In practice Christians and Muslims can work together. But our thinking is worlds apart

Rageh Omaar pictured in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

The third and final part of Rageh Omaar’s documentary on the Life of Muhammad (you can watch it here) struck me as tending towards the hagiographical. This is not altogether surprising – if a believer makes a film about the person he believes to be a prophet, one would expect him to put the prophet’s best foot forward.

All the arguments tended to soften the received picture of Muhammad, and each interpretation was in his favour. The massacre of the Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, that changed sides was “controversial”, we were told. The usual controversial stuff is dealt with, such as the story of his wife Aisha, whom he allegedly married when she was but nine years old. It seems she was not nine years old, or there again she might have been – but at this distance in time it is rather hard to tell, isn’t it?

I personally do not want to get into those arguments, and I sympathise with Muslim attempts to defend themselves from what they rightly see as moral slurs against their prophet. I was a little peeved, however, to hear (26 minutes in) that the stoning of adulterers was a custom borrowed from Christianity. Actually, no: I do not think a single Christian has ever stoned anyone for adultery; and the founder of the Church rescued one such unfortunate woman from stoning.

More seriously, at 39 minutes in, we had Professor Tariq Ramadan getting to the nub of the whole question, which I spoke of in a previous post. Speaking of jihad, he said: “We have to contextualise this.” I could not agree more. The text – the Koran – has to be seen in context, that is, historically. But – forgive me if I am wrong about this – how can you see the uncreated word of God as in any way related to history?

The programme then went on, not for the first time, to contradict itself. It suggested that jihad was something to be seen in the context of seventh century Arabia; then it argued that jihad was in fact, according to the mind of Muhammad and his contemporaries, a completely peaceful activity that had nothing to do with fighting, but was more a moral striving. This gave the impression that the programme wanted to have it both ways. Well, you can’t.

Let me give a further example not touched upon here. The Koran fully approves the use of the death penalty for a number of offences; I am not making a sectarian point – so does the Bible. However, contemporary Christians campaign against the death penalty and support its abolition; in so doing they have no sense whatever that they are trying to abolish something that is willed by God, because we see that the death penalty in the law of Moses is very clearly a thing of its time, whose time has passed. Muslims who are against the death penalty never campaign for its abolition but for a moratorium (see here): the end product is the same, but there is this important ideological difference. They cannot argue that the death penalty is per se unjust, as it is willed by God in the Koran and the Koran, unlike the Bible, is immutable.

From this example you can see that I see no difficulty in Christian and Muslim co-operation in practice; but our presuppositions are worlds apart. A lot of Christian polemics are directed at what Muslims do – this is a mistake, I believe, as most Muslims are leading blameless lives. Rather, I think we should shine a critical light on Muslim thought patterns, because these are profoundly at variance with western and Christian ways of thinking.