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Islam: A Failure of Christian Unity

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

How is it that 6th century Arabia, flanked by a christian Ethiopia to the west, a christian Palestine to the north and even a few Christian tribes in its own interior resisted Christianity until Mohammed filled the void finally with a more radical monotheism than either Christianity or Judaism? Mohammed himself gives us a clue in the Qur’an.

In the Sura “Miriam” (Mary), the Qur’an tells the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s quite a different version of the Christmas story than the ones we have in Matthew and
Luke. It includes Mary giving birth under a palm tree in the desert, the palm tree miraculously producing fruit, a stream springing up at Mary’s feet to refresh her, and not least of all Jesus speaking as soon as he was born to reassure a distraught Mary. Mary then returns to her family with Jesus in her arms. When her family sees her child and figures out that she had become pregnant out of wedlock, they begin to interrogate her and ask her how she could have shamed herself so. The infant Jesus again speaks to defend his mother and declare his identity: ” I am the servant of God. He gave me the book and made me a prophet…” What is particularly interesting to me is the postscript to this story. The author writes “This is Jesus, the voice of truth that they are still disputing”. The “they” of this statement can only refer to the Christians of his day.

Indeed, the Christians of Europe, Palestine, and northern Egypt were gripped in a centuries-long conflict on the nature of Christ. Was he really God? Was he really human? If he was really both human and divine did both of those natures take part in his suffering? In his glorification? These questions and others were the object of the early Christian councils. At the time of Mohammed the council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) was the most debated. At this council the Church gathered to denounce Monophysitism, the teaching that Jesus’ human nature was completely absorbed in the divine nature so that he had only one, divine nature. The fallout of this council was that the churches of Egypt and Syria separated themselves from the central church of Constantinople in order to remain Monophysite. There were several Monophysite groups that settled in northern Arabia also.

If the religious portrait isn’t already complex enough add this to the equation: Constantinople was at war with the persians, and between Constantinople and Persia were several Arab tribes who would often accept or reject Chalcedon based on political alliances with or against Constantinople.

Dizzy yet? Mohammed seems to have been as well. In addition to Orthodox and Monophysite Christians, Palestine and northern Arabia were also home to Jacobites (a rather Jewish strain of Christianity), Nestorians ( Christians who emphasized a division in the natures of Christ) and a plethora of hermits who held to varying degrees of any of the above positions– not to mention the several Jewish tribes well established on the peninsula since the first century A.D.

Given the degree of confusion and division concerning the nature of Christ it is not surprising to find the designation of Jesus in the Qur’an as the one “who they are still disputing”. Is this part of the reason that central Arabia remained largely pagan at the end of the 6th century? It is likely. Each group of Christians had its own missionary efforts into the Arabian peninsula, but there could obviously have been no coordinated effort. Indeed christians were literally warring and killing each other over the nature of Christ. Orthodoxy was imperial Byzantine policy, to go against it carried political ramifications. To a Mohammed witnessing the situation from the somewhat removed but mot at all uninformed Mecca in central Arabia, the solution was simple: Jesus is not divine at all because there is only one God; he is only a prophet. Mohammed filled the void left by Jewish and Christian conflict as Arabs rallied to his radically simplified monotheism: “There is no other god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet.”

If Christians entertain any evangelistic hopes for the Muslim world, can they afford to do so as a divided church?

Source for historical information:

CHARLES, Henri, Le Christianisme des arabes nomades sur le Limes et dans le désert syro-mésopotamien aux alentours de l’hégire, Paris, Leroux, 1936.