Volume 3 - Issue 3

Thinking biblically about Islam

By Colin J. Chapman

It is one thing to study Islam in the ivory tower of a western university or seminary, but quite another thing to live as a Christian in an Islamic society. So where should we look to find a reliable and objective guide for our thinking about Islam?

The western scholar may think he can view Islam more objectively because he is not influenced by his own existential situation. But the Christian in the Islamic world questions the value of studying ‘ideal Islam’, especially when it seems to bear so little resemblance to the actual Islam that he sees in the society around him. He wonders why it is that the Christian Islamist often makes a better case for Islam than Muslim apologists themselves.

If scholarship by itself makes little impression on the ordinary Christian in the Islamic world, could it be that we need to look to our own Scriptures to find a way of coming to terms with Islam? If our own thinking about Islam is deeply coloured by historical, political and sociological factors (whether we live in the east or the west), should we not be able to find in the Bible a more objective reference point which will challenge our prejudices and help us to think in a more deeply Christian way about Islam?

The attempt to ‘think biblically’ may turn out to be a new discipline which cannot be taught by text-books and cannot be included under any one of the basic disciplines of traditional theological study. It will mean very much more than collecting proof-texts. We shall rather need to draw on all the resources of biblical scholarship at our disposal to help us to understand the text in its proper historical context and then to draw legitimate parallels with Islam.

Our most natural starting-point is to ask how the Bible can help us to relate to Muslims (section A), since relating to people is more important than mastering any number of ideas. In the context of these relationships we will find ourselves being forced to re-examine our own attitudes (section B). The next step will then be to look for biblical models (section C), in order to attempt to draw some kind of theological map. And only then, when we have learnt to walk as far as we can along the same road with the Muslim, will we have the right—and the understanding—to point to the parting of the ways (section D).

A. Relating to Muslims

If Jesus knew how to meet people as people, his example has much to teach us about all our relationships. But when we consider the extensive debt which Islam owes to Judaism, a study of Jesus’ relations with his fellow Jews may have special relevance to the way we should seek to relate to Muslims.

  1. Listening and sharing

Luke gives us a vivid description of Jesus in the temple at the age of twelve, where his parents found him ‘sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers’ (Lk. 2:46f. rsv). This kind of sharing was possible only because Jesus was sitting among them and listening in order to know how they thought and felt. He had begun to learn the art of asking questions, not to trip up and embarrass, but to draw others out into a real meeting of minds. He had the understanding which enabled him to grasp the real issues and discern the things that really matter. When he offered answers, it was in response to questions that were understood and expressed.

What is it that makes it so difficult, if not impossible, for Christians to enjoy this kind of relationship with thoughtful and sincere Muslims? The liberal atmosphere in a western university makes it easy for a Christian to attend meetings of an Islamic Society. And the Islamic scholar is doing his utmost to interpret Islam at its best, not at its worst. The Christian in the Islamic world, however, finds it much harder, since he is conditioned by centuries of history to feel that the Christian minority to which he belongs is at best tolerated, and at worst despised and oppressed, by the Muslim majority.

Could it be, however, that both groups have something to learn from this picture of Jesus among the Jewish teachers? Some of us may need to learn how to resist the ghetto mentality which makes us defensive and fearful, and instead take some practical steps to enable us to ‘sit among’ Muslims and listen to them. Others of us may have to lay aside the intellectual detachment of the scholar who is more concerned with ideas than with people, and ensure that there is a real meeting of minds with individuals and groups.

As members of the body of Christ, we need each other. Because of the limitations of our own situation and our own prejudices, we need the continuing challenge and corrective from all who are relating to Muslims—whether in Karachi, Cairo, Kano or Cambridge—to enable us to enter into the mind of the Muslim.

  1. Controversy

The Gospel of Mark introduces us to controversy at the very beginning of chapter 2, and all the synoptic Gospels indicate the main subjects of discussion between Jesus and his fellow Jews—the interpretation of the law; the authority of tradition; marriage and divorce; fasting; attitudes to political powers; Jesus’ life-style and his claims about himself. Generally it was the scribes and Pharisees who challenged Jesus; but on several occasions it was he who took the initiative. Whatever the issue in each case, it is important to grasp what precisely the issue was, and what the different attitudes were, since these same issues have been subjects of controversy between Christians and Muslims throughout the centuries.

The Gospel of John, however, introduces us to a deeper kind of dialogue, and in the New English Bible one of the major sections in the middle of the Gospel (7:1–10:39) is given the significant title ‘The Great Controversy’. It deals basically with the one question: ‘Who are you?’ (8:25). We find a distinct progression in the claims that Jesus makes for himself on different occasions: ‘What I teach is not my own teaching, but it comes from God, who sent me’ (7:16). ‘I have not come on my own authority’ (7:28). ‘The Father who sent me is with me … If you knew me, you would know my Father also’ (8:16, 19). ‘I am telling you the truth … Before Abraham was born, “I am” ’ (8:58). ‘The Father is in me and … I am in the Father’ (10:38). (Biblical quotations throughout the article are from tev unless otherwise indicated.)

All the way through, opinions about Jesus are divided: ‘ “He is a good man,” some people said. “No,” others said, “he is misleading the people” … the Jewish authorities … said, “How does this man know so much when he has never had any training?” ’ (7:10–15). ‘Again there was a division among the people because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon! He is mad! Why do you listen to him?” But others were saying, “A man with a demon could not talk like this! How could a demon give sight to blind people?” ’ (10:19–21). The response of some, however, becomes more and more critical and hostile: ‘You have a demon in you!’ (7:20). ‘Now you are testifying on your own behalf; what you say proves nothing’ (8:13). Towards the end they sum up their rejection in these words: ‘We do not want to stone you because of any good deeds, but because of your blasphemy! You are only a man, but you are trying to make yourself God!’ (10:33).

At a time when the word ‘dialogue’ has come to be associated with one particular approach to other religions, perhaps we need to make a double plea: on the one hand that those who believe they are practising ‘dialogue’ with people of other faiths stop to ask themselves whether it is leading them in anything like the same direction as we see in this dialogue between Jesus and the Jews: and on the other hand, that those who think simply in terms of ‘evangelism’ ask themselves if their proclamation of the gospel allows for this kind of meeting of minds.

If the synoptic gospels, therefore, can guide us in our approach to many of the particular areas of disagreement between Christians and Muslims, the Gospel of John reminds us that ultimately all our discussion with Muslims must centre on the one question: Who is Jesus, son of Mary? What is the real relationship between the prophet Jesus and the God who sent him? Even if we know how to deal with every individual question, it may take a lifetime to learn how to speak with Muslims in anything like the terms of John’s Gospel. This kind of controversy is not for beginners!

  1. Rejection

There had been genuine dialogue, and it had only sharpened all the vital issues. If many could not understand what Jesus was saying, it was not because he had failed to communicate. ‘Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to listen to my message’ (Jn. 8:43). Towards the end of the debate in chapter 10, we are told: ‘Once again, the Jews picked up stones to stone him’ (verse 31); and at the end, ‘This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him’ (verse 39). It is only a short step from this to the final accusation by the High Priest when Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin: ‘We don’t need any more witnesses! You heard his blasphemy …’ (Mk. 14:61–64).

This same pattern of sharing, controversy and rejection is repeated in the life of the early church. In the early chapters of Acts the believers are becoming an identifiable community, but are still within the fold of Judaism. ‘All the believers continued together in close fellowship.… Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes … praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people’ (Acts 2:44–46). It was not long, however, before the proclamation of the resurrection brought the apostles into controversy with the Jewish authorities, and the response to Stephen’s defence indicates how intensely they felt the challenge to their whole system: ‘With a loud cry the members of the Council covered their ears with their hands. Then they all rushed at him at once, threw him out of the city, and stoned him.’ (Acts 7:57f.)

For most of the New Testament period, however, there was no final separation between the Jewish disciples of Jesus and the religion of Judaism. Thus, in spite of repeated rejection in city after city, Paul continued to have a strong sense of the priority of the Jews, believing that the gospel is ‘God’s power to save all who believe, first the Jews and also the Gentiles’ (Rom. 1:16). As soon as he reached Rome as a prisoner, he lost no time in meeting with the leaders of the Jewish community (Acts 28:16–31), and his attitude right to the end was always positive, open and hopeful.

The letter to the Hebrews reflects a situation in which Jewish Christian believers are in danger of losing their identity and being drawn back into Judaism. While the writer does not ask them to reject everything in their Jewish past, he is realistic in reminding them that they may have to tread the same path as the one who ‘died outside the city’. This means that there must be a willingness to ‘go to him outside the camp and share his shame’ (Heb. 13:12f.).

Christians outside the Islamic world may not find it too hard to have an attitude of openness and hopefulness in their relations with Muslims. But when Christians who have grown up within the Islamic world find it very much more difficult, it is because the course of events over many centuries has hardened the feeling of mutual rejection—of rejection by Islam and rejection of Islam. Where feelings and attitudes are hardened on our side, we need to be able to think ourselves into the minds of the first Jewish Christians. For if we can draw a distinction between the essence of the Old Testament faith on the one hand, and on the other the religion of Judaism as it had developed by the first century, can we not draw a similar distinction between the original monotheistic vision of Muhammad, and the developed system of doctrine and traditions which we know today as Islam? When Paul came face to face with Jesus, he was seeing through and beyond the distortions and perversions of contemporary Judaism to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Could we not say similarly that the converted Muslim is simply seeing through and beyond his Islamic traditions to the One God whom he has sought to worship all along? If there must be rejection, it should not be we who do the rejecting. If there must be repudiation, it should not come from our side.

B. Getting our attitudes straight

It is a humbling experience to realize that many of the barriers to the communication of the gospel to the Muslim are not so much in his mind as in ours. This experience may lead to an acute sense of our weaknesses and limitations. We may even feel inclined to give up all that we have been trying to do, believing that if we are no better than anyone else, we have little or nothing to share with others.

But if the Word of God can wound, it can also heal. There are several passages in the Bible which not only diagnose these unhealthy attitudes, but also point to the way of healing.

  1. Abraham was less than honest with Abimelech over Sarah, his wife. He also suffered from a subtle pride which made him feel that no-one apart from himself and his family had any real fear of God: ‘I thought that there would be no one here who fears God …’ Abraham had to learn in a painful way that some people outside the covenant did have a real reverence for God, and were able to hear and respond to his word (Gn. 20:1–18).
  2. Jonah took some time to learn that God wanted and needed to use him to convey his message of judgment and mercy. But even after he had surrendered himself to be used in this way, there were other deep-seated attitudes which had to be dealt with. God had to say to him in effect, ‘You have been faithful in condemning all that was wrong in Nineveh. But have you secretly enjoyed it all? Do you really care for these people whom you are denouncing for their sin? Do you really want them to turn to me in repentance and faith?’ (Jon. 4:1–11).
  3. If Jesus tells us not to pass judgment on other people (Mt. 7:1–5), does this include passing judgment on people of other faiths? There is a difference between making judgments about people, and sitting in judgment over them, as if we are in the position of the judge. We certainly need to think critically about Islam, but if we criticize the Muslim, his civilization and his beliefs, we may simply be inviting him to do the same to us and to our Christian beliefs.
  4. Peter had to allow the Holy Spirit to expose and root out some pernicious prejudices, both religious and racial, before he, as a Jew, could share the Good News with a Godfearing man of a different nationality. If we as Christians suffer from a feeling of superiority that makes us look down on people of other faiths and other races as if they are inferior, we need the same kind of upheaval to humble us and enable us to say with Peter: ‘I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him, no matter what race he belongs to’ (Acts 10:1–48).
  5. ‘Because of you, the name of God is dishonoured among the Gentiles’ (Rom. 2:24, neb). If Paul could adapt some words from Isaiah 52:5 and apply them to the Jews of his day, we may perhaps be justified in adapting the words again and applying them to the history of the Christian church in the world of Islam: ‘Because of you Christians, the name of Christ is dishonoured among Muslims.’ The problem goes back long before the Crusades, since Muhammad and the Arabs of his day formed their ideas of Christianity largely from the Byzantine Empire. Here was a ‘Christian’ state which impressed its neighbours most of all by its imperialism and its ruthless suppression of ‘heretics’. We have to live with a similar problem today in that the Muslim has seen something of the same imperialism in the ‘Christian’ west; its image also becomes more materialistic and atheistic every day, and its policies are determined largely by economic self-interest. We will certainly want to challenge the Muslim’s interpretation of how this situation has come about. But we cannot always evade the criticism by taking refuge in the distinction between ‘nominal Christianity’ and ‘real Christianity’—a distinction which the Muslim finds it hard, if not impossible, to grasp. We therefore need the humility to be able to say with the psalmist, ‘We have sinned as our ancestors did’ (Ps. 106:6). Our very confession bears witness to the fact that we are willing to be judged by the teaching and example of Jesus, and that we see him as the one whom God has chosen to judge the world—whether ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’.
  6. ‘Being all things to all men’ (1 Cor. 9:19–23) is not too hard when it simply means getting alongside young people in a youth club. But could a Christian with the same spirit as the apostle Paul ever say: ‘To the Muslims I became a Muslim in order to win Muslims’? Christians who are safely entrenched in their own Christian sub-culture are far too quick to cry ‘Compromise!’ whenever they see a bolder spirit launching out to break through cultural and religious barriers in order to sit where the Muslim sits. If the bolder spirits need from fellow Christians that warm fellowship and trust which will prevent them from losing their biblical bearings, we all need to be reminded that the Bible is more like a compass to guide us on the open sea than a rope to keep us safely moored in the harbour. Our belief in the incarnation ought to help us to believe that while identification inevitably lays itself open to misunderstandings, it doesn’t always mean compromise.
  7. Anyone who has ever had a genuine conversation with a Muslim will know how easy it is to be drawn into argument and controversy. Sometimes it is the Muslim who asks questions or raises objections; but often it is we ourselves who are provocative and spark off the argument. Whenever we see the warning signals in ourselves, we need to be reminded of Paul’s words addressed to Timothy, the young enthusiastic Christian worker: ‘Keep away from foolish and ignorant arguments; you know that they end up in quarrels. The Lord’s servant must not quarrel. He must be kind towards all, a good and patient teacher, who is gentle as he corrects his opponents, for it may be that God will give them the opportunity to repent and come to know the truth’ (2 Tim. 2:23–26).
  8. ‘Do for others what you want them to do for you.’ (Mt. 7:12.)

C. Finding biblical models

One of the difficulties in making theological judgments about Islam is that we are always left with the hard task of relating generalizations to all that we know of Islam and Muslims. The more sweeping the generalizations, the less convincing they sound; and the more they concentrate on the ‘Ideal Islam’ of the Qur’an, the less relevant they seem to the Islam of the man in the street.

It may be that we will get further if, before trying to relate Islam to a complete system of Christian theology, we attempt something more modest—namely, to discover biblical models to help us first of all to come to terms with the life and teaching of the man Muhammad, and then to know how to approach people whose understanding of God is different from ours.

  1. False prophets’ and ‘the Antichrist

Many of us would probably turn instinctively to Matthew 24:23–27, believing that it provides the only truly biblical category for understanding Muhammad: ‘False Messiahs and false prophets will appear.’ Alternatively, we may turn to 1 John 2:22, 23: ‘Who is the liar? It is anyone who says that Jesus is not the Messiah. Such a person is the Enemy of Christ—he rejects both the Father and the Son. For whoever rejects the Son also rejects the Father; whoever accepts the Son has the Father also.’

There is a certain danger, however, in thinking that this is the beginning and end of thinking biblically about Islam. If we bind ourselves exclusively to these categories, we may find it impossible to enter sympathetically into the mind of the Muslim. We will find it hard to appreciate the development of Muhammad’s teaching: and we may fail to understand the true context and the real intention of Muhammad’s denial of the divinity of Jesus.

Muhammad’s public ministry did not begin with a rejection of Christian beliefs. It began with a passionate rejection of the idolatry of Mecca and a recall to the worship of the one Creator God. Muhammad must have been in contact with individual Christians and groups of Christians at many stages of his life. But it was only at a later stage in his public ministry, when he came in contact with Christians at Medina and elsewhere, that he felt compelled to extend his denunciation of idolatry to include Christian beliefs about Jesus as the Son of God. There are good reasons for believing that Muhammad did not really understand the Christian claim that Jesus was the Son of God. He may have rejected what he thought was a Christian belief because it seemed to be as crude as the polytheistic beliefs of the Meccans. We do not know how Muhammad would have responded if he had had first-hand knowledge of the gospel, and had understood how the Christian faith can be bothmonotheistic and trinitarian at the same time. But if what he rejected as blasphemous was at best a distortion, and at worst a travesty of Christian beliefs, are we really justified in thinking of Muhammad simply as a post-Christian heretic? Could it be that we are influenced too much by our historical sense which tells us that since Muhammad lived centuries after Jesus, he must be considered purely and simply as a false prophet who rejected and denied the New Testament gospel about Jesus?

  1. Gideon

The picture of Muhammad which emerges from the earliest Meccan suras of the Qur’an and from the earliest traditions is of a man who combined a crusade against idolatry with an attempt to bring unity among the tribes around Mecca and further afield in the Arabian peninsula. When we remember the thoroughly degenerate state of Arabian religion at the time of Muhammad, as well as the continuous conflict between different tribes, we cannot but feel genuine amazement and admiration for all that he achieved in his lifetime in both these areas.

This picture bears a striking resemblance to the picture of Gideon in Judges. Here too is a man who combined a crusade against idolatry (‘Tear down your father’s altar to Baal’, 6:25ff.) with political and military action for his people (‘Rescue Israel from the Midianites’, 6:14). If Muhammad’s ministry began with something like the fervour and righteous zeal of Gideon’s ministry, something certainly went wrong at a later stage. It is only right to remember that something also went wrong later in Gideon’s life: ‘Gideon made an idol from the gold and put it in his home town, Ophrah. All the Israelites abandoned God and went there to worship the idol. It was a trap for Gideon and his family’ (8:22–28).

Is it too dangerous to draw this kind of parallel between Muhammad and Gideon? It must be emphasized that we are talking of similarity and not identity. Moreover, while we can see how Gideon fits into the total plan of biblical history from Abraham to Jesus, we cannot fit Muhammad into the same scheme. But if there is any parallel at all, it should help us at the very least to feel more sympathy for the vision with which Muhammad began his ministry—the vision of the Arabian tribes united as one people, and united in the worship of the one true God.

  1. Judaism and Islam

From his early contacts with Jews, particularly with the Jewish community in Medina after the Hijrah in ad 622, Muhammad must have absorbed something of the spirit and ritual of Jewish worship, as well as many stories from the Old Testament and later rabbinic legends. This background should help us to understand not only the most obvious similarities between the doctrines of Judaism and Islam (e.g. their understanding of the oneness of God), but also some of the deeper similarities between the spirit of the two religions (e.g. their understanding of the role of the law). It should therefore make it easier for us to put ourselves into the shoes of the Muslim and to see Jesus as the Muslim sees him.

It requires a certain effort and discipline, however, to read the Gospels in this way. We naturally tend to think of the disciples as Christian believers right from the start instead of seeing them as devout, orthodox Jews. But what if we take off our ‘Christian spectacles’ and try to see Jesus against the background of Old Testament assumptions and several centuries of Jewish traditions? We then begin to realize that the Muslim reacts to Christian claims about Jesus (if he has not misunderstood them) in the same way as the High Priest reacted to Jesus’ claims about himself: ‘You heard his blasphemy’ (Mk. 14:63, 64). It is the same instinct, the same jealous concern for the oneness of God, that makes it unthinkable that a mere man could be associated with God in anything other than a creature-Creator relationship. We begin to see also that there is an understandable logic behind Peter’s objection to the idea that the Messiah must suffer and die: how could God let his representative on earth be humiliated so deeply before men? Surely God must vindicate his servants the prophets in the eyes of men?

This parallel between Judaism and Islam needs to be qualified at three points. In the first place, we need to recognize that Muhammad was too much of a creative genius to be described as one who simply ‘borrowed’ from Jewish sources. Everything that he absorbed was stamped with the imprint of his own creative mind, as we see in the distinctive thrust that is given to the story of Joseph (Sura 12).

Secondly, some of Muhammad’s teaching was influenced, if not actually determined, by the negativeresponse he received from the Jews in Medina. His early openness soon turned to bitter hostility when he finally realized that he had no chance of winning them over as a community. Thus, for example, having earlier prayed with his face to Jerusalem as the Jews did, he now began to pray facing Mecca. Again, there had been nothing in the Old Testament or in rabbinic tradition which linked Abraham with Mecca; but Muhammad now claimed that Abraham and Ishmael had been associated with the building of the Ka’ba in Mecca. He claimed that Abraham was a Muslim, and in the words of Alfred Guillaume, ‘thus at a stroke the primitive and apostolic character of Islam was established’. Any attempt, therefore, to draw a parallel between Judaism and Islam must take into account this tortuous love-hate relationship between Muhammad and the Jews, which has coloured relations between Muslims (particularly the Arabs) and Jews ever since, not least in the twentieth century.

Thirdly, in spite of all the similarities between the two religions, the Jewish people had special privileges because of their special place in God’s plan of salvation: ‘They are God’s people; he made his covenants with them and gave them the Law; they have the true worship; they have received God’s promises; they are descended from the famous Hebrew ancestors: and Christ, as a human being, belongs to their race.’ (Rom. 9:4, 5.) This was Paul’s understanding of the privileges of the Jewish people simply by virtue of being descended from Abraham through the line of Isaac, and can only be applied to the Muslim in the sense that the covenant promises of God are now open to all who turn to Jesus, as Peter says on the day of Pentecost; ‘God’s promise was made to you and your children, and to all who are far away—all whom the Lord our God calls to himself’ (Acts 2:39).

If, however, these qualifications are not serious enough to make us abandon the attempt to see Islam in the light of New Testament Judaism, this approach may help us to come to terms with the bewildering variety of Christian responses to Islam. Is it a religion inspired totally by the devil, or a ‘valid’ religion which offers valuable insights for all? Is it a Christian heresy like Jehovah’s Witnesses, or can it cometimes be a genuine preparation for the gospel?

We find similar problems in the responses to Judaism in the pages of the New Testament. Paul’s verdict about the Jews in his letter to the Thessalonians (written about ad 50/51) sounds very harsh: ‘The Jews … killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and persecuted us. How displeasing they are to God! How hostile they are to everyone! They even tried to stop us from preaching to the Gentiles the message that would bring them salvation. In this way they have completed the full total of the sins they have always committed. And now God’s anger has at last come down on them!’ (1 Thes. 2:14–16). In his letter to the Romans, however, (written in ad 57) he reveals how he actually prays for his fellow Jews: ‘I am speaking the truth; I belong to Christ and I do not lie. My conscience, ruled by the Holy Spirit, also assures me that I am not lying when I say how great is my sorrow, how endless the pain in my heart for my people, my own flesh and blood! For their sake I could wish that I myself were under God’s curse and separated from Christ’ (Rom. 9:1–3).

In his travels in Asia Minor he made it a matter of policy to go first to the synagogue in every city, believing that those who knew the Old Testament scriptures would be the first to respond to the Good News about Jesus. When we come to the book of Revelation (written some thirty years after Paul’s death), however, the risen Lord’s description of one particular synagogue in Asia Minor paints it in a very different light: ‘I will make those of Satan’s synagogue, who claim to be Jews but are lying frauds, come and fall down at your feet; and they shall know that you are my beloved people’ (Rev. 3:9 neb).

If we are completely confused by this ambivalence, we need to go back to the words of Jesus himself and ask how it was that he could say to one Jew, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’ (Mk. 12:34), but on another occasion to a group of Jews, ‘You are of your father the devil’ (Jn. 8:44 rsv). Part of the answer needs to be that there is a difference between ‘Judaism’ and ‘Jews’—between the body of beliefs and traditions, and the people who hold them with varying degrees of conviction. We also need to be suspicious of sweeping generalizations and simple categories, whether they spring from an attitude that is excessively generous or excessively negative.

If we base our understanding of Judaism only on the scribes and the Pharisees described in the New Testament, we may be incapable of recognizing a Nicodemus who has grown up in the same tradition but is reaching out for something more (Jn. 3:1–13). If we think that all our Muslim friends are as dogmatic as Caiaphas (Mk. 14:63, 64), we will fail to recognize others who are as open, but cautious, as Gamaliel (Acts 5:33–39). If we think that all Muslims are in the same category as the members of the synagogue of Philadelphia (Rev. 3:9) we can hardly fail to rebuff any leader like Jairus who comes with his deep personal need and a faith that reaches out to Jesus (Mk. 5:22ff.). If the practice of Islam can make some Muslims as self-confident as the Pharisee (Lk. 18:11ff.), can it not sometimes lead others to the point where God can say to them, as he did to the God-fearing proselyte Cornelius, ‘God is pleased with your prayers and works of charity, and is ready to answer you. And now send some men to Joppa for a certain man whose full name is Simon Peter …’ (Acts 10:4ff.).

  1. Paul and the Athenians

It is hard to resist the feeling that while God’s will is revealed to the Muslim in the Qur’an, God himself is hardly knowable in any personal sense. Man is called upon to obey God and to submit to him; he can also know something about the character of God in the many different ‘names’ of God. But he is not invited to know the God whom he worships. It was no doubt this missing element in man’s relationship with God which contributed to the movement of Islamic mysticism (Sufism). For if Islamic orthodoxy lacked any sense of a personal relationship with God, it was inevitable that some should seek to go beyond the traditional formulations and seek for a more personal and mystical union with God.

This sense of the unknowable God in orthodox Islam suggests a certain parallel with the beliefs of the Greeks whom Paul addressed at the Areopagus. ‘I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious. For as I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which is written, ‘To an Unknown God’. That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you …’ (Acts 17:16–34). We may need to do some careful study to find out as much as we can about Athenian religious beliefs. If we find that they were closer to those of African traditional religion than to orthodox Islam, they may still be relevant for our discussion, since there is frequently a gap between the popular Islam of the man in the street and the fully-developed theology of the scholars. But however close the parallel between the two situations may be, the significant thing about Paul’s general approach is that he spends little time attacking false or inadequate concepts of God. He establishes as much common ground as possible, and then moves on to proclaim that God has acted and revealed himself through ‘a man he has chosen’.

It is understandable that Christians should feel obliged to raise the question of whether the Muslim has any ‘real’ knowledge of God. But we have to admit that we are far better at making critical and negative judgments about other religions than sharing the gospel in a positive way with people of other religions. In the light of Paul’s approach in this address, one cannot help wondering how helpful it is to ask this kind of question. If Paul could use the same word for ‘God’ as the Greeks used, however inadequate and misleading it might be, there is no reason why the Christian should hesitate to use the same word for ‘God’ that the Muslim uses, whether it is in Arabic, Persian, Urdu or any other language. If Paul could recognize that the Athenians had been seeking to worship God in the only way they had known, who are we to spend our time, either among ourselves or in conversation with the Muslim, calling into question all that he has come to believe about God? The positive approach in Paul’s address should rather challenge us to find ways of speaking about Jesus which are truly God-centred and which are related to what he already believes about God.

D. The parting of the ways

If some Christians concentrate on all the differences between Christianity and Islam, others tend to emphasize the common ground without getting to grips with the areas of disagreement. If our biblical models have any value, can they help us to maintain a proper balance between these two extremes?

The picture behind our heading suggests that for some of the journey Christians and Muslims can walk the same road, moving in the same direction. We then come to a fork in the road, and find ourselves going in different directions. This parting of the ways if not so much over smaller questions of doctrine and practice like fasting, pilgrimage and the status of women, but rather over basic assumptions which, though often unspoken, determine our thinking on all the individual issues on which we differ. Where then are these forks in the road, and what do the signposts tell us?

  1. Questioning the revelation

It is not only secular man who asks the awkward question, ‘How can we know if this is a genuine revelation from God?’ We find in the Qur’an that Muhammad is constantly being faced with exactly the same challenge. Sometimes the demand comes from those who are described as ‘hypocrites’, i.e. people who are moved by purely human or political considerations and have little concern for the content of Muhammad’s message. At other times, we must assume that the question arises from an honest desire to know the truth. Muhammad usually answers by disclaiming any ability to work miracles, and points to the quality of the revelation itself as evidence of its divine origin. He also warns about the final judgment of all who refuse to accept the revelation. His answer, therefore, has an authoritarian flavour which makes it different from the answers given to the same question in several books of the Bible.

Abraham, for example, asks about the promise that the land will be given to him: ‘Sovereign Lord, how can I know that it will be mine?’ (Gn. 15:8). Moses expects that the Israelites in Egypt will not immediately accept his claim that God has met him in the desert: ‘But suppose the Israelites do not believe me and will not listen to what I say?’ (Ex. 4:1). Thomas is not satisfied with the claim of the other disciples that they have seen the risen Jesus, and wants to be able to see for himself: ‘Unless I see … I will not believe’ (Jn. 20:25). In each of these cases the person is given tangible evidence to answer his question, because there is a genuine willingness to be convinced. But miracles are not always produced to order, for when Jesus is asked by the Pharisees for an instant miracle to support his claims, he refuses the request, knowing that it springs from the scepticism of a closed mind (Mk. 8:11, 12).

How then does God answer our questions about his revelation? The Qur’an and the Bible give similar answers to those who ask in a defiant spirit, having already made up their minds that this cannot be a true revelation. But for the person who asks with a really open mind and a willingness to be convinced, the signposts point in different directions.

  1. God and the vindication of his prophets

If the writings of heretical Christian sects in the first centuries give some indication of the possible historical source of Muhammad’s belief that Jesus did not die on the cross, they do not explain why it was that Muhammad accepted this particular interpretation of what happened. The Quranic text simply states: ‘They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them … they slew him not for certain, but Allah took him up unto Himself.’ (Sura 4:157, 158.) If we try to probe behind this proof-text, the logic of the denial of the crucifixion would seem to be that God cannot allow his representative on earth to be humiliated in this way; he must surely intervene to save him from such a terrible fate and vindicate him in the eyes of men.

It is probably this same instinct which explains Peter’s reaction of horror when he first heard that Jesus would be rejected and suffer an ignominious death. No doubt Peter was thinking also about his own safety; but there must have been more to it than this. He was no doubt putting into words thoughts which had already occurred to Jesus himself. So when Jesus reacted so strongly to Peter’s protest, it wasn’t because the idea was completely ridiculous. His answer probably came out of deep prolonged wrestling with an idea that had occurred to him on more than one occasion and held a strong attraction for him.

It may first have been part of the temptation to stage a miraculous rescue operation after falling from the pinnacle of the temple (Lk. 4:9–11). When towards the end of his ministry he became aware of the plot to kill him, he shared his dilemma with the disciples: ‘Now my heart is troubled—and what shall I say? Shall I say “Father, do not let this hour come upon me?…” ’ (Jn. 12:27). Soon afterwards, when he was in the garden of Gethsemane, he rebuked Peter for his attempt to defend him with the words: ‘Don’t you know that I could call on my Father for help, and at once he would send me more than twelve armies of angels?’ (Mt. 26:53). Even in his last hours on the cross, he must have felt the temptation as he heard the crowd shouting: ‘Save yourself if you are God’s Son! Come down from the cross!… If he comes down from the cross now, we will believe in him! He trusts in God and claims to be God’s Son. Well, then, let us see if God wants to save him now!’ (Mt. 27:39–43).

God did vindicate Jesus—but not in the way that men would have wanted or expected. If Jesus had been miraculously delivered from death on the cross, the spectacle would no doubt have made many believe in him. But God’s way of thinking demanded that before being vindicated, Jesus must be identified with men right up to the very end—even in death: ‘It was only right that God should make Jesus perfect through suffering, in order to bring many sons to share his glory.… Since the children, as he calls them, are people of flesh and blood, Jesus himself became like them and shared their human nature. He did this so that through his death he might destroy the Devil, who has the power over death, and in this way set free those who were slaves all their lives because of their fear of death’ (Heb. 2:10–14, 15).

The Muslim cannot deny that many of the Jews wanted and intended to have Jesus crucified, or that Jesus himself was willing to be crucified. The difference lies in our thinking about the way in which God would be expected to act on behalf of his servant and prophet. The Muslim says that God must vindicate Jesus by saving him from this ultimate humiliation; the Christian says that God must allow Jesus to suffer the worst that men can do to him, and vindicate him only on the other side of death.

  1. Sin and law

How are we to diagnose the problem of man’s disobedience to the law of God? If we as Christians trace the problem back to the fall of Adam and the inherent sinfulness of human nature, the Muslim believes that we take an unnecessarily serious and pessimistic view of the human condition. He doesn’t see Adam’s sin as a ‘fall’ affecting the whole human race, but rather believes that every person starts life with a clean sheet, completely innocent before God. Man needs the law of God, as revealed in the Qur’an, and when he breaks it, needs to turn to God in repentance and faith to ask for forgiveness. The Muslim therefore sees divine law and divine forgiveness as being sufficient remedy for man’s disobedience.

The Christian who understands anything of the moral conflict described by Paul in Romans 7 feels bound to say that the Muslim’s diagnosis is too optimistic, and doesn’t make sense of the facts of our moral experience. Instead of solving the problem of human disobedience, the law seems only to intensify it, by showing that our problem is not simply individual ‘sins’, but rather our ‘sin’—our sinful human nature which is constantly dragging us down. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the law; it merely means that it was never intended to provide the final solution. Its purpose was rather to expose the problem in its true light: ‘The law itself is holy, and the commandment is holy, right, and good. But does this mean that what is good caused my death? By no means! It was sin that did it; by using what is good, sin brought death to me, in order that its true nature as sin might be revealed. And so, by means of the commandment sin is shown to be even more terribly sinful’ (Rom. 7:12, 13). The more intense the conflict between our desire to obey God’s law and the downward pull of our human nature, the more we find ourselves agreeing with Paul’s final analysis of the problem: ‘This, then, is my condition: on my own I can serve God’s law only with my mind, while my human nature serves the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:25).

If we have been accustomed to use this chapter only as fuel for the debate about sanctification, we need to see its special relevance for understanding one of the basic differences between Christianity and Islam—a difference which has far-reaching consequences in many areas. When we put ourselves under the law of God, what do we find? Do we find ourselves nearer to the confidence and optimism of the man who said to Jesus ‘Ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments’ (Mk. 10:20)? Or do we find ourselves echoing Paul’s cry of desperation ‘What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?’ (Rom. 7:24).

  1. Forgiveness, atonement and obedience

Our study of the atonement is bound to introduce us to the exegesis of passages like Mark 10:45, Romans 3:21–26 and 1 John 2:2, and to the debate about the different theories of the atonement. But our textbooks don’t always help us when we find ourselves face to face with the Muslim. We take it for granted that some kind of atonement is needed, and spend our time trying to explain the rationale of that atonement. The Muslim, however, is not interested in challenging any particular theory of the atonement; he cannot see the need for any atonement.

If the law of God can be obeyed by all who genuinely desire to live by it and if any disobedience to the law is simply seen as individual ‘sins’, it is natural to believe that these sins can be forgiven simply by a ‘word’ from God. Provided we are sincere in our repentance and trust in God’s mercy and compassion, he can forgive us, so to speak, by divine decree. There is no need for any sacrifice to atone for our sins.

But if we leave aside the meaning of sacrifices, what does forgiveness mean in our own experience? Do we not find that forgiveness costs something? The greater the wrong that is done to me, and the deeper the wound, the more it costs me to forgive and to bear the wrong and the injury without hitting back. If God is the lawgiver, there must surely be some problem as to how he can both uphold his own laws and at the same time forgive those who break them. If God is also the personal Creator who has made man in his own image, would we not expect his way of forgiving to have more in common with forgiveness between people as we know it than with the pardon extended by an all-powerful ruler to his subjects at little or no cost to himself?

Even after the disciples had met the risen Jesus, they were still slow to understand the meaning of his death. Jesus therefore had to explain why he had to die: ‘ “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Lk. 24:26, 27 rsv). The scriptures said that this is how it must be. But why did it have to be this way? This is a legitimate question which demands some kind of answer. The Old Testament proof-texts will not by themselves help us to meet the challenge of the Muslim unless they enable us to grasp something of the divine logic which demands that forgiveness can only be proclaimed to men in the name of one who suffered and died.

The New Testament understanding of the atonement, however, is even more comprehensive than this, since it also introduces us to the Holy Spirit, who is given to enable us to live up to the righteous demands of the law: ‘What the law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like man’s sinful nature, to do away with sin. God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law might be fully satisfied in us who live according to the Spirit, and not according to human nature’ (Rom. 8:3, 4).

If, therefore, the Christian understanding of the divine remedy covers every dimension of the human problem and involves the work of the whole Trinity, our ability to enjoy this remedy depends on our willingness to accept the Christian diagnosis of our need, and our willingness to try to grasp the divine logic which demanded that it could only be met in this way.

  1. Idolatry and oneness

Why have we left this question till the end? Isn’t the Trinity one of the first and most obvious stumbling blocks for the Muslim? This may be so—but it is also one of the hardest to discuss, and the most likely to take us away from the road and back to the trenches.

If we have listened to the Muslim long enough to understand the passionate protest against idolatry that is implied in the words ‘There is no god but God’ and ‘God is greater!’ we may remember that our own scriptures sound the same call in many different ways. There is the uncompromising demand of the law: ‘I am the Lord your God.… Worship no God but me. Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals’ (Ex. 20:4, 5). The prophets speak with the same voice: ‘I alone am the Lord your God. No other god may share my glory; I will not let idols share my praise’ (Is. 42:8). We find that Jesus himself reaffirmed the Old Testament command to worship God alone: ‘The scripture says, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!” ’ (Mt. 4:10). And the apostle John ends his first letter with the urgent plea, ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols’ (1 Jn. 5:21 rsv). If we agree in our denunciation of idolatry, how much further can we go before finding ourselves entangled in misunderstanding and disagreement? It should not take us long to realize that we are not the first to have passed this way. If the disciples were orthodox Jews who recited daily ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord …’ (Dt. 6:4 rsv), did they not start with the very same assumption as the Muslim about the oneness of God? Yet now they are constantly being forced to say about Jesus ‘What manner of man is this that …?’ (Mk. 4:41 av). It took Peter some time before he could say ‘You are the Messiah’ (Mk. 8:29); and it was only at the end of three years and after the resurrection that Thomas could say ‘My Lord and my God’ (Jn. 20:28). Because we have the advantage (or disadvantage?) of many centuries of Christian theology and devotion behind us, it is hard for us to realize how much of a revolution had to go on in the disciples’ minds before they could see Jesus as anything more than ‘a man sent from God’. It was a gradual process, with each of the disciples moving at his own speed in making the necessary mental adjustments to enable him to reconcile all that Jesus was saying and doing with the basic conviction that God is one.

In approaching the Gospels in this way, we are not asking the Muslim to accept them from the start as inspired scripture; we are simply asking him to read them as a record of what Jesus said and did. If he cannot even read them with this kind of open mind, we are forced back to consider the question of truth with which we began.

For what do we do when we find our most fundamental assumptions being challenged? One response is to hold on to those assumptions so firmly that we refuse to accept any kind of reinterpretation. Thus anything in the Gospels which challenges or conflicts with our present understanding of the oneness of God must be wrong and must be rejected. The other possible response is to be willing to revise our basic assumptions and even to reject them, if we find they make it impossible to account for all the new evidence which confronts us. If, therefore, we find in the Gospels that Jesus himself reaffirmed the Old Testament command to worship the one true God, and at the same time said and did things which challenge our interpretation of what God is like, our search for truth should make us look for the simplest theory which can hold together all the different data. Instead of abandoning our belief that God is one, we will have to go through the painful (and probably slow) process of redefining what that oneness means. If in the end we can still declare ‘the Lord our God is one Lord’ and at the same time say to Jesus ‘My Lord and my God’, we will not be guilty of misusing words any more than we are when we say that a man and a woman can become ‘one flesh’ in marriage. We have not rejected our basic assumption about the oneness of God; we have only redefined it or reinterpreted it in the light of all that we have seen and heard.

Which then is the attitude that is more likely to lead us to the truth about God and about Jesus? Which is more likely to give us a theology of unity: the concept of oneness which is purely mathematical and therefore discounts any evidence about Jesus, son of Mary, which challenges it in any way? Or the concept of oneness which safeguards the uniqueness and sovereign majesty of the one true God, but is great enough and flexible enough to account for all the evidence of what Jesus said and did?

  1. The things that are Caesar’s

In the early years of Muhammad’s ministry in Mecca, he had a limited number of followers, and was despised and rejected by the majority of his own people. It has been said that during this period he must have had something like a ‘Gethsemane experience’. He must have realized that the whole Islamic movement could easily be suppressed by persecution. What was he to do? Was he to be patient and trust that God would vindicate him in his own time and in his own way? Or would he be cowardly and irresponsible if he were to take such an enormous risk with the final revelation from God? The answer to his dilemma seemed to come through the overtures of the delegation from Medina who invited him to take over the leadership of their city, and so bring to an end the feuds between its different groups. Muhammad must have seen that this invitation offered him the possibility of establishing as a political leader the kind of society which he had until now been calling for simply as a prophet.

In the Old Testament there were certain safeguards to prevent the king from assuming absolute power. Thus, the book of Deuteronomy speaks of any future kings not as lawgivers, but as those who submit to the law that has already been revealed to Moses: ‘When he becomes king, he is to have a copy of the book of God’s laws and teachings made from the original copy kept by the levitical priests. He is to keep this book near him and read from it all his life, so that he will learn to honour the Lord and to obey faithfully everything that is commanded in it’ (Dt. 17:18–19). Moreover, God frequently raised up prophets who spoke with an independent voice, condemning disobedience to the revealed law, and at times calling for particular policies and actions. Nathan, for example, had to challenge the great king David and condemn him for adultery and murder (2 Sa. 11:1–12:15), while Jeremiah had the unwelcome task of telling king Zedekiah to surrender to the Babylonian invaders (Je. 27:12f.).

In Islam, however, the one who begins simply as a prophet soon assumes in addition the role of the ‘king’; for after the Hijrah, there can no longer be any distinctions between ‘the things that are Caesar’s’ and ‘the things that are God’s’. If God’s kingdom is to be established on earth, the things that are God’s must coincide with the things that are Caesar’s. The law of God must be embodied in a particular kind of society; it must be commended and enforced by some executive power and not left to the conscience of the individual or entrusted to a minority group.

The difference between these two ways of thinking is also evident in the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate. When Jesus is asked what he has done, he replies, ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!’ (Jn. 18:36). Muhammad would not have accepted this distinction between the different kinds of kingdom; and once he had concluded that the kingdom he was concerned about did belong to this world, it was an inevitable corollary that his followers would fight to protect him and to extend his authority.

Perhaps it is this factor—the attitude to political power—which more than any other makes Islam different from Judaism (and Christianity) in the New Testament. Although the first Jewish Christians were tolerated by the Roman authorities as a sect within Judaism (the followers of ‘the Way’), they frequently found themselves up against the power of the synagogue and the Sanhedrin. From the early 60s, however, the Roman authorities became more and more intolerant towards them, and as the emperors increased their powers and made bolder claims for themselves, Christians found themselves a persecuted minority. Thus, whereas Paul in the 50s and early 60s had been able to enjoy some of the privileges of being a Roman citizen and could appeal to Caesar for protection against the plots of the Jews, by the time we come to the apostle John in the 90s, Rome has become more like a totalitarian state. It is therefore symbolized as ‘the Beast’, whose ways are so totally opposed to those of ‘the Lamb’; and only those who bear the mark of the Beast and consent to all that it stands for can live as full members of society.

In many parts of the Islamic world today Christians enjoy as much freedom as the Jews did at the time of Jesus. Christianity is just as much a ‘tolerated religion’ as Judaism (and therefore Christianity) were in the first thirty years or so of the church’s life. Where Islam has found it possible to allow for the existence of Christian minorities in its midst, it sees them as distinct communities with their own religion. Words like ‘freedom’ and ‘toleration’, however, need some qualification, since the Muslim mind cannot allow for the possibility of any member of its own community accepting a different faith. The idea of a Muslim becoming a Christian is as unthinkable as a man cutting himself off from his own family and his own society, and calls not simply for sorrow and regret but for strict sanctions.

If some of us are dishonest in not recognizing the considerable measure of freedom that Christians enjoy in many Islamic countries, others seem to be blind to the limitations and pressures under which Christians have to live in others. If at times they are guilty of perpetuating a ghetto mentality for which they themselves are largely responsible, there are other situations in which the Christian has good reason to feel that he is up against the combined powers of the ‘synagogue’, the ‘Sanhedrin’ and ‘Caesar’. Whenever there is such an alliance between the society and the state, the Muslim is simply working out the logic of Muhammad’s own thinking about the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s. In this situation the Christian needs to sit with the apostle John and hear the voice in heaven which gives us a different understanding of the way by which God establishes his kingdom on earth: ‘Now God’s salvation has come! Now God has shown his power as King! Now his Messiah has shown his authority! For the one who stood before our God and accused our brothers day and night has been thrown out of heaven. Our brothers won the victory over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the truth which they proclaimed; and they were willing to give up their lives and die. And so be glad, you heavens, and all you that live there!’ (Rev. 12:10–12).

Is there any common denominator in our discussion of these six issues? The parallel we have drawn between Islam and New Testament Judaism would suggest that where there has to be a parting of the ways between the Christian and the Muslim, it is because we are faced ultimately with a choice between two ways of thinking which cannot be reconciled. Jesus’ rebuke to Peter over the question of his suffering and death may therefore be relevant in all the other areas as well: ‘You think as men think, not as God thinks’ (Mk. 8:33, neb).

The apostle Paul saw the issues in similar terms when he wrote about his fellow Jews: ‘I can assure you that they are deeply devoted to God; but their devotion is not based on true knowledge. They have not known the way in which God puts people right with himself, and instead they have tried to set up their own way; and so they did not submit themselves to God’s way of putting people right’ (Rom. 10:2f.). But lest we allow these insights to feed our pride and complacency, we do well also to overhear how the apostle prays for his fellow Jews, and ask ourselves if there is any reason why we should not pray in the same terms for our Muslim brothers: ‘How I wish with all my heart that my own people might be saved! How I pray to God for them!’ (Rom. 10:1).

Colin J. Chapman

Colin J. Chapman is a CMS missionary seconded to the IFES as Regional Secretary for Islamic Lands, based in Beirut.