OUR APPROACH TO ISLAM:
THE CHRISTIAN ALTERNATIVE: TOLERANCE AND RESPECT.
“And I will show you a still more excellent way … Love is patient and kind”.1 Corinthians 13.1,4
The Jihad option was perhaps the Church’s first real response to Islam. After the initial expansion of Islam during the first hundred and fifty years after Muhammad’s death, when Muslim armies marched across North Africa and into Spain, conquering most of the Middle East and parts of Europe and Asia, the traditional world of Christendom set about evicting the invaders. Early victories over Muslim units in parts of Europe were regarded purely as defensive measures to recover lost ground. Augustine had, many centuries earlier, formulated a doctrine of “just war” in Christian terms, restricting participation to conflict for justifiable causes and fought with noble intentions only. During the papacies of Leo IV and John VIII respectively in the latter part of the 9th century AD, however, a Christian equivalent to Jihad was launched – the Crusades. A variety of heavenly benefits for those who fought and died in battle against infidels (similar to the concept of shaheed in Islam by which all Muslim casualties in battle are regarded as “martyrs”) was promised to all who took a sword for Christianity in one hand and a shield with the cross embossed on it in the other. The Church, quite simply, took over the whole concept of Jihad and returned eye for eye.
One Crusade followed another. The first charges produced striking successes, the later ones ended in disaster. For centuries, however, Christians and Muslims generally only met on the battlefield. The decline of Islamic power after the great eras of the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid Empires of the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, however, gave the European powers their first real opportunity to conquer lands that had been controlled by the Muslims since the early days of Islam. The Industrial Revolution gave these powers the means to overrun most of the Muslim world and during the nineteenth century up to 85% of dar al-Islam came under Western (and therefore nominal Christian) control.
The Church at this time adopted its second approach to Islam. With the threat of Muslim invasion now entirely removed, a spirit of apathy set in. There was no longer a need for active militancy and the Church felt it could now afford to generally ignore the Muslim world. Even though this period saw the development of a growing international mission of evangelism towards the Muslim world the general attitude was one of disinterest. For two hundred years Islam was generally overlooked – if it could not be fully evangelised, at least it had been subdued, and little further attention to it was needed. The revolution in Iran coupled with all that has taken place in the last ten years, however, has shaken the Christian world out of its complacency. Islamic militancy has revived strongly and is menacing the West.
Not surprisingly there have been calls for a renewed spirit of the Crusades – a militant struggle to again protect the Christian world from aggressive Muslim ventures. Today, however, Church and State are not as intertwined as they were in medieval times and so the call within the Church has been for a verbal and spiritual struggle against the rising Islamic challenge. A minister of the Evangeliese Gereformeerde Kerk in the Cape, Ds. Soon Zevenster, has called boldly for a “teenaksie” (a counter-struggle) and other evangelical Christian leaders, both in South Africa and elsewhere in the traditional Christian world, have come out strongly in favour of a militant response. “We are at war with Islam”, they cry, and a mighty spiritual warfare has been called for against the forces and powers of Islam.
The militant approach goes hand in hand with traditional Christian fundamentalism. The evangelical fundamentalist sees himself as a soldier of the cross – it is his duty to fight battles for God, to resist and cast out demons for God, and to scatter the enemies of God. The spirit of militancy that once sparked the military Crusades of history today manifests itself in evangelical spiritual warfare. Is there not possibly a third approach as an alternative to the militant and apathetic approaches we have considered? The “still more excellent way” that Paul proposed?
Christianity, as established by its founder and perfect example Jesus Christ, is first and foremost a religion of charity and compassion. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.35). No one can avoid the implications of this principle – if Christians are graciously prepared to accept that Muslims are their neighbours, then the call from the Saviour is “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 23.39); if, however, they remain persuaded that Muslims are their enemies, even then the Saviour’s call remains unchanged – “Love your enemies” (Luke 6.27). A leading Christian minister, when asked recently what the right approach to the Muslims should be, responded in just two words – “Love ’em!”
In the last two centuries many efforts have been made to reach Muslims for Christ throughout the world and, beginning with Henry Martyn at the beginning of the last century, a growing evangelical ministry has reached out to the Muslim world. Too often, unfortunately, the Gospel witness has had a militant character, one which has been accentuated since the resurgence of Islamic jihad. If our call is to win Muslims for Christ rather than defeat the forces of Islam, surely the time has come for a purely charitable approach. An illustration will help here. The sun and the wind were said to have had argument one day. The wind mocked the sun for its inability to move around as and where it wished. The sun responded by pointing out a man who was dressed in a suit walking down a road and called on the wind, if it was so powerful, to get the jacket off the man. The more the wind blew on him, however the more tightly the man pulled the jacket around himself. When the sun poured its warm rays upon the man, however, the man began to sweat and removed the jacket himself. I have no doubt that Muslims likewise will respond more readily to the warm rays of Christian love and compassion than the cold blasts of militancy.
The vast majority of Muslims worldwide instinctively know that militancy is wrong. Not even the ayatollahs and mullahs of Iran were able to inspire the Iranian people with the spirit of Jihad to the extent that they wanted to – at the end of the war, although the population of Iran is three times that of Iraq, Hussein was still able to put more men into the field of battle than Khomeini. Most human beings of whatever persuasion are moderate in their approach to life. Common sense tells most people that when we kill each other, we destroy ourselves as well. We all breathe the same air, we all live in one world, and one God continues to extend his providential grace to all nations alike. The vast majority of Muslim people are schooled in hospitality, tolerance and the ethics and morals of Islam. There is no need for a militant approach towards such a people when the majority of them will warmly respond to love, kindness and compassion.
Paul spoke of a “still more excellent way”. Let us see how he applied the principle of charity in his own approach to followers of other faiths. We have a fine example in the occasion when he was taken by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to the summit of the Areopagus in Athens and was given an opportunity to address them. Athens was a major centre of pagan idolatry and when Paul arrived there “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17.16). Nevertheless when he began to speak he said:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an object with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you”.Acts 17.22-23.
He could have allowed the provocation in his spirit to overcome him and so reviled their excesses, but he was careful to show as much respect as he could to the Athenians and foreigners who lived there. Instead of saying they were “very religious” he could have accused them of being grossly idolatrous and instead of speaking neutrally of their “objects of worship” he could have described them as detestable idols, but he was determined to accommodate them as far as possible without compromising his own position. He was more concerned about maintaining their dignity than he was about taking a stand for his own convictions.
Four words in the text we have quoted also give us further insight into Paul’s approach and they are italicised as follows: “I perceive that in every way you are very religious … As I passed along and observed … I found an altar”. He did not turn his eyes away from what he saw in the streets of the city in pious disgust, rather he deliberately aquainted himself with the beliefs and background of the people he intended to reach with the Gospel. Not only did this exposure help him to preach more effectively to the Athenians, it was also a gesture of respect towards their heritage.
On another occasion, when Demetrius and the craftsmen of Ephesus sought to prevent Paul and his companions from drawing any more people away from the worship of their goddess Artemis to the faith of Jesus Christ, the town clerk quieted the crowd, saying “You have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess” (Acts 19.37). Once again we see that the early Christian evangelists refrained from reviling the beliefs of others and, in a spirit of true charity, were careful to respect the heritage of the people they met even though they were not in sympathy with it. Paul summed up his approach as follows:
When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate.1 Corinthians 4.12-13.
Their attitude was derived from nothing less than the example of their own Lord and Master Jesus Christ of whom it was likewise said “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2.23). Even when we are confronted with a spirit of total militancy we are not justified in responding in the same way.
The Christian approach must always be charitable and compassionate. “To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6.29). This does not mean that every assault on our faith must be taken lying down or that we should allow ourselves to be trampled upon but that our overall disposition must be one of selfless love and a desire to build up and not to tear down.
ALLAH – THE SUPREME BEING OR A “FALSE GOD”?
One of the key features of the modern spirit of Christian militancy against Islam is the proposal that Allah, the deity of Islam, is a “false god” and that he cannot in any way be identified with the true God of the Bible. This approach is vigorously pursued in many recent Christian writings on Islam notwithstanding the fact that the Qur’an unambiguously defines Allah as the same God in whom the Jews and Christians believe. At one point it plainly states that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Specifically addressing the “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab) it says: “We believe in what has been sent down to us and in that which was sent down to you; our God and your God is One; and we are submitted to him”. Surah 29.46
As we shall see the basic concept of God in the Qur’an, in particular the definition of his attributes, is very similar to the general description of the nature of God in the Bible. Why, then, do Christian writers deny that there is any point of contact between the Allah of the Qur’ an and the God of the Bible? It would appear that it is the very proximity of the Qur’an’s concept to the basic Biblical doctrine of God that causes some Christian writers to vehemently distinguish between them. Islam is not like the other major religions of the world which all preceded Christianity and therefore do not have an inherent challenge to its claims to be God’s final revelation to mankind. Islam is the only major religion to follow the Christian faith and, unlike secular philosophies such as communism and humanism or the eastern mystical religions which are generally distinct from Christianity, it challenges the Christian faith at its roots by acknowledging its basic principles while claiming that these have been distorted and that it came to correct them. The onslaught comes from within – it is by admitting the basics of the Christian faith that it is able to challenge its finer details so forcefully. It is in acknowledging the God whom we worship that it is most equipped to call the nature of that worship into question.
Many Christians, sensing the sharp edge of the challenge from within, believe that the only way to resist it is to divide Islam entirely from Christianity and to reject any suggestion of a common identity between them at any point. Thus Jesus is not the Isa of the Qur’an and our God is not the Allah set forth in that book. It appears to such Christians that the moment we accept the Qur’an’s appeal to acknowledge that we both worship the same God, we simultaneously lose the uniqueness of what we believe has been ours alone by divine revelation and open the door for an Islamic charge on all we hold dear at a relative and comparative level.
Therefore every effort is made to distinguish the God of the Bible from the Allah of Islam. In his pamphlet Halaal and the Christian (to which we shall refer more fully shortly) Ds. Zevenster, reacting to the suggestion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, says: “This statement must be resisted at all costs … they cannot be worshipping the same God and therefore must be serving a false god”.
The argument, found in many similar Christian writings on this subject, is based on the premise that because Muslims deny that God is Triune, that Jesus is the Son of God and that God sent his Son to die for us, they cannot claim to believe in the same God in whom we believe and Allah is therefore a “false god”. Basilea Schlink has written a book titled Allah or the God of the Bible – What is the Truth? Once again the Allah of Islam is entirely distinguished from the God of the Bible and in this way the author too endeavours to divide Islam and Christianity and allow no point of agreement or common identity between them.
Once Allah is declared to be another God or, worse still, a “false god”, it becomes easy to revile him and assail his character. Schlink claims: On the one hand, Mohammed’s Allah is identified with the black stone of the Kaaba. A stone is cold, soulless. This is often the nature of pagan gods: they are rigid and lifeless. (Schlink, Allah or the God of the Bible? , p.15)
It is entirely wrong to identify Allah with the black stone in the Ka’aba as though this were an idolatrous representation of the Islamic deity. The black stone in Islam is believed to be an object which Allah sent down as the cornerstone of the Ka’aba which, Islamic tradition suggests, was originally crystal clear but became pitch-black through taking the sins of the Muslims who kiss it. In no way can the stone be directly identified with Allah as the unseen Supreme Being of the universe. The Muslim practice of kissing a stone in imitation of the pagan Arab practice of kissing their idols which usually took the form of stones can be severely challenged on other grounds, but it is grossly wrong, and a severe offence to Muslim sensitivities, to charge that the black stone, cold and lifeless, is identified with Allah.
Schlink goes on to say “Allah is an imperious god … Allah resembles a great despot, an arbitrary ruler … Mohammed’s Allah has no heart, love for mankind is foreign to him” (Allah or the God of the Bible?, pp.16-17). The section of her book in which these statements appear is titled “Allah – a Soulless God and Dictator”. These claims are, in my view, imbalanced and erroneous, but what seems to occasion them is the feeling that Islam’s deity must not only be distinguished from the God of the Bible but must also be shown to be entirely different to him and a poor caricature of his true nature. Thus the author seeks to force Islam away from Christianity, thereby preserving our divine heritage and maintaining its unique distinctiveness.
So likewise Dr. J.L.Langerman, in another critique of the halaal symbol published by the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa, says “The god worshipped by Islam is not the God worshipped by the followers of the Christian faith, because it does not line up the New Testament teaching” while Marius Baar charges “Allah has nothing to do with the God of the Bible. He is a poor counterfeit of God” (The Unholy War, p.70).
Perhaps the strongest denunciation of Allah in Islam appears in the suggestion that he is not only a “false god” and a “soulless dictator” but that he is an actual demonic spirit who revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad and thereby impersonated the one true God. This approach is clearly defined in the following summary:
The spirit who calls himself Allah and claims to have inspired Muhammed cannot be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead he is a spirit full of lies , who took upon himself the old Arabic name of God, “Allah” , wearing it over his face like a mask and claiming to be God, although he is not God. Allah in Islam is an unclean spirit of Satan , who rules with great power in a religious disguise to this very day (John 8:30-48). (Abd-al-Masih,Who is Allah in Islam? , p.68)
One cannot help asking the following question in response to this suggestion – if the Allah of the Qur’ an is really the devil himself, then who is the devil in the Qur’ an? That this approach would be highly offensive to Muslims hardly needs to be proved. Yet it is typical of contemporary Christian crusading mentality.
So often the question is put to me “Is Allah the God of the Bible?” Too often people are looking for a simple “Yes” or “No” answer. Langerman, Zevenster, Schlink and Abd-al-Masih all give an emphatic “No” to this question. I do not for a minute propose with equal emphasis to say “Yes”, but I am compelled to strongly reject the approach taken by these writers as I believe a more balanced and objective approach, based on a genuine concern for factual truth and not on a fear of compromise of vested Christian interests, must lead to a different conclusion. This matter is important because our ultimate approach at this point will determine whether we will respond to the Muslims charitably or not.
The Christian writers who endeavour to distinguish between the Allah of Islam and the God of the Bible invariably concentrate on what Allah is not – he is not the Father of Jesus Christ, he is not Triune, he has no Son, etc. Rarely is there an evaluation of who Allah in Islam really is. It would seem to be logical, before we express ourselves in convenient denunciations, to enquire what the Qur’an actually teaches about Allah and how he is defined in the book.
Firstly it is quite apparent from the Qur’an that the name Allah did not originate with Muhammad. The pagan Arabs openly acknowledged that, beyond their various deities and idols, there was one Supreme Being who was the ultimate source of all things. “If you should ask them who created the heavens and the earth and subjected the sun and moon, they will assuredly reply ‘Allah'” (Surah 29.61). When faced with disasters “they cry unto Allah” (Surah 10.22) and they also “swear their strongest oaths by Allah” (Surah 16.38). Western scholars agree that the name has pre-Islamic origins and it is almost certainly derived from the Syriac Christian Alaha (Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an, p.66).
Secondly the name Allah is to this day not exclusive to Islam. Although Christian Arabs use the name Yasu tor Jesus and not the Qur’anic Isa, they use no other name for God than Allah. It is not so much the name of the deity of Islam as it is simply the Arabic name for God, the one Supreme Being who created all things. What “God” is to the English language (and “theos” to Greek) is what “Allah” is to Arabic. Even the small Arabic-speaking Jewish communities of Morocco and other North-African Muslim countries use the name Allah for God and every translation of the Bible into Arabic employs this name alone. If anyone was to teach a group of Arab Christians that Allah was a “false god” they would think he was blaspheming, or if this same group was taught that “Allah does not actually exist” (another recent Christian approach), they would think he was an atheist.
Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most important point, the Allah of the Qur’ an is expressly said to be the same God as the one in whom the Jews and the Christians believe. He is not only said to be the Creator of the heavens and the earth, he is also clearly defined as the specific deity of the Biblical faiths. The pagan Arabs acknowledged the existence of a Supreme Being, Allah, but they would not admit that he was also ar-Rahman, “the Compassionate”, the name specifically given to God by the Jews of that time.
When it is said to them, ‘Adore ye the Compassionate’, they say, ‘And what is the Compassionate? Why should we adore what you command?’ Surah 25.60
And they blaspheme at the mention of the Compassionate. Surah 21.36
When Muhammad stated that the Allah of his faith was the same deity whom the Jews described as ar-Rahmaan, the pagan Arabs reviled him. The Qur’an specifically applies the two names to the same deity: “Call upon Allah, or call upon ar-Rahmaan, by whatever name you call upon him” (Surah 17.110). Allah in Islam was clearly intended to be the God of the Bible. In principle there can be no objection to the identification. The Qur’an plainly states that Allah created the heavens and the earth in six days, that he created Adam and Eve as our first parents, that they were cast out of the Garden of Eden (Jannatul-‘Adn in Islam) when they ate the forbidden fruit, that he sent prophets such as Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus to guide the nations, that he showed special favours to the children of Israel, that there will be a great Judgment Day, and that the destiny of mankind is either to heaven (jannat) or hell (jahannam). In these basic descriptions of his actions in history there can be no doubt that we are dealing with the same God.
Furthermore the Qur’an describes the attributes of Allah in various titles which it gives him, such as ar-Rahim (the Merciful), al-Quddus (the Holy), as-Salam (the Peaceful), as-Samad (the Eternal), etc. These titles are known as al-asma al-husna – “the beautiful names” (Surah 59.24) and are said to number ninety-nine in all. A Biblical equivalent for each one can be found without any difficulty.
The difference between the Biblical and Qur’anic doctrines of God comes in our respective concepts of these attributes, it is not a question of actual identity. To Christians the statement that God is the Forgiver (al-Ghaffur) would mean that he reconciled us to himself in Christ and forgave us our sins on account of the redeeming work done on the cross. To the Muslim the title simply means that he can (and will) forgive simply as he chooses. Neither of us deny that God is forgiving, the issue is how that forgiveness is exercised and to whom it will be applied. The same can be said for all the other titles.
The issue is not one of identity but purely one of a distinction of concepts. Sure we will deny that the fulness of God’s character is revealed in Islam and will stand by our conviction that this revelation came through Jesus Christ alone. To this extent we must distance ourselves from the Allah of Islam and cannot give an unqualified “Yes” answer to the question of whether he and the God of the Bible are the same, but it is equally obvious that we also cannot give a simple “No” answer to the question. We can define our position by saying that in principle we believe in the same God but that we differ in our understanding of how he fully revealed himself.
We need to return to Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus for a final assessment of this question. (All Christians intending to evangelise Muslims should read through this sermon very carefully – it is a model of a correct Christian approach in a crosscultural context). Twice in his message Paul appealed to pagan writings to support his contention that the “unknown god” whom the Athenians worshipped was the same God he was now proclaiming to them. The relevant passage reads as follows:
“Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’. Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man”.Acts 17.27-29.
“In him we live” and we are “his offspring”, the Greek poets said, and Paul unreservedly applied these references to the God whom he was proclaiming, the God who raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 17.31). Yet they were originally both applied to Zeus, the supreme god of the pagan Greeks and known to the Romans as Jupiter. The first quote comes from a poem by Epiminedes the Cretan where the words were addressed to Zeus by his son and the second derives from the Phainomena of Aratus the Cicilian which opens with the words “Let us begin with Zeus” (cf. Bruce, The Book of Acts, pp.359-360). It may seem remarkable that Paul should have no scruples about applying such statements to the only Supreme Being of the universe and therefore to the God whom he proclaimed, yet he did. He obviously considered that, to the extent that they correctly described something of God’s own character, they could be considered as referring ultimately to him. If Paul could make such allowances, can we not accept that the Allah of Islam too is, in principle, the same as the God of the Bible, especially when we consider that the Qur’an’s description of him is far closer to the character of the one true God than the attributes of Zeus and that there was a deliberate intention to refer to the same deity.
YAHWEH OR ALLAH – AN APPROPRIATE COMPARISON?
During a lecture given on the halaal symbol Ds. Soon Zevenster said of the Muslims “Hulle eer Allah, ‘n valse god, hulle eer nie Yahweh nie” (They honour Allah, a false god, they do not honour Yahweh). It has become fashionable in some circles to again draw a distinction between the Allah of Islam and the God of the Bible by referring to his Biblical name Yahweh. So you have a choice – Yahweh or Allah? True God or false god? A brief analysis of this approach will show that here, too, the comparison is inappropriate and unacceptable.
While the name Yahweh appears throughout the Old Testament in the original Hebrew text, it appears nowhere in the books of the New Testament, not even in the original Greek texts. In Old Testament times Yahweh was the name of the covenant God of Israel (Exodus 3.15), but the Lord has never used this name in a new covenant context. The coming of Jesus Christ brought about a major change in God’s relationship with his people. Now he is projected solely as the Father of all true believers, Jew and Gentile alike, without any distinction being made between them (Romans 10.12). The name Yahweh was used solely in an old covenant context and the New Testament plainly states that the old covenant has become “obsolete” (Hebrews 8.13) and that it has been entirely “abolished” (Hebrews 10.9). For this reason one never finds the name Yahweh in the New Testament – it was relevant only to the people of Israel in old covenant times.
Yet Ds. Zevenster went on to say “My Bybel sê: ‘So lief het die Yahweh God die wêreld gehad’…” (My Bible says: Yahweh God so loved the world … John 3.16). It would be interesting to see that Bible! There is no text of John 3.16 anywhere which says that “Yahweh God” so loved the world – the Greek contains only the word theos. On other occasions it has been suggested that the Arabic Bible should have used the word Yahweh for theos and not Allah. Again the suggestion must be challenged on textual grounds. The New Testament deliberately avoids the use of the name Yahweh and the only possible translation of theos into Arabic is Allah.
Militant Christian writers say Allah cannot be a representation of the true God because, according to the Qur’an, he is not Triune, he has no Son, etc. Well then, the Yahweh of the Jews today cannot be the true God either because they maintain that he too is not Triune and also has no Son. At least Islam acknowledges Jesus as a man sent from God but the Jews say Yahweh did not send Jesus at all!
Nonetheless those who deny that Muslims believe in the true God will never lay this charge at the feet of the Jews. They liberally accept that the God whom the Jews worship today is the true God, yet the Jews deny Jesus Christ entirely. Why, then, can we not at least concede that the Muslims offer their worship to God as well? Instead of attributing their worship to a false god, should we not rather hold that it is duly offered to the true God but is not acceptable outside of faith in Jesus Christ? (cf. Matthew 15.9 – “In vain do they worship me“).
It seems to me that much of the problem here, and indeed possibly the root cause of so much of the virulent anti-Islamic militancy found in Christian writings today, stems from the premillenial view of Biblical eschatology. Central to this view is the belief that God has restored Israel as a nation and that he will send his Messiah to deliver the city of Jerusalem and save the State of Israel at the end of the age from her enemies. As the immediate enemies of Israel are obviously the Muslim nations that surround it, it is hardly surprising that premillenialists are usually the source of anti-Islamic militancy (Marius Baar’s book The Unholy War is a prize example) though this does not apply to all of them. This also explains why it is accepted that Jews believe in the one true God even though they deny Jesus Christ entirely, while the Allah of Islam is rejected simply because it is said he has no Son.
In our view the evangelical Church would be able to develop a far more charitable and genuinely compassionate approach to the Muslim people of the world if it could see that there will never again be a distinction between Jew and Gentile, something Paul declared again and again (cf. Romans 3.29, 1 Corinthians 12.13, Galatians 3.28, Colossians 3.11).
As we have seen the Book of Hebrews plainly states that the old covenant which God made with Israel was “obsolete … ready to vanish away” (8.13) and that it was totally “abolished” (10.9) so that the new covenant could be introduced. The language used in these texts could not have been stronger – God will never again show favour or partiality towards Israel as a nation.
All Old Testament prophecy about the restoration of God’s people (Israel at the time) must be understood in New Testament terms, therefore, to refer to the Church, just as all Old Testament prophecies about the re-establishment of Jerusalem as the city where God will dwell forever (Zechariah 2.4-12) are expressly shown in the Book of Revelation to refer to the heavenly Jerusalem which will be the eternal city of God and will come down from above (Revelation 21.10). Just as God has introduced a new covenant to entirely replace the old, so the New Testament speaks only of “the city of the living God” as a “heavenly Jerusalem” which will be the eternal city of God and will come down from above (Revelation 21.10). Just as God has introduced a new covenant to entirely replace the old, so the New Testament speaks only of “the city of the living God” as a “heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12.22) and elsewhere records Jesus as describing it as “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven” (Revelation 3.12). The New Testament knows nothing of the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem as the city of God. If the Church could divest itself of its premillenial interpretation of Scripture it would perhaps see that God loves all the Muslims of the world, and therefore the Muslim nations of the world, as much as he still loves the people of Israel. We would then be able to fulfil our duty towards the Muslims by evangelising them in a spirit of genuine love and unreserved compassion.
Yahweh or Allah? True God or false god? Our Gospel is not about God’s identity, it is about the revelation of his love and kindness towards us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. What is our message to the Muslims – “Our God is the true God while you worship a false god. You must denounce him and come and worship our God”? No, not at all. This is our message to the Muslims: God has redeemed us in Christ, in HIM you can be forgiven by God, you can become children of God, you can receive the Spirit of God, you can come to personally know God, and you can be assured of a place in the kingdom of God. This is the new covenant message (Jeremiah 31.31-34), this is the issue between Christianity and Islam and the essence of our Gospel.
REVILING ISLAM AS A RELIGION OF IDOLATRY.
It has also become fashionable in recent times in some sections of the Church to revile Islam as a religion of idolatry. This has much to do with the recent controversy surrounding the halaal symbol which we will deal with in the next section but here we shall confine ourselves to the subject itself. In a pamphlet issued by B.F. Hayes on Sanlamhof titled Die Christen en Halaal the author says that Ds. Zevenster “het die moed van sy oortuiging gehad om ‘n paar sake duidelik oop te vlek” (has had the courage of his convictions to clearly expose a few matters) and the first of these is said to be “die afgodiese karakter van die Islam” (the idolatrous character of Islam). This approach has appeared in other publications as well and it has been suggested that not only Allah but even the Qur’an and Muhammad himself are idols on the premise that anything that is not consistent with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ must be idolatrous.
It is very easy to stick labels on things. Allah is an idol, the Qur’an is an idol, Muhammad is an idol – such is the simple way we are now seeing the whole of Islam labelled and misrepresented. This of course makes it easy to write the whole religion off and cast it aside without any further study or reflection. Its whole heritage can thus be reviled and summarily dismissed without further ado.
The proponents of this view fail to discern that there is a radical difference between Islam and the animistic religions of the world. The latter are generally idolatrous and have very little in common with Christianity. Our faith has a divine heritage through Judaism based on foundations of theology, prophethood and scripture. Islam, unlike the other religions, confronts us at this very level. Allah, Muhammad and the Qur’an have come up alongside the Gospel at these very points – theology, prophethood and scripture. The Qur’an is not an idol, it is a form of scripture competing with our scripture at a remarkably intense level. Allah is not an idol – he is a representation of the true God of the Bible with certain vital characteristics of his nature and purposes for mankind in our view distorted and misrepresented. Muhammad is not an idol, nor was he an idolater. He stands and put himself at the level of prophethood over and against the very prophetic heritage that led to the advent of our Lord Jesus.
There is a further problem with simplistically labelling things as idols – we will soon be adding the sub-label “demons” as idolatry and demonism always go together (1 Corinthians 10.19-20). Thus it is not surprising to hear some folk today not only regarding Islam as idolatrous but also as inherently demonic and occultic. This is an extremely dangerous approach which will destroy our witness to the Muslim people of the world and will result in a backlash rather than a positive receptiveness.
This brings us back to the whole question of love and compassion, the hallmarks of the Christian faith. Paul says “For the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5.14). Indeed it should. We need to exercise restraint in our attitude towards Islam and should never be misled into believing that the more we can downgrade and revile Islam, the more we can demonise it, the more we exalt the Christian faith above it. The laager was a good form of defence during the wars of the last century and an effective base from which to shoot at anything that opposed it from the outside. It is, on the contrary, a most inappropriate structure for reaching out beyond ourselves in selfless love and compassion towards the nations of the world, no matter to what extent they may oppose us. What are we ultimately aiming at – to win a case for Christianity or to win Muslims to Christ? As one Christian writer has said: What matters is not that men have thought ill of Christianity but that they have forfeited the Christ. (Cragg,The Call of the Minaret , p.248).
We must not suppose that we are acting in love towards the Muslims just because we are willing to give up much time and endure opposition to reach them with the Gospel. We can do all this and yet be most uncharitable in our attitude towards them. As Paul says, you can give away all you have and deliver your body up to be burned and yet not have love (1 Corinthians 13.3). I am quite persuaded that genuine love for the Muslims and a thoroughly militant approach just don’t go together. Muslims must sense our love is genuine and respectful. The moment a Muslim detects a spirit of militancy in our approach to Islam, that moment our acceptance falls to the ground and it will be fatal for our witness.
Simon Peter said to Jesus “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22.49). Shall we? Will Jesus be constrained to say of us “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them”? (Luke 9.55).
Instead of seeking causes to revile Islam we would do well to spend time studying its heritage and endeavour to relate more to Muslims where they are. Some have suggested that we should “love the Muslims and hate Islam”. I think we are far more likely to succeed in genuinely loving the Muslims if we try rather to understand Islam. Christians who are willing to study the Qur’an, learn the history of Islam and respect Muslims for who they are (and evaluate their religion properly) are far more likely to attract them to the Gospel than those who revile Islam in ignorance. Muslims respect Christians who have a genuine knowledge of Islam but they are quickly alienated by those whom, they say, “just come to condemn us and our religion”.
Muhammad was involved in a mighty struggle to rid his people of idolatry and bring them to worship the supreme God – ar-Rahmaan of the Jews and the Christians – alone. It is Christian intellectual dishonesty to now make him both an idol and an idolater. Christianity can never be boosted by downgrading Islam to the level of common idolatry. Let us not be fearful of respecting Islam – we have nothing after all to lose. Islam cannot threaten the existence of the Church (Matthew 16.18) and we have nothing to fear from it.
The charge of idolatry against Islam appears to be seriously unfounded when we remember that no Muslims have ever made images or idols of Muhammad as so many millions of Christians have done with Mary, Jesus, apostles and saints. Just walk around the cathedrals of Europe and see how infected Christian history is with images and icons, yet Muslims refrain from calling us idolaters. As Islam has kept itself free from the temptation to fashion similar images and idols of its own, it appears to be considerably presumptuous to accuse it of idolatry.
Brethren, “bear with my word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13.22). I do not want to come across too harshly, but I am deeply concerned for the future of Muslim evangelism in this country and the spirit of our approach which must always be motivated by love.
THE HALAAL SYMBOL – TOKEN OF A SACRIFICE?
Nowhere has the spirit of anti-Islamic militancy manifested itself more strongly than in the recent campaign against the Halaal symbol on many of our food products. In principle this symbol simply informs the Muslim public that the food is fit for consumption in terms of Islamic law. The very word halaal in Arabic simply means “loosed”, that is, that it is free from the restrictions that apply to haraam (“forbidden”) food products. These are defined in the Qur’an as “carrion, blood, the flesh of swine and that over which any name other than Allah’s has been invoked” (Surah 5.4). The passage goes on to say “Eat what is caught for you, but pronounce the name of Allah over it” (Surah 5.5). Thus any animal or poultry product with the traditional Halaal symbol on it is lawful for Muslims as it indicates that it was properly slaughtered, the blood has been drained out of it, and the tasmiyah-takbir (Bismillah Allahu-Akbar – “In the name of God, God is Most Great”) has been pronounced over it. The symbol stands solely for the benefit of the Muslim public, it is never applied as a means of gaining an advantage over adherents of other faiths or to bind them to Islamic rites as some have suggested.
The presence of the Halaal mark on other products (such as margarine and potato chips) is a sign to the Muslims that no forbidden substances, such as pig-fat, have been used in their composition. Indeed the Qur’an has a general exhortation to all mankind (an-naas) to eat of that which is in the earth that is “lawful and good” (halaalaan-tayyibaan ) – the word halaal here being used purely in a relative sense without any deliberate reference to the application of the name of Allah over the product, yet even where it is used in this latter sense it is really no different to the Jewish concept of kosher foods and substances.
In Old Testament times there were similar restrictions on food products, some of them being the same as those the Qur’an mentions, namely the prohibition on the flesh of swine (Leviticus 11.7) and blood (Leviticus 7.26). Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7.19), a decree which was later impressed on Simon Peter in a vision (Acts 10.9-16), yet even then some of the leaders of the early Church at Jerusalem still exhorted the Gentile believers to “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity” (Acts 15.29). In the context of the old covenant prohibitions on certain foods the Christian cannot object to the motive and principle behind the halaal laws of Islam. In a spirit of genuine Christian liberty we should not object to the Muslim’s scruples at this point as they relate solely to the question of hygienic laws in Islam which are similar to those of Old Testament Judaism. There is no reason why we should be troubled at this point.
“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do” (1 Corinthians 8.8). The Christian should be concerned about far more important things in this new covenant age than scruples about food and drink. “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself … For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.14,17). Elsewhere Paul reproves certain Christians for their immaturity in having scruples (“do not handle, do not taste, do not touch”) about foods “which all perish as they are used” (Colossians 2.22).
The very existence of a Christian campaign against Muslim scruples about food products is in the circumstances highly questionable on the grounds of New Testament teaching about Christian liberty and maturity, yet the actual nature of the campaign against the Halaal symbol itself can be challenged on a number of other grounds. It is defined by Ds. Zevenster in his pamphlet Halaal and the Christian as follows: “The Halaal sign tells us that Halaal foods have been consecrated to a strange god. Therefore, as Christians, we should not eat these foods”. He also speaks of Halaal foods as having been consecrated “to an idol”. In a public lecture recorded on tape he went on to say “Halaal kos is gekoppel aan afgode – laat hom staan” (Halaal food is linked to idols – leave it alone) and constantly spoke of such foods as “afgodskos” (food sacrificed to idols) which had been offered to the “false god Allah”.
We have already shown that the charge of idolatry against Islam is based on false premises, yet here we must also disown the suggestion that Halaal foods have been offered in sacrifice. This claim has no foundation in Islamic law or history. There is only one prescribed sacrifice in Islam, the qurbani sacrifice at the end of the Eid al-Adha festival in remembrance of Abraham’s willingness to give his son to God. On this occasion the food of the animals sacrificed is simply distributed to the poor and it is purely an act of commemoration without any sense of a prior consecration to Allah. The Halaal symbol on a food product is purely an indication that it is fit for Muslim consumption as its preparation has been in compliance with the hygienic laws of the Qur’an which we have already mentioned. In no way whatsoever is the Halaal mark on such a product a sign that it has been sacrificed, least of all to an idol or false god.
Why, then, are such suggestions so vigorously pursued by certain Christians? One can only presume that the motive is one of pure anti-Islamic opportunism. Once it is conceded that Halaal in Islam is very much the same as the Kosher principle of Judaism, one can hardly raise any real objections to it. Once it is distorted, however, into the claim that it represents food sacrificed to an idol, then the antagonist creates a cause of offence. There are texts in the New Testament which speak out against the eating of foods so sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2.14, 2.20) and in his first letter to the Corinthians Paul gives circumstances under which such foods should not be eaten. These texts are then brought forth as proofs that Christians should not eat Halaal foods and should also campaign against the Muslim practice by which these are produced.
Even here, however, the argument has been taken too far. The New Testament does not outlaw the consumption of foods sacrificed to idols altogether and in the references from Paul’s letter we can see that it was only in two cases that the Apostle cautioned against the consumption of such foods, namely where a weaker brother might be offended by thinking that there really was something in the idol to whom it had been offered (1 Corinthians 8.7) and where a pagan worshipper himself might have his conscience disturbed if he saw a Christian eating such foods which had been ritually consecrated to an idol (1 Corinthians 10.28-29). On both occasions, however, Paul showed that it was only for the sake of the consciences of weaker brethren and pagans that the Christian should abstain, not because there was anything wrong in principle with the practice itself of eating such foods.
“Eat whatever is set before you”, Paul said, “without raising any question on the grounds of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10.27) and he added that “a man of knowledge” (that is, a mature Christian with a correct perspective on Christian liberty in this matter – 1 Corinthians 8.10) could freely eat foods that pagans had sacrificed because their idols, in any event, had no real existence and the food could not therefore be affected in any way (1 Cor. 8.4).
There is, therefore, nothing wrong in principle with eating food sacrificed to idols – the exceptions applying solely to consideration for the weak consciences of others – and all food created by God is good and to be received with thanksgiving, consecrated in our case by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4.3-5).
It is obvious that the anti-halaal campaign is based on extremely weak arguments. It not only requires a crude distortion of Islamic teaching on the subject but also a misrepresentation of Biblical principles to assert itself. Christianity does not need to degrade the beliefs of others to maintain itself. We really need to show consistency and sustain a truthful attitude towards Islam at this point – nothing can be gained from pure revulsion.
MILITANCY OR LOVE? – THE SPIRIT OF OUR RESPONSE.
During his public lecture on the Halaal symbol Ds. Zevenster complained that the Muslim influence in our society was a gevaar (danger), a bedreiging (threat) and an attempt to intimideer ons (intimidate us). These expressions are the language of fear, a natural reaction when someone feels his vested interests are being threatened. Should Christians react to Islam out of fear or should they not rather give themselves to the task of winning Muslims for Christ? As we have seen the latter course can only be achieved if it is motivated by love for the Muslims, what Paul called the “still more excellent way”. As another apostle put it, “there is no room for fear in love” (1 John 4.18). We need to reach out to the Muslims, we must resist the temptation to lash out at them.
Can Islam ultimately do anything to threaten the existence of the Church or prevent its ultimate triumph? When Jesus Christ died and rose again, did the battle end or was it just beginning? Is the outcome of his redeeming work dependent on our efforts and sweat or was it guaranteed by his resurrection?
The New Testament plainly shows that the final victory over sin, death and all the powers of the devil was gained at the cross (Colossians 2.13-15). When Christians set about witnessing to the world and preach the Gospel they are not fighting a battle for God whose outcome will depend on the intensity of their efforts. They are merely seeking the spoils of victory. Every convert is yet another proof of Christ’s invasion of the devil’s realm and a sign of the ultimate fate of the powers of evil – they are destined to destruction when Jesus returns again, when the kingdoms of this world will “become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11.15).
It is so often said that the Church must engage in the work of mission, but here too it would seem more appropriate to consider it as the outworking of mission – the gathering in of the people of God whose destiny was assured at the cross. Jesus said “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6.44) which shows that the success of Christian mission depends not on our efforts but upon God’s call. In full confidence, however, Jesus could say “All that the Father gives me will come to me … and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me but raise it up at the last day” (John 6.37,39). He could also say, as he faced the cross, “Of those whom thou gavest me I have lost none” (John 18.9). When he hung on the cross he had no uncertainty about the outcome of his saving work – he knew the Father would certainly draw to him all that he had given him and that they would be raised to glory at the Last Day.When he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. Isaiah 53.10-11.
The conversion of Saul, later to be called the Apostle Paul, is a fine example of this fact. If ever the devil had a volunteer to destroy the whole Christian Church and wipe it out, it was Saul of Tarsus. One could say he was the General of Satan’s army. He instigated such a great persecution against the early Church in Jerusalem that all the believers were scattered except the apostles. “Saul laid waste the Church” (Acts 8.3) and, determined to destroy it, he made his way to Damascus. Suddenly Jesus appeared to him in a glorious vision and appointed him to be his Apostle to the whole Gentile world.
The question might well be asked – could Saul have resisted the call of Jesus to become the Apostle Paul, the General of the Lord’s army? However one might reply, Paul himself said “He set me apart before I was born, he called me through his grace, and he was pleased to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1.15). The Apostle’s response was simply “I found myself caught up in God’s purposes for me”.
The key question, however, is – could the devil have resisted the call of Jesus? It is almost as if the two armies spoken of in Revelation 19.19 were standing opposite each other, and the king of the one, Jesus, went to the ruler of the other, Satan, and said “Who is the leading soldier in your ranks?” After Saul had been pointed out to him, Jesus, so it appears, simply said “Thank you, I will have him for myself”! What could the devil do to stop him? When Ananias complained to the Lord that Saul was known to be the archenemy of the Church, Jesus simply said to him “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine” (Acts 9.15). I have caIled him, he said, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
So today there is nothing Islam can do to stop the Lord Jesus drawing out whoever he wishes from the Muslim ranks to become his disciples. And there is nothing Islam can do to thwart the predetermined progress of the Church towards its coming glory. So there is nothing to fear, nothing to protect. We are free to love the Muslims without having to worry about any of their aims and objectives.
There is a deep need for a genuinely charitable approach towards Islam. The militant approach is no more suitable today than it was in the days of the Crusades. It is very interesting to discover that in Muhammad’s own time the Christians he came into contact with clearly showed him a spirit of love and hospitality. The Qur’an says of them:You will find those who are nearest in love to the believers to be those who say, “We are Christians” because among them are men devoted to learning and self-denial, and they are not arrogant. Surah 5.85
Christians should always be “nearest in love” to all they come into contact with and the adherents of other faiths. An attitude of caring and concern for their well-being, both temporally and eternally, should come spontaneously to us and should be the overriding factor in our dealings with all men. “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the Gospel of God but even our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2.8). It does not matter whether the world responds with gratitude or hostility, receptiveness or militancy, good or evil, the Christian’s disposition towards the world must always be conditioned by the love of God that has been so fully revealed in Jesus Christ, and his goal in his relationships with his fellow-men must ever be that which is expressed in the chorus: “Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me”.