Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sin and Evil: Observations from Islam and Christianity

Ask a theologian about differences between Islam and Christianity, and you'll get dry theological responses. Ask Muslims who have left Muhammad behind to follow Jesus, and the answers  are much more interesting.

Two ex-Muslims named Rashid and Abdelfadi recently discussed the contrasting ways in which Islam and Christianity view sin and evil on the Arabic show Daring Question. Rashid said one of the the first things he learned about Allah as a young Muslim was that Allah is the creator of evil.  The Quran says in surat al-Falaq, "I seek refuge with Allah from the evil that he has created (113:1,2). It also notes in al-Anbiyah that "Allah tests believers with evil and with good" (21:35). Islamic expositors point out that Allah tests people with evil to see their response, and everything that happens in the life of the Muslim must be accepted as maktoub, or preordained by Allah.

Abdelfadi added that as a Muslim trying to obey and please Allah, verses such as these caused him consternation. How could he love Allah when he had no idea how or when Allah was planning evil for him? (extended comment: the Quran even uses the common word for plotter or schemer, Maakir, to describe this aspect of Allah's character in numerous verses including surat al-Anfal (8:30). In their usual ingenuousness, some English translations of the Quran and Western Muslim apologists claim that Maakir actually means "planner" even though you would never see Maakir translater as planner in any Arabic media. On a related note, number 10 of the Ninety-Names of Allah is al-Jabbar, "the one who allows nothing in his domain except what he has willed"). Where was justice, pondered Abdulfadi, when Allah judged his response to evil that was beyond his control and had been planned for him by Allah? (another comment: is this really much different than the Hindu idea of Karma? The Brahmin can look at the outcast, the Dalit, without compassion because that is his fate. The wealthy Arab can look at the Indian servant who makes his tea, his chaiwallah, with the same lack of concern because both of them are living their Qadar, the fate ordained them by Allah). How could Abdulfadi trust an Allah who could at will or on a whim lead him to obedience or disobedience, triumph or tragedy, sickness or health, or wealth or poverty?

Abdelfadi quoted the Hadith from Bukhari (Vol 8 Bk 76, Nr 470) where Muhammad said that even his good deeds would not get him into heaven unless Allah chose to bestow mercy upon him. He said, "That Hadith used to make me afraid. As a Muslim I considered myself a sinful person, but believed the Prophet was protected from error. If even he was not assured of his fate, what chance did I have? On the other hand, I was frightened of even my own thoughts that Allah might not be just." He noted that as a young Muslim he was frightened to voice these fears to the Imams at the mosque, who instead of providing thoughtful answers were more likely to give him a swift cuff to the head. It was their Prophet, after all, who warned his followers in surat al-Maidah "not to ask too many questions" (5:101).

Rashid noted that while becoming a Christian he learned the exact opposite of the Quran in James 1:13-15 of the New Testament. This passage states that God does not test people with evil and no-one who is facing evil can say the source of the evil is God.

The two men next compared the way Islam and Christianity view sin, defined in both religions as individual disobedience to God. Rashid again noted that Islam detracts from individual responsibility in its emphasis that anything one does is determined by Allah.  The Quran states in surat al-Taubah, "Nothing happens to you except what Allah has preordained" (9:51). The same idea is repeated in surat al-Hadid, "Nothing bad happens to you that has not been prescribed by Allah." (57:22).

They then discussed a most fascinating authentic Hadith that is repeated numerous times including Bukhari  (Vol 8 Bk 77 Nr 611) . Adam and Moses, according to Muhammad, got into an argument about who was the greater sinner. Adam thought it was Moses who, although he had given the Children of Israel the Ten Commandments, was unable to prevent the Jews from disobeying them. Moses countered that the greatest transgresor was certainly Adam, whose eating the forbidden fruit had caused mankind to be expelled from Paradise.

Moses was unprepared, however, for Adam's trump card. "How can you blame me," Adam replied in indignation, "For something that Allah wrote in my fate 40 years before I was even created?" Both Moses and Muhammad acknowledged that Adam had indeed won the debate.

A comparison of this Hadith with the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 3 of the Old Testament shows a contrast that could not be more evident. In the Biblical story, Adam's personal choice and responsibility are presented as clearly as an interaction between a mother and her son. "If you touch that cake, I'm going to send you to your room." The child looks at the delicious chocolate icing, decides an early taste is well worth spending 30 minutes alone in his room, digs his fingers in, and goes banished to the bedroom. The scenario in Genesis was not much different.  God pointed his finger at Adam and said, "If you eat the fruit off that tree, I'm going to send you out of the garden." Adam stared at the fruit, considered the consequences, made his decision, and walked out of Eden (comment: according to the Biblical account, Eve had already eaten the fruit. I've always wondered whether Adam thought hmmm....stay here in Paradise with God, or live outside with Eve? I think I'll take Eve!).

Can you imagine the child trying to convince his mother that he was not to blame, because his DNA had been programmed 40 years before his birth that he had to eat the cake? It makes about as much sense as the argument between Adam and Moses.

In the TV show, Rashid finally posed his Daring Question, "If Allah is the source of evil, the one who tests you with evil, and the one who determines the evil you will commit, what is the difference between him and Satan?" That sounds like a good question to me.


Matt said...

Aren't you basically just talking about the whole works vs. grace polemic, on which different Christian denominations have always come down on different sides of the fence?

It sounds like the other big question you are getting at is why do bad things happen to good people. Tell me-- do Christians reject the book of Job?

Perhaps some do. Perhaps others have "reinterpreted" it to fit their preferred theology.

Quotable Quotes: said...

Matt, I'm not sure what you mean by rejecting the book of Job. The message of Job is to continue to trust God, not to curse him, during difficult circumstances. Christians who have survived the earthquake in Haiti who are doing just that.

I'm not talking about works vs. grace, I'm talking about an Allah who determines the responses of his slaves and a God who respects the choices of his children. There is a difference.

Matt said...

Predestination is a doctrine professed by many Christian denominations. The book of Job teaches that God smote Job to win a bet with the devil. I suppose that it is possible to ignore its fatalistic content, though, if you already have another idea in mind.

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