On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque.
But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam.
Americans—particularly those who grew up in the Roman Church—might have certain assumptions about what beliefs and practices are distinctly “Islamic.” Many of us strongly associate Arabic terms like sharia, jihad, and Allah, and customs such as women’s hair covering, with Islam. However, my time spent living in Jordan and touring Israel/Palestine has revealed that some of these stereotypically “Islamic” things are also quite Christian. These unexpected points of contact between Christianity and Islam may help Christians appreciate our own diverse religious heritage, and develop a better understanding of a people and a religion that often seem utterly ‘other’.
(See related photos at the end of the article.)
Headscarves in the Holy Land
Many Americans have never seen a Catholic woman covering her hair during Mass, but the practice was mandated by the Church until the mid 1960s. Today, few women still come to Mass with a thin lace veil over their hair.
But in the Middle East, like in Christian communities around the world, this practice is often maintained. Rural Christian women in Jordan dress remarkably similarly to their Muslim counterparts. When I visited churches in rural Anjara or at Jesus’ baptismal site along the Jordan River, I saw Christian women who, outside of a Christian setting, I would have guessed were Muslims. Some Christian women not only attend Mass wearing long dresses and thick scarfs, but they don this garb in daily life. For hundreds of years, all Christians dressed in tribal clothing just like their neighbors. (You can see images here.) Headscarves, like the one worn by the Virgin Mary, have been a practical and cultural staple in this region for thousands of years. The practice does not take Islam as its source but is rather a common practice of the Middle East, where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all emerged.
In Catholic churches in urban Amman, some women also wear a thin veil during Mass. At the Melkite parish, which maintains the Greek rite despite its communion with Rome, every woman puts on a veil before receiving the Eucharist. This practice is similar to that of Muslim women; regardless of whether they wear a hijab in public, they always cover their head before praying at home or in a mosque. By choosing to wear a headscarf, whether at Mass or all the time, a woman is signaling her reverence and humility before God. She is saying, “I acknowledge the specialness of this moment, when I am in God’s presence.”
During my visit to Jerusalem, I noticed that it wasn’t just the local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish women who covered their heads during prayer. Christian pilgrims from around the world wore headscarves when they entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christianity’s holiest site, and the Russian Orthodox church of Mary Magdalene. As they walked the stone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, European women with bare arms and legs kept scarves tied under their chins—because in the Holy Land, every spot is holy. The prevalence of the headscarf in other Christian contexts prompts us to ask, “Why do we make such a big deal about when Muslim women wear it?” and “Why have we abandoned this practice?”
Arabic, The Language of Many
Arabic, with its swirling script and deep syllables, is the official liturgical and scriptural language of Islam. The five obligatory prayers must be completed in Arabic (regardless of one’s vernacular) and the Qur’an—which records the revelations of God to the prophet Muhammad—is composed in Arabic.
Unfortunately, in post-9/11 America, particular Arabic terms—and the Arabic language as a whole—have developed a negative connotation. We wonder whether Muslims’ Allah is something other than the Judeo-Christian God, we condemn jihad, and we fear sharia “creeping” into our social and political life. For many it is a language of scary sounds and a frightening religion.
Thus, it may surprise Americans that Arabic is not only the language of Islam. It is also used in everyday life by over 200 million Arabs, which include Christians, Jews, and other socio-religious groups. For centuries—even before the advent of Islam in the seventh century—Christians have used Arabic to express and live out their faith. It even makes use (and embraces) Arabic words that many Christian Americans may have assumed are exclusively Islamic. (Click here to listen to a recitation of the Gospel of Luke in Arabic.)
The word, Allah, which refers to the supreme being, is a compound of the Arabic words al (“the”) and ilah (“god”). The definitive nature of Allah connotes just what capital-G “God” signals in English: there may be many “gods/ilahs” but there is only one supreme God/Allah, worthy of worship.
According to Kenneth Thomas, “Arabs used the word Allah for the supreme being before the time of Muhammad.” That means that Christians and Jews living in Arabia used the word before Islam came into being. Though their biblical texts were composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Syriac, the faith was communicated to the masses orally, in Arabic. Since the eighth century, when the text of Bible was first translated into Arabic, Allah has been the term of choice to translate elohim or theos, the Hebrew and Greek terms for “God.”
The word is still used among Christians today in Mass or other liturgical settings, the Bible, and daily life. Silver necklaces reading “Allah mahibba,” or “God is love,” hang on the necks of Christian women. Like their Muslim neighbors, Christians often exclaim “Alhamdulilah,” or “praise God” upon hearing good news. When I sing the Agnus Dei in Mass, I say Ya hamil Allah (“Lamb of God”), along with the rest of the Arabic-speaking congregation.
But some wonder if Christians and Muslims should use the same term for God when some of our beliefs about God differ. Christians believe in God’s Trinitarian nature, while Muslims assert that “God did not beget a son” (Qur’an 23:91). Some, particularly those who would like to sow division between Christians and Muslims, would even claim that these differences in theology are so great that we believe in completely different Gods altogether. Respected scholars, like former Vatican official Fr. Thomas Michel, disagree. He writes:
For fourteen centuries Arabic-speaking Christians, Muslims, and Jews have called God “Allah,” a common witness that in spite of our difficulties our God is one and the same.… It is the firm conviction of Christians today, and has been through the centuries, that the God of Muslims and Christians in one, and hence we must oppose any attempts to give the impression that we worship different Gods by the use of different names for the one and the same God.
Muslims, too, insist that they believe in the same God as Christians and Jews. The Qur’an explains that Muslims worship in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Qur’an 2:133). Our differences in doctrine, believers and scholars agree, should not be a reason to use different names for God.
Images of suicide bombers in Iraq or turban-clad Taliban in Afghanistan might be what come to mind when many Americans hear the word, jihad. But this Arabic term means more than “holy war;” in fact, Christians sometimes use the term as well.
John Esposito, a Georgetown University professor and scholar of Islam, summarizes the concept succinctly:
Jihad, “to strive or struggle” in the way of God, is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam, though it has no such official status. In its most general meaning, it refers to the obligation incumbent on all Muslims, as individuals and as a community, to exert themselves to realize God’s will, to lead virtuous lives, and to extend the Islamic community through preaching, education, and so on… A related meaning is the struggle for or defense of Islam, holy war. Despite the fact that jihad is not supposed to include aggressive warfare, this has occurred, exemplified by early extremists…and contemporary groups.” (Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path)
In his comprehensive article, “Jihad: Holy or Unholy,” Esposito explains that the Prophet Muhammad contrasted “the two broad meanings of jihad, non-violent and violent.” Upon returning from battle, he said, “We return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” The greater jihad is the more difficult and more important struggle against one’s ego, selfishness, greed, and evil.
The “greater jihad,” the inner struggle for holiness, is one that Christians also take up. The verb is used throughout the New Testament and Christian men are sometimes given Jihad as a first name.
Properly understood and executed, the “lesser jihad” of taking up arms, can be compared to Christianity’s theory of just war. Suheib Webb, a well-known American imam and convert to Islam, explains that Muslims are only allowed to use violence if their human rights, or those of others, are being violated. Islamic law states that jihad is only just and valid if violence is used proportionally and as a last resort, and if innocent civilians are not targeted.
When we realize that many contemporary “jihadist” fighters in Syria and Afghanistan are in fact trampling over both meanings of jihad, we can see that the Islamic concept of struggle isn’t too different from Christian concepts about self-betterment, social justice, and just war.
In recent years, pundits at Fox News and elsewhere have stirred up fears about sharia, distorting Americans’ understanding about this Arabic term. Ignoring (sometimes intentionally) the more nuanced meaning of this Islamic concept, they claim that Muslims want to overturn the Constitution and impose extreme laws on the American public.
Sharia literally means “path” or “way” and, according to Esposito, “refers to God’s will, laws, principles and values, found in the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad [Islam’s two sources of divine revelation].” Usually, sharia is used to connote the body of laws developed by early Islamic jurists to govern moral and social life. But to reduce sharia to these laws (which are often contested by Islamic scholars) is to miss the bigger point. These laws, like the 613 precepts of Judaism or Catholic Canon Law, are intended to help orient believers toward a holy life, and to direct them in building a society in which dignity, justice, peace, and freedom flourish. If these core principles—which resemble Christian and also secular American values—are not being served by the specific laws themselves, then they must be evaluated. Put simply, sharia is the Islamic guidebook for building what Catholics would call the “kingdom of God.”
Arabic-speaking Christians use the word sharia, too. I encountered it in Catholic Mass last fall at my local Arabic-speaking parish. Before the Liturgy of the Word, the priest recited the text of the day’s Collect prayer, which in English reads, “O God, who founded all the commands of your sacred Law upon love of you and of our neighbor, grant that, by keeping your precepts, we may merit to attain eternal life.” In the Arabic translation, sharia is used for capital-L “Law.” Of course, in Christianity the term does not connote specific Islamic precepts, but it does indicate the same, principal meaning: God’s vision for His creation. The Collect prayer speaks of a process, a journey toward God, and it echoes the plea of the Qur’an’s most recited verse, “Guide us on the straight path.”
When we better understand the concept of sharia in Islam, and see how it is used in Christian contexts, we are compelled to confront the current portrayal and use of the word in the American media.
Losing our labels
Learning about Middle Eastern Christianity challenges Westerners to set aside many of our assumptions about both Christianity and Islam. It encourages us to erase our labels and recognize the diversity that exists in our tradition. It inspires curiosity and humility when it reveals the similarities Christianity maintains with other religions.
And it may even ask us to take off our shoes, cover our heads, and try praying with words we didn’t think belonged to us.
Jordan Denari is a recent graduate of Georgetown University. She now lives in Amman, Jordan where she conducts research on Muslim-Christian relations and the media.
(Click the "i" icon to read captions which explain the photos below.)