Of all the world religions, it is perhaps Islam that poses the biggest threat and challenge to Christianity. There are several reasons for this. Strength in numbers, a missionary outlook, a cohesive social system that is resistant to outside influence; all play a part. But above all, Islam strikes at the heart of so many key biblical teachings. It does not simply offer an alternative worldview - it directly challenges our faith, claiming to have superceded the corrupt, man-made doctrines of Christianity. Thus there has never been a more urgent need for Christians to understand Islam and to make an informed, compassionate and confident response.
History of development
The word Islam is Arabic and part of its meaning is ‘submission’ (to Allah [the generic name for God]). Muslim is a related word meaning ‘one who submits’. At this simple level, Muslims believe that Islam began with Adam who first submitted to Allah.
Mankind since then is said to have rebelled, leading Allah to send prophets with revelation, calling the people back to Islam. Some of these prophets are known to us from the Bible. Moses brought the taurat (torah), David the zabur (psalms) and Jesus the injil (gospel). Muslims believe that the present-day Bible is a corruption of these and that the true teachings of these prophets were forgotten, leaving mankind in jahiliya (ignorance). Into this situation, Allah sent Muhammad, his final prophet with the final revelation, the Qur’an, that would never be lost or corrupted.
Muhammad was born in Mecca in AD570 and is said to have been a religious man. In 610, whilst meditating in a cave, he claimed to receive a revelation from God via the angel Gabriel. These revelations came piecemeal for the rest of his life and were eventually collated as the Qur’an (meaning ‘recitation’).
Muhammad was initially persecuted and made the hijrah (flight) to nearby Medina in 622. Islamic history dates from here. After gathering support he returned to Mecca in 630 as the triumphant final prophet of Islam, dying in 632.
The next four caliphs (rulers) are known as ‘rightly guided’ and looked back to as leaders in the golden age of Islam. Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East and into North Africa, Europe and Asia.
A century ago Islam was waning. Most Muslims lived under the rule of western colonial powers. Since then, three main things have changed the global picture of Islam. After World War II and the break up of colonialism many Muslim countries gained independence. The discovery of oil in the Middle East has brought fabulous wealth to some Muslim countries. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 showed Muslims that they could stand up to the West, giving them great pride and confidence. So at the dawn of the 21st century Islam is a force to be reckoned with.
Today there are over a billion Muslims, concentrated mostly in the ‘10/40 window’. This is the area between 100 and 400 north of the equator, (see map), that is so needful ofcontemporary Christian missions. Most Muslims are not in Saudi Arabia, but Asia, especially Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
In the UK there are around 1.5 million Muslims (depending on who you ask!). This means more Muslims than communicant Anglicans. Most are Pakistani and Bangladeshi. There are over 1,800 mosques and 3,000 Qur’anic schools. It is difficult to calculate how many Britons have converted to Islam, but the figure is at least 10,000.
Muslim beliefs and practices
Islam is a practical religion. One of the advantages that Muslims talk about is that Islam gives rules and guidance for every area of life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’ are things to be done.
- Shahada (Creed) - This is the Islamic declaration of faith and to say it honestly makes one a Muslim. In Arabic it is la illah ilallah, wa Muhammadur rasulullah (there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah).
- Salat (Prayer) - These are the five daily prayers, done in a set way at set times whilst reciting parts of the Qur’an. Most Muslims also believe in making supplications to God at other times.
- Zakat (Almsgiving) - Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their income to the poor.
- Saum (Fasting) - Fasting during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, to commemorate the giving of the Qur’an.
- Hajj (Pilgrimage) - All Muslims are required to go to Mecca once in their life, if they can afford it.
- God - Allah has 99 names (eg Beneficent, Merciful) most of which are acceptable to Christians. However, Allah is far more remote and austere than the God of the Bible, who is intimately involved with his creatures and even sacrifices himself for them.
- Angels - Muslims believe in angels as God’s servants and messengers (eg Gabriel and Michael). Many believe that each person has an angel on either shoulder, recording good and bad deeds respectively. The Holy Spirit in the Qur’an is often taken to be Gabriel.
- Prophets - Muslims believe in 124,000 prophets, 25 mentioned in the Qur’an. Many are biblical (eg Moses and Jesus). Yet Islam sees prophets as protected from sin. This causes problems when Muslims read of Lot (an Islamic prophet) and his sin with his daughters (Gn 19:30-38), which is often seen as proof of biblical corruption.
- Holy Books - Muslims believe in the previous Scriptures but hold that these are now corrupted and not accurately reflected in today’s Bible. As we will see, this is an argument from need rather than evidence.
- Judgement Day - Good and bad deeds will be weighed, but even Muhammad was not assured of salvation. Heaven or hell awaits, but heaven is more of a sensual pleasure garden than that portrayed in the Bible.
- Predestination - Allah has complete control over history. Muslims often say Insha’llah (if God wills) when making plans. This is a biblical practice (Jas 4:13-15), although it can be taken to extremes.
Similarities and differences
This very brief overview shows that Islam and Christianity have a huge amount of similarity. We share a common history and many of the same prophets, a similar view of revelation, morality and judgement. In fact, we have far more in common with our Muslim friends than with the average UK student, who believes in godless evolution, relativistic morality and materialism, with very little desire to know or serve the Almighty Creator! It is worth remembering this in our interactions with Muslims and showing them first of all that we are in vast agreement on a whole range of important issues.
Unfortunately, we can’t just stop there, for our disagreements are not just minor points. Muslims believe that the Bible is a worthless corruption, that the Trinity is a pagan invention and that Jesus was not God and did not die for us. It is because of this that we must go further in our conversations with Muslims to these very real problems. The whole of God’s revelation and plan of salvation is under attack and it is our duty to help them see that Christian belief and practice are firmly rooted in a reliable Bible, with the death and resurrection of Jesus as the key event in history, without which we are naked in the face of the coming judgement.
In addition to this we face the problem of using similar language to mean different things. When an American and an Englishman discuss football, they had better define it quickly, or they will find themselves talking past one another about two totally different games. Similarly, when Christians and Muslims talk about sin, prophets, revelation and a whole range of terms familiar to both, they need to make sure that the other person is getting the message they intended!
Principles of witness
Many Muslims share a common culture that is Middle Eastern or Asian. Therefore there are cultural issues of which we should become aware. Many points made on this subject by Juge Ram in his article on Hinduism in the last issue are relevant here.
- Gender - The male/female divide is very strong, although this may be less so for younger Muslims who have grown up in the West. Friendships and witnessing should generally be male-male and female-female. It can be easy to give the wrong idea, even if our motives are totally pure. This is especially the case as many Muslims assume that the West is Christian and therefore that Christians in general have loose morals. Dress is also important as Muslim culture is conservative, especially for women.
- Family - The family is very important for Muslims. While this is a good point that we would do well to follow, it can make witnessing very difficult. Senior members can carry great authority over the extended family, making it very hard for one member to go against the rest in deciding to follow Christ.
- Honour and shame - If one member of a family becomes a Christian, it can bring great shame on the rest, who have failed in their duty to keep the family together in Islam. This may create great strain for new converts, who can lose their jobs and be cast out of their homes. At the extreme, it is not unknown for the family to restore its honour by killing the one who has brought shame upon them. Once more it builds another social barrier to stop Muslims responding to the gospel.
- Be a real friend - Muslims may be suspicious of Christians and have a very negative view of ‘missionaries’, who are often seen as resorting to deceitful tactics in order to win converts. It is crucial that we are seen to be real people with real concern for our friends, not just out to convert them by any means.
- Be biblical - Despite Muslim misgivings about the Bible (see below) we must be seen to be biblical, both in our lives and words. As already mentioned Muslims may think West = Christian and they need to see Christians with a radical morality that is based on the Bible. It is also important to show that our beliefs come from the Bible. Muslims tend to think that Christian teaching is man-made, so we must show that it has a firm foundation in the Bible. Incidentally, this is excellent practice for making sure that we are not holding on to doctrinal baggage that has no scriptural basis!
- Be prayerful - There are very real barriers that stop Muslims coming to faith in Christ. These social factors and preconceived ideas can be very hard to shake. Only the Holy Spirit can open a Muslim’s heart to enable them to respond to the gospel.
- Be patient - God can and does work miracles, but the fact is that it usually takes time and perseverance for Muslims to come to Christ. We mustn’t give up when our initial efforts are rebuffed.
- Consider your approach - Sometimes it is appropriate to concentrate on the things we hold in common. At other times it is necessary to challenge wrong beliefs about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. We need to be confident and compassionate in each situation, yet flexible, as Jesus was.
- Avoid unnecessary offence - This may include putting your Bible/Qur’an on the floor or scribbling in the margins, which is seen as very disrespectful to a holy book.
Answering Muslims’ questions
Although there are many questions that Muslims may ask , the vast majority fall into one of three simple categories: the authority of the Bible, the identity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the eternal, uncreated, verbatim words of Allah, sent down to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel with no human input whatsoever. This is quite different to biblical inspiration, where God inspired human writers to record his dealings with mankind, using their own minds and forms of expression to do so. The human element is very strong in the Bible, which makes for much confusion when both Christians and Muslims insist on defining their books as ‘the word of God’. Muslims think it strange to see biblical accounts and narratives written by human authors. They have similar human accounts in the hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and sira (biographies of Muhammad), but ask why these words of men should be mixed with the pure ‘word of God’. Thus from the outset the Muslim mind contains a barrier of its own making, preventing it from reading the Bible on its own terms.
Secondly, there are many contradictions of fact between the Bible and Qur’an. These include the nature of God, the person of Jesus and a whole host of people and events common to both. Muslims see Islam as the final step in the revelation of God, superceding both Judaism and Christianity, which they hold to be corruptions of what once was God’s true religion. The Qur’an claims several times to confirm the scriptures that went before (eg Surah 10:37; 35:31), although interestingly it makes no claim to correct them. So when a Muslim sees contradiction between the Bible and the Qur’an, he or she generally assumes that the Bible is at fault and has been manipulated by unscrupulous Jews and Christians. Very rarely will a Muslim consider the possibility that the Qur’an could have been mistaken!
Perhaps one of the most common questions in this section concerns predictions of Muhammad. In the Qur’an, 61:6, we read the following words on the lips of Jesus: ‘O Children of Israel! I am the messenger of Allah unto you...giving glad tidings of a Messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad [a form of Muhammad].’ So Muslims expect Muhammad to be predicted in the previous scriptures. Very often it is claimed that his name has been dishonestly erased from parts of the Bible, but there are three main passages where Muslims believe the predictions have survived.
Deuteronomy 18:15-19 - the prophet like Moses: Muslims may list reasons why Muhammad is more like Moses than Jesus was; the same can be done to show the opposite. The key is that the prophet had to be ‘from among [their] own brothers’ and Deuteronomy 17:15 makes it clear that this means an Israelite (Joshua/Jesus), not an Ishmaelite (Muhammad). John 1:45 and Acts 3:22 also show that this is Jesus.
Song of Songs 5:16 - the one ‘altogether lovely’: The Hebrew root for ‘lovely’ is similar to the Arabic root for Muhammad. However, the context makes it clear that the subject is a 10th century BC Jewish king, not a 7th century AD Arab trader. Also, the Hebrew word is an adjective, not a noun - a person cannot be ‘altogether Muhammad’!
John 14:16 - ‘another Counselor’: This word has been linked to Muhammad, sometimes through an alteration to the Greek text that has no manuscript authority . Furthermore, the context proves that Muhammad could not have been in mind, as the ‘Counselor’ was to be: i) a spirit (14:17), ii) known personally to Jesus’ apostles (14:17), iii) inside the apostles (14:17) and iv) sent in Jesus’ name (14:26). Muhammad does not qualify on any of these , but the Holy Spirit, the ‘gift my father promised, which you have heard me speak about’ (Acts 1:4,5), most certainly does.
Lastly, the biblical text is often brought under scrutiny. Hand copying of manuscripts over the years has led to errors in individual copies. Yet, the discipline of textual criticism has made clear in virtually every case which is the original reading. Our modern Bibles reflect very accurately the original text and there is no significant doctrine of Scripture that rests upon a manuscript variant.
Unfortunately, Muslims are resistant to explanation of these points. Because the Qur’an claims to confirm the previous scriptures, yet disagrees with them, this leads to a logical conclusion that the previous scriptures have been tampered with. For a Muslim to accept that the Bible is accurate, they must accept that the Qur’an is mistaken; there is therefore a psychological barrier to accepting the Bible quite apart from any facts.
The person of Jesus
Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet and have a great deal of respect for him. They believe in the virgin birth (19:20) and his miracles of giving sight to the blind, healing to lepers and life to the dead (3:49, 5:11). The Qur’an calls him Messiah (3:45, 4:71), although this title is never explained and he is known as a word from Allah (3:45), reminiscent of John 1:1. Yet despite this, Islam denies Jesus’ divinity (4:171), divine sonship (6:101) and crucifixion (4:157), the most important facts about him!
The term ‘son of God’ is a loaded one for Muslims. Whilst perfectly innocent to Christians and denoting a unique righteousness and closeness to God, to Muslims it implies that God had sex with a woman to produce offspring. This is seen clearly in 6:101, ‘How can He have children when He has no wife?’ Not surprisingly, this is as blasphemous to them as it is to Christians. Whilst it is worth explaining the misunderstanding, we are better off using the term ‘son of Man’, a Messianic term taken from Daniel 7:13,14. This was Jesus’ favourite term for himself and clearly indicates from the context someone who was far more than a normal man.
There are many verses that imply Jesus’ humanity (eg Acts 2:22, Mt 24:36) and Muslims may quote these with relish. The trouble is, there are many that imply his divinity (eg Jn 8:58, Jn 20:28, Rev 22:13) and to be fair we must encourage Muslims to accept both. Jesus was both man and God, so it is not surprising to see a healthy biblical tension between his humanity and divinity. A favourite Islamic challenge is, ‘Where does Jesus say, "I am God - worship me!"?’ The answer of course is that he doesn’t. Yet nowhere does he deny it in these terms either, which is exactly what he would do were he simply a good Islamic prophet.
The main difficulty Muslims have with Jesus’ divinity is the idea that God could take on a body. We need to make clear that this concept did not commence with Jesus. All through the Bible God has been appearing both in physical form and in visions (eg Gn 3:8, 18:22, Is 6, Ezk 1, Dan 7:13,14). The Hebrew concept of God has always allowed for him to interact with his creation and it is only with the coming of Greek philosophy that the concept of a distant, abstract God emerged. Nothing has changed in the biblical view of God. It is simply that the Qur’an has introduced new concepts whilst erroneously claiming the heritage of the previous scriptures.
You may already have experience of being tied in knots attempting to define the exact relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit whilst under pressure. This is another favourite area where Muslims often charge Christians with illogicality and accuse the Bible of being a hopeless mess of leftover pagan doctrines. Muslims love to repeat how in Islam God is one and he has no partners. This simple monotheism has an attractiveness all of its own - no complexity, no mystery; God is just one!
The Qur’an appears to have a rather strange view of the Trinity (5:116), suggesting that the Trinity is God, Jesus and Mary. No wonder Muslims have an aversion to the idea! We must take them back to the Bible and show them what it teaches. In it, we see Jesus proclaiming one God (Mk 12:29), yet making claims to eternity (Jn 8:58) and equality with that one God (Rev 21:6, 22:13). When we attempt to put it all together, the Trinity is a good explanation, yet we must humbly accept that our finite human minds are incapable of understanding the fullness of God.
The real issue here is that of diversity within the nature of God. Muslims may quote Deuteronomy 6:4 - ‘the LORD our God is one’ and rightly so, for he is. However, the Hebrew for ‘one’ is the same as in Genesis 2:24, where man and wife become ‘one’ - a unity of diversity that is a wonderful aid in understanding the nature of God’s oneness.
Many are baffled by the lack of a systematic attempt within the Bible to define the nature of God from the statements it makes about him. But the fact is the Bible is written from a Hebrew mindset, which has little use in defining things for definition’s sake. Only with the influx of Greek thinking into the church did it become necessary to produce a succinct ‘definition of God’s nature’. Whilst the Trinity is a pretty good effort, we need to accept that it has shortcomings. Our duty is to defend what the Bible teaches and not a 4th century exposition of it.
Most questions that Muslims will ask stem from one basic misunderstanding. By assuming that the Qur’an is the last in a line of revelations and a perfect and permanent one at that, then any divergence from this is thought to be error.
The solution is for us to devote ourselves to prayer and the study of scripture. When we know our Bible well and the history behind it, we can meet these challenges consistently and rationally. We can show that the Bible has always been ‘the word of God in the words of men’ and that the Qur’an’s idea of revelation is an innovation. To allegations of corruption we can answer that the Bible text is accurate and its teaching reliable, whilst the Qur’an has misunderstood the facts of history. When faced with so-called prophecies of Muhammad, we can counter that it is Jesus who is the focal point of Bible prophecy and that Muhammad has never featured in its pages. Finally, we can illuminate the person of Jesus, God incarnate, and show that God has always contained diversity and involved himself with his creation.
The problem is simply that this takes time and effort: how many of us are willing to give these for the sake of our Muslim neighbours?
There are many problems with Islam and the Qur’an, despite the apparent confidence of most Muslims. Examples are the historicity of the Qur’anic text, of Mecca and of Muhammad as prophet. These are important and need to be put to Muslims. However, they often require some background knowledge of Islam before they can be used confidently. The best way to begin is in defending your own faith as outlined above. The best offence is a good defence!
For those wanting to get acquainted with some of these Islamic problems, begin with Jay Smith’s paper, The Bible and the Qur’an, on his website (address below). Jay is at the forefront of research in this area and delivers his arguments at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner and in university debates. I thoroughly recommend his material. However, do remember that Muslims hold Muhammad and the Qur’an very dearly. Questioning either can be like insulting their mother and so it needs to be done with great tact when appropriate.
There has never been greater opportunity, nor greater need, for Christians to reach out to Muslims. Students from every Islamic country in the world are studying in Western universities, and many will return back to where opportunities for Christian contact are minimal. There are very real barriers - social, intellectual, historical and spiritual - preventing Muslims coming to Christ. Yet the gospel of Christ remains the only true gospel for Muslims as for anyone else.
The sad fact is that many Muslims are far better equipped to attack Christianity than Christians are to defend it, or to reach out to Muslims. The church has largely ignored its duty towards Islam and is now losing ground in consequence. Will we play our part in redressing the balance?
- Islam and Christian Witness. Goldsmith, M. MARC 1982 Chapman, C. Cross and Crescent. IVP, 1995
- Cooper, A. Ishmael my Brother. MARC Europe, 1985 Nehls, G. Christians Ask Muslims and Christians Answer Muslims. Life Challenge Africa - SIM
- Two websites in particular contain a wealth of information:
http://debate.org.uk - Jay Smith’s site and http://answering-islam.org.uk - Jochen Katz’s site