By: Howard Cole
Timothy George, the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and an executive editor of Christianity Today, has written a helpful book: “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?”
Ever since the September 11th terrorist attack on Americans, American Christians have experienced a heightened awareness of the presence and practices of the religion of Islam. George estimates that there are seven million Muslims and 13,000 mosques in North America. He then notes that some 200 million Muslims live in Indonesia and that there are more Muslims living in China alone than there are Southern Baptists in the whole world! Balanced and Biblical, he describes throughout the book the distinctions between Christianity and Islam.
In our postmodern age (everyone makes up their own meaning and dismisses the idea that there is one true story of the world), discussing differences in religion may seem off limits. George does not think that comparative religious discussions should be off limits. Instead he challenges the Christian to avoid the bilateral extremes of angry condemnation and the minimization of Christian truth claims. Trust can be engendered if the scandal of the cross is presented with respect and forbearance for the Muslim. All men are made in the image of God and must be treated as persons with dignity. 1 Peter 3:15 is marshaled by George as he challenges his readers to “always be prepared to give an answer with gentleness and respect.” George does not want the reader to relativize all differences and calls the reader to push the Muslim for conversion to the living Trinitarian God.
What are the essential beliefs of a Muslim? To understand Islam, George directs the attention of the reader to the central “Five Pillars” of Islam. We will consider each one in order.
- The first pillar is the “shahada” or simple one-sentence confession of faith. The sentence is “I bear witness and testify that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” This affirmation is so fundamental to Islam that it is sewn into the national flag of Saudi Arabia. This affirmation is also the portal of entry into the religion of Islam. It is to be said in faith in the presence of at least two witnesses in its Arabic original. It is so important to the Muslim that it is whispered into the ear of a newborn Muslim baby, repeated in the daily prayers and is said over a Muslim about to be buried. This simple phrase upholds the oneness of their god and denounces any form of idolatry.
- The second pillar of Islam is the “salat.” This is the prayer that they repeat five times a day. Before kneeling there is a ritual purification of the hands, face and feet and then the Muslim kneels facing Mecca acknowledging the majesty of their god. There is no Sabbath for the Muslim but every Friday the men go to the local mosque for congregational prayer. Once the ritual washing is over and the Muslim has knelt and bowed, a prayer of seven verses derived from the opening chapter of the Quran is recited.
- The third pillar is the “zakat” or poor tax. The Muslim is obliged to gives 2.5% of their annual income in alms for the poor and destitute, for those engaged in giving out alms, for the needy traveler, the freeing of slaves and debtors and the advancement of God’s cause. George points out that the alms are not for the relief of any poor person from another religion but are specifically to relieve the needs of those whose hearts are sympathetic to the Muslim faith.
- The fourth pillar is known as the “sawm” or annual fast. This one month fast takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The purpose of the fast is to nurture discipline and self-control as the participant refrains from eating, drinking and sexual contact from the first light of the morning till the setting of the sun at night. It is believed that the Angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to Muhammad during this month.
- The fifth and final pillar of belief and practice for the Muslim is “hajj” or pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his or her life unless prevented by health or financial reasons. It was in Mecca that Muhammad was born and it was also there that he cleansed the cube-shaped shrine called the “kabah” from idols. The “kabah” is believed to be the very spot where Abraham offered Ishmael, not Isaac before Allah provided a substitute sacrifice.
Do Christianity and Islam share any similarities? According to George, both religions believe in:
- The literal, verbal inspiration of Scripture
- Jesus as the virgin-born Messiah and healer of the sick
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus and ascension into heaven
- The reality of Satan, angels and demons
- An afterlife of heaven or hell.
- They both eschew evolution, drunkenness and abortion. They both prize women and patriotism.
With so many commonalities one might see no need to bring up differences. But the differences are very significant.
George focuses on three massive beliefs held by the Christian that the Muslim rejects. These three are
- The Trinity
- The Incarnation and
- Redemption by divine grace by the cross of Jesus Christ.
The Christian runs quickly to Scripture’s revelation of the Trinitarian God. 2 Corinthians 13:14 declares “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” New converts to Christianity are to be baptized into the singular name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Muslim desires to confess the supreme oneness of God and they interpret the doctrine of the Trinity as a doctrine that forces the Christian to worship three separate Gods. George asserts that “the doctrine of the Trinity is the necessary theological framework for understanding the story of Jesus as the story of God.” God is one in essence but tri-personal.
George encourages Christians to help the Muslim see that they have erected a straw man (an argument that the Christian does not actually build and hold that is then easily knocked down) of sorts whereby the Christian supposedly worships three Gods when in fact He worships one God that mysteriously exists in three persons. The second person of the Trinity did in fact take on human flesh without ceasing to be God. The incarnation must be stressed to the Muslim for this is the story of Scripture.
George spends specific time expressing the works righteousness found in the Islamic religion. In Christianity sin necessitates a bloody sacrificial atonement so that man can be forgiven by the God-man Jesus Christ and brought into a reconciled relationship with God the Father. The Muslim does not define sin as active rebellion but instead as forgetfulness. The remedy for forgetfulness is self-effort by the Muslim to remember and this explains the emphasis on ritual prayers and the existence of 124,000 prophets!
George climaxes his critique of Islam with a beautiful look into the center of the Trinity. George points out the fact that within the being of God there is a mysterious living love. At the center of the universe is a relationship of surrender and affirmation, of giving and receiving between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the one being of God. George notes that in Islam Allah does not disclose his innermost being to others but that the God of Christianity in fact does. Allah and the God of Christianity both have sovereignty and absolute power but only the God of Christianity is a relationship of mutual self-giving by which the Father gives everything to the Son, and the Son gives back to the Father as the love of each is sealed by the Holy Spirit.
I was personally affected by the overall presentation of George throughout the book. He has an infectious love for Muslims and focused me on the key elements of agreement and distinct differences between Islam and Christianity. As Islam spreads in America, and in fact in the entire world, I pray that this new knowledge that I have attained can be used to challenge the deceptions of Islam with the love and patience of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Want to learn more? Go get the book and read it with a friend! You’ll grow in your love for God and your Muslim neighbors.