The birth of Islam

June 28, 2017                                                                                                                               The Memorial of Saint Irenaeus

Over the past six months or so I have been reading the work of several scholars and writers who are reexamining the events of the middle part of the first millennium in the Middle East that gave birth to the thing we know as Islam.  I confess that I had simply taken the Muslim story for granted i.e. that things pretty much did happen the way they said, except that I didn’t believe that the revelation was divine.  It seemed to me that the Muslim accounts of the events of the seventh century could be relied upon to give a basic framework of what took place if you took certain of their embellishments with a very large grain of salt.

But maybe that isn’t the case.  In my ignorance I was completely unaware that the first biography of Muhammad was not even written until a century after his reported death in 632 A.D.  and the establishment of the Arab empire in the Middle East, and that we only possess even this biography in very large fragments from a book that was penned a lifetime after that, in the early 800s.

And the copious and many time self contradictory hadith that give Muslims the details of their prophet’s life and form the basis for their understanding of how they should live their own lives and that I have quoted from in other posts on this site were only compiled during the middle part of the 800s, some two hundred years after the man’s reported death.

So what is going on here?  A pious believing Muslim would tell us that, sure, all of these written records were indeed compiled when you say they were compiled but all of the information contained in them were passed down orally (and the Arab culture of the time was essentially an oral culture) and faithfully through the many lifetimes that intervened between the time of Muhammad and the time that the events of his life were committed to writing.  Really?

And before you say “It is the same thing with the Gospels!  They were based on a vague oral tradition and only written centuries after the life of Jesus, whoever he was, if he even existed, so if you don’t believe what the Muslims tell us about Muhammad on that basis then why should I ever believe anything you say about Jesus?” I will tell you that the textual evidence from inside the Gospels, not to mention the parts of the Acts of the Apostles written in the first person by someone who obviously took part in some of the events he was recording and who also wrote the Gospel of Saint Luke about the life of Jesus, indicates that they are the product of eyewitness testimony and were all, save Saint John, composed in the decades immediately following the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  So spare me, and spare yourself, all of the fairy tales about Q and J and D and E and P and X and Y and Z, and leave the fantasies of modern ‘scholars’ who have spent their lives searching for highbrow sounding excuses to justify their unbelief on the side of the road where they belong.  Just read the Gospels themselves.

But back to the Muslims.  To believe that these memories were transmitted faithfully over so many generations then you really do have to believe that Muhammad was a divine messenger and that the Qur’an is divine revelation.  Because Divine protection is the only way of securing accurately and in great detail a message from the Most High (or anything else for that matter) that is transmitted among men across so many generations.  But was Muhammad a divine messenger?  What is the evidence?

You can already guess what my answer to that question will be, but there are a billion people in the world who think otherwise.  So let’s look at the evidence.  I was intrigued by the title of Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? so I read it and that in turn lead me to a collection of essays on the same subject entitled Early Islam and edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig.

I will say first off that I do not agree with many of the conclusions of these authors.  Robert Spencer’s concern is politics.  He seems to see everything through the lens of the contemporary conflict of the last few decades between radical Islamic ideology and the secularist and functionally atheistic republics who have since the end of the 18th century dominated life in the formerly Catholic world.  Ohlig and the authors that he publishes are largely German and still in love with the so called ‘enlightenment,’ despite all of the terrors and misery that it has brought to our world.  The evince a loathing for every bit of evidence anywhere and on any subject that even indirectly points to the remotest possibility that there is an objective Truth outside of their own opinions and that this Truth has somehow revealed Himself in our world.  In other words they are completely hostile to even the idea of any sort of revealed religion anywhere in our world.

This hatred for Divine Revelation clouds their viewpoint and all of the conclusions they reach.  The people who lived during the time they are discussing, whether Christian or not, did not share this hatred, in fact the vast majority of them felt exactly the opposite and thus a chasm of misunderstanding opens up between our scholars and the people they are discussing.  Thus they are led to some of the most preposterous conclusions imaginable.

For example, the basic thesis of Ohlig and his companions seems to be that there was no real Arab conquest of the Middle East during the seventh century.  They posit that the Byzantines, after fighting an almost thirty year war against the Persians to first protect and then to get back the provinces of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine and the holy city of Jerusalem, then just decided to give them up, these the richest and most valued provinces of their empire, and hand them over to some Arab governors who became Arab kings and who were supposedly the real founders of the Arab empire.  Does that even make any sense?

Second they posit that, based on that assumption, there was no charismatic figure who united the peoples of the Arabian peninsula, there was no sudden conquest out of nowhere that shook the world.  No, it was all very gradual and in fact nobody even really noticed the change at first.  Really?  The historical memory in the bones of every Christian would belie that point.  But those men are not Christians.

So why do I bring all of this up?  Why even listen to these men?

Because something happened in the seventh century.  But what?  The canonical Muslim sources date from many lifetimes later, but there are other sources that come from that time, and these authors do an excellent job of cataloging them, even if they misuse and draw wrong conclusions from them.

Something happened in the seventh century somewhere in Arabia that has perpetrated and has been made to perpetrate a fraud that has now captured the hearts of a billion people.  They deserve to hear the truth because they all share in the Human Nature of Jesus Christ and they are all sons of his holy Mother just like us, and they have the same right to know the Gospel as we and as our ancestors have had.

The evidence that this new seventh century ‘revelation’ to the Arabs, whatever they thought of it at the time, was not new and was not a revelation is all over their holy book and the history of those times.  But to understand it one must understand the Catholic Church and one must understand her enemies both in the other world and in this world.  And one must understand her history to understand the history of those enemies.

I have no letters after my name, and I work in a humble profession , but I have gleaned the knowledge of some things about history and about religion and about languages and about the history of the Church during my life.  Therefore I intend, God willing, to make the case here that to really understand the history of Islam we have to begin by going back three centuries to the days of Constantine, when the authority of a single Roman Caesar still held sway over the whole territory from Palestine to the borders of Scotland, and we must begin our discussion with a certain Libyan priest who took up his career in Alexandria named Arius, because the doctrines that he and his successors spread throughout the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world are where Islam really began.  In the next post I intend to examine what we know of the history of Arianism and its doctrines and to examine the possibilities of a relationship between those doctrines and the doctrines that form the foundation of what is called Islam.

I entrust this effort to the protection of Our Lady of Fatima, fifteen days after the hundredth anniversary of the revelation of of her Immaculate Heart, and I beg her intercession with her Divine Son that whatever is done here may serve his inscrutable purposes and his Holy Will.

What is Islam Part 3: Islam’s Roots in Heretical Christianity

St. John of Damascus, who lived during the age of the first great Islamic onslaught against the Catholic world, wrote in On Heresies that Muhammad “after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy.”  This was the first pronouncement from a Catholic source, the last of the Fathers of the Church no less, that Islam might not be as new (Muslim claims to be the primordial religion of mankind not withstanding) or nearly as original idea as it first seemed.  Unfortunately this was also the last of these pronouncements until Hilaire Belloc repeated it our own day just before the Second World War, and it has been dutifully ignored ever since.

So let us examine St. John Damascene’s claim.  The root and core of Islam is the denial of the Trinity which must of course be followed by a denial of the Incarnation.  But the denial of the Trinity was not new in the seventh century.  It was an ancient error by the time of Muhammad.  The heresies that plagued the Church in the age of the Roman Empire all denied the essential unity between God and man that the conjoined natures of Jesus Christ represented and which is only possible to comprehend through the Trinitarian revelations of the New Testament.  So, what does this have to do with Islam?

On the northeast corner of the inside octagonal rim of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the oldest extant Islamic building in the world is written this curious inscription from the Qur’an:

الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَىٰ مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِنْهُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ ۖ وَلَا تَقُولُوا ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ انْتَهُوا خَيْرًا لَكُمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا اللَّهُ إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ ۖ سُبْحَانَهُ أَنْ يَكُونَ لَهُ وَلَدٌ

The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only a messenger of Allah and His word which He communicated to Mary and a mercy from Him.  So believe in Allah and His messengers.  And say not, Three.  Desist, it is better for you.  Allah is only one God.  Far be it from His glory to have a son (Qur’an 4: 171).

So then, they ancient charge of the Sanhedrin is leveled at the Church: Jesus is not God, there is no Incarnation; God is one so do not proclaim the Trinity to the world.  This charged migrated out from Jewish circles already by the close of the Apostolic Age.  The Gnostics and various others by the close of the first century were already echoing this line of thinking.  They would mostly say that our Lord was pure spirit, that his body was more or less and optical illusion, and of course that he did not form this link between God and man who can only be understood through the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  Later, when the first flush of Gnosticism had run its course the world saw the dawn of Arianism.  Arius, in the early fourth century just following the Edict of Milan, proclaimed our Lord to be a kind of demi-god, and that there was an incarnation of sorts, but not really the Incarnation.  Basically he proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the most powerful created being in the universe, that He was almost God, but that He was not God, that He was created in time.  This doctrine would go on to be adopted by a great swathe of the political elite (including many bishops) in the Empire and later by a number of the barbarian tribes who were coming into what had been the Western Empire and cause a whole host of problems for the Church and for the Roman world.  Many today are confused when they hear or read of the Arian controversy; in our functionally Godless age men scoff at the idea of arguing over the nature of Jesus Christ.  But the problem then is the same is the problem now, though I must say that in that age the Church attacked the issue much more forcefully that it is doing today: if we deny the linking of the divine and human nature in Jesus Christ then we cannot live out the Gospel as it has been revealed to us.  How is a believer supposed to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5: 48)” if we have no link to the Father in Jesus Christ?  This has been the dagger that all heresy, coming in a multitude of guises over the ages, has aimed at the heart of the Church since the beginning.

The Dome of the Rock (taken by me August 3, 2011)

The Dome of the Rock (taken by me August 3, 2011)

Taken inside the Dome of the Rock August 3, 2011

Taken inside the Dome of the Rock August 3, 2011

So then this anti-Trinitarian line from the Qur’an is inscribed upon the oldest still standing Islamic building in the world, a monument whose construction was begun a bare six decades after Muhammad’s death.  This curious anti-Trinitarianism in what was supposedly a newly revealed text was a feature that Islam wanted to parade before the world from its earliest ages.  It features prominently throughout the Qur’an in fact.  And the Qur’an is the direct revelation from Allah to Muhammad through an angel who called himself Gabriel, or so the Muslims say.  But these anti-Trinitarian ideas were not new in the seventh century.  They were in fact quite old by that time, and they sprang not from divine but very human sources going back to the Gnostics of the late first century and even earlier to the Jewish opponents of the nascent Catholic Church, half a millennium before Muhammad was even born.

We have lost many of the writings of the anti-Trinitarian heretics who thrived in the late Roman Empire as they were anathematized by the Church and ultimately destroyed after these heresies were extinguished so there is not too much left to make a comparison with.  There are no records left of Arian liturgies, for example, though they were sung out for three centuries between the Council of Nicaea and the Merovingian rule of Gaul.  There is however a very curious echo between the very early heretical Infancy ‘Gospel’ of Thomas that is dated to the second century AD and a claim made in the Qur’an.  First from the heretical infancy narrative ( ):

 1 This little child Jesus when he was five years old was playing at the ford of a brook: and he gathered together the waters that flowed there into pools, and made them straightway clean, and commanded them by his word alone. 2 And having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things (or made them). And there were also many other little children playing with him.

3 And a certain Jew when he saw what Jesus did, playing upon the Sabbath day, departed straightway and told his father Joseph: Lo, thy child is at the brook, and he hath taken clay and fashioned twelve little birds, and hath polluted the Sabbath day. 4 And Joseph came to the place and saw: and cried out to him, saying: Wherefore doest thou these things on the Sabbath, which it is not lawful to do? But Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows and said to them: Go! and the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping. 5 And when the Jews saw it they were amazed, and departed and told their chief men that which they had seen Jesus do.

Now from the Qur’an:

إِذْ قَالَ اللَّهُ يَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ اذْكُرْ نِعْمَتِي عَلَيْكَ وَعَلَىٰ وَالِدَتِكَ إِذْ أَيَّدْتُكَ بِرُوحِ الْقُدُسِ تُكَلِّمُ النَّاسَ فِي الْمَهْدِ وَكَهْلًا ۖ وَإِذْ عَلَّمْتُكَ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَالتَّوْرَاةَ وَالْإِنْجِيلَ ۖ وَإِذْ تَخْلُقُ مِنَ الطِّينِ كَهَيْئَةِ الطَّيْرِ بِإِذْنِي فَتَنْفُخُ فِيهَا فَتَكُونُ طَيْرًا بِإِذْنِي ۖ وَتُبْرِئُ الْأَكْمَهَ وَالْأَبْرَصَ بِإِذْنِي ۖ وَإِذْ تُخْرِجُ الْمَوْتَىٰ بِإِذْنِي ۖ وَإِذْ كَفَفْتُ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ عَنْكَ إِذْ جِئْتَهُمْ بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ فَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْهُمْ إِنْ هَٰذَا إِلَّا سِحْرٌ مُبِينٌ

When Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, remember my favour to thee and to thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit; thou spokest to people in the cradle and in old age, and when I taught thee the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel, and when thou didst determine out of clay a thing like the form of a bird by My permission, then thou didst breathe into it and it became a bird by My permission; and thou didst heal the blind and the leprous by My permission; and when thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and when I withheld the Children of Israel from thee when thou camest to them with clear arguments – but those of them who disbelieved said: This is nothing but clear enchantment (Qur’an 5: 110).

A fascinating verse from the Qur’an on so many levels! First there is the odd mention of the Holy Spirit (روح القدس), odd for an anti-Trinitarian belief system such as Islam, and not unique to this verse alone.  Perhaps the angel who called himself Gabriel just could not help himself for whatever reason, but I will leave that be.  Our Lord’s miracles are placed firmly in the camp of those of the Oriental wonder-worker who has existed since time immemorial.  The Church has always taught that these miracles were an outward sign of who Jesus Christ is but in Islam Jesus Christ is reduced, as he would certainly have been in Arianism if it had ever gained a permanent foothold, to a mere messenger of God.  Another in the long line of prophets, a man who is to be revered but certainly neither Savior nor Redeemer.  Not the one who was sent by God to save mankind from its distress, and certainly not anyone who would create the link between God and man and fulfill mankind’s destiny; we who were created in the “image and likeness (Gn. 1: 26)” of God.  I have to mention here as well the sly little bit inserted by the angel who called himself Gabriel into this verse about our Lord speaking to people in his “old age”.  Jesus  Christ was crucified, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven during a 53 day period when he was 33 years old, not regarded as ‘old age’ even during the seventh century.  Just another of the Qur’an denials of the founding fact of the Catholic Church: that Jesus Christ really did suffer, die, get buried, rise from the dead, and ascend to the Father to make intercession for the Church until He returns as Judge of that world at the end of time.  In another section of the Qur’an (4:157) a rather vaguely worded assertion was made that Jesus was not crucified at all, that another went in his place; this is a claim that also has roots that predate the Qur’an by centuries and is in fact found in many of the Gnostic ‘gospels’ that were recovered  at Nag Hammadi in 1945.  But I am getting far afield of what I wanted to talk about: the birds.  Let’s get back to the birds.

 All of the other parts of this verse, save the bit about our Lord’s old age, could have been gleaned from the canonical Gospels.  They all record how our Lord healed both the blind and the lepers and how the Spirit was seen (though He had always been there) to have come down upon Him at his Baptism and how his Mother had conceived Him by the Holy Spirit.  But not the birds.  The ‘miracle’ of the birds reduce our Lord to a wonder-worker.  One could I suppose make the argument that our Lord came to give Life to the world and this is true, but our Lord came to breathe Life into men, not birds.  In Genesis man is the only creature into whom God breathes his Life.  The ‘miracle’ of the birds does not fit into that pattern our Lord established in the canonical Gospels.  The evidence shows that it comes from heretical Christian sources that predate the Qur’an by possibly half a millennium and was probably concocted to reduce our Lord to a nothing more than a wonder-worker.  Or who knows?  Maybe the angel who called himself Gabriel spoke this tale to others long before he spoke it to Muhammad?

From this long post I think that we can all agree that there is a mountain of evidence that many features of and ideas expressed in the Qur’an predate the life of Muhammad by a very long time.  Was St. John of Damascus correct in supposing that Muhammad had an Arian monk for a teacher?  We will probably never know.  He probably didn’t need one though that story about Muhammad’s childhood encounter with a monk outside of Damascus that was recounted in the last post does raise an eyebrow.  In any case. the Damascene saint did recognize heretical Christianity when he saw it and he placed Islam firmly in that camp.

So after all that let us just say:

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto!  Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

And pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

What is Islam Part 2: where did Islam come from?

Where did Islam come from?  According to the Muslim worldview Islam is the natural religion of all holy men on earth.  According to this line of thinking every holy man from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to the Israelite prophets to Jesus (in their eyes he is merely a man and there will be much more on this later) were in all fact Muslims.  All these were messengers from Allah to the world to prepare the way for the final revelation to the last messenger Muhammad.  So then it is with the sudden appearance in history of this Muhammad that we see the beginnings of Islam as the world has come to know it, Muslim myths aside.

Muhammad was born in the caravan outpost of Mecca in the Hejaz, about 70 miles inland from the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula in the year 570 AD.  To put the time frame in perspective this is about a century after Odoacer deposed the last of the Western Roman Emperors, the boy Caesar Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD.  This date has traditionally marked the end of the Roman Empire (in the West at least), though it was not the end of the Roman world.  One hundred years later when Muhammad was born the Roman world and the unity of the Mediterranean basin still very much existed.  The squabbling barbarian kingdoms of the West had sought neither to depose the Roman way of life nor the Church but to claim it as their inheritance, and they continued to pay homage to the very much still alive empire in the East and its monarch in Constantinople whose realm included Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa as master (in theory at least) of the world.  Where this world was not united however was in the Church sad to say.  By the year of Muhammad’s birth the Church had been riven by heresy, schism, and discord over the nature of Christ for a quarter of a millennium.  The lands on the northern edges of the Arabian Peninsula had by that time been buzzing with these Christological ‘controversies’ (as we have come to call them) and with a full host of rival heretical theologies for a period of time that was longer than the history of the United States as a country at the time of writing.  This then was the world that Muhammad was born into and it could not have failed to have an impact on his life.

Muhammad was orphaned at an early age; his father died either before his birth or during his infancy and his mother at the tender age of six.  He would end up being raised first by his grandfather Abdul-Mutallib and, after his death, by his uncle Abu Talib.  As a result of this Muhammad seems to have exhibited a great devotion to the care of widows and orphans throughout his life.  His grandfather and his uncle were successful members of a growing merchant class in the Mecca of the day and their trade missions took them far afield and into the Christian world.  Islamic tradition records that the twelve year old Muhammad accompanied Abu Talib on a journey to Damascus where they lodged at the renowned monastery of Busra.  A Syrian monk is said to have recognized the young Muhammad as a great figure sent by Allah and begged his uncle not to take him into Damascus for fear of harm coming to the child at the hands of the city’s Jews.  Abu Talib immediately sold all of his trade goods for a lesser price and went back to Arabia.  There are echoes in this account both of Saul of Tarsus and his Damascus road experiences and of the priest Simeon’s recognition of our Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent flight of the Holy Family to Egypt more than half a millennium before.  Whatever one makes of this tale it does show an early familiarity with the Catholic world by this man whose followers were, in the not too distant future, to launch such an assault on that world.

Muhammad then grew in wealth and respect and experienced great success in the field of international trade that culminated in his marriage to a wealthy widow fifteen years his senior named Khadija.  Muhammad is recorded to have spent much time during the next several years meditating in the mountains and caves outside of Mecca.  Then one night in his fortieth year he entered the cave of Hijra outside Mecca and heard the voice of an angel who called himself Gabriel and gave him this command:

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ

Read in the name of thy Lord Who creates – creates man from a clot, read and thy Lord is most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not. (Qur’an, 96:1-5)

Though it lies near the end of the book this is generally agreed by Muslim scholars to have been the first of the utterances of the angel that Muhammad recorded in the Qur’an.  These utterances all compiled together into this one work would go on to change the face of the earth.  They would build the foundation of the only serious rival that the Catholic Church has ever had in this world.  So it is to the Qur’an that we will turn in the next section.  For there is much to read concerning our Lord and his Mother (oddly enough) in this strange text.  And it is from these accounts that I think we can begin to draw some conclusions about what Islam really is and from where it comes.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

What is Islam? Part 1

Islam has strode across the earth like a force of nature for the last fourteen centuries.  It stormed out of one of the most barren places on earth, the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, during the seventh century and took what had been one of the richest and most civilized areas of the planet (Syria, Mesopotamia, and North Africa) from what remained of the Roman Empire and cut the Mediterranean Sea, the great highway of the classical world since the days of Homer and the first Greek colonies some 1,300 years before, in two; cutting the northern and western shores from the eastern and southern shores in a stark division that would last to the age of Napoleon and culturally and religiously continues into our own day.  The armies of Islam also turned east and removed the Sassanian Persian Empire which had stood for four centuries and was the successor state of the more ancient realm established by Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes.  Over the succeeding centuries the advance of Islam caused the vast majority of Christians from the Tigris to the Straits of Gibraltar on the southern shore of the Mediterranean to apostasize  while it completely swamped the old Zoroastrian religion of Iran and drove its remaining adherents underground far from their ancient homeland.  In short Islam utterly changed the face of the world, and in a very short period of time from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the eighth century.  But what is Islam?

Islam has, at its root and core, several commonalities with the Catholic understanding of the universe and it is important to understand these things in order to understand where Islam came from, why it has been so successful, and what its destiny may be.  There are of course stark divisions as well that have led to the permanent divide between the Catholic and the Islamic worldview down through the centuries.  But I must say that the commonalities are intriguing though, in this age of political correctness, they are often either exaggerated or completely ignored.  So let us start with Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with non Christian religions and examine its short section on Islam:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

The first thing I would like to tackle is the short second paragraph.  The attitude of ‘forgetfulness’ toward the history of conflict between the Church and Islam seems vastly out of place in our own day and time, especially in the era that has followed the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. by Islamic terrorists on September 11, 2001.  But we must remember that this document was composed in the early 1960s: fifteen years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran that started the current incarnation of Islamic militancy which is at the moment ripping the Middle East to shreds and having follow on effects throughout the globe.  That age was an age of (misplaced) optimism regarding the human condition.  Islam was viewed as a spent political force not only in the West, but in large swathes of the Middle East as well since everything seemed to be subsumed into the then current global Cold War conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.  There was optimism among the hierarchy of the Church that the world seemed to be changing at such a rapid pace that this age old religio-political conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds that had animated the life of Europe and the Middle East from the seventh to the nineteenth century might simply disappear.  Subsequent history shows this belief to have been mistaken.

Now to return to the first paragraph.  It’s declarations are obviously true.  I would only add to it that the belief in the immortality of the human soul is also common between the Faith of the Catholic Church and the Islam.  So what is the source of these commonalities?  Islam emerged in a Catholic milieu.  The Catholic Church was the dominant force in the Middle East, North Africa and southern and western Europe at the dawn of the seventh century.  It is hard for us who live in the twenty first century to conceive of a Catholic Middle East, but in those days it was taken for granted.  And it was also true that by the beginning of the seventh century the Church had spread out of the Roman Empire and far beyond the Mediterranean basin.  The only outside worldly opposition came from the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian Persian Empire but even there were a sizable Christian presence existed, heretical and schismatic though it was, and these Christians were sending missionaries along the Silk Road as far east as China.  The world seemed to be opening itself up to the Catholic Church, but there were dark clouds as well.

The Church was plagued by division, schism, and heresy.  They had in fact dogged it since the Apostolic age but exploded into a theological ferment once Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.  They all revolved around the nature of the person of Jesus Christ.  These seem like obscure controversies today, and are often portrayed by militant atheistic historians who have dominated the field since the so called ‘Enlightenment’ as three centuries of arguing over nothing, a joke.  But they were not a joke.  They were deadly serious.  If one is in error concerning the nature of Jesus Christ then one is in error concerning the nature of God, the nature of his relationship with Himself and with the universe that He created, the nature and destiny of man and of his relationship with God.

These controversies and errors were rife in the Eastern Roman Empire and had spread out beyond its borders.  They had defined cultural and religious life in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia for three centuries by the time that Islam came into being and would have been well known along the caravan trails of Arabia down as far as the oasis towns of Yathrib (Medina) and Mecca.  This was the milieu that Islam came out of.  And it explains partly where these commonalities that Nostra Aetate speaks of have their origin.  In the next part I will take a closer look at this Catholic milieu from which Islam emerged and at its founder Muhammad.

Pray the Rosary, pray the Joyful Mysteries on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.