A Christian perspective on Islam

Not much time has passed since Europe was last in danger of being overrun by Islam. In 1453, Constantinople, the Eastern bulwark of Christianity, was captured by the Ottomans. In1529 and again in 1683 the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna. The struggle to free Belgrade lasted almost 200 years, and it was only a short time before the First World War that the last Balkan countries were able to free themselves from the Ottoman rule. It is naive, however, to assume that Islam and Christianity were wrestling with each other in that region for six hundred years. The fact is that empires are not built on any religion but on economic and military powers. Christianity and Islam both became servants of empire, the first of the Roman Empire and the second of the Ottoman Empire.

Many Christians have forgotten that Syria and North Africa were once the heartland of the Christian world, but were overrun and fell under Arab control during the first Islamic invasions between 632 and 732 AD. Arab armies swept into Europe and stood within 200 kilometers south of Paris, and near Geneva, too. If Charles Martel had not stood firm, we might all be Muslims today.

Again many Christians are pondering the questions: What is Islam? Who is Allah? What relationship does Allah have to Jesus Christ and his Church?

Allah in the Thought and Lives of Muslims

A Muslim’s relationship to Allah can be seen in the five daily prayers, which belong to the five pillars of Islam. “Islam” means surrender, submission or subjugation.

If it were possible to watch from space, we could see the prayer ritual of Islam sweeping across our globe like a mighty wave five times a day, as millions of Muslims bow to the ground in worship. At dawn, as soon as one can distinguish between a white and a black thread, the prayer of the Muslim begins in the Philippines. The first wave of worship surges over Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, then Iran and Turkey. Finally it reaches Europe, at which time the second wave of worship begins at noon for the Muslims in China. This new wave will have reached India and the forty-five million Muslims in Central Asia just as a third wave will have started at 3 p.m. for afternoon prayers in the Far East. These three waves of worship follow each other successively, molding and determining life under the Islamic culture. Then, as dawn is breaking on the East Coast of America with its Morning Prayer, Muslims in the Nile Valley are bowing down in the heat of noon prayer and in Pakistan men are gathering in their mosques for afternoon prayer. When the final wave of the Muslim night prayer begins in the Far East two hours after sunset, the rays of the setting sun touch the worshipers in the Ganges Delta, while pilgrims in Mecca bow down for afternoon prayer before the black stone in the Ka’ba. At that moment the second prayer wave has already reached faithful Muslims in the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, while the first wave breaks with the early morning dawn in the Rocky Mountains of America.

These five waves of prayer unite millions of Muslims in worship. Many Muslims pray earnestly, disciplining themselves by repeating their prayers 17 times a day. Early in the morning, the Muezzins call from the minarets: “Arise to prayer! Arise to success! Prayer is better then sleep!” Everyone who serves Allah hopes to receive a reward from him. Muslims thank Allah because he has already granted faith, which leads them to pray and keep the law in order to have the goodwill of Allah bestowed upon them.

Islam, then, is a religion based on keeping the Law of God. Prayer is an obligation. In Saudi Arabia a visitor may observe policemen forcing passers-by into mosques during the prayer times, so that the wrath of Allah may not descend on the country because of neglected prayer.

There is also in Islam a deep longing for purity. Before each prayer time, every Muslim performs a compulsory ablution — the washing of hands, arms, feet, mouth, face and hair. Those who know something of Judaism will see the parallel with the Pharisaic ablutions. Everyone must be clean before entering Allah’s presence to pray.

A sentence from the al-Fatiha in the main prayer for all Muslims reads, “Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom thou hast blessed, not of those against whom thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray,” a cry expressing the desire for guidance and a total dependence on Allah. A Christian cannot deny the faithful intent of Muslims to serve God. On the contrary, their discipline, sincerity and consistency in praying can be an example to us. Without a doubt, every true Muslim desires to serve God with all his heart. He calls on Allah in his prayers; he wants to honor him; he fights for him and submits his entire being to him.

The Beautiful Names of Allah

“Allah” is the Semitic name of God which comes originally from El, Eloh and Elohem. What is the Muslim concept of Allah? Whom do they worship? In his struggle against polytheism, Muhammad waged a merciless campaign against all gods, idols and images. His outcry was: “Allah is One! All other gods are nothing!” He had accepted the basic monotheistic faith of the Jews who were living in the Arabian Peninsula after being exiled from their homeland by the Romans. Influenced by them, Muhammad freed the Arab world from idolatry. The first half of the Islamic creed makes a sharp distinction between the Oneness of God and the claims of religions and magical cults which teach that other gods exist. Millions of Muslims confess daily, “There is no god save Allah!” as the core of the Islamic faith. Any theological assertion that contradicts this is rejected without question.

Muhammad not only testified to Allah’s uniqueness, but described him with many names:. Islamic theologians have systematized all his statements into “the 99 most beautiful names of Allah”. Sorting through these names of Allah according to their significance and frequency, moves us closer to the heart of Islam. Allah is the Omniscient One with infinite wisdom who hears all and sees all, understands all and encompasses everything. He both builds up and destroys. He is the exalted one above everything, great and immeasurable, magnificent and almighty, without equal. He is the living one, ever-existing, unending, everlasting, the first and the last, the one and the only one, the incomparably beautiful one. He is praiseworthy and excellent, the holy one, light and peace. He is the true reality and the foundation of everything, who created everything out of nothing by the strength of his word. He brought everything into being, and to him we shall all return. He creates life and causes death (Sura al-A`raf 7:44; note that Eastern Christianity does not accept that God created death). He will raise the dead and unite the universe. Allah is the sovereign lord and king to whom the universe belongs. He saves whom he wills and condemns whom he wishes. Above all, Allah is called the compassionate and merciful one, and yet he is also the avenger. He has recorded everything and will be the incorruptible and indisputable witness on the day of judgement.

The authority of Allah may open the door to success or lock it. Nothing takes place without his will. He has no need of any mediator. Everything depends directly on him. He is also benevolent and patient, faithful and kind to Muslims, the giver of all gifts. From him alone comes provision for all mankind. He who possesses everything makes people wealthy and protects all who glorify him. He is guardian over all who worship him. Allah acknowledges those who repent, and forgives because he is the forgiving one. He is gracious toward Muslims.

Often, the names of Allah are ascribed to him in a spirit of wishful thinking rather than confident faith. The more oppressive attributes create fear and drive people to do everything possible to keep the law. Poverty and illness are regarded as signs of Allah’s wrath for secret sins. By the same token, riches, success and esteem in Muslim society are taken as indications of favor. Some Muslims say, “Because we have remained faithful to Allah for 1300 years, he has rewarded us with the oil.”

The wealth of the divine names of God can be discovered only in Sufism. Ordinary Muslims accept that Allah cannot be proved to exist, or described. One can only sense him through experience. A pious Muslim confirms his faith that God is beyond our understanding by the common words, “Allahu akbar! God is great!” This statement, repeated millions of times each day, is an abridged form of the Islamic creed. With this testimony Khomeini’s revolutionary guards ran blindly into mine fields knowing they would be torn to shreds. Yet it is not a complete sentence. Its literal meaning is “Allah is greater!” Every listener should complete the thought: Allah is wiser than all philosophers, more beautiful than the most fascinating view, stronger than all atomic and hydrogen bombs together, and greater than anything we know. Allah is the unique, and inexplicable one — the remote, vast and unknown God. Everything we may think about him is incomplete, if not wrong. Allah cannot be comprehended. He comprehends us. We are slaves who have only the privilege to worship him in fear.

Islam stands for renunciation of the rationalism that prevails in Europe and America. For a long time it was the characteristic of Islamic theology that Allah could not be described philosophically. Understanding this brings us to a crucial statement expressed by the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali, who meditated at length on the ninety-nine excellent names of God. He wrote that these names can mean everything and yet nothing. One name of Allah can negate another and the content of one may be included in the next. No one can understand Allah, so devout believers can only worship this unknown God and live before him in fear and reverence, observing all his laws in strict obedience.

Islam — a theocentric culture

What are the practical consequences of such an understanding for the daily life of a Muslim? The image of a great, all-embracing Lord has conditioned the home, education, work and politics. “Show me your God and I will explain to you why you live as you do.” Similarly Genesis tells us, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” (1:27 ) This means that the concept of God is the pattern and measure of the culture associated with it.

In Islam, the father of the family is not an equal partner with his wife, but the patriarch of the house, holding all rights and authority. The children belong to him alone. He supplies provisions and grants no insight into his financial situation. His wife is not necessarily a life-time companion with equal rights, but often just a means of satisfying his physical desires, sometimes merely a baby factory. There are exceptions, of course, where noble and sensitive Arabs open themselves to the influence of world-wide humanism or where some resolute wives exert influence over their husbands. Christendom has also influenced Arab customs to some extent. In general, however, Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life. Khomeini in particular used the resurgence of Islam to reduce women to medieval subjection.

In schools, too, until a few years ago, the teacher gave instruction like a patriarch, ruling over his pupils and forcing the lessons down their throats. Any pupil who could not fully repeat the subject matter was punished. The main goals of education in many Islamic schools are not understanding, individual thinking and development of character, but acceptance and conformity. This is closely associated with the concept of thought in the Islamic religion, since a Muslim is forbidden to think critically about the Qur’an. He must accept it and memorize it. Being thus filled with the spirit of Islam, he walks in accordance with Allah’s law in his daily life. (How many Christians know even one of the Gospels by heart? Yet many Muslims have mastered the whole of the Qur’an.)

The forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam are based upon the picture of Allah given by Muhammad. A person is not guided to become active and responsible, but to submit himself passively to his fate. This is why Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably, for their entire education amounts to a submission of will and integration into an Allah-centered society. Again, in politics, democracy does not appear as the best model for social organization. Rather Allah, the king and lord over all, is the unconscious pattern for many sultans and dictators. The strong man who swept away corruption with an iron hand, who brought renown to Islam, has always been admired. (In Arab schools one can find children with such unusual first names as Bismarck, Stalin, de Gaulle and Nasser, because the parents wish and hope that there will be a glorious future for their offspring in the spirit of such historic personalities.) Complaisance and compromise mean weakness and incompetence.

It is not surprising, then, that Nasser and Khomeini were the dominating figures in the Near East. While Nasser attempted to combine an Arab socialism with Islam in order to meet the attack of atheistic communism, Khomeini trod a still more radical path by attempting to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth in Shi’ite countries. The ultimate aim of Khomeini’s revolution was not merely the removal of the shah or the elimination of Christian, capitalistic or communistic principles from among his people, but the reinstatement of an Islamic theocracy in which Allah prevailed in every area of life. This brought a “mullah state” into existence, where more people were killed in a few years in the name of Allah and Islam than during the long reign of the shah. Enemies of the Islamic revolution were no longer even regarded as people. Khomeini himself declared, “In Persia no people have been killed so far — only beasts!”

As the Islamic spirit cannot tolerate any other gods beside Allah, Islam will find no rest until all people have become Muslims. This mission-consciousness is based on the Islamic confession of faith which states that “there is no God except Allah.” Thus there can be no real peace on earth except through Islam.

We must confess, however, that Christians Crusaders who came to the Near East left behind them a trail of blood, engraving on the consciousness of Muslims the image of Christians as aggressive militants. Yet all “holy wars” are in direct conflict with the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Do not resist evil! Put your sword away! Love your enemies!” Christ never commanded his followers to fight in religious wars; rather, he forbade them any demonstration of violence. Muhammad, on the other hand, repeatedly fought in person alongside his fighters until they conquered Mecca and the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The spread of Islam is based on the sword, holy war being considered a direct command of Allah. This is why there is still in Islam the potential for holy war. (Sura al-Baqara 2:245). In Islam, there is no separation between throne and altar, between politics and religion. Mosques are often the starting point for political upheaval. Friday sermons are not confined to the fostering of faith and spiritual life, but may stir up the people for political conflict in the name of Allah.

According to the Islamic portrayal of Allah, nothing exists outside the province of his omnipotence, and anyone not surrendering voluntarily must be brought into subjection either by cunning strategy, economic persuasion or revolutionary force. Islam demands surrender of all areas of life to Allah’s spirit and the Qur’an’s control over all thought and conduct. Bedouin tribes once said to Muhammad, “We believe in Allah ” But he replied, “You have not believed until you say, ‘We have submitted ‘”

Islam cannot compromise with any “isms” for any period of time. As its history unfolded, strong impulses repeatedly flowed out of the Qur’an, which overcame ideas and concepts that had penetrated the Islamic culture from Europe, Persia and India, resulting in an all-pervading legalistic religion. The ultimate aim was nothing less than the establishment of Allah’s kingdom on our earth.

Allah in the Light of the Christian Faith

Islam has recovered much ground and expanded in the last ten years, making a substantial thrust into the cultures of Christianity, Hinduism, communism and the African cults. When we as Christians meet Muslims and try to understand them, we should not forget that many of them are genuine worshipers who serve their God with dedication. We Christians should never despise their deep aspirations, but should love and respect every Muslim who sincerely worships Allah.

This, however, does not absolve us from the obligation to seek the truth about Islam. Our respect for Muslims leads us to compare the Qur’an and the New Testament, which for us is the only standard of truth. If one compares the 99 names of Allah in Islam with the names of God in the Bible, one must acknowledge that the Allah of the Muslims is not in harmony with our God. If someone says, “Your God and Islam’s God are the same,” he does not understand who Allah and Christ really are, or glosses over the deeply rooted differences.

Allah — No Trinity

In the Arabic language, the name Allah can be understood as a sentence: al-el-hu. ‘El’ is an old Semitic name for God meaning ‘the strong and mighty’. The Islamic name, Allah, corresponds to the Hebrew name Elohim. Although the Hebrew name contains the possibility of a plural (hum), the name of Allah (hu) can only be singular. Thus, Allah in Islam is always only one and never a unity of three. It is unthinkable for a Muslim to believe in the existence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament sense. Consequently, the Islamic confession of faith not only declares the uniqueness of Allah but at the same time firmly rejects the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Allah — No Father

The name ‘Father’, the revelation of God’s innermost reality, is an indispensable element of the Christian faith. God has bound himself to us as our eternal Father. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1) In dialogue with Muslims and Jews, we must scrutinize anew statements of Jesus in the New Testament concerning the name “Father” for God. This name is mentioned at least 164 times in the Gospels. Christ did not preach about a distant God whom no one can know or comprehend, nor did he teach us to approach him with a trembling fear as the unapproachable holy Judge. Instead he gently moved the veil from before the God of the Old Testament and revealed him to us as the Father. He did not teach us to pray to Elohim, Yahweh, or the holy Trinity, but placed on our lips the loving name — “our Father.” Christ thus shared his own privilege with us, the unworthy ones. Through him we have become children of God, a relationship which Muhammad emphatically rejects (Sura al-Ma’ida 5:18).

If we compare the occasions when Christ used the name “God” with the occasions when he used the name “Father,” we are in for a surprise. Speaking to outsiders, demons or his enemies, Jesus spoke of the hidden God, the great and powerful Lord. But when he prayed or talked in the intimate circle of his followers, he revealed the innermost secret of God — his Fatherhood. For this claim Jesus was convicted of blasphemy when the high priest Caiaphas asked him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” (Mt 26:63) For Caiaphas to refer to God as “Father” would have been scandalous to the Jews, so he asked Jesus if he considered himself the “Son of God,” implying God’s Fatherhood. Christ confirmed his confession. His first words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” But as the Father veiled his face the Son cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet the crucified One held on to the reality of God’s Fatherhood in the midst of his suffering and died with the words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The author, a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship living in Britain, prefers to remain anonymous. His homeland is a country with a Muslim majority.