Knowing and Loving Your Muslim Neighbor
Three Reasons for a Christian to Investigate Islam
by Matthew Bennet
I spent seven years of my life living in North Africa and the Middle East. During that time, I had countless conversations with my Muslim friends about the differences between Christianity and Islam. Some of those conversations were productive, others were painful. But especially early on, I often left those interactions with the impression that communication was not truly happening.
The longer that I lived in a Muslim-majority context—and as I began studying the theology of Islam—I began to apprehend some of the reasons for such communication misfires. Though there are many similarities on the surface between the practice and theology of Islam and that of Christianity, there are significant differences under the surface that can undermine mutual understanding.
Following is a brief treatment of three aspects of Islamic theology that are important for a Christian who wants to explain the gospel to their Muslim friends. Without understanding these key differences, communication concerning key concepts about the gospel will likely fail to connect. But first, let us quickly consider the gospel message as the Bible presents it.
The Gospel: 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
The gospel is a ubiquitous word. In contemporary evangelical circles, it has become fashionable to affix the word gospel adjectivally to just about any Christian project. Yet if the gospel is the essence of our message, it is important to clarify what the biblical gospel is before considering where communicating it might become complicated.
While many summaries of the gospel are available, I find it helpful to appeal to Paul’s succinct statement of what the gospel is in his first letter to the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul writes,
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
This short statement of the gospel message provides quick insight into at least three areas where the biblical story departs from the worldview of our Muslim friends. The words and concepts of the Scriptures, sins, and the Christ all appear within Islam, but take on very different meanings than those that arise from the biblical context.
In Accordance with the Scriptures
Among Christians, there is a common misconception regarding the Scriptures of Islam. For many, the fact that Islam has a sacred book is sufficient warrant to view the Qur’an as the Muslim version of the Bible. However, the comparison between the two books should not be made too hastily.
One important distinction to highlight is the fact that Muhammad is not viewed as the author of the Qur’an. He is merely the one who received and communicated the message. According to tradition, the very first verses that Muhammad received contain the instructions to “Recite!” and all that follows is mere recitation of what was revealed.
Furthermore, for Muslims, the Arabic text of the Qur’an is the exact and unchangeable representation of God’s revealed will. This has led some Muslims to suggest that the Qur’an may be more appropriately compared to the incarnation than to the Bible.1 From a Christian perspective, however, there is still a significant difference between the Qur’an as revelation and the Christian concept of revelation.
For Muslims, the Qur’an perfectly reveals God’s will, while God Himself is ultimately transcendent. For Christians, however, the incarnate Son of God reveals the glory of the one and only God Himself.2 Thus when Christians and Muslims speak of Scripture, they use common language to refer to their respective holy books. However, such common language can obscure the fact that the Scripture of Islam reveals merely God’s will while the Scripture of Christianity reveals God Himself.
For Our Sins
Another point of common miscommunication arises in the discussion of sin and sins within Christianity and Islam. In many ways, the ethical standards of both faiths run on parallel tracks. Personal piety, honesty, charity, and modesty are key components of both the Islamic and Christian ethics. Such common ground is often a meeting place for Muslim and Christian dialogue and cooperation.
However, while the two faiths define many similar actions as sinful, the underlying definition of sin and its effects is radically different. For Muslims, sin is the unavoidable human failure to remember and submit to the ways of God. Humans are naturally weak of memory and will, and therefore are in constant need of reminders to follow the straight path that God has revealed for them.
At the same time, because God is ever-transcendent within Islam, sin does not increase the separation between humanity and God. The God of Islam relates to humanity as a master and sovereign. There is no intimate expectation that God will one day dwell in the midst of his people, nor is he known as a Father. For Christians, however, communion with God Himself is the great purpose and goal of creation.3 Sin, then, complicates and breaks the human-divine relationship by introducing guilt, shame, fear, and impurity into humans. In such a condition, humanity is unsuited for—and even endangered by—the presence of a holy and righteous God.
Sins in Islam accumulate against one’s record and no person can bear the penalty of another’s sins.4 However, the scales of one’s record can be rebalanced by right living and good deeds. Furthermore, in the judgement, God ultimately has the final say as to whether or not he will extend mercy, overlook a person’s sins, and admit them into paradise. Yet even in paradise, God’s immediate presence is not expected as he is always wholly other. Therefore, sin need not be removed or eradicated in the same way as it must for Christians because humanity will not approach God’s holiness and righteousness.
In light of the preceding discussion, you may already be seeing why the biblical portrait of Jesus is foreign to Islam. Over the past 1400 years, Muslims and Christians have argued over the details of Jesus’ life and ministry. Of particular concern in such disagreements is the fact that most Muslims contend that Jesus was not crucified nor resurrected.5
While the historical reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is of ultimate significance to the Christian understanding of the gospel, it does not fit within the Qur’an’s worldview. Before the historical question will matter to our Muslim friends, we must be aware that the Qur’an has not prepared them to understand why Jesus’ death and resurrection would matter in the first place.
Why I Wrote 40 Questions about Islam
As I have learned about the differences between an Islamic worldview and a biblical view of the world, I have begun to understand multiple reasons that my initial communication with Muslim friends was often less than satisfying. If God is a transcendent judge and the human problem is forgetfulness, then the solution is not to send a savior, but to send a reminder.
The Jesus character in Islam is a highly revered and important prophet. But within the overarching story that Islam tells, Jesus is just another mouthpiece for the call to Islam. As you can see, these important underlying differences radically redirect the faiths of Islam and Christianity. These different foundations cause the apparently similar ideas of Scripture, sin, and salvation to function differently within Islam than they do in Christianity.
In order to best love our Muslim neighbors and friends, we need to understand them. Sometimes we will find that there are real similarities in the way we view the world. But other times we will find that superficial similarities actually confuse our communication with them. By not studying Islam, we may end up frustrating our Muslim neighbors by assuming that shared vocabulary equates to shared understanding.
In light of this, I am excited to have written a book to help Christians understand, love, and communicate the gospel meaningfully with their Muslim neighbors. It’s entitled 40 Questions about Islam. This series by Kregel Academic is designed to allow readers to have their questions answered in brief chapters. Each answer also includes helpful footnotes that can point interested readers to resources for further study. My prayer is that this book will help to engender love for Muslim neighbors while also equipping Christians to explain the gospel in ways that overcome the natural barriers of communication that exist. After all, the best way to love our neighbor is to be able to clearly invite them to consider the message of the gospel of the God who loves them and has made a way for their salvation.
1 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam (New York: HarperOne, 2004), 23.
2 Consider John 1:1–18; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:1–3.
3 While there are many references to God dwelling or “tabernacling” among his people in Scripture, Revelation 21:1–5 provides a clear vision of God-with-us as the climax of the story.
4 See Qur’an 35:18. The traditional explanation of this verse contends that it denies the concept of substitutionary atonement.
5 See Qur’an 4:155–159.
Matthew Aaron Bennett holds a PhD in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is assistant professor of missions and theology at Cedarville University. He previously lived for seven years in North Africa and the Middle East. He is the author of Narratives in Conflict: Atonement in Hebrews and the Qur’an and 40 Questions about Islam.
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