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This is not a trick question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

This is not a trick question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THE QUESTION:

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic hit the news February 4 when Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayebb of Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar University issued a joint declaration “in the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity.” Did Francis, who was making history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, thereby mean to say that the Christian God is the Muslim God?

Yes, he did, if properly understood, and this was no innovation on his part.

In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the world’s Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration on relations with non-Christian religions. The decree’s denunciation of calumny against Jews gets most of the attention, but it also proclaimed this:

“The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,” although “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God” and regard him as only a prophet. The subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise defines the belief that “together with us [Muslims] adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Such interfaith concord is disputed by some conservative Protestants in the U.S. For example, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry believes the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam,” and Muslims “are not capable of adoring the true God.” Hank Hanegraaff of the “Bible Answer Man” broadcast — now a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy — has asserted that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” [Note that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.”]

Back in the century after Islam first arose, such thinking was expressed in “The Fount of Knowledge” by John of Damascus, a revered theologian for Eastern Orthodoxy. John spelled out reasons why Islam’s belief about God is a “heresy” and Muhammad is “a false prophet.”

Islam’s fundamental profession of faith declares that “there is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

How are we to understand this one true God?

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How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

Billboards with religious messages tend to draw tons of news media interest.

Last year, a Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment (“Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children,” it said) rankled a South Texas town, as I reported for Religion News Service.

Other headline-making billboards have insulted Muhammad, promoted a traditional view of marriage and characterized the story of Jesus’ birth as a fairy tale.

Now, “Jesus in Islam” billboards put up in the Phoenix area are in the news.

Here is the lede from the Arizona Republic:

What do Muslims think of Jesus? It's a question Dr. Sabeel Ahmed said he gets often.

To help educate people on the significance of Jesus in Islam, Ahmed's group, The Humanitarians, a Muslim interfaith organization, is launching a monthlong campaign that includes billboards along high-trafficked areas in Arizona along with radio ads.

Ahmed, the group's founder and outreach coordinator, said the intent is to highlight similarities between Islam and Christianity and bring people together during the holidays. 

"We want to educate people on who we (Muslims) are and who we are not and show people that there are more similarities between the faiths than differences," Ahmed said Tuesday during a news conference at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

So Ahmed’s group bought the billboards in hopes of generating positive buzz in the community and the newspaper.

Mission accomplished, at least as far as the newspaper goes.

Keep reading, and you’ll discover that this story is the epitome of a puff piece: Group holds news conference. Reporter writes glowingly about it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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In U.S. political campaigns, 2018 will also be the year of the Muslim candidates

In U.S. political campaigns, 2018 will also be the year of the Muslim candidates

While the media hail 2018’s historic total of female and LGBTQ political candidates, religion writers should be covering the unprecedented 90 or more Muslims, virtually all Democrats, running for national, state, or local office. That’s the count from the Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center, founded in 2015 to promote Muslim candidacies. 

President Donald Trump’s words and deeds toward Muslims doubtless energize this electoral activism. Not to mention Virginia’s faltering Republican U.S. Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, who smeared Michigan governor candidate Abdul El-Sayed as an “ISIS commie.” 

Pioneering Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and very likely Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are guaranteed media stardom, in line to be  the first Muslim women in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Tlaib, who succeeds disgraced Congressman John Conyers, just edged Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in a six-candidate Democratic primary scramble. She’ll run unopposed in November for the 13thdistrict seat.  The oldest of  Palestianian immigrants’ 14 children and a mother of two, Tlaib earned a law degree through weekend classes and was elected to the Michigan House, reportedly only the second U.S. Muslim woman to be  a state legislator.

Two other Muslim hopefuls fell short in Michigan. El-Sayed, director of Detroit’s health department, lost the governor nomination to former state Senator Gretchen Whitmer. In U.S. House district 11, Fayrouz  Saad, who directs Detroit’s immigrant affairs office, took only fourth place.    

The first Muslim in the U.S. House, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is the most politically powerful U.S. Muslim to date, nearly winning the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and is currently its deputy chairman.

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May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

Can anyone guess what was a major international religious event this past Tuesday?

Obviously, we're talking about Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive. Some of you may have heard a wave of applause around the world, as the Saudis were the international hold-outs on this issue.

Driving may not have a whole lot to do with religion, but Saudi Arabia's decision may say something about the lessening influence of Islamic radicals.

Ah, but here is the key for those who are concerned about religion-news coverage: I am not convinced that many scribes understood that. So let's see how some journalists explained this change. We start with BBC, the brand name in international news:

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time, to the joy of activists.
The Gulf kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Until now, only men were allowed licenses and women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined. ...
Campaigner Sahar Nassif told the BBC from Jeddah that she was "very, very excited -- jumping up and down and laughing".
"I'm going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang, and it's going to be black and yellow!"

CNN noted the ruling had nothing to do with religion -- other than a ruling cabal of Wahhabi Islamists have long placed curbs on women being in any public place, including a car. So no religion, other than a symbolic change long opposed by a powerful group of Islamic leaders.

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All-girl hijab band gets uncritical reception from media that don't get theology

All-girl hijab band gets uncritical reception from media that don't get theology

It’s hard not to do a double take when a photo in the New York Times shows a girl wearing a hijab and wailing away on an electric guitar.

Performing as a rock musician isn’t something most Muslim girls do, even in Indonesia, where the story is set and Islam is less strict than in certain Middle Eastern countries.

But there is one religious factor that all the reporters, from various publications who’ve covered the story, have missed. See if you can find it in this article.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The three teenage girls — shy and even seeming slightly embarrassed as they peer out from their Islamic head scarves — do not look much like a heavy metal band.
But a dramatic change occurs when they take the stage. All pretense of shyness or awkwardness evaporates as the group — two 17-year-olds and one 15-year-old — begin hammering away at bass, guitar and drums to create a joyous, youthful racket.
They are Voice of Baceprot, a rising band in Indonesia, a country where heavy metal is popular enough that the president is an avowed fan of bands like Metallica and Megadeth.
But beyond blowing away local audiences with their banging music, the three girls are also challenging entrenched stereotypes about gender and religious norms in the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority nation.

The girls, we learn, wish to prove they can be observant Muslims while playing loud music and wearing hijabs while doing so. In response, they’ve received plenty of death threats for not acting submissive. Also,

Beyond the death threats, they also dealt with a more prosaic form of disapproval: “Our school principal is a conservative Muslim, and he says music is ‘haram,’” or forbidden under Islam.

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Evolution and Islam: Turkey's hot back-to-school story and (let's work it in) the specter of jihad

Evolution and Islam: Turkey's hot back-to-school story and (let's work it in) the specter of jihad

Broach the question of teaching evolution versus "creationism" in U.S. public schools, and you’re probably talking about the debate fueled by biblical literalists of varying stripes. There are also debates that include a variety of scientists who embrace most elements of evolution, but deny that scientists have proven the process is random and without meaning. Remember that famous 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II?

Now, did you know that the same argument convulses Islam, including Sunni Muslim Turkey, where it's the year’s marquee back-to-school story?

Notice that in relation to Turkey I said “argument” not “debate.”

That’s because the increasingly Islamist and authoritarian government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has settled the matter by decree. The debate, such as it was, is over. As Mel Brooks famously proclaimed, “It’s good to be the king." Or wannabe neo-Ottoman sultan, in Erdogan’s case.

In short, Turkey has eliminated the teaching of evolution from primary and high school curricula.

Need to get up to speed on this one? Then read or listen to this piece from NPR. Or you can save a few minutes and just read this excerpt from the NPR script.

At a news conference last month, Turkey's education minister announced that new textbooks will be introduced in all primary and secondary schools, starting with grades 1, 5 and 9 this fall, and the rest next year. They will stop teaching evolution in grade 9, when it's usually taught.
"Evolutionary biology is best left to be taught at the university level," Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz told reporters. "It's a theory that requires a higher philosophical understanding than schoolchildren have."

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If it's an imam trashing Jews, not all editors agree that his words are hate speech

If it's an imam trashing Jews, not all editors agree that his words are hate speech

A California imam has made some waves in recent days by suggesting all Jews be killed in an apocalyptic battle in some future time.

Needless to say, this did not go over well with some of those who viewed a video of the speech -- but its combustible content got no national coverage.

Even coverage within California was limited, causing some to wonder that had the roles been reversed -- with the speaker a rabbi or a Christian preacher, attacking Muslims -- news media professionals would have been all over the story.

The Sacramento Bee had the clearest account of the sermon with a bit of theological punch:

A Davis imam is under fire after giving a sermon last week that combined end-of-days prophecy with the current religious conflict over a Jerusalem holy site, causing critics to condemn him as anti-Semitic.
Imam Ammar Shahin on Friday gave a nearly hour-long sermon to worshippers at the Islamic Center of Davis calling for congregants to oppose restrictions placed by Israel on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and citing Islamic texts about an end-times battle predicted by the prophet Muhammad.
The sermon included a prayer to Allah to “destroy those who closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” according to the translation from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which first posted an edited clip of the sermon.
Shahin’s prayer continued, “count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.”

After the Islamic Center claimed that MEMRI had misconstrued the remarks, the Bee got its own translator who sided mostly with the Center, but said the imam was unwise at best to give such a sermon.

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This YouTube age: The Washington Post wrestles with a female genital mutilation debate

This YouTube age: The Washington Post wrestles with a female genital mutilation debate

It would be hard to imagine a religion-beat topic more difficult to cover, in an accurate and balanced manner, than that of female genital mutilation.

Some journalists attempt to ignore the whole subject and, in particular, deny that it has anything to do with debates inside the complex world of global Islam. There is a tendency to say this practice is rooted in backward cultural traditions linked to sexism and patriarchy (in isolated groups of Christians and some other faiths as well) and that is that.

That stance is hard to justify if journalists actually listen to the voices of people involved in these debates, which often take place in private, or in Muslim community events that draw few observers from the outside.

Now one of these debates has gone public in the Virginia suburbs near the Washington, D.C., beltway, drawing coverage from The Washington Post -- "A Virginia imam said female genital mutilation prevents ‘hypersexuality,’ leading to calls for his dismissal." This report is much better than the norm.

However, there is one tension in the Post article that is worth noting, because it is linked to a crucial fact: In a debate among Muslim leaders, it is highly likely that people on both sides are going to quote Islamic writings and traditions when stating their case. Hold that thought. Here is the overture in this report:

A Virginia mosque has publicly condemned the words of its leading imam, highlighting lingering divisions among Muslim leaders over the controversial and widely rejected practice of female genital mutilation.
The Board of Directors at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church said Monday that Imam Shaker Elsayed’s seeming endorsement of the outlawed practice as “the honorable thing to do if needed” ran afoul of both U.S. and Islamic law. 
Elsayed’s comments during a lecture on child rearing and family life last month sparked a brief controversy last Friday after a right-wing watchdog group circulated a video clip of his speech online.

The fact that it took actions by conservative groups to force this into the open complicates matters for some mainstream journalists. However, the YouTube videos are there to see and to debate.

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Blasphemy charges in Muslim Indonesia. No big surprise. But Denmark? That's news -- or should be

Blasphemy charges in Muslim Indonesia. No big surprise. But Denmark? That's news -- or should be

Some news stories elicit a kind of weary "not again" response. Others elicit a, "is this really happening?" response.

Consider the following two recent stories, one from each category but linked by Islam and religious blasphemy as a legal concept. The first story comes to us from Indonesia. The other -- the "is this really happening?" story -- is from Denmark.

Here's the top of the Indonesia story.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Back in his days as a badminton coach with the Indonesian national team, Ahmad Mushaddeq traveled the world on the state’s dime. But after he became the spiritual leader of a back-to-the-land organic farming movement on the island of Borneo, regarded by his followers as the messiah who succeeded Muhammad, the government locked him up for the second time on charges of blasphemy.
This week, an Indonesian court sentenced him to a five-year prison term, and gave two other leading figures of Milah Abraham, the religious sect he established, prison terms as well. The sentences, delivered on Tuesday, were the latest in a continuing crackdown on new religious movements across Indonesia that has alarmed human rights groups.
“The verdict is another indicator of rising discrimination against religious minorities in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia representative for Human Rights Watch. He called for a review of state institutions that “facilitate such discrimination, including the blasphemy law office.”
Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have become a focus of debate ever since Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the hard-charging Christian governor of Jakarta, was indicted on charges of insulting the Quran in November. While his case has drawn the most attention, a significant portion of the more than 106 people convicted on blasphemy charges since 2004 are not Christians or even unorthodox Muslims, but self-proclaimed prophets and their apostles.

Need some context?

Indonesia is a multi-ethnic/multi-religious southeast Asian island nation, that -- despite being overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and home to the world's largest Muslim population -- has a reputation for moderation in its approach to religious pluralism.

But global Islam, you may have noticed, is going through a period of crisis.

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