Thursday, May 5, 2016

Many Parts, One Body - Islamic Edition

One of the more well known passages from St. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, written c. 55 AD, concerns the relationship of the believers to one another:
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”... If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
Christians may be surprised to discover a similar sentiment among the sayings (hadith) of Mohammed, given some six hundred years later:
An-Nu’man ibn Basheer reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The example of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 5665; Sahih Muslim, 2586).
I am not a scholar of Islam, much less of comparative religion. I am sure a case could be made that the parallels above are mere coincidence. Given the familiarity of the body, it is a natural analogy to use and more than one person could independently use it. Still, I think the parallel is striking and may be more than coincidence.

Pious Muslims would probably argue that the Christian understanding articulated by Paul was a prefiguring of the perfect revelation that came with Mohammed, or that Paul did articulate the Islamic notion, any divergences being subsequent corruptions of the Pauline message.

Christians might view this parallelism positively, as a further proof that Muslims too follow the faith of Abraham (as the Catholic Church holds). Other Christians might take a more negative view, arguing that this parallelism is proof of Islam's lack of originality, that it is merely a debased form a Christianity. This is basically the medieval understanding of Islam, that is is a Christian heresy. It is easy to see how this line of argumentation could turn rather ugly. But implicit in it - implicit in the word "heretic" - is a kind of compliment which ought not be overlooked. Pagans are people without any connection to the Church. But those in heresy, on the other hand, do have a relationship to the Church; they hold to some form of Christian doctrine, albeit with one or more crucial shortcomings. But the truth is not utterly alien to them. And thus a dialogue may be possible.

A little something to keep in mind next time you hear the talking heads pontificate about Islam.
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