Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, the Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
I bet you that even the most informed Muslims, including the majority of the Muslim reliogious leaders, don’t know that there are three broad divisions among the Christians, namely the Roman Catholics, the Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox. When they meet or see a Christian they could care less what the details of the different denominations are, but, as soon as they see a Muslim, most of them cannot begin to see the person, without defining the denomination. What a pity?
The Muslims may have the best understanding of theology or Monotheism, but, when it comes to coexistence and politics, we can definitely learn a thing or two from the fellow Christians.
The Muslims first divide themselves into two camps the Sunnis and the Shiites. I belong to a sect among the Sunnis called the Ahmadis, which are regarded as heretic by most other sects. Nevertheless, the Ahmadis are further divided into at least two sects depending on how we understand the status of our Founder, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani.
The Shiites make only 10% of the Muslim population but are divided into several sects including twlevers, seveners, Ismaili, Dawoodi, Nizari, Bohra, Hafizi and Zaydi.
Not recognizing the faith of other sects and belittling others is common place among the Muslims and I am not going to document that any further in this article.
The point being that divisions and subdivisions are endless. Here is a picture with geographic distribution of some of the sects:
Now let me explain the three main groups among the Christians, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants and how they came about.
Over the last century, the Orthodox Christian population around the world has more than doubled and now stands at nearly 260 million. In Russia alone, it has surpassed 100 million, a sharp resurgence after the fall of the Soviet Union.
What divides the Catholic and the Orthodox churches has been labelled as the Great Schism for the last thousand years.
The East–West Schism, also called the Great Schism and the Schism of 1054, was the break of communion between what are now the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, which has lasted since the 11th century.
A succession of ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes between the Greek East and Latin West pre-dated the formal rupture that occurred in 1054. Prominent among these were the issues of the source of the Holy Spirit, whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist,[a] the Bishop of Rome‘s claim to universal jurisdiction, and the place of the See of Constantinople in relation to the Pentarchy.
A host of disputes – ranging from theological to political – have divided Orthodoxy from Catholicism for nearly 1,000 years.
Nevertheless, today, four-in-ten Orthodox Christians in the vast majority of countries surveyed say they favor their church reconciling with the Roman Catholic Church.
At the same time, Orthodox majorities in most countries say their religion and Catholicism have a lot in common, and Orthodox majorities across most of Central and Eastern Europe say Pope Francis has helped improve Orthodox-Catholic relations. Regarding Pope Francis in general, however, Orthodox opinion is mixed; half or fewer of Orthodox respondents in most countries surveyed say they view him favorably, including just 32% in Russia.
While relatively few favor a hypothetical communion between their churches, Orthodox Christians and Catholics generally say their religions have a lot in common. Majorities in 10 of the 14 Orthodox populations surveyed say this, as do majorities in seven of the nine Catholic populations.
Proximity to people of the other faith often seems to be a factor; respondents from these two traditions are especially likely to say their denominations have a lot in common if they live in countries with sizable populations of both. In Bosnia, for example, 75% of Orthodox Christians and 89% of Catholics say their religions have a lot in common. In Belarus, 70% of Orthodox Christians say this, as do 75% of Catholics.
Ukrainian Catholics are among the most likely in the region to say Catholicism has a lot in common with Orthodox Christianity. In part, this may be because most Ukrainian Catholics identify as Byzantine Rite Catholics and not Roman Catholics.
Now let us talk about the second division in Christianity. How do the Protestants differ from the Catholics?
The Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences[a] are a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in 1517 by Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, that started the Reformation, a schism in the Catholic Church which profoundly changed Europe. They advance Luther’s positions against what he saw as abusive in the practice of clergy selling plenary indulgences, which were certificates believed to reduce the temporal punishment for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones in purgatory. In the Theses, Luther claimed that the repentance required by Christ in order for sins to be forgiven involves inner spiritual repentance rather than merely external sacramental confession. He argued that indulgences led Christians to avoid true repentance and sorrow for sin, believing that they could forgo it by purchasing an indulgence. They also, according to Luther, discouraged Christians from giving to the poor and performing other acts of mercy, believing that indulgence certificates were more spiritually valuable. Though Luther claimed that his positions on indulgences accorded with those of the Pope, the Theses challenge a fourteenth-century papal bull stating that the pope could use the treasury of merit and the good deeds of past saints to forgive temporal punishment for sins. The Theses are framed as propositions to be argued in debate rather than necessarily representing Luther’s opinions, but Luther later clarified his views in the Explanations of the Disputation Concerning the Value of Indulgences.
Luther sent the Theses enclosed with a letter to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz, on 31 October 1517, a date now considered the start of the Reformation and commemorated annually as Reformation Day. Luther may have also posted the Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church and other churches in Wittenberg in accordance with University custom on 31 October or in mid-November. The Theses were quickly reprinted, translated, and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. They initiated a pamphlet war with indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel, which spread Luther’s fame even further. Luther’s ecclesiastical superiors had him tried for heresy, which culminated in his excommunication in 1521. Though the Theses were the start of the Reformation, Luther did not consider indulgences to be as important as other theological matters which would divide the church, such as justification by faith alone and the bondage of the will. His breakthrough on these issues would come later, and he did not see the writing of the Theses as the point at which his beliefs diverged from those of Rome.
Over the centuries the Protetants and the Catholics have had their bloody conflicts. The most dramatic was the Thirty Years’ War, which was a war fought primarily in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. One of the longest and most destructive conflicts in human history, as well as the deadliest European religious war in history, the war resulted in eight million fatalities.
Initially a war between various Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers. These states employed relatively large mercenary armies, and the war became less about religion and more of a continuation of the France–Habsburg rivalry for European political pre-eminence.
Notwithstanding, the good and the bad history of the last five centuries, as the Protestants prepare to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, new Pew Research Center surveys show that in both Western Europe and the United States, the theological differences that split Western Christianity in the 1500s have diminished to a degree that might have shocked Christians in past centuries. Across Europe and the U.S., the prevailing view is that Protestants and Catholics today are more similar religiously than they are different. And while the Reformation led to more than a century of devastating wars and persecution in Europe, both Protestants and Catholics across the continent now overwhelmingly express willingness to accept each other as neighbors and even as family members.
Although Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers in the 16th century held that eternal salvation is attained solely through faith (a belief known in Latin as sola fide), the surveys show that many Protestants today say instead that eternal salvation is attained through a combination of faith and good works – which is the traditional Catholic position. Indeed, in most of the Western European countries surveyed, the Protestants who believe that salvation depends on both faith and works outnumber those who say salvation comes through faith alone.
In other words the two groups namely the Protestants and the Catholics have learnt from each other over the centuries and in many ways minimized their differences. At least when it comes to human rights and respect of life, property and honor of each other, they are almost always on the same frequency.
Going back to the Muslim world, as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia tries to trigger a broader conflict among the Sunnis and the Shiites, to please his Western masters, thoughtful Muslims should cater and develop a common Muslim identity, disregarding all the sectarian differences, not different from the Western Christian identity, to focus on our earthly human rights and leave the salvation and theological issues between humans and God, for the final Day of Judgement. This is what each and every Muslim needs if we are to avoid the catastrophe that has met many in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
How beautiful would that be to find all the Muslims united in the bond of universal brotherhood and sisterhood?
Anyone who calls him or her a Muslim is a Muslim and let us find out what we have in common with him or her, rather than in which minutiae we differ!