Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Christianity and Other Religions Part One

This is the first of several posts I intend to make on the topic of Christianity's relationship with other religions. Rather than speaking in the abstract, I am going to focus on how Islam and Christianity interact. (A recent United Nations demographic report forecasts that Muslims will represent at least half of the global birthrate after the year 2055 [1] ). My proposed schedule in tackling this topic is as follows (this schedule is subject to change)::

Part One: What is Islam? Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
Part Two: What are the similarities and differences between Muslims and Christians? Who do Muslims say Jesus is?
Part Three: Do all religions lead to God?

As you can see, this first post contains the basics--probably nothing new for anyone who has spent time studying world religions. While I don't want to over-simplify things, I am hoping to present this in an understandable fashion.

Question 1: What is Islam?

Who is Muhammad?

Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 AD. His parents died when he was very young and an uncle raised him. Muhammad was illiterate (which is one of the reasons why his revelations were passed around verbally). Muhammad was forty years old when he received his first revelation. These revelations continued for the next twenty-three years and have come to be known as the Qur’an. Muhammad began to share these revelations with others, but in 622 Muhammad and his followers were persecuted and they migrated from Mecca to Medina (this move marks the start of the Muslim calendar). Years later they returned to Mecca where Muhammad died at age sixty-three. [2]

Muhammad claimed that there were prophecies written in Christian and Judaic Scriptures predicting his coming. Therefore, if the Jews and Christians claimed they did not have record of his coming then, he concluded, they must be concealing some of the Holy Scripture. [3]

What is Islam?

The Arabic word Islam means ‘submission’ and comes from a word meaning ‘peace.’ A Muslim (someone who believes or follows Islam), practices the Five Pillars that make up the religion Islam. These Five Pillars were recorded by Muhammad and are as follows:

1. “Shahada”—which is a testimony of faith. The shahada is reciting the testimony: “There is one true God (Allah), and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This is the most important pillar and is required when someone wants to convert to Islam.

2. Prayer—Muslims are to pray five times a day for five to ten minutes facing Mecca. These prayers are said at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night. Muslims believe that they have a direct link to God—they do not need anyone to intercede for them.

3. “Zakat”—Muslims are required to give to the poor. “Zakat” means purification. Muslims believe that their possessions are purified when they set aside a small portion of what they own for the needy. They see giving to the poor like pruning a plant; when you cut back branches, new growth comes.

4. Fasting—Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan (Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar). Muslims fast from dawn to sundown, abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations. This kind of fasting allows Muslims to gain sympathy for the hungry.

5. Pilgrimage—If it is financially and physically possible, Muslims are asked to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their life. About 2 million people travel to Mecca each year. After the pilgrimage, the Muslim receives the title “hajji." [4]

What is the Qur’an?

The word Qur’an means: “That which is read, recited, or rehearsed." [5] When Muhammad died, there was not a complete manuscript of the Qur’an. Muhammad’s revelation was committed to memory by his companions. Various chapters were written down on pieces of bone, leather, leaves, and flat stones. Islamic tradition says that Abu Bakr was the first caliph (or leader of Islam), and made the first complete written copy of the Qur’an. The Qur’an in its present form was assembled around 646 AD. [6]

The Qur’an contains 114 surahs (or chapters) and was written in Arabic. Since the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad in Arabic, any copy of the Qur’an that is translated into English or any other language is not officially considered the Qur’an nor a version of the Qur’an. Instead, it is considered a translation of the meaning of the Qur’an. [7]

Question 2: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all say that they worship the God of Abraham. And technically speaking, the word “Allah” simply means God, which means that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews refer to God as “Allah." [8] To say that God is unique, omnipotent, just, merciful, has foreknowledge, and reveals God’s will, “then Jews, Christians, and Muslims can easily detect the selfsame God in the Lord of Judaism, in the triune God of the church, and in Allah." [9]

We can also answer this question in the negative. Lamin Sanneh asks the question: “If…Muslims and Christians worship essentially the same God, why do they not call themselves by one common name?" [10] Both Christianity and Islam make exclusive claims about God and religion. In the Qur’an we read, “The true religion with Allah is Islam” (Surah 3:19). And, “Today I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed my blessing upon you, and I have approved Islam for your religion” (Surah 5:5). In the Bible we read Jesus’ words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). So both Christianity and Islam make particular claims about the God they worship.

Both religions claim the God of Abraham, but how this plays out is very different. Sanneh explains: “Islam and Christianity both agree (and are similar here) that truth cannot coexist with its opposite, and is embodied in obedience." [11]. Hence, the religions as practiced are different despite any perceived similarity in the object of worship.

(1) George W.
Braswell Jr, What you need to know about Islam and Muslims. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000) 2.

(2) I.A. Ibrahim, A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam (Houston: Darussalam, 1997) 55.From hereon referred to as “Ibrahim.”

(3) Bruce A. McDowell & Anees Zaka, Muslims and Christians at the Table (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1999) 81. From hereon referred to as “McDowell.”

(4) Ibrahim 65-67.

(5) All references to the Qur’an are taken from: An Interpretation of the Qur’an. Trans: Majid Fakhry. (New York: New York University Press, 2002).

(6) McDowell 73.

(7) McDowell 74.

(8) Ibrahim 54.

(9) J Dudley Woodberry, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” Christian Century. 121:10 (2004) pg. 36.

(10) Jon D. Levenson, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Christian Century. 121:8 (2004) 32.

(11) Lamin Sanneh, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Christian Century. 121:9 (2004) 35. From hereon referred to as “Sannah.”

(12) Sanneh 35.


pk said...

Hey Mandy, I'm enjoying (and looking forward to the rest of) the series. That's a great lead-in.

One thing though, I always thought the Shahada was an affirmation of the one true God, rather than a proclomation of no true God. ;-)

The Cubicle Reverend said...

Great series. I don't think many of us can say we know anything about other religions. Several years ago a co-worker said everything you find in the Koran can be found in the Bible. I didn't know if that was true or not since I had never read it.

Amanda said...

Whoops! Yes. That would be "one" true God. (Ha! My PTS prof didn't catch that).

Amanda said...

Two posts from now I'll mention some of the major differences between the Bible and the Qu'ran. Thanks for bringing this up.

The Qu'ran itself claims to be different from the Bible...but more on that later.

The Cubicle Reverend said...

But I wanna know now! :)