One afternoon during my first semester of college, my roommate and I went to the laundromat to take care of some dreaded, but necessary business. During our visit, we met a lady who was wearing a hijab. We knew right away that her faith was Muslim… although we weren’t really sure what all that meant. This was back in the late 90’s, so I had not really heard much about Islam in the U.S. (however, in the late 90’s, Islam had more than 5 million adherents in the U.S.) and therefore did not really know much about that particular religion. As she was finishing up her laundry, and just before she left, she made a comment… almost out of the door. She was speaking of Christians and Muslims getting along with one another. As she made her final appeal to us, I knew that what she was saying was not correct, but I was not sure exactly why. As a result of her final comment, my roommate and I had much to discuss when she was gone.
Her final statement to us was, “After all, Muslims and Christians do worship the same God.”
As a student pastor, I can tell you that our teenagers are inundated with different belief systems…Agnosticism, Atheism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Satanism, Judaism, Buddhism, and yes, Islam… those are just a few from the students in our current ministry.
Many of the students in our ministry are much like I was that day in the laundromat. They know there are many belief systems, they know there are differences, but they do not really understand them. To be honest, many of the adults in our churches are in the same situation. Let me be clear, I believe that as Christians we MUST have a very solid understanding of scripture and the beliefs of our faith FIRST. Why would we honestly defend and stake our lives on something we don’t really know? But I also believe that it is beneficial to have some working knowledge of the major faith systems in our current cultural context.
Islam is one such belief system. Islam is the second largest religion in the world, claiming to have more than1 billion followers. It seems like the Muslim faith is in the news almost daily. We may see a woman wearing a hijab (veil) in a grocery store, restaurant or mall. Our teenagers probably have Muslim friends at school. Islam is a religion that currently, worldwide, receives so much attention, that Christians should take some time to learn about it.
It would benefit us to know a little about where Islam has its origins. It would benefit us to know some of what the Muslim faith believes and to know some of the major differences between Islam and Christianity. I would like to lay a little groundwork in effort to help us see where Islam began and why it is, indeed, very different from Christianity.
In Genesis 17-22, you will find the story of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham was promised a son, by God, through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Both Abraham (Abram) and his wife Sarah were very old, so having a child at this point in their lives is possible only by God. Abraham and Sarah both decided that the best thing to do would be for Abraham to have a child with their servant Hagar. Abraham and Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael.
This child, in Abraham’s mind, was to be the son of promise God had told him about. However, this was not what God had planned… God had promised Abraham and Sarah a child of their own. So, when Abraham was 100 years of age and Sarah was 95 years of age, they conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Isaac was the son whom God had promised Abraham and Sarah. Isaac was the son through whom nations would be blessed (Genesis 21:12). Because of the birth of Isaac, God instructed Abraham to listen to Sarah and send Hagar and Ishmael away. God did not abandon Ishmael, however, but continued to bless him because he was the seed of Abraham. God promised Ishmael that he would make him into a great nation.
This Biblical story is very important in the narratives of both Christianity and Islam. The story in the Bible states that Isaac was the son of promise (Genesis 17:2-7: 21:12) and that he was the one whom Abraham was told to sacrifice (Genesis 22). The story in the Qur’an says that Ishmael was the son of promise and he was the son whom Abraham was to sacrifice.
This Biblical story speaks of the blessing God was going to bestow on the entire earth through the promised son of Abraham, Isaac! Through the line of Isaac comes men like Jacob (Israel), Joseph, David, Solomon, the entire nation of Israel… and eventually, Jesus, the only Son of God, the name above all names and the only way of salvation (John 3:16, 14:6, Philippians 2:9, 10).
According to the Qur’an, Ishmael is the promised son. It is through his lineage that Islam is established. According to the Qur’an, Ishmael was an apostle and a prophet of God, “And call to mind, through this divine writ, Ishmael. Behold, he was always true to his promise, and was an apostle [of God], a prophet, who used to enjoin upon his people prayer and charity, and found favor in his Sustainer’s sight (Qur’an 19:54-55).” Ishmael was the promised son and through him (Muhammad, Islam) the nations of the earth would be blessed.
Muhammad, a direct descendant of Ishmael and Islam’s founder, was born in A.D. 570 near Mecca, a city in Arabia. Mecca’s beginnings are attributed to the descendents of Ishmael (Genesis 17, 18). In his day, the place where Muhammad was born was an area of much cross-cultural interaction. The tribe that Muhammad was raised in (minor clan of the Quarish tribe), however, professed strict monotheism (as did some other faiths in that region) and devoted themselves to the worship of one God. At an early age, he was orphaned and raised by one of his uncles. There was not much opportunity for schooling for Muhammad, so he grew up, illiterate, and became a camel driver.
He was eventually employed by a wealthy widow, Khadija. They fell in love and were later married. Despite his humble beginnings, Muhammad was now a wealthy merchant, himself.
In A.D. 610, while he was meditating in a cave (on what is now referred to as the Mount of Light) outside of Mecca he fell into a trance, trembling and sweating, and the angel Gabriel spoke to him… “Recite!” It was at this point when Muhammad’s career as a prophet began, with more experiences like this throughout his life. His message contained two main points: 1) there is only one God to whose will people must submit, and 2) there will be a day of judgment when all people will be judged in terms of whether or not they have obeyed God.
Muhammad died in A.D. 632. By that time, Islam had grown both in numbers and influence. Muhammad and his army had captured Mecca and made it the Holy City of Islam. Islam was the religious and political head of much of the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad’s followers refer to their belief as Islam, which means “submission to God.” They came to be identified as Muslims, “those who submit to God.”
After the death of Muhammad, the struggle to find the next caliph began. The caliph is the chief Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the successor of Muhammad.
Some thought that Muhammad’s successor should be his son-in-law, Ali, husband of Muhammad’s favorite daughter. Ali claimed that Muhammad had endowed him with his designation (‘ilm) and spiritual knowledge (nass) and as such would be able to speak directly from God. Others, a general consensus (sunna), established Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, as the caliph. Thus, we have the origins of Sunnites (majority – 85%+-) and Shi’ites (minority 10%+-).
For the remainder of this article, I am going to briefly discuss some of the beliefs of the Muslim faith in comparison to the Christian faith. As within any religious belief system, there will be variations. For this article, we will look at the beliefs of the mainstream.
Muslims believe that Islam is the only true religion and they are radically committed to this belief. At the core of Islam are six fundamental beliefs that must be accepted as part of their religion.
Belief in Allah (Arabic for God)
Belief in the Angels (good and evil)
Belief in the Revealed Books of Allah
Belief in Allah’s Prophets and Messengers (including Adam, Abraham, Moses, David)
Belief in the Day of Judgment (Day of Resurrection)
Belief in Al-Qadar (Divine Predestination – god given free will)
The Holy Book
Islam – Muhammad never wrote anything down. It was up to his followers to write down his utterances on whatever happened to be available at the time… parchment, palm leaf, even a piece of wood. In A.D. 644, Uthman, from the tribe of Umayyads became caliph. During his time as caliph, he brought together all of the various materials, along with whatever compilations were already in circulation, carefully sorted out all that was authentic (destroying the rest) and compiled them into the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is the highest authority in Islam. Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel translated the Qur’an to Muhammad. Essentially, it is the earthly version of a heavenly book, the um-al-kitab (mother of all books). Since the Qur’an was originally revealed in Arabic, no translated version can be the authentic Qur’an.
For any issues that may be left undefined or may be unclear in the Qur’an, the prophet’s life and informal sayings are ultimate authority. These traditions are called hadiths . Since these hadiths may be used to clarify the revelation of the Qur’an, their authority comes close to that of the Qur’an. These hadiths point to Muhammad’s actual life as indications of how Muslims should act. When in doubt, do as Muhammad did!
Interestingly, the Qur’an contains many references to Biblical materials. Many are of the opinion that Muhammad borrowed these stories from his Jewish and Christian contacts. These Biblical stories do, however, receive new twists in the Qur’an.
Muslims are also told to read three other holy books: 1) The Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament of the Bible, 2) The Zabur, the Psalms of David, and 3) The Injeel, the gospel of Christ.
Christianity – By contrast, in the Christian faith, the Bible is our holy book. The Bible is our ONLY holy book… there is none like it (Hebrew 4:12). The Bible was inspired, God-breathed, directly by God Himself (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is unique because it was written over a span of 1500-2000 years, by nearly 40 different authors. Moses likely wrote Genesis around 1400 BC, whereas John may have written the book of Revelation as late as A.D. 80-90.The Bible should not be added to or subtracted from (2 Timothy 3:16-4:4, Revelation 22:18-20). The Bible, God’s Word, is complete and fully sufficient for every life situation (Psalm 18:7-11; 119:128).
Islam – Muslims refer to their god as Allah… this is the Arabic word for god. Muslims believe that Allah is sovereign; all that Allah wills come to pass. Whatever Allah does not will does not come to pass. Everything that has happened thus far must have been willed by Allah. This is the core belief on the infallible decree of God. The intent of this decree is to promote the appearance of determinism… whatever Allah determines is what happens.
Like Christians’ belief in God, Muslims believe that Allah is the one, true God and there is no other. He is all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, most merciful, most beneficent, all wise, righteous and sovereign . Allah is the creator and sustainer of all the universe. Allah is not described, however, as a personally involved heavenly father.
Islam, however, totally rejects the idea that Jesus is God’s Son, and God Himself, as is taught in Christianity (John 1:1-14, John 3:16, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1). According to the Qur’an, 5:72, Jesus rejects the claim that some worship Him as God. The Qur’an says that Jesus, son of Mary, is no more than a messenger, a prophet. The Qur’an also denies the crucifixion of Jesus.
Islam also totally rejects the trinity, as is taught in Christianity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – Genesis 1:26, Matthew 3:13-17, John 1). In the Qur’an, 5:73-75, Allah says that He is not a trinity. Many Muslims believe that Christianity is a polytheistic (belief in more than one god) religion because of its belief in the Trinity.
Christianity – Christianity teaches that the God of the Bible is the One, True God and there is no other (Deuteronomy 6:4). He is good, righteous, all-knowing, all-powerful, just, holy, creator and sustainer of all things. He is incomparable and above all. His thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is the righteous judge (Psalm 7:11).
According to the Bible, Jesus is the Only Son of God (Matthew 16:15-17). Jesus is the very image of God… He is God and Creator (John 1, Colossians 1). Jesus is the promised Messiah and Savior (John 20:31; 1 John 4:14). Jesus alone makes man right with God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
Finally, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is God (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is the Guarantee of our salvation (Ephesians 1:11-14). God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit make up the trinity – The Godhead (1 John 1:6-10). The Bible does not teach three separate gods. But rather, it teaches One God, Who Is three persons.
Islam – As one writer put it, “Islam is primarily a religion about practices, not beliefs.” This does not mean that to the Muslim belief is irrelevant. As stated above, there are six fundamental beliefs that the Muslim must have. It does mean, though, that the central question is whether or not a person submits to Allah. The Muslim’s confession of belief is only the first step in a life that may eventually be rewarded with heaven. Allah’s mercy gives reason for optimism, but never complete assurance. Heaven and hell are depicted in the Qur’an as places of physical pleasure and torture (however, some Muslim scholars are quick to say these descriptions are symbolic. In the Qur’an 56:1-56, heaven is described as a desert oasis, complete with servants, food, drink, shade trees and beautiful women while the damned (infidels) will be in hell, described as scorching fire, boiling water and black smoke.
The core practices, which are required for any hope of the reward of heaven, are referred to as the Five Pillars of Islam. These five are essential obligations, but are not exhaustive. There are more obligations such as those involving food and modesty. These Five Pillars summarize Muslim worship.
- Confession (shahada) – Shahada is the fundamental confession of Islam: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the apostle of God.” All that is necessary to become a Muslim is to repeat this confession and mean it. It does not guarantee salvation, but it is the first step.
- Prayer (salat) – Each Muslim is to pray the ritual prayers five times a day (sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, one hour after sunset). Prayers may be performed anywhere, but men are encouraged to pray at a mosque (building designated for prayer). These prayers are to be recited in the direction of Mecca.
- Fasting (sawm) – Muslims are required to fast during daylight hours for the entire month of Ramadan. The fast includes abstaining from food, sex, and entertainment. Ramadan was the month in which he began receiving his first revelations.
- Almsgiving (zakat) – Muslims are required to give at least 2.5% of their income each year to the poor.
- Pilgrimage (hajj) – If at all possible, each Muslim is to visit Mecca at least once in his/her lifetime. If they cannot, they are to designate someone to make the pilgrimage on their behalf. A man who has journeyed to Mecca will receive an honorary title, Hajji, and his accomplishment is recognized in different ways, depending on his home culture. There are several other places that are acceptable centers of pilgrimage, but none can rival the sacredness of Mecca.
These five pillars represent the central ethical obligations for Muslims. These, however, are not the only obligations to be met. The Muslim’s entire life is focused on living up to the requirements of righteousness. Other requirements include honesty, respect for property, marital fidelity, modesty in dress.
All of these “righteous requirements” must be fulfilled in order to have a chance at being rewarded with heaven. Again, in the Muslim faith, there is no assurance of salvation. Only the hope that when judgment day comes, the good they have done outweighs the bad.
Christianity – The message of the Gospel, taught in the Bible, is amazingly simple. God’s Word says that because of our sin, we have been alienated from God… dead in our sin (Romans 6 Colossians 1:21-23). There is nothing we can do about it. After all, that which is dead cannot naturally come to life. Again, Romans 4:5 says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Salvation, reconciliation to God is not dependent on us, our works… it is only the work of God. Jesus ministry was about reconciliation (1 Corinthians 5:17). It is Jesus alone who makes us right with God. The Bible says in Romans 10:13 says, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Salvation, according to God’s Word is about trusting in Jesus, who did the necessary work for us to be made right with God the Father. That is the Gospel!
While the Qur’an needs some additional translational clarification with the hadiths, the Bible is self-sufficient. It is complete and stands on Its own. The Bible tells the believer all that needs to be known of God and His finished work of salvation through Jesus.
The god of Islam and the God of the Bible cannot possibly be the same. The god of Islam dictated the Qur’an, while the God of the Bible inspired the Bible… and these two books are certainly not in agreement with one another. Islam claims that its god has no son or partner. Islam completely and vehemently rejects the Trinity. The God of the Bible has a Son, and His name is Jesus. Jesus is God and Jesus alone is the way to the Father… not works. The Holy Spirit, spoken of often in the Bible is God. These three (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are One God… The Only God.
The simplicity and beauty of the Gospel is noticeable when compared to the complexity of the works based salvation of Islam. God, through Jesus, has made relationship with Him and salvation possible for all who trust in Jesus alone. God has done all the work… all that is required of us is faith leading to salvation. In fact, Romans 4:5 states, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” For the Christian, salvation is from God! For the Muslim, salvation is from man.
These are only a few of the beliefs of the Islamic faith. There are more, and even the ones listed here could be drawn out in much more depth. I pray that this will give us a little more understanding of the origin and differences of the Islamic faith from the Christian faith.
Chances are, if it has not happened already, that you may find yourself in a discussion with a Muslim about faith… Islam vs. Christianity. Know that there are four basic points in Muslim apologetics concerning Christianity – 1) God is One (this leaves no room for Jesus as God’s son or the Trinity. 2) Jesus cannot be God (no human can be God). 3) The Bible is full of errors whereas the Qur’an is direct revelation from God. 4) Instead of holding to such absurd beliefs, it makes more sense to accept the simple faith of Islam: submit to the one God and keep his commandments.
So, how should you and I respond to such argumentation (I am not suggesting that arguing is ever the proper way to engage in a Gospel conversation)? First, with much prayer, humility, and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Second, with confidence in the Gospel, not ourselves (2 Timothy 3). And finally, and I cannot stress this point enough!! We must know the fundamentals of our own faith. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared.” Lazy Christianity and effective evangelism rarely complement each other.
The goal, the aim, is not to win an intellectual debate. But, rather, to win another brother or sister over to our Good Father… “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.”