If you’ve ever had a prolonged conversation with a Muslim on theology, you know that they are generally well-trained in discussing their problems with the Trinity and divinity of Jesus. It’s hard to break through all the prior teaching and get to a heart level when someone is parroting what they learned at the mosque. So why not consider looking for points of discussion off the beaten path and that may even engage us as Christians at a heart level too?
There are three main intersections where Christian and Muslim thought crosses paths and where we might meet for heart-level discussion. At each intersection, our two faiths diverge. What if we could take Muslim friends to one of those intersections and show them how to take the path to Jesus, rather than the road away from him? Those three intersections are law, logic, and legacy.
Both the Christian and Muslim faiths inherited, in one form or another, the Torah. In the 5th sura (or chapter) of the Qur’an, Muslims find a passage that upholds the Torah as revelation from God and instructs them to look to it for “guidance and light.“ Much of Islamic practice is a variation of Jewish law and customs. For example, during Eid al-adha, a Muslim holiday, Muslims sacrifice a goat or lamb to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. Muslim women must refrain from many of their regular activities during a monthly period of “uncleanness.” Muslims absolutely will not accept interest payments on a loan from another Muslim. And “hallal” food preparation and kosher food preparation is strikingly similar. The list of legal and religious similarities between ancient Judaism and Islam is much longer than most Muslims and Jews care to admit. And it certainly illustrates a shared heritage for Christians and Muslims. Muslims have laws about almost every aspect of life. Their imams, or teachers, are the interpreters and teachers of that law.
As Christians, we can relate to being bound by a law that we cannot faithfully keep. When my friend Fatima told me that she could not open her Qur’an to show me a verse because she was in her unclean time of the month, rather than insist that Islam was oppressing her because she was a woman, I could tell her that she was indeed unclean. I could suggest that God gave women an extra measure of grace by reminding us of our uncleanness every month. Rather than fight the law, as a Christian, I can affirm it and then praise God for making me clean through the blood of Christ. I can meet Fatima at that intersection and then usher her down the path to Christ.
Both faiths have also been affected by Greek philosophy and have longstanding debates about the relationship between faith and reason. Medieval Arabs translated many Greek works and made them available both to Christian and Muslim thinkers. The Mu’tazilites, a medieval group of Muslim theologians from present-day Iraq, worked on Islamic theology from the perspective that God can be known through reason alone, apart from Qur’anic revelation. And just as, for example, traces of neo-platonism can be seen in later Christian thought, so also Aristotle heavily influenced later Muslim theological works. Islamic theology, like Christian thought, is laced with Greek logical forms.
As a result, we can talk with Muslim friends in ways that make sense to each other. While sitting in a coffee shop in Arlington, Texas, Muhammad told his Christian friend that it is “logically impossible for a holy God to taint his purity by becoming a human.” “Really?” his Christian friend asked him, “Is God able to do anything he wants? Is he truly all powerful, or is there some kind of reason and logic to which he must submit that dictate whether or not he can remain pure if he comes to earth?” “Oh, God is not bound by anything,” he responded. “Well then,” the Christian replied, “is he not powerful enough to come to earth as a man without sacrificing his holiness?” Muhammad was stumped. He took a step down a different path at the intersection.
Both Islam and Christianity have had to confront and answer for violence committed in the name of their respective faiths in the quest for an earthly kingdom. Many Muslims have long memories and still hold modern Christendom accountable for the Crusades. In more recent events, many Americans consciously or sub-consciously hold Muslims in general accountable for the events of 9/11. So we can identify with each other in the fact that not every expression of our faiths is one that we personally condone.
The 24th Sura and 55th verse of the Qur’an states, “God has promised those of you who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds that, of a certainty, he will make them Caliphate [or governing kingdom] on earth, even as he caused those who lived before them to become Caliphates.” Muslims are taught to long for the religion’s early days as a conquering and growing physical kingdom. In those days, its prophet was alive and leading their armies to establish a powerful earthly realm. They have inherited a rich tradition full of rules and regulations for this militaristic advance. But we have biblical instruction that teaches us, first, that our kingdom is not of this earth and does not require violence to establish it (John 18:36); and second, that we will acquire it by inheritance (Matt. 25:34). With confidence in these two principles, we may ask our Muslim friends, “Why must we mere humans fight for his kingdom with guns? Isn’t God strong enough to simply establish his own kingdom and share it with his people as he wills?”
When our Iraqi refugee friend, Zaid, excitedly explains that ISIS has it all wrong, we point to the many verses in the Qur’an used by ISIS. He begins to tire of defending his faith verse-by-verse and historical instance-by-historical instance because there are so many that he must re-interpret. Zaid doesn’t have a Qur’anic scripture in mind to cite, he just has a gut feeling that ISIS is wrong. Even where ISIS steps outside the bounds of orthodox Islam, our friend struggles with explaining Islam’s conquering past and future ambitions in terms that are palatable in the non-Muslim world. But we are able to draw on Zaid’s confidence in God’s power and mercy by pointing him to the king of our heavenly kingdom. While Muslims are bound to uphold Muhammad’s militant style as heroic, we are bound to the heroism of the sacrificial love of Christ.
Our two faiths have faced some similar challenges. How do we fulfill the law? How do we discern between the “common grace” wisdom of the Greeks and revealed truth from God? How do we understand the legacy and vision left to us by our spiritual forefathers? Only one religion has the answer to those challenges. While Muslims stare blankly at these large logs strewn across the path, we see the cross of Christ. Jesus fulfills the law for us. Jesus and his Word is the filter through which we may discern between worldly wisdom and spiritual truth. Jesus is the king of our eternal kingdom.
And at each intersection, we can meet our Muslim friends and encourage them to take up the cross with us and follow Jesus.