Christianity Today, Week of March 27

How Muslims See Christianity
Many Muslims don't understand Christianity—especially the idea of salvation by grace through faith.

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, how Muslims view Christianity, helpful models for relating to Muslims, and how to engage our Muslim neighbors boldly and lovingly.

The driving principle behind Islam, recited in the call to prayer, is La ilaha illa Allah—"There is no god but Allah." This is the lens through which Muslims interpret all other religious confessions, and it explains why many Muslims do not understand Christianity.

It seems that either no complete version of either Testament had been translated into Arabic in Muhammad's time or that he did not have access to the testaments. His references to Jesus and Mary in the Qur'an are sketchy, without any verbatim attributions. In addition, it is apparent that the Christians Muhammad knew were contentious and seemed confused: the Christianity Muhammad was exposed to was probably embroiled in a debate about the nature of Christ, leaving the impression that Christians mostly disagreed about what their faith meant. Given these factors, Muhammad's exposure to Christianity conjured up more confusion than elucidation.

There is no category in Islam for the One true God with a triune nature. "The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him," the Qur'an says. "So believe in God and His Messengers, and say not, 'Three.' Refrain: better is it for you. God is only One God" (Surah 4:169).

Muslims do not understand our Book: Why are there four gospels? Why does it include letters written to other people? Why is it written in Greek when Jesus spoke Aramaic? What kind of Scripture could this be, if God himself did not dictate it? The "sending down" of the New Testament Scriptures involved human instrumentality, so Muslims wonder how such a book, so handled, is divine revelation. Even more perplexing to them is the Christian understanding of 'Isa—Jesus. Muhammad subordinated all other belief systems to the notion that he was the final prophet and the Qur'an the final message from God. Muhammad saw the Jesus of the Christians as an important prophet—along the lines of Noah, Abraham, and Moses—but not the Alpha and Omega.

Muslims honor Jesus and allow that miracles are associated with him, but they recoil at the notion of worshiping him. A prophet can be virgin-born, but not "Emmanuel—God with us." Muslims concur that Jesus was condemned to the cross, but they claim he was never crucified. The Qur'an asserts that "they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them" (Surah 4:155).

Islam cannot conceive of either a prophet or a son who is executed as a criminal. If Jesus died on the cross, "enduring the shame," then from the Muslim perspective he utterly failed. Muhammad's victory, first in Medina and later in Mecca, validated his prophetic role. Manifest success became the measuring rod for authentic Sunni Islam (its major branch), and by that standard, Jesus failed. His mission was cut short without his realizing any real, measurable "success."

Jesus as God's son is even more problematic. A son is a privileged and pampered position, "which will not soil a hand lest the heir be mistaken for a menial slave," notes Cragg. So when Paul writes, "Though he was God, he…made himself nothing [and] took the humble position of a slave…dying a criminal's death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-9), it's a losing proposition from the Muslim perspective. A son of God would never be a slave and would never die a criminal's death. "The logic by which, for the Qur'an, Jesus can never be 'Son' to God is precisely the logic by which, for Paul and the New Testament, he is," Cragg says. "Truly God is one God," the Qur'an says. "Glory be to Him and no 'son' to Him whose are all things in the heavens and the earth" (Surah 4:171).

Without a concept of sonship and Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross, there is no remission of sins and therefore no grace. Mahmoud Ayoub says that "salvation by faith is arrogance—who decides?" To him it seems incomprehensible that a person would claim to be a servant of God without having to do anything. As one imam expressed it, "That is too good to be true!" The validating sign of faith, says Ayoub, is in what you do—not in what you cannot do, as is implicit in the notion of grace. This is a difficult concept for Muslims to grasp. In Islam, God is all merciful, all knowing, all compassionate—Muslims have 99 names for what God is—but none conveys the intimacy of abba whom we approach in reconciliation by virtue of his saving grace.

THE CHALLENGE TO THE CHURCH
This sense of religious duty and measurable human effort is, surprisingly, what attracts many Western converts to Islam. "I wanted a discipline to pattern my life by," writes one young woman, formerly a Christian, on a Web site that posts testimonies about conversions to Islam. "I did not just want to believe someone was my savior and through this I held the ticket to Heaven. I wanted to know how to act to receive the approval of God."

Another former Christian who converted to Islam wrote: "As with many other Christians too, I had become disillusioned with the hypocrisy of the Church…. My attention was drawn towards the beliefs and practices of Islam."

But this works-oriented theology can cut the other way. Says Roy Oksnevad, director of the Institute of Muslim Studies at Wheaton College: "[O]ne former Muslim has said Islam had the rules and discipline she wanted in her life, but lacked the power to live the life the rules stipulated: 'As a system of personal discipline, Islam has few equals. As a means of earning God's favor, it's a spiritual treadmill.' "

Another Web site posts testimonies by Muslim converts to Christianity. A man who identifies himself only as "a brother from Saudi Arabia" writes:

As a teenager I went to the mosque five times a day in obedience to my parents…. One night while was asleep I had this horrible dream of me being taken into hell. What I saw there brought me real fear and these dreams kept coming to me almost every night…. Suddenly one day Jesus appeared to me and said, "Son, I am the way, the truth, and the life. And if you would give your life to Me and follow Me, I would save you from the hell that you have seen."…Christianity is totally banned in Saudi Arabia…. [After I converted] I was taken into custody and tortured. They told me I would be beheaded if I did not turn back to Islam…. I told the authorities I'm willing to die for Jesus and that I would never come back to Islam…. The appointed day came for my execution and I was waiting with much anticipation, yet very strong in my faith….One hour lapsed, two hours went by, then it became three hours and then the day passed by. No one turned up. Then two days later the authorities turned and opened the doors and told me, "You demon! Get out from this place!"

In the course of writing this article, I kept confronting a contradiction. Many who are intimately acquainted with Muslims expressed concern about the missionary mandate of some to conquer the world for Islam. At the same time, people expressed genuine fondness, compassion, and good will for their Muslim friends and neighbors. David Echols of the South Asian Friendship Center says to look at it this way: there is the Islamic system, which is aggressive and intentional about its missiological work, and then there are Muslims—the people who work in Wal-Mart or live down the street. The latter are the people you will meet in the grocery store. They long to get close to God and to live as good Muslims. Many are lonely for friendships.

It is on this human level that Christians will overcome the stereotypes about Muslims—and where Muslims will overcome their stereotypes about Christians. Only on the personal level will authentic witness be born between the two.



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