Illuminating Islam’s Peaceful Origins

Mustafa Akyol in The New York Times:

Is Allah, the God of Muslims, a different deity from the one worshiped by Jews and Christians? Is he even perhaps a strange “moon god,” a relic from Arab paganism, as some anti-Islamic polemicists have argued? What about Allah’s apostle, Muhammad? Was he a militant prophet who imposed his new religion by the sword, leaving a bellicose legacy that still drives today’s Muslim terrorists? Two new books may help answer such questions, and also give a deeper understanding of Islam’s theology and history.

Jack Miles, a professor of religion at the University of California and the author of the Pulitzer-winning book “God: A Biography,” has written “God in the Qur’an.” It is a highly readable, unbiasedly comparative and elegantly insightful study of the Quran, in which he sets out to show that the three great monotheistic religions do indeed believe in the same deity — although they have “different emphases” when it comes to this God, which accounts for their divergent theologies. To begin with, one should not doubt that Allah is Yahweh, the God of the Bible, because that is what he himself says. The Quran’s “divine speaker,” Miles writes, “does identify himself as the God whom Jews and Christians worship and the author of their Scriptures.” That is also why Allah reiterates, often with much less detail, many of the same stories we read in the Bible about Yahweh and his interventions in human history. The little nuances between these stories, however, are distinctions with major implications.

Take, for example, the story of Abraham, which is so central to both the Bible and the Quran. Miles examines Abraham in both and highlights a key difference: In the Bible, Abraham is presented as the father of a great nation that will multiply and inherit a holy land. “To your descendants I give this country,” Yahweh vows, “from the River of Egypt to the Great River.” In the Quran, however, the stress is on Abraham as the great champion of monotheism against idolatry: His biggest mission is smashing the idols — a story foretold not in the Bible, but in an ancient rabbinical exegesis of it, a midrash. “Yahweh is a fertility god,” Miles provocatively suggests, whereas “Allah is a theolatry god” — theolatry meaning the worshiping of God alone.

More here.