The following reflections are designed to provide an informed understanding of a multifaceted world faith: Islam and its project for humanity. It is also intended to show Christ’s way of relating, witnessing, and ministering to people of any faith or no faith. Jesus’ whole mission was predicated upon being anointed by the Holy Spirit and bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All who claim to follow Jesus’ model must relate to others the way He did. Jesus built bridges based on genuine conversations, truth, and commitment to the well-being of all others. Interfaith relations are an ideal forum to emulate Jesus’ character, model, and methods.
Before attempting to offer these reflections, however, we must recognize that each faith tradition presents a mosaic of beliefs, trends, and movements. For each one of them distinctions can be made between several versions of the same faith. There are also competing understandings of how the ideal of each faith is to be defined.
An informed understanding of Islam factors Muslims’ various identities, essential claims, and contextual distinctives. Muslims have most certainly shared ideals. They are identifiable through the pillars of Islam, their confession of faith, prayers, deeds of charity, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims also share core values such as piety and a sense of justice. Various local expressions of the Islamic faith, however, have made a global discourse on Islam a complex and often challenging endeavor.
From the content of the Qur’an, considered infallible and uncreated, Muslims share the major virtues and values of two other religions often described as Abrahamic monotheistic faith traditions. They all value mercy and compassion, which are among God’s attributes as stated in the first chapter (surah) of the book all Muslims revere. Expected from all Muslims is the supreme virtue called “taqwa,” translated as “piety,” “righteousness,” or even “fear or constant reverence for God.” Generosity and sharing of one’s goods are highly recommended in Muslim scriptures; but what is it that distinguishes the faith whose adherents include an estimated 1.6 billion of the world’s population?
A Closer Look
Islam is a religion that is fundamentally based on the oneness of Allah, the Arabic name for God, the unity of reality, the unity of human existence, and the unity of religion. It seeks to unify the world grounded in the unity of revealed religions, which are all expressions of Islam, the primordial revealed religion.
From this perspective, for Muslims, Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all Muslims, since they all surrendered and submitted to the one God, Allah. In the form it took with the prophet Muhammad, Islam is then a restoration of the primordial Adamic religion and the pure Abrahamic faith.
From another angle, Islam presents itself as a protest against anything that threatens to disrupt the unity of existence, and as a fierce diatribe against polytheism and idolatry. Its core claim is the restoration of true worship, which primarily means submission to the one God Allah, the lord of the worlds, and the whole of reality. This submission is expressed among other things through prostrations during ritual prayers.
Islam has at its core the solution of bringing together the whole human family. Whether Muslims as a global community can unite to meaningfully play this vital role of the unification of human existence in peace, justice, and harmony is a challenge and remains to be seen. Particularisms and Arabic supremacist ideology seems to be an almost insurmountable stumbling block. Pentecost and its revolutionary framework of diversity within the unity of the Holy Spirit are not in its trajectory. The elevation of Arabic as a sacred language may present itself as a formidable barrier to the recognition of all languages as fitting vehicles of the sacred.
Relationships and Conquests
Throughout history, millions of Muslims have embraced other people groups and their distinctive characteristics, languages, and cultures. Conquests and criminal subjugations of large portions of people groups to the Muslim faith have alternated with noble interethnic and interreligious relationships. Muslim merchants have traded fairly and in good faith with various local populations while Muslim conquerors have also brutally conquered, castrated, and enslaved people from Africa to the Middle East, to Southeast Asia and other destinations. Similar to the transatlantic slave trade, the trans-Saharan slave trade has not been less genocidal. It started earlier and lasted much longer.
Between the ideal of the unity of humanity, the unity of true religion, and the unity of all peoples as descendants of Adam, the real contexts of Muslims’ lives in various countries, regions, and localities tell differing stories, highlighting the complex interplay of multiplex layers of human divisions, struggles to make sense, and differences of interpretations of the same claimed faith. Within Islam itself approaches to the divine and relations with the rest of humankind are construed variously.
More Than One Voice
The story contains both tales of unity in the name of the one God, one community, and one common destiny and tales of divisions, plurality of modes of existence before the divine being who is totally other and irreducible to any dogma or formula. Stories of divisions based on different understandings of the legitimacy of leadership are part of the fabric of the religion that is called Islam. Among Shi’a Muslims a need for restoration of the ultimate guidance of the Muslim community separate millions of Muslims from other Muslims of the same claimed faith. Sunni Muslims are not waiting for an eschatological imam, or ayatollah (“sign of God”), as leader of Muslims especially during the end-times. Nonetheless, though construed differently from New Testament beliefs, the expectation of the return of the Messiah Jesus Christ is a lingering hope found in Islamic discourse about end-time scenarios.
There are indeed gaps and differences in how Islam is construed within Muslim communities themselves. Besides the allegiance to the divine origin, inimitability of the Arabic text of the Qur’an, the infallible revelation of the will of Allah, the community is more a mosaic than a monolith faith. The Sunni, the Shi’a, the Sufi, to mention but the main traditions, offer a variety of versions of their perceptions, claims, stories, and trajectories of understanding.
Beginning very early on in the history of the Muslim community, rivalries, and internal strife have been part of the struggle for the soul of Islam to the extent that three of the four immediate successors of the prophet Muhammad were assassinated.
Even though divisions among Muslims are complex phenomena, involving various political, tribal, sociocultural, and economic elements, sectarian allegiances have played a significant role in the conflicts dividing the Muslim community. Religious sectarian elements can explain some of the divisions among Muslims. Proxy wars integrate all these elements. Sunni versus Shi’a rivalries—though not the only factors—nonetheless play a major role and should not be downplayed. They play out in Iraq, in Syria, and in Yemen. They were a factor in the Iran/Iraq war that lasted almost a decade. They are also an element in the Lebanese religious landscape. The current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are another display of allegiances along sectarian lines. The list of countries siding with the Saudis, for example, contains not surprisingly Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan. They are Sunni-dominated countries.
These divisions do not, however, tell the whole story. Muslims have inscribed in their faith principles of solidarity, which, if followed, would bring the whole human community of families much closer to one another. Islam is not the problem. Human beings’ sectarian, exclusive selfishness, as well as conquering and murderous intent, rob the whole human family of the right to peace, to justice, and to freedom.
Learning From the Field of Comparative Religion
When viewed through the prism of comparative religions, Muslims consider other religions and Christianity in particular from a number of perspectives.
Radical Islam postulates that Islam abrogates the Christian faith by restoring the true faith that has been corrupted throughout history.
Aside from the radicalization or politicization of the religion of Islam by a minority among Muslims, the claims of abrogation and restoration offer particular insights in how the Christian and Islamic faiths construe different worldviews.
Muslims have the right to claim that they have the best religion, the most accurate book, and the greatest prophet. The right to such claims is secured by religious freedom provisions in international covenants, conventions, treaties, declarations, and law. Freedom of thought, belief, conscience, and expression are the prerogative of all individuals and people groups.
According to Muslims’ beliefs and practice, Islam restores the status of holiness attached to places, objects, and peoples that biblical Christianity tended to relativize in favor of direct access to God the Father through the Son, Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. No such language about God and no speculation about God’s nature is part of the conversation in Islam. Even the idea of filiation applied to human beings as adopted children of God is not found in Islamic discourse, whereas it constitutes the core of the new identity of those who believe in Jesus Christ. Talking about Jesus as the Eternal Word of God, the Gospel of John states the following: “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13, NASB).
The coming of God in Jesus Christ established a new covenant essentially characterized by freedom to have direct access to God.
1. The Notion of “Holy Places” Subverted
Jesus told the Samaritan woman that places such as Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim are no longer mandatory holy places, and therefore pilgrimage itself is not mandatory from a new covenant perspective. The worshippers God seeks are those who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4).
Because of the presence of God in Jesus Christ and through His Holy Spirit, where two or three are gathered in God’s name He promises to be present. Moreover, God has the freedom to indwell the believers who themselves become temples of God, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19.
The centrality of Mecca, connected to the fifth pillar of Islam, the Hajj, positions Islam on another trajectory when it comes to the importance of holy places.
2. The Function of Holy Languages Shifted
At Pentecost all languages become a vehicle of the sacred. They all become holy languages by virtue of the fact that they are capable of expressing God’s wonders.
Islam reinstates and elevates Arabic alone as the sacred language of prayer and worship. The translatability of the language of the Qur’an is to this day questioned. Translations are at best seen as approximate interpretations. The belief in the inimitability of the Qur’an reinforces this understanding.
3. The Status of Holy Objects or Sacrifices Reconsidered
The status of holy objects, whether they are sacrifices, holy water, or relics, is not unanimously favorably interpreted among Christians. When it comes to sacrifices, Jesus presents Himself as the ultimate, once-and-for-all sacrifice that renders the need for animal sacrifice obsolete. The way Hebrews 10:1-7 expresses it is significant:
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God”’” (NIV).
Based on this understanding, Christians ceased offering animal sacrifices. Christians, however, have adopted different understandings when it comes to what is called Eucharist, Communion elements, emblems of the sacrifice of Christ, through which His mystical presence is signified or made real. Interchurch dialogues and relations stumble greatly on this vital Christian issue.
4. The Necessity for Holy Personnel for Mediation to the Divine Abrogated
The abrogation of the Levitical priesthood was one of the main arguments of the writer of the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews. His main point is the following: The Levitical priests died and had to be replaced. Succession was therefore an integral part of their mandate. On the other hand, Jesus Christ, because He has conquered death, lives forever. Consequently, Jesus has an unsurpassable priesthood. His high-priestly ministry is not transmittable by virtue of the fact that He can save to the uttermost those who approach God through Him (Heb. 7:23). This is because He is always alive to intercede and come to the help of those who need Him, argues the author of the epistle. A whole rationale for the mediation and intercession of spiritual leaders within Sufi Islam traditions is challenged by this biblical concept, according to which only God can lead to God. Jesus Christ—God incarnate—is the sole mediator, according to the apostle Paul. All human beings have access to God, the creator of every person in His image.
The Christian faith is wholly predicated upon the new access to God, made possible by God coming to humanity in Jesus Christ, who furthermore is said to be the only mediator between God and humans, as stated according to 1 Timothy 2:3-6:
“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (NIV).
5. The Concept of Equality in Dignity before God Revealed
The concept of equality is central to the new covenant of direct access to God. God has a favorable disposition toward every person, since He created every person in His image. The absolute will of God is to welcome every one of His children. Jesus made an appeal to everyone in this sense.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30, NIV).
Jesus promised He would not reject those who come to Him. One of the reasons He insisted revealing God as Father was to encourage the human family that we can confidently come directly to God. The concept of equality is at the core of the faith of Jesus. This equality is based on new covenant promise of direct access to God.
6. The Notion of Holy Nation or Holy People Redefined and Expanded
In the letter that bears his name, the apostle Peter pictures an inclusive community of people of all nations, from all people groups as belonging to the people of God, a holy people, and a holy nation. Peter puts it this way: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9, 10, NIV).
Considering any ethnic group as superior goes against the revelation of our common humanity. God’s election of Abraham stipulated that his descendants were to be and bring a blessing to all the families of the earth (cf. Gen. 12:5).
7. Religious-cultural Distinctives Transcended
The distinctive cultural characteristics that came with the notion of election are fundamental in defining one’s identity. They are transcended in favor of a new covenant where what matters lies elsewhere. The apostle Paul repeatedly makes this case.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6, NIV).
Being therefore in the new covenant consists in being a new creature, having faith that expresses itself through love and keeping God’s commandments.
8. The Status of Servant Transformed into Filiation
The gospel announces, to all who believe in Jesus’ name, that God has given the power to become children of God (cf. John 1:12). One of the key concepts expressing salvation is the notion of adoption.
For those who are in Christ there is no more condemnation, insists the apostle Paul. Furthermore, he specifies, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:15-17, ESV).
The reality of filiation for the redeemed is one of the distinctive features of the biblical Christian faith. Such concept of human beings in filial relation to God is an integral part of the good news of the Christian faith. It is not emphasized in the Qur’an. Most likely this is because using such concepts would have gone against the diatribe against the idolatrous representations of sons and daughters of god at the Kaaba in pre-Islamic times. Also the concept of son of God would go against the concept of the oneness of God.
In Christianity, however, this concept of filiation is central both to the nature of God and to the status of the redeemed.
9. The Second Coming as Hope of Triumph Over Evil
The second coming of Jesus is the decisive time when all the kingdoms of this world will be succeeded by the kingdom of God as prophesied in the books of Daniel and Revelation among other biblical references. Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords will assume His universal reign. This is the essence of the blessed hope, according the new covenant (see Titus 2:11-15). Moreover, Jesus will raise up those who believe in Him, as He promised (John 6:40). He can do this because He overcame death. He has the keys of death and of Hades (Rev. 1:18). He is the resurrection and the life. This event is the climax of world history, when Jesus’ resurrection and victory over death will benefit the believers. A cornerstone of the Christian faith is that Jesus has the power to raise the dead.
10. Salvation Conceived as Participation in the Life and Destiny of Jesus Christ
In Islam salvation is a multifaceted concept. It is entrance to Paradise. It is about safety, protection, avoidance of hell, and recompense or reward of enjoying eternal felicity.
In the Christian faith the prevalent trajectory of salvation is about reconciliation, atonement, homecoming, and fellowship with God. In the Christian faith, the encompassing notion of salvation is inscribed on a different trajectory.
It is about a God who so loved those He created in His image that He joined us in our human predicament. He identified with us, bearing the sin and the curse, which hovers over all humanity and creation. In order to purge the universe, He absorbed the evil that has become woven into all aspects of human existence.
Salvation is restoration of relationship with God. As in Islam, it is submission to the will of God, entrance into His kingdom, which starts in the here and now—even though its consummation is to come at the Second Coming.
Jesus exemplified what it means to be saved when He said, “Your will be done.”
Jesus epitomizes salvation. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one, He said, comes to God but through Him in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. His very name means “Yahweh saves.” It signifies His identity and mission. He came on earth so that human beings may have life and have it abundantly.
Salvation through Jesus is also about the neutralization of evil powers, evil spirits that destroy God’s creation. Jesus has demonstrated the power to render them harmless. Salvation is ultimately deliverance from what the Bible calls the last enemy, death. The resurrection of Jesus brought a new era. Nothing therefore can deprive the believers in God to have free access to fellowship with God.
Salvation means being incorporated in Christ, and being grafted to His life, His victory, and his story. Christianity is mainly belief and experience of the triumph of life as graciously made available in Jesus Christ.
Despite the apparent simplicity of a religion with its pillars clearly defined, Islam is a complex religion. It certainly does not reflect a monolith but rather a mosaic. It is a diverse multifaceted religion that defies generalizations. Muslims seem united on the fundamentals of the faith, but paradoxically, unity is affirmed but remains nonetheless illusive. The religion claiming to include peace as an intrinsic core value has its adherents engaged in various wars that started at its inception and are still part of the divisions that erode the reality of the ideal. Islam itself is not to be blamed for the politicization or militarization of a religion that set out to address seventh century A.D. social injustices, unrighteousness, lack of solidarity, and inequality in the Arabian Peninsula.
People have the right to make claims; Muslims have the right to do so. Christians have the right to do so as well. People of any faith or of no faith have the right to their freedom of conscience and expression. Life in pluralistic societies demands such level of tolerance without necessarily endorsing other peoples’ beliefs or lack thereof.
Muslims share with other monotheistic faiths such traditional values as compassion, mercy, hospitality, generosity, solidarity, and care for the poor, widows, and orphans. Helping these vulnerable people is in fact a core part of what it means to be a Muslim. There are similar attributes of God mentioned in both Islam and the Christian faith and other religious traditions. There are, however, irreconcilable differences when it comes to the understanding of who God is and how God relates to humanity. The trajectories developed in Islam and in Christianity are not similar. The divinity of Jesus Christ and His work of salvation are not part of Islamic discourse.
The two edifices of Christianity and Islam are built upon different foundations. There are nonetheless intersections of values that allow people of goodwill to respect and honor one another in the name of a common humanity. People can believe differently while genuinely accepting other peoples’ humanity and right to be respected. People felt special when they encountered Jesus. People who encounter disciples of Jesus should feel the same as if they had met Jesus Himself.It is possible to be uncompromisingly loyal to one’s beliefs, worldviews, and values while respecting and loving others, just as the One who is the personification of truth freely mingled with others promoting life with the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D., is director of public affairs at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and also serves as secretary general of the International Religious Liberty Association.