Common ground and Crucial difference - Christian and Islamic Faith
Among other developing series on this blog is this new one focussing on the 'common ground' and 'crucial differences' between Christian faith as centred on Jesus and other religious faiths.
So let's kick off with Islam. I count many Muslims as great friend's, observant and genuine (you are possibly reading this). In many ways we have a great deal in common and I find joy in our discussions and agreement in many areas especially in comparison to other world-views. Yet, we also hold distinctively different convictions, so let's explore both, our common ground and the crucial differences.
Some crucial qualification's, this is a single post not an encyclopedia or detailed treatise on every area covered. Feel free to ask questions and I will try and answer them or refer to other sources (I, unlike God am finite in every way :) )For my Muslim readers, I do not use acronyms or phrases of respect such as PBUH (peace be upon him) for the Prophets and do not refer to Muhammad as a Prophet as I do not embrace that designation. This is not as an act of disrespect merely an affirmation of my own position. Also, I am a follower of Jesus and my primary audience is Christian. As such, language is directed in that regard, there is a sense with which you are leaning into a conversation for Christian's talking about you ;) Enjoy (or not)
A little history of Islam
Firstly, a little historical background. Islam, as a specific religious confession is based primarily upon the teaching drawn from the Quran and the Sunnah (orally transmitted teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad contained within the Hadith). Muhammad was part of the Quraysh tribe, born about 570AD.
The Arabian Peninsula at that time was a distinct mix of Arabs of different tribes with Pagan, Jewish and Christian (of largely unorthodox) communities. Though the present wider Islamic community (ummah) is diverse ethnically, these roots play a significant part in the Islamic understanding of God. Islamic expression and world-view is strongly centred on Arabic and by virtue of such, Arabic culture.
A framework for discussion
The Sahih al-bukhari and Shahih Muslim Hadith qoutes Muhammad saying "Faith is to affirm your faith in Allah, His angels, His Books, His Messengers and the Last Day, and to believe in the Divine Destiny whether it be good or bad.”
Contained in this statement are the six core articles of faith generally agreed upon by Islam.
For the sake of this discussion I will use these as the framework.
Common Ground and Crucial Differences
Faith in God (Allah)
When this statement is used in Islam, it is often centred on the idea of tawhid (or absolute unity of God). “No one shares His divinity, nor His attributes. (Abu-Harb, I.A 1996:45.)
Christian's affirm the oneness of God yet differ crucially on the make up of God.
To both the Christian and Muslim, God is one yet the Christian understands God in a similar way to which a Christian understands anyone. Every human is Spirit, Soul and Body. I can confidently say my Spirit is Josh, My Soul (Emotions, Mind, Will) is Josh and my body is Josh yet my Spirit is not my Soul or my body. They are so tightly interrelated that it is difficult to find where one starts and the other ends. That illustration is somewhat limited but hopefully you get the idea. God is not human but we as humans are made out of who he is and reflect in some limited regard who God is.
Christian's affirm the triune nature of God. God has revealed clearly in the Holy Books that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. There are not three gods but one God. Christians would also normally point out that the Quran seems to contain misguided ideas about the Trinity including the idea that Mary is part of the Trinity (Sura 5:116, 4:171).
I will post a link soon to the Biblical foundations for the belief in God as a triune being.
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The answer is yes and no, sort of. A great help I am sure :)
Imagine I ask you whether you know 'John', you exclaim with excitement 'yes of course', such a great guy'. I seem to know John and so do you but as we discuss John we soon realise there are differences in our descriptions. You say that he has never visited our home town, that he is blonde and tall but I am sure that he has been here, is actually brown haired and short. We either don't know the same John or there are some differences that can be reconciled. It is possible that John got his haired dyed, that his height is subjectively measured by our own heights and he has visited our home town but you simply did not know.
I believe that Muslims genuinely direct their prayers and devotion towards the one true God but that the Islamic understanding of God is misguided in a number of areas. God is one but in actual fact, the scriptures are clear that God became flesh in the person of Jesus and revealed himself to us. (John 1:1,14). If God is infinite, then unless he reveals himself specifically and understandably to us we cannot really understand him. As a Christian I believe that is exactly what God has done in the person of Jesus (John 14:7 - 9)Muslims believe they are putting their faith in God as the same creator and Lord who Christians and Jews have previously placed their faith in. Such faith is genuine however, how you understand who God is in character, being and activity soon plays into ideas of salvation and worship. This is particularly the case when we get to ideas of forgiveness and the character of God.
The Christian understanding of God is primarily centred on his fatherhood, relationally loving and thus believers are 'Children of God', the Islamic understanding of God is primarily centred on his law giving position and thus Muslims are 'submitters'. As a Christian, there does seem to be some irreconcilable differences between the Islamic understanding of the character of God and our own.
Both Christians and Muslims affirm the existence of angels, ministering spirits created and sent by God, they convey and communicate the majesty and will of God.
In Islam angels have no free-will and never had such. In Christianity, however, angel's have at one point used their own choice to follow God or follow Satan and in doing so opposed God. Those angels that followed Satan are commonly referred to as demons. That choice was a binding and absolute commitment.
Evil spirits exist in both Islam and Christianity but differ on what they are. Christians affirm these evil spirits as fallen angels. Islam, however, believes in the existence of 'Jinn', spirits that have lower rank then angels and possess a form of free will. Evil Jinn are the equivalent of demons. Christians do not affirm the belief in 'Jinn' and would normally make the argument that the idea of Jinn actually comes from Pre-Islamic Pagan animistic Arab world-view where different spirits were to be appeased. Satan himself is often understood not to have been an angel but Jinn (though there are verses in the Quran that seem to imply he was an angel).
The Holy Books
Christians and Muslims affirm the belief in the Holy Books as revealed by God through his servants. The Torah (Taurat) Psalms (or Zabur) and Injill (Gospel).
Muslims additionally believe in the Quran as the final revelation of God and additionally attach the Hadith (sayings, activities and practices of Muhammad) as having significant and functionally equal authority to the Quran and other Holy Books. The Quran is usually understood to be somewhat unlike the others books in supposedly being delivered piece by piece in revelations as an eternal book from heaven. The Holy Books as understood by Christians are written under inspiration rather than dictation and as such have distinct contextual and linguistic particularities. The Bible is a library of books, not a singular book.
Many contemporary Muslims argue that the Quran was given to correct corruptions in these previous books and often also assert that the Injill was some other lost writing of Jesus or that the present New Testament (Injill) has been corrupted.
Historically, this idea is a problem as no Muslim scholars made such claims of corruption until 1064 when Ibn-Khazem first claimed the Bible had been corrupted. In actual fact early Islamic teachers clearly supported the accuracy of the Biblical texts including Ali al-Tabari (died 855) Amr al-Ghakhiz (869) and Bukhari (810-870).
The problem for the Muslim is that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures were affirmed as revealed by God in the Quran (Sura 2:113, 3:79, 7:156-157, 53:36, 5:50, 32:23) and were the scriptures of the Jews and Christians during the time of Muhammad. The scriptures of the time of Muhammad are the same as those used by Christians and Jews today.
Christians do not affirm the inspiration of the Quran or Hadith and would commonly point to contradictions between them and the previous Holy Books as evidence of such. Central to the rejection of the Quran by Christians is the reality that the Bible was completed 500 years before the Quran and gives clear teaching about events such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus which the Quran seems to deny. The Quran lacks credibility as a document from an historical stand point. No writing written over 500 years after an event, in a different location, culture and language would be given any credibility over the close and eye witness claims of people present.
Such is not to say that Christians may not respect much of the content of the Quran as well intended but final authority is placed in the New and Old Testament texts.
Muslims and Christians both made claim to belief in the prophets of Christian and Jewish scripture starting with Adam, and including Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus, however, Muslims believe Muhammad to be the last prophet, bringing a reconfirmation of the eternal message. In addition Muslims believe in one hundred and twenty four thousand messengers. Christians and Jews often believe in other prophetic and teaching authorities but do not hold their teaching or authority in the same regard as those recorded in the Bible.
Christians, Jews and Muslims can broadly stand together in their affirmation of the Prophets. Two issues quickly arise. Clear difference is found in what God's message for humanity is and secondly the Islamic affirmation of Muhammad as the final prophet. Christians reject Muhammad as the final prophet due to teaching not consistent with either Christian faith or Jewish faith.
The Last Day
Christians and Muslims both affirm the final judgement where God will judge all people. The question remains, what is that judgement based upon?
For Muslims, the final judgement is based primarily upon the deeds of a person (Sura 5:9; 42:26; 8:29) starting with the observation of prayers. It is possible within the framework of Islam that a Muslim (and possibly all people, Muslim or not) whose deeds are not sufficient may spend time in Hell to pay for their sin (Sura 19:70 – 72).
The Christian understanding of the final judgement has similarities but is also distinctively different. Salvation is based upon faith (trust) in what Jesus has done in dying for our sins and defeating death by rising again thus the final judgement regarding salvation (Eph 2:8 – 9, 1 Tim 2:5) is not based upon our own works but rather faith in Jesus' work. No amount of perceived righteous works can merit salvation (Isaiah 64:6) as all works are made in comparison to the absolute perfection of God.
I will address the understanding of forgiveness as the final section in this post.
In Islam, Allah operates with absolute control. Whilst there is some variance in Islamic Philosophy, Islam generally believes in what is called “lal-Qadar”, which is absolute fate and predestination of everything. Such a belief is reflected in the day to day expression “Inshallah” or “God willing”. Even evil itself is determined and actioned by God.Such a position has similarities to extreme forms of Calvinism within Christian Theological circles, however, the vast majority of Christian teachers throughout history have always affirmed the free-will of people to choose (usually under the influence/drawing of the Holy Spirit).
Affirmation of the sovereignty of God in Christian faith is not as much about direct control as it is about being in charge. God as sovereign will judge people upon whether they have chosen to put faith in Jesus.
Salvation, forgiveness and the Sacrifice
For Christians, sacrifice, forgiveness and salvation are closely related. Sacrifice as noted throughout the Bible from Cain and Abel, through to Abraham, Israel and ultimately Jesus as the ultimate 'Lamb of God' (John 1:29) is the pivotal point of all belief.
Curiously, the sacrifice, particularly of the Ram by Abraham is celebrated by Muslims in Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) yet the necessity of sacrifice as the means to approach a Holy righteous God is not generally embraced. Under the Law of Moses, the sinner would lay their hand upon the sacrifice as it was killed (Lev 1:4, 3:2), symbolising the responsibility of the innocent death was actually the sinners. The lamb died in place of the sinner, the Jewish people would repetitively come to the Tabernacle or Temple to make such sacrifices. However, Jesus came as the lamb of God (John 1:29), perfect, holy and eternal. One sacrifice for all, for all time (1 Peter 2:24, Heb 10:14).
No amount of prayer or works is sufficient for salvation when relating to an infinite perfect God. In Islam, one's deeds are weighed and if one lacks enough good deeds then they are assigned to hell (irrelevant of confession). In Christian faith, Jesus' work is enough. Good works are an inevitable reflection of a changed heart and expected but we are saved by
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – 9 not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8 - 9)
My prayer for my Christian friends is that they would see the common ground and build relationships of respect and honour yet also stand upon the crucial differences particularly in regard to Jesus and his death and resurrection as the substitute for us.
My prayer for my Muslim friends is that you would continue to pursue God and in doing so come to the understanding that without placing your faith in Jesus' death and resurrection no amount of prayer or good deeds can help you measure up against the infinite Holy God.