These basic differences in theology have implications not only for individuals but for society as a whole. Let's look at five in particular.
Christianity by its very nature is about the one and the many, monotheism with a trinity. Muslims think there is a tension in holding firmly to both, and they are right. That tension has pushed Christians to build a society that emphasizes both unity and diversity and in that way reflects the Trinity.
Muslims often find diversity suspicious. For example, they are suspicious of the many different authors who produced the Bible over a period of more than a thousand years. They look amiss at the story of Christ's life and death being given in four separate Gospels: If there are four separate accounts they must all be false. The Quran, seen as having come through one mediator over 23 years, is much more credible.
The emphasis on tawhid-making everything united-has huge cultural implications. Abraham questioned God about the destruction of Sodom, but the word islam means "submission," period. This carries over into a reluctance to accept the legitimacy of critics. Salman Rushdie had to hide to preserve his life, and a host of other critics of Islam have been shot or knifed. Concerning intellectual liberty in Muslim countries, Hisham Kassem of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said, "It's not safe to think in this part of the world."
Although the Quran states that "there is no compulsion in religion," Islamic states often interpret that to mean that "there is no competition in religion" within their borders. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kuwait, and Egypt are among the countries blasted by the State Department's year 2000 Report on International Religious Freedom. In hard-core Muslim countries, any Muslim who violates tawhid by becoming a Christian may forfeit his life, family, or property. In several "moderate" Muslim countries, churches are allowed behind walls within which Bibles and church bulletins must remain.
The emphasis on unicity also has governmental implications. Without a sense of original sin, Lord Acton's idea that (among humans) power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely does not arise. A system of checks and balances seems redundant, and dictators abound. Originally, Islamic countries had no separation between religious and civil law, between Islam and the state, and that is the way radical Muslims want things to be once again. According to this thinking, Islamic societies should not shape laws to fit their specific histories; they are to submit.
Because Islam in many ways trains people not to govern themselves but to be governed by dictates, Muslim countries almost always are run by dictators. Those rulers have had much in common with the rulers of Marxist countries. It's not surprising that Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other countries in the 1960s turned away from the United States even though the United States successfully pressured British, French, and Israeli forces to withdraw from the Suez Canal in 1956. It's not surprising now that terrorists from Marxist remnants and radical Islam work well together.
The father-son relationship that exists between God and redeemed man in Christianity, as opposed to the master-servant relationship of Islam, also has its tensions. Fathers face conflicting impulses: Do you hug a child with a mild injury or do you tell him to be a man? That leads to a creative tension between soft and hard in Christianity, a tension that comes out in the compassionate conservative goal of being tough-minded but tender-hearted, a tension between God's holiness and God's mercy that is resolved through Christ's sacrifice.
That tension does not exist in Islam, with its master-servant relationship. Nor does Islam understand compassion-suffering with the poor-in the way that Christianity does. Jesus tasted hostility from men and knew what it was to be unjustly tortured and abandoned, to endure overwhelming loss, and to then be killed (see my column on p. 66). Muhammad encountered opposition but died in his bed, with wives ministering to him.
In Christianity, the church is the bride of Christ, who gave His life for her; husbands are to love their wives enough to die for them. The husband-wife relationship in Islam also mirrors its theology, which means marriage is in many ways a master-servant relationship. Men can beat their wives, although Muslim apologists say only a light tap is socially correct. Men get four wives and keep the kids if they divorce one; Muslim apologists defend polygamy by pointing to American adultery and trophy wives, but our cultural embarrassments do not justify institutionalized humiliation. Genital mutilation, although not in the Quran, is practiced on one in five Muslim girls.
Different understandings lead to very different laws. Here's one of the best-known: Under Islamic law, according to the Quran and the hadith (sayings of Muhammad), the right hand of a thief is cut off at the wrist. Even if the thief makes restitution and pledges never to steal again, his hand is to be cut off. That's very different from the Bible, which has a thief paying back what he has stolen and asking for forgiveness. (What has to be paid back depends on what he stole, whether he has already disposed of the item, and whether he shows repentance. The amount given in the Bible is 1.2, 2, 4, or 5 times what he stole, but never is he marred for life.)
The Muslim penalty not only seems cruel but somewhat unusual for a creator-god to decree. Hands are such an incredible result of God's creativity. They are marvels of engineering and movement. Why would their creator ordain their destruction for the theft of property, when alternative ways of doing justice abound? God in the Bible ordains as a maximum penalty an eye for an eye and a hand for a hand, but not a hand for a thing. The one-handed person is not only marked for life but unable to work at many jobs. That doesn't speak well for the all-compassionate Allah.
Christianity is the religion of the second chance. With Islam, it's often one strike and you're out. Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery, after he has shamed those who might have condemned her publicly, "Go and sin no more." One hadith tells about a woman pregnant by adultery coming to Muhammad: He has her treated decently until she gives birth, and then has her stoned to death. Islam teaches that Allah loves the righteous, but Christianity teaches that "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
In a religion of grace we do not have to be worried about being zapped at any moment if we freelance unsuccessfully. Muslims, though, try to sleep, eat, drink, and even dress as Muhammad did. They try to repeat the special prayers he uttered upon going to sleep and waking up, or even upon entering and leaving the bathroom. Islamic scholars have developed an enormous list of what to do and what not to do-and that raises the question of what happens to those who break some rules.
Many Muslims are relaxed about that, content that the "five pillars of Islam" (daily prayer, a pilgrimage to Mecca, etc.) will cover over a multitude of sins. But some become frenzied when they break the rules-and there are so many to break. Among some, that leads to a search for a "get out of jail free" card-if there is such a thing.
Those who have investigated the last days of the Sept. 11 hijackers found that some took advantage of America's freedom to break lots of Quranic rules. But on the day of their death, according to notebooks of two of the suicide-murderers, the plan was to "purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone.... You have to be convinced that those few hours that are left you in your life are very few. From there you will begin to live the happy life, the infinite paradise." There's the "you will be entering paradise" pass, with one fiery ending purportedly making up for a multitude of sins.