How a Book on Islam Strengthened my Catholic Faith

I do not pretend to be as devout a Catholic as I should be. Too often, I am not even a particularly good one. Nonetheless, I am and was raised a Catholic, so I tend to view nearly every theological topic through a Catholic lens. David Pinault’s The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch gave me the chance to do exactly that. 

I have long been curious about Islam, and The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch provides a Christian – and particularly a Catholic – guide to understanding Islam. Though not impartial, Pinault draws on his own extensive experience to provide an expertly researched and respectful analysis of the theological differences between Islam and Christianity, with particular focus on the two religions’ competing conceptions of the nature of Jesus Christ. The book is simultaneously detailed and readable, and Pinault ably emphasizes the need for Christians and Muslims to learn from one another even as he is careful not to minimize the significant differences between the two faiths.

Pinault, a longtime professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, has a lifetime of experience researching “comparative Christology and the status of Christian populations in Muslim-majority societies.” He has conducted extensive fieldwork in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Yemen, among other places. Pinault’s comparative study of Islam starts with the life of Muhammad, and concludes by addressing contentious contemporary issues such as increasing Muslim migration into Western countries and the rise of Islamic extremist terrorism. 

Pinault draws on his own extensive experience to provide an expertly researched and respectful analysis of the theological differences between Islam and Christianity.

Straightforward about his own status as a Catholic Christian, Pinault critically examines pre-Islamic Arabia, the Koran, the life of Muhammad, the development of Islamic thought, Shia-Sunni relations, and more. Pinault draws from various Islamic primary sources translated from the original Arabic, Persian, or Urdu, many of which he translated himself. He compares and contrasts these materials with excerpts from the Bible and other Christian texts, examples from the life and works of Jesus Christ, and even primary sources written in Latin by Christian crusaders. 

Pinault fairly acknowledges the redeeming qualities of devout Muslims around the world. However, he is quick to point out that there are serious cultural, historical, and theological differences between Islam and Christianity that ought not be ignored by members of either faith.

Pinault criticizes what he describes as the modern phenomenon of wishy-washy “interfaith dialogue.” While proponents of such dialogue are well-intentioned, Pinault argues, those who favor ultra-accepting interfaith dialogue that ignores very real chasms between Islam and Christianity – including fundamental differences between Jesus and Muhammad, the Bible and the Koran, and perceptions of the divinity (or lack thereof) of Christ – can inadvertently fuel religious tensions. 

Not all religions, even mainstream religions adhered to by hundreds of millions of people, Pinault writes, are the same. To Pinault, while many faiths are certainly worth studying and respecting they are not all inherently equal. Pinault’s underlying thesis is that by closely studying Islam, a Christian such as himself can deepen his faith by gaining a greater understanding of what makes Christianity so uniquely special, particularly the divinity of Jesus and the salvific nature of His suffering on the cross.

Pinault’s argument about the Crusades and the True Cross, and the religious fervor that they inspired within Christians, was exceptionally powerful for me. Pinault illustrates the significance of  the Third Crusade (1189-1192), which featured diplomatic talks between the Christian King Richard I of England and Saladin, who was the sultan of the Muslim Ayyubid dynasty. When the Muslims brought out the True Cross during the negotiations to prove their possession of it, the Crusaders instinctively dropped to their knees in genuine reverence and worship. So powerful was the memory of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, that over one thousand years after His crucifixion, Christians were so captivated by its symbol that they would wage war to recover the True Cross (which was ultimately lost and possibly destroyed).

Those who favor ultra-accepting interfaith dialogue that ignores very real chasms between Islam and Christianity… can inadvertently fuel religious tensions.

Reading The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch unquestionably gave me a better understanding of Christianity, Islam, and maybe even of myself. If the book was not enough to deepen my faith that sometimes lies dormant, I would like to think it put me down the path of becoming a man of greater faith. This book is a must-read for anyone, whether they be a theology novice or expert, Muslim or Christian, or anywhere in between.

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About Chris Coffey

Chris Coffey is a sophomore studying history in the Honors Program. He is also involved with the Michigan Journal of International Affairs and the Michigan Foreign Policy Council. In his free time, Chris enjoys tennis, chess, and investing.