Think of it as a sibling rivalry on a cosmic scale. No two faiths share so many fundamental beliefs as do Christianity and Islam, yet their adherents often appear to be locked in irreconcilable conflict.
Noted Islamic theologian and scholar Sheikh Odeh A. Muhawesh shared his view Monday at Winona State University of the similarities and often exaggerated differences between Christians and Muslims.
“You cannot be a Muslim if you do not believe in Jesus,” Muhawesh, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said. Islam teaches that Jesus is the promised messiah, born of the Virgin Mary, was filled with the spirit of God, who taught, performed miracles and who will return to restore the kingdom of God on earth.
Jesus, Muhawesh said, is spoken of 25 times in the Qu’ran and “Mary is mentioned more often in the Qu’ran than in the Bible.”
“‘Mary’ is the most common name given to Muslim women,” he said.
In fact, he said, these common beliefs lie at the root of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Muslims acknowledge that the Jews, as inheritors of God’s covenant with Abraham were heirs to the lands promised to the common father in faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims. However, in rejecting Jesus as messiah, the Jews violated the covenant and forfeited their rights to the ancient land of Canaan.
Historically, Muslims have looked to Christians as their closest brothers in faith, Muhawesh said. In fact, Christians were among the Prophet’s earliest adherents and supporters. When Muhammad’s followers were threatened by the polytheism people of Mecca and Medina, they were granted protection by the Christian king of Abyssinia, preserving the faith.
Unfortunately the divisions between Christians and Muslims have been exaggerated by both sides, leading to the perceived conflict between Islam and “the West.”
Muhawesh said that in the Islamic world the most common image of western women is Madonna with a cross dangling between her breasts. An image, he said, that is no more accurate than the burqa-clad Muslim woman who populates the western imagination.
Both sides, he said, suffer from cultural blind spots and a tendency to see the other as far more uniform than is the reality.
Fifty-four countries make up the Muslim world, he said, but almost invariably the Saudi prohibition on women driving automobiles is brought forward as evidence of Islam’s unfair treatment of women.
“What about the other 53 countries?” Muhawesh asked.
Islam, like Christianity, makes allowance for historic and cultural differences. Using the burqa as an example, he pointed out that the all-enveloping garment worn by Afghan women substantially predated Islam. The burqa had its origins, he said, when wealthy Afghans displayed their good fortune in the gold jewelry worn by their women. However, prominently displayed gold was a great temptation for those with little, so the wealthy began covering their women to conceal their golden charms and reduce temptation — a fashion quickly adopted by the less affluent as a means to give the impression that they too were well off.
“A lot of misinformation is taken as representative of Muslims,” he said.
“Once we start understanding each other, knowing each other, there will be peace in the world.”