His Seed Like Stars: The Dialogue Between Christians, Jews and Muslims
Stratford Caldecott


This article appeared in the second issue of Second Spring (Spring 2002). It generated a certain amount of critical response from readers who objected to my seeming to attribute some possibility of "divine inspiration" to the Qur'an and my neglect of the very serious persecution of Christians around the world. I responded to this concern by refining my position somewhat in the Springboard section of Second Spring in the third issue (which I reproduce after the article below) and in subsequent articles, such as "The Mystery of Islam: Further Reflections", which appeared in The Chesterton Review and is available on the Second Spring web site.

During his visit to the University of Oxford, immediately after the Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on 24 January 2002, which was convened by the Pope and attended by representatives of many of the world's religions, Cardinal Francis Arinze gave an address on Interreligious Dialogue at the University's Catholic Chaplaincy, and participated in a symposium on the subject on the following day.

The Cardinal made it quite clear that mutual respect and cooperation between the religions does not imply relativism or indifferentism. By inviting them to pray (or meditate) in close proximity to each other, the Pope is not saying that all religions are equally true, or that it makes no difference what you believe. There are, consequently, issues that need to be addressed in this process of dialogue, and these issues concern the differences between the religions. The following reflections are entirely my own, prompted by the experience of the symposium and ensuing conversations. For a more profound theological analysis of the issues, I would recommend the reader to turn to an article in Communio (Fall 2001) called "The Word of God", by Roch Kereszty, O.Cist. No doubt we ourselves will return to this subject in the future, in Second Spring and on the associated website.

Do Christians worship the same God as Muslims?

Many Christians would be tempted to answer this rather crude question in the negative, on the grounds that "our God is a Trinity", whereas the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly denied by Islam. But if we look at the denial more closely, we find that in surah 4:171-2 the Qur'an alleges that Christians believe that there are three Gods. In reality, of course, Christians uphold the Unity of God as strongly as Muslims do. The threeness of the Trinity is not intended as a numerical threeness, like that of three apples, or three oranges: as the Athanasian creed states, God is "not three eternals but one eternal". So here, although the Qur'an is plainly wrong in what it says about Christianity, Islam is not denying the Trinity – as Christians understand it – at all.

Islam further rejects the idea that God could "beget" a Son (surah 6:95-101), on the grounds that God has no wife; it rejects the idea that he might "adopt" one (surah 19:88-98), on the grounds that all creatures can be nothing but servants of God. But once more Islam's intention in these two instances is positive: to emphasize and safeguard the Unity, Transcendence and Absoluteness of God, against those who would "associate" others with him. Christian theology uses terms like "begets" and "Son" analogously, not literally. And it could well be argued that you need the whole context of Christian theology to make sense of such statements.

One of the most serious points of disagreement between Islam and Christianity is the former's denial that Jesus died on the Cross. Surah 4.157-9 of the Qur'an says that "they did not kill him nor did they crucify him. They were under the illusion that they had." Here the Qur'an seems mainly concerned to refute those enemies of Christ who wrongly claimed to have defeated him. It assumes that a true prophet could never be humiliated as Jesus was. Without adverting to the Resurrection at all, it states vaguely that God "raised him to himself", and gave him victory over his enemies. The best that can be said of this, from a Christian point of view, is that the text at least intends to vindicate Jesus rather than to attack Christianity.

There are also many substantial points of agreement between Islam and Christianity, not the least extraordinary of which is its account of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. When Muhammad's followers were destroying the idols in the Kaaba, it is said that he protected an icon of the Madonna and Child that was found there with his own hands. Surah 4:171 goes so far as to describe Jesus as the "word" of God – though of course without the connotations this description would have in Christian tradition and theology, beginning with the Gospel of John.

It seems to me at least possible that most of the apparent contradictions between Christianity and Islam would become less of an obstacle to dialogue if we concentrated on the positive intention behind them. The God of Islam is indeed the same God as that of Christianity, albeit not here revealing himself as a Trinity, but rather emphasizing his Unity to a people who have been called to worship him under that attribute.

Is the Qur'an inspired?

If we accept for the moment that many doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity might be disarmed in the way suggested, the question for Christians then becomes the precise degree of inspiration involved in the Islamic revelation: Was the Qur'an dictated by the Angel Gabriel (as the Muslims believe), or not? If it does not, after all, flatly contradict the Christian revelation, then it might conceivably have a divine origin. But if the Book is inspired by the same God, why did it not advise Muslims to seek baptism? There are several possible answers, all deserving of consideration. The following list is not intended to be in any way exhaustive.

One might in the first place somewhat facetiously reply that while Christians are enjoined to go out into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel, they are given no guarantee that all men will be capable of welcoming that Gospel, nor any guarantee that God will not himself (for his own reasons) "hinder" that work in history. Our duty is to evangelize: the rest is not our responsibility. But at the same time as evangelizing, we must show immense respect for the dignity and inviolable conscience of every human being, whether or not we believe them to be in error. There is no compulsion in religion (a famous quotation from surah 2:256).

A second line of approach would be to suggest that divine inspiration need not be an all-or-nothing affair: other religions may be inspired by God – who wishes to communicate with humanity in every way possible – without being all on the same level. Only in the Christian revelation does God reveal to us his inner life as Trinity, by sharing in which through the victory of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we enter eternal life. Perhaps human, cultural factors enter more into some religions than others, just as they evidently colour the inspirations of the visionaries, even those endorsed by the Church. (This distinction is not intended to be insulting to Islam, but as a possibility to be considered by Christians who might otherwise be tempted to reject the entire religion and its civilization as the work of the Devil.)

A third possible approach would question our simple, linear view of time. Muhammad was born after Christ, yet he seems to belong to an earlier world, a world no later that that of the Psalms, for example. Perhaps from the point of view of Christianity he belongs to a time before the Incarnation, rather than after it.

The mystery of Islam and the mystery of Judaism

What Christians call "salvation history" is normally described in a way that encompasses only Judaism, as the forerunner of the Christian revelation. But if we bear all these reflections in mind, it may be that the "mystery of Islam" can be linked to the continuing mystery of the Jews. The key to the whole mystery, perhaps, is the fact that Christianity failed to convert the People of God themselves: that the Jew Christ was ultimately opposed, betrayed and handed over to be crucified by those he came to save.

Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah of the Jews, but he was not yet (or at least not yet explicitly) the glorified Messiah that had been foretold. The Jews therefore rejected Jesus as Messiah not out of simple wickedness, but at least partly out of loyalty to the divine revelation that they had earlier received. Precisely because it was divine in origin, this revelation could not be entirely superseded or abrogated until it had been entirely fulfilled. As St Paul clearly indicates in his Letter to the Romans (11:25-36), the Jews remain the Chosen People. God's call, once made, is irrevocable.

The failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah is connected with the "scandal" of the Cross. Not only did this Messiah not restore the earthly Kingdom of his ancestor David, but he was executed like a criminal and died in humiliation. Christianity began by reinterpreting the whole notion of divine glory as it had been understood up to that time. The Cross became a Throne, the thorns a Crown. The rejection of the Messiah was therefore connected with the incomprehensibility of the Cross as an instrument of salvation for the whole world. The same problem exists in Islam, as we saw.

One could even say that Islam, too, represents a Covenant, though of course not the Covenant of Moses. This may help to explain its hostility to the (misunderstood) idea of a trinitarian God. Islam is the religion of Ishmael rather than Isaac. Ishmael was born to Abraham before the visit of the Three Strangers in whom Christianity sees a symbol of the Trinity. Isaac, who is born after this visit, is linked to the revelation of the Trinity in the very concrete sense that Christ is to be born of his line, as a Jew among Jews. Ishmael is rather a prolongation of the earlier dispensation of God, and the people he represents exist outside the Covenant in which God establishes a family relationship with men. Nevertheless God says of him, "I will make of him a great nation". (On all this, see Genesis 16-18, especially 16:7-13 and 17:20.)


If the dispensation of Israel continues (according to St Paul) even after the First Coming of the Messiah, then the appearance of Islam is connected with this. For if Judaism had been entirely absorbed by Christianity, no doubt the Second Coming would have been combined with the First, the Christian Covenant would have enfolded the whole world, and there would have been no need for the monotheism of Abraham to have been renewed by the Prophet in the deserts of Arabia six centuries later. That Judaism was not absorbed means that there must be a divine providence not only in the non-conversion of the Jewish people (as St Paul implies), but also in the appearance of Islam as a kind of prolongation of the pre-Judaic covenant into New Testament times. Christians may yet come to see Islam as a message akin in some ways to that of John the Baptist, sent "in the spirit of Elias" to prepare the way for the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of glory at the end of time. But God knows best.


Dialogue section


From Second Spring 3

My speculative article "His Seed Like Stars" in the second issue provoked a great deal of correspondence from readers. Many were intrigued or even delighted with it; others reacted with horror and alarm to what they perceived as a crypto-heretical sympathy for Islam. I suspect few of these will have read the parallel debate that has been going on in the pages of Communio (Fall 2001 and Spring 2002), but I respectfully suggest they do so. Gavin D'Costa's book The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (see Bookwatch) is also an important point of reference. On our web-site I have posted, along with other relevant material as part of our developing inter-faith dialogue, an article ("Further Reflections") in which I try to clear up a few ambiguities in my piece, and to show that my speculations there concerning the providential role of Islam were intended to be fully consistent with Catholic belief.

The Vatican document Dominus Iesus (2000) certainly insists that Catholics may not regard the Scriptures of other religions as "divinely inspired" in the same sense as the Canon of the Christian Scriptures. I had in mind a much looser sense of "inspired" when I raised the question of the inspiration of the Qur'an. Saints Ambrose and Aquinas tell us that all truth – no matter by whom it is spoken – is "from the Holy Spirit". In that sense there may well be elements of truth in the Qur'an, as well as error (for where Islam flatly contradicts Christianity, obviously both cannot be right). My concern was to suggest that flat contradictions between the two religions may be less common than believers in either often assume.

Dominus Iesus (section 14) invites us to explore the question "whether and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation", thus suggesting that not only Moses but even Muhammad may have a providential role to play in salvation history. While salvation (in the full Christian sense of the word) is uniquely mediated by the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, his act of divine-human self-sacrifice within history gives rise to a "participated mediation" by others, the exact extent of which is a matter for debate. It should be clear that this important suggestion – which is from Dominus Iesus rather than from me, building on the documents of the Second Vatican Council – does not in any way imply that the Revelation of Christ is incomplete, or needs supplementation.

My own thoughts on a possible providential role for Muhammad are far from fully developed, but I described Islam in that article as a kind of post-Christian echo of the Abrahamic Covenant, which by returning us to the thought-world of the desert before the revelation of the Trinity prolonged an epoch that for Christians has long passed away. Several readers found this idea intriguing, although at least one forthrightly objected: "If something has been written in the seventh century, we can't place it in pre-Christian times and thereby give it a justification that it doesn't have. The Qur'an is not only un-Christian in some of its aspects, but anti-Christian and can't be made pre-Christian."

The Pope, in his reflective Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and despite his manifest commitment to dialogue, certainly detects in Islam a movement away from the Christian Revelation: "In Islam all the richness of God's self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside." Indeed, how can a Christian not feel keenly the loss of all that we most value: the living presence of Christ, the great loving mercy of God revealed on the Cross, the sacraments and "luminous mysteries" of the Kingdom – the possibility not only of reconciliation with each other and with God, but of the Vision of God that answers the impossible demand of the human heart?

So what can a Christian make of the Qur'an, which is regarded by a billion Muslims as the actual speech of God in Arabic form? Divine or angelic provenance has been claimed for many other influential texts, from the Book of Mormon to the Course in Miracles, but widespread acceptance is hardly proof of such claims. Nevertheless, the stupendous importance of Islam in history and on the present world-stage is such that it deserves careful study – and if this enquiry is to be conducted in a spirit of fairness, then a certain imaginative sympathy for the religion would seem to be one essential requirement. What makes sympathy difficult to achieve in present circumstances is not only the terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of Islam, but ongoing persecution of Christians by Muslims (documented by Aid to the Church in Need). If these facts make it difficult for Islam to find a hearing among Christians, they certainly do not make it less urgent for us to pursue this dialogue – as the Church is urging us to do.

One significant criticism of my approach appeals to the writers with which the name of Second Spring is associated: particularly Newman, Chesterton and Dawson. Chesterton's views on Islam may be illustrated by the following extract from a 1903 piece called "The Nature of a Religious War" (recently republished in the August 2002 issue of The Chesterton Review). "The Moslems are not without creditable qualities in the least – courage, sobriety, hardiness, hospitality, personal dignity, intense religious belief. These are fine qualities. The thing we will not face is the enormous fact that they have along with all this, not merely from personal sin, but by ingrained, avowed, and convinced philosophy, another quality: a total disregard of human life, whether it is their own or other people's. Therefore our civilization is and must be at war with them, and that war is a religious war, or, if you prefer the term, a philosophical war."

Now were Chesterton's remarks here as unfair as his remarks on other occasions about the Jews? The reader must decide, but he should not be swayed by any false belief that Chesterton was infallible. As for Christopher Dawson, being a professional historian he would never make such sweeping generalizations. One gets no sense of a fundamental hostility to Islam from him, and he was almost certainly more aware than Chesterton of the achievements of Islamic civilization, which in the tenth century quite put Europe in the shade. Nevertheless, it has to be said that he saw these achievements as due less to the new religion per se than to the contribution of assimilated peoples. Furthermore, he believed the Sufis, who were responsible for developing Islam's mysticism of love (probably its closest approach to Christianity), owed much to contact with the Christians of the desert. (This debt was repaid in the eleventh century, when the mystical love poetry of Moorish Spain flowed into the south of France to engender the Christian Romanticism of Proven¨e, and thus the music, poetry and chivalry that we associate with high medieval culture – see Dawson's Medieval Essays.)

The relations and mutual indebtedness of Christian and Islamic civilization are complex, and the origins of Islam no less so. Vladimir Soloviev, in his 1889 book Russia and the Universal Church, pointed out that Islam arose at the moment when the Eastern Emperor Heraclius corrupted large parts of Christendom with the heresy of Monothelitism – the idea that there was no human will in Christ, only the divine will, which Soloviev calls "the disguised denial of human freedom and energy". In Byzantinism, "which was hostile in principle to Christian progress and which aimed at reducing the whole of religion to a fact of past history, a dogmatic formula, and a liturgical ceremonial", he saw an "anti-Christianity concealed beneath the mask of orthodoxy" which was "bound to collapse in moral impotence before the open and sincere anti-Christianity of Islam." Islam, in Soloviev's view, is a synthesis of the Monothelite and Iconoclastic heresies. Byzantium had attempted to close a theological debate with a political compromise, and paid the penalty.

Perhaps. There may be other explanations for the birth of Islam and later the worldly success of the Islamic empires. My own suggestion was in terms of a different kind of weakness in Christianity, due to a failure to convert the Jews, which opened up a period of history in which the old covenants (including the covenant with Ishmael's descendants, the Arabs) retain a kind of legitimacy until the Second Coming. This presumes that the Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah "at least partly out of loyalty to the divine revelation that they had earlier received". Louis Bouyer describes Islam as in part a prophetic protest against the "degradation of popular Christian piety into polytheism and a real, if not theoretical, idolatry" (The Invisible Father).

A personal friendship with Muslims is probably the only way to understand the true spirit of this religion. The spiritual successes of Islam are real enough, for all the ignorance of them among Christians, who cannot be expected to have studied the literature of an alien (and often hostile) religion with much care. We are mostly aware of the spiritual failures – the bigotry, the acts of cruelty and aggression – which to a large extent have blighted Christian history too. I find it hard to believe, however, that, with enormous cultural and spiritual achievements to its credit, Islam can be founded on pure malice. At the very least it has been permitted to flourish by God for a reason.

From a Christian point of view, then, Islam is a challenge. It challenges us to understand our own faith, and to live it and proclaim it in a way that will make the whole world rejoice to become Christian. God is indeed the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Source of Peace, the Majestic, the Creator, the Opener, the All-Seeing, the Forbearing, the Watchful, the Glorious. These names or attributes of God have inspired Muslim mystics and poets for centuries. God is One, and there is no other beside him. Yet as Christians know, and Muslims do not, he is also Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This revealed truth is bound up with the message of salvation. It is tragic that our words, and our lives, all too often fail to communicate this Gospel to others. Without ceasing to be One nature, God is three Persons. These three Names alone reveal what it truly means for Him to be Al-Wadud, the Loving.

Stratford Caldecott