Islam is a corrective to, not an aberration from, Christianity. ”Unitarians and Muslims both believe that the New Testament is an uncertain guide to the actual events of this early period. Muslims regard the books of the New Testament as mainly the product of the followers of Paul of Tarsus, who did not know Jesus, but whose followers became dominant.”
Those Muslims who are aware of Unitarianism see it primarily in theological terms – as those followers of Jesus who insist upon the unity of God. They might be nonplussed by the modern form Unitarianism has taken, a form which elevates reason to the level of revelation. Some Unitarians accept reason as the only arbiter in religion, others see reason as working with imperfect scripture, to indicate directions for life.
A long association
Historically, from the viewpoint of Islam, there has been a long association between Christian Unitarians and Muslims. Indeed when the seventh century Byzantine Emperor Heraclius first heard of Prophet Muhammad and his message, he thought it was just another Arian heresy coming from the depths of the desert. Byzantine Christianity had a long history of dealing with heresies and had used the old Roman technique of ferocious repression, usually coupled with the blinding and imprisonment of the heretic, to eradicate it. Diversity of religion was long seen as a threat to the state, a form of treason.
Muslims believe that the upsurge of Unitarian belief which occurred in western Europe from the 1500s was directly related to the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. While it had been kept from them, the priests and the pictures in churches told the Gospel story to them. Once the laity could actually read the Bible, they found no trace of pope, of priests, of bishops, of trinities, of riches amongst those who followed Jesus. It is this modern form of Unitarianism which became so influential in western Europe and thence in the United States. However, like these early modern readers of the Bible, Muslims trace the roots of Unitarian belief back to Jerusalem and the message of Jesus himself.
Unitarians and Muslims both believe that the New Testament is an uncertain guide to the actual events of this early period. This does not mean that there is not truth there, although details and interpretations vary. Muslims regard the books of the New Testament as mainly the product of the followers of Paul of Tarsus, who did not know Jesus, but whose followers became dominant. It is worthy of note that of the many epistles in the New Testament, only one comes from James, called the brother of Jesus, while the rest appear to come from Paul or his followers.
Jesus did not claim to be God. In the Gospel according to John it is recorded that Jesus said “…the Father is greater than I” (14:28). That a prophet would even state this is unlikely as there was no doubt in the minds of the early followers of the Gospel that God was one and no human could claim divine attributes. Such notions were pagan. Like other prophets, Jesus explained that he was teaching only what God had given to him.
The difficulties of dealing with what is written in the Bible can be illustrated by the reporting of an example of Jesus’ teaching. In the King James Bible, Matthew 19:16-17 there is a very important exchange between Jesus and a young man.
“And behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life. And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one; that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.”
This is a very clear indication that Jesus did not portray himself as God. Yet such clarity can be relatively easily clouded over by a slight change in translation. In a more recent version of the Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, the exchange is translated as follows: “And there was a man who came to him and asked, “Master, what good deed must I do to possess eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
James the just
The next leader of the Community of the Gospel, James the Just, unlike Paul of Tarsus, lived and walked with Jesus. Leadership was passed, according to the history of the church, to James the Righteous, John and Peter. James, the brother of Jesus, was chosen by the others as leader of the community or, as Eusebius says, “Bishop of Jerusalem”. In the Gospel of Thomas, a copy of the teachings of Jesus which was not included in the Christian Bible, it mentions the importance of James. Saying 12 reads: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just….”
Over the centuries there appears to have been a deliberate attempt to obscure the role of James the Just. Eusebius, a third century Bishop in Palestine wrote of him “Because of his unsurpassable righteousness he was called the Righteous and Oblias – in our own language ‘Bulwark of the People, and Righteousness’ – fulfilling the declarations of the prophets regarding him.” Like the followers of Unitarianism after him, James was a defender of justice and of the people.
Only one letter of James to the early church is preserved in the New Testament. Some Christian scholars argue that it was written as a reply to the letters of Paul. It was certainly directed at the followers of Jesus from amongst the Jews, those who accepted the Law of Torah. He warned the believers not to make distinctions between people on the basis of social class as this was breaking the Law. If a man breaks one part of the Law, he argued, it is the same as breaking it all. He also warned that belief in the One God was not enough. The demons believe as well. What is necessary are good deeds. This was in direct contradiction to Paul’s teaching that faith was enough for salvation.
He wrote in chapter 5: “Well now, you rich! Lament. Weep for the miseries that are coming to you. Your wealth is rotting, your clothes are all moth eaten. All your gold and your silver are corroding away and the same corrosion will be a witness against you and eat into your body. It is like a fire which you have stored up for the final days. Can you hear crying out against you the wages which you kept back from the labourers mowing your fields”? The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord Sabaoth. On earth you have had a life of comfort and luxury; in the time of slaughter you went on eating to your heart’s content. It was you who condemned the upright and killed them; they offered you no resistance.”
The different treatment of Paul and James by Rome
In Acts chapter 21 from verse 17 there is an account of a demand from James and the elders, that Paul should show that those who had said he told people to disobey Moses were in error by undertaking public penance in the Temple, according to the Law. In the Temple he was recognised and denounced as one who preached against the Law. A riot ensued. He was put under the protection of the occupying Roman troops, as a Roman citizen. He had to be taken by those troops to safety in Caesarea where he remained in the Governor’s Palace, under house arrest for two years. While there he had frequent discussions with the governor Felix until Felix was replaced in about 60 CE.
The new governor Festus visited Jerusalem early in his term of office and the case of Paul was again raised. Called before his tribunal, Paul again argued that he had committed no offence against the Jewish law, the Temple or Caesar. When Festus suggested he appear before him in Jerusalem, Paul appealed to Caesar so that he would not have to return there.
The Roman puppet, King Agrippa II and his sister Bernice, with whom he was widely believed to be living in an incestuous relationship, visited Caesarea not long after this where they met Paul. The strength of the links between these puppet Herodians and the Romans is indicated by the fact that Bernice later on became the mistress of Titus, second in command to Vespasian at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and later Emperor of Rome.
Paul speaks to Agrippa as to a fellow believer. Agrippa, according to the author of Acts, is so moved by Paul’s eloquence that he declares ‘A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me.’ (Acts 26:28) ‘And Agrippa remarked to Festus, ‘the man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.’
A rather different attitude from that of Herod the Tetrarch to John the Baptist or of Pharaoh to Moses. The ideology of Paul is revealed by such writing. He has thrown off what the followers of the Law regarded as fundamental, advocacy of the truth, especially before tyrants. He had indeed shown himself to be one of the ‘seekers after smooth things’ who are so strongly condemned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The nature of these Roman rulers and their puppets is indicated by the report of Josephus in “The Jewish War”. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the capture of thousands of its inhabitants, Titus visited Caesarea on the coast and then went to Caesarea Philippi ‘…where he stayed a long time exhibiting shows of every kind. Many of the prisoners perished here, some thrown to wild beasts, others forced to meet each other in full-scale battles.’ Another 2,500 were similarly dealt with, some being burnt alive, to celebrate his brother’s birthday in Caesarea a few months later.
At such time, when Roman magistrates were severely persecuting the followers of Jesus, Paul wrote in his Letter to the Roman Christians:
“You must all obey the governing authorities. Since all government comes from God, the civil authorities were appointed by God, and so anyone who resists authority is rebelling against God’s decision, and such an act is bound to be punished. Good behaviour is not afraid of magistrates; only criminals have anything to fear… The State is there to serve God for your benefit.” (Rom 10:9)
When Festus died unexpectedly in 62 CE, the position of Roman Governor was temporarily unfilled. Agrippa took the opportunity to have James the Righteous murdered. He was tricked into appearing on the parapet of the Temple, was thrown down and beaten to death. While Agrippa may have been sympathetic towards Paul, he showed no such feelings for the leader of the Jerusalem Community, whom even Paul recognised as one of the ‘Pillars of the Church’. This provides further substantiation for the view that James represented the party which threatened the power of the tyrants, while Paul represented something else. Advocates of justice have never been popular with dictators.
James the Righteous, ‘the Bulwark of the People’, was martyred for his uncompromising adherence to the Law and the Gospel of Jesus.
This early community of the gospel was led by relatives of Jesus for many years. It was called the “Church of the Circumcision” by the Greek Christians, for all the leaders of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem until 135 C.E. were Hebrews and followers of the Law. The line ended when the Roman Emperor Hadrian expelled all Jews from Jerusalem. They had risen up in full scale revolt against Roman rule but were defeated. The Jerusalem Community dispersed in Transjordan and Syria. They were known as “the Poor” or in Hebrew the Ebionim. The city was destroyed and rebuilt as Aelia. It was subsequently inhabited by Gentiles and the leadership of the church there passed to those who followed the tradition of Paul and the teaching that the pagan tyrants should be obeyed.
The Jews did not return to Jerusalem until the Muslims captured it from Byzantine rule in the seventh century.
These early followers of the Gospel of Jesus are regarded as people who submitted to God, i.e. they were “Muslims”. (Editor’s note – Although we tend to think of a Muslim as being someone who adheres to the organized religion of Islam, technically “Muslim” simply means someone who submits to the will of God, even in the pre-Islamic era). The name the Poor or Ebionim indicated not their financial situation but rather their acceptance of total dependence upon God, a notion familiar to modern Muslims. That of course does not assume passivity in face of the world, but rather effort combined with patience. They were also amongst those who asserted the sovereignty of God, in contrast with those who accepted the sovereignty of the Divine Emperor.
Two hundred years later, at about the time of the Council of Nicaea, which Eusebius the respectable Bishop of Caesarea attended, there were recurring “heresies” which Eusebius vehemently denounced. They were mainly arguments that Jesus was a human prophet with a message from God. The now totally Pauline dominated church regarded the teaching that Jesus was a human being, as an ancient “heresy”, something invented. The teachings of the Ebionim had been forgotten. This so-called heresy, in fact a truth, was revived by Paul of Samosata who had been appointed bishop in 264 C.E.
Paul of Samosata taught that Jesus was a man, he denied the doctrine of incarnation, i.e. that God became man, and he refused to allow hymns to Christ to be sung in the churches because he considered them to be innovations.
The Paulician view of Jesus and the Islamic view of Jesus are identical. The Paulicians, followers of Paul of Samosata, lasted as an identifiable group for hundreds of years and were subjected to continuous persecution for their beliefs by the official church. The Muslims, when they came upon the scene, recognised that these Paulicians were allies against the Byzantine Empire. They combined with the Paulicians in the area around Constantinople in resistance to the imperial army. Many of the Paulicians accepted Islam, recognising the similarities to their own Unitarian ideas. A small number called themselves Paulicians even after they had accepted Islam.
Arianism and Spain
When the Muslims entered Spain in 711, at the request of the Christian Governor of Tangier and Ceuta, Julian called Ilyan by the Arabs, they found a population hostile to the ruling King Roderick, who was supported by the official Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church had only recently been able to establish its control of the monarchy, for Visigoth Spain had been Arian (Unitarian) for many centuries. The newly Catholic monarchy wanted to suppress the sources of dissent – the Jews and the Arians. Just 18 years before the arrival of the Muslims a Jewish revolt had been crushed by this king, with much bloodshed. They welcomed the Muslims.
The culture of Arianism had also remained strong in the minds of the people and the clergy. For the first time in the spread of Islam, large numbers of clergy accepted Muhammad as a prophet, a stunning example to their laity. While many remained Christian, large numbers of locals became Muslims.
Islamic culture became the fashionable culture and one monk, Alvar, complained in 854 CE that the young Christian men were following the fashions, the education and the philosophy of the Chaldeans (Muslims).
Tudors and Stuarts
Leaping forward 800 years, in his recent book Islam in Britain 1558-168, Nabil Matar, a Christian Palestinian, was interested in following up reports of English converts to Islam in England but found the issue confounded with Unitarian matters. He writes of the perceived link between Unitarianism and Islam at that time.
“What makes the search for possible English converts to Islam in England more complicated is the imprecision with which the term “Mahometan” was used. It referred not only to Muslims but sometimes to the Christians who did not believe in the Trinity and was therefore suspected of leaning towards Islam.
“If any Christians turn Mahometans,” wrote Thomas Calvert in his translation/elaboration of a rabbi’s statement of conversion to Christianity, “they begin with Arianism and Socinianisme, and then Turcism (Islam) is not so strange a thing.”
Such an association between Unitarianism and Islam was common in this period… Evidently, those who ventured into anti-Trinitarian theologies were viewed as crypto-Muslims: as a result, orthodox theologians started seeing Muslims wherever they saw Unitarians.”
“…the Unitarians, or “Socinians,” as they were derisively called, were the most active group… to proclaim that Islam was closer to their theology than the Protestant or the Catholic traditions. For them, Muslims were religious allies who proved the accuracy of their interpretation of the Christian Scriptures because they concurred with them in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. Although the Unitarians recognized what they termed as “errors” in the Quran, they praised Muslim theology because it had maintained, unlike the post-Chalcedon tradition in Christianity, the unity of God.
In A Letter of Resolution concerning the Doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation (1693), an anonymous writer pointed to Muslim theology and military supremacy as a vindication of Socinian Unitarian arguments. In the world, he stated, Muslims were more numerous than Christians, not because of force but because of the Muslim proclamation of “one Truth in the Alcoran, the Unity of God.” Islam was stronger than Christianity because its doctrine was correct and Christianity’s was wrong. Indeed, when Christians had tried to convert the Tartars in the thirteenth century, he noted, the latter rejected the faith because of its Trinitarianism and subsequently espoused Islam because of its unity. …for the Socinian writer…Islam was a corrective to, not an aberration from, Christianity.”
A closeness in theology, a positive attitude to rationality in religion, and opposition to the cruelty and suppression involved in the religious intolerance of the Inquisition-ridden Catholic Church of that time, meant that even in those less tolerant times when difference in ideology was usually seen as wickedness, many Unitarians saw that there was a link with the world of Islam.
There was a great flowering of religious investigation and dissent during the European Enlightenment, that time in which the old accepted traditions began to be questioned as never before. It signaled the end of feudalism in political life, economic life and religion. Ideas about the equality of man, the right of all people to participate in government, the stupidity of monarchy, freedom of investigation and expression became its banners.
Defenders of the Rights of Man, Unitarians like Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, were forced to flee from Britain by the reactionaries during the French Revolution. He found liberty in the American democracy. Thomas Jefferson, another great Unitarian who did his own translation of the New Testament, died in 1826. He chose as his epitaph “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” Political liberty, religious toleration and serious education, three pillars of the Enlightenment and of Unitarianism.
The unity of God and the desire for justice
Why did the Unitarian follower of Jesus, James the Righteous, become remembered for 2000 years for his role as ‘Bulwark of the People’? Why were the Ebionim suppressed and denounced as heretics by the Pauline church? Why did the Byzantine government try to exterminate the Paulicians, who followed Paul of Samosata? Why did so many Spaniards reject the official church and accept Islam in the eighth century? Why did the Trinitarians in England in the 1600s link Unitarian ideas with drifting into “Turcism”?
Why are ideas like those of Thomas Jefferson so respected by modern Muslims? It had much to do with the rejection of the Pauline Church. With the dispersal of the Community of the Gospel from Jerusalem, the ebionim declared heretical, Christianity became the quietistic religion advocated by Paul, accepting the authority of the Roman Emperor. In fact Paul has been denounced by Unitarians, since the time of the Ebionim as a renegade and apostate.
This Pauline church joined in the general anti-Jewish attitudes of the Empire following the Jewish Revolts of 66 CE and 135 CE. The anti-Jewish tone of much of the New Testament can be traced to this disassociation of the Pauline Christians from Judaism and the desire to appease the Roman authorities as to the loyalty of the Christians to the State. The writing up of the role of the Roman authorities in protecting Paul from the Jews which can be found in the Acts of the Apostles may have been rooted in this same desire.
This personal religion in time became the State Church of Constantine, in which Jesus became intertwined with Sol Invictus, the Sun god. The East, the source of the Rising Sun, became the direction towards which Christians prayed and the rays of the sun around the head of the elect denoted holiness in religious art. Far from challenging the pretensions to sovereignty of the Emperor, this religion supported them, for the state became the mighty protector of Pauline orthodoxy. The Emperor became God’s representative on earth. Heresy, a deviation from official doctrine, became a criminal offence and opposition to the state became a sin against the church.
In 325 CE with the Council of Nicaea, the state religion became Trinitarians and the Unitarian view of Jesus was suppressed. From thenceforth, adherence to Unitarianism was a dangerous ideology, resulting in the martyrdom of many a Unitarian. Unitarianism until very recent times became identified with ideological rebellion against the whole apparatus of the society which was inherited from Rome.
From the Islamic viewpoint, declaration of the unity of God involves acceptance of the sovereignty of God. In the New Testament (Matt 22:35-40), Jesus summarises the Law with the statement “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.” When put into effect, such a philosophy does not sit well with oppression.
There is no god but God
The notion that there is no god, no object worthy of worship, is half way to Islam. The last bit “illallah” (except the One God) is however the clincher. This is the Islamic declaration of faith in the Unity and the Sovereignty of God.
The proclamation that there is no god but the One God is meant to remove for all time from the political spectrum those who claim this role of godhood. The formal declaration of the slogan does not bring this about of course, but it is the aim of the prophets.
There is great depth in what it emphasizes is NOT god, i.e. tyranny over the masses by emperors, kings, dictators and priests. One scholar, Maulana Maududi, much maligned in recent times, explains the political implications in his address delivered in Lahore Oct. 1939 “The Political Theory of Islam”.
Amongst all creation it is only humans who can and do claim godhood in relation to their fellow beings: “The desire for godhood can take root only in the head of man. It is only man’s excessive lust for power and desire for exploitation that prompts him to impose himself on other people as a god and compel their obedience, force them to bow down before him in reverential awe and make them instruments for his self aggrandizement. The pleasure of posing as a god is more delicious than anything that man has yet been able to discover.”
Maududi writes of the two types of people who seek this status of a god. They can be like Pharaoh, with state power, a system of law courts and police and an army. In the past this was associated with direct claims to divine status. The Emperor Augustus was proclaimed a god by the Roman Senate. Pharaoh was the living god, an incarnation of Horus. In modern times they are more likely to be a president for life or the founder of a national ideology with a greater than human status. Maududi writes of this type of aspirant to godhood:
“For instance, there was Pharaoh who was so drunk with power and so proud of his empire that he proclaimed to the inhabitants of Egypt: ‘I am your highest lord’ and ‘I do not know any other objects of worship for you but myself.’
When the Prophet Moses approached him with a demand for the liberation of his people and told him that he too should surrender himself to the Lord of the universe, Pharaoh replied that since he had the power to cast him into prison, Moses should rather acknowledge him as his object of worship.
Similarly there was another king (Nimrod) who had an argument with the Prophet Abraham. Ponder a little carefully over the words in which the Quran has narrated this episode. It says:
“Think of him who had an argument with Abraham about his Lord, because God had given him the kingdom; how, when Abraham said; ‘My Lord is He who gives life and causes death.’ He answered: ‘I give life and cause death’. Abraham said: ‘God causes the sun to rise in the east – can you make it rise in the west.’ So was the resister of truth shamed into silence.”
Nimrod’s claim was based on the absolute power he had over his subjects, over their lives and property. That is why he demanded that Abraham should serve and obey him.
“This claim to godhood which Pharaoh and Nimrod had put forth was by no means peculiar to them. Rulers all over the world in the past, as in the present, have made such claims.”
The second species of claimants to godhood are those who use the gullibility of the people or their ignorance and superstition to assert that they are in some way the mouthpiece of God. These people may claim that they too obey God but that they are the intermediaries through whom humanity must approach Him. They alone must carry out the sacred ceremonies and they alone can guide us:
“Constituting themselves the mouthpieces of God they start dictating to others what is lawful (halal) and what is not (haram). In this way their word becomes law and they force people to obey their own commands instead of those of God. This is the source of that Brahmanism and Pope-like authority which has prevailed under various names and in diverse forms in all parts of the world from time immemorial down to the present day, and in consequence of which certain families, races and classes have imposed their dominion over large masses of men and women.”
According to Maududi, “…the root cause of evil and mischief in the world is the domination of man over man, be it direct or indirect. This was the origin of all troubles and even today this remains the main source of all the plentiful vices which have brought untold misery on the suffering masses all the world over.”
The prophets throughout all history have called us to the path of liberation, away from the slavery which worship of invented gods creates. This call was always in the past and is still today, accompanied by hostility from those whose power was or is threatened. The threat is real. It means the end of personal power over others, the end of domination. Maududi explains it in these terms:
“This was the radical reformation effected by the prophets in the life of humanity. They aimed at the demolition of man’s supremacy over man. Their real mission was to deliver man from this injustice, this slavery to false gods, this tyranny of man over man, this exploitation of the weaker by the stronger. Their object was to thrust back to their proper limits those who had overstepped them and to raise to the proper level those who had been forced down from it. They endeavored to evolve a social organization based on human equality in which man should be neither the slave nor the master of his fellow-beings and in which all men should become the slaves of God.”
The search for justice is an intrinsic part of this acceptance of the sovereignty of God and the root from which the early Unitarians took their stand. They rejected the confusion of the message of Jesus with obscurantist theology, looked at what is given of his message to the world in the Gospels, and sought to defend that message. The confusion of the doctrine of original sin and the need for God to sacrifice His Son to Himself to remove that sin as the core of the message of Jesus was rejected. It was the Gospel of justice which was his purpose.
The confused Trinitarian notion of God, the emperor as the shadow of God on earth, the identification of the state with one religious view, and the oppression this necessitated from the very beginning, is what each revival of Unitarianism fought against.
Put simply, love of God and love of one’s neighbor, means love of humanity, not irrational obedience to state and church. Here in this church, the slogan above the front door, “Seek the Truth and serve Humanity” summarizes this quest.
Shared ideas of Unitarians and Muslims
We share the understanding that human beings as such enjoy an intrinsic dignity which must inform all of our philosophies and our actions. The right of those human beings to sustenance, to the means of a respectable and enjoyable life, to be educated, to be able to express themselves freely and to be consulted in affairs of their community are essential.
The status of the human is illustrated in chapter 2: “And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam” and they bowed down. Not so Satan: he refused and was haughty: He was of those who reject Faith.” (Quran 2:34)
Human beings in their natural state are higher in dignity than the angels. The one who believed he was higher than the human because he was made of fire, Satan, thus became the first racist.
To Islam, human beings are representatives of God equipped with free will. All human beings are equal. The only distinction made by God is in their degree of righteousness. Islam allows no distinction amongst people on the basis of tribe or race, ethnic group or amount of wealth. The Muslims are different from other people only in that they are conscious of the importance of submission to God’s decrees.
No one has the right to oppress people, to take away their freedoms, for to do so is to take away those rights given by God. The right to choose, the right to know, the right to sustenance are intrinsic human rights. Those who take them away are posing as gods.
Love of justice, part of which is protection of God given rights, is another shared ideal of Unitarians and Muslims. The Quran orders Muslims “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the desires (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you (distort) justice or decline to do justice, truly Allah is well acquainted with all that you do.” (Quran 4:135)
Unitarians battled slavery in the USA and battled racism in the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1960s. In Britain, the USA and Australia they have long been proponents of peace and opponents of war. The teachings of Islam on racism are clear. It has never been a part of Muslim societies and even today in the Dark Age of Islam, it is unknown. In his last sermon on the final pilgrimage, Muhammad specifically forbade any idea that an Arab was superior to a non-Arab, or a non-Arab was superior to an Arab, or that a black was superior to a white or that a white was superior to a black. The only distinction is in righteousness and that is known to God.
Although slavery was not immediately abolished by the Quran, it was restricted so that it declined and was never of the type of the post-Roman world with the horrible latifundia (large Roman and post-Roman agricultural estates) on which human beings were treated like beasts of burden. To free a slave was a popular good deed and sometimes slaves were bought to be freed. Prisoners of war were slaves and were freed if they were ransomed, according to the common practice of the time, of if they taught a Muslim to read.
A Hadeeth of Muhammad indicates that the position of the slave was not to be onerous. They were expected to have the same standard of living as the master. “I saw Abu Dhar Al-Ghifari wearing a cloak, and his slave, too, was wearing a cloak. We asked him about that (i.e. how both were wearing similar cloaks). He replied, “Once I abused a man and he complained of me to the Prophet. The Prophet asked me, ‘Did you abuse him by slighting his mother?’ He added, ‘Your slaves are your brothers upon whom Allah has given you authority. So, if one has one’s brothers under one’s control, one should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears. You should not overburden them with what they cannot bear, and if you do so, help them (in their hard job).’
In “Encountering Islam,” A sermon by the Rev. Roger Bertschausen, Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Wisconsin, January 25-26, 2003, a similar evaluation is given.
He writes, after commenting on our disbelief in the trinity and our denial of the notion of original sin: “Another similarity to Unitarianism and Universalism is Islam’s view that religion is far more about practice and deeds than about theology and creeds. Islam is a religion primarily of action and works—just like Unitarian Universalism. How we live in the world is the crux of both us and Muslim spirituality.
The heart of Islam is action. This action is embodied in the Five Pillars: the declaration of faith, saying prayers five times a day, supporting the poor through giving away 2.5 percent of one’s total wealth and assets each year (not just income), the annual month-long Ramadan fast, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s life if it’s at all possible.
So take the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus out of Christianity, get rid of belief in original sin and the resurrection of Jesus, focus on practice and deeds rather than theology and creeds, and you have not just Islam, but Unitarian Universalism. Ours are truly kindred faiths.”
The Quran and Muhammad
The great difference between us is that Muslims view the Quran as the revealed word of God and Muhammad as the Messenger of God. His life, his actions, his speech and his silence are taken as exemplary by all Muslims. The role of his Companions, those who lived with him, worked with him and discussed issues with him, is also highly significant. They passed on the Hadeeth to us, the sayings of Muhammad (p) which are taken as elucidating the Quran.
We will not agree on many matters, and Muslims accept that this is part of the world we live in. We are told in the Quran: “If it had been your Lord’s Will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will you then compel humankind, against its will, to believe!” – (Quran 10:99)
Of course human beings cannot and should not be compelled to believe. We are free to make our own choices, a God-given right. And to make matters crystal clear, compulsion is specifically prohibited: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” (Quran 2:256)
Muslims have always joined with other people of good will in good things. On the 90% of what we agree upon there is a firm foundation for common action, particularly in pursuit of justice.