An Emphatic No
My earliest, most precious memories revolve around my family and the Qur'an. Every day, head covered, right index finger moving leftward across Arabic text, my mother recited the Islamic scriptures to me, halting for me to recite it back to her.
In each of the five daily prayers, my father recited aloud portions of the Qur'an. His cadence was spellbinding. By age 5, I had finished reciting the entire Qur'an in Arabic and memorized its final seven chapters.
My experience was not unusual. The Qur'an is the linchpin of the Islamic worldview—the basis of Muhammad's prophetic claims, the foundation of Shari'a law, and the common denominator among all Muslims. It is the most frequently recited book in the world, and for Muslims, it is the closest thing to the Word made flesh.
So it is with due gravity that whenever Christians ask me whether they should read the Qur'an, I answer with an emphatic "no."
I have two reasons. First, the Qur'an was not designed to be read like a book. When Muhammad was alive, there was no such thing as a written book in Arabic. What the early Muslims knew as "Qur'an" were short liturgical recitations. After Muhammad died, all these recitations were compiled into a book we call "the Qur'an." This explains why many who try to read the Qur'an walk away confused and frustrated. It was not designed to be read like the Bible.
This leads to my second point: The Qur'an comprises only a small part of a Muslim's worldview. Far from "sola scriptura," the Islamic way of life mostly comes from traditions, called "hadith." How many times to pray, rules for ceremonial washing and rituals, details on fasting and commerce laws… almost everything comes from hadith. Some hadith even render Quranic verses "abrogated," or repealed, depending on which imam interprets them. Thus, a complex system of time-honored traditions, authoritative leaders, and theological branches interact with the Qur'an to form Islam.
As Muslims, we did not learn Islam directly through the Qur'an. We absorbed it by being immersed among other Muslims. Christians who wish to reach their Muslim neighbors should do the same thing: be with Muslims. See the world through their eyes. The time spent frustrated in the theological labyrinths of the Qur'an would be much better invested in living life with Muslims. Play together, fast together, laugh together, live together.
One college student followed that advice and befriended a young, zealous Muslim before knowing anything about the Qur'an. It is was through his friendship that I accepted the Lord Jesus.
Love your Muslim neighbors as yourself. When you do, and when they see you loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, you will open the door to God-honoring, life-changing dialogue. That is more valuable than anything you can learn by reading the Qur'an.
Nabeel Qureshi, formerly a Muslim, is a member of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries speaking team.
Yes, to Witness
I get an earful about the Qur'an. Some former Muslims say, "Don't ever read the Qur'an." Zealous Christians say, "All you need to know is the truth of the Bible, not the falsehood of the Qur'an." Missiologists, on the other hand, say, "We need to regularly read and study the Qur'an to see Christ in it."
How to discern between these multiple views? I believe there is no better way to begin understanding a person than by reading the foundational sources that form his worldview. Too often, we let news outlets become our source for understanding another religion or culture. My Muslim friends say I would understand them better if I would simply read the Qur'an. I agree, but Christians must have clear purposes in mind.
One purpose is for Christians to realize how the Qur'an reinterprets the Bible. By reading the Qur'an, Christians learn that Islam considers Abraham to be a Muslim. Adam is considered a Muslim, as are Jesus and the disciples. In addition, according to the sayings of Muhammad (Hadith), all people are born Muslim (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441). Christians will discover passages that sound familiar. References to Moses and Joseph are pleasant surprises. But there are other surprises, such as the story of the Christian sleepers whose slumber lasted three centuries. Familiar Bible characters get unique twists, such as Solomon's ability to talk with animals (Qur'an 27:16–18).
Second, Christians who read the Qur'an will better comprehend why Muslims believe the text to be miraculously dictated by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad. It describes itself as "the mother book" and "the revelation." Muslims consider its Arabic text as beautiful, perfect, and the literal words of God. The Qur'an is held in such high esteem that a rumor of desecrating the Qur'an has brought the full rancor of angry crowds. It is protected through blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Third, in reading it, Christians will discover points of connection between the Qur'an and the Bible. There are 50 biblical people and events mentioned in the Qur'an. But many of those are incomplete. The fuller story is found in the Bible itself.
When Christians discuss these points of connection with Muslims, it provides a natural bridge to share the fuller meaning of the Bible's stories. Generally, when the Bible agrees with the Qur'an, Muslims will accept it.
These three purposes for reading the Qur'an will not unlock for Christians a complete understanding of Muslim belief and practice. The serious student must go to other sources, such as the Hadith and the biography of Muhammad (Sira), to better grasp the context of the Islamic worldview.
Christians can miss great opportunities to witness by not knowing what the Qur'an actually says. If we are to be salt and light, reading the Qur'an for ourselves can help us be better witnesses for Jesus. Ultimately, that's the higher purpose.
Roy Oksnevad, director of the Muslim ministry program at Wheaton College, has engaged Muslims as a missionary for 25 years.
Yes, to See Differences
It goes without saying that Christianity and Islam are worlds apart. Christian tradition teaches that there are keys to God's character everywhere we turn. In contrast, Islam teaches that humans can know God only through what he reveals in the Qur'an.
Without the Qur'an, Muslims believe, humans are incapable of knowing God, who is distant and transcendent. Behaviors are right or wrong based solely on what God commands and prohibits in the Qur'an. God is free to command and prohibit what non-Muslims might otherwise think is evil or good.
With this in mind, Christians should read the Qur'an carefully, chronologically with a commentary, and with a mission to understand. By reading the Qur'an chronologically with the aid of a commentary, Christians can uncover a rich narrative of theology and practical instruction within the context of 7th-century Arabia.
The Qur'an poignantly reveals how minor shifts in theological thinking, relative to Christianity, can produce major differences in morality and ethics for believers. In the Qur'an, God does not establish perfect and absolute morality. Instead, he is often arbitrary in declaring when and to whom good behavior is to be shown. Rights and obligations are fluid and depend on one's status as a Muslim or non-Muslim, male or female, husband or wife, and so on.
Love and hatred are contingent on one's relationship to the Muslim community. God loves believers but hates unbelievers (Qur'an 2:276; 3:32; 3:57; 4:36), leading them astray and deceiving them (Qur'an 4:142; 16:93; 17:97; 47:23). In other words, God is outside morality.
This touches on a long-standing question among philosophers and theologians: Is behavior right or wrong because God calls it so, as Islam teaches? Or does God command and prohibit based on what is objectively right or wrong? If the former is true, then God could conceivably command evil and prohibit good as we see in the Qur'an. If the latter is true, and God issues edicts according to a standard of morality outside himself, then we might ask: Where does this objective morality come from?
Christianity provides a third option. The Bible teaches that morality is a part of the essence of God, that God is love (1 John 4:8). God is perfect in justice, righteousness, and holiness. God commands good and prohibits evil. These commands flow from his perfect essence. Morality emanates from the essence of God and does not exist outside of him.
In accordance with this essence, the Bible declares there is no distinction between persons. God loves even enemies and commands his followers to treat them with love, turning the other cheek when mistreated. God desires that none perish, that all come to repentance.
The chasm between the moral teachings of Islam and Christianity results from different views of God. Understanding these differences is necessary to interact fruitfully with Muslims.
Mark Pfeiffer is director of the Christian Institute of Islamic Studies at Baptist University of the Americas and author of True Jihad: Winning the Battle for Muslims.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more