Islam, Friend or Foe?

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The title of this article isn’t a new question, but, even after Islam Awareness Week last week and the launch of statistics about Islamophobia and attacks on Muslims (mostly women) it’s one that is still being asked. It would be fair to say that some people in the UK are uncomfortable about Muslims, others are actively opposed to Muslim communities and of course others, thankfully, are living and working harmoniously alongside UK Muslims. The Christian Muslim Forum stands in the hospitable middle-ground.

For some people, maybe especially Christians, comparing Christianity and Islam is like chalk and cheese or mixing oil and water. Could they be more different? Aren’t they opposed to, or in competition, with each other? Those of us who work together as Christians and Muslims on common initiatives are not so strange to each other,  religiously we can see ourselves as cousins or ‘children of Abraham’. The challenge is that our similarities lie very close to our differences. 

Christians and Muslims:

  • Believe in one God … but ‘Trinity’
  • Dependent on Scripture … but Bible or Qur’an
  • Jesus is a key figure … but ‘Son of God’
  • events from Jesus’ life… but crucifixion

A key point made to me by a Muslim friend some years ago is that the difference between Christianity and Islam is all to do with Jesus. The religious divide is rooted in different perspectives on Jesus Christ (yes, Muslims call him that too). But there are also many similarities, Muslims also believe Jesus was:

  • Born of the Virgin Mary
  • Sinless
  • Very close to God
  • Called the Word of God
  • Worked miracles

Sounds familiar?

So how do Christians react to the idea of Jesus as shared figure, important to both religions? On the shared side – I heard a Muslim speaker speaking about Mary at an event (Mary is a key figure in the Qur’an). I complimented him on his words about Mary across our ‘Christian-Muslim divide’ (i.e. ‘but you’re a Muslim talking about “our” Mary’). In a powerful, moving moment he graciously said, ‘of course, how could it be otherwise?’ and embraced and kissed me as one of Mary’s children.

But if I start talking about Jesus as Son of God, or Saviour, then we will part company. We can share our disagreement over ‘Original Sin’ and why God the Father sent his Son to die so that human beings can be ‘saved’. But what is ‘salvation’ in Islam: 

  • the Prophet Muhammad’s message – submission to God
  • repentance
  • forgiveness of sins
  • a life turned towards God 

Again a mixture of similarity and difference, we recognise some elements as common to Christianity – repentance, confession and forgiveness – others have a different feel to them – submission, or the centrality of the shahadah (‘There is one God …’). And this is without mentioning ‘Trinity’. The Qur’an explicitly argues against the idea of the Trinity. From my own theological studies I am all too aware that the doctrine of Trinity developed out of explanations of Jesus being God and man and the relationship between the Son of God and God the Father. So the difference here is essentially the same issue and the same disagreement.

But we really need to talk about the Qur’an. It follows in the tradition of Judaeo-Christian scripture and refers to itself, as both a Book and revelation. This is how Christians see their Book, yet they are not the same. It is impossible not to be aware of how non-Muslims relate to the Qur’an, sales of the Qur’an rocketed after 9/11 as people wanted to find out more about the religion claimed (but not lived out!) by bombers and terrorists. Of course the Qur’an doesn’t answer that question – it doesn’t tell you to blow yourself up, sharing Judaeo-Christian rejection of suicide, it does not tell you to attack your neighbour, to start wars or kill the innocent. Something else that Christians and Muslims have in common …

Still, people approach the Qur’an in this way and claim justification for terror and violence, just as they have done and still do with the Bible, e.g. Christians attacking places and people connected to the provision of abortions. The Christian Muslim Forum produced this statement to challenge these attitudes 

From a Christian perspective the Qur’an is challenging because it refers to incidents from Christian scripture, retelling them with some differences. The other key difference between our two scriptures is Muslim belief about the Qur’an, the absolute Word of God, complete, unchanging, infallible. Some describe the Bible in those terms, though even the ‘strongest’ views wouldn’t say that every word was directly spoken by God. Thus, though similar, our two scriptures do not line up with each other, because they are very different. For Christians it is Jesus who is the Word of God, for Muslims the spoken Word of God is the Qur’an.

Another thing Christians and Muslims have in common is abuse and misuse of scripture. Many scholars of Islam talk about Islam being hijacked by terrorists and extremists, and the Qur’an has been described as a ‘manual of hate’. I began my own journey of reading the Qur’an over ten years ago, I would encourage people to read it rather than being informed by preachers of hate and media perceptions. Prince Ghazi of Jordan spoke at a conference in Oxford recently on the topic of ‘love’ in the Qur’an. Those who speak negatively about Muslims, or claim to be Muslim but have hatred in their hearts for non-Muslims (as well as Muslims) and rip verses from their context describe it as a book of hate. Those who take the trouble to read what it says about peace, care of neighbour, women and orphans and the love and mercy of God, see it is a book of love.

Finally, we must talk about the Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic creed, the shahadah, says ‘There is none worthy of worship but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.’ Muslims don’t worship Muhammad but he has a key place in Islam as the original preacher of the message of Islam, the bearer of God’s revelation, the prime example of a life lived in submission to God and, as his wife Aiysha described him, ‘a walking Qur’an’. Theologically, we should compare Jesus and the Qur’an in their centrality in both faiths. But there are similarities between Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, both specially chosen by God, given a key message, began with a small group of ‘disciples’, preached the Word of God. Naturally, as Christians and Muslims, we disagree about the prophethood of Muhammad but as Christians we should be aware of the man who is so important for over a billion Muslims around the world. We should know that the Islamic tradition describes him as a mercy to all creation and that he was a pioneer of inter faith in his own mosque!

My intention here is to give an overview of the main similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam, to offer a positive Christian view of Islam and share a little of Islam as understood from a Muslim perspective. For the Christian Muslim Forum it is important that each faith is represented fairly and that each faith stands on its own merits, that Christianity is not judged for not being Islam, and Islam not seen as a deficient when compared with Christianity. We can and should acknowledge our differences and similarities and not make what is different difficult. Part of our ‘mission’ as the Christian Muslim Forum is to explore our differences creatively. But most of all speak loudly that Christians and Muslims are not a threat to each other and we should not fear each other.

Julian Bond, Director, Christian Muslim Forum
with thanks to my colleague Zahra Imame

This is a shortened version of this article Similarities and Differences between Christianity and Islam

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