Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Christians: if you had to condense your faith, what you believe, into one word (not a name! “Jesus” doesn’t count) what would it be? “Love,” perhaps, or “grace,” or “faith?” the answer to this question may help us to understand a key difference between Muslims and Christians.
And the answer for Muslims may not be what you expect. But based on my readings and on my many conversations, the one word defining Islam is “justice.”
This does not mean, of course, that Muslims do not think that love, grace, and faith are important as well. But the single issue that is most important to Islam is justice.
Many westerners who come to Islam for the first time are taught that the word “Islam” means “submission” (as in, submission to the will of God). While this is true, we need to keep in mind that names do not always describe the thing being named. For example, it would be a big mistake to conclude that a “butterfly” has something to do with butter, or that my city, Newport News, has something to do with media!
Submission to God is of course important in Islam (just as it is important in Christianity!) But for Muslims, “submission” is the means to an end. Islam teaches that people should submit to God because this is how we can create a truly “just” society.
One way to learn the basic ideas of a religion is to listen to the followers of that religion talk about its origins. For example, Judaism traces its beginnings to Abraham, the literal ancestor of the Jewish people. Abraham had a special relationship with God, for no particular reason – Jewish people are careful to stress that Abraham was no better than anyone else! Abraham lived his life among people who were not specially chosen, trying his best to help his neighbors any way he could. Based on this “history,” for more than 2,000 years Jewish people have lived in predominantly Christian and Muslims countries, always believing that their unique relationship with God carried with it a responsibility to try to help their non-Jewish neighbors.
We Christians, of course, focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In historical terms, Jesus was unimportant: he was not rich and powerful like Abraham, or a great religious and political leader like Muhammad. Jesus had a small, obscure following, and his death was hardly noticed in his day. But for Christians, he is important because of spiritual realities: he is the most important person who ever lived because he was and is God. His death by crucifixion was hardly unusual in his day; but his death becomes the most important event in history because it gives us the possibility of eternal spiritual life.
Christians therefore focus on the spiritual realm. Yes, Christianity also teaches that we should try to be good people here on earth. But our main concern is with eternal, supernatural realities.
If you’ve been reading my blog, you know by now that Islam teaches many of the same things as does Christianity and, even more, Judaism. But its story of its origins tells us about what is important to Muslims.
Islam came into a world which was dominated by tribe and tribal allegiances. If someone hurt you or offended you, your tribe would take revenge. If your tribe was stronger than the tribe of someone who stole from you, then your tribe would get your property back – with interest! If your tribe was weaker, however, then there was nothing you could do – except, perhaps, seek personal revenge when you could. Life in society was not about right and wrong; it was about which individuals and groups were strongest.
Islam teaches that Muhammad spent his life teaching the Arabs of Mecca and Medina to put aside tribal allegiances, and instead follow God’s idea of justice. Muhammad taught that one’s tribe, or one’s status in a tribe, should not matter. All men were equal, regardless of race, tribe, or position. We submit to God in order to get everyone on the same page in terms of doing justice.
We see this in many of the earliest suras (“chapters”) of the Qur’an. (If you’re unfamiliar with how the Qur’an is arranged, keep in mind that the earliest suras are toward the back.) For example, sura 107 reads,
“Have you considered him who denies the religion? It is he who mistreats the orphan, and does not encourage the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who pray, those who are heedless of their prayers; those who put on the appearance, and withhold the assistance.”
In other words, the Qur’an teaches the ritual of prayer (“salat”) is much less important to God than is caring for the poor and the defenseless. (Take a look at Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25:31-46 for similar ideas!)
And see the first part of sura 104,
“Woe to every slanderer and backbiter, who gathers wealth and counts it over, thinking that his wealth has made him immortal. By no means! He will be thrown into the Crusher. And what will make you realize what the Crusher is? God’s kindled fire.”
Today, Muslims, like Jewish people, do try to help the majority in countries in which they are the minority. And like Christians, Muslims do think about eternal spiritual realities. But if you visit a mosque on a Friday afternoon (the time when you will hear a sermon from the Imam), you will most likely hear a sermon about behavior, what we must do to make our society more just.
Keep in mind also that, for all three religions, including Christianity, “justice” is not necessarily the same as “the law of the land.” Both the Qur’an and the Bible teach that societies sometimes make laws that are unjust. When this happens, Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all called to resist. “Justice” is NOT defined by the US constitution or the United Nations; it is defined by God.
So when we meet Muslims, we may well find that we agree about how God wants us to behave – not just behavior with fellow Christians or fellow Muslims, but behavior with everyone. For Muslims, Islam is about behavior first – and if you chat with actual Muslims, you will find that they are much more concerned with behavior than they are with this or that form of government, or system of religious law, or whatever.
Are Christians right to say that beliefs are important? Yes, we are. But our God cares about actions, too! So maybe conversation with Muslims about how to pursue justice for everyone might help us to be better Christians? Just a thought….
A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.
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