“This just does not add up!”
The sheikh looked at me with pity, stroked his beard, and gently declared: “But that is the truth!”
“The truth” is what Mustafa and I had been arguing about. The two of us had ended up at the home of the sheikh in order to come to some settlement of our conversation of the previous day. That conversation had arisen over Mustafa’s bold statement that “Of course, Jesus (praise be upon him) was a Muslim.” “Conversation” is probably too polite a word for what I had allowed to deteriorate into a haranguing match.
“Look Mustafa,” I had started, secretly revelling in the intellectual advantage I discerned I had won for myself over my Muslim friend. “I went to Oxford University and studied modern history there. Listen! These are the facts … Jesus was born somewhere around 3 BC. We have the records of Jewish and Roman historians to consult concerning the event. Even if we do not know the precise day or year, we know that Jesus was a real person who lived in the first century AD. He lived for about 33 years and then was executed. Jewish and Roman historians tell us that also. The details of his life we learn from the Gospels composed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Those Gospels link in with many archaeological discoveries made in recent years – lots of the references in the Gospels to times or places can be validated. Jesus of Nazareth was a real person – ”
“I agree,” Mustafa interrupted. “Of course Jesus, son of Mary (praise be upon him) was a real person. Our Qur’ân speaks quite a bit about his remarkable birth and childhood. It also describes what happened when it looked as if he was going to be wrongly executed.”
“Okay,” I came back at him. “So you agree that Jesus lived in the first century AD?” I quickly checked the development of my argument, confident of where I was leading my friend but wondering why Mustafa had conceded this important “fact” so quickly. “Mustafa,” I continued, “Prophet Muhammad was born in AD 570. His revelations began in AD 610. His exodus from Mecca to Medina took place in AD 622.” I looked hard at my sparring partner. “Prophet Muhammad lived over 500 years after Jesus Christ!”
“Yes,” agreed Mustafa, beaming. “The Prophet (praise be upon him) was born in AD 570. The hijra or exodus as you say occurred in AD 622 and we Muslims date our calendar from that momentous even. AD 622 in your calendar became AH 1 in ours.”
“But Mustafa,” I spelled out slowly and with overbearing pride, “if Prophet Muhammad was born in AD 570 and his revelations began in AD 610 – there is no way that Jesus Christ, who lived 500 years before these events, could be a Muslim.”
“Brother Bill,” smiled Mustafa, evidently with a great deal more equanimity than I was feeling by this point, “of course Jesus the Messiah lived 500 years before Prophet Muhammad (praise be upon them), but that doesn’t alter anything in my argument. Jesus Christ was still a Muslim.”
I felt I was banging my head against a brick wall. Could not the man accept the obvious conclusion of a simple argument? Then a brilliant thought came to me. “All right,” I said, “let’s go and ask a sheikh!”
“Fine!” responded Mustafa.
So today we found ourselves at the house of the sheikh of Mustafa’s choice. I rehearsed my argument before him, a little more politely than the day before. The sheikh had smiled, nodded. He agreed with me that Jesus had lived 500 years before Prophet Muhammad –
“There, you see!” I turned to Mustafa, triumphant.
“But Jesus (praise be upon him) was certainly a Muslim,” the sheikh continued, hardly noticing my aside to Mustafa. I was floored. The older, intelligent, well-read gentleman had sided with my Muslim friend against all the wisdom of an Oxford history graduate. I could not help exploding in frustration, “This just does not add up!”
Such is our starting-point in this introductory chapter. Christian and Muslim ways of looking at faith just do not add up. Each religious heritage proceeds from alternative ways of looking at life or history or reality. We may be using the same words or referring to the same people or events, but what we mean by what we say can be strangely different.
A consideration of how each of these two major world faiths came to be “named” illustrates such difference. What do Muslims and Christians mean by the terms “Islam” or “Christianity”? Struggling to reach some kind of understanding of alternative ways of looking at such basic concepts leads us to predict the delicate work of comparison that we shall need to explore in this book.
The Religion before God Is Islam ... (Sura 3:19)
The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
Islam “names” itself in its holy book, the Qur’ân. It gives itself its own identification. In words originating from God, it calls itself “Islam” (Sura 3:19). In so doing, Islam constitutes an exception to the rule, for most religions or religious communities of the world have first been named by human outsiders. “Christians”, for example, were first designated as such by onlookers in Antioch (Acts 11:26). For a while the ascription was resisted by the insiders, who tended to refer to themselves as “followers of the Way” (Acts 24:14). Were they reluctant to accept the name “Christian” because that term implied that the disciples were “Christly”? After all, who would want to pretend that he was so like Jesus that he should share his name? “Hindus” were delineated as such by Muslims after the latter had invaded the Indian subcontinent (around AD 1000) – in fact, at the time, the term served to include those people later differentiated as Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and so on. “Hindu” really designated non-Muslim people in the newly conquered land. Most religions of the world were “named” by Europeans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Buddhism”, “Hinduism”, “Taoism”, “Sikhism”, “Zoroastrianism”, Confucianism” – even “Mohammedanism” – were terms by which people in Europe categorized the religions of others. Insiders belonging to those religious traditions, however, did not necessarily think in those kind of categories. In Chinese, for example, there is no singular term meaning “Confucian” or “Buddhist” or “Taoist”. Even with the term “Christianity”, it was only towards the end of the eighteenth century and well after the end of the Reformation period that the word came almost exclusively to carry the sense of a systematized religion. Prior to that, the terms more commonly used to refer to the commitment of Christians were “Christian faith” or “Christianness” or “Christlikeness”.3 It was during the Enlightenment process especially that the more systematic or propositional idea of “Christianity” as a system of beliefs developed.
Islam, unusually, names itself, but even then the word “Islam” appears only eight times in the whole Qur’ân. What is referenced by the name “Islam” is a “religion”, a din:
This day have I
Perfected your religion [dîn]
For you, completed
My favour upon you,
And have chosen for you
Islam as your religion [dîn]. (Sura 5:4)
Dîn carries several senses. It can refer to personal piety and it can identify a discrete religious system. Often, in the Qur’ân, it includes a sense of evaluation as in yawm al-dîn (Day of Judgement, mentioned every time the Fâtiha or opening sura of the Qur’ân is recited). It also – perhaps most significantly – conveys the sense of “conforming to traditional customs”. Dîn is a holistic kind of concept, carrying within its embrace a sense of far more than just a list of beliefs and duties that make a follower a Muslim. We shall develop our consideration of this holistic idea of religion in a minute when we look at the requirements of submission.
Interestingly, the Western world has only recently learned to refer to the Islamic faith as “Islam”. In the Middle Ages, Europeans used to make reference to the sect or heresy of the Saracens, often pejoratively. Later, Tartars and Turks were included in the reference.4 Thereafter, followers of the Islamic faith came to be known as “Mohammedans” or even as “Islams” – terms one can sadly still hear used today. The religion became known in the West as “Mohammedanism”. Just as Christianity is named after Christ, so, it was assumed, “Mohammedanism” must be the appropriate title for the religion introduced by Muhammad.
When the Qur’ân names its own faith-holding as “Islam”, what does it mean? As we have seen, the word occurs relatively few times. The word predominantly used for “faith” in the Qur’ân is îmân: this word occurs 45 times and its associated term for “man of faith” – mu’min – occurs more than five times as frequently as the word “Muslim”. These “faith” words are descriptive of human action – they refer to people believing, men and women acting out their commitment. In other words, the Qur’ân presents God as being concerned with something people do, with the persons who do it, rather than with an abstract entity. In focus is the requirement for a “believer” to be a person of faith rather than just one who acquiesces to a set of religious propositions.
There has been considerable debate within the Islamic community concerning what the Qur’ân means by terms such as “faith”, “believer”, “unbelief”, “unbeliever” and so on. Different definitions have emerged from within the various Islamic theological “schools”. We need briefly to introduce those schools.
Three major theological schools are to be found within Sunni Islam: those of Ashcari, Maturidi and Hanbal. Of these, the school of Hanbal is the most literalist. The Kharijîs – the extreme purists or “fundamentalists” of the Islamic theological world – have their own school. Two main schools of Muctazilî theology exist – the Basrian and the Baghdadian – and Muctazilî theologians may be either Sunnî or Shîca. Their theological approach is strongly characterized by rationalism. Out of all the theological schools, the Ashcarite – most representative within Sunnî Islam – and the Mutazilite are probably the most significant. The earliest debates, around which different theological schools gradually developed, focused on four main issues: the nature of the divine attributes, and the relationships between predestination and free will, faith and works, and reason and authority. Chawkat Moucarry offers a helpful summary of the various Islamic theological schools in his recent book The Search for Forgiveness.5 When it comes, then, to discovering definitions of “faith”, “believer”, and so on, we need to recognize that different Islamic theological schools offer varying emphases. For Kharijî theologians, for example, “faith” equates simply to obeying God’s commands. For Sunnî Muslims of the Hanbalî school of theology, “faith” includes elements of internal trust, verbal confession and outward fulfilling of the pillars of Islam. For Murji’î theologians (including the Ashcarites), “faith” is primarily expressed in terms of knowing God, by which is meant submitting to him, exalting and worshipping only him. For such Murji’î theologians, good works in themselves are counted as secondary.6 While acknowledging the variety of detailed description of what “faith” might involve, the fundamental point that I wish to make is that, within Islam, having or exercising faith is not primarily seen as intellectual assent to certain propositions. Rather it consists in a willed trust, in a reasoned submission, or in acts of obedience. Such a conception contrasts strongly with a Western view of “faith” as amounting primarily to acquiescence to certain dogmas or definitions.
In the Qur’ân, as we shall explore in detail (in chapter 3), God takes the initiative in “sending down” a revelation. That revelation is sent down for humankind to heed and obey – for humanity to submit to. “Submission” constitutes the essence of what Islam is about. Aslama is the Arabic verb that means “to submit”, “to surrender oneself”. It conveys the sense of accepting the obligation to obey God’s command. Its opposite is kafara, meaning “to reject”. A kâfir is someone who rejects God’s call to submission, who remains indifferent to God or ignorant about him. That is why such a person is considered an infidel or unbeliever – he is saying “No!” to God (see Figure l). He does not trust God, does not hold a right attitude towards his creator.
Kufr refers to that rejection, to “unbelief” in all its manifestations. The Arabic word islâm is a verbal noun, a noun describing something that someone does. It translates into English as “submission”. It carries the sense of positive obedience. A Muslim is someone who wills to submit to God. The Qur’ân can therefore refer to a person’s “islâm”, to a person’s “submission”:
They swear by God that they
Said nothing (evil), but indeed
They uttered blasphemy, they did it after accepting
Islam... (Sura 9:74)
This verse conveniently contains both the word meaning “submit” and the word meaning “reject”. The Arabic says literally that “they refused or rejected (kafarű) after their islâm ...” These people at one point submitted but then their later rejection may be deduced from their blasphemous behaviour. Sura 49:17 refers to “your islâm, your commitment”. The concept of islâm in the Qur’ân is one of personal, active faith expressed in obedience. It does not primarily refer to an institution or religious system as such.
Here we need to mention capital letters! The Arabic language (like Hebrew) has no capital letters. When the Qur’ân talks about Islam, it is actually talking about islâm. Islam in that sense – the sense of islâm – existed long before Prophet Muhammad, and long before the final shape it came to take in the faith-expression that Muhammad oversaw. Such an assertion has big implications for the idea, commonly held, that Muhammad “established” Islam. Did he really? And, if he did, in what sense did he establish this relatively recent religion? We shall explore such questions in chapter 2. For the moment, we need to recognize that, from a Muslim perspective, islâm is far older than what we all refer to as “Islam”. The latter is in effect the institutionalized expression of the former as it came to find fulfilment under Muhammad’s apostleship. Mind you, his institutionalized expression of islâm as “Islam” is announced as the most faithful and mature rendering of the faith. After all, he was the seal of the prophets.
One way of gaining some insight into this way of thinking about faith/religion is via Süleyman Chelebi’s famous song concerning the birth and life of Prophet Muhammad. Chelebi was a contemporary of Chaucer, living at the Ottoman court of Sultan Beyazid. He died in AD 1421 and was buried at Bursa. He composed his Mevlidi Serif or “Birth-song of the Prophet” to refute a teaching that Muhammad was no greater than other prophets. Chelebi maintained that, to the contrary, Muhammad is far superior to other prophets because with Muhammad comes the fullness of all that God ever intended to communicate to humankind. In part of his poem, Chelebi traces how God’s intention for the truest expression of appropriate apostleship passed, like a light, from one prophet to another until it came to its apotheosis in Muhammad:
When man was first by Allah’s pow’r created,
The ornament was he of all things living.
To Adam came all angels in submission,
A gesture oft, at God’s command, repeated.
On his brow first God set the Light of Prophets,
Saying: This Light belongs to my Beloved.
Long years that Light shone there, nor ever wavered,
Until the prophet’s earthly life was ended.
Know that to Eve’s brow next the Light migrated,
Remaining there through many months and seasons.
Then Seth received this sigil of Mustafa,
Which glowed more bright as year to year was added.
Thus Abraham and Ishmael received it –
My time would fail should all the line be counted.
From brow to brow, in linked chain unbroken,
The Light at last attained its goal, Muhammed.
The Mercy of the Worlds appeared, and straightway
To him the Light took wing, its journey ended.7
The song (in Turkish) is full of puns and clever rhymes, and clearly expresses this sense in which – all along – God has revealed via his prophets the response he wants human beings in each age to make towards himself in appropriate islâm. That response comes finally to be fully realized on earth in the life and faith of Prophet Muhammad. The “Light” migrates to Muhammad, the “Mercy of the Worlds”, but it is a light that has been traceable within the whole line of prophets from Adam. True islâm has been required and sometimes offered throughout the various epochs of human history. I have described at the beginning of this chapter my argument with a Muslim cleric over whether Jesus Christ was a Muslim or not. My contention was that Jesus could not have been a Muslim because the “religion” of “Islam” came over 500 years after his birth, death and resurrection. The sheikh’s contention was, of course, that Jesus was muslim because he was a true submitter to God. God accepted his islâm, just as long before he accepted the islâm of Abraham, Moses, David and all the other prophets.
Islam – here is our difficulty in English! – by which I mean islâm, comprises the essence and expression of what religion should be. It is about the active surrender by human beings of their lives and wills to God. It finds complete, full and correcting expression in the religion of Islam. This is the special noun – islâm – that the Qur’ân designates to the calling or worldview of those who are truly muslim. They are people caught up into what God has all along desired and willed. God’s idea of religion is islâm. God is its author and provocateur. He places it on the agendas of peoples in different ages through prophets whom he raises up and uses. He conveys its essence by “sending down” books that communicate what it means, in his eyes, for humankind to be muslim. Islam then (in either sense!), as far as human beings find it impinging upon them, consists in their acknowledging that the divine creator has an original and abiding claim upon his creation. The important question, for any member of the human race, is not so much, “how can God become better known to me?” as “how may the human creation give itself to responding to God’s prior claim upon it?”
God’s idea of religion, according to Islam, is islâm. I accept that such a way of conceptualizing is hard for Western children of the Enlightenment to grasp. As a result of that concentrated and revolutionary period of Western intellectual development, we Enlightenment children inherit a “narrowed” understanding of faith. “Believing” has been swiftly recast to emerge as the embracing of graspable, institutionally defined doctrines or practices. “Faith” has become synonymous with “the faith” as dogmatically or ecclesiastically defended. Westerners, as a consequence, want to delineate people of equivalent though different religious faith as “-ists” (Confucianists, Buddhists, etc.) belonging to “-isms” (Hinduism, Sikhism, etc.). “Religion”, for us, amounts to the institutionalized formulation of discrete beliefs and practices: Christianity, Islam, Taoism and so on. When we speak of “Christianity” we mean the institutionalized religion as expressed in systems of belief and codes of practice. When we think of Islam, the easiest way for us to understand its make-up is by a consideration of “the five pillars” or “the six articles of belief” of that faith. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and those pillars and articles of belief are proposed and defined within the Muslim community itself. They do not in themselves, however, take us very far in comprehending what “Islam” amounts to as a faith.
Actually, the potential sterility of looking at religion in this way is exemplified within our own Christian faith. Too much concentration on signing up to the “oughts” of a system leaves little heart for seeing beyond those norms. Jesus constantly highlighted the poverty of heart and mind that proceeds along such lines. He frequently challenged those contemporaries of his who assumed that because they owned a “kosher” religious allegiance, everything must be all right between them and God. There were, for example, “the Jews” of the gospel era who assumed that they were on the right side of God because Abraham was their father. “Is Abraham really your father?” questioned Jesus (John 8:39). There were the disciples who believed that being on Jesus’ side meant inheriting places of power when his reign kicked in. “Not so,” said Jesus. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord!’...” (Matthew 7:2l).
How can people like Enoch or Abraham or even Isaiah be said to have had a relationship with the Father through Christ? Well only, surely, by thinking about faith or relationship with God in a manner similar to the Islamic conceptualization of islâm and muslim. Such Old Testament characters were people whose hearts were evidently oriented towards God, individuals who knew a vital, saving relationship with ’elôhîm or Yahweh. They certainly did not know, intellectually, about Jesus Christ, yet in a way they did know him, for he is the only way to the Father and the Father they did know. These ancient heroes received hints about Messiahship, about the essential requirement for some kind of dealing with human sin, about God providing a sacrifice even, but the lifeblood of their relationship with God was their pistis, their faith. “Faith” with a small “f”: not “the faith” as in “Judaism” or “Christianity”, but faith in the sense of active belief and ongoing trust in God.
The great Christian theologian Augustine reached an equivalent conclusion, though beginning from a different starting-point. Following Cyprian, he wanted to affirm that “outside the church there is no salvation” – the famous extra ecclesiam, nulla salus sentence! How did the believing saints of Old Testament times fit into that kind of scheme? Augustine was led to pronounce concerning Old Testament people of faith:
For what is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race until ‘Christ came in the flesh.’ From that time, true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian.8
Such people of Old Testament faith constitute the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:l) that surrounds those of us who are living and believing now. The living object of those Old Testament characters’ faith (Jesus Christ) only came later in time, but the intention or the sureness or the ultimate realness of Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection has been guaranteed from eternity. Thus these heroes’ faith may be assumed to be as active or sure as ours (see Figure 2). It is just that within the dimensions of space and time they could not have comprehended the details of how what they grasped by faith was going to be worked through. They certainly, however, read God’s heart correctly.
When Jesus walked this earth, he sought mostly to reclaim and revolutionize the lost children of the house of Israel. The people who had come to rely on the premise that they belonged to the institutional faith – in this case Judaism – needed to recognize that such “belonging by birth” constituted no guarantee of belonging essentially to God. It was an uphill struggle for Jesus to get such a message across: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11)! Jesus was repeatedly and delightedly surprised by people from outside the Jewish religious system whose hearts leapt with faith towards God. Pride of place on his list of “faithful” acquaintances was given to a Roman centurion – a person hated by those of Jesus’ own community who suffered from the swords of such representatives of the dominating imperial power. And there were other non-Jews who figured significantly – Samaritans, Syro-Phoenicians, Greeks and wise men from the east. As John reflects, “to all who needed him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
The Apostle Paul found a way of rewriting Jewish religious history from a “faith” perspective. What mattered was not, he claimed, whether you were a Jew by birth or by physical circumcision. What mattered was whether you were a Jew by faith, by circumcision of the heart. For Abraham was counted righteous by faith before he was ever circumcised. The latter was a sign in the flesh of the former transaction of the heart. All those, then, who experience Abraham’s kind of faith are true offspring of Abraham whether or not they are circumcised in the flesh.
In other words – to have a relationship with God by faith is an experience on offer by God to his human creation from the day he breathed life into the first being made in his own image and likeness. Is Abraham a believer? Well, yes, in that he experienced saving faith in God. Is Abraham a Christian? Well, no, not in the sense of signing up to an institutionalized religion that makes the earthly history of Jesus of Nazareth its pivotal story. But, yes, in the sense that it is only through being “in Christ” that anyone can come to a vital relationship with God.
Such a kind of thinking about “faith” as opposed to Christianity” is somewhat parallel to the distinction I am making between “Islam” and “islâm”. If we can grasp this significant point, we will be greatly helped in our journey of discovery concerning the relationship between Islam and Christianity. For one thing, it takes us away from the normal Western presupposition that Muhammad was the “founder” of Islam. According to this “standard” view, what Muhammad founded is quickly identified as a post-Christian religion, for it emerges, historically, after Christ. Islam is thereby open to the charge of being deliberately anti-Christian due to the Qur’ân’s alleged critique and rejection of several key doctrines of Christian belief – such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the crucifixion, and humankind’s need for redemption. Polemical exchanges almost inevitably follow such a view of the development of the religion of Islam. Christians find in the Islamic faith a step backwards from a revelation of the grace of God to a religion of law and prophecy. Why should they entertain positive views about a faith that deliberately caricatures the precious core beliefs of Christianity? Muslims, meanwhile, find in the Qur’ân definitive, alternative accounts of the central tenets of the Christian faith. So why listen to Christian apologetics concerning that faith? The Islamic doctrine of tahrîf (scriptural alteration or corruption) allows the Muslim to judge where the former religionists have departed from what was originally given (to Moses or Jesus) as scripture. So why persist in reading a copy of the corrupted text today? The Christians have lost what was originally theirs, but Muslims have it, corrected and completed, in the Qur’ân. The result is impasse, non-understanding.
What if, as will be suggested in this book, that standard or normal Western understanding of Islam has no basis in the Qur’ân or in Muhammad’s self-awareness? What if the Qur’ân and Muhammad’s concern was more with islâm than Islam? In grasping that, we might well find ourselves better able to study Islam in dispassionate mode. Perhaps also, the polemical route, the defensive route, the argumentative route between the two faiths might more successfully be avoided. If that could be achieved, it might prove possible for Muslims and Christians to begin to listen to where each other say they are coming from.
My hope in this book is that our taking hold of such a shift in perspective will help us immensely in our journey of discovery concerning Islam and Christianity. In a negative sense, it may lead us away from simply trying to compare and contrast certain doctrines or formulations of the two formal faiths. Those formulations or doctrines are important, of course, but they may not be the most productive route for comparing the two faiths for they necessarily support different purposes or goals or understandings of what religion is about. In a positive sense, it hopefully helps us look beyond the systematizing processes of institutionalized religion to search for the intentions of faith. In what kind of ways is connection to be expected between God and humankind? What are people of faith – Muslim or Christian – buying into? Furthermore, a shift in perspective may also help us allow that each faith needs to be its own interpreter. Understanding must be pursued within each faith’s own constructs. In that sense, comparisons or contrasts are almost incidental or accidental, by-products of humble listening. The most helpful insights often emerge when people of different faiths become attuned to each other’s wavelengths of thought and manage to feel their way into the other’s heart.
In the immediately following chapters, we shall investigate in some depth the three fundamental matters of prophethood, scripture and doctrine of God. I have entitled this section of the book “Comparable Cousins?” The question mark applies as much to those of us who think that there is considerable comparison between Islam and Christianity on these basic subjects as to those of us who think the opposite.
We begin where Islam – at an earthly level – begins, with the life and ministry of the man Muhammad. What was his experience of speaking for God? We note the cost to him of proclaiming a counter-cultural message and observe how the difficulties undergone in Mecca were followed by a liberation of message and method in Medina. We examine Muhammad’s own assessment of what “inspiration” involved. How does a human being grasp God’s word? Comparisons are made with the equivalent processes in the experience of some of the Old Testament prophets. What constitutes being a “successful” prophet or spokesperson for God? When a prophet’s words are heeded – in the Sinai desert or Medinan metropolis – how does living by God’s law get worked through? We also broach the difficult issue of evaluating Muhammad: can Christians consider him truly a prophet?
Scripture is dangerous stuff. Assessments of the Qur’ân by Christians stretch far across a continuum, with people at one extreme viewing it as from the devil and with folk at the other extreme accepting it as validly God’s word. The Qur’ân is not easy to read, so some details are given concerning its make-up and historical formation. The compilation of the Qur’ân is described as Muslims record it. Our main focus, however, is not on the earthly bringing together of text but on what it means, in Islam, for scripture to be given by God. What are the implications – for God and man’s relating – of “recitation”, for example? Our study leads us to ask whether it is appropriate to simply compare Qur’ân and Bible as “scripture”. Perhaps the two texts constitute non-comparable phenomena. Might it prove more appropriate to compare Qur’ân as “Word of God” in Islam with Jesus Christ as “Word of God” in Christianity? We consider some of the difficult questions arising from the Islamic concept of revelation, and investigate the claims of some Christians that elements of the qur’ânic text can be traced to Jewish and Christian apocryphal materials. There arise questions for both Muslims and Christians concerning the kind of certainty that might be derived from scripted texts and the claim of such texts to constitute revelation from God.
Any kind of engagement by Christians in the study or lived practice of another world faith leads to questions – uncomfortable or difficult questions – about God. That is especially true of related, monotheistic faiths. We face up to some of those questions in a chapter focused upon “God”. The underlying issue is the identity of the God of the Qur’ân; is that God the same as the God of the Bible? We investigate the origins of the word Allâh, and consider some of the associations of that word – and the concept of God that it connotes – with similar words in other Middle Eastern languages. Theological enquiry constitutes the major means for drawing some conclusions concerning who God is conceived to be in both Islam and Christianity. We conclude this chapter with an exposé of missiological intent. Some Christians are philosophically inclined towards a pluralist conception of religious phenomena, so for them the matter of the identity of Christian and Muslim “God” is simple: he is the same God. Other Christians are just as assuredly exclusivist in their view of religious truth, and for them also the issue of identity is uncomplicated: the God of Islam is different from the God of Christianity. In between such definite perceptions lies a variety of inclusivist perspectives where Christians want to say that the issue of identity is complex and messy with as many questions being asked of themselves and the Bible as of Muslims and the Qur’ân.
The next section of this book – “Uncomfortable Cousins?” – deals with some subjects that offer insight into how both Islam and Christianity developed. Interesting comparisons arise out of such a study. Christianity grew out of a Jewish background, wrestling increasingly with what it might mean to be a truly inclusive faith – inclusive, for example, of non-Jews, women and slaves. How was the Christian faith to be made directly accessible to the Greek mind? As Gentiles became followers of Jesus, what sense of continuity with their previous worldview was to be allowed? Where was that worldview to be challenged? The definition of what is meant by “Trinity” illustrates this continuity/discontinuity issue; Christian Greek and Roman minds communicated and miscommunicated with one another over the “Trinity” in the period prior to Islam’s appearance. For Prophet Muhammad also, in the inception of his message, what sense of continuity was to be allowed to Arabs of the seventh century as they became Muslims? At what point did the religio-cultural revolution that he was promoting impinge on the norms, customs and mores of his contemporaries? Questions about continuity and discontinuity remain at the forefront of current missiological methodology. In the sharing of the gospel with Muslims, how much of Muslims’ own religious and cultural inheritance is validly to be retained as they find faith in Jesus Christ? What is to be challenged and discarded? And who decides?
Such questions lead to our next consideration, that of the complex relationship between truth and power. This chapter takes up the issue of “success” in religion and asks what constitutes real success. Is truth its own vindicator or does it need to be enforced in some way? The Old Testament provides a strong example of intended theocracy, mediated through the prophet Moses. That theocracy functioned with some pretty strong sanctions! Jesus found himself challenging two huge power machines and their monopoly on “truth” in his day – the Jewish leadership and the Roman occupying force. The history of the growth of Christianity changed dramatically when Emperor Constantine made that “outsider” faith the official religion of the world he ruled. Theological questions about the nature of Christ now came to be debated in front of the emperor or his representative. In consequence, solutions to controversies often spoke as much about power politics as about conviction of spirit. Such processes, incidentally, muddied the theological water for when Muhammad came to reflect on the Christians’ description of the person of Jesus Christ. For Muhammad, also, the shift from Mecca to Medina marked a difference in style and leadership – a difference often noted by Muslim and Christian commentators. As preacher turned into statesman, Islam took on a radically different feel.
The third chapter in this section investigates the twin concepts of the sacred and the secular. A debate has continued within both Islam and Christianity about how integrated or separate these facets of human living are or should be. They especially provoke difficult questions in contemporary societies where people of different faiths and worldviews live in such proximity to one another. The chapters in this section deal with delicate but powerful issues and provide many comparisons between the two religions. They show that no faith expression on earth is really free from controversy or complex human relating. The processes of defining orthodoxy (proper belief) or orthopraxy (proper practice) can sometimes be sadly ungodly or inhumane!
The history of relationships between Christians and Muslims – “Competing Cousins?” – does not really help to provoke a dispassionate, humble listening to one another. From the rapid early expansion of Islam and the infamous Crusades of the medieval world to the perceived equivalents today, Muslim-Christian clashes prejudice the possibility of seeing things from the other community’s perspective.
At the same time, both Christianity and Islam are avowedly missionary faiths. There is a world to be won for God and members of each faith community sense a calling to win that world. Highly motivated, articulate representatives of both religions live in each other’s domain, and beyond, calling all who will to believe. How can two missionary faiths “live and let live” with integrity in today’s interconnected world?
“All who will” focuses us on the “fodder” for faith – humankind. Human beings are the focus of mission or dacwa (inviting to faith). So who or what is “man” and how is he being invited to fullness? We interrogate in this section of the book some of the Islamic and Christian concepts of humanity, perhaps discovering ourselves to be “Cousins in Hope?” At surface level, it would appear that different concepts of what humankind is lead to alternative approaches to the question of how human beings might connect or reconnect with God. Under the surface, however, we might be perceived to hold more in common than meets the superficial eye.
We look finally at the person of Christ, critical in whom he is to Christians, and critical in whom he is not to Muslims. Are there ways of communicating across the different perceptions and in the face of the reasons for them? Can we Christians restate the meaning of Christ in ways more attuned to the Muslims’ mind-set? How does the Jesus who knows that he has ‘other sheep, not of this fold” expect those others to be gathered in? Or are the categories of conceiving religious thoughts in members of each faith community too far apart to make any true communication possible or meaningful?
Such is the task of exploration before us. It is a task asking as much of us as of any Muslim believer. Can we really begin to see how radically different a conception is Islam from Christianity? Can we comprehend how it makes sense in itself? Can we then perceive how many of the elements of its make-up and history have parallels in our own faith? Does such understanding help us restate our faith in ways that might be heard by Muslims? These are the questions by which the following chapters should appropriately be judged.
3. See Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s fascinating theory on the “reification” of religion in The Meaning and End of Religion, SPCK: London (1978), pp. 51–79. Smith makes the further point that Prophet Muhammad’s message to his people – the Arabs – was offered, not as a reformation of their own religious tradition, but of the tradition of outsiders – Christians and Jews: “… the Islamic is the only religious movement in the world that was launched by a reformer and accepted by a people standing outside the tradition (in this case the two traditions) being reformed.” In ibid., p. 108. smith’s words do beg the question of whether Prophet Muhammad should be seen as a “reformer” of Jewish and Christian traditions, a matter we shall consider in this book.
4. Hugh Latimer (AD 1485–1555) uses the term “Turks” to refer to those “evil-disposed affections and sensualities in us [which] are always contrary to the rule of our salvation”. In “Sermon 1 on the Card”, The Works of Hugh Latimer, ed. G.E. Corrie, Parker Society: Cambridge (1844), p. 12 as quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson & Rowan Williams (comps.), Oxford University Press: Oxford (2001), p. 13. Anglicans may recall the third collect for Good Friday in The Book of Common Prayer, part of which reads: “… Have mercy on all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word …”. Church Book Room Press: Cambridge (n.d.), p. 121.
5. Chawkat Moucarry, The Search for Forgiveness: Pardon and Punishment in Islam and Christianity, Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester (2004), pp. 17–19. I am grateful to Chawkat for pointing out to me the inadequacy of my original manuscript in not explicitly acknowledging the diversity of various Islamic theological schools.
6. See Moucarry’s summary in op. cit. (2004), pp. 96–101.
7. Süleyman Chelebi, The Mevlidi Sherif, trans f. Lyman MacCallum, John Murray: London (1943), pp. 19–20.
8. Saint Augustine: The Retractations, book 1, chap. 13, part 3 (trans. Mary Inez Bogan) in Roy J. Deferrari (ed.), the Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, Catholic University of American Press: Washington DC (1968), vol. 60, p. 52.