Letter to a Catholic friend exploring Islam:
Hello, [Name redacted]! Salam alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh—
Peace be with you, and the mercy of God and His blessings.
I hope this note finds you in good health and spirits. Thank you for your kind message. It seems that we have quite a lot in common in our respective faith journeys. I am someone who was raised Roman Catholic as you were. From my earliest conscious memories of theological belief, I had always believed in the eternal, divine sonship of Jesus the Christ (may God’s peace be upon him) and in one God subsisting as the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Growing up, I was relatively devout in my teenage years, attending weekly Mass with my family and receiving all the Church’s sacraments. I prayed often and often composed written prayers, which I have continued to do throughout my life. In my teen years, searching for truth amidst the rather banal atmosphere of the post-Vatican II parish liturgical life of suburban Long Island, I was drawn theologically ‘eastward’. I studied extensively and with much intellectual reflection about the Baha’i faith, Islam, Judaism, and a bit about the various “Hinduisms” (Sanātana Dharma, mainly Advaita Vedanta), as well as Chinese Confucianism, and Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist thought.
Then in my early college years in Washington DC—having become much more solidified in my Christian faith conviction—I became fascinated by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. After a year and a half of intense study, frequent church participation, and prayerful reflection, in 2011 I converted to Orthodox Christianity, having been deeply awestruck by its radiant liturgical patrimony of beauty and majesty, rich history, immense Patristic wisdom, and the richness and integrity of its mystical theology and rigorous daily praxis as compared with so much of contemporary lukewarm post-Vatican II Catholicism. Of course, there are degrees and elements of truth in all authentic religious traditions, and I certainly continue to appreciate many Christians’ sincere love for God and reverence for Jesus (peace be upon him).
I was a devoutly practising Orthodox Christian from fall 2010 (when I began attending weekly Liturgies, Saturday night vigils and vespers) through to spring 2018. I recall the period with immense warmth, peace, and spiritual joy. My weekly life as a student and paid intern and writer became increasingly focused and oriented toward daily prayer following the liturgical hours in the morning and evening. My consciousness became imbued with the different holy days and saints’ days, and praying as much of the Divine Office as I could with my dear Catholic and Orthodox apartment-mates and friends. I was very involved in my cathedral parish, sang in the choir, and became close to my bishop, whose impact on my life remains very dear to me.
However, in all this time, that earlier seemingly inexplicable pull toward Islam never quite went away, and my attraction to it never quite left me. I continued to study its teachings in much detail, and was often disturbed and dismayed by how most of my Orthodox and Catholic friends’ perception of it was rooted more in caricature and the worst news-based generalizations about Islamist terrorism than authentic, integrated engagement with Islamic history, beliefs, and principles.
Most of my theological questions came down to two: “Who was the real Jesus?” and “who was the real Muhammad?”. As always, I read widely, from modern lay scholars and clerics to ancient saints and fathers. In spite of what was initially a tremendous emotional barrier to the notion of ever embracing Islam, I gradually became convinced of Islam’s particular truth claims (insofar as the differences on Christology and the nature of God are concerned) in early 2018. This was a time when I began to closely examine the historicity of the Biblical accounts, their texts’ theological positions relative to the official Trinitarian Orthodox and Catholic dogmas as established by the foundational imperial Church councils, etc.
One day, either in late spring or early summer 2018, I was rather surprised to wake up and realize that I no longer could believe in the Christian sense of original/ancestral sin or the Trinity—not because I didn’t want to believe these things, I desperately still wanted to remain a Christian, having been a convinced Christian for years, but I could no longer believe that these doctrines about God were eternal truths about Him. I was no longer able to believe in the chief particular truth claims of orthodox, catholic Christianity, such as 1) the idea of Jesus/God the Son’s sole incarnation and salvific death as the savior and redeemer of mankind from original sin (since I no longer believed in original sin), and 2) the notion that God always existed eternally as one-in-three and three-in-one, but that the Second Person of the Trinity (God the Son) become incarnate (as Jesus Christ) only once in human history, 2,000 years ago, to a people on the edge of the Roman Empire who rejected Him.
If one takes the Christian position—dogmatically codified at the first imperial council held at Nicaea in AC 325 some 300 years after Jesus’s alleged crucifixion, about a quarter-century before what would become the New Testament canon was finalized—that Jesus was God, one has to admit that this is a curious God utterly unlike the ‘god’ Krishna in the Gita or the God of the Old Testament’s Torah, all of whom repeatedly asserted their divinity. Jesus never once directly claimed to be God in the New Testament, but actually commanded everyone to worship God, repeated the Shema Yisrael (Hear O Israel) prayer of absolute monotheism, and said that he didn’t know when the Day of Judgment would be and that his Father (e.g. God) was greater than him. These verses clearly support a more Arian reading of the Scriptures, so why were they put into the final New Testament canon by what came to be known as the Nicene or orthodox/catholic Imperial Church?
In this time, I asked a number of other pressing theological questions which none of my brilliant, well-meaning priest and bishop friends were able to adequately answer, such as:
–Who exactly did Jesus worship in the Biblical account? Jesus repeatedly worships God [the Father] in the verses of the New Testament, so if Jesus is God, he is seemingly thus worshipping himself in a different form, if in fact the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons of one Godhead. How or why does God worship Himself?
—Why would a God thus worship Himself, or how can one part of God worship another part without the nature of the Divinity being confused? This presents a problem. Or, if one says that Jesus is worshiping God, and clearly differentiating between God and Jesus, clearly this shows that Jesus is not God.
–What was Jesus’ religion? How did he worship? We know that during his lifetime, anything resembling later institutionalized Christianity and post-Temple rabbinical, Talmudic Judaism didn’t yet exist. Most historians call the Judaism of Jesus’s time Second Temple Judaism, in reference to the cult of temple sacrifice there, and of course this religion ended in AC/’AD’ 70 with the very Temple’s destruction by the Roman army under future Emperor Flavius Titus.
So if Jesus is the eternal God-Man, one is presented with this bizarre paradox that he was never a Christian, as it were, nor a Muslim in the post-Muhammadan sense, nor a rabbinical Jew, but rather, he worshiped at and in a temple that was destroyed. The religion Jesus observed and practiced in his earthly lifetime, according to the Biblical canon, doesn’t exist anymore. How does this make any sense? Muslims of course say that Jesus was, in the pre-Muhammadan sense, a Muslim—a worshipper of the one eternal God.
Thus, as these questions began to gnaw at me unansqered, my core foundation of orthodox Christian belief crumbled. It was a disturbing experience, certainly jarring, but I realized that I still absolutely loved and revered Jesus (peace be upon him) as an incomparably holy person unbelievably close to God. I deeply loved him, and all the prophets and saints. I just couldn’t any longer believe that he was somehow the uncreated, eternal, omniscient God of the universe. This flowed from reading the Bible itself and examining how and when the New Testament canon was established—at around AC 367, over three centuries after Christ. From a Muslim perspective, three centuries corresponds to when the last of the most authoritative ahadith were authenticated and canonized some 250-300 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family). As a historical reality, by contrast, from a secular perspective, the Qur’ān was canonised in its final form within a generation of the death of the Prophet. The comparative historical integrity of the canonisation of the Qur’ān as opposed to the Bible deeply impressed me—and this was as someone who had of course read numerous Christian articles striving to attack the Qur’ān’s integrity.
To affirm, as a former Christian, the first part of the Islamic Shahadah was and is quite easy, since Christians consciously believe in only one God but in a way quite different from Tawhīd. The second part, of affirming Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets (literally one just affirms that he is God’s Servant and Messenger), of course took much longer to emotionally and psychologically settle into and accept, given my Christian background. Since this time, however, I have developed a great love for Muhammad, since literally all that is beautiful within Islam comes from either his direct example (his Sirah/vita) and his embodied Tradition or Way (Sunnah), or from the beautiful divine Revelation which was revealed by God to him and imprinted upon his heart and soul. In terms of the canonical Islamic daily prayers and spiritual life, I have never ceased to marvel at what a wealth of prayerful tradition and discipline (salaat), supplication (dua), and remembrance of God (dhikr) Islam has. Its spirituality is unbelievably deep, beautiful, and grounding.
Once I did extensive research to examine and test all the various negative Christian and Western portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad, I came to instead see how he was and is this magnificently noble and heroic model for all attributes of human behavior and life, and how the theology he taught offers the most comprehensive, all-encompassing, balanced cosmological framework for peaceful, harmonious, and virtuous human existence. The inner dimension and reality of the Prophet’s life and all the teachings of Islam as found in the ocean of the Qur’ānic revelation are a radiant lighthouse guiding spiritual travelers in navigating, illuminating, and transforming our relationship with God, each other, and all creation. In no other historical figure can one find an example to refer to a man who was all that the Prophet Muhammad was:
–an effective ruler and statesman (many kings and queens were this, but not most prophets…)
–a strategic general and commander
–a fair, impartial, and far-minded judge
–an astute merchant and scrupulously just businessman
–a devoted, gentle husband and loving father
—a pious worshipper of God and teacher of spiritual truth
—a charitable lover of the poor, but also an educator in teaching the poor to become more self-sufficient
—an utterly holy spiritual mystic who taught an integrated model for perfecting human behavior and spirituality, while never himself claiming to be anything other than a mortal prophet, a man who suffered much and stood to lose everything in terms of worldly success from preaching the religion he followed.
As you may be aware, quite a lot of authentic Sufi Muslim spirituality—while necessarily being firmly rooted in the inner and outer theological life of Islam—has much in common with the authentic, legitimate aspects of Eastern Orthodox hesychia and prayer of the heart.
Regarding the Islamic view of salvation, our salvation depends on and flows firstly from the all-encompassing mercy of God, our Beloved Lord, the Necessary Being, First Cause, and source of Reality itself, who created us each with a unique soul bearing the individuated imprint of His own eternal Spirit. He did this out of His eternal Love, because—existing of eternity within and by Himself—He longed to be known and loved, as the beautiful hadith qudsi of God speaking through the Prophet shows. This is why He created the cosmos: for all things to worship and adore Him by their very being.
Alone of all God’s beautiful creatures, mankind enjoys the benefit of a fully rational soul so that we might grow to choose to love and worship Him, growing closer to Him inwardly in prayer and fasting, and outwardly through our loving acts of kindness, charity, and humane concern for others. As was the case with our father and progenitor Adam—to whom God taught the names, attributes, and realities of all created things—God longs for us to be careful vicegerents or caretaking stewards over the earth on the macrocosmic level. This same vicegerency exists over our nations, towns, and families on more localizdd levels, and then our own souls on the microcosmic level.
Like our father Adam, we may choose to either ignore or we may passively forget the Truth—that is, to turn away from God in sin—and then repent, having fallen short of our innate human potential and either aggrieving or angering Him. Mindful of the Divine Mercy, in our act of repenting, we actualize our free will in turning toward God, who, in His loving gentleness, turns again and again toward us.
From this Divine Mercy—manifested in 1) God’s very creation of the cosmos (the breath of the All-Merciful One animates all entities and things) and 2) His sending down numerous (symbolically 124,000) divine guides and prophets to every people—men and women who were spiritual teachers and warners who strove to call us to remember Him, His laws, His mercy, and our own noble ensoulment and our radiant free will to draw nearer to Him—stems our acknowledgement of Him as our Lord and Creator. God alone can bestow forgiveness and mercy on His creatures, and our existence itself by His permission is the greatest sign of this mercy. Islam is the foundational and outer dimension of the Path taught by Prophet Muhammad. In the most direct sense, it means free submission to God’s will and providence, by which we are reconciled and reconstituted to all things in Him.
From all of this flows our abiding faith in God as our Loving Sustainer, Provider, and Ruler. It is this faith–in God, His angels, prophets, divine scriptures, laws, decrees, justice, and Providence—which should inspire our ever-deepening love, beauty of character (ihsan) and remembrace (dhikr) of Him throughout our day, most especially in the prescribed daily prayers, by which we draw as wayfaring lovers into ever-ascending communion with our Beloved Lord. The most basic but integral level of wayfaring, the foundational rung in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, is the dedicated, pious performance of these daily prayers which the Prophet termed “the ascension (of the soul) of the believer” since they deeply anchor the mind, heart, and soul in God.
By this wayfaring, we gradually confront, master, and eventually (God-willing) overcome or annihilate the constraints of our ego or ‘oppositional self’ (nafs al-amarra) that within us which veils us from seeing God as the all-pervading, utterly immanent-yet-transcendant Reality, the immutable Divine Essence from which all existence takes its form and essence.
In the lifelong, recurring process of overcoming the ego, the attachments and illusions which distract us from seeing our true spiritual selves before God and seeing Him in everything, we come, God-willing, to see Him alive and manifest in ourselves and in others, and all creation. We then realize that there is nowhere that He is not, save in the vain earth-tethered egoistic imaginings of the ignorant soul which is blind and deaf to His Reality.
We externally manifest the visible fruits of our interior faith and deepening ascension to God within the depths of our heart and soul by fulfilling our core moral and religious obligations, avoiding sin, repenting of any sins, and doing numerous good works of charity and piety to become more and more spiritually pure and beautiful. While we strive toward spiritual perfection, we can never escape our created essence, which makes us distinct from the uncreated, eternally Divine Lord.
Married to faithful observance of the external religious obligations of prayer, fasting, charity, and repentance, we strive—under careful spiritual direction from a trained guide—toward encompassing states of ever-deepening spiritual transformation, purification, illumination, and ultimately perfection or godliness in the station-by-station Ascent toward mystical union with God our Beloved. In this union, we rejoice in the indescribable transcendence and radiant immanence of He who is the Cause of all causes, the Reality beyond and behind all realities, and the Creator of all creatures.
In closing, I hope this note has served to answer some of your questions and concerns. I would be happy to talk with you further and, if I’m able to, answer any more of your questions or direct you to someone with greater knowledge who may have a better or fuller answer. May God bless you in all things and illumine you in your search for His Truth! I ask your prayers for me as always.
WRITTEN BY Ryan Hunter