• Islam vs Christianity: the core differences

    I have articulated this many, many times, but never yet as a full blog post, so here goes. What is it that differentiates the two major world religions, and how does this translate across to the behaviour of their adherents?

    This is a pretty vital question for understanding the state of affairs with world religions and worldviews, especially in a present day context.

    It starts with the holy books, the codification and revelation of said religions. With Christianity, we have the Bible, which is the ‘inspired word of God’. This can mean several things to different people. But, by and large, most Christians believe this to mean that the books, many and varied, were written by humans, though with some kind of divine inspiration. Perhaps not, though. The key is that it was mere humans that wrote things down, itself an interpretative process. This means that the reading of the holy book is itself a further interpretative process.

    The Qu’ran, on the other hand, is THE word of God, dictated to Muhammad, and written down as is. You can’t argue with it,  because you would be arguing directly with God. In fact, you really need to read it in Arabic, the original language of the book. Although there is some interpretative process going on in reading it, the scope is far less. We know who took down the dictation, and supposedly lots about him. With the Bible, we can merely guess at many of the writers, and critical scholarship allows us to be thoroughly skeptical about the received traditions of who supposedly wrote the books.

    What this has meant is that the evolution of the religions has been quite different. And this has been the strength and weakness of both, too, as I will now explain.

    Christianity has been able to evolve throughout its history. Its strength, in evolutionary or memetic terms, is its adaptability. It has been able to adapt to society, such that with scientific, technological, economic and moral progress, Christianity has adapted. We can see this empirically by the fact that there is supposedly some 40,000 denominations of the religion. There is a Christianity for everyone. If you hate gays or love gays; hate slavery or love it; hate capitalism or love it; hate socialism or love it – there is a Christianity for you.

    Biblical criticism, especially since reformation times, has been and is encouraged, by and large. The interpretative process is a discipline, and exegetes and theologians disagree quite considerably with each other.

    The flipside of this is that the religion of Christianity is somewhat, arguably, bastardised from its purest form, whatever that may be. It has been diluted to adapt to whatever prevalent school of thought requires such. As economics and morality have undergone huge zeitgeists, so too has Christianity. And this might be argued to be its weakness, too.

    Islam, however, has been very different. Due to the nature of the holy book, Islam requires that society adapts to IT. Throughout history, Islam has remained a fairly monolithic construction (albeit with political schisms along the Sunni/Shia divide). For example, in the banking sector, or morally, within the context of its primarily theocratic domain, Islam has not particularly shifted. Lending is outlawed in certain forms, stoning and  beheading seem to be still widely accepted. Sharia law often prevails, and secular Islamic countries are few and far between, if at all ever properly secular (eg Turkey).

    What this means, in evolutionary or memetic terms, is that Islam requires the environment to adapt to it. It has very little adaptability, changing little in response to environmental constraints. So its strength is that it appears a purer religion in comparison to Christianity, and in relation to its earlier forms. The evolution of Christianity against Islam produces two entirely different pictures: one a large, foliage-burdened tree of evolutionary worldviews, the other a more streamlined set of grasses, perhaps.

    So when we see the moral paradigm of the modern world, we can see that Christianity is able to mould better to the environment, and Islam struggles. And where Islam and the modern world meet, there is little shaking of hands, and much bloodshed.

    Islam needs a reformation, for sure, but I don’t think the holy book context really permits such a much-needed philosophical transformation.

    On the subject of the greater immutability of Islam, there was an interesting essay online which I came across which bore these words:

    There is always the plight of context argument with Islam’s holy text Quran. The apologetic version is “Quran cannot be interpreted and understood except with its context.” This paraphrasing is constantly adduced by Islamic apologists whenever any argument against the violent verses within the text is raised.

    But the way Islam justifies the divine origin of Quran automatically exclude it from the use of historical method of exegesis. There is this dilemma for Muslims to face. The text in fact is contextual as understood by Muslim explanation of its historical formation. But it is not a version of facts Muslims want to subscribe when they are fomented to believe in the interminable status of the text. Quran is meant for the whole of humanity is the undisputed Muslim belief. The belief proceeds on as the book is pertinent to the end of times.

    Is not it implausible to believe in the infinite relevance of Quran and at the same time rise objections to critiques by embarking a context smoke screen? Should not Muslims give up the context excuse if they want to use Quran as a text which’s relevance is distended to the end of times?

    There is only an affirmative answer to these questions.

    Let us come back to the Quran. Allah spoke to a seventh century Arab in the latter’s language. And all what he said to this prophet is recorded to fructify a Quran. To sum it up, Allah sent his last message to this same prophet then stopped speaking downright. Because god sent his last message and promised to preserve it forever, he will not speak any more until the day of resurrection. He will not send any prophet, since sending a prophet will stir him up again. This is the end. God sent his final messenger, and even though he did not favor immortality to the messenger, he blessed the message with immortality. 

    So, Quran, Islam’s holy text is not a pushover. It is the ultimate message of god. There is nothing to add or subtract in it. All of its components are divine, equally divine. All are applied to all and all. 

    In conclusion, if there is a command in Quran, there is no need to look for its historical context since humanity from the formation of Quran to the end of times are living in the context of the text. It is the Muslim belief. God, Gabriel, Muhammad, three key figures formed Quran have infinite relevance, so the making (Quran) too necessarily possess the quality of being interminably relevant. If this is the common Muslim belief pertaining to Quran, there is no room for a context excuse in its case. 

    Thus, the context excuse in the case of Quran is flawed in its fundamentals.

    My emphasis, because that really sums up much of my theory, that environmental context is irrelevant to Islam: it’s fundamentals are eternal; the same as they ever were.

    And it is in this context which we can see the differing roles the two religions play in modern life, and why Islam in its more fundamental form is seemingly butting up against Western society. Those very violent verses of the Qu’ran are still as relevant today as they ever were. Those violent verses of the Old Testament are now read in their historical context, itself given as an excuse by apologists for dropping their importance, and associated notions of graphic violence. We can mould the Bible like clay. The Qu’ran appears a little more like granite. No matter how warm your hands are, that ain’t budging.

    Category: Biblical ExegesisFeaturedIslamReligion and SocietySecularismTheology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    9 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Michael R

      “What this has meant is that the evolution of the religions has been quite different”. Er, anyone who has read the biography of Mohammed would revile at the thought that Islam is capable of evolution. If you truly understand how barbaric Mohammed was, you would divorce yourself from this barbarian, and not try to evolve ANYTHING from him. Any religion with Mohammed in its lineage is repulsive. What a disgusting thought.

      By all means compare religions. But central to both religions are the archetypes of Jesus and Mohammed. By studying both these characters you quickly arrive at the key differences between the religions. Day and night. They’re not even close. I’m no defender of Christianity but it’s an insult to frame the question in such a way as to suggest it is in any way similar to Islam. What a disgusting thought. Mohammed was a truly repulsive barbarian. Pure evil. Don’t even put Christianity in the same frame. Put the spotlight on the life of Mohammed: pure evil.

      • Hi there

        “anyone who has read the biography of Mohammed would revile at the thought that Islam is capable of evolution” – that was broadly my point, was it not: that Islam has evolved/changed much less than Christianity over the years, including this last century.

        “I’m no defender of Christianity but it’s an insult to frame the question in such a way as to suggest it is in any way similar to Islam. What a disgusting thought.”

        I don’t think you have read or understood the post. I am precisely not comparing the protagonists. I am comparing the memetic evolution of the organised religion on account of the manner in which the holy books came to be.

        And I concluded that they were very different, not the same.

        I am not sure you read it at all well!

        • Michael R

          I read it well enough. “Islam needs a reformation, for sure, but I don’t think the holy book context really permits such a much-needed philosophical transformation”. You’re putting the blame on the holy book, it’s the immutable word of God. Islam is therefore not adaptable, like Christianity. The implication being, if only Islam’s books were the “inspired word of God”, then Islam would be able to evolve. But it’s a moot point. If you understood the character of Mohammed, then just raising the question of evolving, or reforming, something from the lineage of Mohammed is a truly disgusting thought. I can only presume you don’t know the life of Mohammed, because you would vomit at the mere thought of evolving, adapting, or reforming, from this barbarian.

          • Sure, but the character if Muhammad is irrelevant to the point, no matter how horrible he may or may not have been. He DICTATED God’s word, the Bible was not done this way.

            So the Qu’ran is immutable facts of the world. And you can’t interpret that so easily!

            • Michael R

              It’s an academic type of question, rendered moot by a moral revulsion. Yeah, the Koran is the dictated/immutable word of God. Yes, that does make it resistant to interpretation. So, what you said is not wrong. It’s just rendered moot by the preceding moral question about the character of Mohammed i.e. does it matter if the Koran is open to interpretation (or not) when nobody with a functioning conscience would try to reform anything based on the lineage of the barbarian Mohammed anyway? Nope.

              Watch this gruesome ISIS video (Warning: heads on sticks). This is an insight into the character of Mohammed who likewise beheaded 800 Jews and poets who criticised him. This is the lineage that renders your point moot:

    • Arakiba

      The Qu’ran is better used as kindling than as a guidebook for human behavior.

    • Rationalize Stuff

      The notion that Islam is immune to change is not entire true. It might seem like that from a modern vantage point. I suggest reading Montgomery Watt’s “Formative Period on Islamic Thought” and you’ll realize that the evolution of Islamic law and theology is quite complicated.

      • Amie Bee

        It must have been different, during Islam’s Golden Age.

    • JustAggie

      I would agree that Christianity is more diverse but I think it is important to touch on other forms of Islam, even when using broad strokes. I think that all human religious traditions change and evolve– I wonder if Islam is really all that different.

      Muslims themselves often talk about “73 sects” — but I regard this as a pious notion. In my limited exposure to such things, I would suggest…

      Sunnis have had their infighting and divisions as have Shias (Seveners, Twelvers, etc.). Sufism is an important part of Islam for sure and its interpretations of the Quran are often very different. There is also the Ahmadiyya form of Islam, the black Muslim groups in America like the “Nation of Islam,” as well as the Kharijites, Ibadis, Mahdavis, and Quranists (who reject the hadith). There are also various Muslims who have been more influenced by Western values who term themselves “Progressive Muslims.”

      There are also various groups or movements that could be called at least quasi-Islamic like Babism, Bahais, Azalis, Druze, Alevis, Alawis, etc. I think that Sihkism appears to have had some heavy Islamic influences in its development too.

      On the other hand, one could claim that Islam itself was in large part a combination of other influences. The Quran itself refers to Old Testament and New Testament figures, regards Jesus as a prophet, etc. “Allah” was a pre-Islamic god and the Kaaba’s black stone seems to have been a pagan religious object.

    • Zytigon

      Hi Jonathan.
      I agree with you about Christianity being able to evolve somewhat. Maybe that is due to verses like John 16v13 about being led into further truths.
      I wonder if you think that the skepticsannotatedbible.com/quran is an accurate enough translation of the Quran ? If it is then it looks to me like a jumbled & altered summary of the Bible. Since the Quran was meant to be written about 700 CE then it wouldn’t have taken an angel to write it, only a poor memory, or desire for changing Christian scriptures. It looks to me like the scriptures are a demonstration of propaganda at work – an example of how the written word can be used to generate stories to trap people into intellectual black holes ( to use Stephen Law’s idea )

      The authors of the Koran didn’t like the idea of having to accept Jesus as being a Son of God who resurrected so they just down graded him to prophet and anyway it was someone else who was crucified in his place. They also rewrote the supposed history of the Old Testament by making the main characters into Muslims.

      I think that most of these stories are mythical. I think that it might help if people were encouraged to look further back in the history of religion. The ancient Egyptians practiced circumcision and abstained from eating pork long before the Jewish or Islamic religions existed. There are pictures / carvings from the pyramids to prove it. So the idea that circumcision was given to the Jews to make them distinct from other tribes is in error. Could it be that the Jewish folk in the Levant didn’t know what the Egyptians were doing ( 700 BCE ) ?

      It wouldn’t surprise me if there were multiple authors of the Koran and that story about Mohammed being the sole author was invented.

      It is also interesting to look at the changes that Joseph Smith made to the Bible stories. He was smart in noticing that the biblegod made a glaring omission by forgetting all about the New World so he fixed it by writing something along the lines of, ” Actually God knew all about the New World and told one of the lost tribes of Israel to build a boat in Arabia 600 BCE and sail across the Pacific to the Americas along with cows, horses and wheat. ” However there were no traces of horses, cows or wheat when the first Europeans arrived in 1492. [ Also the Book of Mormon is really vague in its identification of Arabia & New World & Pacific. it would have needed to draw a map anyway since there was no name for those places at the time of the imagined events ]

      It is interesting that there is no mention of the New World or Australia in the Koran – which is yet another example of how religion has failed to generate new information about reality but only drags in & warps ideas which are part of the cultural milieu.
      Maybe our religions are like the Bowerbird nests – material picked from the surroundings and crafted into interesting shapes to attract the females.

      • Thanks Zytgion – I will have to check their translation out.

        I think holy books are all parochial and signs of their times. They never include anything that is not of its time.

    • What hope do we have in the future of seeing a robust moderate Islam?

    • Here in the US, American Muslims seem to be a lot more moderate than those in Europe, particularly the UK. Many think this is because the US is more open to immigration and assimilates them better. From what I know, Muslims have not integrated well into European society. The only way a Muslim can be moderate is if they simply disregard much of the Koran, similar to how Christians treat the Bible. They must value things other than the extreme propitiation to their god, and a well integrated society is the only way to do that. If Muslims are isolated, they will tend towards more extreme interpretations.

      • I think this is the rub. If liberal Muslims drop parts of the Qu’ran, or liberally interpret it, I kind of side with the fundamentalists – they are not proper Muslims. They are more appealing, but they have diluted the ‘fundamentals’.

        • I think we’d both prefer liberal Muslims over fundamentalists, especially when they’re living in our communities. I find the future troubling for many of Europe’s Muslims. It seems that integration within European society is unlikely to happen, although not impossible.

        • Void Walker

          “…but they have diluted the ‘fundamentals’.”

          The same goes for Christianity. If you cut out the *literal* fall of man as described in the creation narrative, of what use was christs “sacrifice”? That is, it sort of falsifies the whole thing. I don’t think that people like Rauser even realize that.

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