Islam from an Orthodox Perspective
When I first read paragraph 56 of For the Life of the World: Toward A Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, I immediately had the sense that it represented a major step forward in Muslim-Orthodox relations. I think it is important to call special attention to this part of the text, because this paragraph is perhaps the most effective discussion of Islam I have encountered in a modern Orthodox ecclesiastical document. This paragraph is an excellent guide for Orthodox Christians when thinking about Islam because it describes Islam in ways that reflect how Muslims themselves understand their faith. At the same time, it also remains true to Orthodox self-understanding by accurately identifying where these two faiths differ from each other.
With respect to Muslim self-understanding, the document highlights the doctrine that Muslims themselves see as the foundation of their faith: belief in the one God. Islam is based on belief in the one omnipotent God who created the universe, and who is infinitely loving, compassionate, and just (Qur’an 2:163; 112:1-2). This is what it means when Muslims declare that God is one. This declaration is called tawhid, and it is the foundation of the religion. This belief is what Muslims share in common across the globe, along with specific forms of ritual worship such as daily prayer. It is therefore noteworthy that the importance of prayer in Islamic practice is also mentioned in the document.
At the same time, Muslims are highly diverse in, and often in deep disagreement over, social doctrines and practices. This is because in Islamic tradition, matters of belief and worship (‘aqidah and ‘ibadat, respectively) are distinguished from matters of social practice (mu‘amalat). The fundamental elements of belief and worship are considered generally immutable, while matters of social practice are considered to be interpretable and subject to change. The diversity of political and social customs found among Muslim communities across world is therefore a natural consequence of the conceptual nuances located within Islam itself.
Why is it important for non-Muslims to be aware of these distinctions? Because these are the terms that Muslims themselves use to talk about the complexity of their faith. If we are to understand someone else’s worldview, it is crucial that we listen to how they themselves describe it—especially the way they describe its nuance and complexity. The root of misunderstanding is very often the refusal to recognize in other people the same capacity for complexity and nuance that we recognize in ourselves.
In other words, the greatest virtue of how this document depicts the religion of Islam is its attention to nuance and authenticity. It reflects an authentic understanding of Islam precisely because it highlights the universal importance of belief and worship, and it refrains from imputing a single interpretation of social policy (such as gender relations or models of state governance) to the entirety of the faith. Understanding the dynamics of unity and diversity in Islam is crucial to relating authentically to Muslims, and the language of this document lays a secure conceptual groundwork for this relationship.
With respect to Orthodox self-understanding, the document very precisely identifies where these faiths fundamentally differ from one another. Because certain beliefs about God are what unite Muslims in their faith, and certain beliefs about God are what unite Orthodox in their faith, it is right that these cardinal beliefs should form the primary substance of comparison. The document is exactly correct when it identifies the most fundamental divergence between Muslims and Orthodox Christians as primarily theological. Orthodoxy is rooted in Trinitarian and Incarnational theology. But according to Islam, these doctrines are violations of God’s Oneness. The earliest textual evidence of theological conversations occurring in a common linguistic medium between Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Arabic texts dating from the mid 8th century, consistently emphasize the basic importance of this theological disagreement.
Along with a concern to preserve the integrity of the cardinal theological doctrines of their respective faiths, it should also be noted here that Muslims and Orthodox Christians share a concern for preserving the integrity of very specific practices of ritual worship. Muslim communal prayer and Orthodox liturgy feature highly intricate and repetitious structures that are meant to communicate the key theological truths of the faith while drawing the believer into a state of communion with the divine. Members of both faiths tend to see engagement with a centuries-long tradition of texts and praxes as central to their authentic self-articulation. In other words, one thing Muslims and Orthodox actually have in common with one another are the kinds of techniques they use to differentiate themselves from one another.
The document’s vision for the future of Muslim-Orthodox relations is oriented by hope. The document notes that members of both faiths can work together “for the advancement of peace and understanding among all peoples.” This is a future that Muslim leaders and scholars envision as well. The Qur’an states that the diversity of peoples and religions in the world is part of God’s deliberate design of the universe. God created this diversity to give people the opportunity to grow in knowledge and virtue by interacting with one another (49:13; 5:48). As a final point of personal reflection, I find it particularly significant that the theology of transfiguration frames the entire document. The work of learning about other people is an ascetic labor that requires a change of heart within ourselves. The fetters placed on our minds by a fallen world impede our natural gift of understanding (1 Cor. 13:12). But Christ has overcome the world, empowering us to take up the task of transforming ignorance into knowledge, and fear into love (Jn. 16:33; I Jn. 4:18). The social ethos document can assist us in this work. For this reason, I believe this document will have an immensely positive and long-lasting impact on how we as Orthodox Christians get to know Muslims and their faith.
Phil Dorroll is Associate Professor of Religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.