How Should Christians View Islam?
Recently Caroline and I watched videos of short lived series called Thirty Days. Morgan Spurlock who gained fame by eating nothing but McDonalds for thirty days as a televised experiment explores in this series how people with a particular viewpoint would deal with being immersed in an opposing viewpoint for thirty days. One of those episodes took a Christian young man and placed him with a Muslim family in Michigan. Though entertaining, the episode compels the viewer to see the Christian man’s Arabic tutor as well as Muslim Imams as able to accurately defend and articulate their faith while the Christian man seemed unable to do the same. For me this provoked a question, “How do most Christians view Islam?” I posted a question on my blog with three very simple but clear positions one could have concerning Islam. By far the response was that Islam was just another way for a person to get to heaven. This disturbed me.
The acceptance of Islam as another way to heaven seen in that poll is not unlike the conclusion the Christian man came to in Thirty Days. But this view of Islam cannot accord with Jesus’ teaching in John 14:6. Jesus states that he is the way, the truth, and the life affirming in verse seven of the same chapter that to know him is the only way to know the Father. Islam and Christianity are not the same, offering widely diverging paths with different destinations on accounts of both faiths. (For a simplified understanding of Islam as well as many other faiths I recommend reading The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. At several points I will base the following discussion in his presentation.) Perhaps because of the similarities between the two faiths, Christians have become confused on the central issues that do separate the faiths. As Christians, we must not fall prey to the faulty assumption that these two religions are simply distant cousins. They are two very different systems with “common borders [that] have given rise to border disputes.” (221) So allow me to point out at least three major areas in which these similarities may cause confusion, but in reality offer diverging and opposing beliefs
Both are Monotheistic, but Christian Monotheism affirms the Trinity and immanence of God.
Islam and Christianity along with Judaism all would affirm this statement – There is only one God. Islam clearly names Allah as the only God focusing on his transcendence. Transcendence is the attribute of God that separates him from mankind. In the words of Smith “Muslims are not fond of parental images for God, even when employed metaphorically.” (236) Instead of seeing Allah as personally involved in their lives Muslims view him as a deity to be feared and respected without regard to a personal relationship with him. In fact it would be unthinkable for a Muslim to say that Allah has a son or that any man can know Allah personally. Such a claim would be met with open opposition.
Christianity’s teaching on monotheism starkly contrasts to that of Islam. Christianity affirms that God is transcendent; however, Christianity does not say that God is so transcendent that he cannot have an imminent relationship with us. In fact in passages like Romans 6:23 Christians affirm a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the difference between experiencing God’s awesome justice and his steadfast love. A relationship with Jesus allows us to know God as our Father, as our personal Savior and Lord, and as the indwelling Spirit who testifies to Christ. This brings us to Christianity’s unique understanding of monotheism. Christians teach that God is three distinct persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – united as one divine being.
Both have devotion as a central Motivation, but the Christian Motivation towards devotion denies all human works in favor of Divine grace.
Islam views Allah as awesomely powerful but not personally interested in his subjects. In fact the word Islam has two dimensions that confirm God as distant but capable of receiving devoted subjects. The world Islam means surrender to Allah and peace with him; or as Smith quotes “[Islam’s] full connotation is ‘the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” (222) A Muslim knows that he is surrendered to God every time he obeys one of the commands in the Koran since, “compared to other religions, Islam spells out the way of life it proposes; it pinpoints in, nailing it down through clear injunctions.” (243) Strict obedience to the Koran is the only way to respond to God’s shocking omnipotence. Muslims devote themselves to the work of obedience as subjects of Allah.
Christianity encourages a very different type of devotion. Christianity teaches that man is totally unable to find peace with God on his own. We confirm the wretched state of our nature as we experience our failings – disappointing a friend or family member, failing to live up to standards we set, or breaking a moral code or legal standard. This inability to find peace can lead people to abandon all hope and rebel even further against God. Man may also begin to seek an advocate for their case. 1 John 2:1 offers just such an advocate, Jesus Christ. He argues our case with one simple phrase that John refers to as propitiation. In essence he says “They are guilty, but I paid the price for them with the blood and death I endure at Calvary.” Christians are devoted to the work of Christ as the Divine grace, which covers every misdeed.
Both are Missionary religions seeking converts, but the Christian Missionary seeks for an inner transformation which leads to exterior change.
As a sort of summary of the differences between these religions one can understand Islam and Christianity as Missionary religions. It is unfair to characterize Muslim missionary work only as spreading at the tip of a sword. Though certainly the history of Islam has distinct chapters which confirm this assessment, there are also millions of Muslims who have no connection to a violent spread of their religion. Jihad known as a term used for holy war is at its most basic meaning, exertion. According to Smith “Muhammad ranks the battle against evil within one’s own heart above battles against external enemies.” (257) On the whole the Muslim missionary encourages an exterior battle towards obedience so that a man can transform his heart to be acceptable before Allah. God does not need to concern himself in this effort any more than giving the Koran, thus a Muslim’s salvation is never certain, but always in progress as he devotes himself to the commands of the Koran.
Christians on the other hand do not ignore the outward changes that must occur in the life of a believer. As James 2:17 makes clear faith without accompanying works is dead. Even so those works are not the ground of salvation but its fruit. Jesus says in John 3 that for a man to be saved he must be born again. This terminology and thinking opens up to the reality that Christians seek inward newness of life symbolized by a new birth. Just as Nicodemus came at night to ask Jesus about salvation, so have millions coming asking how they might be saved. John 3:16 simply puts the gospel. Our inner transformation begins when we believe in Jesus’ ability to save us; thus repenting of our faulty devotion to self, trusting instead in our relationship to Jesus Christ. We cannot earn our salvation, and once God has seen fit to transform our hearts, the fruit will be an outward life which testifies to our faith in him.