Apologist Joel Furches highlights the core beliefs of the fastest growing religion in the world and compares it to the two other Abrahamic faiths
The word ‘Islam’ literally means “to submit”. In this case, it is full submission to the will of God. As such, Muslims will claim that Abraham, Moses, the apostles and even Jesus himself were Muslims insofar as they submitted fully to God.
The reason Muslims would not extend this courtesy to modern Christians is that Christians worship Jesus and the Holy Spirit as equivalent to God which is, by their way of thinking, a form of polytheism. The popular Muslim thought as regards this shift from the early apostles to modern Christians is that Paul of Tarsus corrupted Christian theology and opened it to this notion that Jesus was not merely a son of God, but God himself. Prior to Paul, Muslims claim, Christians were, in essence, Muslims.
Islam and radical monotheism
As theological crimes go, polytheism is, by far, the worst within Islam. The formal proclamation of one’s Muslim faith, called the Shahada, says: “I bear witness that there is no deity but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
The first line of the Shahada, that there is no deity besides God, reflects the core teaching and root of Islam. It is worth noting that the word people associate with the God of Islam, ‘Allah’, is simply the Arabic word for ‘God’, rather than the name of a particular god. It is the Muslim commitment to the purity of the Arabic language in which the Qur’an was originally written that is responsible for the use of ‘Allah’ rather than simply ‘God’ when speaking in the English language.
It is important to understand that Islam arose in a highly polytheistic culture. Muhammad’s bold move of smashing the various idols and proclaiming radical monotheism was unprecedented in that culture. In addition, Muhammad adopted an approach similar to the second commandment in which God, and later Muhammad himself, were forbidden to be pictured in any visual form. One did not worship God as a visible being, but rather as a creator transcendent above his creation. Similarly, it is blasphemy to picture the final and most important prophet of God.
Muhammad and the Qur’an
Muhammad was not, of course, the only prophet within Islam. Islam coopts many of the characters within the Hebrew scriptures as prophets. However, as the final prophet and bringer of the Qur’an, Muhammad is nevertheless the most important religious figure to Muslims.
It would be contrary to Muslim doctrine to say that Muhammad was the author of the Qur’an, as this book of prophecy and doctrine is said to be the eternal word of God, and to have existed long before it was written down. Muhammad was merely the vessel by which the book was made known to the world.
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Total submission to God
Besides the message of the oneness and absolute superiority of the single God, Islam teaches total submission to God by way of upholding his law. Hebrew doctrine institutes 613 laws and rituals one must follow to be a faithful Jew, and seven one must uphold to be a faithful Gentile. Islam reduces the religious rituals and rules to a simple five, called the ‘five pillars’. These include:
1. The Shahada
The Shahada was detailed above, but one’s first public proclamation of the Shahada is similar to saying the sinner’s prayer, or perhaps even taking communion in Christianity. This is to say, it has significant ritual importance, and publicly confirms one’s dedication to one God and rejection of all other deities.
Secondly, it confirms that the only means by which one may know about God is by way of the Qur’an, the word of God revealed through his prophet, Muhammad.
2. Ritual prayer
Most forms of Christianity have very little structure to their prayer. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy include a bit of ritual, and there are various ritualistic elements in Judaism as well, but none so structured as Islamic prayer.
No matter their location or activity, faithful Muslims will take time to pause, get on their knees facing Mecca (which would be eastward for the western portion of the globe), then place their foreheads to the ground and recite portions of the Qur’an in the original Arabic, if possible. They do this once before sunrise, at noon, in the afternoon, at sunset and finally at night. Other ritualistic movements and rules also apply to prayers.
Muslims are permitted to pray throughout the day in much the same way a Christian might pray – thanking God or praying for favours – but these are voluntary, whereas the ritualistic prayers are compulsory.
To a Muslim, the prayer is a method by which the sins of the practitioner are absolved, not unlike the ritualistic prayers associated with Catholicism.
In the culture from which Muhammad came, it was customary for the wealthy to give to the community by contributing to building the city or by giving to beggars. One’s charity was a way in which one could display one’s affluence, and also a way of gaining honour in the community. Muhammad codified this tradition into Islam by making the giving of alms essential to religious piety without reference to one’s actual wealth.
The wealthier of Muslims would build places of worship, contribute to the Muslim community or simply give to charity. Similar to tithing in the Jewish law, a fixed portion of one’s income was to be allotted to charitable giving.
The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is called Ramadan, and is a holy month during which one may not eat during daylight hours. The purpose of this fasting is to cultivate a sense of gratitude to God.
One of the watershed moments during Muhammad’s life was his journey from Mecca to Medina. This occurred for political reasons: Muhammad’s growing religious movement was becoming a threat to Mecca, and he was compelled to move to a new city wherein he would be more welcome. Nevertheless, Muhammad’s journey is reversed when a Muslim takes a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca and visits the Kaaba, a site of significant religious importance.
A faithful Muslim need only make this journey once in his or her lifetime, and there is some understanding within the religion that such a journey may not be possible to all Muslims living all across the globe. Consequently, there is some forgiveness if one does not manage to make the journey in one’s lifetime.
Islam and Christianity
When one reads the Qur’an, one may recognize some characters and stories from the Bible. Principle among these is Jesus himself. Muslims hold Jesus to be a prophet of similar or greater importance than even Muhammad. Muslims take Jesus to be the Messiah, who ascended to heaven, and will return to earth. But unlike Christians, they do not believe him to be God incarnate.
Whereas Christians disagree on many things, there is near-universal agreement that Jesus died and then was resurrected in some fashion (most Christians hold to a bodily resurrection, although some will say the resurrection was more metaphorical than physical). Muslims, on the other hand, do not see how God’s chosen could be allowed to die in such a way, and so they deny that the crucifixion took place – at least, not with Jesus hanging on the cross.
For Christians, the crucifixion and resurrection are the principle means by which salvation occurs. Again, with some variation, most Christians believe that one need only repent and believe in salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection in order to be saved. As mentioned above, Muslims believe in a set of ritual practices which bring one to salvation.
For a Muslim, ‘salvation’ means escape from a hell which looks very much like the traditional Christian idea of hell, and into a heaven which has a few features unique to Islam.
Much like Christianity, there are a variety of sects within Islam which interpret doctrines differently from one another – the biggest difficulty being those Muslims who take a very militant view on converting the world versus those who take a much gentler view, the result of which has been apparent in the news for the last 20 years or so.
The same God?
Early in this article, it was mentioned that ‘Allah’ simply means ‘God’ in the universal sense in which Christians use the word. Christians generally believe that Jews worship essentially the same God as they do, given that the Jewish scripture composes part of the Christian Bible, and Jesus came from the Jewish people. The disagreement between Christians and Jews boils down to the identity of Jesus.
In much the same way, some people hold that the Muslim God is the same entity which Christians worship, with only a few minor disagreements. Islam was established roughly 600 years after Christianity, identifies Jesus as Messiah, borrows a number of stories and characters from the Christian Bible, and says some complimentary things about Christians and Jews within their scriptures (although not always).
Given that Muslims, like Christians, are monotheists who believe in a God who created the world, and that Jesus was the Messiah, is it possible that the two religions revere the same God?
The simple answer is no. The Christian idea of God relies very heavily on the doctrine of the Trinity, which Muslims outright reject. Whereas Christians hold that God is three persons but one being, Muslims hold this doctrine to be polytheism and therefore blasphemy. They cannot accept that the Christian God is the same as theirs. The reverse is also the case. That Muslims deny the deity of Christ, makes a significant distinction between the two religions.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.