Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Let’s agree right from the start that the Qur’an is not easy to interpret. Christians who try to read it have trouble making sense of it. Here’s a secret (sort of…): Muslims also have a hard time working with the Qur’an. That’s one of the reasons that Muslims tend to use hadith (short sayings and stories told by Muhammad and his close followers). Hadith are much easier to understand than passages from the Qur’an. (I’ll be talking about hadith more in the future.)
But, of course, the Qur’an is the main written authority in Islam, as Muslims traditionally believe it to be God’s words given exactly to Muhammad. So whenever Muslims gather, there is always at least a reading from the Qur’an.
When we compare religious texts, we need to keep in mind that they do not all appear in the same way, or have the same kinds of contents. As religious works go, the Bible is unique, as it is a collection of many different types of literature: narrative, poetry, law, letters, wise sayings, and so on. As Christians study the Bible, we should think about how to correctly interpret each kind of biblical literature.
The Qur’an, however, is entirely poetry. It is divided into 114 suras (we might call them “chapters”), and each sura is independent. These facts (and a few others) lead me to conclude that instead of comparing the Qur’an to the Bible as a whole, we are much better off comparing the Qur’an to the book of the Bible to which it is most similar: the book of Psalms.
Psalms is unique in the Bible in that, like the Qur’an, every “chapter” is its own separate work. (Chapters of the other books of the Bible are usually closely connected to each other). Te individual psalms are very different from each other: there are psalms devoted to praise, thanksgiving, sorrow, wisdom, and even history (see Psalms 104–106!) Likewise, the Qur’an, also written in poetry, has many different subjects, including history, law, advice, and praise for God.
The beginning of Psalms is similar to the start of the Qur’an. Muslims have always recognized that sura 1 is intended to “introduce” the Qur’an (hence its name, “the opening”). Christian scholars through history have been less sure about the reasonfor the placement of Psalm 1; however, most scholars today (including yours truly) now believe that the person who arranged the psalms in the order shown in our Bibles deliberately put Psalm 1 first in order to guide our reading of the rest.
Take a look at sura 1, and Psalm 1.
Sura 1, “The Opening”
1 Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
We can see that both of these poems advise us to take the path of other righteous people while avoiding the road of the misguided. The idea of picking the best way forward is important to both the Bible and to the Qur’an. Both books recognize that life is filled with choices, and that we are better off when we choose to follow God’s ways while rejecting the ways of people who do not respect him.
In my view, it’s not a coincidence that these two chapters are so similar. The Qur’an emerged from a group of people who were very familiar with the Bible and who adopted many of the basic ideas of Judaism and Christianity. Much of the Qur’an therefore re-writes the Bible. In an earlier post I wrote about the appearance of Jesus’ mother Mary in the Qur’an, and there are many, many other parallels.
Some Christians may be surprised to see that Psalm 1 has more about the wicked and their fate than does sura 1. In fact, the Bible as a whole actually contains more about judgment, punishment, and so on than does the Qur’an. The problem is that the few “negative” verses in the Qur’an (about 1 percent of the total) tend to get quoted a lot by those who want to prove that Islam is a religion of violence. Of course the Qur’an does teach that God gets angry at those who disobey him. But the main message of the Qur’an as a whole is positive: people should look to God for guidance. The Qur’an teaches that God wants people to be successful and that in his grace and mercy he will help us to achieve success.
Is “success” on earth important to Christianity? Personally, I’m not sure: some Christians teach that God wants us all to be rich and successful, while others argue that we really should be much more interested in what happens to us after we die. But we cannot deny that much of the Bible, like Psalm 1, teaches that we will have success on earth if we follow the words of our Holy Book.
The message of the Qur’an is the same, only more direct. As the first sura suggests, the Qur’an is about guidance, about choosing the right path for success. And this is, in fact, the way most Muslims think of Islam: when we take God’s path, we will enjoy fulfillment and peace.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts
Mostly on the Bible