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Michael Bongardt {*}

Are Muslims Idolaters?

About a Problematic Development
of the Christian Image of Islam


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2008, pp. 29-32
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In the interreligious dialogue today all depends on whether the relapse into old enmities can be avoided, and whether we succeed in getting together again on a higher level. How is it about the theologically justified recognition of Islam from the perspective of Christian faith?


The arguments become aggravated. The words become harder. This generally applies to the discussions about the diversity of religions and cultures. But a focus of the current conflicts is the confrontation of the Christian Churches and the representatives of European culture with Islam and the so-called Muslim World. The "Regensburg Lecture" of Benedict XVI (See HK, November 2006, 551ff.) and the paper "Clarity and Good Neighbourhood" of the Protestant Church in Germany (see HK, March 2007, 113f.) are just two examples, which stand out because of their official church character. In newspaper articles, political statements and discussions in academies it is noticeable how strongly the need for demarcation is growing on both sides. The dispute is spreading in all sections of the population when it is about the building of mosques and clothing regulations, about kindergarten places and the growing violence in schools.

The unfortunate fact that in the German-speaking intellectual discussion only few Muslims speak has above all demographic causes. For still and much stronger than e.g. in France and Britain the large number of Muslims living in Germany is significantly underrepresented in academic and political circles. Hence all those condemnations of Western forms of thought and life, which in mainly Muslim regions are quite usual, are accordingly abruptly noticed in the German-speaking public. In Germany there is a lack of Muslims who are able critically to translate such tones, as many Christians do it in view of the Christian fundamentalism.


It Depends on Winning Consent to the Democratic-liberal Social Order

The military and terrorist violence, but also the economic competition by which the conflicts around the world are heated up contribute their share to poison the atmosphere of all efforts for discussion. Hence it is rather a difficult time for cautious tones and dialogue offers - from the Topkapi Declaration of leading Muslims up to the recent letter of Muslim scholars to Benedict XVI, but also the Pope's prayer invitation to representatives of various denominations and religions, or other Christian conversation offers. They are usually dismissed as exceptional phenomena, if not even as masked attacks on the respective others.

Those who had the staying power to move for decades in the field of ecumenical or even interreligious dialogue are not surprised at this current aggravation. For in such attempts at rapprochement a pendulum swing that shapes every meeting of people becomes particularly apparent: Initial ignorance is - when one gets to know each other, often followed by a surprising joy of unimagined points in common and interesting differences. Human friendships come so into being. But just in this closeness also differences and contrasts emerge of which one previously was unsuspecting. The serene project of a multi-cultural society through this experience has in the same way got into the crisis as the promising beginnings of Christian-Muslim meetings. The otherness of others is just not attractive only. It can also endanger the foundations of living together, even of living side by side. Periods of aggravation are therefore not surprising but nevertheless highly precarious. From the reaction to them it depends whether it comes to a relapse into old enmities - or whether one succeeds in finding together again on a higher, i.e. a more realistic level.

In view of the current centrifugal forces and conflicts it socially all depends on winning if possible everybody's consent to that democratic-liberal social order that up to now has proved to be the basis of living together in a pluralistic society. For the Christian theology it is under discussion how it is theologically possible to recognize and respect Islam as religion. This respect should not be limited to recognizing the individual Muslims in their personal religious freedom and at the same time virtually to leave out of account the fact of their Muslim confession.



The theological success in the solution of this problem is of greater relevance for the society than it might seem at first. For the liberal society is only then based on a solid foundation if its members do not tolerate the social basic consensus as something foreign, but can agree to it out of their own, i.e. also out of their religious traditions. Recently Jürgen Habermas rightly emphatically pointed to that fact.

So what about the theologically justified recognition of Islam from the perspective of the Christian faith? In the debate about it one often encounters the question whether Muslims and Christians believe in the same God. This question is not new. But for some time it sounds differently. In the hopeful beginnings of the Christian-Muslim encounter the question of the sameness of the God adored by Christians and Muslims as a rule served the purpose of enticing the seemingly evident positive response. May the assumption to live - on admittedly different ways - nevertheless before the same God often not have been sufficiently thought-out: it proved to be a useful impulse for common engagement, theological roundtables, and not infrequently even for tentative attempts of joint prayer. But this only insufficiently justified assumption is no longer able to take a weight in times of needs for separation; and - the question changes its function: today it is to sow doubts, if not even provoke its negative answer.


When can we be Sure that People do not Serve the One God but Idols?

The question of God is too important to be handed over to the arbitrariness of its conflicting uses. The same applies to the dispute about God that newly has flared up between the Christian churches and representatives of Islam. So it is necessary to struggle for orientation and clarification. But for this purpose admittedly first a further escalation is advisable. Scholars of comparative religion may of course explore whether Christians and Muslims believe in the same God. But neither Christians nor Muslims can seriously ask in this way. For both certainly assume that there is only one God. But for monotheists there is only one possible alternative: either people believe in the one and only God, or they are idolaters. It may be that those who today aggravate the discussion in churches and columns have then not the courage to go so far to accuse Islam of idolatry. But de facto they raise that accusation when they doubt the Muslims' faith in the "God of the Christians". Have they the right to do so?

In the biblical, especially the prophetic tradition the call to unmask idols and to drive away idolatry has a prominent place. Idolatry is the greatest insult of God imaginable, and for people the surest way into disaster. Though it is easy to say this, it can be difficult to distinguish worship and idolatry from one another. For the Bible shows a diversity of ways in which God reveals himself. So when can you be sure that people do not serve the One God but idols? And can there, conversely, be certainty that prayer and life are directed to God and not to an idol?

For Christians this question to Islam fundamentally and inevitably differs from the question to Judaism. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, the normative reference point of the Christian faith leaves no doubt that the faith of Christians is directed to the God who is witnessed and believed as the God of Israel. Even if a dark anti-Judaism wants to deny Judaism that it after Christ still believes in God in the right way; even if one meant to see that God revealed himself in the Old Testament otherwise than in the New: at the latest since Marcion's exclusion from the Christian community one kept to the unity of the biblical God, and so maintained the biblical faith in the One God.

Corresponding statements about the God who speaks in the Koran and is adored by Muslims cannot be found in the Bible. This is just impossible because the Holy Scripture of Islam was written six hundred years later. What is more, the widely apocalyptic Christology of the New Testament leaves little room for the idea of further revelations of God before the end of time. As is well known that does not prevent the Koran for its part from referring to the Bible. It explicitly takes up the biblical testimony of God and gives the honorary title "Followers of the Book" ["Schriftbesitzer"] to Jews and Christians who lean themselves on this book

Admittedly, already the Koran and all the more the Muslim tradition adopts a very ambivalent attitude towards Jews and Christians: on the one hand they are praised and held in high esteem as recipients of divine revelations. On the other hand they are accused of falsification of the revelation. But even where these accusations are made the Islamic tradition as a rule clearly distinguishes the Followers of the Book from the idolaters - up to the consequences for their social position. In an application of Christian terminology, which in almost every other respect would be inappropriate, to the Islamic assessment of the Jewish and Christian tradition, it might be possible to say: The "Followers of the Book" are in Islam rather regarded as heretics than as pagans. Muslims assume that Judaism, Christianity and Islam owe themselves to revelations of the same God.

But it cannot be concluded now without question that this Muslim conception of Islam is of importance for the Christian assessment of Islam.



Whether it is important for it Christians can only decide on the basis of their own creed. Since the Bible for the reasons mentioned says nothing about it, the criteria for the proper Christian understanding of Islam are to be gained from the content of the revelation, i.e. from the creed of Christianity that has been developed in the history of theology.


Non-Christian Religions as an Expression of Man's Search for God

In the centre of the Christian faith is the confidence that God initiates man's salvation and wants to give it to him. This salvation is nothing else but the - by faith - living communion of people with the loving God. God's will of salvation, which becomes real and effective in Jesus Christ, is owed to his grace alone, but not to man's previous work or his will. It however proves to be the judgment on every human attitude that implicitly or explicitly turns a deaf ear to God's mercy - a judgment however that is aimed at salvation.

It is quite controversial between and within the Christian denominations to what extent the faith that answers the revelation in Christ is an act of human freedom, without which salvation does not become real. It is noteworthy that the same argument about faith can be found in Islam, even already in the Koran. Both traditions are aware of the dialectical form of faith, which is both commitment and gift.

But even if faith cannot come into being without God's grace, Christians saw and see it as their duty to bear testimony to their faith, in order to induce others to accept this faith. Such an effort gets its strength from the conviction that people who do not belong to the church serve idols, or at least do not believe in God in the right way. At the same time, however, already the Acts of the Apostles know another look at the peoples and their religions, which sees God and His Spirit at work in them. From the knowledge of the many reasons that can prevent people's coming to the faith in Christ and from the confidence in God's saving power a hope grew in the church that went beyond all expectations of missionary success: The hope that God knows and paves roads on which people also outside the church recognize his love and can find salvation.

The Second Vatican Council has taken up several approaches of that hope and expounded them in a remarkable way: It has no longer hope only for individuals, without taking notice of or even appreciating their religious creeds. It rather regards the non-Christian religions as expression of man's search for God, in which many a thing, even a lot of things can be found "that are true and holy" (Nostra Aetate 2). Religions could not have this quality, if it was not given to them by God.



Please note, the Declaration of the Council talks here not only of a vague possibility that other religions could be important for the salvation of people. It states this as reality that is believed. Taking this as our starting-point we remind with Hans Urs von Balthasar of the fact that Christians are obliged by their faith in God's absolute love "to hope for everybody." This hope is even still to be maintained where Christians can in view of the strangeness of other religions no longer recognize how it may come true. This hope has its reason alone in the faith in Christ, in the belief that in his life, his death and resurrection God has opened salvation for all people. The stronger that hope is, the more attentive it will be looking for signs that it can come true.

Many such signs can be found in the Christian view of Islam, even if you cannot and do not want to overlook the undeniable differences to Christianity in teaching and way of life. Like Christians, Muslims believe in the One God. They gratefully acknowledge him as Creator of the world, who leads history to its goal. They hope that He will - through the Last Judgment - give life to the faithful in the coming world. They rely on the promise that they are able to reach this goal by God's mercy, which is more frequently mentioned in the Koran and in daily prayer than any other attribute of God. They appreciate the biblical testimony of God, which has been adopted by the Koran and appears in a new light.

And Christians should be able to see - despite the Muslim rejection of the Christology of the church - what great dignity is attributed to Jesus by honouring him as a prophet. And finally, in the light of the hope that God wants to save all people also the importance of the fact can be appreciated that Muslims believe in Allah as the God who revealed himself already to Jews and Christians.

All these observations can awake the hope in Christians that the faith of Muslims is directed to the One God and that it owes itself to the One God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and they can strengthen the hope that also Islam opens a way to people to respond appropriately to God's word heard by them - even if word and answer have a different form than in Christianity.

In the current dispute it cannot often enough be called to mind that the Second Vatican Council saw itself entitled explicitly to declare that Christians and Muslims worship the One God (Nostra Aetate 3). In the mode of hope the question whether both believe in the same God, can, yes, must be answered with a firm Yes.

With it the criticism of idols demanded by the Bible does not become invalid: it is necessary in view of all the sacrifices brought by people for things and ideas that cannot save. It is, as Karl Barth did not tire to emphasize, always also to be practised as self-criticism. For there is idolatry even among those who call themselves Christians and among those who see themselves as Muslims. The mutual help and invitation to criticize idolatry is always more sensible than to dispute about the only God's work, both, in the Umma and in the church. For the world of today needs those people who - in the power of the faith in the One God - turn away from the idols and walk more salutary ways. Hence it is in need of Christians and Muslims.


    {*} Michael Bongardt (born in 1959) is since 2000 professor at the Free University of Berlin and since 2006 director of the Institute for Comparative Ethics. The main focus of his research is the area of interreligious and intercultural understanding. As a member of the "Berlin Graduate School 'Muslim cultures and societies'" he deals with the role of religions in pluralistic, democratic societies.


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