A Christian Approach to Islam [Part II]
||Garry K. Brantley, M.A., M.Div.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of this two-part series appeared in the January issue. Part II follows below and continues, without introductory comments, where the first article ended.]
Unlike the popular notion, Islam is not the exclusive religion of Arab countries in the Middle East, but has found prolific expression around the globe. It is the fastest-growing religion in the world, claiming up to one billion adherents worldwide. To put that in perspective, this figure indicates that one out of every five people is a Muslim. In the United States, there are now up to five million Muslims, and over 1,100 mosques or Islamic centers (see Rood, 1994; Ahmad, 1995). Muslims, therefore, no longer are the vague features of geographically detached people, but could be among those whom we encounter in our daily routines. In light of these considerations, properly understanding, and responding to, Islam become increasingly apparent and personal.
The Persian Gulf War, and other such conflicts involving the U.S. and Islamic nations, have created within Westerners largely negative images of Muslims. Often they are associated with the stubbled faces and cold stares of fanatical terrorists who, to advance their political agenda, bomb public facilities, snuffing out hundreds of innocent lives. While some militant Islamic sects have conducted terrorist activity in the U.S. and other Western nations, they are not necessarily representative of all Muslims (see Al-Ashmawy, 1996; Sial, 1995). Simply exposing the radical views held by violent sects would not be a responsible critique of Islam. As Islamic writer Mubashar Ahmad correctly has objected, such an approach “would be as if someone tries to understand Christianity by reading the news of what is happening politically and religiously in Northern Ireland or of apartheid in South Africa” (1995).
In light of Ahmad’s legitimate caveat, at least two observations need to guide an analysis of, and response to, Islam. First, as indicated in part one of this series, Islam is not a monolithic system, but contains several identifiable sects and movements (Brantley, 1996; see Rood, 1994). It is “a religious movement that has experienced constant change over the centuries and has acquired a high degree of inner diversity, a faith shared by concrete men and women with a broad spectrum of attitudes and feelings” (Kung, 1986, p. 22). Not all Muslims engage in, or support, the terrorist activity of fundamentalist Islamic sects. In fact, nonextremist Muslims decry the intolerant Islam preached by militant fanatics whose messages, they contend, are “a cover for advancing their political agenda and their lust for power, and ideology more akin to fascism and Marxism than to the Islamic faith” (Al-Ashmawy, 1996, p. 157). Thus, a Christian response to Islam must guard against stereotyping Muslims as blood-thirsty rogues with no regard for human life.
Second, we need to be sensitive to, and try to appreciate, the anti-west/anti-U.S. sentiment among many Middle Eastern Muslims. Historically, Muslims have equated, and continue to equate, the West with Christianity. From this perspective, “Christian” and “Muslim” nations have had a long history of conflict, leaving both with animosity toward one another. While Islamic countries have committed their share of atrocities against Christian nations, the former do have some legitimate grievances against the latter. The Crusades (c. 1050-1291), for example, are etched indelibly into Muslim minds. In the Colonial period (c. 1450-1970), Western nations subjugated about ninety percent of the Muslim world, which instilled in many Muslims a deep desire to avenge such shame and humiliation. Perhaps the greatest blow to the Islamic ego was when, after thirteen hundred years of occupation, they lost possession of Jerusalem to the Jews in 1967. Muslims blame this turn of events on the “Christian” West for creating the state of Israel in 1948 (see McCurry, 1994). Though we might reasonably object that they have skewed history to a certain extent (see van Ess, 1986, pp. 37-38), Muslims nonetheless view the West, and particularly the U.S., through lenses colored by this history of Muslim casualties. If we are to have any success in reaching Muslims with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must approach them with sensitivities toward their, and our, past.
CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM: POINTS OF TENSION
While we recognize the vast diversity of thought and attitudes within Islam, our response to this world religion must be limited to its core beliefs. Before offering such a critique, it will be both helpful and crucial to clarify the points of tension between Christianity and Islam. While on a superficial level it appears that Christianity and Islam share common theological ground in some particulars (e.g., monotheism), a closer scrutiny of the two religions exposes several fundamental differences that can be reconciled only by a costly compromise by either the Christian, the Muslim, or both.
Monotheism of Islam
At first glance, it appears that the rigid monotheism of Islam largely is compatible with Christian thought. The idea expressed in the Qur’an that God is “the one, the most unique,” and the “immanently indispensable” to Whom “no one is comparable” (sura 112:1-2,4), generally agrees with biblical concepts of God (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4; Psalm 86:8; Isaiah 40:18; 44:6). Yet, the monotheism of Islam is so rigid and inflexible that it repudiates two crucial, and inextricably linked, doctrines of historic Christianity.
1. The Trinity. Though questioned by some groups within the pale of Christianity, the concept of the trinity has strong biblical support (see Bromling, 1991). This doctrine does not suggest, as is alleged by non-Trinitarians, a tri-theistic construct of God. It simply affirms that there are three distinct persons (i.e., the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), yet all are one in essence. In other words, while the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sustain distinct relationships to one another, they share the same divine nature (see Geisler and Saleeb, 1993, p. 266). In this regard, Christianity and Islam are firmly opposed to one another. Unlike the monotheism of Christianity that allows for a plurality within the divine essence, Islam condemns such a pluralistic concept of God (see Kaleem, 1994). The Qur’an cautions the “people of the book” (i.e., Christians) against calling God “Trinity” for “God is only one God” (sura 4:171).
2. The Deity of Jesus. Consistent with Islam’s repudiation of the Trinitarian idea of God, the Qur’an, though it exalts Jesus in many particulars, explicitly denies the deity of Jesus. While the Qur’an acknowledges that Jesus was a miraculous “sign” and divine “blessing” (19:21), Islamic Christology is totally devoid of divine content (see Kuitse, 1992, 20:357). Since God’s transcendent glory prohibits His begetting a son, the Qur’an presents Jesus only as the “son of Mary,” not the Son of God (4:171). Rather than possessing the divine nature as in biblical Christology (Philippians 2:8-12; Colossians 1:18), the Qur’anic Jesus “was only a creature” (43:59) brought into existence by God’s creative word (3:42-52). Islam’s view of Jesus demonstrates the vast difference between it and Christianity. And, far from being a peripheral issue, the deity of Jesus is an essential tenet of Christianity. Thus, while Christianity and Islam share a common monotheistic belief, there is no resolving their Christological differences as they stand.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ
Another cardinal doctrine of Christianity—the atonement—is discarded by the Qur’an. That Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again from the grave according to the Scriptures is the thrust of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Contrary to the conclusion of some modern theologians, Paul argued that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection were actual events of history. Following Paul’s line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, if Christ did not actually rise from the dead there is no gospel, and the entire Christian system is annulled (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). A denial of these core events is tantamount to rejecting the veracity of Christianity.
Yet, Islam does deny these central Christian events, charging that Jesus actually did not die on the cross (see Ijaz, n.d.). In a context in which the Jews are excoriated for repeatedly breaking God’s covenant, the Qur’an reads:
And for saying [in boast]: “We killed the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary, who was an apostle of God;” but they neither killed nor crucified him, though it so appeared to them. Those who disagree in the matter are only lost in doubt. They have no knowledge about it other than conjecture, for surely they did not kill him, but God raised him up (in position) and closer to Himself; and God is all-mighty and all wise (sura 4:157-158).
This one reading has generated considerable debate among Islamic commentators. The phrase, “so it appeared to them,” particularly has been problematic. Generally, orthodox Muslims have interpreted this to mean that in some mysterious manner, God made another person so resemble Jesus that he was crucified by mistake. By this means God intervened and frustrated the Jews’ evil purpose, and subsequently transported Jesus into heaven (see Geisler and Saleeb, 1992, pp. 64-65). According to Norman Anderson, Muhammad’s aversion to Jesus’ death as reflected in the Qur’an could have been motivated by several factors. Perhaps it was due, Anderson suggests, to the influence of Gnostic views, to his disdain for the “superstitious veneration” of the symbol of the cross in seventh-century Asia, or to his disbelief that God would allow one of His prophets to die in such a disgraceful manner (1975, p. 101). Of these possibilities, the latter is the most likely candidate.
Regardless of the rationale behind Islam’s denial of Jesus’ crucifixion, one fact remains: Islam rejects the idea of Jesus’ crucifixion and, by implication, His vicarious suffering for sinful humanity. As already indicated, such a denial strikes at the very heart of the Christian system. Once again, any points of contact between Islam and Christianity are eclipsed by this fundamental difference.
Means of Salvation
As a corollary to its denial of Jesus’ death, Islam differs significantly with Christianity regarding the means of humankind’s salvation. In the Christian system, all responsible human beings without Christ are powerless slaves to a ruthless taskmaster—sin (Romans 5:6-11; 6:15-18; Ephesians 2:14-18). Since there is no means of liberating ourselves from the bondage of sin, human beings desperately are in need of a savior. In response to this critical condition, God, motivated by His love, entered into human history as a man, and offered His sinless life for humanity. The New Testament writers employed several images (financial, military, sacrificial, and legal) to convey in a concrete way the soteriological purpose of Christ’s death. Through the cross, sinners are purchased (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23), victorious (Colossians 1:12; 2:15; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28), atoned for (Romans 3:25; 1 Corinthians 5:7), and acquitted and reconciled (2 Corinthians 5:16-19; Colossians 1:19-20; see Guthrie, 1994, pp. 251-256). While scholars continue to debate the theological details of these images, it is clear from the New Testament that God took the initiative in the salvation of humanity. It further emphasizes that salvation is not by human works of merit, but by God’s grace through an expressive faith in the redemptive act of Christ on the cross (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Islam, however, has no place for a suffering savior in its redemptive system. It does not view human beings as enslaved by sin without the ability of self-emancipation. Though it emphasizes the role of God’s mercy and forgiveness in salvation, Islam teaches that God’s pleasure, and thus one’s place in Heaven, are earned (cf. suras 2:207; 39:69). On the Day of Judgment, according to Islam, those who have fulfilled their religious duties, and compensated for their altruistic deficiencies by performing additional good deeds, will attain salvation. Those whose good deeds are insufficient, however, “shall forfeit their souls and abide in Hell forever” (sura 23:102-103). In the final analysis, according to Islam, humankind’s spiritual need is not for a divine savior, but simply for divine guidance.
A BRIEF EVALUATION OF ISLAM
The points of tension between Islam and Christianity demonstrate the theological incompatibility of these two world views. To embrace Islam is to deny the essentials of the Christian faith; likewise, to espouse Christianity is to compromise seriously the core beliefs of Islam. Having laid out the basic practices and duties of Islam, and having highlighted the distinctions between Islam and Christianity, a Christian evaluation of Islam now is in order. Due to space restrictions, we will devote our attention to two crucial points of Islam: the nature of God, and the Qur’an.
The Nature of God
As already indicated, the stringent monotheism of Islam categorizes the Trinitarian concept of deity espoused by Christians as tri-theism. This is due to a misunderstanding of the Father/Son relationship between God and Jesus as mentioned in the Bible (see John 10:29-33). For Jesus to sustain such a filial kinship to God, “often in the Muslim mind implies some kind of sexual generation” (Geisler and Saleeb, 1993, pp. 134-135). Of course, the term “Father” or “Son” does not necessitate physical procreation any more than Saddam Hussein’s description of the Gulf War as the “Mother of all Battles” demands that the conflict had a physical womb. The description of Jesus as the “only begotten Son” of God (John 3:16) refers, not to a physical act of procreation, but to His unique relationship to God the Father.
The idea expressed in the Qur’an that God’s glory prohibits Him from begetting a son (in the carnal sense; sura 4:171) provides further insight into the theology of Islam. God is so transcendent and unified to Himself that He is dissociated totally from creation and, thus, acts impersonally (McDowell, 1983, p. 393). To many Muslims, this implies that God is so detached from our human existence that He has no (knowable) essence; He is absolute Will. A God with no essence means a God with no essential characteristics. From this perspective, though the Qur’an extols God as “the Compassionate, the Merciful,” such characteristics are not rooted in His essence but are the results of His capricious will. As the Qur’an indicates, God is merciful simply because “He has decreed mercy for Himself ” (sura 6:12). In short, in Islamic theology what God does determines who God is. Since God’s actions are contingent on His arbitrary will, then who God is ultimately is an act of His volition.
Such a concept of God, however, involves a serious moral difficulty. It implies the possibility that, had God willed it, He might as easily have been “The Merciless” rather than “The Merciful.” For, as Geisler and Saleeb have observed, “if God is Will, without any real essence, then he does not do things because they are right; rather, they are right because he does them” (1993, pp. 136-137). In the final analysis, the God of Islam has no nature by which He is inherently prohibited from, or motivated toward, certain actions. The God of Christianity, however, has such a nature that self-limits His actions (e.g., He cannot lie, Titus 1:2). In addition, rather than being the products of His volition, the benevolent attributes of the Christian God (e.g., goodness, mercy, love, grace) are part of His essence.
These divergent concepts of God find practical expression in profoundly different ways. Consistent with Islamic theology, the concern of orthodox Muslims is not to know God in an intimate fashion, but simply to obey Him. The God of Islam does not reveal Himself; rather, He reveals only His will, to which Muslims are to submit in an external fashion. On the contrary, the God of Christianity has revealed not only His propositional truth in the Bible, but also His essence in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians seek not only to do God’s will, but to be in a covenant relationship with Him. Due to the Islamic concept of God, together with its works-oriented means of salvation, Muslims cannot have the sense of security that Christians enjoy through God’s grace as taught in the Bible.
To Muslims, the Qur’an is not merely the counterpart of the Christian Bible, but is the Islamic equivalent of Christ. According to Muslim scholar, Yusuf K. Ibish, “If you want to compare it with anything in Christianity, you must compare it with Christ Himself ” (as quoted in Geisler and Saleeb, 1993, p. 179). Consistent with Ibish’s observation, Muslims assign to the Qur’an the same attributes that Christians apply to Christ. For example, just as Jesus is the human manifestation of the eternal God in biblical Christology (John 1:1-3,14; Hebrews 1:1-3), the Qur’an is the linguistic representation of God’s eternal Word. In short, while in Christianity the divine Word became a human being, in Islam the eternal Word became a book. Muslims further argue that the Qur’an not only is the inspired, inerrant, eternal, and final revelation of God that supersedes all others, but is also the ultimate divine miracle. In fact, as stated in part one of this series, it was the only miracle Muhammad offered when asked to display his prophetic credentials. Muslims employ several arguments to support the claim of the Qur’an’s miraculous status. Consider two of the most popular arguments, and a brief response.
1. Unique literary style. To many Muslims the strongest evidence supporting the miraculous nature of the Qur’an is its impressive literary style. The Arabic in which the Qur’an was written has rhyming, rhythmic qualities that delight the Arab’s ears (Shorrosh, 1988, p. 25). Muslims further hold that the Qur’an’s rhetoric, clarity of expression, and concepts are unparalleled in the world of literature. To Muslim apologists, these literary qualities indicate the divine origin of the Qur’an.
To question the literary quality of the Qur’an, as many attempt to do, is an inadequate response to this argument because the Muslim simply would point out that only those who understand the nuances of the Arabic language can appreciate this aspect of the Qur’an. Further, determining the quality of a production introduces the dimension of subjectivity. Hence, the question is: Does eloquence indicate divine inspiration? At best, the eloquence of the Qur’an only suggests that Muhammad was a gifted orator. If eloquence is strong evidence for divine inspiration, the works of Homer and Shakespeare are candidates for this exalted status as well. In short, the argument from eloquence is not a sufficient proof of inspiration.
2. Muhammad’s illiteracy. A controversial verse in the Qur’an forms the basis for the belief in Muhammad’s illiteracy. In that passage, Allah promises to bestow mercy on those who, among other duties, “follow the Apostle—the Unlettered Prophet...” (sura 7:157). The phrase “the Unlettered Prophet,” often is interpreted to indicate Muhammad’s illiteracy. If so, Muslims contend, this is further confirmation of the Qur’an’s divine origin, since it would have been highly improbable, if not impossible, for a formally-uneducated prophet to produce such a quality work.
There are at least two points to make in response to this claim. First, it is questionable whether Muhammad actually was illiterate. Some Arabic scholars contend that the words al umni “the unlettered,” actually mean “the heathen,” or “the gentile,” which is reflected in more recent translations (see Ali, 1993, p. 148). Second, if Muhammad actually were illiterate, that fact alone would not necessitate that the Qur’an was dictated to him by God. One’s level of formal training does not necessarily enhance one’s intelligence or creative abilities. Even if he could neither read nor write, Muhammad could have dictated his messages to a scribe who subsequently wrote them down. In the final analysis, it is plausible that someone with no formal training could have produced the Qur’an. Hence, the question of Muhammad’s illiteracy is a peripheral issue when it comes to establishing the divine origin of the Qur’an.
Islamic apologists offer other arguments to support the Qur’an’s claim of divine authorship. Among them are the alleged perfect preservation of the Qur’anic text, fulfilled prophecies, its unity, and scientific accuracy. These evidences, however, similarly prove to be unconvincing (see Geisler and Saleeb, 1993, pp. 204; Lawson, 1991).
Of course, Muslims, as do other non-believers, challenge the evidences for biblical inspiration. Since, generally speaking, Islamic countries protect the Qur’an from criticism, it has not been subjected to the same intensity of critical analysis as has the Bible. Despite the centuries-long attacks against biblical credibility, the Bible has fared quite well. And, though it is not within the purview of this brief article to enumerate each of them, there are impressive evidences for the integrity of the Christian system (see Geisler, 1976; Wharton, 1977)
While we can, and should, discuss the differences between Islam and Christianity, and debate with Muslims regarding the inspiration of the Qur’an, encountering Muslims at this level most likely will produce little evangelistic progress. First we must extend the love of Christ to Muslims in concrete ways. Once they have seen tangible evidence of the risen Lord within our lives, we will be in a better position to discuss these more technical, yet vital, issues.
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