Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?
All of us are much more aware of Islam since September 11. If we did not know it before, we know now that more than 1 billion people on Earth, about one of every six people, are Muslims. In the United States alone, according to Muslim leaders, there are more than 6 million Muslims, a little less than half the size of our nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (at 15 million). Social scientists who count religious adherents, however, place the number of American Muslims much lower, somewhere between 1.8 million and 2.8 million. This more realistic figure falls in the same range as the Assemblies of God or the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In any case, the faith is growing exponentially in some parts of the country. Today in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, which some call the buckle of the Bible belt, there are several mosques and a thriving Muslim community.
We've also been reminded that Islam, along with Judaism and Christianity, is one of the three monotheistic faiths. Some take that fact and assume that all three faiths are just one great religion, or three equally valid pathways to the same God.
But at this historical moment, when Islam is in our consciousness as never before, we need to look at that claim more closely, especially in regard to Islam. One of the better ways to get at an answer is to focus the question like this: Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? And what difference does the answer make?
What We Share
These three great religions share a number of important traits not shared, for example, by Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Even within these agreements, however, we find significant differences.
First, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are historical religions. Each claims that God has acted decisively in human history. When they say this divine action occurred varies significantly. In Judaism it is the Exodus, God's delivery of his people from slavery in Egypt ("Let my people go"). For Christianity it is the Incarnation ("the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us"). For Islam it is the beginning of the latest and final revelation, as Muslims see it, with the prophet Muhammad, who was born in 570 in the city of Mecca and died in 632. Furthermore, Islam adopts essential historical figures from both Judaism and Christianity. Moses was a prophet of God, Muslims say, who gave the law of God. Jesus was a friend of God. But when Jesus referred to the Father sending another Counselor, "who will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26), Muslims believe Jesus was talking not about the Holy Spirit but about Muhammad.
Second, these three religions are textual (we might say scriptural). They have holy books. In Judaism it is the Hebrew Bible, consisting of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. For Christianity it is the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. For Islam it's the Qur'an. But the way in which the Qur'an functions in Islam is radically different from the way the Bible functions in Christianity.
The Qur'an was given, so Muslims believe, by the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years. It was revealed in Arabic, a direct, divine transcript of a book in heaven. Thus the Qur'an is a divine book. In fact, in some ways, Muslims view the Qur'an as Christians see Jesus Christ: the express image of God, the Word of God. This fact is so important that early Muslims believed, and orthodox Muslim scholars still believe, that the Qur'an cannot be translated. It has been translated, of course, but those translations are not considered authoritative. It must remain in the language of revelation, the language in which it was given, to remain a true revelation for Muslims.