It has been much harder than I expected to explain to Westerners why Muslims, even the moderate ones, behave the way they do. How does one describe the trees to a kid who only ever saw the desert? Even though it is fading, Christianity has been in the very fabric of the West, making all the wonderful things about Western culture possible, like critical thinking, respect for human rights and selflessness. None of these are fundamental in an Islamic culture. A Muslim child grows up in a world where sin and salvation mean something completely different, a world where the concept of grace is hollow and confusing. If we do not understand the culture, all our dealings with Muslims, either during daily encounters or engaging in dialogue, will remain shallow and fruitless.
I believe the most crucial difference between Christianity and Islam is how each system views the human person.
Memorizing prayers and learning to recite the Quran were crucial parts of my summers as a dutiful little Muslim girl. From an early age, I was filled with fear and awe of Allah, who demanded absolute submission without a smidgen of doubt or disrespect. However, in my child’s heart, occasionally I had the audacity to try to picture this supreme being. These irreverent falls of mine usually lasted mere seconds as an image of a pure bright being with rainbow eyes hovered in my mind. These moments of light-hearted imagination were followed by crippling fear. How dare I try to fit the all-knowing and all-powerful Allah into my measly human mind? After that, for days, I would struggle with this fear, waiting to be struck down or to be turned into stone.
Given that trying to picture Allah is forbidden, is it really hard to understand why Incarnation is not a good place to start a conversation with a Muslim friend? The most fundamental belief of Christianity is that God himself became man to bring us eternal life. But, the mere suggestion of God-man is enough for many Muslims to tear off their clothes and cry out blasphemy. Why does the thought of Incarnation incite such strong emotions? There are many reasons for this outrage, but one needs to first understand how man was created in the beginning and where Allah stands concerning this imperfect creation of his.
In Genesis, Scripture tells us that God created man and woman in his own image. Before sin severed their connection, God and man were in perfect union, for man was a creation of love as a result of Triune perfection:
The divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves. (CCC 1702)
This image alone paves the way to God lowering himself to become man in order to bring salvation. Creation of man is first and foremost an act of love, a reflection of the perfect divine love among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. From the beginning, Incarnation was God’s design.
The story of man’s creation and the relationship between Allah and man could not have been more different in Islam. To begin with, we cannot talk about love as the cause of man’s origin. Without the Trinity, there is nothing for Allah to express, for he does not know love, neither is he love. A consistent view of why the man was created in the first place is lacking in Islamic thinking; however, these verses in the Quran reveal that it was not as a result of a relationship or an act of love Adam and Eve came to be:
Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm, in order to try him. (76:2)
I did not create the jinn [the demons] and the humans except to worship me. (51:56)
The idea that Allah the all-powerful would desire a relationship with us is laughable without the existence of a prior relationship among the Three Persons of the Trinity. Therefore, even before Adam was created, his place was set. He would be nothing but a slave who feared his master. His fate was to be tried over and over again until he pleased his master with obedience and worship so that the gates of heaven will one day be opened before him.
Thus, the first man was fashioned from dirt, and then life was breathed into him. Then, his descendants were created through a sperm-drop (nutfah):
It is He Who has created you from dust then from a sperm-drop, then from a leech-like clot; then does he get you out (into the light) as a child: then lets you (grow and) reach your age of full strength; then lets you become old, —though of you there are some who die before; —and lets you reach a term appointed; in order that you may learn wisdom. (40:67)
The nutfah, semen, is a despicable fluid that is produced by shameful parts of man, only to be washed off and discarded. It is inherently dirty and something to be hidden, ashamed of.
Have We not created you from a fluid (held) despicable? (77:20)
Even though there are verses that proclaim everything Allah has created is good, there are a number of verses that keep reminding man of his beginning, lest he forget his place:
Now let man but think from what he is created. He is created from a drop emitted. Proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs. (86:5-7)
Who made all things good which God created, and he began the creation of man from clay; And made his progeny from a quintessence of the nature of a fluid despised. (32:7-8)
In other verses man’s origins are mentioned as sticky clay (37:11) or black mud (15:28) to emphasize his infinite lowliness compared to Allah. The Quran establishes an uncrossable chasm between Allah and man, a chasm, in fact, that cannot be compensated even by an omnipotent creator. Not because Allah is not able, but because it is unthinkable that the maker of the universe would lower himself to bestow his own image upon men, let alone become one of those utterly inferior creations. This is not to say that man is the least among others. Because Allah breathes life into Adam from his own spirit, man is elevated above the angels, who were created from light as opposed to dirt. However, even Allah’s own breath of life is not sufficient to bridge the eternal gap that remains between master and slave.
Even from the creation of man, gnostic elements in Islam are visible, and they get more pronounced in the daily life of a Muslim. For instance, ritual cleansing is a crucial aspect of religious life. One cannot enter the mosque if one has not been ritually cleansed beforehand. If any natural urges were satisfied, such as passing gas, the cleansing must be repeated. Following sexual intercourse, both man and woman need to be cleansed before praying, touching the Quran or entering a mosque. A woman on her period is banned from all religious activities. This idea that things related to the human body are unclean and in constant need of restoration start with the creation of man who came from despicable fluid and black mud. This infinite inferiority of man not only puts too much emphasis on man, but projects a deity who is capricious, incapable of love and in constant need of admiration and worship.
Without love being the most essential part of this divine equation, there is no room for incarnation. Without God’s love first expressed in the Trinity, man cannot be created out of love. The invulnerable baby who needs the attention and protection of Mary and Joseph is unimaginable to a Muslim mind, for Christ’s miraculous entry to our world is only possible with love.