The Pope Speaks
There was one thing, however, that Pope Benedict said in his now infamous statement that deserves address and is not, taken alone, an insulting query: What did Muhammad bring that was original? This should be answered especially when considering the slew of neologisms (“Islamic Fascism,” “Radical Islam,” “Islamists,” “Jihadis,” etc) that make more ornate the mythology surrounding Islam in the West and that turn Muslims abroad into a convenient abstraction. So I’ll answer the Pope’s question, taking cue from the Quran itself. Prophet Muhammad was not sent to innovate, but to reinstate, to confirm, and to complete the Abrahamic message, unmolested by any political or pagan religious pressure, a message that bears the whole point and mission of the religion project: No god but God; He’s the Creator and everything else is created, and only God is worthy of worship, unswerving devotion, and faith. This was the mission and message of all the pre-Abrahamic Emissaries, the Israelite Prophets (Jacob to Jesus), and the Ishmaelite Prophet, Muhammad, the final one, as Muslims believe. What differed between these luminaries was a matter of detail in sacred law that conformed to variant climes and times. But their core message never tarried from the interior of the Abrahamic Meaning. Islam’s obsession had nothing to do with innovation. On the contrary, it was innovation that obscured and altered the original message of the emissaries of God.
Islam and Christianity do share many common beliefs, but they are also separated by divergent salvation narratives. How people attain to Heaven in the Hereafter is not a small matter, I know. But the issue of who’s right or wrong was never meant to be settled here on earth, nor was it ever meant to produce fodder and rancor directed toward the "other." Folks of all religious bent are welcome to offer their views and communicate the tenets of their faith. But nobody has an advanced ledger with the names of all who will be admitted into Paradise or its antithesis. So our responsibility in this life is to search for common ground not because it is a new liberal philosophy, but because it is one of the core purposes of religion, namely, to set aright the affairs of humanity and to live as harmoniously as possible.
Like Islam, the beginnings of Christianity had to deal with an idolatrous milieu. But unlike the Islamic context, pagan Roman Empire was dauntingly powerful, a civilization by any common measure, while Arabia had no “government” per se, nor any other sense of a cohesiveness or recognizable “whole” that compares with the Romans. But Arabia had something going for it that the Roman established lacked: beneath the Arabian idolatry, the memory of Arabia was Abrahamic: the Pilgrimage, the Ka’ba of Makkah, the count of months and their sacredness, and, however forlorn, a once strict belief in the oneness of God – all of which had been long stamped in the region with Abrahamic legacy.
The Muslim month of Ramadan, a month of fasting and nightly prayer vigils, is actually an excellent example of the point of this entry. The Quran introduces the Fasting of Ramadan like this: “O Believers, fasting is prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those before you.” This is quintessential Religion, a continuation of a message that by all logic should not change at an essential level since God Himself is as He always has been. The path of salvation for the first man should be essentially identical to the last, an unbroken narrative with a good ending that depends entirely on God's mercy. In Islamic theology, the human being is born pure. The concept of Original Sin is essentially homeless in our tradition. We inherit genetic traits from our parents, not their wrongdoing. Forgiveness, pardoning, and mercy are of God's essence, and He generously bestows them for the cool price of belief and sincerity. Islam is young only in the sense that its “advent” has an historical moment, seventh century Arabia. But it is timeless in the sense that its very purpose is to keep the Record real and relevant.