Christianity Today, Week of March 27
Christians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors and their
By Wendy Murray Zoba |
God-fearing Muslims from every corner of the earth are moving into American
neighborhoods. Are we ready to welcome them and tell them the truth about
Jesus? This week at ChristianityToday.com, we take a look at the basics of
Islam and how Muslims view Christianity, helpful models for relating to Muslims,
and how to engage our Muslim neighbors boldly and lovingly.
Despite Islam's diversity throughout its history, the role of the Prophet
Muhammad and the place of the Qur'an have remained unchallenged.
The role of Muhammad. For Muslims, Muhammad is the last and greatest of
the Prophets, surpassing Jesus. He was born in A.D. 570 in Mecca (in what
is today Saudi Arabia). Mecca's heart of worship at the time was the local
Ka'bah (shrine), or the Black Stone, and its numerous idols. According to
Islamic tradition, Abraham's firstborn son Ishmael and Ishmael's mother Hagar,
after being banished by Sarah, ended up in the desert surrounding Mecca,
where they were miraculously rescued. Abraham—or Ibrahim, as he is known
in Arabic—visited them there and he and Ishmael built the Ka'bah. Muslims
believe they are the true heirs, through Ishmael, to the promise God made
to Abraham. Jesus and Mary were among the many images—in addition to the
goddesses of fertility and power—worshiped at the Ka'bah during Muhammad's
Muhammad learned about "the People of the Book"—Jews and Christians—in his
youth. He felt troubled that his own people, the Arabs, did not have a book
of their own. As he reflected despondently on this one day in a cave on Mount
Hira (in A.D. 609 or 610), Muhammad said, the angel Gabriel appeared to him:
"Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created Man of a blood-clot. Recite:
And thy Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught Man that
he knew not" (Surah 96:1-4). The injunction to "recite" meant "make vocal
what is already written," says Islamicist Kenneth Cragg, which means it was
the "sending down" of a preexistent book. (Qur'an is Arabic for "recitation.")
At first Muhammad feared he had been overtaken by a jinn, a troubling spirit.
But Muhammad's wife Khadijah encouraged him that his visions were indeed
from God and that he had been chosen as his special messenger. Muhammad's
fear gave way to acquiescence and the visions recurred with greater frequency.
His recitations denounced idol worship and proclaimed the total sovereignty
of the One True God. Because the People of the Book also claimed allegiance
to this God, his early recitations about Christianity and Judaism in the
Qur'an were irenic: "O believers, be you God's helpers, as Jesus, Mary's
son, said to the Apostles. 'Who will be my helpers unto God?' The Apostles
said, 'We will be helpers of God' " (Surah 61:14).
His small circle of followers, composed mostly of family members and domestic
help, became increasingly assertive in their belief that Muhammad was a prophet,
and this aroused the consternation of the people of Mecca, many of whom felt
their vested interests in idol worship and commerce were threatened.
The deaths of his beloved wife Khadijah (15 years his senior) and his uncle
Abu Talib (who also served as a protector) in 619 precipitated a crisis for
Muhammad. He and his followers could stay in Mecca in perpetual jeopardy
as a despised minority, or he could move to a new location where the fledgling
faith could gain a foothold and grow. Some of his disciples had succeeded
in their missionary undertakings to the north, in a place called Yathrib,
later called Medina. So in 622, Muhammad migrated to that city to form a
new base of activity. The famous hijrah (emigration) occurred in September
of that year and became the historical fulcrum of Islam.
Several things happened with this move that solidified and redefined Islam.
First, despite the previous missionary successes in Medina, Muhammad's new
religion hardly received unanimous affirmation upon his arrival. Some resisted
his presumption and others eschewed the notion of converting. Second, Muhammad
had anticipated a warm reception from the People of the Book—primarily the
Jews—in Medina, since they too were "Scripture people." Instead they treated
him with "amused disdain," says Cragg, and rejected his claims as "pretentious."
These difficulties triggered a shift in Muhammad's message. The portions
of the Qur'an "sent down" during this period took on a more aggressive political
and legal tone, in contrast to its previous poetic and mystical reflections.
During the Medinan years (622-630) Muhammad consolidated Islam into a functioning,
overarching political and religious community—the umma—and built a mosque.
He also fashioned his revelations into principles, and administered the social,
political, economic, and religious affairs of the Medinans. Recitations regarding
the People of the Book (both Jews and Christians) became more belligerent:
"God fight them, what liars they are" (Surah 9:30); and "O believers, take
not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Whoso
of you makes them his friends is one of them. God guides not the people of
the evildoers" (Surah 5:56).
At the same time, hostilities with the Meccans continued as Muhammad raided
their caravans traveling north. The Battle of Badr (624) proved decisive
for establishing Islam as an aggressive force. "[T]he sword was unleashed
and the scabbard cast away. The jihad, or appeal to battle, had been irrevocably
invoked," Cragg says. (Jihad also has a spiritual sense in Islam: the struggle
of the self against veering from the truth.)
A contentious debate continues today in Muslim circles about whether this
aggression should be considered "defensive," since the future of Islam was
at stake. The Qur'an maintains that war is an evil, but the extinction of
Islam is a greater evil (Surah 2:217). But for all intents and purposes,
the victory at Badr marked a critical stage in the evolution of Islam from
a defensive to an offensive position.
By 630 Muhammad returned to Mecca in victory. He claimed the city for Islam
and destroyed the idols being worshiped at the Ka'bah. This action introduced
the notion of "manifest success"—geographical dominance—as a validating sign
Muhammad "combined the good and the bad qualities of an Oriental chief,"
notes Christian historian Philip Schaff. He despised ostentation and lived
in small mud-brick cottages with his many wives. He mended his own clothes,
cobbled his shoes, milked goats, and was accessible, gracious, and hospitable
to visitors. Muhammad died in 632, two years after the conquest of Mecca.
The recitations were complete—the canon, so to speak, was closed.
The Qur'an. The Qur'an to the Muslim is not what the Bible is to the Christian.
Rather, the Qur'an is to the Muslim what Jesus is to the Christian. Jesus
is the Word made flesh and the Qur'an, for the Muslim, is the Word made text.
The Book preexisted in heaven before Muhammad received the command to recite
and he simply brought into physical being what already existed in completeness.
To borrow Christian vocabulary, one might say he incarnated the Book. Muhammad
was illiterate, according to Islamic tradition, ensuring the purity of the
revelation (though some, including Cragg, dispute that view).
When the recitations ended with Muhammad's death in 632, points in the Qur'an
required further clarification for long-term communal guidance. This clarification
gave rise to Tradition (hadith sharif): the collected sayings, thoughts,
and deeds of Muhammad. Muslims looked to how Muhammad lived for guidance
in practical living. For example, Al-Ghazali—an eleventh-century Muslim legal
scholar and equivalent of Thomas Aquinas—wrote:
Know that the key of happiness is…imitating God's Apostle in all his goings
out and comings in, in his movements and times of quiescence, even in the
manner of his eating, his deportment, his sleep and his speech…. So you must
sit while putting on trousers and stand while putting on a turban: You must
begin with the right foot when putting on your sandals, and eat with your
right hand: When cutting your nails you must begin with the forefinger of
the right hand and finish with the thumb: in the foot you must begin with
the little toe of the right foot and finish with the little toe of the left.
"God does not speak in a vacuum," says Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, a Muslim and professor
of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Temple University. "God speaks
to people in their own situation. So there is a human dimension of the Qur'an."
Even so, Muslims do not regard the Qur'an as a historical document to be
reinterpreted in new contexts and eras. "It's a miracle of speech," Ayoub
says. "But we cannot apply the principles of biblical criticism to the Qur'an.
There is no evolution of the text."
CONSEQUENCES OF THEIR FAITH
This notion of an immutable text has been put to the test as Islam has moved
West. An example of how the Qur'an has collided with Western sensibilities
is in its statements about women.
In Muhammad's time, women's roles were notably inferior to men's. One of
the most difficult verses reads: "Righteous women are therefore obedient,
guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious
admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them" (Surah 4:34). In matters
of inheritance, women are to receive half of what men receive (Surah 4:11).
Men are the "managers" of women (Surah 4:35) and can "come unto [their] tillage
as they wish" (sexually) (Surah 2:223); can divorce their wives by stating
"I divorce you" three times (2:229-230); and may take more than one wife
"What is happening now is that a lot of Islamic scholars are trying to extricate
Islam from that culture," says Jane Smith, professor of Islamic studies at
Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and author of Islam in America. "Many are
increasingly saying we must look to the particular time and to the particular
Many feminist scholars look to Muhammad's example—he affirmed and empowered
women—as a means of interpreting these troubling passages. From this vantage,
many see these verses as strangely empowering for women. Inheritance, these
scholars argue, is not earned and so is not a right. Given that men are responsible
for the well-being of the families and women are not, that they receive anything
at all is a reflection of their esteemed status. The division of roles, wherein
men "manage" the affairs of women, is actually liberating. One noted feminist
scholar, a western convert to Islam, says that this arrangement "accords
with the God-given natures of men and women."
The surahs (chapters) regarding polygamy and divorce are trickier, but also
not without merit, some would argue. Many contemporary Muslim scholars say
polygamy ensures that men will not take on mistresses and bear illegitimate
children, and grants these other women legal protection. A woman without
a husband in a Muslim community is in an insecure position, and since there
are usually more women than men, polygamy ensures companionship to them all.
"To share a husband is better than having none," Napoleon John writes in
Partners or Prisoners, citing Hammudah Abdalati, author of Islam in Focus.
"If [the husband] is bound to be monogamous, this may lead to hypocrisy,
adultery, illegitimacy, abortion, and many other troubles."
The triple pronouncement of divorce offers the needed restraints to prevent
a proclamation in a heated moment. The same principle applies to the stages
of discipline before a beating. A verbal reprimand must precede a wife's
being banished from her husband's bed, which must precede being beaten. In
other words, beating is a last resort. Both Jane Smith and The New York Times
Book Review (in reviewing Smith's Islam in America) are surprisingly uncritical
of such interpretations, given the outrage the Southern Baptists' "submission
statement" elicited. "[N]o reputable Muslim interpreters would suggest it
should involve anything more than the lightest of taps as a reminder to the
wife of conjugal responsibilities," Smith writes.
There are many happy Muslim marriages and loving husbands who do not beat
their wives. But this discussion highlights the difficulties Muslims encounter
in bringing their view of the Qur'an to the West.
Many women view marriage the same way Muslims view their relationship with
God, says "Kaye," an American missionary in a Muslim country who does not
want to be identified. A Muslim woman "sees marriage as a contract, and they're
trying to work out their part of the contract to get to paradise. Sometimes
they see being beaten as part of the contract." Muslims tend to look upon
every relationship as a contract, says Kaye, "including their relationship
Islam is a religion of duty and submission in which human effort leads to
salvation rather than proceeds out of it. "There is no view of redemption,
as such, for the Muslim," says Mahmoud Ayoub. "Adam is the first sinner,
but also the first prophet. He missed the mark by disobeying the divine command,
and he asked God's forgiveness. Every human is born like Adam, capable of
knowing God and having pure faith. There is no original sin in Islam, only
In other words, we, like Adam, may miss the mark now and then. But we, also
like Adam, have the capability to right ourselves and rehabilitate our standing
before God, through submission and through the five pillars. The characteristic
description for human status before God is 'abd—servant or slave. God, in
his mercy, revealed himself through the Qur'an and his final prophet, but
Islam nevertheless remains a religion driven by ongoing human efforts to
earn God's favor.
Wendy Murray Zoba is Associate Editor of Christianity Today.