Three Critical Questions on Islam for Christians

I remember, as does every American of age, right where I was on September 11, 2001. I remember how I heard. I remember the struggle to understand the relationship between Islam and what I saw on the news. I was ill-equipped as an adolescent to handle this question, and so I soon returned to my normal pattern of thought—video games, girls, and sports. It would be years until the question came back to me.

I considered the question at times in graduate school, but it had become an abstract concept as a philosophy student. Until, just before my final semester. My wife and I had a unique opportunity to do some traveling, so we scheduled a winter trip to Paris that would overlap with both our fifth year anniversary and my 27th birthday. During a windy day with a little drizzle toward the middle of our trip, we ventured out to find the famous Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore, as the wind and rain picked up we sought shelter in the Musee de l’Orangerie. Running up the steps, we reached the door just before a couple of Brits and a few other Americans with a similar idea. Oddly enough though, the door was locked, the security guards on the inside just starred at us, and that is when I became aware of the sirens.

We had been hearing the sirens all morning and noted the number of police cars on driving around, but our enchanted exploration and the general unfamiliarity with Paris conspired in such a way that we dismissed them. Even if we had paid them more attention, we still would not have known what Charlie Hebdo was, nor whether going back to our apartment would be moving closer or further away from danger. When we finally found out what happened the question returned. What was the relationship between Islam and violence? More than that, what was the relationship between Christianity and Islam, between these two religions of Abraham? This brings me to my first question:

  • Are Islam and Christianity compatible?
Mirsolv Volf's attempt at peacemaking overshadows drastic discrepancies in the two depictions of God.
Mirsolv Volf’s attempt at peacemaking overshadows drastic discrepancies in the two depictions of God.

What does it mean to ask whether Christianity and Islam are compatible? Essentially, we are asking if they have enough overlap in content to both be believed. The easiest way to consider this question is to compare their bedrock claims.

For Christianity the fundamental confession is that of the deity and resurrection of Christ. We see clearly in scripture, notably in Romans 10:9-10 Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” There is much implied in this. A belief in the lordship of Christ and his resurrection from the dead prompt questions that ultimately lead to the belief in Jesus’ expiation and propitiation. That is, Jesus lived a perfect life for us and died a sacrificial death for us. The wrath we deserved was taken on by him and the righteousness that he displayed was given to us. In this confession is contained, then, all the content of the gospels and much of the exposition and explanation of the New Testament epistles—in this way we can confirm the centrality and foundational nature of this particular confession.

For Muslims, on the other hand, the primary confession of Islam is “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.” As a Christian I understand a few implications of this creed. First, if we understand that the word ‘allah’ simply means ‘god,’ and is not truly a personal name for the deity of Islam, then we realize that we have no disagreement on this particular point. Christians too believe that there is only one God (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). The differences between Christianity and Islam are found in the second part of the central creed, “and Mohammed is his messenger.” Second, in the next piece we are told that the definitive prophet of God is Mohammed, thus implicitly confirming the legitimacy of the teachings of the Qur’an, even in regards to its interpretation and manipulation of biblical stories and texts. This is where the problem arises, both from the implication and from the bare assertion of the text. While I don’t have the time to unpack the implication side of it, allow me to note that it is widely documented how the Qur’an and Bible assert mutually exclusive doctrines, as well as having vast irreconcilable discrepancies in the narrative sections that are common to both. The story of Joseph is an interesting example. Even without the implicit notions though, this creed of Islam must be rejected by Christians as we are told in the book of Hebrews that Jesus is the preeminent and final prophet of God:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV)

There is not a single idea in those four verses that a devout and faithful Muslim can affirm. Yet, it is not exaggerating to say, much of the Christian faith hinges on the truths expressed in them. The most cursory investigation of Christianity and Islam will reveal that the teachings of both religions make them mutually exclusive.

  • Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
Professor Mirsolv Volf of Yale University
Professor Mirsolv Volf of Yale University

All I accomplished in the last question was to refute the most extreme postmodernists and religious relativists. This question is a bit more controversial. Many Christians on the conservative side, like R. Albert Mohler the president of Southern Seminary, deny that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In essence there are two possible ways to view this position. Either Muslims worship a false god—an idol and demon—or they worship a nothing at all. Others, like Mirsolv Volf of Yale University, believe that Muslims and Christians do worship the same God, but that Muslims fail to worship him in rightly, that is, in a salvific manner because they reject Jesus as the Son of God, and thus reject the Trinitarian make up of God. Both sides of the debate are filled with faithful and thoughtful Christians—personally, I have great affinity for Dr. Volf and Dr. Mohler on many issues—so how can we choose between them.

While I am normally inclined to agree with Dr. Volf and I usually applaud his desires to see Christianity is more open-armed to those who do not share our beliefs, I must vehemently disagree with him on this point. It is important that we seek to embrace those we disagree with be they homosexuals or Muslims, but we must simultaneously be honest and faithful to Christ. Thus, as Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying, we speak truth with love.

Nabbed Qureshi author of Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, Answering Jihad, and the forthcoming No god But One.
Nabbed Qureshi author of Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, Answering Jihad, and the forthcoming No god But One.

Dr. Volf claims, in several places but most notably in his book Allah: A Christian Response, that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worship the same God, and that all who claim otherwise do this out of a fear or hatred of Muslims. Volf claims that Christians who want to deny that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, they must also deny that Jews and Christians worship the same God since the charges leveled at Muslims would also apply to Jews. While there are several legitimate responses to Volf’s claims, I have found those of Nabeel Qureshi most convincing. Qureshi is a Christian and a New York Times Bestselling author, but most notably, Qureshi is a former Muslim. He documents his journey from one faith to the other in his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and provides critical commentary on Islam in Answering Jihad. Qureshi has no prejudicially motivated fear or hatred of Muslims.

Dr. Volf often speaks about Muslim and Christian relations from a Christian perspective, arguing that there are enough similarities between the Christian and Muslim descriptions of God to consider them the same God. Usually he comments, as well, that he cannot speak from a Muslim perspective as he is not, nor has he ever been, Muslim. Thus I am curious about how he would respond to Qureshi’s comments that:

The similarities between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are superficial and at times merely semantic. Though Islam claims that the Muslim God has done some of the same things as the Christian God and sent some of the same people, these are minor overlaps and far less essential to the reality of who God is than fundamental characteristics of his nature and persons. Islam and Christianity overlap at points on the former, but they differ fundamentally on the latter. (Answering Jihad, 114)

And

Christians worship the triune God: a Father who loves unconditionally, a Son who incarnates and who is willing to die for us so that we may be forgiven, and an immanent Holy Spirit who lives in us. This is not who the Muslim God is, and it is not what the Muslim God does. Truly, Tawhid is antithetical to the Trinity, fundamentally incompatible and only similar superficially and semantically. Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. (Answering Jihad, 116)

John Piper, author and (retired) pastor.
John Piper, author and (retired) pastor.

Volf denies Dr. John Piper’s analogy to discussing an old classmate:

I got help from a good friend of mine who said this: Suppose two people are arguing about their classmate from college thirty years ago, and they’re starting to wonder if they are talking about the same person. . . . And somebody comes up and says, “Why don’t you just open the yearbook?”. . . They open it up and [one of them] says, “There she is!” And the other guy says, “Oh no, no, that’s not who I was talking about!” And it’s all clear now. [They] were not talking about the same person. And my friend said to me, “Jesus Christ, as he is revealed in the New Testament, is in the yearbook. You open the yearbook and you look at his picture and you say, ‘Is that your God?’ And the Muslims are going to say, ‘No, that’s not our God.’ And you say, ‘Well we’re not talking about the same God then.’” (Volf, Allah, 34-35, quoting Piper http:// http://www.desiringgod.org/ Blog/ 1032_a_common_word_between_us/)

But this is the same logic Qureshi uses when sharing a similar story about a doctor who confused his mother for a colleague of his with many overlapping details. The point of both analogies is the same: it is not enough, as Volf supposes, to have a significant number of overlapping superficial details. What matters is identity.

As Qureshi and Piper agree, the identity of the God of the Bible has three critical aspects that the Qur’an denies. God is Father, God is Trinity (or tri-personal), and Jesus of Nazareth is God. The Muslim religion has no room for, and even flatly denies, these claims.

  • Can we love our Muslim neighbors?
Answering Jihad, an accessible and honest look at Islamic extremism and a consideration of Christian responses.
Answering Jihad, an accessible and honest look at Islamic extremism and a consideration of Christian responses.

So where are we now? Christianity and Islam are mutually exclusive. Allah and Yahweh are quite distinct. Can we then love our Muslim neighbors? The answer to this question is an obvious “yes,” but I think the question comes from more of a concern about how we can love our Muslim neighbors.

We can and should love our neighbors through the building of relationships and the presentation of the gospel. That is to say, we should seek to build relationships and friendships with them as people not as evangelism projects. If we truly love them we will present the gospel, but our friendship with them should not be premised on their willingness to hear the gospel. Our friendship with them should be premised on our desire to know them as people. Consider the words of another person who was in a camp far from Christianity before coming to faith:

Before I ever set foot in a church, I spent two years meeting with Ken and Floy and on and off “studying” Scripture and my heart. If Ken and Floy had invited me to church at that first meal I would have careened like a skateboard off a cliff, and would have never come back. Ken, of course, knows the power of the word preached but it seemed to me he also knew at that time that I couldn’t come to church— it would have been too threatening, too weird, too much. So, Ken was willing to bring the church to me. This gave me the room and the safety that I needed to match Ken and Floy’s vulnerability and transparency. And so I opened up to them. I let them know who I was and what I valued. I invited them into my home and into my world. They met my friends, came to my dinner parties, saw me function in my real life. They made themselves safe enough for me to do this. (Rosaria Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert)

Ken and Floy, conservative Presbyterians, had the presence of mind to not force the gospel or church upon Rosaria, but rather engaged her as a friend and trusted the Holy Spirit to work in her. I believe we ought to approach all espoused nonbelievers this way. Not simply track bombing them in Starbucks, but treating people as, well, people. Actually, treating people as people we care about and want to know. Let’s not forget that we will be known by our love.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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