How studying Islam can deepen and strengthen your Christian faith

“Studying a religion like Islam that rejects Christian doctrines so utterly,” says Dr. David Pinault, author of The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch, “can help us understand what is distinctive and uniquely precious about our Christian faith.”

(Image: pixabay.com)

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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About Derya M. Little 9 Articles
Derya M. Little has a PhD in politics from Durham University, England and an MA in history from Bilkent University, Turkey. She is the author of the new book From Islam to Christ: One Woman's Path through the Riddles of God (Ignatius Press, 2017).

25 Comments

  1. I read Derya Little’s book and really enjoyed it. I hope this new book will help me understand how to view Islam in a more accurate way – the “third way” as this interview called it.

  2. I read The Great heresies. Belloc Catholic faith shines through every page, and his warnings about the threat that Radical Islam poses to the West, which threat would r-emerge when the West loses it’s Christian faith-is indeed prophetic, just like his his warning that freedom of the press and free speech would be undermiend with the concentration of ownership of mass media in too few hands (The Free Press) and his warning that socialism and unfettered capitalism are two sides of the same coin, and essentially enable a system that enriches the state connected elite at the expense of the rest of society (The Servile State).

      • Yet, we also need to remember that even a great author (and Hilaire Belloc was, indeed, a great author) can have an Achilles heel among his writings. One needs to be reminded, therefore, that the author of such outstanding works as THE GREAT HERESIES, THE CRUSADES, HOW THE REFORMATION HAPPENED, CHARACTERS OF THE REFORMATION, RICHELIEU, and SURVIVALS AND NEW ARRIVALS also penned the horrible screed THE JEWS.

  3. “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.” What I have difficulty understanding is how someone could question the moral teaching of the Koran and question Muhammad’s actions (and the actions of his immediate successors) and still glean from this legitimate religious practice, a so-called sanitized Islam. It would seem that once credibility is lost in a faith, then so is the practice of that faith.

    • “What I have difficulty understanding is how someone could question the moral teaching of the Koran and question Muhammad’s actions (and the actions of his immediate successors) and still glean from this legitimate religious practice, a so-called sanitized Islam.”

      This can be more of a cultural problem than a theological problem.How many will have the courage to be an apostate in a faith that condones being put to the sword for such things.?

      • Agreed. However, even in the United States, some Muslims (who are quite safe) have purified the faith focusing mostly on the social teachings of Islam while ignoring the founding of the faith and its inherent violence. As long as these individuals perpetuate “their reading” of the Koran, they perpetuate the Koran; which remains for younger radicals to read it their own way.

  4. Question: In the entire world, who is the one person who MOST needs to read this interview? Answer: Pope Francis (of course).

    • True. pope Francis, by condoning certain same-sex sexual relationships (and thus same-sex sexual acts) that are not called marriage and do not include children denies The Divinity of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

      “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

  5. One caveat from a longtime Catechist: Before studying Islam, Catholics should thoroughly know their own faith first, and be in a state of grace. It’s easy to become confused and seduced by error.

  6. War OF TERROR and the Muslims dead far exceeds the under estimated half a million. Iraq alone by 2003 lost around 2 million, during sanctions and then the war and occupation with half a million children who perished and who Zionist Madeleine Albright stated on air ‘was well worth it’
    Americans NEVER count the figures for dead Afghanis
    How many hundreds of thousands have perished in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
    and Israel’s 911 terror attack gave Israelis the excuse to carry out more wars on Palestinians as they attempt to obliterate Gaza and take over the whole of Palestine to become part of their Eretz Israeli Empire.
    A Jewish Australian population theorist, Gideon Polya, states that around 32 million Muslims have been killed in this WAR of Terror executed by Occupied America and its Allies/Terrorists. Even Dr Barrett has cited this number in his writings and talk
    So America, for Israel’s 911 Terrorist attack that killed just over 3000 of your own, [around 350 of whom were Muslim Americans and one Jew] is 32 Million dead Muslims sufficient ‘revenge’ for you and are their deaths ‘well worth it’
    US war on terror orchestrated by Israel First neocons: Scholar
    https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/11/16/580229/US-wars-Kevin-Barrett

  7. “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.”

    So deny binding truth claims at the heart of the religion.
    This won’t make Islam more peaceful, it will make Moslems non-Moslems.

  8. One does not need to study a heap of vomit to appreciate the beauty of a painting by Fra Angelico. Nor does one need to study the ugliness of the Koran, the hadiths, the Sira & Shari’a to appreciate the purity, sublimity, profundity, and many-sided excellence of Christ and His Gospel.

  9. Perhaps Muhammed’s disenchantment with Christian doctrine was based on the suffering endured during Justinian’s plague or other events which gave him the impression that facets of Christianity were displeasing to God.
    Just a guess.
    I have read that a mistranslation of the term “Paraclete” in John’s Gospel was interpreted to mean that another prophet was due instead of the Holy Spirit. There was also a 5-6th Century apocryphal document called the Gospel of Barnabas – not to be confused with the Epistle or Acts of Barnabas – that coincide with Islamic justifications.
    I hope the author that the Koran contains two passages where Jesus commands, “Fear God, obey me!” Those passages appear to be obscured in Islamic scholarship and should have inspired greater teaching of the New Testament and other Christian apologetic writings.

  10. Refreshing to hear someone speak so honestly about Christianity and Islam. I am currently reading the new book by Hank Hanegraaf (President of the Christian Research Institute) “Muslim, What You Need to Know About the World’s Fastest Growing Religion”. I would love to hear Hank and Derya discuss this topic.

  11. There are prophecies about the Muslims rising up against the Church and all peoples.
    Venerable Bartholemew Holzhauser, a parish priest in the 1600s in Germany had visions of the 20th century and beyond, stating: “These are evil times, a century full of dangers and calamities. Heresy is everywhere, and the followers of heresy are in power almost everywhere… But God will permit a great evil against his Church: Heretics and Tyrants will come suddenly and unexpectedly… and destroy everything.” Ven. Holzhauser continues: “Are we not to fear during this period that the Mohammedans will come again, working out their sinister schemes against the Latin Church.”
    Also, Our Lady of Peace appears at Anguera, Brazil : “The day will come when the furious Lion (Mohammedans) will lay at the feet of the dragon. A union of beasts will bring great suffering to my poor children.” “In the Iberian Peninsula is the nest of the beasts, (Mohammedans) which will bring great suffering to mankind.”
    A book and web site called, “After The Warning To 2038” has an accumulation of prophecies from Venerable, Blessed, and Canonized saints; including the major apparitions of Mary and prophecies given to those visionaries of our time. It includes prophecies of Mary appearing at Anguera, Brazil.
    The 10 events spoken by our Lady of Medjugorje, are about to unfold. These prophecies give us valuable awareness, to prepare us to get through major “Storm” events that God intends to allow to unfold on this planet.

  12. God is energy.
    Man created the almighty to satisfy the spiritual need of human. The almighty assumes a variety of names, god is one of them.
    As energy permeates the universe, god is omnipresence, all the time.
    Like energy, god is not see-able, not hear-able, not touchable, but perhaps feel-able.
    One can tap the endless energy from god, especially in time of need when god does not come to one direct. One has to make a good effort to take care of oneself first with one’s own energy. God will give one the necessary energy eventually. That is faith.
    (Extended from TanBoobTee’s book, Man Science & Religion, 2004)

    • “God is energy.
      Man created the almighty to satisfy the spiritual need of human. The almighty assumes a variety of names, god is one of them.”

      Baloney.

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