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Relationship between Christianity and Islam



The struggle to understand the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and to establish a stable dialogue between both groups, is an important issue in today's global agenda. A significant dialogue is currently in practice among groups such as the World Council of Churches, the Vatican, the National Council of Churches, and various Muslim groups and communities, the Common Word Initiative being one of the most recent examples. Attempts to understand the nature of the relationship and find a common ground, however, largely arise from a concern to preserve mutual, yet traditional interests.

Traditionalist thinkers insist that Christian-Muslim relations be explained in the light of religious truth, which is based on the meta-historical and metaphysical instead of more fragile sociological and political parameters. Moreover, political concerns, as well as all many segments of relativization, should be set aside to effectively penetrate the essence of the issue from this perspective.

The term "dialogue," which Seyyed Hossein Nasr defines in Platonic and Socratic discourse as a means of discovering the truth, now more succinctly defines the discussion of various aspects of religion, aiming to find a better understanding of both sides. According to the Perennialist author and thinker Frithjof Schuon, to penetrate into the essence of one religion would lead one to the essence of all religions. However, because diversity and multiplicity take place in the world of form, external aspects of the religions seem to exclude one another by their very nature. On the other hand, many modern philosophers would add that the manifestation of different religious doctrines would deny the validity of any one religious truth, or Truth, as such.

For primordial man, Truth and Revelation were one; but now that "diverse manifestations exist, what matters is to know that intrinsically they speak in an absolute mode, since it is the Absolute which is speaking, but that extrinsically they are clothed in the language of a particular mental coloring and a particular system of contingencies, since they are addressed to man."[1] The Absolute thus manifests itself through the prism of multiplicity in forms of different religious beliefs and doctrines to make it accessible to all human beings. The multiplicity of fingertips, for example, does not invalidate the ability of the hand to grasp, just as each religious tradition has embraces its own "grasp of the truth." Understanding the values and teachings of other traditions may actually lead one to insights into one's own heritage.

"Tolerence," a sentimental attitude that germinated in the soil of European liberalism, is no substitute for the aforementioned understanding of the inner unity of formally divergent religions. As Coomaraswamy states, diversity of faith is not a matter of toleration but of divine appointment.[2] The healthy and positive values of tolerance have been popular among many interfaith dialogue attempts and cannot be denied. These values are certainly preferable to atheistic hostility and materialistic scepticism. Nevertheless, from a traditionalist perspective, toleration can easily cover the insolent condescension of a religion toward another religion.[3]

Any attempt for a clear dialogue between Christianity and Islam, as well as other religions, is unavoidably tripartite. The third party of interfaith relations, that is said to be modernism, with all its instruments of conflict resolution, parameters of thought, values, and attitudes of a Weltanschauung alone, must be held responsible for making the relation difficult.[4]

The traditionalist school presents an unsparing critique of modernity and describes the anomalies of our time. By stressing that dialogue with the West and Christianity are different, and should be considered so, Nasr proposed five areas as possible fields of dialogue and collaboration between Islam and Christianity in December 1977, when he led an Iranian delegation to the Vatican to confront atheism and agnosticism. These five areas are the dangers of modern technocracy and ecological ruin, energy crises, youth problems, and the decadence of morality and faith. The accompanying goals of such collaboration would be "buttressing our own faith as well as discovering other religious universes."[5]

To discover the "other" under the light of the "self" does not simply mean establishing outward correspondences between religious elements that seem to resemble one another. Such a procedure would be in danger of leading to a superficial synthesis or comparison of little value. To respect the differences uncovered by such a confrontation brings indifference to the truth, as Traditionalists claim.


René Guénon initiated the Perennialist school in the early twentieth century. Guénon's The Crisis of the Modern World brought about an unusual criticism to modernism based on traditional doctrines. Later, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and their followers expressed the same views about the times in which we live and the corresponding aspects of the truth. To reject the idea of progress, modernism, and its associates, as well as the enlightenment paradigm, is common among all traditionalist authors.

Traditionalists believe modernism is a "spiritual disease," infecting the entire world. Kenneth Oldmeadow enumerates the "prime follies of modernist thought" as such: scientism, rationalism, relativism, materialism, positivism, empiricism, psychologism, individualism, humanism, and existentialism. Arising in European history as a response to the "certain vulnerabilities in Christian civilization,"[6] those systems exhibit a common character: profanity. Frithjof Schuon, in Light on the Ancient Worlds, accuses modernism of eliminating both Revelation and Intellect. Schuon also denominates post-scholastic philosophy as "wisdom without intelligence," characterizing this state of thought as "the ignorance that sees only things and excludes God."[7] In addition to its direct attack on religion, modernity has created a distance between East and West, as René Guénon identifies. The distance is not because of the concurrent divergence of the East and the West, but due to the fundamental abnormality of the West; therefore, it can be cured only with re-orientation of the West. "It is, indeed, the West alone that must be held responsible for this widening distance, since the East, in her essence, has never varied; and all the attempts which did not take this fact into consideration were bound to fail."[8]

Jane I. Smith states, "We have noted on several occasions that, while Nasr at times seems to set Islam over against Christianity, the more pervasive comparison is between the traditional and modern."[9] This side of the coin is confirmed by Nasr in his article, Living in a Multi-religious World: "What makes a genuine interfaith dialogue intellectually and religiously unsatisfying is the conflict among religions on the one hand and the attack of modernism against religious identity on the other."[10]

In his discussion with John Esposito, Nasr says that the levels of difficulty for a proper interfaith dialogue is due to the different levels of being that are affected by modernism. Nasr defines Islam today as "still orthodox and traditional," as opposed to today's Christian culture, which he criticizes for succumbing to the fashions of the times. This is undeniably one of the important reasons that clear communication and profound, distinct interfaith dialogue has not been possible.[11]



Lings, in his well-known book, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, mentions Shaykh Ahmad al-'Alawi's interpretation of alif and bā' as the first two letters of Arabic alphabet:

They make up Ab, which is one of the Divine Names. By it would Jesus speak unto His Lord, and he used it when he said, 'Verily I go unto my Father and your Father,' that is, unto my Lord and your Lord."[12] The symbolization the term Ab ('Father') finds a further explanation in the footnote given by Lings: "It may be noted here incidentally how close the Basmalah is in reality to the In Nomine. The relationship between the two Names of Mercy in Islam, of which the second only is both Divine and human, is comparable to the relationship between the first two Persons of the Christian Trinity, while the Mercy Itself which is implied in the Basmalah, being from both Ar-Raḥmān and Ar-Raḥim, that is, 'proceeding from the Father and the Son,' is none other than the Holy Ghost.[13]

Although the ideas of Divine filiations and incarnation are rejected by Muslim scholars, the immortality of the soul, resurrection of the body, and creation ex-nihilo influenced early Muslim theologians, and Christ's miracle of raising the dead to life played an important role in the exposition of Sufi doctrine.[14] Geoffrey Parrinder confirms that 'the Qur'an gives a greater number of honorable titles to Jesus than to any other figure of the past.'[15]

Muslims are obliged to believe that Jesus is a God-sent prophet, while accepting

Muhammad as a prophet makes a Christian a heretic. In Spain, Muslims considered Jews and Christians as a part of Dār-ul-Islām, and accepting them was not question of tolerance. The conquering of Spain during the Crusades brought about conditions that made religious life difficult for Jews and Muslims. They were forced to either convert or be put to death.[16]

Cutsinger believes that if Christians had not misinterpreted their own traditional doctrines, they would see that Christ is equally and truthfully present at the very heart of the Islamic tradition. On the other hand, he suggests that Muslims reconsider the idea of trinity by setting prejudices aside. He stresses the hierarchy between God the Father and Christ: "It was the Son of God, not God the Father, who was incarnate as Jesus, and this Son specifically says of himself that 'the Father is greater than I' (John 14:28), and he also speaks of 'ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God' (John 20:17).[17]

Cutsinger also claims that the formal dogmas of Christology were promulgated by the early Council of the Church. He maintains that the Second Person of the Trinity is not the same as the first, and His Divinity was not confined to the historical individuality of Jesus alone, moreover Christ was not the Father who was incarnate in Jesus, "nor was it some particular man, but man as such, who was hypostatically assumed into God.

[1] Schuon, Logic and Transcendence, 74.

[2] H. Oldmeadow, Journeys East, 445.

[3] K. Oldmeadow, Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, 200.

[4] Siddiqui, Christian-Muslim Dialogue in the Twentieth Century, 155.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, 117.

[7] Schuon and Casey, Light on the Ancient Worlds, 98,99.

[8] Guénon, East and West, 85.

[9] Smith, "Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Defender of the Sacred and Islamic Traditionalism," 86.

[10] Nasr, "Living in a Multi-Religious World," 9.

[11] Nasr and Esposito, "Interfaith Dialogue: Are Islam and Christianity on a Collision Course?"

[12] Northbourne, Religion in the Modern World, 13.

[13] Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, 150.

[14] Sufi Essays, 135.

[15] Braybrooke, What Can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion.

[16] Islam and the Destiny of Man, 19.

[17] El-Ansary and Cutsinger. "A Perennialist Perspective on Religion and Conflict," 52.