Since Islam has and continues to be in the news more and more, today we’re going to cover a kind of “Islam 101” class.
There are many, many topics that we might talk about when discussing Islam from a Christian point of view, but today I want to talk about the basics of what Islam is and where it came from. Perhaps we’ll get into a little of how Christians should think about their Muslim neighbors.
One of the first things to point out when talking about Islam is that Islam, like Christianity, is a theistic religion. They believe that there is one God. Christians believe that there is one God. Where we part ways is in that Muslims believe that there is one person in God. Christians believe that God is tri-personal, that there is a Trinity, that there are three persons in one being. Christians are trinitarian and Muslims are unitarian. This is a huge divide because, to them, one of their greatest sins is basically a belief in the Trinity. They say that you can’t add anything to God. They think, if you’re saying God is a trinity, you are adding to the one person or being of God. They see this as a very large issue. We also see this as a very large issue.
It’s important to understand that there are theological differences at the heart here. It’s not just how we interact in the world or how we dress, but our very conception of God is different because we are trinitarian and they are unitarian. They believe that there is one person in God.
Now that we’ve talked (very briefly) about the differences at a God level, I want to give you a little history of Islam.
The first thing to start out with is terms. It’s interesting to me that many Christians don’t know the difference in the term “Islam” and the term “Muslim”. Islam is the religion, just in the same way that Christianity is a religion. A Christian is someone who practices Christianity. A Muslim is someone who practices or follows Islam. Islam and Muslim are not interchangeable terms. A Muslim is someone who follows the religion of Islam, like a Christian is someone who follows the religion of Christianity.
Islam means “submission,” submission to God first and foremost. Muslim is a term that means “one who submits to God.” There’s a very heavy submission theme in Islam.
Islam was established by Muhammad on the Arabian Peninsula in the year AD 610. This is when Muhammad started receiving (he claimed) divine revelation through the angel Gabriel. God, (Allah in Islam), would speak to Muhammad through Gabriel and dictate what came to be the Koran. The Koran is kind of like a Muslim’s Bible. It is what contains their inerrant scripture.
You’ll notice that this dictation of Muhammad receiving the scripture is different than Christianity. Now some Christians think this is how the Bible was given, but this isn’t actually what the Bible tells us. The Bible has a dual authorship. There is a a divine author, God, and there is also a human author. There are two authors, such as that when Luke writes the Gospel of Luke, they are his words. He chose them. He has his own syntax. He has his own perspective. But they are the words of God. You can’t separate these two. There is a dual authorship there. As it says in 1 Peter, “Men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” so, they are men’s words and God’s words. This is different than Islam, where God dictated and Muhammad wrote it down or memorized it.
Then, after its start in around AD 610, it expands. Islam grows as a religion, and by force and persuasion, Islam spreads across North Africa and the Middle East, ultimately reaching India by about the 11th century. It conquered (I use that word intentionally), largely by force, an area larger than the Roman Empire, ultimately, and in 500 to 600 years. That is a huge expansion. Islam, at least initially, grew by adding people to its number in one of three ways.
The first way is an Islamic force would come to a town and say, “Convert to Islam.” That was the first option; you could convert. The second option would be you could pay for “protection” and not have to convert. The third was simply killing people who would not convert and not pay. It did start out very violently; that is certainly true. That’s where this concept of “jihad,” which is Arabic for “holy war,” comes into play.
It spreads very quickly, and it did start spreading by force. Now, so it’s not fair to say that Islam doesn’t have a violent background. You could even go further and argue that Islam, as it was initially understood, and maybe at its correct understanding, is a violent religion, not a religion of peace, All things are brought under submission to Allah.
However, a key point needs to be made here. Just because a religion dictates that someone should believe something if they follow it doesn’t mean that everyone who calls themselves a Muslim believes the same thing. You might say, “Well that’s not true,” but isn’t that the same thing that’s true with Christianity? There are many people who claim to be Christians and might not even believe Jesus was born of a virgin or rose from the dead, but they call themselves a Christian. Or they might believe those things and deny some other things. Christian beliefs are very varied; they differ from person to person. There are things that are considered orthodoxy in certain circles and certain things that contradict that that are considered orthodoxy in other circles.
All of that to say, Islam, today, is not what we would call monolithic. Everyone does not believe the same thing. In fact, there are multiple, what you might call, denominations in Islam. There are Sunnis and Shias, and Wahhabi, and Sufis, and many different types. In some areas of the world, like North Africa, people will call themselves Muslim but they’ve joined Islam with a kind of animism and ancestral worship, or other local religious customs, which is very much not Islamic. All of that to say, you don’t know what a Muslim believes by knowing that they call themselves a Muslim.
We’ve talked about this before. You can’t just claim to know something about someone because of the label they apply to themselves. You’ve got to ask questions. You’ve got to find out. But studies have shown that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are not jihadists, are not necessarily even sympathetic to jihad.
When we look at our Muslim neighbor, our first thought needs to be, “This is an image-bearer of God who needs to hear the Gospel. God has placed me in a location to be able to share with them.” This should not be our first thought: “I wonder if they’re going to blow me up” or something like that.
In America, we have an opportunity, regardless of your political perspective, regardless of how you think immigration and refugees should be handled. Because my opinion on immigration doesn’t actually affect anything. My opinion on refugees doesn’t change public policy. I have to live in the world as it is. The world as it is currently has Muslims coming to America. They are coming to a place where they can actually hear the Gospel. Because when you live in a majority Muslim nation, your access to the Gospel is extremely limited. God, in his sovereignty, is bringing Muslims to where they can hear the good news of Christ.
Regardless of how this works out politically, on a one on one environment and engagement, we can engage with Muslims and share the Gospel with them because they are now here.
God has a history of using persecution and adverse circumstances to spread the Gospel. You’ll recall in the Gospels that Jesus says, “Go be my witnesses into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the rest of the world.” That wasn’t a game plan for your youth missions department today. That was actually how the Gospel spread, not because they had a checklist but because, as persecution drove them out of Jerusalem, they went to Judea. As it drove them out of Judea, they went to Samaria. They went to the rest of the world. Persecution spread the Gospel, initially.
Persecution is largely responsible today, in some ways, for the spread of the Gospel too. Not in America but in other countries, where it actually costs you seem to be a Christian, like China for instance. The church in China has just grown dramatically over the last decade. That’s an area where it’s not popular or PC to be a Christian, where you could very well be physically harmed or politically harmed or locked up for your Christian beliefs. But God in his sovereignty has often used persecution to build his kingdom.
We are at a moment in America where many Christians are conflicted, or, if they aren’t, perhaps they should be… Because, we have, like I said, Muslims coming here from around the world. They have the opportunity to hear the Gospel if someone will but share it with them. My concern is that, for many in America, for many Christians in America, that their views on immigration and refugees will be the first things they think about when they think about Muslims, instead of looking at this as opportunity for the spread of the Gospel.
I’m not saying that concerns about public safety, and fiscal responsibility, and all of that aren’t important. They are, but we can’t control those things. My views on that don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Honestly, your’s probably don’t either. We can have those views. I think we should care strongly about our nation, but pragmatically, we don’t control that.
How God has worked that out is above my pay grade. The fact that people are here is what I need to be primarily concerned with. I need to be equipped to talk with Muslims. For some people, the first step is simply knowing where Islam came from and what the difference in a Muslim and an Islam is. (Remember, Muslims are people who follow the religion of Islam. We’ll talk more about Islam in following weeks.)
We need to be prepared. If you’re going to care about a group of people who are created in the image of God and who are fallen and are going to die and go to hell without Christ, you need to be equipped to talk with them. For many of us, we’re not very equipped to talk with Muslims. We need to take that seriously.
For many, the first step is going to be simply giving our hearts an attitude check. Are my thoughts and feelings towards Muslims the result of looking at this as an American first or as a Christian first? Are they fiscal and safety concerns before I think about them as individuals? That would be American-first concerns. Or are they Christian-first concerns?
As members of the kingdom of God, our primary citizenship is in heaven. Our primary loyalty is to Christ and his kingdom. America is second to that. That may very well turn our political views upside down. Even if we agree on that theological point, we may disagree with other Christians about what immigration and refugee policy should look like. We need to extend grace the other Christians in this conversation also.
But we must be very clear that, pragmatically, people are here, and they’re coming. We need to be equipped to talk with them, and we need to have a desire for their salvation. If we have such strong views about them coming, that clouds how we look at them actually being here, I think that’s going to adversely affect how willing we are going to be to share the Gospel with them.
Back to Islam 101: We talked about the fact that Christians and Muslims both believe in one God, but we are trinitarian and they are unitarian. Here’s another big difference. Islam has almost everything Christianity has as a religion except for one key point. (There are obviously other differences, though). Islam has the concept of sin. It has the concept of God. But, it has no concept of a mediator or a sacrifice. There is no go-between between God and men in Islam. This is a huge problem. There’s no assurance of salvation. Salvation is by works on Islam. These are people trapped under a system of laws where, hopefully, they do enough to gain Allah’s favor such that they’ll go to paradise when they die.
Yet, as Christians, God has lovingly given us his truth that says, “You know what? All this striving you’re doing? You will never be good enough on your own. You will be stuck in the endless loop of trying to be good enough your whole life unless you surrender and trust in Christ, and take his righteousness to be your own by expressing faith and trust in Jesus.”
That’s the difference. That’s what the Muslim needs to hear. Their religious system doesn’t have the concept of a savior. It doesn’t have a mediator. There’s no credited righteousness and payment for sin in Islam. These are people, ultimately, in some ways, who don’t have peace religiously. They don’t have assurance.
We should care about that, because that used to be us too. When we see people that way, when we see them as image-bearers of God who are fallen and need to be redeemed by Christ, it shouldn’t matter what religion they are, or what country they come from, or really what our political views are. I need to be equipped both intellectually and in my heart to talk with people who are different than I am, but ultimately have the same problem I had before Christ changed me and regenerated me.
I hope this has been helpful. I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.