In my high school in Akron, Ohio, we were all required to take a class called Senior Problems. I don’t know what exactly the problems were, but the course contained a comparative religion element. In it, we were introduced to many of the world’s religions. In classes filled with children of many beliefs, teachers would talk about how a particular faith developed and how it spread.
Somehow, that seems so long ago. Today, the faithful in one religion are inevitably taking potshots at believers in another religion. Somehow, we have forgotten how life was in past eras. People of different faiths used to live and work side by side with little concern.
At one time, Jews served as advisors and heads of state in Muslim countries. Christians and Jews worked together in Catholic Spain. Christians lived in harmony with Muslims in the Middle East.
Once, Jewish and Christian icons were included with the Ka’baa, the holiest religious object in Islam, located in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Even today, Jerusalem hosts the Dome on the Rock, a sacred Islamic mosque, side by side with the Wailing Wall, the last surviving piece of the great Jewish Temple that once existed there.
Visitors to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, can see religious Jews, wrapped in prayer shawls, trudging along ancient streets along side Moslems and Christians. Overhead, the cry of the Islamic muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer, rings out along with the tolling bells of Christian churches. The flag of Israel with the Star of David in its center flutters in the same breeze.
Such situations are too rare. Members of the three great monotheistic religions seem to fight more than they pray together. Over time, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have become separate by seemingly unbridgeable chasms. Actually, they are very much alike.
· They share a common heritage. They each tie their history to a single event and a single person who lived maybe 4,000 years ago. All of them say that a Chaldean named Abraham was to first to recognize God. Jews begin their religion’s history with Abraham. Christians link Jesus to Abraham via extensive genealogies. Muslims do the same thing with Muhammad, the founder of their faith.
· They each believe Jerusalem is a sacred city. Jews identify the city with David, the founder of the largest independent Jewish state and a biblical hero whose son built the Temple, God’s home, there. Christians revere Jerusalem as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension into heaven. Muslims call it the third holiest city in their faith and the place where Muhammad arose to visit heaven.
· They worship the same God. Jews call the deity Yahweh. Christians identify His human manifestation as Jesus. Muslims call him Allah, but that’s only the generic Arabic word for God. Actually, Jewish and Christian missionaries used the word Allah to describe God to Muslim pagans,. As a result, Muhammad simply thought Allah was the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians.
· They have similar holidays. Easter, for example, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, is tied directly to Passover, the most significant holiday in Judaism. In fact, virtually all Christian holidays are linked to either Jewish or pagan sources.
The only Muslim holiday, Ramadan, is also tied to Jewish and Christian holidays.
· They each have religious leaders trained in their faiths.
· They all believe in the efficacy of prayer and foresee rewards for true believers after death. Christians and Muslims add a hell to punish apostates and opponents.
· They all include angels in their beliefs.
· They each have sacred books that encapsulate their beliefs and give it an historical context. The Jewish Bible is the base of the Christian text. Christians scoured the Jewish holy books to find evidence to support their own beliefs.
· All of the early Christians were Jews. Jesus died around 33 A.D. Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism did not start until at least 60 years later.
· They all believe in the basic philosophy of peace, justice and mercy. Jews city a great sage, Hillel, who said, “Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you.” Christians quote Jesus as saying the positive side of the Golden Rule. Muslims have no phrase similar to either, but espouse the same teaching.
· All three believe in helping others. One of the five basic tenets of the Muslim faith involves giving alms. Jews consistently give a higher percentage of their income to charities, and Christians are famed for helping the poor and needy.
As you can see, there are many more links between the three faiths than differences.
The passing years have clouded how much Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common.
Part of the reason is that all three faiths claim to be the exclusive purveyor of God’s wishes. That alone will guarantee disagreements. In addition, members of the faiths seem unwilling to learn about each other’s beliefs, preferring exclusivity to mutual understanding.
Perhaps we should have realized that was going to happen while in high school. The Senior Problem class was ended because Christian parents complained the course did not accurately reflect their beliefs.
Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who teaches and writes about religious history. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle or through his website, www.williamplazarus.com.