How is Catholicism different from Islam?

Jesus appears often in the Qur’an (in a total of 93 verses scattered throughout 15 suras or chapters), but with significant differences. The Qur’an refers to him as the “messiah,” but the word has a different theological import than in Christian thought. In Muslim understanding, Jesus was not more than a creature, a human being. He is not divine. He did not die on the cross (it was a look-alike, possibly Simon of Cyrene or an apostle) nor rise from the dead. The Qur’an seems to indicate that God caused him to ascend after his apparent death. Tradition has it that he will return at the end of time to usher in an age of justice and, after 40 years, will die and be buried in Medina with Muhammad, then rise in the general resurrection along with the rest of humankind. The Qur’an argues against a Trinitarian concept of God: “God is One…He does not beget…there is none like Him” (sura 112).

Mary occupies an important place in Muslim sacred history. Her own birth was miraculous. She is the mother of a prophet. And she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an. Tradition regards Mary and Jesus as the only two human beings born without the “touch of Satan.” The principle difference between Muslim and Christian views is that since Islam does not consider Jesus divine, Mary is not the Mother of God.

In general, there is a different assessment of what was and is needed for human beings to be what God created us to be; we have, in other words, different religious anthropologies. To the question  “What’s wrong with humanity?”, Christians respond: Humanity was living outside of communion with God. This separation from God (called “sin”) was preventing us from being truly human. The eternal Son of God took on our fallen nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality. In the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, our nature is reconstituted, transformed. It was a cosmic alteration affected by Christ. Grace, God’s own life, is given through baptism, strengthened through confirmation and eucharist, to restore us to the beauty of our God-given nature.

In Islam, there is no such emphasis on reconstitution and transformation of our very nature. Adam’s sin was not a “fall” from the top of the Sears Tower to the street below, but rather, more like a “fall” after tripping on a stone in the path of his life. There may be a few bruises, but no broken bones or crippled condition; only a confused soul that will continue to stumble unless s/he realizes that traveling the path of life successfully involves radical dependence on the guidance of God.

Thus, in Islam there is no sacramental system and consequently no priesthood. There are no ordained leaders, and thus no hierarchy and centralization of leadership. Religious leaders are recognized by acclamation in local communities based on religious learning (important so that they can make God’s guidance explicit) and personal piety.

Catholicism, by contrast, is highly centralized. Every parish is in communion with the diocesan bishop; all bishops are in communion with one another and with the bishop of Rome, the supreme teacher and governor of the Church universal. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental unity within the Islamic community through the five “pillars” (profession of faith, ritual prayer, alms tax, fasting, pilgrimage).

Other differences: For Muslims, the Qur’an is the final revelation, superseding both the Torah and the Gospel, and Muhammad is seen as the “seal of the prophets.”