Introducing Islam (1)
Malcolm Steer, Kingston upon Thames, England
The purpose of these three articles is to introduce Islam, clarify the differences between its teachings and the gospel and also to deal with some of the misunderstandings that may arise among Christians as they approach Muslims in witness.
This first article will concentrate on Islamic beliefs and practices and the crucial differences between Islam and the Christian Faith.
1) Beliefs and Practices of Islam
The religion of Islam consists of two parts: Belief (‘Iman’) and Practice (‘Din’).
Belief. All Muslims are required to believe in the following six fundamental articles of faith:
- One God (Allah) – Muslims lay great emphasis on the unity, majesty and transcendence and sovereignty of the one true God.
- Angels – There is a hierarchy of angels who are the servants of God through whom He reveals His will.
- Holy Books – Muslims are taught that scriptures have been given to many previous generations through the prophets. The main sacred books are the ones given to Moses – the Pentateuch (‘Torah’), to David – the Psalms (‘Zabur’), to Jesus – the Gospel (‘Injil’) and one to Muhammad – the Qur’an. The Qur’an, a book about the same length as the New Testament has 114 chapters (Suras) which are not normally arranged in chronological order.
- Prophets – God has spoken through many prophets. In the Qur’an the names of 28 prophets are found, most of whom are biblical characters. There are six great prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. The Qur’an refers to the virgin birth of Jesus, His miracles, His sinlessness and calls Him the ‘Messiah’, the ‘Word of God’ and the ‘Spirit of God’. But it states that He was not the Son of God and that He was not crucified. Therefore, if there is no crucifixion then there can be no resurrection.
- Day of Judgement – On the Last Day all humanity will be raised again to life and judged according to their deeds. All deeds and words will be weighed in a balance scale and the righteous will enter Paradise where material gifts will be lavished on them and they will enjoy many physical pleasures.
- Predestination – This means that God has decreed (predetermined) all things, good and evil, from eternity which leads to a very fatalistic view of life.
Practice. These doctrines are accompanied by the five pillars of Islam which are practical duties that every Muslim must perform:
- Recitation of the Word of Witness. The confession of faith, ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah’, is to be repeated frequently.
- Prayer – Muslims are called to ritual prayer five times a day.
- Fasting – The fast is obligatory during the whole month of Ramadan where Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.
- Almsgiving – Muslims are expected to give a proportion of their income to the poor.
- Pilgrimage – All Muslims who can afford it are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.
2) The Nature of Islam
It is essential to understand two important concepts concerning the nature of Islam.
Firstly, in terms of history, Mohammad, who was born in Mecca in 570AD, fled to Medina in 622AD and this is considered as ‘year one’ in the Islamic calendar. However, Muslims believe that Islam existed from the beginning of time and that it was not a new religion proclaimed by Muhammad. Rather, it represents the message which had been given to all the prophets from Adam onwards, i.e., the religion of ‘submission’ (the meaning of the Arabic word Islam). This submission is not so much to God as a Person but to the ‘revealed will of God’. The word Muslim means someone who has submitted to God’s will. This revelation of God’s will has been given through a long succession of prophets and in that sequence of prophets, which includes Abraham, David and Jesus, the last prophet is Muhammad. Islam then both contains and supersedes what has gone before.
Secondly, Islam is far more that just a religion – it is a total and unified way of life, both religious and secular. It provides guidance for all walks of life – individual and social, material and moral, economic and political, legal and cultural, national and international. Consequently, religion and politics are two sides of a single coin in Islam.
3) Divisions within Islam
There are least two developments within Islam that need to be considered.
- Division into Sunni and Shi’ite sects. Of the divisions that developed within Islam the largest division is between the Sunni and Shi’ite branches. The basic cause for this division was a difference of opinion as to who should succeed Muhammad. The Shi’ites are a minority group who, although they accept the first three successors to Muhammad, believe that the true line continues through Ali, who was Muhammad’s son-in-law. They also differ over their interpretation of the Qur’an, and tend to be less democratic that the Sunnis, often ascribing divine power to their leaders – a characteristic which has been shown concerning the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors in Iran where the Shi’ites are in the majority. A similar situation is developing in Iraq. However, the essential beliefs and practices listed above are relevant to both groups.
- Sufism. In stressing the transcendence of Allah, Islam’s orthodox teaching failed to satisfy the need for a personal religious experience. The Sufis are those within Sunni and Shi’ite Islam who sought to fill this gap in a personal relationship with God – meeting the need for human experience. The Sufis are known as the mystics of Islam.
4) Islam and Salvation
In the light of the above beliefs and practises and the understanding of the nature of Islam, it is important to consider the teaching of Islam about salvation and their understanding of God, humanity, sin and forgiveness.
So exaggerated is the emphasis on the transcendence of God, that He is portrayed as a Being who is so utterly remote and selfsufficient that He cannot be known, neither can He be affected in any way by His creatures. This emphasis on the absolute transcendence of God and on His absolute sovereignty leads to an exclusion of any moral qualities in deity and basically reduces all God’s attributes to His will and power. Love, mercy, holiness and wrath are mentioned in the Qur’an as attributes of God, yet because of His absolute transcendence they are to be understood only as mere expressions of His will with no motive. God cannot be limited and bound by any prevailing law of morality. He is free to exercise His power in whatever way He wishes.
Humanity is God’s creation and its primary duty is submission to the will of God as revealed in the Qur’an. Original sin is denied and human beings are said to be born without a sinful nature. Their nature before and after the Fall as recorded in Genesis is unchanged. However, human beings are created weak and become sinners through personal wrong deeds.
Sin, to the Muslim, is either a saying which blasphemes God or an act which breaks rules of prohibition. There is no concept of humanity being in a state of sinfulness, but simply that each sin is just one act in a series of acts or sins. Sin does not grieve God, who is too great to be affected. Thus, there is no concept of a divine hatred of sin. Sin only breaks a law, not a fellowship such as between a son and his father.
Good deeds balanced against evil deeds on the judgement day may help gain forgiveness, but in reality God forgives whom He wills and punishes whom He wills. There is no need for God to base His forgiveness on a moral foundation. Thus a Muslim sees no need for a Saviour and there is no way of salvation other than by works. If the Muslim were asked, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ the answer would be, ‘Believe in God and His apostle Muhammad, and do what God requires, and if God so wills He will accept you’. There is therefore no assurance of salvation in Islam.
Thus, Islam fails to diagnose humanity’s condition as sinful and unable to know or obey God perfectly. It also fails to reveal God is His true holiness and selfgiving love for sinful humanity. There is also no provision of a Saviour from sin and death and so the sinner has no assurance of forgiveness and peace with God. Insofar as a person can influence his eternal destiny at all in Islam, a person’s own efforts are their only source of hope.
To be continued.
(For further reading see my small book A Christian’s Evangelistic Pocket Guide to Islam published by Christian Focus Publications and available from Christian bookshops.)