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Paradoxes of Christianity and Islam

Zakaria in the Holy Qu'ran, Flickr image by zskdanParadoxes torment the ruthlessly logical. But they lie at the heart of religious faith, indeed perhaps of any insight into reality. They appear to be absurd, yet they point to a truth that cannot be expressed straightforwardly.

The scriptures of both Islam and Christianity are full of paradoxes. Some readers of paradoxes simply emphasise only one part of the paradox and neglect the other. Critics of Islam and of Christianity feast on one-sided interpretation of this sort. Other readers smooth over the apparent contradictions or are so dulled by familiarity that they do not even notice them.

But the best way to interpret paradoxes is to allow both sides to fascinate and challenge us. They can then lead us to new ways of thinking and feeling, and to a new appreciation of the greatness and the mystery of God.

I would like here to point to five paradoxes that are shared by Christian and Muslim scripture. The first is that Christians and Muslims regard themselves as both the servants and the friends of God.

The Christian scriptures say that Christ came to serve and not to be served, that his followers are to consider themselves merely as servants and that they are to be servants of one another. But Christ also had a very loving and intimate relationship with God, whom he addressed as 'Abba (Father)!'. By telling them that they were no longer his servants but his friends, Christ wanted his disciples to share in this loving relationship with God.

Similarly, the Qur'an calls believers the servants of God who surrender to God in obedient submission since God is almighty and has full knowledge of the secrets of the heart. But it also says God relates with people in a compassionate way: 'God is most compassionate and most merciful towards people.' The believing servant is invited to enter into a relationship with God through which the Almighty is closer to them than their jugular vein.

The second paradox is that Christians and Muslims regard their own faith as the true way yet also affirm the truth of other paths.

It is clear that, for Christians, Christ is the Way to God. Yet Jesus is also presented as saying, 'many will come from the east and the west to take their places with Abraham'. The Catholic Church acknowledges that those outside the community of the Church can attain salvation, thereby recognising the value of other paths to God.

Similarly, the Qur'an says that God has chosen Islam as the true religion: 'Today I have perfected your religion for you, completed my blessing upon you, and chosen as your religion Islam.' But the Qur'an also acknowledges the faith of those outside the community of Muslims: 'The (Muslim) believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians — all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good — will have their rewards with the Lord.'

The third paradox is that Christians and Muslims must announce the truth of their own faith but are also committed to dialogue.

The New Testament represents Christ as sending his disciples out to teach and to baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But at the birth of Christ, the angels made a universal announcement of 'peace to men who enjoy God's favor'. The Second Vatican Council encouraged Christians to live together peacefully with Muslims. Other documents support dialogue between faiths.

Similarly, the religious tradition based on the Qur'an and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad encourages Muslims to invite people to embrace Islam. But the Qu'ran also states, 'There is no compulsion in religion'. The Qur'an tells Muslims to find a common word between them and other believers, and states: 'Our God and your God are one and the same.'

The fourth paradox is that Christians and Muslims acknowledge two ways of being a believer: an ordinary way and a more perfect way.

Christ did not come to abolish the law or the prophets but instructs everyone seeking fulfilment to follow the way commonly recognised as obedience to the law. But he also makes it clear that 'it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life'. He told a questioner: 'If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor'.

The message of the Qur'an is also addressed to 'all mankind' and provides the same basic teaching of religion that has been taught by all the Prophets since Abraham: 'Say, "My Lord has guided me to a straight path, an upright religion, the faith of Abraham, a man of pure faith. He was not a polytheist. "'

But the Qur'an also recognises different degrees of closeness to Allah and speaks of 'a steep path' which makes more than ordinary demands on a believer. Sufism, which stems from the earliest period of Islam, has also developed a variety of 'paths' and 'stations' along which a believer may make progress in virtue.

The fifith paradox is that Christians and Muslims strive against evil but also encourage forgiveness and reconciliation.

Christ came not to bring peace but a sword. He publicly criticised the leaders of religion for their hypocrisy, and forcefully drove sellers out of the temple. But Christ also taught his disciples to forgive their enemies, and he himself forgave those who were crucifying him.

The Qur'an too allows believers to 'fight in the way of God' but forbids aggression: 'Fight in God's cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits.' But it suggests pardon and forgiveness as the preferred option: 'In the Torah we prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound: if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds.' Fighting must be balanced with pardon.

Both Christians and Muslims have encountered the presence of paradox in the history of their religious traditions. There is nothing to be gained from denying or avoiding the reality of paradox. On the contrary, paradoxes can be integrated into a believer's life by letting them speak to us of the mystery of God's greatness.

If we learn to be receptive to the presence of paradox in our own faith tradition we may be more understanding of the way paradox appears in the faith tradition of others. We shall avoid focusing on texts from other religious traditions that state only one side of the paradox. Ultimately, too, sustained reflection on the paradoxes to be found within each of our faith traditions may open us to a more profound awareness of the mystery of God.

Herman RoborghHerman Roborgh SJ lived in Pakistan for eight years before going to India where he completed a PhD in Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University. He currently resides in Australia. The above article is an abridged article published in Dialogue Australasia, May 2009. The full text with references is available here.

Topic tags: herman roborgh, paradox, christianity, islam, muslim, qu'ran, bible, gospel, christ



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Existing comments

Thank you Herman, I have been trying to reconcile my Protestant up-bringing with my first meeting with a Moslem , a Hindu and a Buddhist since I first met them when we were
all students at university 60 years ago ( a somewhat slow learner!).

At the time I was studying mathematics, and became intrigued with the paradoxes which lead to changes in that area.

No such luck in your area! But I still try to apply my diminishing mental powers to the problem you have so cogently described.

John McQualter | 25 June 2009  

I have read large sections of the Koran. The following two quotations strike me as being somewhat problematic for Fr Herman's claim that Islam is open to paradox.

Sura 3:85, ‘If anyone desires a religion other than Islam (submission to Allah) never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good).’

Sura 33.36 "It is not fitting for the believing man nor for the believing woman, that whenever Allah and His Messenger have decided any matter, that they should have any other opinion."

I think that a case can be made that Islam demands what it name means in Arabic, i.e. submission. You do not question, you do not challenge. You just accept that Islam is the only true faith. Allah will reject all others who have another faith. You then follow the dictates for every aspect of your life as Allah revealed to Mohammed.

I fear Fr Herman's talk of paradox is an imposition of Western ideas on Islam. Most Muslim theologians of antiquity or influence mainly expound how to follow the laws of Mohammed as revealed in the Koran and the hadith.

Joseph Lanigan | 28 June 2009  

I am principally concerned with the uniqueness of Christian Life. Your "Sharing of paradoxes" seems to me to blur this uniqueness and distinctness. Thus they are not true paradoxes (mysteries) since they appear in disparate discourses. The fact that they are disparate makes ecumenism Christian duty. It cannot be based on the assumption that we are all good fellows together so let us forget our differences. In a sense, of course, we are "Good
fellows together" but this is due entirely to the victory of Christ's Cross. The Cross makes an invitation possible for all of us to be Sons and brothers. The Cross is the ONLY solution to violence. (Don't start me on this!).

I think the root cause of my disquiet is that the word "God" is used equivocally. There is some reductionism going on. Christ is reduced to the status of a prophet, forgetting that all prophesy is directed

Alex Reichel | 02 July 2009  

towards him
and away from him. Christ is not the Way to God, he is God. God IS the Way,
the Truth and the Life. God IS the servant of all and his friends are those
who share his divine life.It was a status given to those who shared his Body
and Blood. God is much closer to us than our jugular vein.
That the Church recognises that salvation can come to those outside the
visible Church does not mean that those other paths have value per se. There
is no salvation apart from Christ and his Church. There is plenty of
goodwill in Muslim life, (and not much at present in Christian life) so it
is highly probable that many of them will achieve salvation. Christ came
expressly to deal with sin, so that Christ is active wherever sin is being
dealt with. Only grace can overcome sin. The victory of the Cross catches up
the entire human enterprise and reconfigures it for eternity.
There is a vestigial trace of God everywhere (since Creation is through him,
with him and in him). The Muslim path is no more "saving" than Judaism,
Mazdaism, Hinduism, Buddhism ,Taoism, etc, etc.,but Christ was fully aware
of this (as I can show) but what was utterly unique was that he saw the only
path to peace and unity was through freely accepting death on the Cross.This
central fact cannot be compared to anything else. What follows that is
common Christian knowledge, Resurrection, Ascension, Descent of the Holy
Spirit and so on, ad infinitum. Here we part company with everything else.
I liked your reference to Sufism. I think this is what should be encouraged
in Muslim life since it has a toehold on the eternal verities. Maritain
suggested that Halaj should be canonised. I'm inclined to agree.

Yours in Jesu,

Alex Reichel | 04 July 2009  

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