THE BIBLE AND ISLAM

Sharing God's Word with a Muslim
by Bassam Michael Madany

PART II - THE CHRISTIAN MISSION TO ISLAM

Chapter Five

INTRODUCTION: ISLAM VIEWED FROM A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE

How can we develop a biblical perspective on Islam? We cannot simply embark on mission work, no matter what tool happens to be at our disposal, unless we have a biblical view of Islam. So we must not be deterred from continuing our search within the Bible for the answer, no matter what difficulties attend our way.

The New Testament testifies that wrong doctrines and heresies will abound during this age. Certain passages of the Bible must be fresh in our minds; such as the teachings of our Lord about the Last Things, Paul’s message to the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20), his prophecies in II Thessalonians, and in I and II Timothy, Peter’s prophecy (II Peter 2,) and John's warnings in his epistles, concerning the anti-Christ. All these biblical data alerted the church and prepared her to be on guard against false doctrines that would spread at an alarming rate during the present age.

Now, when we come to consider Islam, it is not easy to place it into a specific category. It may not be classified as a Christian heresy; since heretical groups cling, outwardly at least, to some biblical truths as final and authoritative. Furthermore, most heresies that arose within Christendom claimed to be Christian. But Islam claims to possess the final and definitive record of divine revelation, and a book that abrogates all previous revelations. Furthermore, this new religion adopted the name of Islam, i.e., total submission to Allah's will.

There is something mysterious about the birth of Islam. We cannot help but ask: Why this religion? How can we explain the emergence of Islam?

It is not possible to find an absolutely convincing reason for the rise of Islam, but we mention certain undeniable factors that contributed to the birth of this theistic world religion. Whatever led to the emergence of Islam is still an important factor to reckon with today. The mistakes of the early church should not be repeated today. Church history in general and the history of the church in the East in particular, are extremely important for the proper understanding of our subject. We cannot formulate sound principles of missions to Muslims unless we are well versed in church history.

Here are some of the factors that contributed to the rise of Islam:
1. The failure of the early Church to acquaint the Arabs with the true contents of the Scriptures.
2. The failure of the early Church to maintain the purity of the faith and to grasp the redemptive character of the Bible.
3. The unique conditions that surrounded the emergence of Muhammad and the early spread of Islam in the world.

1. The failure of the early Church to acquaint the Arabs with the true contents of the Scriptures.

By the end of the 6th century, it seems that the church in the East (i.e., in the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire) had spent its force and lost its missionary zeal and vision. The Arabs who lived within the shadow of the church in Syria and Palestine were not, generally speaking, touched with the authentic gospel. It is true that some Arab tribes in southern Syria had adopted Christianity, but they had very little influence over the main parts of Arabia to the south. The church in Yemen, which had close ties with the church in Ethiopia, did not manage to spread the good news among the Arabian tribes in the north. The early church failed to give the Arabs the Bible in their tongue!

J. W. Sweetman put it this way in The Bible in Islam, (British & Foreign Bible Society. London: 1953)

Six hundred years had passed since Christ walked the earth and yet no one had put His words into the tongue of the Arab. Preachers there had been, men who hesitated at no privation and no peril, like Jacob Baradaeus, Jacob of the Horsecloth, who went into the remotest places so clad to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. But there was no precious Word in a known tongue and probably but a few who could have written it or read it. The Arabic language as a written language had yet to come into being. Its first letters were to be derived from Syriac and the first great book was the Qur’an which Muhammad brought; when it might have been so easily, as it has been in the case of so many languages for the first time reduced to writing, the Scripture of the Old and New Testaments. The characteristic name by which both Jews and Christians were known among the Arabs was the "people of the Book", which meant the people of the Bible. Yet that by which they were famous was kept as a hidden treasure, hoarded and not cast abroad like seed to bring forth fruit.
Pp. 9, 10

Now the early church was not inactive in the matter of Bible translation. In fact, the entire Bible was available in several languages both among the Eastern and other Christians. The Itala, the Vulgate, the Syriac, the Egyptian and the Armenian versions are some of the translations of the Bible that took place before the rise of Islam. But somehow no one bothered to take the Word of God to the Arabs. Let us go back to the sober analysis of Dr. Sweetman:

Here is the tragedy of the Church at the time of the rise of Islam. All truth demanded that, when Muhammad’s spirit was stirred with the needs of his people and when he was groping after Him who could save and unify, he should have had in his hands the true Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Instead it was left for him to learn by hearsay from the lips of uninstructed or imperfectly instructed Christians what those Scriptures contained.
P. 10

These words are of utmost importance for us who are engaged in mission work among Muslims. Where the early Church failed, we dare not fail but seek to bring the Word of God in its entirety to the Muslims of today. However, our task has become very difficult and complicated. For according to Sweetman:

That Muhammad had some knowledge of what was contained in the Bible is evident to anyone who reads the Qur’an. He must have thought that what he had heard from the Jews and Christians was indeed that which was contained in the Bible. But had he any sufficient guarantee of that, when Christians at least seem to have neglected the Bible and to have contented themselves often with romantic tales of our Lord?
P. 11

After giving some shocking examples of how even leaders within the church gave evidence of inaccurate knowledge of the Scriptures, Dr. Sweetman continues:

What is important, and to our mind a tragedy, is that the translation of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments had to wait till more than a century at least after the experience of Muhammad on Mount Hira. The first was perhaps a translation from the Latin made in Spain by John of Seville in the early 8th century ...The earliest translation of the New Testament I have ever read and handled is one made in the 11th century by a Christian of Baghdad, a piece of work marked by devotion and ability. But oh! the pity of this long delay.
P. 12

Since the Arabian Prophet did not have access to the original writings of the Old and New Testaments, he could not bring to his people the gospel of the Book, nor proclaim to them the Messiah of the Book. Thus, according to Sweetman, "the apocryphal Christ emerged in the consciousness of Muhammad and not the Christ of the canonical Scriptures” (P. 15) The consequences of this tragedy still live with us today, and we cannot ignore their existence. Let me again turn to the masterly work of Dr. Sweetman:

Now, after a lapse of time in which the Christian Scriptures have remained still unknown to them, Muslims came from a newly-fixed point of view to the Old and New Testament, placed in their hands by tardy Christians. It is at first a source of gratification to them, for the Qur’an commends the earlier Scripture. But when they come to examine the newly discovered book they find it does not agree at all with that to which they have gradually become accustomed. "This Gospel tells how Jesus really died and so it cannot be the INJIL which Muhammad commended. That was a revelation which God gave to Jesus, a book which marked his prophethood; but this consists of several books by disciples called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” and so they conclude that these writings are not the original Gospel but that the Jews and the Christians have corrupted the primitive revelation.
Pp. 17, 18

The lack of missionary zeal among the Christians who lived near Arabia and the neglect to give the Bible to the Arabs in their mother tongue form an important factor that helps us to understand the rise of Islam. Let us consider another important factor.

2. The failure of the early Church to maintain the purity of the faith and to grasp the redemptive core of the Bible.

When reference is made to the early church, it should not be taken as defining the church from the days of the Apostles until the rise of Islam in the 7th century A.D. The term refers here specifically to the Christian church in the two centuries which preceded the rise of Islam. We should be very careful in our criticism of the early Church. We owe much to the heroes of the faith who lived and died in the days before the birth of Muhammad. We Christians of the 21st century do not measure up to their tremendous sacrifices and achievements in many areas of faith and life. The major doctrines of Christianity were studied and formulated in those early days by large world gatherings of the leaders of the church. However, after the conversion of Constantine, the rolls of the churches were filled with people who were not true converts. Many church leaders neglected the study of the Scriptures, and a false piety began to take the place of a Bible-based and Christ-centered religion. Furthermore, while trying to maintain the orthodox doctrines of Christ and the Holy Trinity, the church relied heavily on the arm of the State. Heretics were terribly persecuted, and often those considered heretics by the Orthodox belonged to what we would call today the national churches. Orthodoxy was championed by the Greek speaking Church which was backed officially by the power of the Byzantine emperor.

As a result of this sad situation, not only were the neighboring peoples such as the Arabs neglected by the church in Syria and Palestine, but the inner life of the Christians in those areas became weakened. The Bible became a closed book and various tales and legends of the lives and achievements of the saints took the place of Bible stories and doctrines. It should not surprise us at all, therefore, that the founder of Islam could not and did not arrive at a true knowledge of the Christian faith. The Christians themselves had obscured their faith. They were not living out of the Bible. They were not aware of the distinctive feature of their faith: that it was a redemptive religion. Often, they gave the impression that Christianity consisted mainly of some metaphysical knowledge, and that it had to be lived on some high and lofty level of law through the efforts of man.

Having quoted from Dr. Sweetman's writings earlier, we shall turn to him again, quoting some very pertinent remarks from another book of his composition, Islam and Christian Theology (Lutterworth Press).

One of the results of an excessive emphasis on gnosis in the Alexandrian School particularly, but this is true to some extent of all Eastern schools, is a deficient soteriology (doctrine of salvation). Too often we find the substitution of monastic discipline and virginity and an ascetic intellectualism usurping the place of the redemptive self-giving of God. The incarnation is in the main held out as a sort of promise of the deification of man. Cosmological considerations are of more importance than the atoning grace which brings back the individual sinner in reconciliation to God. The East had too little of Augustine and too much metaphysical speculation. It puzzled itself about the mode of Incarnation to the neglect of the doctrines of grace. For the faith of trust there was substituted a faith of assent, and now when the Muslim comes face to face with the Christian, he has little to ask of the God who is Saviour and everything to ask about the problems of the Trinity, the mode of the Incarnation, the difficulties of the union of divine and human.

One may ask what does all that have to do with our work of missions today? Why should we lay so much emphasis on what did or did not take place about 1400 years ago? We cannot ignore the mistakes of the past because they did contribute, to a great extent, to the rise and development of Islam. Theologically, Islam has not changed. It is still an anti-Trinitarian and anti-redemptive religion. We must set forth the redemptive truths of the Bible in the tradition of the Apostles. We must preach the Messiah-Savior as the only hope of man. We now turn to the third point.

3. The unique conditions that surrounded the emergence of Muhammad and the early spread of Islam in the world.

As the 7th century A.D. dawned, Arabia was ripe for a radical change. Its paganism was worn out. The inter-tribal wars that plagued the Arabian Peninsula were sapping the energies of its inhabitants. Both Byzantium and Persia were seeking to enlarge their spheres of influence in the northern and north-eastern frontiers of Arabia. From Africa, the Ethiopians sought to interfere in the internal affairs of eastern Arabia. In the year of Muhammad's birth, a large Ethiopian army with hundreds of elephants was defeated by the Arabs; and according to the Qur’an, that happened because of a direct intervention of God.

As a young man, Muhammad traveled to the north and met many people who belonged to the Jewish colonies in Arabia. He learned a good deal of Old Testament history from the Jews of Medina. It is very likely that he encountered some Christians in the southern parts of Palestine. Most likely, they belonged to some heretical groups that had sought refuge in the desert to escape the persecution and the tyranny of the Byzantines.

Being a very sensitive person and quite given to contemplation, Muhammad reflected on the deep issues of life. He was attracted by the teachings of the Arab monotheists known as the Hanifs. They were neither Jews nor Christians, but openly declared the vanity of all idols and the existence of Allah, the one Supreme Being. From all these influences that had become part and parcel of his life experiences, Muhammad forged a Unitarian and monotheistic faith that dominates around one billion people today.

After his death, the armies of his successors, the caliphs, conquered all the lands between western India and southern France. For almost the entire century before Muhammad, the Persian and Eastern Roman Empires had exhausted themselves and their treasuries, in unending warfare, and were ripe to give way to the advancing armies of Islam. The native populations of the Middle East had become thoroughly tired of the oppression of their imperial overlords, and thus welcomed the Arabs as liberators.

But these new conquerors were not ordinary conquerors. They came to stay for good. They were ardent in their commitment to their new and militant faith: Islam. Their creed was forceful and simple: THERE IS NO GOD BUT ALLAH, AND MUHAMMAD IS THE APOSTLE OF ALLAH.

Never has the world known such an anti-Christian faith. Never has the Church of Jesus Christ encountered a greater challenge to everything which is dear to her beliefs and her way of life!


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