What Is Islam?
Understanding can open the door to redemptive conversations
A pastor recently shared that a group of Muslim men came to his office to inform him they were establishing a mosque next door to the church. The men acted kindly and expressed their intention to be good neighbors. The pastor then asked me a very pointed question: “How should I interact with these new neighbors?”
From the tenor of the conversation, the pastor viewed the arrival of his new neighbors as an opportunity to share the gospel with them. He was asking the Holy Spirit to reveal creative ways for the church to convey the truth about Jesus to their Muslim neighbors.
Fear, anger and indifference tend to affect Christian perceptions and interactions with Muslims. In reality, most Americans have never interacted with a Muslim and have little understanding of their beliefs and practices.
As a missionary to Muslims in Pakistan, I passionately longed to engage Muslims with the truth about Jesus Christ, but my quest was quickly interrupted by the stark realization that I did not understand these people. The Holy Spirit then led me on a journey to discover what Muslims actually believe and why.
I am sure many American Christians want to share the gospel with Muslims but hesitate to do so because they feel inadequately prepared. I pray you will begin a journey to understand what Muslims believe and why. Your Spirit-led journey will equip you to adequately present the gospel to spiritually blinded Muslims.
The apostle Paul provides a perfect description of the spiritual blindness your Muslim neighbor experiences: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
For Muslims, faith is primarily an intellectual process. Allah, their deity, is distant, unknowable, capricious and unapproachable. Since Allah is unknowable and offers no relationship with his followers, Muslims can only hope for his guidance, which is found in two primary ways: (1) the example of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and (2) the revelation of Allah’s will in the Quran and extra-Quranic writings, called “The Traditions.”
As Christians, we know the Bible teaches that the primary need of humans is a redemptive solution to the sin problem — which is found in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In Islam, people seek guidance, not redemption. A Muslim is one who has submitted to Allah and follows the laws and precepts of Islam.
Muslims believe the exact words of Allah (his will and guidance) are found in the Arabic Quran (recitations). Additionally, the example of the prophet Muhammad is found in both the Quran and The Traditions. Orthodox Sunni Muslims believe there are six exhaustive books of traditions that address minute details of how Muslims should conduct every aspect of their lives.
One way to understand Islam is in terms of a building with two basic parts: the foundation and the structure. Islam is built on the foundation of beliefs (Iman) while the outward practices (Deen) serve as the structure or visible expressions of Islam.
Six Foundational Beliefs of Islam (Iman)
Islam is built on the foundation of belief in (1) Allah, (2) angels, (3) the holy books, (4) prophets, (5) the day of judgment, and (6) the decrees of Allah or predestination. In some ways, Islam is a religion of imitation because many of Islam’s beliefs were borrowed from Judaism and Christianity, then stripped of the truth by truncating and changing key concepts.
The supreme article of faith in Islam is the belief in the absolute oneness of Allah. Oft-prayed verses of the Quran actually explain, in a negative way, the first required belief of Islam: “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute. He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; There is none like unto Him” (Quran 112:1-4).
This statement at once rejects three core Christian beliefs about God. First, it denigrates and negates the Fatherhood of God. Second, it is a rejection of the Christian belief in the Trinity, which Muslims have historically misunderstood as the Father, Mary, and Jesus. Third, it rejects Jesus as the Son of God. For Muslims, Jesus is simply an esteemed prophet. The idea that the God of the Bible would seek a relationship with humankind is anathema to Islam. For Muslims, Allah would never diminish himself by coming down to humankind, as Jesus did through the Incarnation.
God is at work, and Muslims are coming to Christ in unprecedented numbers.
The next three Muslim beliefs — angels, holy books, and prophets — might be described as instruments of mediation or revelation. As already mentioned, Islam’s deity is transcendent and unknowable. According to Islamic beliefs, Allah reveals his nature and will through mediators such as angels and through instruments of revelation such as holy books — primarily the Quran — and prophets.
Christians also believe God reveals himself via Scriptures and prophets, and employs angels to do His bidding. Unlike the deity of Islam, the God of the Bible is self-revealing in a multiplicity of ways and has clearly demonstrated His desire to enter into fellowship with His broken creation.
Further, Christians believe that God’s ultimate revelation is through a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. We have the marvelous advantage of being able to say to Muslims: “God desires to reveal His will, words and ways to you, but most of all, He desires to reveal himself to you!”
The last two beliefs of Islam are the day of judgment and the decrees of Allah. These beliefs expose how Muslims relate to their uncertain eternal destiny. In Islam, all events are predestined by Allah’s will. On the day of judgment, Muslims will find out whether their good works outweigh their bad works. Then each person will be eligible to negotiate the razor-thin bridge over hell, hoping that Allah will allow him or her to arrive safely in Paradise. All the while, Muslims must deal with the uncertainty of their final destiny.
How different is the assurance we enjoy as Christians! The precious Word of God assures Christians of their eternal destiny, as illustrated in 1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (emphasis added). This should compel believers to share this blessed hope with Muslims.
Six Foundational Practices of a Muslim (Deen)
To please Allah, all Muslims perform obligatory religious duties, which bind the Islamic community together. Essentially, the duties amount to the accumulation of good deeds that will hopefully provide a path to paradise. The first practice is the recitation of the shahada, the creed of Islam, which provides entrance to and identity in the Islamic community.
The shahada declares the uniqueness of the Islamic deity and a verbal commitment to the seal of the prophet, Muhammad: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” For Muslims, this is a covenantal statement that supposedly binds all Muslims in unity.
The other five practices of Islam are prayer, fasting (during the month of Ramadan), almsgiving, pilgrimage to Mecca, and jihad (holy war, or, optionally, the struggle to please Allah through personal piety). While not all of these practices are fully unique to Islam, through the Quran, The Traditions, and the life of Muhammad, each has been given new significance for Muslims. These strict practices must be performed in the appropriate manner and at the proper time.
In Christianity, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are biblical practices that focus on drawing believers closer to the Savior, Jesus Christ. The Islamic versions of these practices do not foster intimacy with Allah, but rather serve as demands for correct submission to Allah.
This brief overview of the beliefs and practices of Islam reminds us, as Christians, of the freedom we are privileged to enjoy through Jesus Christ. Muslims view their relationship with Allah as a slave to a master, while Christians have been adopted into the family of God as sons and daughters with all the privileges of the family. The foundation of our faith is built upon Jesus Christ as our Savior. We do not strive unassuredly for salvation, but rest in the finished work of Christ.
God is at work, and Muslims are coming to Christ in unprecedented numbers. The opportunity for you to share Christ with Muslims in your community is greater than ever before. Do not let fear, anger or indifference stop you from building the kingdom of God in your city.
Pray that the Lord will lead you to a Muslim in your community so you can share with him or her the salvation freely offered in Jesus Christ.
For further resources, visit the Global Initiative: Reaching Muslim Peoples website at reachingmuslimpeoples.com. Many resources are available for download. Our most recent publication, Journey to Understanding: Equipping Christians to Engage Muslims with Faith, will prepare you to reach your Muslim neighbors.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of six articles on Christianity and Islam that is running on Fridays throughout the Muslim month Ramadan, which began May 6 and ends June 4. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, so we encourage readers on this day especially to pray for the spread of the gospel among Muslims, both in the U.S. and around the world.