A recent book review in the Evangelical Baptist (March / April 2005, p. 20) on the book Ishmael: My brother – A Christian Introduction to Islam demonstrated an unfortunate attitude towards Muslims and an apparent misunderstanding of Islamic theology. In this and the following two articles I would like to present a rebuttal to some of the comments and in doing so provide some direction towards a more productive and fair approach to Islamic belief.
Are Muslims our “brothers”?
The author of the review poses the question, “should we regard Muslims (Ishmael) as our brothers, or as those standing in the need of the Saviour Christ Jesus?” The difficulty with the two statements juxtaposed in this question is that they are falsely presented as contradicting each other, whereas logically they are unrelated. The use of the term “brothers” does not necessitate the conclusion that Muslims are not in need of salvation. Although Muslims are not brothers (and sisters) in the sense that we share the same religion – an understanding that Muslims will fully affirm – there are a number of perspectives which warrant the use of “brothers”:
– in many Muslim societies people show respect by titles of family relationships.
– we share many fundamental beliefs in the moral and religious sphere (e.g. sexual propriety, importance of faithfulness, respect for God’s prophets, etc.).
– we are all children of Adam and Eve and therefore created in the image of God; the term “brother” affirms this mutual respect before God.
– we worship the one, true God.
During our time in Pakistan acceptable relationships with our Muslim friends was daily underscored by the use of familial titles. The only appropriate relationship I could have with a woman, apart from my wife, was as a “brother,” “uncle,” or “son,” depending on our age difference. The use of these titles constantly reaffirmed our social and theological commitments as humans living together in community without compromising my faith in Christ or making a statement about the spiritual condition of Muslim women as “sisters”. We must be careful about reading our western assumptions concerning the use of terminology into the language of a Muslim people group.
Standing against or for Muslims?
The most disconcerting sentence, which, in the minds of some Muslims, would raise the spectre of the Crusades, was the statement that “the book wants to soften our stance against Muslims by accepting the fact that some truth can be found in Islam.” As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, none of us ought to have a “stance against Muslims.” This is highly inappropriate and provocative language. “For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world” (Eph 6:12). The reason we send missionaries to the 10 / 40 window is not because we are against Muslims, but because we are for Muslims. Our desire is that every Muslim brother and sister will gain the best that God has for them. We believe that God has given his best in Christ, and it is that gift we offer.
Furthermore, the implicit statement that there is no truth in Islam is simply false. I naively and arrogantly entered the Muslim world in 1985 thinking that I needed to learn about Islam but was unprepared to learn from Islam. Yet some of my times of greatest spiritual growth and insight have come about because of spiritual seekers in Islam. Any religious system that endures has some measure of truth or it cannot exist. In some way it must assist its adherents in dealing with the meaning and significance of daily life. It must provide some measure of comfort and hope to the large questions of life and death. Our job is not to tear that down, but to present Jesus as our hope and comfort together with his invitation. Acknowledging truth in Islam does not necessitate denial of the revelation of God in Christ.
Jesus called Satan the “Father of lies.” But it must be remembered that the power for a liar is, in fact, the truth. It is the person who speaks truth to us who has the power to deceive. A known liar is not believed. Much of what Satan said to deceive Eve was the truth and so he appeared credible. In the same way much of Islam is true. Unfortunately, when dealing with the essentials of salvation (the cross) and the way to God (through the Son of God), the hope of the gospel has been denied.
Tensions between Mohammed and Christ
The author of the review complains that the book seeks to “lessen tensions between Christ and Mohammed,” and thus “clouds the glory that belongs to Christ alone.” While in Pakistan it was a common ploy of those wanting to argue about the relative merits of our religions to raise the issue of Mohammed as the “last prophet” and therefore create a tension between Christ and Mohammed. However this is a false comparison. The issue for the missionary is not one of lessening the tension, but of removing it all together. In speaking to Muslims it needs to be pointed out that Mohammed is not a messiah, he is a prophet. Mohammed is to be compared to Moses or to Abraham as one who brought his people out of idolatry and spoke a word from God, not to Christ who is the Way and is the Truth.
This distinction was very important to the writer of the book of Hebrews who dealt with a similar understanding among the Jews concerning the place of Moses and the Law. In Hebrews 3:1-6, the writer does not provide a quantitative distinction between Moses and Jesus, as if there is simply a difference in degree, but a qualitative difference between the house and the builder, or the servant and the master. In the same way, the difference between a prophet and the Messiah is vast, and Muslims can understand this. If we attempt to focus on tensions between Christ and Mohammed it is we who are clouding the glory that belongs to Christ, for this will drive Muslims away from the gift God offers. Our job is not to contrast the two and argue that Jesus is a better prophet than Mohammed. It is sufficient to simply deal with their unique claims. It was only Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies” (Jn 11:25).