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Christianity and Islam: Doctrinal Affinity but Historical Conflict

Christianity and Islam: Doctrinal Affinity but Historical Conflict1

Oriental Studies in the West has a long history. It has its genesis in the Christian-Muslim encounter. From its very birth, Islam found itself in conflict with neighbouring Christianity. Moved by the same passion and making the same claim, the two religions engaged in bitter strife for a thousand years. Islam knocked at the doors of Christianity, overwhelming much of Europe for centuries. Eventually Christianity replied with the sword of the crusades. The tide of Islam was stemmed; Western Christianity was united; the power of the Pope increased tremen­dously; and Western Christianity became East-oriented. The East became an object of a continuous aggressive quest.

The armed crusades themselves ended in ignominy by the end of the thirteenth century. Christianity now thought of other means of penetration. As Waddington puts it in his History of the Church, when “the arms of the Mohammedan were found to preponderate, some faint attempts were made, or meditated, to convince those whom it proved impossible to subdue.” As a first step, Pope Honorius IV (AD 1286-1287) encouraged the study of oriental languages as an aid to missionary work. Soon after, the Ecumenical Council of Vienna (AD 1311-1312) decided “that the holy Church should have an abundant number of Catholics well versed in the languages, especially in those of the infidels, so as to be able to instruct them in the sacred doctrine.” There­fore, it ordered the creation of chairs of Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldaean at the Universities of Bologna, Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca.

How far this decree was immediately implemented is not known but the strategic importance of Oriental Studies was clearly established. After another hundred years, the General Council of Basel (AD 1434) returned to the same theme and decreed that “all Bishops must sometimes each year send some men well-grounded in the divine word to those parts where Jews and other infidels live, to preach and explain the truth of the Catholic faith in such a way that the infidels who hear them may come to recognise their errors. Let them compel them to hear their preaching.”

But for the next several generations, the Church had to train for polemics within its own fold. It faced internal revolts. Strong Protestant movements came to the fore, questioning several Catholic dogmas and the Pope’s authority. These made big holes in the citadel of the Church. All this was uncomfortable for the time being, but eventually it did good to Christianity as a whole. Through “challenge-and-response” it made it battle-ready. And though different Christian groups had acute internal quarrels, they all faced the non-Christian world unitedly. After a lull, the Protestant nations too joined the missionary game with great fervour. In fact, considering themselves as the rightful heirs to true Christianity, they were sure they would succeed where the Catholic Church had failed. According to them, the Romish Church—the Protestant name for Catholics—was bound to fail, choked as it was with its own errors. George Sale, the first Eu­ropean to produce a faithful translation of the Quran, wrote in 1734 that “the Protestants alone are able to attack the Koran with success”; and in fact, it is for them that “Providence has reserved the glory of its overthrow.” More than a hundred years later, Sir William Muir, a representative of the mighty British Empire, expressed the same sentiment. He asked the question why the Muslim world was not already converted, considering the fact that the banners of Islam had approached so closely the Papal See. His answer was that “the bigotry of the Mussulmans, the licence of concubinage and slavery, and their otherwise low standard of morality” only partly explained this failure on the part of Christianity. The other part of the explanation was the superstitious practices of the Church itself which “froze the cur­rent, which should have flowed unceasingly, diffusing to the nations around the genial and healing streams of Christianity”

(Calcutta Review, 1845).

It was against this background that the Christian researchers began their study of Islam. These early studies did little to improve their opinion of the rival creed. They regarded it as a “spurious faith” and its author as a “false prophet,” an opinion which has not fundamentally changed since then though it is no longer stated with the same candour as in the past.

Within the framework of this hostile opinion, some conces­sion began to be made in due course. Islam was evil but its role in destroying idolatry with a strong hand was praiseworthy. For example, Rev. Charles Forster, a clergyman of the Church of England, and author of Mohammedanism Unveiled (1829), re­garded Islam as a “baleful superstition,” and its founder an “impostor, earthly, sensual, devilish, beyond even the licence of his licentious creed,” but he still regarded this creed as “con­fessedly superior” to the gross idolatry of its predecessor. Islam has a place in the divine scheme. Considered in itself, and as opposed to the Gospel, it is a “curse”; but as the “pre-appointed scourge of heresy and heathenism, as cleansing the world from the gross pollutions of idolatry, and preparing the way for the reception of a purer faith [Christianity], it may well be regarded as a blessing.”

Like Marx who hated Capitalism but regarded it as a higher form of economic and political organisation and welcomed capitalists as sappers and miners of Communism, Christianity detested Islam but honoured it for destroying idolatry.

However, even this approach was considered too hostile and there were thinkers from an early date who canvassed for a still more liberal treatment of Islam. George Sale whom we have already mentioned pleaded that “how criminal soever Moham­med may have been in imposing a false religion on mankind, the praises due to his real virtues ought not to be denied him.” Were not the laws he gave to his people “preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers?” And therefore, did he not de­serve, Sale asked, at least equal respect, “though not with Moses or Jesus Christ, whose laws came really from Heaven, yet with Minos and Numa ?”— the religious legislators of ancient Crete and Rome. Sale quoted with approval the example of the pious and learned Spanhemius who though he regarded Muhammad as a “wicked impostor” yet acknowledged his natural endowments, his subtle wit, his agreeable behaviour, his liberality and cour­tesy, his fortitude against his enemies, and above all his rever­ence for the name of God.

As the translations of the Quran became available, some Christian writers began dimly to perceive that Muhammad’s virtues and vices were not his own but that he shared them with Biblical prophets. But these Christian writers were taught to cas­tigate in the Quran what they had been taught to admire in the Bible. How could they do it consistently and conscientiously ? They found that some of the crudest and fanatical passages in the Quran—like “kill them wherever ye find them” (2.191)—had a solid Biblical support and precedent. Rev. E.M. Wherry states this predicament in his A Comprehensive Commentary on Quran (1882). Referring to this injunction, kill them, he says: “Much is made of expressions like this, by some Christian apologists, to show the cruel character of the Arabian prophet, and the infer­ence is thence drawn that Muhammad was an impostor and his Quran a fraud. Without denying that Muhammad was cruel, we think this mode of assault to be very unsatisfactory to say the least, as it is capable of being turned against the Old Testament Scriptures. If the claim of Muhammad to have received a divine command to exterminate idolatry by the slaughter of all impeni­tent idolaters be admitted, I can see no objection to his practice. The question at issue is this, Did God command such slaughter of idolaters, as he commanded the destruction of the Canaanites or of the Amalekites [Deut. 7.1,2; Joshua 6.21, 24] ? Taking the stand of the Muslim, that God did so command Muhammad and his followers, his morality in this respect may be defended on precisely the same ground that the morality of Moses and Joshua is defended by the Christians” (Volume I, p. 358).

The fact is that while the Christian writers used strong adjectives and hurled hostile epithets, they had no proper grounds for attack. Some of the more perceptive ones among them probably even realized that an attack on Islam in a fun­damental way was an attack on Christianity itself, since the two were so similar in their source, deeper perspective and psychic affinity. Both derived from a common source in the Old Testa­ment; both were monolatrous; both claimed to be God’s chosen fraternities; in both, God-man communication took place through a favoured intermediary; both had human founders; both were credal religions.

But all this similarity failed to bring them together. On the contrary, this made Islam into an “undisguised and formidable antagonist.” William Muir puts it bluntly: “From all the varieties of heathen religions Christianity has nothing to fear for they are but the passive exhibitions of gross darkness which must vanish before the light of the Gospel. But in Islam we have an active and powerful enemy;—a subtle usurper, who has climbed into the throne under pretence of legitimate succession; and seized upon the forces of the crown to supplant its authority. It is just because Mohammedanism acknowledges the divine original, and has borrowed so many of the weapons of Christianity, that it is so dangerous an adversary.”

The true cause of the conflict is of course different from the one imagined here by Muir. It consists in an inadequate concep­tion of the Godhead on the part of both Christianity and Islam. The God of both teaches them to persecute religions other than their own; both are dogmatic, fundamentalist and theological; both lack Yoga or a proper science or discipline of inner explo­ration; both seek outward expansion; both are aggressively self- righteous; and both by nature know no true theory of peaceful co-existence.

India along with Egypt, Persia and Syria offered fertile op­portunities for Christian Arabists and researchers in Islam. Henry Martyn, a Cambridge scholar with a flair for languages, came to India as a Chaplain in 1806 and joined the notorious William Carey group. He completed a version of the New Tes­tament in Urdu and carried through a thorough revision of a Persian one. He also carried on theological controversies in the Persian language with the Muslim Divines of Persia. Rev. C.G. Pfander, first attached to the German Mission, later joined the Indian Mission of C.M.S. in 1838. He wrote several polemical works in Persian: Mizan-ul-Haqq (Balance of Truth); Tariq-ul- Hayat (Way of Salvation: A Treatise on Sin and Redemption); Miftah-ul-Asrar (Key of Mysteries: A Treatise on the Divinity of Christ and the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity). A. Sprenger spent a great part of his life in India in search of material for the history of early Islam. It was in India that Waqidi, a very early, authoritative and orthodox biography of Muhammad, was discovered by him. In 1865, he brought out The Life and Doc­trine of Mahomet from Sources hitherto for the most part Un­used; twenty years earlier, he had published a Life of Moham­med from Allahabad.

But of this genera of writing, William Muir’s The Life of Mahomet, first published in 1861 in four volumes, was the best. It was a pioneering study and it has not been improved upon since then. William Muir had strong Christian views but he was also a painstaking and conscientious researcher, and he ex­hausted most of the sources on the Prophet’s life, which were not many. The basic material on Muhammad is limited and new biographies could not really be new except in details, treatment and emphases.

In fact, in most biographies except the hagiographical ones in which miracles abound, there is a remarkable agreement on facts, though the biographers differ in the way they look at those facts. For example, take the case of the Jewish tribe of Banu Quraiza whose people were massacred by the Prophet when they surrendered to him. The earliest Muslim biographers of impec­cable orthodoxy celebrate the event with undisguised glee. The fashion to appear better than one is, a Christian innovation, was not in the early Muslim style. The Christian writers of the last century like Sprenger, Muir, Gustav Weil, Osborn, finding in the event an opportunity of attacking a rival creed, treated it with moral horror. But by the time Dr. David Samuel Margoliouth was writing in the beginning of this century, the moral horror was considerably subdued; so he simply narrates the event as a matter of fact. He also observes that we must try “in estimating this matter, to think of bloodshed as the Arabs thought of it: as an act which involves no stigma on the shedder.” This was bad history and was unfair to the pre-Muslim Arabs, but it agreed with the new intellectual fashion. Ever since Margoliouth’s times, things have moved still further in the same direction. Maxime Rodinson, a distinguished French Arabist, writing his Mohammed in the sixties of this century finds that Muhammad had his compulsions and “from a purely political point of view, moreover, the massacre was an extremely wise move”; and again that “the chosen solution was undeniably the best.”

In this connection, we need not reproduce the elaborate apology which Syed Ameer Ali provides from the viewpoint of a modem Muslim apologist. To him, the punishment of the Jews was self-invited and they were self-condemned. He also shows with the help of many citations from Christian scriptures and history that this “defensive” massacre, in all its fearfulness and gruesomeness, was nothing compared to similar things we find in the Bible and in the history of Christianity. Read, for ex­ample, II Samuel 8.1-5 of the Bible.


We have observed that missionary consideration provided the initial impulse and also a continuing motive for the study of Islam. But in due course of time, as a result of many develop­ments, the religious factor became less pronounced and also less important. One reason was that another motive, the imperial mo­tive, was coming to the fore. Sometimes it reinforced the mis­sionary motive but on many occasions it also opposed it. An­other reason was that Europe was undergoing a rationalist revo­lution. Religion, as Europe knew it, was becoming suspect. Christianity felt less self-confident and won less sympathy for its viewpoint. The third reason had to do with the nature of the new scholarship itself. Though it started in a Christian motiva­tion, in due course, it acquired its own independent dimension. Its inner dynamism and internal discipline carried it beyond its early confines. Once the Muslim classics were unearthed and texts edited, they became available for larger inspection; they could not be put to one, single, pre-arranged use.

All these factors had become important when Margoliouth wrote his Mohammed. Margoliouth was a great linguist and scholar and was for a long time a professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford. He wanted his book neither to be an indictment nor an apology, and he did not fail in this endeavour. He was writing for a “tolerant” twentieth-century audience and he decided, even before he wrote his book, to observe towards the prophet “the respectful attitude which his greatness de­serves”; and even though the facts he cites sometimes do not do credit to his conclusion, in this resolve too he succeeded .

Margoliouth was also a minister, of the Church of England, but he wanted his book to be “absolutely free” from the Chris­tian bias; here too one can safely say that his book shows no conscious Christian bias. If a bias has to be mentioned, it is a European’s imperial bias which regards all non-European man­ners and institutions—in this particular case, Bedouin manners and institutions—as savage.

Margoliouth went over all the old sources again and took into account all the fresh material that became available, but as we have already observed, a new biographer, even with the near­legendary reputation of Margoliouth, had little substantially new to add. He could only weave old facts differently and add fresh information or insight or speculation here and there, which he does with credit and distinction. In this spirit, Margoliouth offers an interesting theory that Islam began as a “secret society,” and that secrecy added to its appeal initially. He also tells us an interesting fact that the word muslim etymologically means a traitor, and that the word was so used originally for the adher­ents of Islam by its opponents. The word initially signified one who handed over his friends to their enemies—a reference to Islam's early “connections” with Abyssinia, Mecca's “national” enemy—but Muhammad cleverly gave the word a dignified meaning of one who handed over his person to Allah. There is nothing strange in this fact. History is full of instances where de­rogatory epithets become proud titles.

Like so many other biographers of Muhammad, Margoli­outh too was intrigued by his revelations, and he tries to under­stand them. The subject is difficult and also delicate but the author tackles it with ability and tact. He regards many explana­tions except the traditional Muslim one which holds God or Gabriel as their author. The new intellectual climate is against such a view, and it is clear that the author finds the whole process of revelations “suspicious.” Nothing conclusive is said but several hypotheses are hinted at including the medical one of “epileptic fits” and the moral one of “trickery.” A sociological view is also taken. Some hold that Muhammad’s apostleship was accepted because the Arabs of his times were expecting a prophet of their own. This may be true but it does not explain why Muhammad alone should have met the expectation; nor is there much evidence that his countrymen were feeling particu­larly “desolate at the want of a prophet,” as Margoliouth ob­serves.

He also perceives behind these revelations a deep and steady motive of “personal distinction” on the part of Muhammad. Probably he was a character in search of a role and he wanted to reproduce in himself “the role of Moses and Jesus.” Muham­mad’s revelations had two dogmas: (1) the dogma of One God which he borrowed from the Bible, and (2) the dogma of his own apostleship, which is his specific contribution. As Margo­liouth observes, “the second was the dogma to which he [Muhammad] attached the greater importance.” In fact, this was the “fundamental dogma of his system; agreement on other points presently became useless, if that were not conceded,” the author observes.

Some biographers of Muhammad have held that his revela­tions were an imposture and their pretender was insincere. Margoliouth does not discuss the question on this level at all, and dodges it altogether by holding that “to those who are study­ing merely the political effectiveness of supernatural revelations, the sincerity of the medium is a question of little consequence.”

For more light on the subject, the author also took the help of the science of Spiritualism (the alleged calling up of the departed spirits through a sensitive medium) of his days. With its help, he came to believe that Muhammad's revelations were “mediumistic communications.” In Spiritualism, the problem of a medium is to produce a trustworthy revelation or a revelation which would be regarded as such. Muhammad faced a similar problem and he solved it in a similar way. Margoliouth also observes that like the medium, Muhammad enjoyed also a similar advantage: the medium is helped by the fact that the “conviction produced by the performances of a medium is often not shaken by the clearest exposure.”

The author also sees a family likeness between the Muslim prophet and the prophet of the Mormons, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), and their respective revelations. It is true that Mormonism and Islam, and for that matter also other creeds like Bahaism (named after Baha-ul-lah, 1817-1892), and Babism (faith of Mirza Ali Muhammad, 1819-1850), are close cousins. But Muhammad started no new fashion. He himself followed an old model very well established in the Bible. Indeed to raise deeper questions about Muhammad’s revelations is to raise questions about the whole species of revelatory spirituality of which the Bible is the scripture par excellence. This Margoli­outh was not taught to do, nor was it a part of his seeking. In fact, this fundamental question has rarely been raised.

The spiritual equipage of Islam and Christianity is similar, their spiritual contents, both in quality and quantum, are about the same. The central piece of the two creeds is “one true God” of masculine gender who makes himself known to his believers through an equally single, favoured individual. The theory of mediumistic communication has not only a psychology: it has also a theology laid down long ago in the oldest part of the Bible in Deuteronomy (18.19, 20). The biblical God says that he will speak to his chosen people through his chosen prophet: “I will tell him what to say, and he will tell the people everything I command. He will speak in my name, and I will punish anyone who refuses to obey him” (Good News Bible).

The whole prophetic spirituality, whether found in the Bible or in the Quran, is mediumistic in essence. Here everything takes place through a proxy, through an intermediary. Here man knows God through a proxy; and probably God too knows man through the same proxy. The proxy is the favoured individual, a privileged mediator. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” says the Bible (Mt. XI. 27). The Quran makes no very different claim. “This day have Iperfected your religion for you,” says the Allah of the Quran through his last prophet (5.3).

There are other similarities of the same fundamental kind into which we need not go here. But none of them are calculated to promote peace. The seeds of conflict, not only amongst the “believers” but also with the rest of the world, lie at the very heart of the two ideologies. Each of the two is presided over by a bellicose God, each chief of his own hosts; each claims sole sovereignty. A larger charity and mutual respect and even toler­ance, and co-existence cannot be the strong points of such the­ologies.


Like Christianity, Hinduism too, though not by its own choice, found itself in conflict with Islam. But unlike the former, it never tried to study it. Hindus fought Muslim invaders and locally established Muslim dynasties but neglected to study the religious and ideological motives of the invaders. Hindu learn­ing, or whatever remained of its earlier glory, followed the old grooves and its texts and speculations remained unmindful of the new phenomenon in their midst. For example, even as late as the thirteenth century, when Malik Kafur was attacking areas in the far South, in the vicinity of the seat of Sri Ramanuja- charya, the scholarly dissertations of the disciples of the great teacher show no awareness of this fact.

Hindus were masters of many spiritual disciplines; they had many Yogas and they had a developed science of inner explo­ration. There had been a continuing discussion whether the ultimate reality was dvaita or advaita. It would have been very interesting and instructive to find out if any of these savants of Yoga ever met, on their inner journey, a Quranic being, Allah (or its original, Jehovah of the Bible), who is jealous of other Gods, who claims sole sovereignty and yet whom no one knows except through a pet go-between, who appoints a favourite em­issary and uses the latter’s mouth to publish his decrees, who proclaims crusades and jihad, who teaches to kill the unbelievers and to destroy their shrines and temples, and to levy permanent tribute on them, and to convert them into zimmis, into hewers of wood and drawers of water. Even today, the question retains its importance. Is the Allah of the Quran a spiritual being? Or, is he some sort of a mental and vital formation, a hegemonic idea? Does he represent man’s own deepest truth and reside in his innermost being ? Or, is he a projection of a less edifying source in man’s psyche? Is he discovered when a man’s heart is tran­quil, desireless and pure? Or, does he originate in a fevered state of the mind? Is his source the samadhi of the yoga-bhumi, or some sort of a trance of a non-yogic bhumil In the Yogadarsh- ana, this distinction is fundamental but it is not much remem­bered these days.

What is the truth of Prophetism which lays down that God can be known only indirectly through a favourite intermediary, a ‘Sole Begotten Son’ or a ‘Last Prophet’? Even today these and other allied questions seek elucidation but Hindu spirituality remains silent. Is it because the Hindu spirit has been overtaken by tamas, inertia, and therefore remains slothfully neglectful? Or, does it inhabit a region which is beyond the storms and blasts of passing creeds and ideological fashions? Is it in a state, as has been said, which lets the legions thunder past and plunges in deep contemplation of the eternal verities again? Or, is the silence only seeming and it already contains a deep answer for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear?

Indian spirituality did not argue, debate or oppose. But did it not provide a complete answer ? It proclaimed that the true Godhead was beyond number and count; that it had many manifestations which did not exclude or repel each other but included each other and went together in friendship; that it was approached in different ways and through many symbols; that it resided in the heart of its devotees. Here there were no chosen peoples, no exclusive prophethoods, no privileged churches and fraternities and ummahs. The message was subversive of all re­ligions based on exclusive claims.

Moreover, creeds like Christianity and Islam were not wholly unexpected by the Indian sages. Religions of exteriority like these had to appear in the Kaliyuga—even the great truths of Hinduism suffered deterioration in this age. According to Guru Nanak, even “the name of God becomes Allah in the Ka­liyuga," reflecting the realities of this age, the declined status of Dharma, the diminished being of man and the impoverished state of his mind and heart.

The Voice of India is bringing out this reprint on the life of Muhammad by an eminent European Arabist in order to pro­mote informed interest on the subject of Islam amongst Indian intellectuals. The best thing would have been if India had devel­oped its own scholarship on this and other allied subjects; but seeing that it has not been able to do this so far, the next best thing is that it benefits from what others have done. Let us hope that from these beginnings will grow an indigenous scholarship with its own perspective and framework. Hitherto we have looked on Hinduism through the eyes of Islam and Christianity. Let us now learn to look at these ideologies from the vantage- point of Hindu spirituality—they are no more than ideologies, lacking as they are in the integrality and inwardness of true religion and spirituality. Such an exercise would also throw light on the self-destructiveness of the modem ideologies of Commu­nism and Imperialism, inheritors of the prophetic mission or "burden”, in its secularized version, of Christianity and Islam. The perspective gained will be a great corrective and will add a new liberating dimension; it will help not only India and Hindu­ism but the whole world.

A fateful thing has been happening. The East is waking up from its slumber. The wisdom of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism is becoming available to the world. Already, it is having a transforming effect on the minds of the people, particularly in countries where there is freedom to seek and ex­press. Dogmas are under a cloud; claims on behalf of Last Prophethood and Only Sonship, hitherto enforced through great intellectual conditioning, browbeating, and the big stick, are becoming unacceptable. Religions of proxy are in retreat. More and more men now seek authentic experience. Borrowed creed will not do. Men and women are ceasing to be obedient believ­ers and are becoming seekers. They no longer want to be any­body’s sheep, now that they know that they can be their own shepherds. An external authority, even when it is called God in certain scriptures, threatening and promising alternately, is in­creasingly making less and less impression; people now realize that Godhead is their own true, secret status and they-seek it in the depth of their own being. All this is in keeping with the wisdom of the East.

  1. Introduction to the reprint of Mohammed and the Rise of Islam by D.S. Margoliouth.