Monday, July 27, 2015

The Moral Center of Islam?

Given the nearly daily interaction between Islam and western nations, it strikes me that there is minimal perception about the nature of this middle-eastern religion as it is commonly portrayed by the general media. My sense is that there are regular assumptions about Islam that are carry-overs from Christianity but not actually part of Islam itself. For instance, a few weeks ago in an interview with a Muslim cleric, the news commentator asked him directly, "Doesn't the Qur'an say that we are to love our enemies?" The cleric nearly swallowed his cud. It's a good idea, but it comes from Jesus, not Mohammed.

This, in turn, led me to wonder about whether or not Islam has a moral center, which is not quite the same thing as a theological center. Certainly Islam has a theological center, and it is that Allah is the only God and Mohammed is his prophet. Christianity has a theological center, also. "To us there is but one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ." At the same time, Christianity also has a moral center, first drawn from the Decalogue in the Torah and later from Jesus' commentary on the Decalogue in his Sermon on the Mount. Does Islam have anything similar? In my reading of the Qur'an and the Hadith, I can find nothing comparable to either the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus about moral life.

Hence, to assume that Islam is, so to speak, "on the same page" as westerners, whose moral sensitivities are largely derived from Christianity (however far they may have strayed from the classical church), is to assume what, in fact, is not the case. The longer we hold such assumptions and attempt to come to the table for dialogue with Muslims, the harder it will be to make any real progress. One sees on bumper stickers the little sign spelling out "co-exist", using symbols from the world's great religions. This is a fine sentiment, but if cannot work if even one of those entities does not see it that way.


  1. Certainly Islam – like Judaism and Christianity – is an ethical monotheism: the one true God is a moral being and demands moral behavior of humans. I am not a student of the Quran, but I am aware that Islam shares many of the same moral demands with Judeo-Christian religion: prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, lying, and greed; acts of charity and hospitality toward others, especially strangers; fairness in the marketplace and justice in the courts; and special concern for the weakest in society (widows, orphans, etc.).

    But I do find troubling the widely held misconception that all religions are ultimately the same, centering around common belief systems and moral prescriptions. The attribution of the love ethic of Jesus to Mohammed in the interview Dan mentioned bears witness to this misconception. Stephen Prothero, in his "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World," argues that the "persistent attempts to portray all religions as different paths to the same God overlook the distinct problem that each tradition seeks to solve."

    True dialogue between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity must rest in mutual understanding of the clear differences - doctrinal and moral - that separate as well as the common ground that unites these monotheistic faiths.

  2. Thanks, Joe, for your comments and insights!

    Speaking of common ground--at least of a sort--I have in my posession a newspaper clipping from the Indianapolis Star (Feb. 25, 1995), section C4, which pictures Nathaniel Urshan and Tom Jackson standing on either side of Yassar Arafat in his Gaza Strip headquarters. The caption is "Your Lord is My Lord", based on a comment by Arafat to Urshan. I suspect that at some point they may have talked about the UPCI's non-Trinitarian understanding of the godhead, which with respect to mathematics is similar to that of Islam. I'm doubtful that Arafat could have said this same quote to a classical Trinitarian. In any case, it is an interesting, if not very consequential, side-line.