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Was Islam a Christian sect?

Filipinos last Tuesday enjoyed an unexpected holiday few most probably knew what it was about. It was the day of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of Islam’s major holidays.

It celebrates the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim to kill as sacrifice his son Isma’il, after Allah commanded him to do as an act of his submission to the Deity. Just as Ibrahim was about to slit his son’s throat, he magically finds instead a sacrificial ram prepared on the table, and he is ecstatic that his son will live.

It is a familiar story for Christians. It is the story of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish nation tested by Yahweh. An intriguing difference though is that in Jewish and Christian scriptures, the would-be human sacrifice is not Isma’il (Ismael for Jews and Christians) but his younger half-brother Isaac (Ishaq in Islam). In the Judeo-Christian version, an angel at the last minute stops Abraham from committing filicide.

That episode is one of the most vivid illustrations of the fact that Muslims, Christians and Jews share many common beliefs and scriptures. Islam in fact considers as the word of God the Jewish Torah, which makes up the first five books of the Christian Old Testament as well as King David’s Psalms. Thus Jews, Christians, and Muslims are called the “People of the Book”. In Islam though, Jesus is demoted from being some kind of Deity to just one of the last great prophets of Allah, before Mohammed came into the scene, that is.

Fervent Jews, Christians and Muslims obviously have interpreted these commonalities in sharply contrasting ways. Religion A sees Religions B and C as lucky to have accepted as part of Scripture as coming form God, but unfortunately are still blind to believe in the entire Scripture—which only Religion A accepts.

The Christian version of Eid al-Adha : Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son (portrait by Gerhard Wilhelm von Reutern, 1849

The Christian version of Eid al-Adha : Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son (portrait by Gerhard Wilhelm von Reutern, 1849

I suppose Jews in effect see Christianity at best as some kind of “Jewish Lite”, that is, a religion without the rigorous rituals, rigid requirements such as circumcision, and dietary restrictions. It just so happened that Christianity became the official religion of empires, first of the Roman Empire and then the various European empires that succeeded it, and therefore became the dominant religion since it had to be accepted by the masses or the colonized as in our case, or else.

Christians on the other hand see their faiths bolstered when they see that even Muslims believe as divinely inspired a part of the Holy Bible, and that they recognize Jesus Christ even as just a prophet. I suppose Muslims would see Christianity as outdated: Yes, Jesus was a prophet who taught the Word of God in Palestine, but God had more time and energy to appoint another prophet, who would be the last Mohammed.

But just as science has unlocked the mysteries of the universe even down to the sub-atomic level, science – social sciences such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology, even linguistics – have rent asunder starting in the late 19th century and accelerating only in the past few decades the mystifications believed for centuries as Divine Scriptures.

These have been conclusively proven not as written by or even inspired by Deity but as societies’ literature, collections of the wisdom of their sages—human wise men—as well as of the mores and values of tribes that would become nations during humanity’s pre-modern era.

That is, the Bhagavad Gita would be for the Hindus what the Torah would be for the Jews, or the Five Classics for Confucian Chinese, or Homer’s Iliad for the Greeks.

Such writings would later be used to anchor the belief systems or ideology of the various religions.

God just doesn’t write his words nor did he get humans to be his stenographers. Humans write, and somebody or some group selects some of these writings – as Emperor Constantine did through the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to form what would be our Bible – and declares them as the Word of God.

It is through such a perspective that we can now understand why Jews, Christians, and Muslims became the “People of the Book”.

The Jewish nation had its set of writings, including the Torah, which it claimed was divinely inspired. This gave it the national mythology to survive as God’s Chosen People through the centuries against hostile powerful tribes and nations. Jesus was a Jewish prophet who believed in Israel’s Holy Books, and the religion that emerged from his oral teachings was bolstered by and disseminated through the writings of those who believed that he was God.

Since Jesus was a fervent Jew, and especially since his followers strengthened his claim to divinity by proclaiming that he was prophesied in Israel’s ancient books—the Christianity that emerged from his teachings just had to include the old Jewish “Holy Books”, which became part of the Old Testament.

It is in through such a perspective that the answer to this column’s title becomes so obvious.

Why would Islam which emerged in Arabia in the 7th century take as divinely inspired, a set of books only the Jews (and Christians) believed so, at a period when they were a weak, small nation conquered and occupied by the Roman Empire and then its successor, the Byzantine empire, with most of them scattered and bullied around Europe?

The only logical answer was that it was initially a religion that believed in some of the Jews’ holy books. That is, it was a Christian sect.

Because of the rise of Islam in the Middle East most people think that that region of the world had been Islamic every since they were inhabited by men. Not so. Christianity had spread in the Middle East in the first several centuries of its founding, as much as it did in Europe.

But we have to remember that before Christianity was firmly established as the state religion of the Roman Empire, there were “many Christianities”, different contrasting versions of Christianity, ranging from one that believed that Jesus Christ was simply a kind of God’s avatar (in the way the term was used in the Avatar movie) to one that believed that he was just a prophet.

While it had been alleged by one historian as early as the late 19th century, research have accelerated only in the past few decades claiming an astounding thesis:

Islam was actually a Christian sect in the first centuries of Christianity’s rise that broke off and rose to become a full-fledged religion, in the way Christianity did vis-à-vis the Jewish religion.

The products of such scholarship have even become very relevant. One academic using the pseudonym Christoph Luxenborg wrote a scholarly tract that alleged that many of the verses in Islam’s holy book the Quran were liturgical material used by a Christian sect in Syria, and were written originally in Syriac and as well as in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in Palestine.

In Aramaic, “hur” referred to “white grapes”, certainly a gift from the Deity if you’re lost in the deserts of the Middle East. But in Arabic, it meant “virgins”, so that the Quran was interpreted to be promising 72 virgins to martyrs.

Would there have been less jihadist suicide bombers if they had been promised in the afterlife not 72 virgins but a bag of white grapes?