The Claim to Truth in a Plural Society: "The Mission" in Christianity and Islam

The Claim to Truth in a Plural Society: "The Mission" in Christianity and Islam (Photo: Qantara.de)

Both Christianity and Islam can look back on a history of the spread of religious faith reaching back thousands of years. Nevertheless, one should under no circumstances make the mistake of applying the phenomenon of the Christian mission to Islam in an undifferentiated fashion – something made amply clear by the collection of essays recently published by the a theological working group, which took place in March 2010.

In this discussion forum, inaugurated by the Catholic Academy in Stuttgart-Rottenburg, Germany, theologians and Islam scholars address issues arising in connection with the relationship between Christianity and Islam.

Even though the idea of the "mission" in Christianity and Islam is not identical, the Islamic concept of da'wa, literally "invitation" or "call", is closely related to the Christian mission. Most authors take da'wa to mean a respectful invitation to a discussion of religious contents, emphasising the communicative dimension of a dialogue. But there are also other concepts comparable to the Christian mission: tabligh ("transmission") for example, the God-given duty not to leave humankind ignorant of divine revelation.

Historical burdens

The concept of the Christian mission was approached with a great deal more scepticism in the forum, owing among other things to the abuse-ridden history of the colonial missionaries as well as the missionary intentions harboured by certain groups in the field of Orientalism. The prevailing image amongst Muslims today is still that of the mission as a Christian strategy to convert all those of other faiths.

By contrast, the Islamic expansion in the Middle Ages did not have the goal of converting all the subject peoples. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were incorporated into the community as wards of the state (dhimmis), obliged only to paying a poll tax. Islamic da'wa activities did not arise until the 19th century, as reaction to similar Christian missionary efforts.

In Indonesia, for example, the Muhammadiyya movement, preaching an orthodox Sunni Islam, came together in deliberate resistance to Christian influences, while at the same time imitating methods of social relief initiated by the missionary societies. Theologically speaking, da'wa in Islam carries nowhere near the same weight as the mission in Christianity, where it is among the religion's fundamental theological principles.

This Islamic perspective has to do in part with the way the Koran treats Jews and Christians as a single group. There are diverse passages in the Koran dealing with the so-called "people of the book", at times extremely critically and at other times in a more conciliatory manner.

According to the Islam scholar Hüseyin Inam from the Association of Muslim theologians Germany, the Koran condemns the claim to absolute truth made by the Jewish and Christian creeds and instead invokes an earnest belief in one God without declaring Islam as the only path to salvation. Bülent Ucar, professor of religious pedagogy at the University of Osnabrück, comes to the conclusion that the Koran underscores the commonalities between all religions, calling for interreligious debates to be conducted in a reserved manner and "in the most pleasant way".

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By Susanne Kappe

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text.]