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Are You Even Aware of How Little You Know about Islam?

UN Photo/Jamil Shamou

William Kilpatrick - published on 10/25/13

Nostra Ætate, outlines a handful of beliefs shared by Catholics and Muslims:  both adore the one God, link their faith to Abraham’s, revere Jesus, honor Mary, and value the moral life.

The “Catholic narrative” about Islam, in short, is that the two faiths share a common ground.  “In short,” however, is precisely the problem.  In fact, recent Church documents make no reference to Islam, Muhammad, and the Koran, but speak only briefly of “Muslim” beliefs. How briefly? For some perspective, consider that the Catechism devotes far more space to a discussion of the proper relationship between man and animals than it does to the Church’s relation to Muslims.  Likewise, the brief statement in Nostra Ætate is too general to provide any basis for an adequate understanding of Islam.  Many have suggested it is best understood simply as a gesture of friendship toward Muslims.

Nevertheless, the common-ground narrative seems to have seeped into Catholic consciousness.  Thus, when asked to answer “true” or “false” to the statement “Islam and Christianity both teach the golden rule,” 49 percent of the respondents answered “true.”  In fact, there is no golden rule in Islam; rather, there is one rule for Muslims and another, decidedly harsher, rule for non-Muslims.  But if a Catholic believes that Catholics and Muslims share much in common, then it is reasonable for him to assume that the golden rule (which is found in many other religions and philosophies) should be part of that common core.

What You Don’t Know Can, In Fact, Hurt You

One of the interesting things about multiple choice tests is that they not only reveal what people know, they also reveal how people guess when they don’t know.  Most people, of course, make their guesses based on their existing framework of assumptions.  One of the assumptions that many make about Islam is that because it is a religion it must be similar to other religions.  Thus, when responding to a question about the identity of Jesus, the Catholic test-takers tended to respond from within their own Judeo-Christian framework. Here’s the question:

According to Islamic teaching, Jesus was:

a. a Christian

b. a Jew

c. a Muslim

d. an Essene

e. other

Sixty-nine percent answered “a Jew.”  They apparently assumed that for Muslims, who supposedly believe much the same as Catholics, this would be a non-controversial fact.  For a Muslim, however, to call a great prophet such as Jesus a Jew would be highly problematic.  According to the Koran, the Jews are the greatest enemy of Muslims. Jesus, a Jew? On the contrary, Muslims consider Jesus to be a Muslim. But only 15 percent of the test-takers chose that answer.  When faced with an unknown, the Catholic respondents tended to answer on the assumption that Muslim beliefs would resemble Catholic beliefs.

What difference does it make?  Most of these differences seem innocuous enough.  But a moment’s thought suggests they are not.  If, for example, Jesus is a Muslim, then it may be the case that the Jesus Muslims revere is not the same Jesus that Christians revere.  In fact, the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of the Koran make radically different claims about themselves. It’s not just that the Koranic Jesus makes no claim to be the Son of God – he explicitly denies before Allah that he ever made such a claim. Moreover, in the Koran, Christians who persist in claiming divinity for Jesus are cursed by Allah for their blasphemy. To say that Jesus is divine is, for Muslims, the worst of all blasphemies. As we are beginning to realize, there is a good deal of hostility toward Christians in the Muslim world, and this is one of the main reasons why. When one takes a closer look, the supposed common ground between the two faiths begins to look like quicksand.

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