The religions of Christianity and Islam bear a striking resemblance to one another according to the recent “Convergence and Conversation: Islam and Christianity,” lecture that occurred this past Monday. The lecture, co-sponsored by the Villanova Center for Liberal Education and given by UCLA doctoral candidate Hisham Mahmoud, boldly challenged popular wisdom as he methodically established Christianity and Islam as likeminded religions.
“There are… clear parallels between Christianity and Islam,” Mahmoud said. But “all [three monotheistic religions] part ways with the question, ‘who was Jesus?’”
It was these similarities and differences that Mahmoud discussed for just over two hours in the St. Augustine Center’s third floor Deleon room on March 9. Though Mahmoud’s lecture was set to begin at 5:00 p.m., technical difficulties delayed the lecture’s start until about ten minutes past the hour. The room, slightly stuffy as the late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the windows, had a capacity of 50 chairs. But though students and a few faculty members slowly sauntered in as the lecture began, the room never saw more than about 15 audience members sitting in the chairs.
Introduced by Villanova University Professor of Arabic Barbara Romaine as a lecturer in Arabic at Princeton University, Mahmoud’s credentials were impressive. But lest the audience begin to feel intimidated by his intelligence, he was quick to disarm. For also in her introduction, Romaine said that Mahmoud has asked her to inform the audience that “he is a snowboarding fiend.” It does the trick; the audience soon laughed and relaxed.
When Mahmoud got to his feet to begin the talk just a few short minutes later, he started off speaking in Arabic. As the crowd exchanged glances, he looked up and smiled.
“I just cast a spell on you,” he said.
His magic worked as again the staff and students laughed to themselves. He explained that the prayer he just uttered was the same that Moses spoke in the fabled story of when he asked for courage to ease the task of talking to the Pharaoh. Segueing off this, Mahmoud then dives into the content of his lecture.
“Jesus is the bridge uniting the two faiths [of Christianity and Islam],” he said. “Christian and Islam are the most committed to learning and are the most humble in the quest for knowledge.”
He subsequently spent the better part of the next hour expanding upon this notion, showcasing an impressive knowledge of both the Quran and the Bible as he told the story of Mary (or “Maryam”) in both Christian and Islamic tradition, highlighting the similarities. As he talked, Mahmoud frequently spoke in Arabic, sliding in and out of the two languages as he alternated between a rapid and melodic Arabic phrase before translating it into a slower and more measured English. He repeatedly emphasized the similarities between the two religions, recounting the story of Gabriel and then that of the nativity.
“The story of the nativity was first shared from the Muslim community to the Christian community,” Mahmoud said.
It was only after touching upon the similarities of the faith traditions that Mahmoud acknowledged the discrepancy existing between the Christian version of Christ’s crucifixion and the Muslim belief that Judas died in place of Jesus.
Following this discussion of similar stories of religious experiences, Mahmoud then began the second half of his lecture, entitled “The Gospel of Jesus According to Muhammad.” In it, he projected a series of slides that showed parallel teachings of Jesus and Muhammad. These sayings and parables were often nearly identical, and served as the capstone to Mahmoud’s claim that Christianity and Islam share numerous similarities with one another.
Following his lecture was a question and answer section, where Mahmoud was asked questions that concerned the convergences between Christianity and Islam.
“[They] part ways with the question, ‘who was Jesus?’ It brings Christianity and Islam together and divides them,” Mahmoud said.
He elaborated that there are three crucial differences between the two faiths: the divinity of Christ, the notion of the Trinity, and the aforementioned Crucifixion. A discussion of these differences with audience members wrapped up the event.
“That was the most interesting thing- that all three monotheistic religions diverge on the question of who Jesus was,” said sophomore Tom Murphy, 20, who said he attended the lecture because it sounded interesting. “I came away with more questions than answers because [Mahmoud] opened up the topic… I’m familiar with both religions, but I have nowhere near his expertise to understand them.”
Professor Barbara Romaine echoed Murphy’s sentiments.
“I was struck by [Mahmoud’s] extensive knowledge of both scriptures that he discussed,” she said. “I really appreciated his accessibility.”
When asked if there was anything that surprised her or she disagreed with, Romaine paused before answering, “I think that there are certain principles in all faiths- especially those of tolerance and the renunciation of worldly things, for example take Buddhism… I was surprised that the Quran is considered the last chapter of Revelation.”
The talk was part of a concerted campus effort at promoting an interfaith dialogue. When asked if the lecture was successful at contributing towards this effort, Romaine responded unequivocally.
“Absolutely,” she said. “I would invite [Mahmoud] back in a heartbeat.”