Islam and Christianity: A Reader-Friendly Guide to the Differences
A new book confronts and compares the epicenters of Islam and Christianity.
Islam is currently protected from critique. This was not always so. Thomas Jefferson could declare that Muslims believe “that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” John Quincy Adams could acknowledge that Muhammad “degraded” the female sex and “declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind.” Winston Churchill could write of Islam, “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.” Pope Callixtus III could assess Islam as “diabolical.”
Such critique is taboo today. A few days after 9-11, then-president George Bush declared that “Islam is peace.” In February, 2015, after ISIS burned a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage, President Obama attempted to redirect outrage towards the Crusades. In 2016, Pope Francis said, “If I speak of Islamic violence, I should speak of Catholic violence … there is always a small group of fundamentalists … Terrorism grows when there are no other options, and when the center of the global economy is the god of money and not the person.”
This no-go-zone surrounding Islam, where all critics are vaporized by ever-vigilant thought police, was erected and is maintained by a variety of forces. One of those forces is capital-A Atheism, that is Atheism as a proselytizing belief system.
Atheists have long promulgated their unique twist on cultural relativism. In 2005, an Atheist invented The Flying Spaghetti Monster. The larger point of his project: all religions are importantly identical; that is, they are all equally ridiculous. A deity invented out of spaghetti and meatballs has as much depth, truth value and relevance as any other.
After atrocities committed in the name of Islam, one encounters Atheists promoting this relativistic worldview. The flying-spaghetti-monster argument can be paraphrased thus, “It is racist to express outrage at Islamic atrocity in any way that indicates that it is different from other atrocities. In America we have Christian Taliban who are just as oppressive and violent as Muslims. They blow up abortion clinics. Christians murdered innocents during the Crusades. Singling out Islam vitiates the larger war against all religion.”
In 2006, Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion. Critics pointed out that Dawkins revealed an abysmal ignorance of Christianity. The Dawkins camp replied that he didn’t need to know such material; it was all flying-spaghetti-monster grade nonsense. Not so, Dawkins’ critics replied. One may believe that there is no God, but there are certainly such things as scripture, history, and theology, and to misrepresent these actual facts is to obscure truths that have an impact on all lives. An excellent example of this public debate can be read in Terry Eagleton’s piece “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” that appeared in the London Review of Books,” on October 19, 2006.
In fact, even to Atheists, the differences between religions matter. They are reflected in the real world. Look at a map plotting high sex ratios. Women and girls have a much better chance of living a full human lifespan if they are born in cultures shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition than they do if they are born into Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian countries. In those lands, females are more likely to die young, or simply to be aborted before birth.
Too, “Islam has bloody borders” as well as “bloody innards.” Muslim populations are more likely to be in armed conflict with their neighbors than non-Muslim populations, according to Samuel P. Huntington.
American students who descend from ancestors from countries affected by Confucianism, or who were actually born in such countries, that is China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, often do better on standardized tests than other students. Jews, never more than one percent of the world’s population, have a vastly disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes. The Catholic Church is said to be the largest single provider of social services in the world, and it played a key role in the development of the university, the hospital, and international law. It doesn’t really matter if Richard Dawkins believes in Jesus or Confucius. Millions of people do, and those beliefs have an impact in the real world, including an impact on the lives of Atheists.
It behooves everyone, Atheist or believer, who wants to understand the daily news or the presidential race, to understand the difference between Christianity and Islam. Nabeel Qureshi’s August, 2016 book No God But One: A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam and Christianity, published by Zondervan, is a must-read, even for Atheists. In the simplest and most accessible terms possible, Qureshi outlines major theological differences between Islam and Christianity. Qureshi’s stated goal, which he meets: “I hope to elucidate two overarching matters in particular: that the differences between Islam and Christianity have great implications, and that the evidence of history strongly supports the Christian claims.” Qureshi’s conclusion: Christianity can withstand historical examination and ethical interrogation. Islam cannot – in fact, neither Islam nor the Quran live up to their own stated criteria for themselves. Further, Muhammad, as depicted in canonical Muslim sources, is not the man Islamic propaganda makes him out to be.
Nabeel Qureshi is a Pakistani-American. He was born to a devout Muslim family. In college he met David Wood, who challenged his faith. Qureshi described his conversion to Christianity in his 2014 bestseller, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Qureshi is a brilliant and ambitious man. He holds an MD, two MAs in religious studies, and is pursuing an Oxford PhD in New Testament studies. On August 30, 2016, Qureshi revealed on Facebook that he has recently been diagnosed with “advanced stomach cancer.” One hopes, and some of us pray, for his rapid and thorough recovery.
No God But One maintains an excruciatingly polite tone and a high-school sentence length and vocabulary level. Qureshi is thorough in his takedown of Islam, but he is never anything but kind. One is aware that this is a man who lived most of his life as a Muslim, and whose beloved family members are still Muslims. Those resorting to charges of “Islamophobia” to silence critique of Islam need to read Qureshi.
Chapters are a few pages long, limiting themselves to basic questions and answers, with bold headings guiding the reader. You could read – and understand – this book in the bathtub or in a crowded subway car. Chapters address topics like the differences between Muhammad and Jesus, between the Quran and the Bible, and jihad and the Crusades.
Anyone reading Qureshi’s book will be introduced to facts that reduce the Atheist spaghetti-monster relativist dogma to shreds. Qureshi points out, and scholars of Christianity have long known, that the consensus among historians is that there was a real Jew named Jesus, he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and his followers believed that they witnessed him alive after his death. One does not have to stray from historical documents or scholarship to accept these basic tenets of Christianity.
Muhammad, Qureshi claims, is another story. There are no records from the early days of the Arab Conquest, from either Arabs or those they conquered, mentioning a prophet named Muhammad, a scripture called the Quran, or the word “Muslim.” The description of Mecca in the Quran does not mesh with historical or geographic realities, and early mosques faced Jerusalem or Petra, not Mecca. Robert Spencer’s 2012 book, Did Muhammad Exist? covers this scholarship.
The earliest written documents about Jesus date, Qureshi convincingly argues, to within a decade or so of his death. Christians rapidly copied these documents and disseminated them throughout the Classical World. We have fragments dating back to the first half of the second century, and we have thousands of fragments and copies, more than for any other Ancient document. Gary Habermas wrote, “The New Testament has far more manuscript evidence from a far earlier period than other classical works. There are just under 6000 NT manuscripts, with copies of most of the NT dating from just 100 years or so after its writing.” Any wholesale recall and centrally-dictated change to these documents would have been logistically impossible.
The earliest biography of Muhammad dates to 140 years after his death, and even that late book was lost. The extant biography of Muhammad, its author admits, was bowdlerized to eliminate potentially offensive material. Muslims insist that the Quran that exists today is exactly the same message that Allah conveyed to Muhammad. In fact, Qureshi points out, Islam’s own history proves this false. As attested in Muslim sources, the Quran has undergone alterations right up to the twentieth century.
As a Muslim child, Qureshi learned that Muhammad was “Al-Insān al-Kāmil,” the perfect human, worthy of emulation. Muhammad was humble, peaceful, and kind. Through research of Muslim canonical sources, Qureshi learned that in fact Muhammad loved and praised war as the highest act (eg Bukhari 4:52:50, 4:52:44, 4:52:72). He also ordered assassinations, torture, mass murder, and rape of female captives.
Islam, Qureshi argues, is based on blind obedience to a deity, Allah, who is not interested in or capable of either intimacy or love. Christianity, on the other hand, promises an intimate relationship with a loving Father God. This difference in valuation of love and power inevitably is reflected in the societies where Christianity and Islam predominate. “Obedience under the shadow of threat is hardly obedience at all, but compulsion,” he writes. “Christian obedience,” he argues, is “rooted in love.”
Muslims frequently believe that their Allah is loving, but there is no support for this in the Quran. In an attempt to depict Allah as loving, Qureshi says, Muslims cite that Allah is closer to a man than his own jugular vein (Quran 50:16). This is not an expression of intimacy, subsequent verses show, but rather a warning: Allah knows what bad things man has done, and will punish him when the time comes. The jugular vein is found in the neck, and the Quran tells believers to strike at the neck. Allah aims for the same target.
The Trinity is a very tough topic. Qureshi handles it well. I will not attempt to recapitulate his argument here. I will say that he does cite quantum physics to help the reader understand how the Biblical God could conceivably be one entity made up of three persons: father, son, and holy spirit. Qureshi also uses linguistic support to argue that the concept of the Trinity is hinted at in the Old Testament. In historical fact, some Jews did believe in a God of more than one person; after the rise of Christianity, that understanding was condemned as heretical in Judaism.
The Quran promotes a garbled version of the Trinity, insisting that Christians worship God the father, Jesus, and Mary. Jews, the Quran claims, worship Ezra, an Old Testament scribe, as God. In fact Jews do not worship Ezra, and Mary has never been part of the Trinity.
Early Muslims debated whether or not the Quran was created or eternal. Beginning in 833 AD, during a process called the Mihna, Muslims who believed that the Quran was eternal were persecuted, imprisoned, and killed. Today most Muslims insist that the Quran is eternal and uncreated, granting it a status reserved for gods. This belief contradicts the doctrine that only Allah is god; Muslims don’t seem to care. This reverence for the Quran is not reflected in Muslims’ relationship to it. Most Muslims don’t read, refer to, or attempt to understand the Quran. Its language is opaque to them, and Muslims fear that they may be clinging to a verse that has been abrogated, or canceled out, a Quranic doctrine whereby some verses become obsolete, but are retained in the text.
Qureshi is rather gentle in his critique of the Quran. He writes off its incoherence as a result of it having been first oral rather than written. That won’t wash. The Iliad and the Odyssey were originally oral, and they are magnificent. Qureshi should read Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, an examination of oral societies. The oral mind was a different mind, but not inferior. The Quran’s incoherence can’t be blamed on orality.
Those seeking a tougher critique of the Quran will want to read Don Richardson’s Secrets of the Koran. Richardson points out that the Quran is so repetitious that if all its repeated material were removed, it would be 40% shorter. The Quran is so violent that it contains at least 109 jihad verses; one of every 55 verses is a jihad verse. One of every eight verses is a threat of damnation or a graphic description of sadistic tortures in hell for infidels. By contrast, the Old Testament mentions Hell once in every 774 verses, and Hell is never described with as much lip-smacking sadism as it is in the Quran.
The Quran is written in one language; the Bible was written in three languages. The Quran is the product of a much shorter period of composition than the Bible. The Quran is approximately 77,000 words long; the Bible is approximately 800,000 words long. The Quran offers much less elbow room for alternate interpretations than the Bible. The Quran itself offers no escape from its own demands for violence.
There is no analog to jihad in the Bible. The advancing Israelites do claim Canaan through military conquest. That conquest is limited by geography and time. But the Bible also includes repeated calls for mercy (Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8) and respect for the stranger (Exodus 22:21). The Moabite Ruth, and Rahab the Harlot, both originally non-Jewish outsiders, become heroines. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin argues that “righteous Gentiles” are essential to the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus depicts the ultimate outsider, the Good Samaritan, as an exemplar of conduct.
The Quran, in contrast, adjures Muslims to be harsh with non-Muslims and not take them as friends (66:9, 48:29, 3:28, 5:51, 9:28, etc). The Atheist flying-spaghetti-monster myth just doesn’t work here. The Bible and the Quran are very different books. They cannot be relativized into sameness.
The Quran offers garbled versions of the life of Jesus. The Quran appeared at least six hundred years after Jesus died, over six hundred miles away from his life and death, and in a language foreign to what Jesus and his apostles spoke. Its fables about Jesus’ life are cribbed from non-Biblical, pop versions – Qureshi calls them “fan fiction” – that were circulating in the seventh century. Further, the frequently stated Muslim belief that the Quran contains secret, advanced, scientific knowledge or mysterious number codes is easily debunked.
Ironically, the one miracle Muhammad attributed to himself was the Quran. No one could ever write a book comparable to the Quran, the Quran says. Christians produced al-Furqan al-Haqq, a book that presents Biblical teaching in Quranic style. Muslims mistook it for the Quran. It is convincing enough that it is banned in some countries, and many websites warn Muslims not to read it. The ease with which a book that is like the Quran was created disproves the Quran’s statement about itself, that no one could create anything like it.
Qureshi’s treatment of the Crusades irked me. Like many Protestants, he mentions Catholics only in a negative sense: Catholics, he reports, unlike Protestants, are similar to Muslims in their view of scripture (298). Qureshi does not cite a single Catholic source to back up this unfriendly generalization. Qureshi depicts Pope Urban II as a genocidal maniac. He relativizes Crusaders and jihadis and repeats, three times in as many pages, the plainly hyperbolic statement that Crusaders traveled through Muslim blood up to their ankles, knees, or the knees of their horses. He tosses off a reference to the Spanish Inquisition; apparently he is unaware that that misrepresented period, often used to malign Catholics, has been completely redefined by modern scholarship. Good sources on the topic of the Muslim presence in Spain include Dario Fernandez-Morera’s 2016 book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise and Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. Both Crusaders and Muslims “committed inexcusable atrocities,” Qureshi relativizes. Incorrect, as Dr. Bill Warner’s Jihad v Crusades video demonstrates.
All quibbles aside, No God But One is a very accessible and necessary read not just for Christians and Muslims, but for Atheists, as well.