How engaging with Muslims teaches us more of the importance of Jesus
When we first moved to the Middle East, we had many discussions with our Muslim neighbours which often centred around apologetics, especially comparing the key prophet in our religions (Jesus, Muhammad) or the key book (New Testament, Qur’an). We could perhaps summarize this simply in the following table:
At first glance these comparisons seem pretty logical so we debated and explained the Good News on this basis. However after a few years a friend of ours who had been in the country for many years showed us that these comparisons are actually incorrect. This is because Christian and Muslim beliefs about both the person/prophet and the holy book differ in several significant areas.
For Muslims the Qur’an is the “Word of Allah”, literally sent down from heaven. It has remained unchanged since near the beginning of time (some Muslims say the Qur’an is eternally co-existent with Allah, others that it is Allah’s words spoken shortly after creation, here’s a link to an article about this debate). It was sent down from Allah as a book (most probably in a literal physical sense) many times through many different prophets, however in each case over time this true copy was somehow corrupted or lost. Muhammad is the final prophet who came with a copy of the Qur’an which has come down to us and unlike the previous revelations of it is unchanged and uncorrupted.
For Christians on the other hand the Bible was compiled over a period of thousands of years by writers inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is not the aim in itself, but rather the aim of the Bible is to point us to Jesus. In Christianity the true eternal “Word of God” which was sent down from heaven is none other than this Jesus, as John 1 makes clear. Thus the primary aim of the Bible rather than being God’s word sent as a completed revelation from heaven to humanity is to point to the person and work of Jesus, through whom alone we fully understand the nature of God.
So, perhaps a better foundation for conversation with our Muslim neighbours could be diagrammed like:
The central point of our faith and experience must be the person and work of Jesus. Everything else (including Biblical Studies or Theology) pales in comparison and should be subservient to this.
What does this mean practically for us, even if we don’t engage with Muslims on a regular basis?
1. As Christians it reminds us again of the amazing importance and centrality of the incarnation. It’s amazing to think that God’s Final Revelation of himself was so important that rather than entrust it to a book, introducing himself from afar (even one that was from time eternal), he took on flesh and became like one whom he had created. In Jesus, God himself became like one of us so that we could fully see what it means to be a true image-bearer, rather than sending a written instruction of how to be do this.
2. Sometimes we can accidentally downplay the importance of Jesus compared to the Bible. As theologians and lovers of the Bible it’s quite easy to unknowingly slip into putting the scriptures before Jesus and turn the pursuit of knowing Jesus into a mere intellectual exercise. Jesus says of the Jewish religious leaders of his day “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40). Ouch! Let’s never be so caught up with the beauty of the Bible that we miss the greater beauty of Jesus to whom it points.
3. When engaging with seekers (of any religion, or none), how much time do we spend arguing intellectual points of faith compared to showing the glory of Jesus as revealed through scripture, and also through experience?
4. If anything, this example illustrates that we should think more carefully about presuppositions and assumptions when engaged in inter-faith apologetics and polemics. It’s easy (and dangerous) to accept someone else’s categorization or assumption because on a surface level it looks sensible and you want to move on to debating the subject matter. However, by doing this we can end up arguing from very different foundations, and eventually this hurts inter-religious dialogue as participants talk past each other without engaging deeply.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that there are many other examples similar to this within the discussion of Islam and Christianity, such as the concept of sin (in Christianity more of a state, compared to Islam which typically understands it as a work), or the mercy/forgiveness of God (in Islam God is merciful because he can forget sin, in Christianity all wrongdoing needs to be dealt with and punished which can only be accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross).
So, whenever we engage with people with beliefs different from our own perhaps we should spend more time doing the groundwork of understanding in depth how they define their key words and concepts in order that we can show all the more clearly using how the Good News of Jesus is relevant and applicable to them.