I want to start a series on the religions of the world and discuss how we—whether Christian or not—are to understand these other belief systems.
It is only natural that we start with the Kardashians of the world faiths: the Abrahamic Religions. While there are other faiths that may qualify (e.g. Bahá’í), the three major ones we’re concerned with are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And undoubtedly, when you think of those religions, ideas of misogyny, sand and the Middle East, scraggly beards, and long religious weekends may come to mind, but we want to delve deeper into these.
Judaism is the oldest of the three and is primarily concerned with the fate of the Israelites, a people descended from Abraham and the Patriarchs and guided by Moses. Their religion is a religion of law. In fact, Jews seek to follow their laws (of which they have 613) even if they are without reason, because to them, law is the language of love. This focus on their law and history has led them to be one of the most literate cultures in history and has fostered a strong emphasis on education. However, while Judaism is a profoundly academic faith, it also has a strong history of mysticism in the tradition of Kabbalah. At its beginning, Judaism was a fairly united religion but is, today, divided between Orthodox and Reformed Judaism.
Perhaps the most evident characteristic of Judaism is its pride—and not necessarily the bad kind. They recognize themselves as a holy people, set apart from the other peoples of the world, yet placed among them as a light. Part of their distinctiveness can be seen in their ceremonies and dietary laws. Another part of their unique identity is their relationship with their land, the land of Canaan. Though they have never throughout their history wholly owned the land, it is crucial to their self-understanding. Over the years, they developed an expectation for a Messiah to come and restore them to their land (though some see modern Zionism as a replacement to this). In their exile, they have been a profoundly persecuted people—perhaps more than any other people in history. And because of their pain, in these days, they have adopted a 614th commandment—a commandment to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and not lose hope until the day God has restored them.
The next religion, chronologically speaking, is Christianity. I don’t want to spend too much time here since most readers would likely have some intimate connection with the faith.
Christianity claims to be the heir to Judaism, thus tracing its lineage from Abraham to the person of Jesus. It is in the stages of his life—his ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection—that their religion is rooted. This connection to Christ has been maintained over millennia through the use of metaphor and allegory which have been most manifest in the sacraments (chiefly communion and baptism). The primary virtues of Christianity are faith, hope, and love, and the religion has historically been one of compassion for the impoverished. Lastly, it should be mentioned that Christianity is a deeply divided religion, with at least three main branches: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.
Islam is the newest of these three, though it claims to have always been present. Islam, as taught by the Patriarchs and Jesus and others, was continuously rejected until at last Mohammad arrived on the scene. Mohammad, while being human, is greatly exalted within Islam. The religion’s primary focus is God and oneness. For instance, Muslims believe there is one god, and God is God; they believe in one book, one prophet, one religion; they believe that all people come from God and return to God; they believe that all should be part of one umma (community). In regards to God, Muslims are unparalleled in their fixation—continuously praising his majesty, beauty, and power, and meditating on his 99 beautiful names. Their one book, the Qur’an, is thought to be the perfect words of God and, thus, cannot be translated. For this reason, the verses of their holy book are often used to decorate their extravagant mosques. Also central to Muslim living are the Five Pillars—the Shahada (confessing God is one), prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the hajj. Immediately in its history, Islam was connected with the state, and divisions begin to arise.
For many, Islam is defined by the terrorists it produces and its primitive ethics. In addition to debunking the Muslim-terrorist link, a mild defense of the religion against these attacks is deserved. Many are quick to point out the very meaning of the word “Islam” is submission, suggesting the attitude of the entire faith, yet the word is related to the Hebrew shalom, suggesting an obedience that brings peace. Furthermore, regarding jihad, all Muslims are aware that there is a lesser and a greater jihad, the latter being the improvement of the self. The lesser jihad—holy war—when done right, is purely for defense and requires more ethical treatment of enemies than many modern nations. Islam is not, as many Westerners would claim, a wicked faith, but one that bolsters beauty, architecture, science, and philosophy. It is only in recent years and in certain areas that these emphases have been lost.
It is no secret that the Abrahamic faiths have their faults. One of the greatest critiques of all three is their legacy of misogyny. Judaism and Islam, in particular, are strongly patriarchal. And while some have pointed to the exalted place of Mary in Christianity as a defense, Christianity’s history is not significantly better. Women, on account of these religions, have been systematically and subconsciously oppressed, sexually abused, and even mutilated or killed.
And even that is not as harrowing as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity’s general history of violence. From the modern war-crimes of ISIS, to the absurd campaigns of the Crusades, to the outright genocide of the Israelite Conquest, these religions have been connected to many of the bloodiest events in human history—and almost always “in the name of God.”
Yet, in all of history, no three institutions have been as beneficial to humankind. In each milieu into which these faiths were born, they quickly became a model for righteous living and worked to better the lives of all. More than this, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have introduced us to God. As monotheistic religions, they showed us a God who is one, a God who is personal—not anthropomorphic, not petty—a God who is holy, demanding justice, yet a God who is merciful and full of love. That is the contribution of the peoples of the Book.