Muslims are usually better prepared for inter-religious discussion.
When we read the book of Acts we see the apostles of Jesus evangelise different religious groups. There are Jews, Samaritans, magicians, followers of Zeus, Artemis, and John the Baptist, but we never read of any apostle evangelising Muslims. The reason for this is of course that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born around 550 years after Jesus. This may sound obvious, but the absence of Islam in the Bible has an effect on Christians. It means Christians do not learn about Islam naturally from reading the Bible – instead, it is optional.
The situation for Muslims is the exact opposite: Christianity is a major topic in the Qur’an. As a result, a Muslim who learns Islam is naturally instructed about Christianity – it is compulsory.
This means that Christians and Muslims have different degrees of “preparedness” for each other, and this is important to realise as Islam becomes an increasing part of the theological landscape in Australia.
In this article I want to consider some of the preparation Muslims receive about Christianity.
Christian beliefs: The Qur’an directly engages with many Christian beliefs and instructs Muslims to reject and refute them. These beliefs include the death of Jesus (Qur’an 4:157), the incarnation, Son of God, Trinity, and to some degree the reliability of the Bible (Q. 2:79). In fact Islam promotes itself by speaking against Christian beliefs.
The Qur’an directly addresses Christians about their beliefs and in doing so gives Muslims words and arguments to say. “O People of the Scripture (Christians), do not go beyond the bounds of your religion. Do not say anything but the truth about
God. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, is truly God’s messenger, and His word, which He cast into Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not say, “Three”. Desist [That is] better for you. God is one God. Glory be to Him – that He should have a son” (Q. 4:171, Jones).
And: “Unbelievers are those who say, ‘God is the Messiah’ … Unbelievers are those who say, ‘God is the third of the three’.” (Q. 5:72-73, Jones).
The author of the Qur’an consistently misrepresents Christian beliefs, for instance saying Jesus taught Jihad (9:111) or that Mary is part of the Trinity (5:116) or relying on Docetic gospels for its understanding of the death of Jesus. However, reading the Qur’an still takes you into a debate with Christians. When Islamic leaders teach the Qur’an they teach Muslims how to have this debate, and Islam has a 1400-year history of historical theology in this area.
The result of this situation is that when a Christian and Muslim talk the Christian may feel unprepared. They may not know the teachings of Islam, its history or what questions to ask. The Muslim, however, may feel quite prepared, and be well equipped with various books, leaflets, videos, Bible verses, and questions to ask. Muslims have even written two gospels for
themselves, The Gospel of Barnabas (14th century) and the Gospel According to Islam (1979) which they promote.
Of course not all Muslims learn their faith or are zealous, but it is still important that Christians understand this whole situation so they are not caught unprepared. Sadly some have been unprepared and found the well organised Islamic refutation of Christianity convincing.
All of this also has an effect on our evangelism as Islamic culture has been taught to reject the key elements of the gospel.
Politics: Not only does the Qur’an prepare Muslims theologically to talk with Christians, it also prepares them politically and economically. This applies both when they are a minority and hold power.
For a minority, consider: “Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious” (Qur’an 16:125, Yusuf Ali). And: “(Y)ou will certainly find the nearest in friendship to those who believe (to be) those who say: We are Christians” (Qur’an 5:82, Shakir).
When Muslims hold power, the teaching is different: “Fight from among the people who have been given the Scripture
(Christians and Jews) those who do not believe in God and the Last Day and who do not forbid that which God and His messenger (Muhammad) have forbidden and who do not follow the religion of truth, until they pay tribute (jizyah) readily, having been humbled. The Jews say ‘Ezra is the son of God’; and the Christians say ‘The Messiah is the son of God’. That is what they say with their mouths, conforming to what was said by those who disbelieved before them. God confound them. How they are embroiled in lies! … [It is] He (God) who has sent His messenger (Muhammad) with the guidance and the religion of truth to cause it to prevail over all (other) religion” (Q. 9:29-33, Jones).
Notice in this last verse that the call to subjugate Christians is because of what Christians believe.
Islam has a political agenda for Christianity and, again, Christians need to be aware of this so that we do not behave naively.
Romance: Islam also prepares Muslim men to engage romantically with Christian women (Qur’an 5:5) and to marry them.
In summary, the Qur’an speaks directly about Christianity on many occasions and on a variety of topics. It prepares Muslims for Christians, and as Islam grows in Australia Christians will need to response to the theological, political and romantic challenge of Islam.
Our theological colleges need to equip the Church for this challenge. Most Australian Reformed colleges still do not include the Islamic period (7-14th centuries) in their church history or historical theology, but in today’s world knowledge of this period of history is just as important as any other.
I was speaking to a recent graduate who had a conversation with an 18-year-old Muslim man. The Muslim was well prepared and the graduate said to me, “It made me realise how ill-equipped theological college left me for engaging with Islam.”
The Church actually does have good resources in this area. They begin with the Early Church Father, Saint John of Damascus (c.675-749), and in the modern period a lot of good work has been done, but this needs to be included, at a basic level, in our theological education.
The Apostles of Jesus may never have evangelised Muslims but the Bible and the Holy Spirit do give us the resources we need to answer the challenge of Islam and to present the gospel to them, and as more Muslims come into Western countries this is what Christians need to do.
Samuel Green is the author of the Engaging with Islam training course, engagingwithislam.org and founder of the website http://www.answering-islam.org