Islam and Other Religions



A highly recommended book about world religions with a good section on Islam is The World’s Religions by Huston Smith (HarperCollins).

Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion (about 3% a year). Globally speaking, there are about a billion (thousand million) Muslims in the world at present: as many as there are Catholics - although the number of Christians is nearly twice that number. Of course, the Muslim world is not as monolithic as Catholicism, since it has no ‘pope’, and is divided between several very different branches (e.g., Shiite and Sunni).

Europe’s population is predicted to decline from 727 million in 2000 to 556 million by 2050. But this decline will almost certainly be offset by a rise in the Muslim population of Europe through immigration and reproduction, adding up to maybe 3 million per year. In the UK, there were more than 620,000 Muslims in 2000, and the number of practising Muslims is expected to outnumber all churchgoing Christians by 2039, if present trends continue. None of this means we should be afraid of Muslims, but it does mean we should try to understand them and build a society which includes them.

Islam is in many ways the most vigorous and determined opponent of the modern ‘liberal’ consensus represented by the United Nations and the World Council of Churches. When the Vatican wanted to find allies in the UN against the imposition of birth control policies involving abortion and contraceptive rights, it looked to Islam. There is a large area of overlap between Islamic moral teaching and that of Catholicism. But in other areas, Catholicism is more accepting of modernity than Islam: the language of human rights and democracy comes more naturally to Christians than it does to Muslims, for good historical reasons. Islam seems to offer a real alternative to Western culture, with more resistance to ‘Americanization’ than any other major religious group. The Muslim community has such clarity about its own distinct identity that it tends to thrive where Western churches are drowning in a sea of indifference.

It must be remembered that Islam has a tradition of tolerance and respect for other ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism, Christianity and Islam - that goes back to the Prophet Muhammad. And during the Middle Ages it is clear that the three religions did learn a great deal from each other when they weren’t actually fighting over possession of the Holy Land. During the period after the Fall of Rome, from AD 500 to 1000, much of the legacy of Greek civilization was taken over by the Muslims in their first great wave of expansion. Muslim thinkers then developed aspects of this civilization much further, and by the 1100s had passed on to the West new ideas in mathematics, philosophy and science that laid many of the foundations for our own Renaissance.

Islam was born in Arabia in the seventh century. The Arabs trace their ancestry back to Ishmael, the exiled son of Abraham, whose other son, Isaac, was the ancestor of the Jews. Through Abraham, they trace their line back to Shem, the son of Noah, and are therefore known as ‘Semites’.

At the heart of Islam is a book written by Muhammad over a period of 23 years before his death in the year 632. It is not a translatable book. The language is Arabic: a translation of the Quran is not the Quran. As a result, instead of adapting itself and ‘translating’ itself into different cultures, Islam tended to spread its influence more by imprinting its own culture, its own language and patterns of thought, on those countries which came under its control. There is, of course, a tradition of commentary and interpretation, for example by the Sufi mystics, who saw beneath the surface of the text many layers of meaning and were prepared to regard certain passages as allegorical rather than literal. But by and large there is this difference, that the Revelation in Islam is primarily a book, whereas in Christianity the Revelation is primarily the Person of Christ, the Bible being simply a set of testimonies witnessing to and pointing to that Person.

It is very important to absorb this point, because a lot of misunderstandings between the religions are due to the fact that people compare Jesus and Muhammad. The equivalent of Jesus for Muslims is not Muhammad, but the Quran. The text of the Quran was supposed to have been dictated by the Angel Gabriel, learnt by heart and recited by Muhammad’s early followers, and finally committed to paper much later. But it remains in its essence a Word of God that became ‘incarnate’ in the form of human words in the soul of Muhammad, the ‘Seal of the Prophets’: so Muhammad is in fact, for the Muslims, much more like the Virgin Mary than like Jesus. He ‘gave birth’ to the Quran.

The idea that God could have a Son, rather than a Book, and thus could live on earth as well as in heaven, is regarded by Islam as simply blasphemous. For Islam God is One, and this is incompatible with his also being Three. Even more than Judaism, Islam insists on the utter transcendence of God, his utter majesty, separate from the world of creation and unknowable by the world.

In his book The Invisible Father (T&T Clark), the Catholic theologian Louis Bouyer argues that Islam is implicitly a prophetic protest against the tendency in Christianity to neglect the oneness of God, and against the tendency in Judaism to restrict the worship of the One God to a particular tribe or people. Christians at the time of Muhammad were not as clear as they should have been about the meaning of the Trinity: to Muhammad, it looked as though they were talking about three Gods. Nevertheless, Muslims venerate Jesus as a Prophet who will return at the end of time, and they even venerate Mary as his Virgin Mother. When Muhammad captured Mecca in 630, and his followers were destroying the idols in the Ka’ba, it is notable that he protected an icon of the Madonna and Child with his own hands.


Further Reading on the Web

On the web there are several excellent resources: is one of the best. Others include and



ISLAM means peace, surrender, total commitment (or ‘the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God’). MUSLIM means one who surrenders (i.e. to Allah, God)

Muhammad (AD 570-632) is called the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (=the last or final Prophet)

* He was a trader, married (several times).

* In 610 he started having visions of an Angel (Gabriel?) in a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca. These were the beginning of the Qur’an (the ‘Recitation’). (The Qur’an contains 114 surahs, dictated at different times.)

* Muslims also venerate the Hadith (‘sayings’ and anecdotes of the Prophet).

and the Sunnah (the practices of the Prophet).

* Muhammad rejected idolatry, polytheism (tribal gods).

* Emphasis on unity and transcendence of God, Day of Judgment.

* Protection of women, toleration of ‘people of the book’ (Jews, Christians).

* Holy War (jihad) - but ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’.

* The HEJRA or Emigration AD 630 (the start of the Muslim calendar)

* In 622 Muhammad and his followers (incl. Abu Bakr) left Mecca for Medina.

* In 630 Muhammad returned as conquerer, spared his enemies and rededicated the Ka’ba (reputedly built by Abraham) to Allah, thus creating a focal point for Muslim worship.

The Succession

*After his death in 632, Abu Bakr, then Umar, then Uthman became Caliph.

* Followers of the elected Caliphs are called Sunnis, now constitute 87% of Muslims (e.g. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Far East).

*The Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, passed over in three elections, was finally elected but soon assassinated.

* Followers of the Imams descended from Ali and Fatimah are the Shi’ah. They believe in the divine guidance of the Prophet’s family and now constitute 13% of all Muslims, (e.g. Iraq, Iran).



Creed: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet

Prayer (five times a day towards Mecca)

Charity (a tithe of 2.5% of capital for the poor)

Fasting in the month of Ramadan

Pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca



Islam tries to unite faith and politics, religion and society:

*Distribution to the poor, division of inheritance, usury laws, protection of women,

* encouragement of monogamy (restriction to 4 wives), racial equality, Holy War


SUFISM or Mystical Islam

Tariqah, the Inner Way, vs Shariah, the Outer or Exoteric Way. Rumi: ‘whirling’ dervishes.

(See, e.g.,


Interfaith Dialogue

Which of the following do you believe?


  1. ALL RELIGIONS ARE FALSE, so we have make our own way in life
  2. ONE RELIGION IS TRUE, the rest are completely fals
  3. ONE RELIGION IS THE TRUEST, the others are merely approximations to it
  4. ALL RELIGIONS ARE TRUE, but only where they agree with each other
  5. ALL RELIGIONS ARE TRUE, because they all really mean the same thing



  1. Dialogue of life, sharing joys and sorrows
  2. Dialogue of action, collaboration
  3. Dialogue of theological exchange
  4. Dialogue of religious experience



Ignorance of one’s own faith

Ignorance of other faiths

Cultural/linguistic differences

Misunderstanding of key terms

Socio-political factors

Lack of openness, defensiveness, aggression

A polemical spirit, argumentativeness

Belief that dialogue means weakness

Suspicion about the other’s motives

Intolerance, lack of respect for the other

Relativism, lack of respect for truth

Materialism, indifference to religion


The Biblical witness

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:18-20).

‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).

‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim. 2:5-6).

‘And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph. 1:22-3).

‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’ (see CCC 846-8).


Salvation outside the Church?

Salvation outside the Church? The above statements may be interpreted in different ways. Father Feeney was excommunicated by Pope Pius IX for teaching that non-Catholics will not be saved. The Second Vatican Council confirmed ‘Pio Nono’s’ interpretation, which appealed to the concept of ‘invincible ignorance’. ‘Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church… may achieve eternal salvation’ (Lumen Gentium, 16). ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflects a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’ (Nostra Aetate, n.2). This does not mean that a person may be ‘saved’ by ignorance of the truth, nor even that a person may be saved by a Mediator other than Christ. Someone who is saved, is saved by Christ, and with the help of the grace that Christ has brought into the world. Ignorance, if it is non-culpable, is, however, not necessarily an obstacle to the working of that grace in our lives. Furthermore, God may work with the elements of truth, beauty and goodness that are present in another religion so as to open the believer’s soul to the grace which comes through Christ. This is made very clear in Redemptoris Missio and other writings by by Pope John Paul II. God alone knows the destination of our heart, as C.S. Lewis shows in The Last Battle, where the misguided but honourable worshipper of Tash finds, after death, that his worship had been all the time directed to Aslan without his realizing it.

‘Every truth – no matter who speaks it – is from the Holy Spirit’

(omne verum a quocumque dicatur a Spiritu Sancto est)

St Thomas Aquinas, citing St Ambrose




Prince Siddhartha Gautama (c. 500-600 BC)

Sakyamuni (Silent Sage of the Sakya Clan)

BUDDHA (the ‘Awakened One’)


The Four Noble Truths

  1. Everything is suffering
  2. Suffering originates in desire
  3. Extinguish desire and you extinguish suffering
  4. Desire can be extinguished by following the Noble Eightfold Path


The Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right seeing, view, belief
  2. (Dukkha – suffering; Anicca – impermanence; Anatta – No-self-nature)

  3. Right resolve, intent, determination
  4. Right word, speech
  5. Right action, conduct.
  6. Right livelihood, living
  7. Right effort, discipline
  8. Right attention, mindfulness
  9. Right rapture, contemplation


The Three Vows

I take refuge in…the Buddha, the Dharma (Doctrine), the Sangha (Community)


The Process

Ignorance Ô (dual) consciousness Ô desire/attachment Ô karma (samsara is individual existence, reincarnation, birth-and-death)

The elimination of ignorance Ô Enlightenment/liberation Ô Nirvana (Nirvana is the extinction of individual existence)



BUDDHISM: A Christian View

Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was.

How many people have provoked this question – not "Who are you? With respect to name, origin or ancestry, but what are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?" Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two: Jesus and Buddha.

When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided an identity for his entire message.

"Are you a God?" they asked. "No." "An angel?" "No." "A saint?" "No." "Then what are you?" Buddha answered, "I am awake."

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 82



There is only one whom we might be inclined to compare with Jesus: Buddha. This man is a great mystery. He lived in an awful, almost superhuman freedom, yet his kindness was powerful as a cosmic force. Perhaps Buddha will be the last religious genius to be explained by Christianity. As yet no one has really uncovered his Christian significance. Perhaps Christ had not only one precursor, John, last of the prophets, but three: John the Baptist for the Chosen People, Socrates from the heart of antiquity, and Buddha, who spoke the ultimate word in Eastern religious cognition. Buddha is free; but his freedom is not that of Christ. Possibly Buddha’s freedom is only the ultimate and supremely liberating knowledge of the vanity of this fallen world....

So far, no Christian has succeeded in comprehending and evaluating Buddha’s conception of Nirvana, that ultimate awakening, cessation of illusion and being. To do this one must have become entirely free in the love of God’s Son, yet remain linked by a profound reverence to the great and mysterious man who lived six centuries before the Lord. One thing is certain: Jesus’ attitude towards the world is basically different from that of Buddha: Christ is the Establisher of absolute beginning.

Romano Guardini, The Lord, pp. 305-6



For the relevant part of the Vatican website on inter-religious dialogue: