By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The teachings of Jesus and Muhammad have been considered the word of God for Christians and Muslims since the birth of those religions. Those teachings described the will of God, including standards of legitimacy (what is right) for believers, but since those ancient times there have been dramatic social, political and economic changes that necessitate new interpretations of those teachings.
Many contemporary issues, like those relating to democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law, were not addressed by Jesus or Muhammad because they were not relevant to their time and place. Today progressive believers interpret their scriptures to relate to current issues, but fundamentalist believers cannot do that since they believe that their ancient scriptures and holy laws remain the perfect and immutable word of God.
The ancient settings for the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad shaped their content. For Jesus, 1st century Palestine was under Roman rule and Jesus never addressed the political and legal issues of governance as did Moses and Muhammad. Even so, the early teachings of Muhammad in Mecca were not concerned with issues of governance and were similar to those of Jesus, but that changed when Muhammad left Mecca for Medina and assumed political power, and his teachings reflected ancient issues of law and governance like those of Moses, not Jesus.
In the ancient times of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, authoritarian rule was the accepted norm for governance and holy laws provided obligatory standards of legitimacy. Since the 18th century democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law have been the accepted norms of law and government in the libertarian democracies of the West, where religions have rejected authoritarian rule and conformed their doctrines to libertarian values and capitalism.
Culture shapes religion just as religion shapes culture. While freedom and libertarian values have transformed culture and religion in the West, little has changed in the tribal cultures of the Islamic East where authoritarian forms of government continue to rule under Islamic law (shari’a). Globalization has brought Christians and Muslims from these divergent cultures closer together, resulting in suspicion and even hostility based on religious and political differences; but that conflict can be resolved with understanding that leads to the respect and accommodation of their religious and cultural differences, or better yet, to religious reconciliation.
There are significant differences in the teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on concepts of legitimacy, law and governance. The teachings of Moses and Muhammad were based on the absolute sovereignty of God, with no distinction between the sacred and secular; but Jesus spoke of different obligations to God and to Caesar. Muhammad, like Moses, emphasized submission to God’s law, while Jesus emphasized the principle of love over law.
If Jesus and Muhammad were to meet today, what would they say about the relationship between religion and politics? First they would set aside their many differences and debunk the principle of religious fundamentalism that asserts the immutable truth of their ancient teachings, then reaffirm the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for modern times. Then they would consider how to apply the principle of love over law to issues of religion and politics.
Both would likely agree that libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law are political ideals that are consistent with God’s will, but that for those cultures with no experience in democratic governance, authoritarian rule under religious law is justified so long as fundamental human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech, are protected. Both Jesus and Muhammad would lament the libertarian excesses of modern democracies that put individual rights and personal gratification ahead of providing for communal needs, especially caring for the poor and needy, and then they would encourage their followers to apply the principle of love over law to reconcile their differences in religion and politics.
There is an irony in religions embracing the libertarian values of the Enlightenment as an ideal of faith as well as politics. Libertarian values are analogous to forbidden fruit; once tasted, there is no turning back. In libertarian democracies traditional religions had to conform to advances in knowledge, reason and libertarian values to survive, and in the process they lost members and power. But that decline in religion should not be confused with a decline in faith. Individuals can adapt their faith to changing times more easily than institutional religions; and if religions expect to survive, they must also learn to adapt their ancient doctrines to modern times.
The ancient teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on morality and law related to their time and place. If Jesus and Muhammad were to meet today, they would adapt their teachings to modern times and reject any teaching inconsistent with the greatest commandment and the principle of love over law. While they would acknowledge that some cultures are not yet ready for libertarian democracy, they would agree that God’s will is a matter of the heart that cannot be coerced by law and is consistent with both freedom in politics and free will in religion. Finally, they would emphasize the need to reconcile all people of faith into the universal family of God.
Notes and References to Resources:
The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, is an interfaith Resource on the website that presents those ancient teachings with commentary that relates them to contemporary issues, as explained in the Introduction at pages 10-15.
See Blog/Archives for related blogs: Religion and Reason, posted December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, posted December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, posted January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is there a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? Posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, posted March 29, 2015; and Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted April 12, 2015.
On the paradox of fundamentalism that pits unquestioned belief in ancient scriptures against freedom in religion and politics, and relates that theme to Michael Walzer’s latest book, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, see E. J. Dionne at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-paradox-of- fundamentalism/2015/06/03/e4808cbe-0a13-11e5-9e39-0db921c47b93_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.