How Christians and Muslims Assess Their Holy Books Differently

How Christians and Muslims Assess Their Holy Books Differently August 26, 2009

Yesterday we reported on Sebastian Faulks retracting remarks criticizing Muhammad and the Koran with an apology which included the following paragraph:

While we Judaeo-Christians can take a lot of verbal rough-and-tumble about our human-written scriptures, I know that to Muslims the Koran is different; it is by definition beyond criticism. And if anything I said or was quoted as saying (not always the same thing) offended any Muslim sensibility, I do apologise – and without reservation.

George argues that Muslims are not necessarily any more oversensitive than Christians:

What I find ironic is that Mr. Faulks honestly believes that Christians have any semblance of a thick skin in response to “verbal rough-and-tumble” over biblical supremacy. This has not been my observations at all. Just because a Muslim Cleric publicly cries out for a “fatwa” does not make it better or worse a reaction than when I go to church and hear the vitriol of the preacher decrying the comments to fire up the congregation, waiting for the more activist members to mail or call death threats in to the offender. Other than the Church and the religion can wash its hands of the “odd wingnut” in the flock, the effect is the same, but more subversive. There are plenty of rational Muslims out there, just as there are Christians. The difference between institutionalized and socialized hatred is subtle.

While there is no disputing that fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims have comparable persecution complexes and over-sensitivities, there is a major difference between Christianity and Islam to which Faulks does correctly allude and it is the major factor which makes me distrust Islam more than Christianity as they are presently constituted.

The difference is that Christianity does have greater tolerance to biblical criticism, scholarship which exposes the history and flaws of the texts which make clear its all too human dimensions.  In the last two centuries, this criticism has powerfully undermined the Bible in the West and helped accelerate the process of secularization as much as any other single factor.  Many a Christian has abandoned a sincere faith through studying the human all too human process by which the allegedly holy books were written and assembled.  And even greater numbers of have moderated their religiosity and loosened their interpretations of the Bible according to hermeneutical frameworks that allow them to read “the word of God” amidst the human contributions such that they can leave the stuff that seems merely cultural or expressive of ancient ignorance or mistakes of text copying, etc.  Of course, to me, the question is why even bother continuing to call it in any way “divinely guided” once you realize its completely human limitations that make it no more indicative of an extra-human source than any other insightful book (assuming the Bible is even genuinely insightful in the main!)

So, within the big tent of Western Christianity many a nominal believer does not believe at all that the Bible should be taken serious in literal terms.  Most scholars and theologians readily admit to the human limitations of the book.  Even some of those I studied with at Grove City College, a hard right wing, conservative Presbyterian, rigidly Calvinist place I think didn’t go so far as to call the Bible infallible in all respects.  Unfortunately, by contrast, at least on the official level there is not such openness in the Muslim faith.  I have little awareness how the average Muslim may think about Koranic correctness but from the top there is no tolerance of admitting any error whatsoever.  In fact they spread the lie that the Koran is so perfect that there have not even been any textual errors from centuries of recopying it.

So, Faulks can speak truly when he says that among Jews and Christians there is an understanding that biblical scholarship introduces a human element which can be criticized without undermining the entire faith (except in the case of the all-or-nothing infalliblist fundamentalists) whereas the bibliolatry in Islam is generally more at the heart of Muslim teaching.  And so, whereas both Christians and Muslims might get equally oversensitive and political about things said about their faiths, he was apologizing for insensitive about what is offensive and not and, essentially, citing a cultural difference.  It was like saying, in my culture it’s not a big deal to do x but I should have remembered that in your culture it is a big deal when one does x.  That’s not to say that my culture is any less prone to offense, just we don’t get offended over x in particular.

Islam is, in general, inherently more recalcitrant to secularization because of the sorts of limits the religion places on rational criticism of the faith or the Koran.  Christianity offered just enough latitude to eventually allow enough knowledge to destroy faith after some hundreds of years.  I worry Islam is more authoritarian at its core and in its practices and more immune to secularization.  But, I should hasten to add that I know quite little about Islam, so I speak most tentatively here and would love illumination from educated Muslims, ex-Muslims, and students of Islam.

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