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Two Ways Christians Distort Islam (and Two Ways Muslims Distort Christianity)

An excerpt from "Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship."
Two Ways Christians Distort Islam (and Two Ways Muslims Distort Christianity)
Image: Yevgenia Gorbulsky / Shutterstock

Editor's Note: Christian. Muslim. Friend. received the 2016 Christianity Book Award in the category of Missions/The Global Church.

My wife, Grace, and I were in a restaurant in an Asian country when friends ushered to our table another American couple. Our friends introduced me as an expert on Islam. “Oh, how delightful to meet you!” the American couple exclaimed. “We want to learn all we can from you about Muslims. Of course, we both know it is difficult to describe Muslims, because the Muslim holy book teaches Muslims to be liars. So when a Muslim says he has become a Christian, we can all know he is still a Muslim because his lies actually communicate the opposite of what is true.”

On another occasion I was in a mosque on a Friday just on the eve of the Christmas holidays. In the sermon the imam confidently explained to the congregation that Christians get drunk on Christmas. So a proof of the truth of Islam is that Muslims do not get drunk, he said; they would never think of desecrating a Muslim festival by drinking.

Neither statement is true. Some Muslims do tell lies; some Christians do get drunk at Christmas. But this is not normal. Most Christians do not get drunk on Christmas, and most Muslims are not liars.

Muslims and Christians often participate in distortions of one another. Both would do well to be people of truth and avoid distortions or exaggerated overstatement. My goal is to communicate the essence of Islam in ways that, if Muslims were listening, they would agree. I am committed to accurately describing their faith and truthfully representing disagreements. I also plead with Muslims to exercise the same commitment. Muslims and Christians should be careful to portray each other in ways that are truthful, kind, and trust building.

In the spirit of building relations committed to truth, I will comment on four distortions that need to be addressed: two Muslim distortions and two Christian distortions.

The Counselor

Muslims often comment that Jesus prophesied the coming of Muhammad. This conviction arises from the Qur’an stating that Jesus anticipated a final prophet. Muslims believe Muhammad is that prophet. So Muslims search the New Testament to find where Jesus proclaimed that a final prophet would come. Muslim scholars say they have found the prophecy in John 14 and 16, where Jesus prophesied the coming of the Counselor. The original Greek word is paracleitos, meaning “counselor.” Muslim scholars sometimes state that they have discovered the original word is periplutos, meaning “the one worthy of praise.” Ahmed, or Muhammad, also means “the one worthy of praise.” These scholars explain that although the original word was periplutos, Christians removed periplutos and inserted a corruption of the text—namely, paracleitos, “the counselor.”

Christians often experience this “scholarly” denial of Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit. I was in a mosque when the imam began to weep as he explained to us that Christians had changed the text and inserted “the Holy Spirit” instead of the original “Muhammad.” The imam demonstrated anguished grief that Christians would do such a thing! How should Christians respond? This is how we responded in the mosque that evening:

There are at least 5,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. All of these manuscripts, with no exception, assert that Jesus promised the Counselor would come and that the Counselor is the Holy Spirit. So we choose to stand upon the testimony of the Scriptures God has entrusted to us. And we encourage our Muslim friends likewise to respect the trustworthiness of the biblical account concerning the Holy Spirit.

We went on to explain that it is through the Holy Spirit we can know the truth. The Holy Spirit is one with God. So it is not wise to say the Holy Spirit is a man! The Holy Spirit is not a human being. He is the presence of God with us, through whom we can know the truth and be empowered to live the truth. So we implored this congregation of Muslims to desist from saying that the prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit is really a prophecy about a man, namely Muhammad. In fact, we read in one of the John 14 passages, “But the Advocate [Counselor], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” We explained that it is through the Holy Spirit God convicts us of the truth. We need to avoid offending or disregarding the Holy Spirit.

One God Almighty

Another prevalent distortion comes to us from Christians. This distortion is the idea that Allah is not the God Christians worship. It is instructive to know that across the Middle East the Arab Christians all refer to God as Allah. In fact, it might be that Muhammad got the name Allah from Christians. Some Christian inscriptions from pre-Islamic Arabia use Allah as the name for God.

Where do these Christians and Muslims get the name Allah? Most likely this is a legacy from Abraham, who referred to God almighty as Eloha. Allah is the Arabic way of saying Eloha. Muhammad taught that he had a mission to establish worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, throughout Arabia and in regions beyond Arabia. His message was that there is only one God almighty, creator of the heavens and the earth. His name is Eloha (Allah).

However, we need to recognize that in the Christian missionary movement around the world, the church has used many names for God, not just the Arabic Allah. When Christian missionaries go around the world testifying about God, with rare exception, they seek a local name for God. They resist bringing a new name. If possible, Bible translators use the local name for the Creator. Islam is different.

Muslims always bring their Arabic name for God, Allah. But with rare exception, the church uses a local name for God. The reason that the church looks for a local name for God is the conviction that God has a witness within every culture and religion.

For example, when my parents went to the Zanaki people of Tanzania as Christian missionaries, they asked the Zanaki people whether they know about God. They assured my parents that they were aware of God. They called the Creator Murungu. They believed that Murungu had gone away and would never return again. My parents, therefore, used Murungu when they translated the Gospel of Matthew into the Zanaki language. They preached that in Jesus, there is a full revelation of Murungu. They never said the God of the Bible is a different God from Murungu. Rather, they preached that in Jesus the Messiah, Murungu has come near and lives among us.

A helpful biblical explanation of what I am saying is the account of God meeting Moses at the burning bush. And later we read, “God said to Moses, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them.’ ” All faithful Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in God almighty, the creator of the heavens and the earth. But with Moses, God revealed himself not only as God our almighty Creator (Allah) but as the God who comes down to save us. He comes down to meet us and to reveal himself to us. This is God as the Good Shepherd, who comes down to seek his lost sheep. This is God as Yahweh (the Lord), who reveals that his essence is love.

A God who reveals his essence and who comes down to save us is hard for Muslims to fathom. Recently I was in a major dialogue with university students in Bandung, Indonesia. My Muslim dialogue companions asserted that in Islam, God sends his perfect will down but never comes down to save us. There was no room in their thinking for the suffering love of God. For that reason, my dialogue companions denied the Crucifixion of Jesus. In the biblical Scriptures we meet God in the Messiah, coming down to suffer with us and because of us. My dialogue companions found that hard to comprehend. The mostly Muslim university students were amazed at the gospel’s revelation that God loves so greatly he offers forgiveness and reconciliation for those who put Jesus on the cross.

Christians believe our understandings of God are never as complete as when we meet God as revealed in the Bible and especially as revealed in the Messiah. For example, Jesus the Messiah reveals that we are invited to know and address God as our loving heavenly Father. That is a prayer Muslims do not pray. So to say Christians and Muslims worship the same God is true. However, we cannot say the perceptions or experience of God are the same as God revealed in Jesus the Messiah. The great surprise of the gospel is that in Jesus, God, our loving heavenly Father, has come down to save us and to meet us and reveal himself to us.

In the gospel we learn Jesus is the Savior from sin. He is also called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He is called Messiah, which means he is the one anointed by God to bring about God’s righteous kingdom on earth. He is Eloha or Allah, the almighty creator God. All these names are glimpses into the person and mission of Jesus.

Of course, we recognize that God cannot be captured in a name. Neither Allah nor Eloha nor Yahweh nor Murungu can communicate the essence of who God is. God is beyond naming. That is why God announced to Moses that his name is “I AM!” Although God is beyond naming, nevertheless God reveals himself in the Bible. This is why Christians confess God as our loving heavenly Father. This reality goes beyond any name. It is in the revelation of God in Jesus that we know God as our Father.

False Scripture

Two other distortions demand comment. These distortions come about in the way Muslims and Christians handle the scriptures.

Muslims have a high view of scripture, and some are concerned about the differences between the Bible and the Qur’an. That was the reason a dear Muslim friend gave me a book neatly wrapped in gift paper. We were having lunch together when he presented this special gift. I was disturbed when I opened up the wrapping to find the Gospel of Barnabas. This book is about the size of the New Testament. It is a description of the life and teachings of Jesus, mostly following the Muslim script as presented in the Qur’an. For example, in this gospel Jesus is not crucified. Some apocryphal material is included, such as Jesus making birds of clay and then bringing them to life.

The book seems to have appeared in the 14th century. There are absolutely no ancient texts of this “gospel.” One theory by credible Christian scholars conjectures that the author was a disillusioned Catholic priest who wrote the document hoping to lead Christians away from the New Testament and into the embrace of Islam. In my judgment, this gospel is what the Qur’an describes as false scripture.

As my friend handed me the book he said, “This book will reveal to you the true gospel of Jesus.”

I thanked him for the gift, for I knew he was giving me this book out of concern that I would know the whole truth of God. With the book in my hand, I asked him, “What does the Qur’an say about writing and circulating false scripture?”

My friend forcefully exclaimed, “God will damn all such people!”

I asked, “Then why have you given me this book? If you investigate, I believe you will discover this is false scripture, written probably about seven hundred years ago. There are no ancient manuscripts of this book. It is a distortion of the gospel as written in the New Testament Scriptures.”

He exclaimed, “Forgive me; I did not know.”

This distortion is serious. This book is distributed around the world. It needs to be addressed whenever this “gospel” is circulated. We plead with people not to circulate false scriptures like the Gospel of Barnabas.

Knowing Arabic

The other serious distortion comes to us from Christians who claim to have understood the meaning and message of the Qur’an even though they know no Arabic. We need to remember that the Qur’an is revealed in Arabic. To understand the true meaning of the Qur’an, one needs to know Arabic! Muslim communities have ulama (theologians), who are recognized as wise men with insight based on a thorough knowledge of the Qur’an. These wise men also study the hadith (“the Traditions”) that describe the way Muhammad applied Qur’anic principles in his personal conduct. However, even the ulama do not make judgments about the meaning of the Qur’an based on individual insight. For this reason I lean on Muslim writers and imams for my understanding of Islam and interpretation of the Qur’an.

I grieve, as do Muslims, when Christians take an English interpretation of the Qur’an and determine that they have come to understand the meaning of this scripture. To understand the meaning, there is only one acceptable and wise way; that is to ask the Muslim ulama to explain the Qur’an to those of us who are not Muslim. This is urgent. It is not wise or appropriate to claim we have come to understand the Qur’an unless we have submitted to the rugged disciplines of study and consensus that Muslims believe are necessary to understand the Qur’an’s message.

We also need to recognize that there is much variation in the understandings and application of the Qur’an. There is immense diversity within the global Muslim movement concerning the interpretation of the Qur’an. Some Muslim feminists embrace a modernist secularist commitment and might perform the required prayers once a year. In contrast, there are Arabian Wahhabists, who insist a true Qur’anic interpretation means a woman may not drive a car. More than one billion Muslims are scattered around the world; they are a movement of incredible diversity. Yet I suppose all Muslims would agree that the Qur’an is God’s final revelation of his will and Muhammad is the perfect example of what it means to submit to the will of God.

My caution is that we do not presume a reading of the Qur’an means we have understood it. Nevertheless, the caution does not mean those who do not know Arabic should exclude themselves from reading or studying interpretations of the Qur’an in their own languages. But when we do so, we need to approach the study with humility and an awareness of our limitations.

Quite frequently in my conversations with Muslims, I mention an English interpretation of a verse or portion in the Qur’an and ask them to explain the meaning of that selection. Then I ask if I may share from the Scriptures used in the life of the church. An example is the virgin birth of Jesus the Messiah. We might ask our Muslim friends to comment on the significance of the virgin birth of Jesus. Then we may offer as believers in Jesus what the Injil (gospel) reveals about the virgin birth of the Messiah.

Avoiding Distortions

Distortions can be extremely destructive. Let us learn the art of listening to one another in ways that open our eyes to the distortions to which we might have become party. We need to speak the truth and use our tongues in ways that build trust. We can use our tongues to fan the flames of discord or to enhance good relations.

The apostle Peter advises, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.” We need to be truth tellers who avoid distortions!

David W. Shenk is a global consultant for Eastern Mennonite Missions. He is the author of numerous books, and has traveled widely in countries with large Muslim populations.

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