Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.”
The Shahada is the THE key statement for Muslims. It is worthy of serious thought, not only for Muslims, but for all of us who strive to understand something of Islam as well.
As most of you know, I began this site to help Christians learn about Islam. Whether one thinks well or ill of Muslims in general, we Christians have a responsibility to learn truth about a religion which is having a sizable impact on our world. Therefore, I hope to share objective information about Islam that is particularly useful for Christians, especially American Evangelicals. I am writing about the Shahada this week, because this statement encapsulates the very essence of what Islam is.
Jewish people immediately notice the similarity between the Shahada and Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:5 goes on to say, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This is by far the most important part of the Old Testament for Jewish people, because in virtually every synagogue on earth, at each Friday or Saturday service, the congregation recites this passage together (in Hebrew). Jewish people refer to these verses as the Shema, because the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4 in Hebrew is Shema, “hear!”
Those of you who know the New Testament well might recall something Jesus had to say about the Shema. When someone asks Jesus to name the greatest of the commandments, he responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus’ affirmation of the Shema here is one of the reasons that Jewish people usually regard Jesus as a good and righteous Jewish person (although definitely NOT divine!)
The relationship between the Shahada and the Shema is not accidental. Islam came into existence in the early seventh century in a part of Arabia containing substantial numbers of Jewish residents. These Arabs also had had extensive contact with Christian missionaries (although many of these missionaries probably taught things that we would call “heresy” today). The contact with Judaism explains a basic fact about Islam which surprises many people today: the religion of Islam is very similar to the religion of Judaism. In particular, both teach that there is only one God, the creator of the universe, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly loving and just. Both religions teach that God loves and cares about human beings. He wants us to be happy and successful, but He is also capable of seriously punishing those who oppose Him. This explains the similarity of the Shahada and the Shema.
We might ask, “If the religions are so similar, why didn’t those early Arabs simply convert to Judaism?” The most likely answer is that, for non-Jews, Judaism tends to imply that people who are born Jewish are somehow better, or more preferred by God, than those who are not. Judaism teaches that God loves all people, but its core truths, found in the Torah (the books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are for the Jewish people. This is the point of the first three words of the Shema, “Hear O Israel!” The Torah was given to the Jewish people. Arabs (and others) can convert, but only through a long process, supervised by a rabbi.
Becoming a Muslim is much easier. All you have to do is recite the Shahada four times in the presence of witnesses (normally in a mosque), and you’re in! Islam further stresses that all races are equal: there is nothing special about the Arabs, or anyone else.
So what is special about the Shahada? There are two parts. First, the statement “there is no God but God” affirms the one monotheistic God of Judaism. We see this clearly stated in the Qur’an, which re-tells numerous stories from the Old Testament. For Muslims, Islam was not “founded” in the seventh century. Instead, going all the way back to Adam and Eve, the one God has always been reaching out to human beings. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others were all prophets sent by God to guide people to God. (This is one point that distinguishes Islam from Christianity: while Christians tend to say that Christianity was “founded” by Christ, Muslims teach that Islam technically has been around since Adam). Yes, some Christians believe that the Qur’an talks about a God who does not appear in the Bible. But the Qur’an itself identifies the one God with the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other biblical figures.
The second half of the Shahada, “and Muhammad is the prophet of God,” distinguishes Islam from Judaism (and other religions). If the God of Islam is the God worshiped by Moses, then why not just read the Old Testament? For Muslims, the answer is that God gave his perfect revelation, the Qur’an, to Muhammad. Yes, God spoke to Moses and the others as well, using them to give us the Old and New Testaments. But Islam teaches that the Old and New Testaments have been corrupted. For Muslims, Bible authors were imperfect people, and so allowed their own ideas to mix with God’s revelation. Thus, disagreements between the Bible and the Qur’an should be attributed to an imperfect Bible. The Qur’an, however, transmitted verbally through Muhammad, is perfect. This is the point of the phrase “Muhammad is His prophet.” The Shahada states that while people should worship the monotheist creator God of the Old and New Testaments, we should learn about this God and His will for humankind through the teaching of Muhammad.
There are, of course, important theological differences between Islam and Christianity. But modern Christians, particularly American Christians, should reflect on the similarities as well. Both religions proclaim the Creator God of the Old Testament prophets, a God who demonstrates his loves for human beings by sending prophets. These theological underpinnings are essentially the same as those that link Christianity and Judaism – again, not a surprise, since the differences between Judaism and Islam are small. If we have learned to work profitably with our Jewish neighbors in modern American society, then there really is no reason that we cannot do the same with Muslims.
A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts