Introducing Islam (2)
Malcolm Steer, Kingston upon Thames, England
The first article concentrated on Islamic beliefs and practices and the crucial differences between Islam and the Christian Faith. However, not only are there misunderstandings concerning the nature of God, humanity, sin and salvation, but Muslims also have misunderstandings concerning some important truths of the Christian Faith. There are basically five misunderstandings and these are:
1) That Christians believe in three gods and that the Trinity is made up of God, Mary and Jesus
The subject of the Trinity should not usually be raised when talking to Muslims about the gospel but if they ask about it then the subject should not be avoided. The oneness of God must be emphasized, as well as showing that any discussion on the Trinity has nothing to do with the number of gods, but with the nature of God. It must obviously be emphasized that Mary is not part of the Godhead, but that the Bible shows this one God revealing Himself as Father, Son and Spirit, or – perhaps in an easier way for the Muslims to understand – that God reveals Himself as Creator, Word and Spirit. This does not mean that God changed Himself from one thing to another, for He always existed in these three ways.
Of course, God is a mystery far above our thoughts and no Christian can explain exactly how God exists in three Persons. Neither will any Muslim claim to explain the nature of God. If the Trinity is nothing but a metaphysical puzzle, as some Muslims contend, what about the Unity of God in Islam, which is defined in terms of the relation of God’s eternal attributes to each other and to God’s eternal essence? Is that not also a metaphysical puzzle? The doctrine of the Trinity is simply the way that we try to summarize what the Bible teaches about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Rightly understood, this doctrine exists to defend the unity of God.
2) That the expression ‘Son of God’ refers to a merely physical relationship in which God took a wife and produced a son
Obviously, it should be explained that this expression does not refer to the physical coming of Christ, but to the eternal relationship that Jesus had with God who is called ‘Father’. Mary was simply the human agent by which Jesus came into the world. Illustrations can be given to show that when the expression ‘son of something’ is used in everyday speech it conveys a spiritual meaning like a metaphor and does not imply physical sonship. Examples, ‘son of the road’, ‘son of a leopard’, ‘sons of thunder’. Therefore, the expression ‘Son of God’ is to be understood in a spiritual sense.
However, even if this is understood, the basic problem is to know how to overcome the Muslim belief that Jesus was a created being who does not eternally exist. A popular Muslim title for Jesus found in the Qur’an is the expression ‘the word of God’ and if this is linked with the Muslim’s belief concerning the nature of the Qur’an it provides a bridge for communicating both the preexistence and deity of Christ.
Both Christians and Muslims agree that God is eternal. The eternity of God and His word are one and the same thing, for God is one. Moreover, both Muslims and Christians agree that God bridges the gulf between the infinite and the finite by revealing this eternal Word to His finite creation. For Muslims, God expresses His eternal Word within the created world through the Qur’an. Hence, most Muslims call the Qur’an the eternal Word of God. For Christians, God expresses His eternal Word within the created world through Christ. Therefore, the Bible speaks about the eternal Word of God becoming flesh, John 1. 1-3, 14.
It is probably best to avoid saying that ‘Jesus is God’ as this will be inevitably misunderstood and gives the impression that we make Jesus into another God besides God. This is not what we mean. The New Testament emphasises that God sent Jesus, John 17. 3; Rom. 3. 25, 5. 8; 2 Cor. 5. 19, and that the work of Christ is entirely for the glory of God, John 12. 27, 28. Therefore, let us witness with this emphasis on what God did in Christ and on faith in God through Christ.
3) That the death of Christ would have been an unworthy ending to this life and is not necessary for the provision of forgiveness of sins
Muslims reject the doctrine of the atonement for sins. They reject it firstly on historical grounds. If Jesus survived the cross, as the Muslim believes, then He could not have given His life to atone. Secondly, the Muslim idea of God and His decrees recognizes no need for atonement. Islam emphasizes the absolute freedom of God. He does whatever He wills and so if God wants to forgive He simply forgives. Thirdly, humanity does not need an atoning sacrifice. The popular belief is that good works (such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving) can ‘atone’ for a person’s sins. Even if these good works are not enough, ‘God is merciful’ and so the Muslim hopes that, in the Last Day, God may overlook his failings.
Now, our Muslim friend, must firstly understand that any fair reading of the New Testament shows that the death and resurrection of Christ are central to its message. Major portions of the Gospel accounts are dedicated to these events and Jesus Himself continually predicts these events and in fact reprimands His disciples for failing to understand that as the Messiah He must suffer, die and rise from the dead.
It is important to explain the meaning of Christ’s death. Firstly, it puts an end to all other sacrifices. A study of the sacrifices of the Old Testament is most effective in showing that the people approached God by the way of sacrifice. Secondly, Christ’s death assures us of our forgiveness. We need to emphasize that the way of salvation is not a matter of first trying to be righteous in order to make ourselves worthy of salvation, but rather first coming as an unworthy sinner and accepting God’s free forgiveness as a gift. Thirdly, Christ’s death reveals the horror of sin and the righteousness of God. Sin deserves to be judged and punished. But God in his mercy allowed the suffering and judgement to be carried by Jesus the Saviour. Through Christ crucified God offers us forgiveness, but also shows us his righteousness, Rom. 3. 21-26.
4) That Christianity is a Western religion
It is argued that as its followers are mainly found in Western countries termed ‘Christian countries’, all the inhabitants are Christian and as these countries represent Christianity so their actions reveal what Christianity is really like. As we have already observed, Islam is for the Muslim a total system, having important national, social and political implications and it is very easy for the Muslim to regard Christianity in the same way. In seeking to remove this misunderstanding we need to deal with both the origin and the true essence of the Christian message.
As far as the origin of Christianity is concerned we can point out that as Christ was born in Palestine, it is here that the origin of Christianity is to be found. Furthermore today the Christian message is growing rapidly in many non- Western countries.
We must also point out that the true essence of Christianity is spiritual and primarily concerns our relationship with the Lord. Although the Christian message should affect us in a total way yet it is, by nature, very different from the total system of Islam. Furthermore, it is important to point out that although Christianity is not individualistic yet it demands an individual response. There is no way in which we can Christianize society. The church as a community is an essential element of the Christian message but no-one is naturally born into that community. Therefore we make a clear distinction between nominal and committed Christians.
5) That the Bible is not reliable, having been changed or corrupted from its original form
The Qur’an frequently refers to the holy books of the Jews and Christians and calls such people the ‘People of the Book’. Muslims view the Qur’an and Islam as a continuation and fulfilment of previous revelations and therefore regard all previous prophets and holy books as proclaiming essentially the same message as the Qur’an. However, it is obvious that great differences exist and Muslims believe that the differences have been caused by changes and corruptions introduced by Christians and Jews into the Bible during the course of history. They also assert that the Scriptures previous to the Qur’an have been superseded by the Qur’an.
However, in actual fact, the Qur’an does not teach that the previous scriptures given to Jews and Christians are textually unreliable or have been abrogated. The Qur’an supports the existence and the integrity of these scriptures. It encourages belief in them and even claims to confirm them. In fact, if Muhammad himself is in doubt, the Qur’an tells him to appeal to Jews and Christians and to their scriptures. Of course a multitude of ancient manuscripts of the Bible in its original languages and in translations – manuscripts long antedating the era of Islam – abundantly testify to the preservation and integrity of the biblical text.
In actual fact this matter of the integrity of the Bible is not a problem for the majority of Muslims, and generally they are quite willing to read the scriptures, especially the Gospel records, and accept them as authentic documents.
It is important for us to realize, though, that there is a unique difference between the nature and purpose of the Qur’an and the Bible. For this reason it should not be our intention to engage in a ‘battle of the books’. The real issue is between the Qur’an and Christ, not the Qur’an and the Bible. The purpose of the scriptures is to lead us to Christ. There is no salvation in the scriptures themselves, neither do we ‘worship’ them. Jesus said ‘You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’, John 5. 39-40, ESV. We therefore pray that as Muslims read the scriptures they might be led to Christ the Saviour.
To be continued.