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A Few Ways Christians May Relate to Islamic Theology

February 19, 2015

 

 The roof of Hafaz tomb, left, and the north rose window of St. Denis in Paris show the similarities between the artistic styles springing from belief in a monotheistic God. The rose window depicts the days of creation with God at the center.


Dialogue between religions seems almost non-existent nowadays. We may see religious leaders shaking hands in the news and think everything is okay, but underneath there is an utter lack of true exchange between religious ideas. 

That is why I was intrigued when I came across an article by Christopher Dawson called "Islamic Mysticism" in a collection of his essays, "Enquiries into Religion and Culture" (Sheed & Ward, 1933). Dawson was an English history professor who saw the fundamental need for religion as a pillar of civilization. In his aforementioned essay he draws parallels between Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, and Christian asceticism, or monasticism. 

While Muhammadan Islamic theology focuses on the powerful, albeit merciful, hand of Allah, Sufism had a spiritual creativity akin to that of Christian mystics. It focused on the essence of Allah,  which opened the mind to the contemplation of God. Sufism was content to dwell in the truths God revealed to humanity, while Mohammadan Islamic thought focused on the utter supremacy of Allah - emphasizing there is none like him; there is nothing in this world even comparable to him. This belief can be seen in the plain architecture of mosques that have no art depicting things in this world, since such art was seen to be a distraction from the worship of Allah.  

But in Sufism there was at least some room to think of him, and such thought was meant to lead one to ecstasy. It seems as if the more enduring Muslim belief is that Allah is inaccessible, so there is no point in trying to understand him through human reason. But in Sufism there was an interest in reaching a spiritual haven within the soul that at least allowed one to wonder who Allah might be, similar to Plato's fascination with abstract ideals like justice and beauty. 

However, this theology seemed to threaten the unity of Islam. Indeed, the great Martyr of Sufism, al-Hallaj claimed that Allah had revealed to him "the splendour of Thy radiant countenance" and the "mysteries of Thy inmost conscience which Thou hast made unlawful for other men." These words were part of his prayer as he was sent to be crucified. The parallels to Christ are obvious, but the most striking similarity is not between Christ and al-Hallaj themselves, but between the theology they stood for; which is that God is accessible to us. 

What's interesting is that there is hardly a trace of this theology in Muhammad's writings. The Koran speaks profoundly of Allah's omnipotence and his mercy, but this is spoken to contrast Allah with the unworthiness of humanity. The Allah of Sufism is a God of unity that can be found in all things, omnipresent,  almost pantheistic. The Allah of Muhammad is one who is too great for this world, and one who calls for the conversion of all infidels. 

Finding ways to relate to Muslim theology from a Christian perspective can do more good than you may even imagine. There are many similarities between the God of Christianity and Allah as it is. Within Sufism though, there are also similarities in the ways Christians and Muslims contemplate God. When I recently learned about the mysticism of Sufism, I was intrigued to see how this could be yet another bridge between Christianity and Islam.  If we search for common threads like these between the two largest religions of the world, there may just be greater peace and with peace comes greater prosperity. 

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