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Christianity and Christians: An Islamic Perspective

Or should we be speaking of Muslim perspectives? On the one hand, fundamental to any serious Christian understanding of an Islamic understanding of Christianity and Christians is a recognition that Islam is a post-Christian religion and that the Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslims, is a post-Christian scripture that reckons with both Christianity and Christians. In general it responds to a plurality of religions; in particular, and at greater length, it responds to Judaism and Christianity and to their adherents (whom it calls “the People of the Book”), or at least to its understanding about them. On the other hand, individual Muslims, whether or not informed by the Qur’an, may respond in a variety of ways to Judaism and Christianity. Some may plead ignorance about these religions; others may stress an Islamic kinship with them; still others conclude that some of their tenets, especially those of Christians, are idolatrous, blasphemous. Similarly, individual Muslims may respond in various ways to Jews and Christians. Some may emphasize the Quranic verse (Pickthall’s translation): Lo! those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Sabeans, and Christians – Whosoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (5: 69; cf. 2: 62; 13: 36) Others may stress: Thou wilt find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe (to be) the Jews and the idolaters. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. When they listen to that which hath been revealed unto the messenger, thou seest their eyes overflow with tears because of their recognition of the Truth. They say: Our Lord, we believe. Inscribe us as among the witnesses. (5: 82, 83) Still others may single out: O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk. (5: 51; but cf. 2: 105, 111, 113) Are these (and other) passages contradictory? If not, how does the Muslim reconcile them? Using the Qur’an 5: 82 (above) as an example, must a Muslim conclude that Jews (and idolaters) always and everywhere are hostile to believers and that there are no exceptions anywhere and anytime? Or is it possible that this verse’s application is qualified by a particular historical circumstance? Or is the individual Muslim’a attitude towards Jews dependant at all upon his relations with Jewish (or Christian) friends and acquaintances, perhaps even to the extent that he selects only Quranic verses which reinforce his view? Christians too are obviously prone to selectivity. There is the old story of a Cretan (presumably Orthodox) telling an Arab (Muslim) that Samuel Zwemer’s Christianity (Protestant) was defective. Samuel Zwemer pointed to Titus 1: 12: “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons!’” But more pertinent for our understanding is the Muslim understanding of Christianity. Two Quranic verses provide a setting for this understanding: And verily We have raised in every nation a messenger, (proclaiming): Serve Allah and shun false gods… (16:36) Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and unto Him we have surrendered. (2: 136). On the basis of these (and other) verses a Muslim might say that God has guided every nation to the straight path of Islam through His prophets. From the beginning of history Islam has been proclaimed and each successive prophet has brought the message of Islam (“surrender to God”; cf. 2: 136) to his particular nation. In this sense Islam does not begin with Muhammad. In this sense Jesus too, following previous prophets and apostles and followed by Muhammad, proclaims Islam; he even prophesies the coming of Muhammad in the Injil (“Evangel”, “Good News”; cf. 61: 6) and thus confesses the basic creed of Islam: There is no god except God and Muhammad is His messenger. Thus, in this sense, Christianity, the message of Jesus, is simply a continuation of Islam. As Muhammad established belief in God as one, in the angels, in the prophets and messengers, in the holy books and in the Day of Judgment as the principal Islamic beliefs, so Jesus, like others before Him, had established these beliefs. Christianity and Islam have so much in common! On occasions the Qur’an itself calls on skeptics of Muhammad’s message and mission to dispel any doubt by consulting with the People of the Book (21: 7; 43: 45; cf. 10: 95, directed to Muhammad). If Christianity is a valid revelation form God, why a Muslim’s ambivalence towards Christianity? The following Quranic references provide us with an initial answer to this question: …the Christians say: the Messiah is the son of Allah… They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse they are! (9: 30) The Originator of the heavens and the earth! How can He have a child, when there is for Him no consort, when He created all things and is Aware of all things? (6: 102) And when Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto mankind: Take me and my mother for two gods beside Allah? He saith: Be glorified! It was not mine to utter that to which I had no right. If I used to say it, then Thou knewest it. Thou knowest what is in my mind, and I know not what is in Thy mind. Lo! Thou, only Thou are the Knower of Things Hidden. (5: 116) They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve. (5: 73) The above passages, a Muslim might con