread Islam, a window opens wide into the world where the belief that God became man is the ultimate offense.
Dr. Pinault, who is Professor of Religious Studies and the Director of the Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies program at Santa Clara University, and the author of academic studies of Islam, recently discussed his book with CWR.
CWR: This book is not only full of details about Muhammad, but also with vivid imagery and your own translations from Arabic. Your experiences in Muslim countries give the reader a glimpse of a personal journey. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to be interested in Islam?
David Pinault: My favorite reading as a boy was something my father gave me when I was nine years old: The How and Why Wonder Book of Lost Cities. Since childhood I’ve been interested in archaeology, history, and foreign languages. The Middle East intrigued me for its rich layering of such things. My original interest was in cultures that were exotic and different from anything I’d grown up with. Studying Islam was a way of understanding the people who live in that historically fascinating region.
What I didn’t anticipate, when I first began work in the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, was that studying Islam would deepen and strengthen my Christian faith and my life-long identity as a Catholic.
CWR: Where is Mecca’s front porch and why is there a Crucifix there?
David Pinault: “Serambi Mekkah” (“Mecca’s front porch”) is the Indonesian nickname for Aceh, the northern tip of the island of Sumatra and the part of Indonesia that lies geographically closest to the Arabian peninsula. For centuries Aceh has been the embarkation point for Southeast Asian Muslims sailing on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Acehnese Muslims pride themselves on their fervent Islamic devotion, and Aceh is the only province in Indonesia governed by Sharia law. Aceh also has a small Christian minority population that has experienced discrimination and violent persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority.
While I was doing field work there in 2016, I attended Mass one morning in Aceh’s capital city. I arrived shortly before Mass began, and I saw a procession making its way along the center aisle to the altar—priests, acolytes, worshippers. Leading them all was a young girl. Proudly she held high a crucifix, big and bronze.
This moment left a lasting visual impression on me: the sight of the cross bearing Christ’s body being lovingly, and defiantly, made visible, right on “Mecca’s front porch,” as a Christian community persisted in its rituals of faith even in the midst of oppression and persecution. This moment has been one of many, in a career in Islamic studies, that has strengthened my own faith as a Catholic Christian.
CWR: Why did you decide to write a book for Christians who want to study Islam? Why should the Christian study Islam?
David Pinault: I wrote this book because I believe studying Islam can help us develop a fresh appreciation of our own Christian faith. Too often over the years I’ve witnessed Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue gatherings in which, out of an understandable desire to lessen bigotry and foster good will, both sides minimize the radical differences between Islam and Christianity. This does a disservice to both religions. In fact Islam completely rejects the core beliefs of Christianity that distinguish it from all other religions. Studying a religion like Islam that rejects Christian doctrines so utterly can help us understand what is distinctive and uniquely precious about our Christian faith.
CWR: In a manner of speaking, by taking us into the mind of Muhammad you remind the reader that Muhammad is a mere human whose beliefs and actions can be criticized. What is the most important thing you want the reader to learn about the founder of Islam?
David Pinault: Islamic doctrine claims that the author of the Koran is Allah rather than Muhammad. As a non-Muslim and a Christian, I don’t accept that view. I consider Muhammad the Koran’s author, and through this text we can learn a lot about the mentality of Muhammad himself.
Some of the chronologically earlier passages in Islamic scripture show him praising peace and saying good things about the “People of the Book”. But the Koran’s later verses, together with the Islamic biographical sources, show a man who became increasingly angry, increasingly vindictive, and increasingly willing to inflict violence on anyone who opposed him—including Jews and Christians, unarmed civilians, storytellers and poets, and helpless prisoners of war.
Today both Sunni and Shia Islam praise Muhammad as “ma’sum” (sinless, infallible, and perfect), someone whom Muslims should imitate in every way they can. Militant Muslims I’ve interviewed in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Indonesia (as I describe in the book) justify their acts of violence by pointing to the life of Muhammad and claiming that they’re imitating his infallible example.
CWR: You mention in the book that Muhammad identified with Jesus as the persecuted prophet and tried to bring forth, in the Koran, their supposed similarities. How does Muhammad, and thus Islam, view Christ?
David Pinault: Muhammad viewed Christ as a fellow Muslim prophet who declared tawhid (Allah’s absolute oneness). Muhammad also puts words into Christ’s mouth in such a way as to present Christ as condemning the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity. Thus Christ is presented in Islamic belief so as to negate the core of Christianity: Islam denies the Trinity, and it denies that Christ was the Son of God, that He was divine, that He was crucified, and that He subsequently rose from the dead.
CWR: What are, in your opinion, the three biggest differences between Islam and Christianity?
David Pinault: First, Islam denies the reality of Christ’s divine Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection from the dead.
Secondly, Islam denies the Christian truth of divine vulnerability. As Christians, we believe that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to us. In doing so, and in undertaking an act of kenotic self-giving, God-made-man allowed Himself to become vulnerable to the sorrows and weaknesses of the human condition.
Finally, Islam denies the Christian truth of divine redemptive suffering. Nowhere does the Koran ever mention the notion of Christ actually suffering. But we Christians believe that Christ voluntarily exposed Himself to suffering as an act of loving solidarity with us in the anguished realities of our earthly existence.
CWR: What do you think is the biggest hindrance to Muslims accepting Christianity?
David Pinault: There are two big obstacles: one doctrinal, the other identitarian.
In terms of doctrine, Muslims know the Koran tells them not to call Allah “three.” They know enough about Christianity to know it embraces the Trinity and so they reject our faith on that basis. Islamic notions of God emphasize God’s majesty and invulnerable power; so Christianity’s emphasis on a Christ who is “crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13.4) and who truly suffers on the Cross in solidarity with all created beings is a concept that is unfamiliar and alien to most Muslims.
In terms of identity, Muslim societies in recent decades have become increasingly Islamist, clutching visible markers (beards, hijabs/head-scarves) as a way of shouting “No!” to all the encroaching forces of modernity and the outside world. Christianity is associated with the West; rejecting Christianity is a way of rejecting the West and asserting a collective identity that is non-Western.
CWR: It seems that within Catholic circles there are two camps regarding Islam: one that claims Islam is a religion of peace that is corrupted by evil men and the other is that every follower of Islam pose a threat to Western way of life. Is there a third way?
David Pinault: Yes, there is. When people ask me, “Is Islam a religion of peace?”, my answer is, “Well, it can be.” It depends on the practitioner. What is needed are Muslims who are courageous enough (and this does take courage, and plenty of it) to question the Koran, question the life of Muhammad, and question the doctrine of his status as sinless and infallible. There are in fact some Muslims who are willing to do such questioning, and who are grateful to live in countries such as America where freedom of conscience is possible.
CWR: What is the one idea you want the reader to take away from The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch?
David Pinault: Studying Islam is a way for Christians to come to a fresh appreciation of the unique truths of our Christian faith: especially the truth of a God-made-man who loves us so much He is willing to become vulnerable and suffer in loving solidarity with all created beings.
CWR: What is the greatest international challenge facing American Christians today?
David Pinault: Within our country, the greatest challenge is the secular culture of materialism and infinite distractibility, keeping us from awareness of the transcendent spiritual dimension of our life.
But internationally, the greatest challenge—even greater than that of militant Islam—is Communist China, under the leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping. Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has intensified the Maoist practice of persecuting people of faith: the Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and Christians throughout China. The Chinese Communist Party believes that religion is a threat to its ideology of “scientific atheism.” Now, more than ever, is the time for us Christian Americans to rediscover the unique spiritual treasures of our faith, especially the truth of a God-made-man who suffers in solidarity with us. Our rediscovery of this divine truth will strengthen us for the long struggle ahead with Communist China.
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