Understanding Islam

Muhammad was respected as an upright man by those who knew him. According to Muslim accounts, Muhammad began hearing voices and seeing visions when he was 40 years old (A.D. 610). At first Muhammad feared that he might be possessed by an evil spirit. But his wife Khadijah—15 years his elder—assured him that this could not be, for he was a good man.

Over the years, it is said, many revelations came as the angel Gabriel dictated God’s exact words in Arabic to Muhammad. The prophet, who never learned to write, memorized the words perfectly and taught them to others. Eventually

the revelations were put into final written form as the Quran. Muslims honor Muhammad as the greatest of prophets, and most Muslims view the Quran as an error-free copy of an eternal, uncreated original in heaven.

Vast numbers of people are Muslims and strive to follow this prophet and this book. Some of them affect world affairs. Some live nearby. All are fellow humans created in God’s image and designed to flourish only in fellowship with God. So Christians urgently need to understand Islam. Let’s look at four areas: how Islam has taken shape, how Christianity and Islam are similar, how they differ, and how to relate to Muslims we meet.

How Islam Has Taken Shape

During Muhammad’s lifetime, he overcame the hostility of Arabia’s idol worshipers and instituted worship of one God. Combining religious leadership with military and political skill, he personally took part in 70 battles or skirmishes. By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632, Arabia’s bickering tribes were united and powerful. Within a century, Muslim power had spread across the Middle East, much of Asia, North Africa, and Spain.

Early disagreement over the proper line of leadership to succeed Muhammad led to a split between Sunnis and Shiites. Shiites insisted Muhammad’s own descendants should lead Islam. After two key figures, Ali and Husain, were killed by enemies, Shiites hailed them as martyrs and viewed Sunni leaders as usurpers. Shiites today believe that Ali’s descendants are divinely enlightened imams who are sinless, infallible interpreters of Quranic wisdom for today. Shiites also believe that one of these imams will return as a messianic leader known as the Mahdi.

Sunnis, in contrast, insist that Muhammad is the final prophet to receive divine light. Sunni imams are to be simply teachers of the Quran, not sinless or infallible channels of divine light like Shiite imams. Today the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are Sunni; roughly 10 percent are Shiite. However, in some countries, such as Iran and Iraq, Shiites are the majority. (When the U. S.-led coalition toppled Iraq’s government headed by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, the resulting power vacuum prompted a bloody contest for supremacy between minority Sunnis and majority Shiites—with neither side fond of foreign interlopers.)

North America is home to at least 6 million Muslims, mostly Sunni, and the number is growing. The majority of growth comes from immigrants and their offspring. However, about 35 percent of the growth has come through conversion. Most of these converts are African American. The most fertile ground for Muslim recruitment is America’s prison system. Many look to Islam as a source of dignity, discipline, and personal betterment—an alternative to a society and religious system that has failed them.

There are two main categories of African American Muslims: black supremacists and mainstream Sunnis. Most black supremacists are influenced by Elijah Muhammad. From the 1930s until his death in 1975, Elijah taught that blacks are God’s chosen people, that whites are devils, that a man named Wallace Fard came to Detroit as Allah incarnate, and that Elijah Muhammad was Allah’s prophet. This contradicted the Quran, but it appealed to many downtrodden African Americans and attracted such figures as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Farrakhan. In recent decades many black supremacist Muslims have moved toward mainstream Sunni Islam, no longer seeing Fard as God or whites as devils. In fact, only about 10 percent of African American Muslims now belong to black supremacist groups. The other 90 percent are Sunni. Yet both black supremacists and Sunnis are active in prison outreach.

Almost all Muslims, whatever their differences, hold to the Five Pillars of Islam: (1) Declare that there is no God but Allah, whose prophet is Muhammad. (2) Pray five times each day. (3) Give to the poor. (4) Fast each year during the month of Ramadan. (5) At least once in a lifetime, go on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Muslim Similarities to Christianity

Islam and Christianity hold some important things in common. Both faiths are monotheistic, believing in one God. Both faiths reject polytheistic belief in various gods and goddesses. Both faiths reject pantheistic belief that all things are God or part of God. Both faiths reject atheistic belief that no God exists. Both faiths agree that the Creator, not random evolution, made and rules all things. Both agree that angels and evil spirits are real and active. Both agree that people live on after death, either in happiness or horror.

Islam is not just a private feeling or personal belief, but a worldview and a way of life. Biblical Christianity is similarly all-embracing, calling us to honor God’s claim over all of life. Islam and Christianity agree on many moral principles. Both teach that idolatry, murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and abortion are wrong. Both agree that family ties, generosity to the poor, hard work, and honest business are good. Many commands in the Quran agree with similar commands in the Bible. In fact, Islam teaches that the books of Moses, the Psalms, and the gospel of Jesus are from God.

The Quran says some striking things about Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin and was sinless. Jesus’ coming was “good news.” Jesus gave sight to the blind, healed lepers, and raised the dead. The Quran calls Jesus “Messiah,” “Spirit from God,” “Word of God,” and “Word of Truth,” titles applied to no one else, not even Muhammad. Muslim tradition says Jesus will return someday, reign over the earth, and usher in the end times. “Muslims    have great respect and love for Jesus (Isa) the Messiah,” says a Muslim scholar. “He is one of the greatest prophets of Allah. To deny the prophethood of Jesus is to deny Islam.”

Some Christians might be surprised at these similarities, but certain Muslim moral principles and beliefs about Jesus are closer to the Bible than the beliefs of some who call themselves Christians. Even some pastors and scholars rewrite morality and do not accept that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he worked mighty miracles by divine power. People of Christian background who slide from biblical revelation into moral relativism, secularism, or religious pluralism could learn from Islam’s clarity of conviction, its emphasis on humble obedience, and its awe of God’s majesty, justice, and miraculous power.

Crucial Differences

It’s important to recognize common ground between Christians and Muslims, but the two faiths also differ in matters of utmost importance. Christians worship the one God as Trinity, an eternal union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible says “God is love.” That’s not just because God is loving toward us but also because God’s inner being is characterized by the eternal love that unites Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Quran almost never speaks of God’s love for humanity and flatly denies God’s loving essence as Trinity. The Quran (5:72-75) threatens hell for those who say Jesus is God come to earth and who believe in the Trinity. Although Muslims believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, they do not believe that in this birth God the Son took on a human nature. They see Jesus as only a man, though a great prophet. A Muslim writer says, “The doctrine of Trinity, equality with Allah, and sonship, are repudiated as blasphemies.”

Christianity teaches that we are born sinners, unable to save ourselves. Only through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection can we become right with God and receive eternal life. Islam, by contrast, says all people are born good but forgetful; they just need to be reminded of what God wants. “Man is not a fallen being,” declares a Muslim scholar. “The Christian belief in the redemptive, sacrificial death of Christ does not fit the Islamic view that man has always been fundamentally good.”

Galatians 2:21 says, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” Islam teaches that righteousness can be gained through law. However, rather than say Christ died for nothing, Islam says Jesus did not die at all. The Quran says Jesus’ enemies thought they killed him but were fooled by appearances. Someone else, probably Judas, was made to look like Jesus and was nailed to the cross. Jesus went to heaven without dying. “God, who is just, would not permit the righteous Messiah to suffer in that manner,” insists a Muslim author. Besides, humans are not so sinful that we need Jesus to die for us.

In Islam salvation must be earned. In Christianity salvation is an unearned gift from “God, who justifies the wicked” (Rom. 4:4). A Muslim says, “In Islam, God’s mercy is supremely expressed through the revelation of a perfect law.” A Christian says, “In Christianity, God’s mercy is supremely expressed through God’s sacrifice of his beloved Son for our salvation.” Islam counts on a Master’s law. Christianity counts on the Father’s love.

Relating to Muslims

Here are four areas for action in Christian relations with Muslims:

  1. Love your neighbor. Muslims are people valued by God. Treat them that way. Most are no more eager to harm you than you are to harm them. Many Muslims in North America, whether Arab or Pakistani or African American, face racial discrimination. Christians must show kindness and respect. Many Muslims prize hospitality. Have a Muslim friend or family for dinner. In preparing a menu, be considerate of observant Muslims, who avoid pork and may have other dietary restrictions.
  2.  Be strong in the Lord. Islam aspires to win hearts and shape nations. Islam leads people away from salvation in Jesus crucified and risen, away from the Trinity of love. Don’t underestimate the challenge. This is no time to be softheaded or fainthearted. Hold fast to biblical faith, stand up for it, and strive to win others.
  3. Seek to communicate. Listen attentively to each Muslim person you meet. Speak gently but clearly from your heart. Above all, communicate with the Lord: pray for Muslim people, whether in your neighborhood or in other nations.
  4. Join the team. Get involved with other Christians who are already reaching out to Muslims. Support missionaries and broadcasters who focus on Muslims. Get personally involved in campus outreach or prison ministry, the two most strategic areas for Christian-Muslim encounters in North America. Sharpen your witness by studying more about Islam. The more you understand it, the better able you will be to speak to Muslim people seeking fellowship with God.

For Discussion
  1. What did you know about Islam before reading this article? Where did you receive your knowledge?

  2. What new information did you gain through reading this article? How did it influence your original perceptions?

  3. What do you find most helpful for understanding the Muslims in Iraq? For understanding Muslims in America?

  4. Discuss Feddes’s suggestions of how to relate to Muslims. What do you find most helpful or enlightening?

  5. What is the most important thing you take away from this discussion?


About the Author

Rev. David Feddes is director of the Center for Advanced Studies at Crossroad Bible Institute, a distance education ministry with more than 40,000 students in prison. Formerly he was broadcast minister for The Back to God Hour.

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