Christ and Islam
In the month of December, people everywhere are gearing up for the traditional Christmas celebrations. Christmas has become an international peoples' fest which often has very little to do with the real matter, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps it might come as a surprise, then, to some of our readers to learn that also Muslims recognize the birth of Jesus as a very important event. The Muslim holy book, the Qur'an (Koran) specifically mentions the Annunciation of Christ's birth (3:37; 19:16) and gives an account of the Virgin Birth itself (19:22).
Islam is today one of the world's fastest growing religions with an estimated 750 million adherents. It is the belief of at least one sixth of the world's population. Every year, Muslims increase in steady numbers through procreation, conversion, and immigration. Muslims now form the majority population in at least fifty nations. Muslims also are the largest non-Christian community in Europe and are expanding their activities rapidly in Canada and the United States.
In the past few years we have witnessed the revival of a very militant form of Islam promoted especially by the Shi'ite Muslims. But everywhere in Muslim countries there is a general revival of interest in Islam, particularly among the young. Islam has survived centuries of persecution and obscurity, and appears to have flourished more than many Westerners ever expected.
Therefore it is good in this feature to take a closer look at Islam, and especially to ask ourselves the key question: what does Islam think of Jesus Christ?
The Messenger of Allah
The origin of Islam lies in the life and work of an unremarkable Arab trader from Mecca, named Muhammad, who claimed that he was inspired to preach God's word to his people. The facts surrounding Muhammad's birth have now been greatly embellished with many fantastic myths, but Muhammad himself always insisted that he was merely a human messenger through which God revealed Himself.
In his youth, Muhammad underwent the influence of the religious currents of thought prevalent in his time. He especially followed the hot debate between Jews and Christians with respect to the Holy Trinity. He also became disillusioned with the traditional polytheistic tradition of many Arabs and sought to find a religion which might truly unite his people under one God.
According to the legend, Muhammad began to receive "revelations" from God in the year 610 A.D. At the age of 40, he began to preach the new faith of Islam which is essentially a mixture of Jewish and Christian ideas with Arab motifs. His teaching concentrated on the fact that there is only one God, and he chose as name for this "god" the traditional supreme Arab deity known as Allah.
The various "revelations" given to Muhammad were collected in the holy book of Islam, called the Qur'an (Koran). Muhammad recognized the traditions of Jews and Christians as containing truth (he called them "People of the Book"), but he claimed that only through his preaching the real and full truth was made known to mankind.
The rest of the story is well-known. In the year 620 Muhammad and 10,000 followers captured the city of Mecca which became the heart and centre of Islam. Since then, Islam has progressed steadily, covering large parts of Africa, the Middle and Far East, as well as areas of southern Europe.
The Five Pillars of Faith
Islam is built on what has been called "the five pillars of faith." Underlying the faith is the confession, "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." It is the first task of all Muslims everywhere to recite this confession (called "shahada") five times per day.
The other four "pillars" are: the daily prayers to God while facing Mecca, charitable giving, fasting during the daytime hours of the month of Ramadan, and making the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
The word Islam is often rendered as meaning submission. Perhaps it can also be translated as meaning surrender. The Muslim must fully surrender and submit his entire life to the will and law of Allah. Islam is not merely a set of beliefs, but is really a din, a complete way of life which combines creed and cult with manners and morals to effect a harmonious manner of living.
Muslims insist that everything happens only by God's express decree. A favorite saying is: it is the will of Allah! Critical Western scholars have argued that this doctrine leads to a dangerous passive fatalism, but Islamic theologians deny that the belief in Allah's divine will negates personal freedom to act. Accepting God's decrees, they say, only makes it easier to receive the trials of life as coming from above.
Islam is the only major post-Christian religion. This means that Islam has assimilated many elements from the Jewish and the Christian traditions. Many Islamic texts can be related to biblical ones. Muslims revere 25 prophets as sent by God, and among these prophets are such biblical prominents as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
Muslims do accept the Bible as a holy book, but believe that in its present form the Bible is corrupt. The "revelations" given to Muhammad are necessary to correct and complete the picture. Joseph Smith claimed something similar many years later when he wrote his Book of Mormon. There is a strong Old Testament influence in the Qur'an, reflected also in the Shari'a, the way of life, the Muslim code of ethics and morals with accompanying punishments.
Because Islam has taken up so many ideas from the Bible and yet has done so in a totally unscriptural manner, it may rightly be called the greatest caricature of the Truth. Biblical stories are retold in the manner in which Muhammad heard or interpreted them, and the events are placed in an entirely different context so that nothing is left of the original. We see this especially when we look at what the Qur'an says about the birth and death of Jesus Christ.
Islam and Christmas
The Qur'an records the birth of Jesus as follows (I follow the traditional numbering, quoted from The Koran, Penguin Classics, London, ed. 1974):
And you shall recount in the Book the story of Mary: how she left her people and betook herself to a solitary place in the east.
We sent to her Our spirit in the semblance of a full-grown man. And when she saw him, she said: May the Merciful defend me from you! If you fear the Lord, leave me and go your way. I am the Messenger of the Lord, he replied, and I have come to give you a holy son.
How shall I bear a child, she answered, when I am a virgin, untouched by man?
Such is the will of your Lord, he replied. That is no difficult thing for Him. He shall be a sign to mankind, says the Lord, and a blessing from Ourself. This is our decree.
There upon she conceived him, and retired to a far-off place. And when she felt the throes of childbirth, she lay down by the trunk of a palm-tree, crying, Oh, would that I had died and passed into oblivion!
But a voice from below cried out to her: Do not despair. Your Lord has provided a brook that runs at your feet, and if you shake the trunk of this palm-tree, it will drop fresh ripe dates in your lap. Therefore rejoice. Eat and drink, and should you meet any mortal, say to him: I have vowed a fast to the Merciful and will not speak with any man today.
Carrying the child, she came to her people...Mary, 19:18-28
This account is almost a combination of what is really recorded in the Bible about the birth of Jesus and what happened to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael. Muhammad obviously mixed truth with fiction.
It is very clear from the Qur'an that this Jesus may not be regarded as being God. This is one of the key points of Islam. To equate Jesus with deity would mean to commit the sin of shirk, the association of any human being with divinity, a great crime in Islam. To illustrate this, I quote again from the Qur'an:
Unbelievers are those that say: Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary. For the Messiah himself said: children of Israel, serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord. He that worships other gods besides Allah shall be forbidden Paradise and shall be cast into the fire of Hell. None shall help the evildoers.
Unbelievers are those that say: Allah is one of three. There is but one God. If they do not desist from so saying, those of them that disbelieve shall be sternly punished.
The Messiah, the son of Mary, was no more than an apostle: other apostles passed away before Him. His mother was a saintly woman. They both ate earthly food.The Table, 5:70ff
Muslims are generally not in favor of keeping many feast days. Christmas is certainly not on their list. In any case, they will never accept the testimony of the Scriptures that on Christmas Day "the Word became flesh," the Word Who is God and was with God (John 1).
Like many Jews, Muslims cannot accept the notion of one God Who is manifest in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a gross misinterpretation of the Christian faith to suggest that Christians profess three Gods.
Islam and Golgotha
Since Muslims cannot accept the fact that the Messiah had to have two natures in order to be able to atone for sin, they also do not have a proper Scriptural vision on what happened at Golgotha. Muslims deny that Jesus really died on the cross.
The Qur'an puts it as follows:
They ("The People of the Book") denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared: we have put to death the Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of Allah. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.
Those that disagreed about him were in doubt concerning his death, for what they knew about it was sheer conjecture; they were not sure that they had slain him. Allah lifted him up to his presence; He is mighty and wise. There is none among the People of the Book who will believe in him before his death; and on the day of Resurrection he shall be a witness against them.Women, 4:154ff
It is clear that Muhammad heard the conflicting reports from Jews and Christians about the death of Jesus, but he chose to take another route in resolving the issue. According to Islam, Jesus did not die but was taken up to heaven. If anyone really did die, it was someone who resembled Jesus but was not really the Messiah Himself. Here, perhaps, some Gnostic tendencies come to the fore.
The Ancient Heresy
Islam differs from all other false religions in that it has assimilated elements from the Biblical revelation. But it is similar to all these other religions in its teaching that man must save himself through his good works. This is the ancient heresy which constantly creeps up in the world religions and in the false church.
Whoever reads the Qur'an can sometimes be impressed by the lofty hymns on the glory and majesty of the Creator. At the same time, one notices how Muslims cannot really have a close, personal communion with this mighty God. They do not know Him Who has fully reconciled His people to the Father and Who has sent His Spirit to dwell in their hearts.
Muslims may confess that God is great ("Allahu akbar"), but still they have very little understanding of His infinite holiness. They are not really aware of His great wrath over sin which could only be stilled by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Muslims may often refer to God as "the Compassionate, the Merciful," but they do not really know what it means to be saved only through grace by faith in Christ (I borrowed some remarks here from an article by the Dutch missionary to Muslims and Hindus, the Rev. J.W. Roosenbrand, in De Reformatie, September 15, 1990). It remains true and must be remembered especially at Christmas that no one can come to the Father except through the Son (John 14:6).
There are many similarities between Islam and Christianity. A caricature always looks a little like the original. But the Truth is totally obscured. Christians have an important task to demonstrate in teaching and conduct to Muslims what Christmas really means: God's own Son came into the flesh to save us from our sins by His one sacrifice on the cross.
The true Christian faith is indeed unique.