In contrast to Hinduism, Confucianism, or Shintoism, Islam is a religion that firmly and passionately affirms the unity of the Godhead. It denounces idolatry in the most categorical terms, accepts superficially at least the biblical concept of prophethood as well as pays explicit homage to a number of Old Testament prophets, and it manifestly springs from the same milieu (geographically and conceptually) as Judaism and Christianity. But alongside these affirmations it maintains a series of unequivocal denials—denials implicit in Hinduism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and the rest, but explicit in Judaism and Islam alone. Islam categorically denies the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity and divine sonship of Christ, the fact and significance of his atoning death, the finality of the Christian revelation, and the reliability of the Christian Scriptures.
There have indeed been some who have characterized Islam as a Christian heresy. It is difficult, however, to dismiss a faith, claiming four hundred million adherents and a wealth of theological thought, as mere heresy; and while it is true that Christian heresies are almost always recognized by some compromise regarding either the person or atoning work of Christ, the denials of Islam are so radical that they constitute not so much deviation as defiance. Face to face with Islam one seems to hear the words of the beloved disciple: “He is antichrist that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22), for this is precisely what Islam does.
BARRIERS AND BRIDGES
In one sense, therefore, the Christian theologian is much more at home in Islam than he is in the great pre-Christian religions. He is in a realm that he can readily, if only superficially, understand, and where he and his Muslim friends will in part speak the same language. Yet he will find himself confronting an opposition which he scarcely experiences elsewhere. He will meet those who affirm their faith in the Old Testament prophets and even the Old Testament Scriptures as originally revealed, but who assert that these have been corrupted. They will be people who accept Jesus Christ as Messiah, as one of the greater prophets and as Virgin-born, but who put a categorical denial of Deity into His own mouth; who believe that the Jews meant indeed to crucify him, but assert that God miraculously intervened to save him from a felon’s death; who affirm the unity of the Godhead in a sense which precludes any differentiation of persons within that unity, and who emphasize divine omnipotence and transcendence in a way that involves a denial of God’s moral holiness or redeeming love. It is easy for the Christian to become so obsessed with these denials that he accepts them as barriers rather than attempts to turn them into bridges.
THE DOCTRINE OF GOD
The Christian Church herself must rightly assume much of the responsibility for the misunderstandings and misconceptions of Islam. There are few things finer than the denunciation of idolatry which Muhammad began. He was indeed so passionately convinced of the reality of the one true God that it seemed to him the worst of all possible sins to give His glory to another, or to worship anyone else besides him.
Say: God is One (unique), God is eternal.
He did not beget and He was not begotten.
He has no equal whatever.
In its original setting, this brief chapter from the Qur’ān did not constitute a denial of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity but of the crude polytheism of pre-Islamic Arabia. The tragedy is that later in Muhammad’s life, when he had heard a little more of Christian beliefs, he came to believe that Christians worshiped a Trinity consisting of God the Father, the virgin Mary, and their Son. Scarcely surprising is it that he denounced the whole doctrine as arrant blasphemy. It has been suggested that he may have got this idea from the Collyridians, a heretical sect which actually worshiped Mary; but more likely perhaps he merely misinterpreted the excessive veneration given by certain Christians to the one who has sometimes been called “the Mother of God.” As a result he depicted our Lord as complaining that His followers had made “me and my mother into gods beside God.” And although the better educated Muslim of today knows well that this is not the Trinity Christians worship, he still believes them guilty of the blasphemy of associating a creature with the Creator, or of making a mortal man into God; and he finds it desperately hard to understand that the truth is precisely the opposite—that we worship God who became Man.
There is much that is magnificent, however, in the Muslim doctrine of God. At its best there is an awful sense of his majesty, his omnipotence and his utter transcendence; and there is a corresponding sense of the littleness of man, and of the paramount duty of that submission to the divine sovereignty which constitutes the very essence of Islam (“surrender”). But the concept of his sovereignty and omnipotence has been allowed to overshadow his holiness and moral purity, and the concept of his transcendence and self-sufficiency has obscured his self-giving and his love. The Muslim God—in the dominant doctrine—need not act according to moral principles: he is sovereign, and who can call him to account? Also he cannot be made glad by men’s devotion, nor sad by their rebellion: he is utterly self-sufficient, so how can he be affected by his creatures? The revelation that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,” whose omnipotence can never, of inward necessity, be inconsistent with his moral holiness, and that “God is love,” whose majesty has its fullest expression in self-giving and redeeming love, is veiled from Muslim eyes. It is not surprising, therefore, that to them the very idea that the Creator could take the form of a creature appears unthinkable, and the doctrine of the Atonement seems as morally unnecessary as it is spiritually blasphemous.
The question has often been asked whether Allah, whom Muslims worship, can be identified with the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” or whether we should proceed on the basis that he is quite a different god. To pose the question in this form, however, is to suggest the answer. There can be no doubt that Muslims worship Allah as the one Creator God; and the Christian is no less emphatic that there is only One who can so be described. But it is obvious that the one God is very differently conceived and described in the two religions. The Christian will recall the words of the apostle Paul: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”
GOD’S HOLINESS AND MAN’S SIN
It is the inadequacy of the Muslim conception of God’s holiness that undoubtedly provides the basic explanation for the inadequate Muslim view of human depravity. To associate anyone else with the Deity or deny his law are, to the Muslim, unforgivable sins beside which moral and social wrongdoing pale to comparative insignificance. Islam, indeed, has no doctrine of original sin, and regards man as weak and liable to err rather than fallen and inherently sinful. Man, therefore, is a sinner because he sins; he does not sin because he is a sinner.
THE NATURE OF CHRIST
The Christian is brought face to face with a similar misunderstanding with regard to the divine sonship of Christ. Here, indeed, he is met by a double misconception. Not only does the Muslim accuse him of putting a man on an equality with God, but the very title is conceived against a background of physical procreation and believed to refer to the Virgin Birth. It has been well remarked that what sometimes seems our Lord’s strange reluctance to make an unequivocal confession that he was the Christ—or before Pilate that he was the King—can be explained only on this basis: were he to have made this affirmation in those circumstances, and to those questioners, he would have invited almost as serious a misconception as a denial; for he was indeed Messiah, indeed King, but not the sort of Messiah the Jews were expecting nor the sort of King Pilate meant. The Christian feels much in this same position when an uninstructed Muslim asks him if Christ is the Son of God; for to say “Yes” without explanation would be almost as misleading as to say “No.” The basic problem is not so much one of confession as of interpretation.
Moreover, if it is impossible to decide where Muhammad derived his misunderstanding of the Trinity, it seems equally impracticable to determine how he came to his denial of Christ’s death upon the cross. “The Jews say ‘We have killed Jesus, Son of Mary,’ ” so affirms the Qur’an; “but they did not kill him, neither did they crucify him, but a likeness was made of him … and God raised him up to Himself.” This verse has always been interpreted by orthodox Muslims as denying for fact that the one who died on the cross was Christ. Instead, God raised Christ up to himself, they believe, and threw his likeness on someone else crucified there by mistake.
It may be, of course, that the genesis of this idea is to be found in Gnostic (or even Basilidian) theories which maintain that the aeon Christ descended upon the human Jesus only at his baptism and then left him before his passion. But the notion may also be a perpetuation of Peter’s reaction when he first heard that the Son of Man must suffer, for it expresses Muhammad’s passionate repudiation of the possibility that God could leave his faithful servant to such a fate. It was essential not only to Muhammad’s understanding of the position of a prophet but also—and more profoundly—to his conception of the character of God that the “apostle” should be vindicated and his persecutors outwitted. The traditions of Islam assert that before the last day the Christ who never died is to come again, marry and have children, break the symbol of the cross, acknowledge the truth of Islam, die, and be raised again at the last day.
MISTY VIEW OF SPIRIT
Again, it is the Muslim misconception of the Trinity that is at least partially responsible for the Holy Spirit being a nebulous figure in Islam and commonly identified with the archangel Gabriel, the angel of inspiration. The Qur’ān even asserts that Christ himself foretold the coming of Muhammad under the variant Ahmad. This may perhaps rest on a confusion between the Greek words parakletos (Paraclete) and periklutos, a possible translation of the name Ahmad.
THE ROLE OF SCRIPTURE
Finally, when we turn to the Scriptures, we see once more this strange combination of assertion and denial, acceptance and rejection. Early in his ministry Muhammad bade his followers consult the earlier Scriptures in support of his own teaching. He claimed that the stories told in these earlier Scriptures had been miraculously revealed to him. But at Medina he found that the Jews would not accept an Arab prophet, and they mocked the inaccuracies of some of his references to Old Testament persons and incidents. This was something he could not tolerate, so he accused them of twisting their tongues with the Scriptures. In its origin this phrase probably meant that they misread their Scriptures rather than mutilated the written text. Muslims commonly attribute not only the discrepancies between the Qur’ān and the Old Testament but the far more serious discrepancies between it and the New Testament in terms of deliberate falsification. Moreover, now that the final revelation has been vouchsafed through the “seal of the Prophets,” what need is there to concern oneself with things that have gone before? The tragedy is that Muhammad was never in a position to read the New Testament. Had he been familiar with it, the course of history might have been very different.
These are the beliefs of Islam regarding the Christian message. Faced with a challenge of this magnitude, the Christian can only travail to present his Saviour, by word and life, in a manner that will avoid any offence which is not the essential “offence of the Cross.” He can only pray for a divine work of grace whereby God himself will shine in Muslim hearts “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
J. N. D. Anderson, O.B.E., M.A., LL.D., is Professor of Oriental Laws at the University of London. He has spent 14 years in the Middle East, is Chairman of the United Kingdom’s National Committee of Comparative Law, and is one of the world’s outstanding authorities on Islamic law and custom. An Anglican, he is Chairman of the Home Council of Middle East General Mission, and is also the Chairman of the Coordinating Committee of British Inter-Varsity Fellowship.
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