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Islam: Monotheistic but not Monolithic

by W. Patrick Lang

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Who are Muslims? What do they believe? Are their ideas and traditions so alien there cannot be reconciliation between them and Christianity? Are they united in their beliefs and attitudes? Are they uniformly and permanently hostile to the West? In the last five years, these have become important questions for us all. Once, the nature and theology of Islam were the concern of Orientalist scholars, but no more.

Roots. Islam appeared suddenly in the seventh century after the birth of Christ, emerging in a world long ravaged by war between the Christian Byzantine and the Zoroastrian Sassanian Persian empires. These two great powers had fought to a state of mutual exhaustion and were incapable of resisting armies of desert Arabs, who, driven by drought, overpopulation and faith in a new revelation brought to them by Muhammad — a merchant of the city of Mecca — swept north, east and west from the Arabian Peninsula.

According to Islamic teaching, the angel Gabriel facilitated Muhammad’s reception of a collection of sayings and maxims, which when compiled constituted the final revelation from God to a sinful world. This was the Quran, the central Islamic scripture.

For Muslims, Muhammad is the last in a long series of prophets, which includes those of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth, whom Muslims revere as a messenger of God.

The new faith was sternly monotheistic, admitting the legitimacy of Judaism and Christianity, but holding that the Jewish tradition had been superseded by the “descent” of the Quran while Christians had misunderstood the New Testament, distorting it in such a way that they believed Jesus was one element of a triune God. Muslim intensity on this issue led many of the Church Fathers, who encountered Muslims in Syria and Egypt, to believe Islam was not a new religion, but a Christian heresy, specifically the Arian heresy. This was the view of St. John of Damascus, who lived at the court of the Umayyad caliphs.

Religious sciences. Exposure to the intellectual culture of the Hellenistic world and Zoroastrian Persia soon provided philosophical structure and theological support to the new faith. During the first centuries of the Islamic presence in the Middle East, the religion existed in a great state of flux, driven in various directions by the influence of Greek rationalism and Persian mysticism.

In this period, it appeared for a short time that mainstream Islam would be dominated by scholars — the Mu’taziliin — who sought to wed rationalism to Islamic revelation in such a way as to make the faith an endlessly adaptive “living” system. In much the same period, the mysticism that calls itself “Sufi” (“wooly” in Arabic in honor of the “habits” of its brothers) developed to fulfill the human need for personal experience of the infinite.

Both of these experiments ended in tragedy for their proponents. The power of the majority traditionalists and scriptural literalists eventually proved too much for the Mu’taziliin, who were driven from office and honor with much bloodshed and suffering. Today, their teachings survive in a clear form only among the Zeidi Shiites of north Yemen.

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Tags: Christianity Muslim Islam Shiite