Contrasting Greek Orthodox and Islamic practices
by Rit Nosotro
of Birth, Marriage, Divorce, and Death
Compare and contrast current Greek Orthodox and Islamic practices of birth, marriage, divorce, and death. How is theology reflected in ritual?
Islam was originated by a man named Muhammad. Born in 570 AD, he claimed that he received revelations from God, whom he called Allah. After Muhammad's death in 632 AD, this newly instituted religion continued to spread, often by force, until it covered much of Asia, a significant portion of Africa, and even some of Europe. Today Islam remains the world's second largest religious sect (surpassed only by Christianity). Greek Orthodoxy finds its roots even further back. The Greek Orthodox Church asserts that they are the first and original church, the church begun by Jesus Christ, passed from Christ to the apostles, from the apostles to the apostolic fathers, from the apostolic fathers to the church fathers and continues through to the present day. Each of these religions holds specific beliefs and rituals regulating four major aspects of life: birth, marriage, divorce, and death. How do the beliefs of these two religions compare in these areas? And do these practices reveal anything about their underlying theology?
Birth- the very first moments of life- what is the significance of this amazing event to believers of these faiths? Is the sacredness of human life preserved and protected, or is it scorned? How important are these first few days of a baby's lifetime on earth? What are their views concerning birth?
Traditionally, Islam has promoted large families and numerous children in order to help increase the number of adhereants to the Islamic faith. As John L. Esposito notes in his book "What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam," "procreation is considered to be one of the most important aspects of marriage."1 With the introduction of more methods of birth control, the question has been raised as to whether methods such as these are good or evil. But the general consensus of the Muslim community today states that, though not particularly encouraged, as long as the the couple mutually consents, no sin is commited by the use of birth control methods. Abortion of unborn fetuses, on the other hand, is strictly forbidden except on rare, medical-related occasions. A fetus, after a phenomenon labled "ensoulment" occurs (the time at which one's soul is infused within the human body), has full human rights and to kill it is considered murder. However, a disagreement does exist in the Islamic faith as to whether ensoulment occurs at conception or whether it takes place 120 days after germanation. Also, Islam provides different instructions regarding pregnancies with severe medical complications that seriously endanger the mother's life. In such cases, a general Islamic rule concerning choosing the lesser of the two evils is followed and the mother's life is given preference. 2
Greek Orthodoxy actually proves quite similar to Islam in many of these institutions regaurding the sanctity of human life. In Greek Orthodoxy, limitation of childbirth is discouraged. "The ability of man to procreate his kind is a gift of God. From the moment of conception, God's life-giving Spirit is very much in evidence."3 And, similarly, Greek Orthodoxy strictly prohibits abortion except in the case of grave and immediate danger to the mother's life. But even then, it is still viewed as a sin. The bringing of a child into the world and the first few days of his or her life means something slightly more to Orthodox believers than it does to Muslims in terms of spiritual significance. The newborn baby is baptized and chrismated as soon as possible in case of the unlikely, but tragic possibility that the child die at a very early age. This sacrament demonstrates the theological belief in the Greek Orthodox Church that baptism is necessary for entrance into heaven. In addition to baptism and chrismation, on the first, eighth, and fortieth days after birth, specific prayers, blessings, and other obligations are to be fulfilled on behalf of the child.4
"Marriage and family life are the expected norm in Islam," writes John L. Esposito.5 Islam has several laws governing marriage that differ from most other religions and beliefs. First, it allows polygamy among its followers, or, to be more specific, polygyny (the taking of more than one wife). 6 According to the Koran, a man may take up to four wives provided that he is capable of caring for them and treating them with equality. Sura 4:3 declares, "And if ye are apprehensive that ye shall not deal fairly with orphans, then, of other women who seem good in your eyes, marry but two, or three, or four; and if ye still fear that ye shall not act equitably, then one only."7 In addition, the Koran also regulates whom a Muslim man or woman may marry. Men are allowed to marry Jews or Christians, as well as Muslims because these peoples are considered "People of the Book," meaning that they, too, have received a revelation from God. Women, on the other hand, are only allowed to marry Muslim men. Why this discrimination? Basically, it comes down to the passing on of the Muslim theology to children. Esposito suggests that, "marriage regulations in Islam revolve around concerns regarding the faith of the children who will result from the union."8 In Islamic culture, the men are the head of the family, and their wives are expected to conform to their husband's beliefs. So in order to raise each consecutive generation under Muslim law, Islam prohibits the marriage of women to men of other faiths.
Greek Orthodox beliefs contrast greatly with the polygamous traditions of the Muslim community. The marriage of a man to more than one woman or vice versa is strictly forbidden. They believe that "marriage is a divine institution and one of the Sacraments of the Church,"9 and they hold that it is a unique and holy union because "Jesus taught the uniqueness of human marriage as the most perfect natural expression of God's love for men, and of his own love for the Church."10 A broad similarity, however, can be seen between Islam and Orthodoxy in that they both regulate, to some extent, the person one can marry. For Greek Orthodox believers, marriage is only blessed for covenants with other Orthodox believers or baptized members of another Christian denomination. Thus they enforce the passage of scripture in 2 Corinthians 6:14 which admonishes, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?"11
Their views concerning divorce are where one of the largest contrasts between Islam and Greek Orthodoxy can be seen. To Muslims, "marriage is a contract, not a sacrament."12 Because of this, Islam has always permitted divorce for specific reasons. However, several criteria are supposed to be met before a divorce can occur. A man is supposed to wait three months, each month confirming that he still desires a divorce, before a divorce can be finalized. If the wife finds that she is pregnant during those months, the father must also provide for childcare. However, in some areas this practice has been relegated to a husband's simple declaration of "I divorce you" three times in a row, rather than waiting the required interval.13
Because Greek Orthodox members believe that only "one marriage can contain the perfect meaning and significance which Christ has given to this reality,"14 divorce is not permitted unless certain and specific grave rifts have occurred. These include adultery, threats of violence, imprisonment of or abandonment by a spouse for a certain extended period of time, and the wasting of one's wealth on frivolous things (such as gambling and alcohol) at the expense of the family's health and well-being. And even then, divorce is generally discouraged. In addition, though the Orthodox Church will perform second and even third marriages provided that an ecclesiastical divorce has been issued for previous unions, the Orthodox Church refuses more than three Church marriages regardless of the conditions that preceded the dissipation of former marriages.15 So it is in this area that one of the most starkly outlined differences between the practices of these two faiths can be seen.
Death signifies the end of life on this earth. It can often be a time of insecurity and pain, and is the means of passing from this world into eternity. What beliefs and practicies do Islam and Greek Orthodoxy hold, then, concerning death and the after-life? These two religions are similar on this topic concerning the fact that both believe that after death, everyone will be judged and either invited into heaven or condemned to hell. And both also believe in offering prayers for the departed souls. But here the similarities dissapear.
The deeds that Muslims believe are pleasing to Allah and will get them into heaven are much different than those that the Greek Orthodox adhearers believe will assure them a place in God's kingdom. During the actual moments and hours preceeding death, Muslims read the Koran or have it read aloud to them. They also repent of all sin and purify themselves in preparation to meet Allah.16 If they have followed all of the Islamic Pillars of Faith and their good deeds outwiegh their bad, they believe Allah will admit them into paradise. In addition, anyone who dies fighting for Allah's cause is automatically ensured a spot of luxury in heaven.17 However, in stark contrast to the Greek Orthodox belief, Muslims hold that paradise will be a place of unending sensual pleasure.18 After one's death, the body is ceremonialy washed, wrapped in a white cloth, and layed in a grave with the head facing Mecca, thus demonstrating the centrality of the city of Mecca to the beliefs of the Muslim faith.19
As a Greek Orthodox adhearer nears death, several things are done in preparation. The final sacrament, formerly known as the rite of extreme unction, but now simply reffered to as the annointing of the sick, is performed. It entails a priest annointing the sick person with oil and offering prayers for healing and for the forgiveness of sins, thus preparing one to meet God. This rite is based upon the Biblical verse found in James 5:14-15, "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church and pray over him and anoint him and with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven."20 In addition, the Greek Orthodox Church believes in a physical resurrection on the Last Day and for this reason requires respectful treatment of the deceased person's body and also denounces cremation.21
In conclusion, both similarities and dissimilarities obviously exist between the practices of the Greek Orthodox Church and Islam. However, these outward rituals really just serve as a window into the deeper, theological contrasts between these two religions. For example, Islam states that, with the exception of dying for Allah's cause, acceptence into paradise is based upon the extent to which one has fulfilled the Five Pillars of Islam. A Muslim must hope that, in the end, his good works outweigh his bad deeds if he hopes to gain admitance. This demonstrates the foundational Islamic belief that it is through the performance of good works that one is sanctified and made worthy of heaven. [Compare Islam to Judaism.] It also shows that Muslims have no true security of acceptence into paradise- unless they die in combat for Allah [Compare Islamic suicide bombers and Kamikaze pilots]. As another example, Greek Orthodoxy views marriage as a holy sacrament; they see it as a picture of Christ's love toward the church and God's love for mankind. So in the same way that the love that exixts between man and wife is sacred and unique, so is God's love toward people. In Luke 6:43-44 the Bible declares, "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers."22 These verses can be applied to religious observances as well. The outward signs and practices reveal the inward nature of a religion, just as the fruit identifies the type of tree.
Quick Quiz: End Notes:
1Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. (Oxford University Press, 2002)
2Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. (Oxford University Press, 2002)
3 "Greek Orthodoxy," 29
4 "Greek Orthodoxy," 29
5Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. (Oxford University Press, 2002)
6Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. (Oxford University Press, 2002)
7The Koran. Sura 4:3. Translated by John Medows Rodwell. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2004)
8Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. (Oxford University Press, 2002)
9 "Greek Orthodoxy," 29 February 2004, < http://www.kimisis.com/greek%20orthodoxy/ >, (3 December, 2004)
10Fr Thomas Hopko. Worship: An Elementary Handbook on the Orthodox Church. (Orthodox Christian Publication Center). Available at < http://www.oca.org/pages/orth_chri/Orthodox-Faith/Worship/Marriage.html >
12Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. (Oxford University Press, 2002)
13The Koran. Sura 65. Translated by John Medows Rodwell. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2004)
14Fr Thomas Hopko. Worship: An Elementary Handbook on the Orthodox Church. (Orthodox Christian Publication Center). Available at < http://www.oca.org/pages/orth_chri/Orthodox-Faith/Worship/Marriage.html >
15 "Greek Orthodoxy," 29 February 2004, < http://www.kimisis.com/greek%20orthodoxy/ >, (3 December, 2004)
16Michele Baskin-Jones, "Death in Islam," < http://dying.about.com/cs/islammuslim/a/Views_Islam_2.htm >, (3 December, 2004)
17The Koran. Sura 3:157. Translated by John Medows Rodwell. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc., 2004)
18Dr. David R. Reagan. The Truth About Islam. (Lamb & Lion Ministries, 1996-2004) Available at <http://www.lamblion.com/New08.php>
19Michele Baskin-Jones, "Death in Islam," < http://dying.about.com/cs/islammuslim/a/Views_Islam_2.htm >, (3 December, 2004)
20The Holy Bible New International Version, James 5:14-15
21 "Greek Orthodoxy," 29 February 2004, < http://www.kimisis.com/greek%20orthodoxy/ >, (3 December, 2004)
22The Holy Bible New
International Version, Luke 6:43-44
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