belief, Jews, Muslims

Frank Answers About Whether Jews and Muslims are Brothers in Faith

The original question and Frank Answer was posted on the Immanuel Lutheran Church website. This answer is an updated version.

Question: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all believe in one God. Is a Jew or Muslim a Christian’s brother or sister in faith? Conflicts in the Middle East nurture terrorism and destabilize the world. What can I do here to help solve conflicts in the Middle East?

Frank Answers. Your first question says “in faith” rather than “in the faith.” The definite article makes a significant difference. The faith usually means a belief system, and in that regard Jews, Christians, and Muslims have different belief systems. Even though Jews, Christians, and Muslims are monotheists and “people of the book,” looking to Abraham as the father of faith, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions offer different ways for their believers. Judaism offers a way of relating to God and the world through Torah, the teaching of the Law of God. Christianity offers a way of salvation in Christ from sin, death, and evil. Islam offers a way of submission to God the merciful and just. Whole religious systems have been built on these different ways.

If you just say “in faith,” you are referring to a virtue. Faith may be described as an act of trust or obedience. One may put one’s faith in anything or anyone. The theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern.” As Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, “the faith and trust of the heart make both God and an idol.” Insofar as Jews, Christians, and Muslims have faith in God (that is, they trust and obey Yahweh/Abba/Allah), they are sisters and brothers in faith; they share a common virtue. It is the content of the faith that makes the difference.

We talk about seeing God through the eyes of faith. We don’t all see God in the same way. Christians, for example, see God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. If you want to know what God is like, we point to Christ. The Son has made known the Father. Jews see God through the writings of prophets and sages in the Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud. Muslims see God through the witness of Mohammad in the Koran (sometimes spelled in English Qur’an).

There’s no question that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a lot in common. They recognize a stream of the same “prophets” (as the Qur’an refers to them):  Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The Qur’an regards Jesus as a prophet, who was prepared for by John the Baptist, and the unique purity of his mother, Mary (the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an).  But, of course, Christians regard Jesus as more than a prophet and more than a rabbi.

This begs the question of whether we are seeing the same God. There is no question for Christians that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is Yahweh (called Adonai). The God of the Old Testament (Tanak) is the Christian God. One cannot understand the Christ of the Gospels other than as a fulfillment of prophecy. Christians cannot do without the Hebrew Scriptures. But I do not see Allah (“God” in Arabic, the word also used by Southeast Asian Christians), the God of Islam, related to the Jewish and Christian God any more than the Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) of the later Roman Empire is related to Christ (who has been called the “Sun of righteousness”). Just because different people are monotheists does not mean that they believe in the same one God. Muslims, for example, accused Christians of having an “associating” God because of the doctrine of the Trinity. This is also the reason for Muslim against Muslim violence. Shiites accuse Sufis of flirting with idolatry by venerating saints and ancestors.

These three great religions all originated in the Middle East and they have all been contending for that sacred geography centered in Jerusalem ever since. I don’t think we who live “here” in America can do much to solve conflicts in the Middle East. Even if our wisest statesmen had solutions, the people in the Middle East would have to accept those solutions. And their leaders would have to genuinely desire peace. It is up to them to resolve their conflicts, at least by agreeing to live peaceably with one another. There are times in history when that happened. These three religions haven’t been constantly at each other’s throats for 1500 years. There have been long periods of peaceful co-existence between the three monotheistic religions in the Middle East. I was in Israel and the West Bank in 1999 and witnessed instances of dialogue (or trialogue) and cooperation between adherents of these three religions, especially in the programs sponsored by the Jerusalem YMCA.

We can try to understand the roots of the present conflicts and the conditions that keep the situations conflicted. I wouldn’t try to delve into that here, even if I could. But I will say that we need to understand the religious convictions of people in the Middle East, including their self-identities. The President of the United States can’t just declare that Islamists aren’t true Muslims. I understand his concern to prevent harassment of innocent American Muslims. That shouldn’t happen in America. But sorting out who are true Muslims is an issue the Muslims themselves will have to address. It is up to Muslims to say whether the views and behaviors of “Islamists” or “jihadists” represent the true religion of Islam and to dissociate themselves from what they don’t want to be associated with.

I would also note that much of the conflict in the Middle East has been between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Muslims have been as much the victims of Islamist terror attacks as Christians.  Terrorists have bombed mosques as well as churches.

We in the West have gone through the Age of Enlightenment and have separated the sacred and the secular. We have cultivated tolerance but it has taken us a while to achieve it. It took a while for Catholics to be accepted in predominantly Protestant America, and then for Jews to be accepted in predominantly Christian America, and now for Muslims to be accepted. The Middle Eastern people have experienced no Age of Enlightenment. For them reality is all of one piece. So-called “secular” governments in Middle Eastern countries may soften the role of religion, but they don’t suppress it. There is no “separation of church and state” in the Middle East. Every country in the Middle East is a theocracy, including Israel. That is to say, religious affairs are strictly regulated by the government. Religious differences are tolerated only when it suits the purposes of the leaders, not as a matter of principle. Maybe just recognizing this reality is a place to begin. Others who have had more direct personal experience of the Middle East might have a better answer.

The other thing we could do is enter into dialogue or trialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Americans are concerned about certain Muslim concepts. For example, what is jihad . It has a range of meanings, including “striving” and “zeal.” “Striving” or “zeal” for what? What is shari’ah ? Is it “path” or “law?” How is it understood and practiced by different Muslim groups? There are differences between Muslim groups just as there are between different Jewish traditions and different Christian denominations.

On a more hopeful note, the image above this post is of Egyptian Coptic Christians guarding Muslim protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo as they pray. The image below is of Muslims guarding the Coptic Christian Church of St. George during the liturgy. Jews, Christians, and Muslims can get along and support each other when one is under attack.

Pastor Frank Senn

Muslims guarding Coptic Christian Church during liturgy

6 Comments

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    Larry

    Nicely done and very useful!

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    Karl Johnsen

    Well done. I agree that the definite article is important. I am all for the virtue of faith. I have always winced a bit when people say things like “All people of faith share this concern or that concern, and therefore we are all brothers and sisters.”

    Really? Satanists are also people of faith. So too were the Nazis. I believe we need to talk more these days about THE faith. Or better yet, “The faith once delivered to the saints”.

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    Pr. James F. Peters

    This is a great answer, Frank. As one whose mother’s family were Jews, this answer gives a good statement of agreements and disagreements which I might share with them.

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    Steve Shipman

    Linguistically, the Hebrew and Arabic terms for “God” are related. And certainly there was Jewish and Christian influence on Muhammad. But in the end, the God we worship is the One who raised Jesus from the dead. The relationship between Jews and Christians is more problematic for both than our relationship with the Muslim Allah, because the God of Israel is the One who raised Jesus in fulfillment of Israel’s story. As theologian Robert Jenson once said, Christianity is a theological problem for Judaism, and continuing Judaism is a theological problem for Christianity. And it probably won’t be resolved until the Parousia.

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    P James

    When a Christian converts to Judaism, he must deny Christ three times before witnesses. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except by Me.” How, then, can a Christian validate all religions as equal and none better than another?

    • Frank Senn

      Undoubtedly, a Christian believer would not validate all religions as equal, but that’s not what this post is about. The issue in this question and answer concerned whether the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions are brothers and sisters in faith because they share belief in one God. That is a different question than the one you raise. However, I “approved” posting this comment in order to reply to the statement about a Christian converting to Judaism that may be misunderstood. Judaism is not an easy religion to convert into because it is not based on a belief system as much as a covenant relationship between God and his chosen people Israel. To convert is not to subscribe to a creed, as in Christian baptism, but to be brought into the covenantal life of a people. Rabbis customarily begin the relationship with the potential convert by trying to dissuade the person from converting. Traditionally they do this three times. If a rabbi is dealing with someone raised as a Christian the rabbi may want to test that person’s willingness to break with his or her Christian faith. That’s where this idea of “denying Christ three times” comes from. It may not be unheard of for a rabbi to encourage a potential convert from Christianity to go back to his or her Christian faith. Each rabbi handles this tradition of dissuading converts in his or her own way and according to the circumstances involved. Since converts to Judaism also go before elders the question of one’s former religious beliefs may be raised again. For a baptized Christian to deny the faith confessed in Baptism is apostasy, a serious matter. But the onus should be placed on the apostate, not on the rabbis who are doing their job. Just to be clear about this.

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