Monday, 18 January 2010

One Christian's View of Islam

A bit of a departure from my normal subjects, but one which felt worthwhile posting on the Facebook group I participate in.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world and as Christians must be conscious of the world, so they must also be conscious of Islam. Christians should also show compassion and understanding, instead of jumping on the bandwagon which maligns Islam and claims that the anti-Christ will be a Muslim. I'd like to present my own views as a possible Christian alternative to these horrific views.

A good place to start would be Muhammad as he is a pivotal prophet in Muslim belief. Christians often focus on the negative aspects of the prophet, painting him as an evil warlord with numerous wives. They then proceed to contrast his perceived negative aspects with Jesus. There are many approaches we can take to this issue. A good place to start when assessing the behaviour of Muhammad and the stories in the Qur'an is to look at the Old Testament. Just a single example of wars being started in the name of God and of polygamy would render these negative judgements hypocritical. I shall leave you to connect the dots there.

The other key approach is to contrast the situation of Jesus with that of Muhammad. Instead, most contrast the concept of holy war with Jesus' recommendation of turning the other cheek, completely oblivious to the fact that each method does not work in every situation. Can we honestly say that if Jesus were alive in Muhammad's day that he would not take the same approaches in order to unite? Conversely, can we honestly say that if Muhammad were in Jesus' shoes 2,000 years ago, that he would not say to turn the other cheek? We must view Muhammad in his historical context and recognise that our God is the God of Moses, one who values the freedom and unity of His people.

With this in mind we can at least revere Muhammad, as he was often tolerant and democratic, with a dislike for hierarchy, strong leadership, the desire to unite people under God and most importantly his uncompromising adherence to monotheism. Can he be seen as a prophet by Christians? Obviously not in the same way as Muslims view him, but the inspiration of God may be seen. I shall turn to the Qur'an in a moment, but first we should look at attitudes towards prophets.

Muslims and Christians have two different attitudes towards prophets. The Muslim view tends to have them as faultless, particularly Muhammad. Such prophets would never be accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11.19). It is therefore quite easy to see why Muslims can accept the Qur'an in the fashion they do. However, Christians see very human aspects in prophets, they make mistakes and are not always ascetic. With this in mind a Christian can plausibly see Muhammad as a prophet, or at least inspired, whilst not fully accepting all of his revelation.

It goes without saying that in order to remain Christian the Qur'an cannot be accepted as fully God's words, but I will maintain that spiritual insight can be gained from it. Christians often do not take Scripture as written through amanuenses, but instead as inspired, the same could plausibly be applied to the Qur'an. A Christian must read the Qur'an in the light of Jesus, much as Muslims are encouraged to read the Bible in light of the Qur'an. Obviously the key differences, and I shall try not to downplay them, are in Christology, but we should also keep in mind that Muslims also await the return of Christ and consider him to be a prophet, born of the virgin Mary.

The first time I read a Qur'an I looked, quite naturally, at the first Sura, perhaps the most recited verse in any holy tradition. Some translations put emphasis on aspects of this Sura which can be seen as accusatory towards Christians, however, in the translation I first read (by J. M. Rodwell) this message is not apparent, instead it allows us to compare it to a prayer we should all know well.

Sura 1:

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.
Guide Thou us on the straight path,
The path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious;- with whom thou art not angry, and who go not astray.

Read this side by side with the following prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

I would happily say "amen" to both.

Talking about Muhammad and the Qur'an only covers part of Islam, but what of the Muslims themselves? My experiences teach me that we can learn a lot from them. Many Christians have found that observing Muslims in prayer can be very humbling, some even go on to adopt their practises into their own prayer routine, setting out many times per day in order to pray. Many Christians also pray prostrate, humbling themselves before the Lord just as Muslims do. The dedication of Muslims is something we all can learn from and should endeavour to understand.

Before I end, what about that famous verse in the book of John which states, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."? Does this exclude Muslims? Some would automatically say yes and think no more. Yet looking at the verse alone it suggests that Muslims may come to the Father due to their acceptance of Jesus as an important prophet. Look even deeper and in context and the verse does not seem to exclude anybody, but that is another subject.

In conclusion, acceptance and understanding of Muslims is not only possible, but is to be encouraged. It is even possible to accept Muhammad as inspired by God and to revere his many positive attributes. The Qur'an need not be a book of opposition, though we should not ignore the areas with which we clash (it sadly cannot be helped that we risk offending Muslims on this point, much as Christians often get offended by Muslim views) but we can embrace the areas which ring true to Christians and use it to help deepen our understanding of our own faith. Islam is here and is prominent, we should try to understand it to the best of our abilities, we should respect it and see what benefits it can bring to our own faith. We should embrace harmony, not conflict, just as I believe Jesus and Muhammad would have done if they were contemporaries.

If anyone would like to read more positive views on Islam from a Christian perspective, Keith Ward's essay "Muhammad from a Christian perspective" found in "Abraham's Children" is worth reading. The work of Kenneth Cragg also often comes highly recommended.