Tomorrow is Christmas. Many Christians believe that the day Jesus was born, upon him peace, all of existence was fundamentally altered. Everything was a lead up to this day, and after it happened, everything was different. Salvation was only possible through the atonement of the Son of God, who only came once to Earth.
Islam is different. In Islam, God is continuously calling humanity back to Heaven, from the time of Adam, upon him peace, until the present day. A few days ago was the traditional celebration of the Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace. It is believed by many to have happened on the 12th of the Islamic lunar month, Rabi’ al-Awwal. The Mawlid is important in Islamic culture, but not nearly as important as Christmas is to Christians. I believe that the central reason is because Islam has a different relationship to history than Christianity.
The Qur’an is not like the Bible structurally, and does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It calls itself, “a revelation from the One who created the Earth and the highest heavens,” and if that is so, it is telling that God avoids sweeping narrative. The only complete story in the Qur’an is the chapter of Joseph, and it is about one individual’s life. The first major work of universal history in Islamic civilization didn’t come until the time of al-Tabari (d. 923), 300 years after the Qur’an. It was so scholarly that the author provided all his sources, and so long that it filled many many volumes. It was a massive intellectual undertaking, but al-Tabari never said his views could not be challenged. It was simply an attempt to collate all the data available to him and fashion a type of “Big History.” It is far longer and more detailed than the Bible, or any other historical text in early Christianity, and yet does not have the same status theologically. It can be questioned, and has been debated for 1000 years.
One of the implications of this difference is how the two religious traditions deal with the rise of materialistic science over the last few hundred years. In the West, the story of science is often portrayed as the story of human beings using reason to reject a close-minded faith that kept people from properly understanding the universe in which we live. This is embedded within the intellectual history of Christianity in Europe, even though it is presented as a universal narrative speaking for all peoples and cultures of Earth. The narrative mythology of the Bible ruled the Euro-American historical imagination for over 1500 years. Early Christian religious authorities decided that creating a book with a beginning (Genesis), a climax (4 Gospels), and an epic conclusion (Revelation) was the proper way to frame Truth. In the elaboration of science in Euro-American history, a counter-narrative was formed, framed as a “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.” Old dogmatic truths were demolished and reason prevailed. Many scientists argued that we were finally discovering our true history, and that the scientific narrative of the universe proved the traditional Christian narrative wrong, and replaced it. Jesus was not the focal point of all history, for the Bible only told a very limited story, and much of it was inaccurate besides.
Narratives of understanding the history of the universe, our planet, and human beings from within Islamicate civilization are not the same as European narratives. In classical Islamic thought, science would be categorized as a type of hukm ‘adi, which are intellectual judgements based on observing the way the world works. For example, we see that fire burns when we put our hands into it, and so we learn through pattern recognition that fire burns. But pattern recognition is only one modality of reason. Another type of reason is known as a hukm shar’i, which are intellectual judgements based on proper interpretation of texts of revelation. For example, determining the method of prayer, which is based on interpretation of the Qur’an and other texts, is a hukm shar’i. It has rules of logic and linguistics that govern proper interpretation, as well-articulated by Professor John Walbridge in his book “God and Logic in Islam.” A third modality of reason is known as the hukm ‘aqli, which are intellectual judgements that are self-evident, thus not in need of validation from either scientific observation nor exegesis of revelation. For example, the truth of 2+2=4 is not based on the scientific method, nor the Qur’an. It is just known by itself.
These are three distinctive types of “reason,” and each are valid in their own spheres of influence. This picture of the processes of the human intellect is more complicated than the usual trope of “reason versus faith.” While there are undoubtedly many things that science has taught us about ourselves and the universe around us, we do a disservice to the complexity of human history and the many manifestations of human thought when we allow this Euro-American vision of history to pass as some sort of universal narrative of truth. Different cultures and religions have had different ways of understanding the universe.
To be honest, I prefer the Islamic approach to history. I dislike materialists who spew dogmas about the history of the universe just as much as I dislike Evangelical Christians who try to convince people that the Earth is 6000 years old based on their reading of the Bible. Both are “easy answers” that do not do justice to the complexity of historical interpretation. I find comfort in the idea that God hid from us the details of history in the Qur’an, and instead wanted us to figure it out on our own as best we can. That gives me a lot more room for error in my understanding of history, and a lot more room for science.
I am thankful for the days on which Jesus and Muhammad were born, peace be upon them both, but the fact of the matter is that even those dates are debated. It is not clearly known. Despite that lack of historical certainty, God is manifest in every moment, for the Qur’an states: “To God belongs both the East and the West, so wherever you turn, there is the Face of God.” (2.115) And God is constantly watching me in my moments, and so reminds me about the past: “that is a nation that has passed away; they will have what they earned and you will have what you earned, and you will not be asked about what they did.” (2.134) So I know that as important as the past is, the writing of it is always the product of fallible human minds who have different modalities of reason.
Perhaps the stars shone brighter on the day Jesus was born. Perhaps there were heavenly lights manifest on the day Muhammad was born. Unfortunately, I witnessed neither. I live in the 21st century, and all I have are texts compiled by fallible authors, such as the Sunni al-Bukhari, the Shi’i al-Kulayni, and the Judaeo-Christian writers of the Gospels. I am thankful for what God has preserved for me in human history, but I do not believe that any of these authors were immune from error. They are, in the final analysis, historians, and I too am a student of history who is obliged to think seriously about what can and cannot be known about the past.
As Carl Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” But in order to properly understand the cosmos, we need to properly understand how we have understood the cosmos. Muslims, Christians, and Materialists have all produced literature attempting to explain the story of the universe, the planet Earth, and human beings in different ways. Each of them emphasizes different things in different ways. As for me, my greatest hope does not lie in books nor articles. Rather, I hope that when I die, I will see Jesus and Muhammad face-to-face, as opposed to now, when I see them through a glass, darkly. Commemorating their births is simply a means to increase my longing for them in my death. Unfortunately, for the rest of you, if I do meet them in the world beyond, I won’t be able to blog about it. But when I die, perhaps you can look back at this short piece of writing and smile, knowing that I have finally arrived to the Reality that Jesus and Muhammad already know, may peace be upon them both.