DR MOHAMMAD MANZOOR ALAM reviews an important (and, hopefully, influential) book of our times

The First and Final Commandment
Dr Laurence B. Brown
Amana publications
Price: Rs395
Pages: 606
Published: 2004

There are certain fundamental commonalities between the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is nothing surprising about it because all three recognise the validity of the larger Abrahamic tradition. The fact that the prophets of all three faiths were Abraham’s (PBUH) children is also significant.

Islam has extended recognition to the "People of the Book" and honours their prophets. However, this gesture of Islam has yet to be reciprocated by the other two. Over the centuries Muslims have tried to understand the larger heritage of which Islam regards itself as the culmination.

Dr Laurence B. Brown’s The First and Final Commandment, as the title suggests, is an interpretation of Islam as the repository of the "original" as well as the final commandment of God. Islam takes every divine commandment right from the time of Adam to Abraham to Muhammad (peace be upon them) as a single, unified, cohesive entity, culminating in the Quran. Thus the book tries to look at the scriptures from a well-defined perspective.

Dr Brown takes Islam as the final commandment, overlaying and replacing everything that came before it. In a comparative study of the doctrines of the three faiths he finds Islam the most consistent, reasonable and tamper-proof. The Quran is a complete entity as opposed to the Bible, of which several "Books" have been lost. Dr Brown observes that the losses are worrisome, but no less worrisome could be the additions made to compensate for them.

The Bible is shared between the Christians and Jews. Jewish "Books" too got lost in the frequent and devastating invasions and destruction of their temple. The wise men of Jews did try to reconstruct some of them from memory. That was a valiant effort, but how correct or true to the original such reconstructions were is open to debate. The Quran, on the other hand, has remained safe from such vicissitudes. Dr Brown’s preference for Islam is based on an extensive analysis and study of the three faiths.

He discusses the history of the Christian church to show that it has not been doctrinally consistent even on crucial issues like the Trinity and the infallibility of papacy. On one hand we have the case of Pope Honorious-I who ruled the Vatican during the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) lifetime and was a monophysite. On the other there is John who was a lecher and impious person.

Pope Honorious I was condemned and anathemised for not being a true supporter of Trinity and Christ’s divine nature, although he was officially praised on his death as "truly agreeing with apostolic teaching". The condemnation came 44 years later. The case of Joh XII was quite different. The following quote about this "Christian Caligula" is rather long, but interesting, showing how hollow the claims of "papal infallibility" could be both in the case of Pope Honorious-I and Joh XII: 

...the charge was specially made against him that he turned the Lateran into a brothel; that he and his gang violated female pilgrims in the very basilica of St. Peter; that the offerings of the humble laid upon the altar were snatched up as casual booty. He was inordinately fond of gambling, at which he invoked the names of those discredited gods now universally regarded as demons. His sexual hunger was insatiable -- a minor crime in Roman eyes. What was far worse was that the casual occupants of his bed were rewarded not with casual gifts of gold but of land. One of his mistresses was able to establish herself as a feudal lord ‘for he was so blindly in love with her that he made her governor of cities -- and even gave to her the golden crosses and cups of St. Peter himself’.

The point here is that neither an innocuous pope like Honorious-I was considered infallible (otherwise, why was he anathemised?) nor was the openly vicious John XII anything close to a good human being, much less infallible. Pope Honorious-I’s monophysitism was problematic to the church, but that’s somehow more reasonable than the church’s insistence on Christ’s (PBUH) divine nature.

Dr Brown finds Islam unburdened by such baggage. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is described in the Quran as a human being like any other, not certainly a divine being. There is no Islamic arch priest (there is no priesthood in Islam as such) who is "infallible". In Islam infallibility is not a human attribute. Unlike the other scriptures, the Quran is undoctored, unreconstructed, unedited. It has internal and external consistency and integrity.

This 606-page tome is a little polemical in tone as any work of this nature is bound to be, but it still remains highly readable. The quality and quantum of research is breathtaking in impact, encyclopaedic in sweep. A must-read for anyone interested in the great Abrahamic tradition.

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