“Say: ‘We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us, and in what had been sent down to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their offspring, and what had been revealed to Moses and to Jesus and to all other prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between them, and we submit to Him and obey.’ And whoever seeks a way other than submission to God, it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the world to come.” (Qur’an 3:84 and 85; translation by Ahmed Ali. This translation of the Qur’an can be found here.)
I used to think that Islam considered Judaism and Christianity to be false religions. This idea goes so far back in my life that I can’t remember for sure whether it was something I was taught, or whether I just assumed it based on what I was taught. I think, however, that I was actually taught this in ‘Sunday School’ classes in the fundamentalist Christian churches in which I was raised. The idea was that Muslims believe that the Jews got things backwards; it was Abraham’s son Ishmael who was God’s chosen, and Isaac was rejected. The descendants of Ishmael (the Arabs) were the ones who were blessed by God. This supposedly has been a bone of contention between the Jews and Arabs ever since.
Now I don’t know for sure whether or not Jews and Arabs have been fighting with each other for time immemorial (though I know they’ve been fighting since the Jews occupied Jerusalem and Palestine following World War II, and forced the Palestinians – both Christians and Muslims – out of their homes and land); but if they have, it was no doubt because of an arrogant misinterpretation by some Jews of the covenant their Scriptures say God made with Abraham, and then by extension with Isaac, Jacob and their offspring. Although many Jews have thought that God had selected the line of Isaac to be ‘His (only) people’, and had ‘cast off’ everybody else (including of course the descendants of Ishmael) – it was believed that everyone else would eventually be the slaves of the Jews – in fact the covenant with Abraham had an entirely different aim. The descendants of Abraham were to bring God’s blessings to everyone else. It was Abrahams faith in God which was singled out as important, not his genes. Israel, as the ‘servant of God’, was to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). In Christian teaching, of course, this purpose was (and is) fulfilled in Jesus as God’s anointed – His true and faithful servant – and in the followers of Jesus the anointed. What Jesus actually fulfilled, though, was what Israel was supposed to be doing.
So far as the Hebrew Scriptures are concerned, God never in fact rejected Ishmael and his descendants. God promised Abraham that He would bless Ishmael and make a great nation of his descendants (Genesis 17:20); and he confirmed this promise to Hagar (Ishmael’s mother) in Genesis 21:18. Then verse 20 specifically says that “God was with the lad (Ishmael)”. No, God blessed, and was ‘with’, both Isaac and Ishmael – though He established a specific covenant with Isaac.
It is obvious from the above quote from the Qur’an that the ‘revelation’ given to Muhammad confirmed this blessing on both of Abraham’s sons. The Islamic Scriptures do not insist that the Jews ‘got it wrong’, and it was Ishmael who was chosen instead of Isaac. Muslims, if they are faithful to the Qur’anic ‘revelation’, have great respect for the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and for the Jews and Christians who really believe and practice those Scriptures. “Submission to God” (the One and Only) is what is important in Islam, and all who believe in God and obey him are accepted as belonging to one family, “the people of the Book”.
The Qur’an mentions rather frequently the continuity between it and the Hebrew and Christian ‘revelations’. The Torah (Hebrew Law) was acknowledged as the Law of God. In chapter 5, verse 42, Muhammad was instructed as to how he should respond if Jews came to him asking for his judgment about a matter. Then verses 43 and 44 say: “But why should they make you a judge when the Torah is with them which contains the Law of God? Even then they turn away. They are those who will never believe. We sent down the Torah which contains guidance and light, in accordance with which the prophets who were obedient (to God) gave instructions to the Jews, as did the rabbis and priests, for they were the custodians and witnesses of God’s writ. So, therefore, do not fear men, fear Me, and barter not My messages away for a paltry gain. Those who do not judge by God’s revelations are infidels indeed.” The Torah contains the Law of God, so the Jews ought to judge by that; if they don’t they’re really infidels (not because they have rejected the Qur’an, but because they don’t act in keeping with the Law God had previously given them).
Next, in verses 46 and 47 of chapter 5, reference is made to Jesus and the Gospel as having come from God: “Later, in the train (of the prophets), We sent Jesus, son of Mary, confirming the Torah which had been (sent down) before him, and gave him the Gospel containing guidance and light, which corroborated the earlier Torah, a guidance and warning for those who preserve themselves from evil and follow the straight path. Let the people of the Gospel judge by what has been revealed in it by God. And those who do not judge in accordance with what God has revealed are transgressors.” Christians are responsible to live by the Gospel which came through Jesus (who was sent by God); if they don’t live by that Gospel, they are transgressors.
Then verse 48 has this to say about the ‘revelation’ given to Muhammad: “And to you We have revealed the Book containing the truth, confirming the earlier revelations, and preserving them (from change and corruption). So judge between them by what has been revealed by God, and do not follow their whims, side-stepping the truth that has reached you. To each of you We have given a law and a way and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith). But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel in good deeds. To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance.” The Qur’an is not seen as being opposed to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures and religion, but as confirming them (just as the Gospel confirmed the Torah), and weeding out any corrupting influences which had crept in through the errors of men. The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah (8:8) had commented on the corruptions introduced into the Law by scribes: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? For behold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Note that in this Qur’anic verse, points of variance between the different faiths would be cleared up by God at the Last Day. So if you’re going to compete with each other, let that competition be in each trying to outdo the others in doing good.
Now notice the assurance given in the Qur’an to Jews and Christians who are faithful to their Scriptures: “Surely the believers and the Jews, Nazareans [Christians] and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whosoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord and will neither have fear nor regret” (2:62). This statement is repeated in 5:69. Sabians were a monotheistic group who had some ‘questionable’ beliefs and practices, but were nevertheless recognized as being true followers of the One God and they would be accepted by Him.
It is an interesting fact of history that the Jews had not been permitted to live in Jerusalem for about five hundred years (except for a brief period from 614 to 628 A.D. when the Persians ruled there) – until the Muslims conquered Jerusalem under Caliph Umar in 638 A.D. Umar then not only permitted Jewish families to once again establish residence, but he actually invited 70 families to reside there. So not only is Islam not anti-Semitic; there is a great respect for the Jewish faith and people inherent in Islam.
However Islam is also very realistic. Although the Muslims bore no ill will toward Jews or Christians (though they did decry some of their teachings, especially the teachings of some Christians – the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus – which are today ‘Orthodox’), it was recognized that some of the ‘people of the Book’ did bear strong ill will toward the Muslims. “You will find the Jews and idolaters most excessive in hatred of those who believe; and the closest in love to the faithful are the people who say: ‘We are the followers of Christ’, because there are priests and monks among them, and they are not arrogant. For when they listen to what has been revealed to this Apostle, you can see their eyes brim over with tears at the truth which they recognize, and say: ‘O Lord, we believe; put us down among those who bear witness (to the truth). And why should we not believe in God and what has come down to us of the truth? And we hope to be admitted by our Lord among those who are upright and do good?’ God will reward them for saying so with gardens where streams flow by, where they will live for ever. This is the recompense of those who do good” (5:82-85). It indeed was the polytheists and Jews who were the main persecutors of the Muslims. The polytheist ‘idolaters’ in Mecca had mercilessly persecuted Muhammad and his followers, until in 622 they were offered refuge in Medina. Some of the Jews in Medina then joined with the Meccan polytheists in attacking the Muslims, and it was at this point, in Medina, that the Muslims began to fight back in self defense. But they only fought against those who first attacked them. (See this article).
While Muhammad and the Muslims were still in Mecca, being persecuted by the idolaters, Muhammad sent messengers to Ethiopia to see if the ruler would permit some of the Muslims to take refuge there. This was where there was an example of Christians responding with tears in their eyes to the reading of part of the Qur’an (which was only partially revealed at that time). The portion recounting the birth of Jesus to Mary was read, and the Christian listeners were so overwhelmed by the beauty and ‘truth’ of the passage that they wept and welcomed the Muslim believers into their country. Nestorian Christians, who did not believe in the Trinity or the Deity of Jesus, also at a later time recognized truth in the Qur’an and were welcomed by the Muslims and given protection.
Of course, relations have not always since been so amicable between Muslims and Christians. Militant Christian ‘Orthodoxy’ felt it had the right to compel adherence to Christian doctrine, or kill those who refuse to convert (something which is anathema to the Qur’an, and also to the Bible – particularly the New Testament), so eventually they felt they must ‘reclaim’ Jerusalem from those infidel, heretical Muslims (and Jews) by military action. And when Muslims are attacked, they have Qur’anic authority to fight back. So ‘Orthodox’ Christianity and Islam have had ‘strained’ relationships for quite a long time now. It seems to me though that the primary reason for this is the bitter anger of Orthodox Christians at the Muslim ‘heresy’, leading them to slander and sometimes physically attack the ‘infidels’. (This is certainly not to ‘whitewash’ all Muslims, as though there were never any vicious attacks against Christians.)
There is an interesting account of St. Francis of Assisi going to visit a Muslim ruler to try to convert him to the Christian faith. Francis was very polite and courteous, arguing in a reasonable manner. The Muslim ruler, although he did not convert, was very impressed with St. Francis’ courteous presentation, and commented to the effect that if all Christians were so courteous the conflicts between Muslims and Christians would soon be resolved! This was just the type of discussion which the Qur’an itself enjoined: “Do not argue with the people of the Book unless in a fair way, apart from those who act wrongly, and say to them: ‘We believe what has been sent down to us, and we believe what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit’” (29:46). It is my desire to see Muslims, Christians, and Jews put aside the bitter enmity that has been shown so often over the centuries, and learn to relate to each other in love and courtesy as did St. Francis and that Muslim ruler. There will no doubt remain differences (some perhaps considered ‘major’); but as a Qur’anic verse previously quoted said, God Himself will clear those up in the ‘Last Day’ (5:48).
While I have sought to present Islam in a positive light, in opposition to what appear to me to be misrepresentations and (sometimes) slanders of its character and teachings, I should probably make it clear that I do not embrace the Muslim religion myself. My thought still has more of a ‘Christian’ framework, and I’ll no doubt spend more time dealing with Biblical teaching and practice. But as I have made clear that I don’t accept any concept of Biblical inerrancy or infallible authority, neither do I accept the Islamic concept of Qur’anic inerrancy or infallible authority. While meaning no disrespect for Muslim friends (which I hope is obvious from my articles), the 2 main ‘problems’ I find in the Qur’an are: (1) its emphasis on a very literal sounding hell and ‘eternal torment of the damned’; and (2) the heavy emphasis in Islam on ritual – the “5 pillars of Islam” including ritual prayers (performed in a precise manner 5 times a day, with the necessity of facing toward Mecca when praying), obligatory fasting during the month of Ramadan, obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime if one is physically and financially able, etc. I understand that it’s even considered very important that the dead be buried facing Mecca. Certain foods are considered unclean. I reject all such emphasis on outward things, and insist that it is ‘the heart’ that is of primary importance. “The kingdom of God is within you”; God doesn’t dwell in ‘temples made with hands’, and is to be worshiped “in spirit and in truth” rather than in particular physical locations and with outward ceremonies. “The kingdom of God doesn’t consist in what you eat or drink, but in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”. Concerning ‘hell’ and ‘eternal torment’, my position is still what I have previously written in articles on reincarnation, universalism, and the metaphorical meaning of ‘everlasting punishment’. While I can approach the Qur’anic teaching about ‘the Last Day’, and the terrible torments God supposedly has in store for unbelievers, with the same non-literal understanding I have of the Bible, I still find the very heavy emphasis on this in the Qur’an to be oppressive. I actually find it personally offensive to even suggest that God would torture and torment any of His creation in the manner the Qur’an depicts it. I can’t use such language concerning God’s actions myself, and have to metaphorically ‘hold my nose’ when I read those descriptions of ‘hell’ and try to allegorize them. So I definitely have my ‘reservations’ about some aspects of Islam. Nevertheless I find an awful lot to be admired in that religion, and will do my part when I can to counter misrepresentations and slander.