Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
The Shahada, part 2: Muhammad
Christianity revolves around Jesus; Islam follows Muhammad. Is Muhammad therefore the Islamic “equivalent” of Jesus? Or is his role in Islam somehow different? While this question is important for Christians today, it is, believe or not, even more important for Muslims, going to the heart of Islam. The Shahada, the great “confession” of Islam, tells all of us about the Muhammad’s role in Islam.
I wrote about the Shahada, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet” last month, concentrating on the first part. “There is no God but God” tells us all that Islam tries to follow in the tradition of Christianity and Judaism, that there is only one, all powerful, all loving God who created and controls all things. Islam was never supposed to be a brand new religion; instead, Muslims see Islam as the way to perfect the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, even beyond monotheism (the belief that there is only one God), Islam draws on a number of ideas from Judaism and Christianity.
While I focused on the first part of the Shahada then, this post is about the second part, “Muhammad is His Prophet.”
The most important figure in Judaism is Moses, who is credited with writing the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). In the midst of Moses’ final address to the Israelites, he makes a very interesting prediction: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
Moses clearly foretells that another leader will appear who has Moses’ same authority. Jewish tradition identifies this person with the “Messiah,” an individual who will bring in a new age. Of course, Christians identify this person with Jesus, so that, with Deuteronomy 18:15 in mind, much of the New Testament tries to show that Jesus is the “new” Moses.
Now, what is the best way to prove that Jesus takes Moses’ place – or even exceeds him? One way to go is to have Moses himself appear. This actually happens in Matthew 17 (with similar passages in Mark and Luke) in an episode of Jesus’ life which Christians call the “Transfiguration:”
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters– one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-5).
(I won’t get too far into the significance of this passage here, except to say that, by Jesus’ day, Many Jewish people thought of Elijah as an important Old Testament “candidate” to replace Moses. If you like studying the Bible, compare 1 Kings 19 with Deuteronomy 9).
Thus, Moses himself appears and confirms that Jesus has exceeded him. Notice especially God’s last three words: “Listen to him!” What better way to show to everyone that Jesus is the highest authority, than to have Moses present as God declares that everyone should listen to him?
This passage is an important precursor to what Muslims believe was the single most important event of Muhammad’s life, the Mi’raj (“night vision”). The Mi‘raj was clearly inspired by the Transfiguration. Sura 18 of the Qur’an mentions this, but hadith literature (stories about Muhammad told by his close followers) go into more detail. One night, while Muhammad was living in Mecca, he is awakened by the angel Gabriel (“Jibril” in Arabic). Gabriel performs a miraculous washing of Muhammad’s innards, then takes him via a winged horse to Jerusalem – some five hundred miles away. Muhammad then ascends to seven levels of heaven, where he meets a number of people from the Bible, including Jesus, Moses, and Abraham. Of these three, it appears that Abraham is the most important; however, all three (along with other bible figures) agree that Muhammad is the greatest of them all. It is at this juncture that Muhammad negotiates with God to require humans to ray five times a day; God initially wants 50, but, with the help and advice of Abraham (perhaps an allusion to Genesis 18?), Muhammad negotiates this down to five. Muhammad then eventually returns to Mecca – with all of these events happening in one night!
Most Muslims believe that the Mi‘raj was an actual historical event – although more and more modern Muslims believe that this was a dream. Either way, the point is clear: since Jesus, Moses, Abraham, and other appear in this account, Muhammad is clearly the best of the prophets. Muslims describe him as the “seal” of the prophets – the most important, and the last.
What does this mean for Christians? First of all, we do well to understand Muslims basic understand of the relationship of Jesus (and Old Testament figures) to Muhammad. The Qur’an treats Jesus and the others with great respect: Jesus, Abraham, and Moses are thought to be great prophets. They fit into the same sort of category into which most of us place Moses and Abraham: godly men, just not up to Christ’s level. The big difference, of course, is that while we believe that Christ is divine, both God’s son and God himself, Muslims believe that Muhamad is fully human. Muhammad is the greatest of the prophets, but was a man, inherently imperfect.
Second, just as we believe that Christ is the ultimate source of authority, Muslims hold Muhammad to have the greatest authority. This is why Muslims traditionally trace all sacred writings (the Qur’an and the hadith) back to him. Christians do always think through this principle, but the only thing that makes the New Testament our central authority is that we hold it to have been written by Jesus’ disciples (and their close associates). This was the only criterion applied by the church fathers: they had to be confident that the books of the New Testament were written by the people hand-selected by Christ to be apostles. This is why Christians can be confident that the New Testament clearly reflects Christ’s teaching. Similarly, Muslims are confident that the Qur’an reflects Muhammad’s teachings because the Qur’an actually is Muhammad’s transcribed words.
Third, the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven is extremely significant. Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest city precisely because Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from Jerusalem. As I’ve explained earlier, this fact makes it very difficult for Muslims to accept Israel as a non-Islamic state: it just seems wrong to Muslims that they cannot control one of their holiest cities. (There is one glimmer of hope: Muslims who believe that the Mi‘raj was a vison, rather than an actual event, tend to be less worried that Israel is not ruled by Muslims.) I personally support a secure Jewish state of Israel, and I am glad that the United States supports it as well. But Chrsitans must always have empathy for Muslims who feel that part of their holy land has been taken from them by Christians, and given to Jews.
The Shahada is THE key statement for Muslims because it reminds Muslims of who they are, and what they believe. If we wish to understand our Muslim neighbors and their religion, we do well to think about the implications of the Shahada.