Christianity and Islam share many similarities, although they are two distinct religious traditions. Sufism, one of the Islamic traditions, consists of a variety of strict rules and laws, as well as an appeal towards asceticism as the main way of going through the path and reaching Allah. Christianity, however, is more flexible, although its teachings are also designed as a path for guiding people. The main difference between the two traditions is their view of God and Jesus and the practices that people use as their path. This paper will compare the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam using the Bible and the mystical path of Islam. Christianity and Islam are two prominent religious traditions, both of which teach their followers how to go through life using the path as an internal experience.
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Christianity emerged based on Jesus’ teachings, his life, and death, which are depicted in the Bible. The main principle of this tradition is that each individual is born with original sin. This is a monotheistic religion, which means that people adhering to it believe in one god. However, they regard him as a Trinity, or a being that can exist in three distinct forms. The following quote from the Bible helps one understand the basic principles of this religion – “I will lead the blind by a way they do not know, In paths, they do not know” (Isaiah 42:16). Here, the theme of the path and God leading people through their lives are explained, as to enter heaven, one has to live a life in accordance with these rules. Notably, because Christianity is based on the idea of heaven and hell, the free will of a person to choose what life they want to live and what consequences of having is important.
A path that one must go through over the course of this life is a theme depicted in the Bible. For example, in John 14:6, it is stated, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Here, it is shown that Jesus shows people the way or the path through which they can become closer to God. Being God’s son, he teaches the people how to live their lives according to the vision of his Father. Thus, the figure of Jesus is essential in the view of Christian religious tradition.
The basis of this religious tradition is presented in Quaran, and Muhhamad is the Prophet, whose mission was to preach and teach people the basics of Islamic mysticism. Islam can be interpreted in several ways because different traditions exist within this religion. One of them is Sufism, one of the best-known traditions explaining the mystics of Islam (Eliade, 180). Sufism is a version of Islam that emphasizes personal discipline as the only way of adhering to Allah’s teachings. Both Eliade and Schimmel outline the process of a person going through this path, following their master, through different experiences of being renounced and renouncing the world (182; 107). Therefore, Islam and Sufism, in particular, pay great attention to the path of a person and the renouncement of pleasures and attachment to things.
One of the key features of this dimension of Islam is asceticism, or significant self-discipline as a lifestyle, where an individual refuses to benefit from sensual pleasures. In accordance with the Sufi traditions, there are three stages of asceticism – renouncing the world, happiness, and the realization that the world does not matter (Eliade, 181). Eliade explains the origins of this tradition in the following manner – “the spiritual ancestors of Sufism were found among Muhammad’s Companions: for example, Salmân al- Fârîsi, the Persian barber who lived in the Prophet’s house and who became the model for spiritual adoption and mystical initiation, and Uways al Qaranî, whose devotion Muhammad exalted” (180). Hence, these people served as a model for designing the future principles of Sufism and the rules by which individuals must abide.
To understand Islam, one should examine the main concept of this religion – mysticism. According to Schimmel, mystics in different religious traditions aim to describe the path that leads a person to God (98). “Tariqa” is a path that describes one’s spiritual journey and the learning one has to undergo. Although this path is complex, in the end of a person reaches an understanding that “God is One” (Schimmel, 99). The journey is mainly a way of learning, in accordance with the religion’s laws. This religion implies that every Muslim has to learn these laws, created by God, and abide by them in their day-to-day life. The three key elements of this tradition are the words of the Prophet, his actions, and interior state, or sharia, tariqa, and haqiqa (Schimmel98). Therefore, Islam clearly defines the laws that a person must abide by and the path one must follow.
As part of the journey, in accordance with Isam, a person goes through three stages of viewing oneself and the property he or she owns, and at the “marifa” stage, everything is perceived as universal. This is the divine unity where all people perceive things around them as universally owned. Prior to this, at the second stage, an individual should choose others over himself or herself. This, in general, is a significant transformation of the individuals and their values, since, at the first stage, the perception is “yours is yours, mine is mine” (Schimmel, 99). This describes not only the virtue of sharing material things but also the ability to live in a society understanding that everyone within it shares the resources, space, spiritual values, and other elements. By achieving the third stage, one sees these interconnections and, therefore, can live a life that benefits not only him or her but also the community.
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This, perhaps, is a result of the development that human beings have undergone, since historically living in packs and tribes was common and allowed to get resources, such as food and protection. This implies sharing and valuing others because if one individual chooses to take all the food that was gathered by his community, others will starve. These are the basic principles that should govern the way society operates; however, at some stage, they are overlooked for the benefit of one person.
The key similarity of both religions is the fact that both Christianity and Islam have variations and different ways of interpreting the Bible and the mystics. For example, there is Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism, and others, that use similar sources and rituals but have slight variations in the interpretation of God’s words. Similarly, in Islam, Sufism is one of several dimensions that Muslims follow, which differ in their interpretation of the path and Allah’s words. Therefore, both Christianity and Islam have a variety of dimensions and interpretations, although they all share the same basic principles.
Both are monotheistic, meaning that in both traditions, only one god is worshipped. As Schimmel mentions, one of the key concepts in Islam is reflected in the passage, “there is no God by Allah” (99). This means that this tradition clearly indicates its belief that only one God, and therefore, only one true path to reach God exists. Here, it should be noted that although both religions have one God, Christians accept his three forms – the Holy Trinity, which is not the case with Islam.
Additionally, the two share a mystical view of God and religion in general. Both religious traditions include the notion of a path that will lead one towards God. In Christianity, it consists of three elements – “the via purgativia, the via contemplavia, and the via illuminativa” (Schimmel, 98). In comparison, Islam tradition has three elements that are similar – sharia, tariqa, and haqiqa. Therefore, the basis of these traditions is a person’s subjective experience and his or her journey. Both traditions outline the way in which one can reach God. Moreover, these experiences are based on one’s feelings rather than facts, as the person has to adhere to some rules, follow rituals, and do other things to reach their goal.
This need for performing certain acts or mental exercises suggests that reaching God does not come naturally. Instead, an individual has to practice and make sacrifices. As was mentioned, in Sufism, one goes through this path through renouncement and asceticism. In Christianity, the main emphasis is on abiding by God’s rules, and this religion does not imply the same structure and stages through which one can become closer to God.
The Sufi understanding of Jesus and poverty differ from that of the Christians, which is the main distinction between the two traditions. Poverty is one of the mandatory steps in Sufism, together with repentance and trust in God (Schimmel, 100). Through these stages, one can archive happiness and love, which means that Sufism tradition regards poverty as a necessity. This is consistent with the asceticism and the ability to renounce the world that is all part of the path in the mystics of Islam. Christianity does not directly order the followers of the tradition to adhere to an ascetic lifestyle and does not praise poverty. Heaving wealth is not regarded as a sin and can be viewed as God’s blessing. Other things that can be associated with it, such as lust or greed, are, however, considered to be a sin. Therefore, Sufism is based on the practices of asceticism and renouncing the world as the basis of this tradition, while Christianity does not directly condemn wealth and praise poverty.
Additionally, the Sufi dimension of Islam requires one to not think about heaven or hell, while in Christianity, this is an ongoing theme (Eliade, 181). This is a distinct difference because, as was mentioned, the use of heaven and hell can be interpreted as a manifestation of a person’s free will – one can choose what life to live. Another important aspect is that Christianity considers Jesus to be God’s son, while Muslim tradition does not share the same view. Therefore, Sufi disagrees with the Christian view on poverty and Jesus, as they consider asceticism to be an integral part of the path, and they do not consider Jesus to be the son of God.
In accordance with the Christian tradition, one can speak directly to God through the Holy Spirit, which is usually manifested through dreams and can serve as an additional guide for people. Dreams, where an individual has a revelation, are, in general, a common theme in the Bible. One example is Peter, who had a vision, where God showed him a sheet of animals one can eat:
“He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat” (Acts 10:9-16).
This demonstrates an important aspect of Christianity – this tradition accepts that some of its principles and guidelines can be changed, since God can send messages to people, guiding them and ensuring that they are on the right path. Here, Peter has received a list of animals that can be eaten, which allowed Christians to eat pigs, as prior to the event, it was forbidden. Muslims have a more strict view of their religious teachings, as they perceive the Quran as the main source of their tradition.
Finally, a distinct feature of Sufism is the path a person goes through as a way of experiencing God. As was mentioned in the paragraph dedicated to the basics of Sufism, there are three stages of renouncement and three elements of the spiritual journey – sharia, tariqa, and haqiqa. Although a similar depiction of one’s spiritual journey exists in Christianity, Sufism emphasizes the importance of this path more clearly. Schimmel mentioned that Sufi is undergoing this path, which is sometimes referred to as a ladder (105). People would have to go through initiation and work with a trusted master to go through the path and experience things such as isolation for thirty days.
Despite Christianity and Islam being two distinct religious traditions, they share many similarities. One example is the concept of a path that a person has to undergo through learning and abiding by God’s laws. The difference, however, is the view that the two traditions have on the figure of Jesus and understanding of poverty and the path of a religious person. For Christianity, Jesus is an important figure, as he is considered to be the son of God.
Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas, Volume III: From Muhammad to the Age of Reforms. The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. Zondervan, 1984.
Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1978.
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