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Scholar delves deeper into Islam, Koran

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, October 28, 2004

After introducing the origins of Islam in his first lecture, Yale professor Gerhard Böwering delved further into the Erasmus Lecture theme of “Islam and Christianity” Wednesday in his second lecture entitled “One God with Many Faces.”

Böwering touched on three main points: the role of God in the Koran, the role of God in Islamic theology and the Islamic perception of Christian ideas of God.

“When Mohammed was coming into his ideas of Islam,” Böwering explained, “he had to grapple with ideas of gods in prehistoric Arabia, especially tribal polytheism.”

Islam needed to emphasize the oneness of God, and thus their ultimate profession of faith, “There is no god but God,” appears 2,700 times throughout the Koran.

Throughout the Koran, Böwering noted, there are three different roles for God. First, God is recognized as creator of the universe, and He continually maintains that creation. Second, God is written about as the creator of man – but Böwering noted, in contrast to Christianity, that nowhere do we find in the Koran that man was created in God’s image.

“God is so totally other, so separate that anything making semblance to Him goes against the core of Islam’s monotheism,” he said.

In that sense, the Christian view of man being created in God’s image is not pure enough for Muslims; such ideas would in fact, he said, be “the ultimate insult to Islam.”

The third representation of God in the Koran is as the judge at the end of time. Muslims, Böwering explained, believe that death in Islam is a return to God, not a result of original sin – God determines a length of time for each person’s life.

B̦wering then turned to the role of God in Islamic theology. He highlighted the struggle that occurred when early Muslims were forced to defend their foundling religion against the established traditions of Christianity and Judaism. In the end, they decided upon a quite literal interpretation of the Koran Рwhich in current times, B̦wering admitted, can be a hindrance in understanding between Christians and Muslims.

Finally, Böwering discussed Islamic perceptions of Christianity. The first difficulty comes with Jesus’ crucifixion – this story is left out of the Koran.

“[Mohammed] could not understand how a prophet could go down in such an ignominious way. He also,” Böwering added with a smile, “didn’t want to suggest to his listeners that that was a way to get rid of prophets.”

The other main issue that Muslims find in Christianity is the incarnation of God through Jesus and the notion of the triune God, Böwering said.

“Mohammed absolutely could not accept the divinity of Jesus. God become flesh? Inconceivable. It went against his whole message.”

Because Muslims have embraced such a literal interpretation of the Koran, they tend to be close-minded to the “When we say trinity, we mean one God” pleas of Christians, said Böwering. “‘My Koran says, don’t say three,” they say. ‘Say one,'” Böwering said.

Yet incarnation makes up the central message of Christianity – and thus the struggle continues.

In response to an audience member’s question regarding the difficulty in Muslim-Christian scholarly discussion, Böwering suggested that rather than inviting Muslims into ones own backyard and forcing our beliefs upon them, we must listen to what they say and look for truth – albeit different truth than we are used to – behind their words.

“Religion grows,” Böwering said. “It’s not a blueprint set for eternity, it’s a tree that changes, but still brings fruit every year.” So might Christianity and Islam grow in understanding of each other, he said.

Böwering’s will give his final lecture on Friday at 4 p.m. in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.