Our topic is, obviously, an exercise in Christian understanding for more effective Christian witness among Muslims. It correctly suggests that communicating the Christian faith involves the Christian in understanding not only his Christian faith but also the Islamic faith of Muslims and their understanding of Christianity. The brevity of this article compels us to assume the Christian’s adequate understanding of the content and intent of the Christian Gospel, apart from which an adequate Christian witness, at least in the Biblical sense of the term, is virtually impossible. We will therefore focus on Islam and Christianity as Muslims might view them.
Understanding Muslims’ Understanding of Islam
Simply to acknowledge the Christian contribution to the strained relations between Muslims and Christians which have existed from the beginning of Islamic history (about 600 A.D.) is a step in the right direction (here the Muslim contribution to these strained relations is beside the point). Muslims see the centuries-old Christian animosity towards Islam highlighted especially in the Crusades and the more recent centuries of imperialism. They feel that Islam is the most misunderstood of all religions. Their publications continue to lament insensitive Western portrayals and caricatures of Islam and Muslims, and plead for a fairer estimate of them in the past and present based on Islamic sources and responsible Muslim interpretations of Islamic religion and culture. Indeed it is incumbent upon all Christians who are seriously concerned with Christian witness among Muslims to understand Islam as its sources present it and as its Muslim expositors interpret it, however differing their interpretations of it may be.
To initiate Christians into a truer picture of Islam Muslims might cite from the Qur’an such verses as the following:
And verily We (God) 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)
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets: and giveth his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere, such are the God-fearing (2:177).
From the beginning, the Muslim might comment, God has used nature and history to show mankind that He is sole sovereign of the universe, the Creator, the Merciful, the Judge. Through prophets He has guided every nation to the straight path. All the prophets have proclaimed essentially the same message (though rites and practices might vary): the message of Islam, submission to God alone. Thus, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, all the other prophets and all the people who have heeded their summons are rightly called Muslims. Prior to Muhammad the task of the prophet was confined to his particular nation. But since, at the time of Muhammad, every nation had deviated from the pure message of its prophet, God sent Muhammad as His final prophet and messenger, through whom He revealed the Qur’an, his final message, for all mankind. Since Muhammad is the final messenger, “the Seal of the Prophets (33:40)” and “a good example for him who looketh unto Allah…(33:21)”, belief in Muhammad is incorporated as the second essential element into the fundamental creed of Islam: There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.
Basic to Islam as a religion of particular beliefs and practices is the Qur’an, God’s Word to mankind. In addition to the Qur’an most Muslims locate God’s guidance in the Hadith, the well authenticated accounts of the words and deeds of Muhammad and some of his earliest companions, and in Ijma, the consensus of the Muslim community, especially of the earlier generations of jurists within this community. These three sources provide the foundation for the shari’ah, Islam’s holy law and the perfect manifestation of God’s will for mankind. Muslims might say that it is the shari’ah which moulds Muslims into the Islamic community, Quranically speaking “the best community (ummah) that hath been raised up for mankind (3:110)”. The shari’ah is God’s law vs. all other human codes of law; God’s law, rejecting any division between the sacred and secular; God’s law, offering solutions to all the world’s problems, at least wherever it is practiced with good intention.
For Muslims, then, Islam is the corrective and the culmination of all religions: as the latest and last religion it restores to previous religions the truth which they have lost or from which they have deviated; it confirms and climaxes the truth which these religions have preserved. It is the criterion for determining the right from the wrong.
This day have I perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you as religion Al-Islam (5:3).
Serious Muslims must invite and welcome non-Muslims into their fold.
Understanding Muslims’ Understanding of Christianity
At least to some extent the following Quranic verses indicate the Qur’an’s ambivalent attitude toward Christians:
…And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe
(to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians…(5:82)”
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).
The first verse reflects an earlier friendly relationship with Christians; the second a change in attitude towards them. No doubt Muhammad felt himself called to proclaim God’s message to the Arabs as other prophets had proclaimed it to their respective nations. Christians (and Jews) are called the People of the Book, a designation which, from the beginning of Islamic history until the present, has left Christians (and Jews) on a higher rung of the Islamic social ladder than polytheists without a Scripture. It is significant that the five main beliefs of Islamic faith proclaimed by Muhammad among the pagan Arabs are consonant with vital Biblical beliefs. Against the pagan Arabs, who said that God has associates, that He does not send prophets and Scriptures and that there is no day of resurrection and judgment, Muhammad asserted his belief in 1. God, who has no associates; 2. the angels as servants of God; 3. the prophets; 4. the Scriptures (including the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus); 5. the day of resurrection and judgment. Skeptics of Muhammad’s message and mission, the Qur’an occasionally says, can dispel their doubts by consulting the People of the Book. As possessors of Scriptures they can vouch for the fact of his prophethood and the truth of his message.
Why, then, the later break with Christians? At least one reason is reflected in the Quranic vetoes of some vital Christian doctrines in reference to Jesus the Messiah. Christians should note both the formulation and intent of these vetoes, since they continue to affect Muslim responses to Christianity even today.
First, Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and confess the Trinity.
…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 are they (9:30)!
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…(5:116)
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there
is no God save the One God…(5:73)
God has no son or any associate, says the Qur’an. He alone is sovereign and “there is for Him no consort (6:102)”. Probably no Christian doctrines have been and are so misunderstood by many Muslims as the Sonship of Jesus and the Trinity.
Secondly, one verse of the Qur’an denies that Jesus died on the cross.
…They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them…(4:157)
By denying that Jesus died on the cross, the Qur’an probably intends to defend Jesus against the claims of the Jews that they killed Jesus. But whatever its intention, this verse has formed the basis for the subsequent and persistent denial that Jesus died on the cross. God demonstrates his power by rescuing Jesus and lifting him to heaven, says the Muslim. Thus this denial too strikes at the very heart of the Christian Gospel.
Thirdly, because the New Testament teaches Jesus’ Sonship and His death on the Cross, many Muslims have concluded that Christians have corrupted their Scriptures during the course of history. For them such doctrines are innovations which are alien to the original Gospel that Jesus received and which have been introduced into it by St. Paul or others like him. They cannot trust the Bible. In any case, says the Muslim, the Qur’an contains everything of value in the Bible.
Fourthly, a vital element within Jesus’ Gospel, as Muslims understand it on the basis of the Qur’an (61:6), is Jesus’ prophecy of the coming of Muhammad.
In short, whatever else the person and role of Jesus in the Quranic drama of world history, He is finally no more or no less than all other prophets and messengers of God. He is a true Muslim, a creature and servant of God perfectly obedient to Him; He confesses the creed of Islam: There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.
Here, then, at least, are frameworks for two bridges to the Muslim mind. At best, however, they are only bridges of Christian understanding. For Christians there remains the task of building bridges of Christian witness and interpretation of the Gospel that reach both the mind and the heart of the Muslim.