Islam and Judeo-Christianity: A Critique of Their Commonality
I remember the first time I read an essay by Jacques Ellul, his “The Meaning of the City.” I loved his writing, his thinking, and his concerns though I disagreed at times with the distinguished French Protestant sociologist and philosopher (I later discovered the cause of my unease was Karl Marx’s influence on Ellul. Though Ellul was not a Marxist, his explanations owe much to the dialectical system of Marx and Hegel). I wanted to read more of Ellul, and when I finally did, I was not disappointed. The posthumously published Islam and Judeo-Christianity was also a great pleasure to read.
This volume exists because of Ellul’s daughter, Dominique. The book is less a unified piece than it is a cobbled together effort (and I say that without derision). Part I contains three chapters in which Ellul examines commonly (mis)held views of why Islam must be favorably compared with Christianity. Part II’s three essays are “The Influence of Islam,” “Preface to The Dhimmi,” and his foreword to Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam.
Ellul begins part I, “The Three Pillars of Conformism,” with a brief overview of how and why he came to write on the topic. He accounts for why the West—especially the French—has a reformed view of Islam, that it is an “Abrahamic religion.” Ellul even calls the change of perspective a “conversion” (5). That is, the mysterious Oriental religion that once threatened an enlightened Occident was transformed almost overnight into the misunderstood, peaceful, and well-meaning religion. This transmogrification was fostered by the economic situation (the oil crisis of 1973–74), Islamic migration and population growth, as well as colonization and its deleterious effects. When all is said and done, the most significant cause may be the secularization of western societies with the marginalization of religions and muting of religious differences. If the U. S. follows the same ideological line as France—disregarding the voices of clear thinkers like Ellul and Besançon, but thinking reality is best understood by a Lyotardesque neglect of competing metanarratives for the sake of unity and guidance—we will face similar problems.
Most westerners believe there is no essential difference between Islam and Christianity. Isn’t it true that the three great religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity claim Abraham as their father, thus uniting the three in an ineluctable bond? Ellul’s answer is quite simple: “To declare ‘we are all sons of Abraham’ means absolutely nothing” (18). But how did he come to this conclusion? He examines the biblical history of Isaac and Ishmael and concludes: “The question is who among Jews, Muslims, and Christians performs the works of Abraham (which all come down to the consecration of an absolute faith, without limits, without weakening, in the God who is revealed)… and the works recommended by the Koran do not seem to me at all like those of Abraham” (18).
“Monotheism,” the second of the three essays, begins with this reminder: “The word God is an empty word. We can make of it (and have made of it) anything at all” (19). Ellul makes his case by arguing that just because Islam and Christianity are monotheistic, this is not justification to understand them as the same, let alone similar. What is the “enormous split” (25) between the two religions? The incarnation; it is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity that regulates how Christians think about God—and why Muslims denigrate Christians. I am sure that those who wish to dialogue and find commonality with Islam will continue to do so. My question—and Ellul’s—is this: What is the similarity between an unknowable God and the God who has revealed himself as redeemer, messiah, prophet, priest, and king? The answer, to me, seems self-evident. None.
Ellul’s final essay of part I reveals the veneer of thinking Islam and Christianity are similar. “Religions of the Book” begins with a question I have heard from friends and colleagues who do not understand the problems of Islam: “How can we not reconcile two religions that have a similar basis, that have the same general orientation, that are religions based on written documents?” (31) What appears to be such a deep question is like comparing the pomegranate to the pomme de terre. They sound alike and are both round, sort of. Therefore the similarity is overwhelming. Ellul disagrees.
Ellul raises several important distinctions between the two books. My favorite is his statement about the Bible—with the implication that the Qur’an comes nowhere close to being like it: “God speaks to a person who receives this message, who understands it more or less, who interprets it, and who writes it down. I am well aware that I will shock the reader by saying that the biblical writer understood the message more or less, and yet that is so!” (33)
Not everyone will appreciate Ellul’s perspective on biblical infallibility. He is not arguing for a perfect book but an inspired book given to man by divine means. In other words, for Ellul the Bible does not have the burden of proving itself the infallible, divinely dictated word of God. This is the burden of the Qur’an. Caveat lector: Ellul strays from conservative Evangelicalism at times, but I found his incisive critique of Islam refreshing.
Three more essays comprise part II. In “The Influence of Islam” Ellul aims to show “the deformation and subversion to which God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is subjected” (43). I call this the problem of the islamization of Christianity, an all-to-common occurrence among misguided Christians. Ellul’s topics for discussion include practices, rites, and attitudes that have seeped into Christianity from Islam. For example, “Canon law expands after the pattern found in Islam” (47) Whether or not there is real evidence for such a connection, Ellul’s supposition is intriguing. The result of such islamization is that “the legal spirit penetrates deeply into the church” (47) The reader may find this a controversial chapter.
The second essay, “Preface to The Dhimmi,” defends Bat Ye’or’s research on the dhimmis and the deceleration of the church under Islam. He suggests four stages for the resurgence of Islam. Initially, Muslims threw off their colonizers in the 1950s. This led to a revival of Islam in light of independence, Pakistan being a prime example. As independence nurtured revival among Muslims, there developed “an awareness of a certain unity of the Islamic world over and above its political and cultural diversity” (65). Finally, oil has provided the lubrication for the engine of economic growth, furthering the Islamic resurgence.
Ellul’s final essay, “Foreword to The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam,” is the foreword to Bat Ye’or’s book of the same title. Here Ellul supports Bat Ye’or’s work—that the west must stop listening to the Arabic version of history as if it were the only version that matters. The voice of the peoples subjugated by the Muslims must be heeded. Ellul champions the success of this call by Bat Ye’or’s work.
The appendix of many books is often missed. Do not miss this one: “Foreword by Alain Besançon to Islam et judeo-christianisme.” It is a pithy and realistic look at Islam by means of the question, “What status can Christian theology assign to Islam? Could it be considered a revealed religion, or a natural religion?” (87) Besançon concludes that Islam is a natural religion in which faith in God is not necessary. Islam is a law to be obeyed; there is not imitation of the divine by his subjects, only submission to shari’a. God is inaccessible and remote. The author’s final imprimatur on the whole matter is that Islam and Christianity are “two religions separated by the same God” (98). Islam is, for Besançon, a way of life that speaks to the natural. What we see in nature, in biology, in astronomy, physics, and all the physical sciences is what helps the Muslim understand the God of the universe is real. But beyond that it cannot rise to a religion like Christianity in which the disciple knows, imitates, and speaks with God. And so Christians, if they wish to communicate with Muslims, “must rely on the common human nature they share with them” (98). Regardless whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Besançon, he has provided some intriguing ideas upon which to ruminate.