In this series of dealing with false faiths, we have looked at two faiths that one might have knocking on their door – Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, what these faiths also have in common is that they would describe themselves as Christian, because they claim to believe in the same Jesus as the Saviour. In this article, however, we are going to be concluding this series in a slightly different direction – Islam. This is an important topic because, while Christianity remains the largest religious group in the world, Islam is second, and is growing. And so, how can we understand and converse with our Muslim neighbours?
What Islam teaches
It is helpful, in understanding Islam, to get a sense of its history. Muhammed lived from 571 to 632 AD in what is now Saudi Arabia. In 611 he was meditating in a cave on a mountain just outside of Mecca. While there, he claimed to have seen a vision of the angel Gabriel in which he was called to be the prophet of Allah (God).1
As God’s prophet, Muhammad began teaching in Mecca about the new revelations he was receiving from God. In 622 (the first year of the Muslim calendar), opposition to Muhammad’s teaching had grown to such an extent that he was forced to flee with about 200 followers to Medina. Once there, Muhammad built a mosque and started attracting more followers. Once he had sufficient numbers, Muhammad conquered his hometown of Mecca, and this caused many other people to follow him as well.2
Following the death of Muhammad, Islam became divided. Perhaps you have heard of the 2 branches of Islam: Sunni and Shi’ite. The Sunnis believed that Abu Bekr, Mohammed’s father-in-law, was the natural successor to leadership in Islam. This sect represents somewhere between 80-90% of Muslims. Shi’ite Islam is a minority group that views the leadership of Islam to naturally flow through Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, and her husband Ali (also Muhammad’s first cousin). This group is most prominent in Iran, where it makes up over 90% of the population.3
Despite their divisions, Islam does hold many basic beliefs in common. The first is their belief in one Holy Book, the Qur’an. This book is holy and perfect in a way that no other books are. They argue that it has been preserved perfectly in its original language from its original composition, written by Muhammad. For this reason, they argue that it is the only perfect inspired book.
They would admit that there may be other words of God that he has spoken through other prophets (like Noah. Abraham, Moses and Jesus). However, they claim that those words have been changed through the ages so that “many things have been inserted in these books which are against reality, are revolting to reason, and contrary to every instinct of justice.” Thus, while the Biblical prophets were genuine and originally led people to Allah, their messages have been changed and so are not needed.4
So what else does a Muslim believe? Well, there are five basic beliefs that are necessary for salvation. The first is that God is one. This is an explicit denial of the Trinity, as it is stated that God “has absolutely no associate with him in his divinity.” Second, a Muslim must believe in the angels as God’s messengers on earth. Third, they must believe in the Qur’an and other divine, but possibly corrupted, revelation. Fourth, they must believe in God’s prophets, and especially to have faith in Muhammad. Fifth, they must believe that there is life after death.5
However, it is important to make clear that it is not enough for a Muslim to just believe these things. There is a heavy load of necessary good works that is piled on to the need of faith. It may be that a Muslim has faith, but does not devote himself to obedience to Allah. Such a person is not considered a “true Muslim” and “deserve[s] punishment for the wrongs they commit.” It is not sufficient to believe in order to be a true Muslim, but one must have faith and “follow the system of God and devote themselves to seeking his pleasure.”6
What has Allah commanded Muslims to do? First of all, they are commanded to pray. They do this facing Mecca, and bowing down to indicate their submission to Allah. Muslims gather to pray corporately particularly on Fridays. Second, they are commanded to fast during the month of Ramadan. During the day, Muslims don’t eat or drink anything for the purpose of self-discipline. Third, they must give 2.5% of their cash and assets in order to provide for the poor and unemployed. Fourth, if you can afford it, once in your lifetime you must make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Finally, jihad (struggle) must be undertaken by the Muslim community against those who would oppose them. They must be ready and willing to fight the enemy.7
Now, some of these things don’t seem so bad. In fact, prayer, fasting and giving all find correspondences in the life of the church. However, it is the role that these works play in salvation that truly distinguishes Islam from Christianity. Islam functions on the principle of works-righteousness. They believe that in the final judgement everyone will be held accountable for their lives. When this is done, reward and punishment will be given based on the weight of good and bad deeds. “One who excels in goodness will be rewarded; one whose evils and wrong acts outweigh his good deeds will be punished.”8
You might be asking: what about grace? Well, one of the things that the Qur’an explicitly denounces is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact it says, “They declared: ‘We have put to death the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the apostle of God.’ They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.” Islam believes that Jesus was a prophet, but he was not crucified. Instead, God made someone to resemble Jesus (possibly Judas Iscariot), and raised Jesus directly to heaven. Other Muslims hold to the ‘swoon theory,’ arguing that Jesus didn’t really die, but was only left unconscious in the grave, and that he revived in the tomb.9
And so, Islam doesn’t believe in a redeemer, one who took the punishment for sins. They believe in a prophet who commanded people the way to live so that they can make themselves right with God.
The Christian’s response
One of the challenges with addressing the teachings of Islam biblically is that a faithful Muslim generally won’t accept the teachings of Scripture as inspired. However, this doesn’t mean that we are helpless in our conversations with them.
First of all, we can defend the reliability of the Bible over and against the Qur’an. It is important to know that Muhammad likely transmitted his teachings orally, and it was left to his followers to transcribe what was said, “written on palm leaves, stones, and any material that came to hand.” It was not compiled until after the death of Muhammad, and the authorized version arose over a decade later.10
This process of transcription and compilation is not in itself a problem, however, when Muslims claim that the Qur’an they read “exists exactly as it had been revealed to the prophet,” this is more a statement of faith than of historical fact.11
However, if we are to make any headway with our Muslim neighbours, the most fruitful avenue will be the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, one might say that this is the main purpose of the gospel accounts. The ‘swoon theory’ seems to be beyond belief. The thought that someone who had been starved, dehydrated, lost a massive amount of blood through nails in hands and feet and his side pierced by a lance, and then placed in a cave with no medical treatment would be found walking three days later is more unbelievable than a resurrection!
Furthermore, what we find in the New Testament is a litany of witnesses. Many of them saw him die, but most importantly they saw him resurrected. First are the women at the tomb (John 20:1-18). Then Jesus appears to his own disciples not once, but twice (John 20:19-29). Then he appeared to the disciple by the Sea of Galilee (21:1-11). In fact, we read in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 a massive list of people who saw Jesus after he was resurrected. To establish the fact that Jesus certainly died and was resurrected will provide an opening to discuss the grace that flows from that death (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
Finally, it is helpful to recognize that many Muslims are raised in community-based cultures. This means that they value and appreciate hospitality, and see that as an expression of love. So, let us engage our Muslim neighbours with concrete expressions of love, that we might have an opportunity to present them with the love of the God of the Bible.
1 Ross, F.H., & Hills, T. The Great Religions By Which Men Live. Greenwich, CT (1956): Fawcett Publications. 161.
2 Ross, 161-166.
3 For more information (albeit dated) on the Muslim population distribution, see: https://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/
4 Mawdudi, Abul A’La. Towards Understanding Islam. Trans and Ed. Khurshid Ahmad. The Islamic Foundation (2000): 82, 94-98. The Koran. Tr, N.J. Dawood. London, England (1999): Penguin Books. Sura 4:163.
5 Mawdudi, 75-102, 114.
6 Mawdudi, 22-23.
7 Mawdudi, 117-125.
8 Mawdudi, 102.
9 The Koran, Surah 4:157.
10 The Koran, Introduction, 3.
11 Mawdudi, 95.
Mr David Stares is the minister in the Reformed Church in Masterton.
Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash