Sunday, August 8, 2010

Christianity, Islam and Judaism: the differences

As you all know, there are three monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In many aspects these religions are surprisingly similar. There are however, a surprising number of differences as well.

Christianity, as you all know, is a missionary religion. Christianity is a religion that makes universal claims, and most if not all Christians believe that it is their Christian duty to preach the Christian gospel to each and every human being, and to convince literally everybody of the truth of its preaching. Christianity, however, has only limited interest in the legal details of the believers' daily life. Its focus is directed at intention and mentality. It is not a legalistic religion that prescribes and forbids. It lacks precise laws. There is, e.g., no Christian penal or civil code or a Christian law of inheritance.

Judaism, on the contrary, is not a missionary religion. Judaism makes high demands on the daily life of its adherents, it issues hundreds of commands that its followers have to obey. The rabbis, the religious leaders in Judaism, are specialists on Jewish law, and exactly like jurists do in secular law systems, they prescribe or forbid the members of their congregations a multitude of actions. However, it is indifferent to them whether the rest of humanity obeys their instructions. Their mission is not universal, they do not have to convince the rest of humanity that their legalistic interpretation of monotheism is binding for others, too.

Islam represents the third possibility within monotheism: it is both missionary and legalistic, in that it wants to prescribe in detail how humans should behave. It is unavoidable that this third possibility exists, if it would not exist it should be invented at once. But it makes Islam into something that is different from Judaism or Christianity. There is an Islamic law of inheritance. There are Islamic laws on very nearly everything.

It is difficult to say whether the Christian claims to the universality of its message and the rabbinical insistence on a precise and legalistic approach to human behavior are the strength or the weakness of those respective religious traditions. It is simply a fact of life and history that Christianity preaches to everybody, but there is no Christian detailed code of law that regulates all aspects of human behavior. The synagogue, on the other hand, does not try to convert everybody, but unlike Christianity the synagogue dictates rules that are sharply defined and have to be followed by the elect - but only by them. To some, the problem with Islam is that it does both these things at the same time. Like Christianity, Islam is a missionary religion that wants to bring the Islamic message to the ends of the earth, but at the same time Islam dictates, like Judaism, a set of sharply defined rules that have, in principle, to be obeyed not just by the elect, but by everybody.

Islam, so to say, combines the strong qualities of both Christianity and Judaism. Islam is both missionary and it knows a set of laws, embodied in the Sharia. The combination of these two traits calls for trouble, because it encourages Muslims to condemn the behavior of non-Muslims that happen to live with them within the same society. This condemnation may take several forms, one of them being harsh criticism of the secular societies of Europe or North America, of which Muslim immigrants became a part recently. Whereas Rabbis have little interest in the public or private behavior of their non Jewish surroundings, Muslim activists and Muslim preachers in the mosques certainly have such interests. Without hesitation, and publicly, they condemn their non-Muslim surroundings in the name of God himself.

Since Western societies do have a strong tradition of self-criticism, Western societies underestimate the importance and the possible consequences of Muslim criticism that is directed at their way of life. The theory of Islam is not completely clear on the question whether non-Muslims, too, have to obey the rules of Islamic Law, but considerable numbers of Muslim leaders think so. There is, however, only one possibility to make non-Muslims obey these rules, and that is forcing them to do so. Forcing them to do so may not always be necessary since many non-Muslims are strangely eager to please their Muslim neighbors and adapt their opinions and their behavior to what Islam deems to be good. However, it is obvious that only the power of the State can guarantee the general application of the rules of Islam. Consequently many Muslims feel that the State should indeed be made into an instrument that enforces the application of Islamic Law. It goes without saying that no matter how well meant such aspirations may be, they are at variance with the constitutions of all Western countries. The non-separation of state and religion is moreover a guaranteed recipe for misery and backwardness, as we all can see daily in the Third World.

Muslim criticism, however, is not only aimed at the particularities of the contemporary Western way of life. Also the very idea that non-Muslims in the West make their own laws and live without regard for Muslim law is offensive to large numbers of Muslims. Humans should not make their own laws when the Islamic divine laws are so readily available and, moreover, so widely known. Things become even worse, of course, when Muslims themselves show disregard for Islamic law, start to conduct themselves exactly like their European or American neighbors, and behave as if the laws of Islam did not exist. Then the Islamic apostasy laws may be invoked, which may have lethal consequences.

Day Opening - August 8

The city of Interlaken, Switzerland. By Matthie Labatut.