This is a continuation of my posts in the series "The Koran from a Christian perspective." You can find other posts in this series here.610 CE is believed to be the year Muhammad received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. However, before we look deeper into the person of Muhammad and the nature of the Koran, we must first understand the times in which Muhammad lived and prophesied. For the Christian church, it was a time of transition.
The church had left behind its innocence when it entered into public acceptance and prominence under Constantine. For the next several hundred of years the church was at its zenith, at least politically and in its "universal" acceptance. However, with the fall of Rome and the continued decline of the Roman Empire, the church too was in decline. The church was transitioning between an imperial system to a papal system and it would be almost one thousand years before reform would catch up with her. Muhammad, while he imperfectly understood Christianity, he clearly saw some of the more unseemly aspects of the church during his life. To be sure, there remained, and still remains, much good within the church, but she was a religion, or at least a church, in decline.
Ignorance and Superstition
The middle ages were a time of increased ignorance, not only among the faithful, but also among the clergy and that included its priests, deacons, and bishops. Philip Schaff describes this period as follows. "As the chief part of divine service was unintelligible to the people, it was all the more important to supplement it by preaching and catechetical instruction in the vernacular tongues. But this is the weak spot in the church of the middle ages... The great majority of priests were too ignorant to prepare a sermon, and barely understood the Latin liturgical forms. A Synod of Aix, 802, prescribed that they should learn the Athanasian and Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer with exposition, the Sacramentarium or canon of the mass, the formula of exorcism, the commendatio animae, the Penitential, the Calendar and the Roman cantus; they should learn to understand the homilies for Sundays and holy days as models of preaching, and read the pastoral theology of Pope Gregory. This was the sum and substance of clerical learning." (History of the Christian Church, Volume IV, Section 93. The Sermon) To compensate for the ignorance among the priests, collections of sermons from the fathers were compiled and distributed so priests could read them to their congregations. These collections of sermons became know as the homilies.
Muhammad comments on the lack of knowledge among the Jews and Christians. "It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear [perspicuous] that are the Essence [basis] of the Book, and others ambiguous [figurative]. As for those in whose hearts is swerving [given to err], they follow the ambiguous part [its figures], desiring dissension [craving discord], and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only God. And those firmly rooted in knowledge say, 'We believe in it; all is from our Lord.'" (Koran 3:5) Not only was there widespread ignorance, but people gravitated to the figurative, or less unambiguous, parts of the scripture from which to draw doctrines. This lead to some widely diverse doctrines but also lead to fancies, speculations, and superstitions. Muhammad further notes. "And some there are of them that are common folk [illiterates] not knowing [unacquainted with] the Book, but only fancies and mere conjectures. So woe to those who write [transcribe] the Book [corruptly] with their hands, then say, 'This is from God,' that they may sell it for a little price; so woe to them for what their hands have written, and woe to them for their earnings." (Koran 2:73)
Lack of knowledge lead to both doctrinal error among the leaders and superstitions among the people. To some, superstition appeared as super-faith, but in really it was a counterfeit to true faith and placed faith in mysteries rather than in the word of God. Again Philip Schaff records. "On the other hand, the middle ages are often called, especially by Roman Catholic writers, “the ages of faith.” They abound in legends of saints, which had the charm of religious novels. All men believed in the supernatural and miraculous as readily as children do now. Heaven and hell were as real to the mind as the kingdom of France and the, republic of Venice. Skepticism and infidelity were almost unknown, or at least suppressed and concealed. But with faith was connected a vast deal of superstition and an entire absence of critical investigation and judgment. Faith was blind and unreasoning, like the faith of children. The most incredible and absurd legends were accepted without a question. And yet the morality was not a whit better, but in many respects ruder, coarser and more passionate, than in modern times." (History of the Christian Church, Volume IV, Section 4. Genius of Mediaeval Christianity)
More to come...
More to come...