The documented lives of Muhammad and Jesus exemplify some of the major ideological differences between Islam and Christianity.
Number one, marriage. Jesus is not recorded to have married; Muhammad had several wives. The fixation with celibacy throughout the history of Christianity is probably influenced to a large part by Paul’s letters, contained in the New Testament. Paul was celibate, and wrote that it is good not to marry, but not wrong to do so; that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. In other words, marriage is for weak people who can’t control their desires.
While protestants – including fundamentalists – do not require celibacy of their ministers, and nor do they necessarily see celibacy as the ideal for everyone, there is still an effect on their approach to marriage which I don’t think I really noticed until I learnt about the Islamic perspective. I know many Christians that are afraid to be proactive in looking for a spouse incase they are going against God’s will. They have in mind that God may not wish them to marry, and so they expect that if God wants it to be, then the right person will come into their life and there will be some sign.
Having a Christian background makes all of Muhammad’s marriages a little hard to understand. I used to have a problem with why he was allowed more than four, but then I heard that he married them all before that verse came. Not sure if it’s true. I do find it impressive though that all of them except Aishah were widows or divorcees. It does make it seem like it could have been some sort of mercy rather than hedonistic womanising. Anyway, it’s interesting that there’s such a stark difference between the two faiths in terms of the importance of sexual fulfilment.
Number two, politics. Jesus lived in a stable, civilised Jewish society which was part of the Roman empire. He focused on moral teachings rather than politics. Muhammad lived in Arabia which was tribal and there was frequent conflict between tribes. When the Muslims escaped persecution in Mecca by fleeing to Medina, they essentially became a self-governing community not unlike a traditional tribe. There were no overarching rules or laws so they had to make their own. To this day, Islam is seen as a nation or society whereas Christianity has never been that.
Number three, war. This really follows on from the politics. Fighting between tribes was just normal in 7th century Arabia, it was a harsh environment and they wouldn’t have survived otherwise. On the other hand there are a number of pacifist movements in Christianity and these are inspired by Jesus’s message about turning the other cheek – a message of non-retaliation and surrender. Persecution was just accepted in early Christianity, there was this sense of following Jesus and carrying one’s cross, surrendering unto death as he had.
I am at this point pretty uncomfortable with both. I think forgiveness and non-retaliation is good, and I know this is encouraged in Islam too. But I know from experience that turning the other cheek and loving people unconditionally can sometimes hurt you, and I would prefer an interpretation that allows you to maintain your diginity and protect yourself from harm. Jesus said “love your neighbour as yourself” – he didn’t say “more than yourself”, and I think it’s this loving yourself part that I’ve had trouble with. Maybe being uncomfortable with self-defense is a consequence of taking some of Jesus’s teachings too literally, and not considering the context of who he was speaking to.
As for conquering lands and bringing them under Muslim rule, I am uncomfortable with this even although Muslim rule might have been generally good (there has been no better example of coexistence throughout history than Moorish Andalucia) and even although it might have overthrown tyrannous rulers. This is how the USA and allies have justified imposing democracy (like that’s not a contradiction in terms) in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I haven’t agreed with that. Nor have very many Muslims. I can see a case for overthrowing oppressive dictators when I look at places like Zimbabwe, but the trouble with it as a general principle is that what one group thinks is a better regime, another group doesn’t.
It’s been interesting trying to step outside of the pre-conditioned mentality that we all inherit from religion and culture combined, and think about these matters objectively. This is why I love the diverse influences on my life, however much of a headache it can be sometimes.