Muslim Ideology and Christian Apologetics
SAMUEL P. SCHLORFF
Despite formal similarities, Islam and Christianity operate on very different wavelengths. Islam is law-oriented, not theology-oriented, and Muslim society is ideological in nature. However, Christians have attempted to understand the Muslim mind through a comparative study of Muslim and Christian doctrine and to present the Christian message in a theological framework. This paper proposes a different approach: understanding Islam by analyzing the key ideas in the Muslim worldview. It outlines a Christian apologetic that responds to the issues raised by Muslim ideology on the basis of the biblical doctrine of the kingdom of God.
For years, missiologists have debated how best to approach the Muslim mind. The preferred approach of the nineteenth century was polemic, attacking Islam in order to make it “fall to the ground” (Tisdall 1910:2). That approach fell into disfavor early in the century, and since then a number of other approaches have been proposed and tried, which I need not go into here. For about 20 years, evangelicals have been debating the pros, cons, and hows of contextualizing the gospel in relation to Islamic culture (e.g., McCurry 1979; Woodberry 1989). While the approach has merit, properly used, it must be conceded that we still have not responded in any adequate way to the challenge of Muslim ideology. To understand why, we shall take a look at the Muslim worldview and some of the reasons for our failure to respond.
The Approach of Doctrinal Comparison
Christians have generally tried to penetrate the Muslim mindset through a comparative study of Muslim and Christian doctrine. By itself, however, doctrinal comparison cannot explain how Muslims think. Despite their similarities, the two communities operate on very different wavelengths. Doctrinal comparison cannot reveal how or why Islam not only makes sense to Muslims, but also why it has a powerful attraction for them. Above all, this approach ignores the fact that doctrine occupies a very different place in the two religions. Islam is law-oriented, not theology-oriented.
In Islam, doctrine is viewed more or less as a preamble to Islamic Law, called the Shari`ah, the comprehensive code that governs every aspect of the Muslim’s life. Like the practice of the five so-called Pillars of Islam, belief in the six Articles of Faith – the doctrines of God, his angels, his prophets, his books, his decrees, and the Last Day – is considered obligatory; every Muslim must confess them verbally and endorse them intellectually. They are adhered to by Sunni and Shiite alike.
This explains why it is that since the Middle Ages there has been little original theological thinking in Islam comparable to what exists in Christianity. The creative intellectual energy of Muslims has been directed instead into other channels, such as qur’anic exegesis and legal theory, political science, and ideology. Muslim society is inherently ideological. This is not to say that all Muslims are ideologically motivated, but rather that as a whole Muslim society has a distinctly Islamic sociopolitical program. To understand the Muslim mind, then, we need to look beyond Islamic doctrine per se to its worldview, especially its ideology.
A Look at the Muslim Worldview
We shall now look at some of the leading ideas in the Islamic worldview. There exists a substantial amount of material on the subject, but it has been written mainly from the standpoint of the liberal, secular historian of religion (e.g., Esposito 1983; Haddad 1982; Smith 1957), or that of Islam. While these are very helpful, they lack the Christian theological perspective that we as Christians need in order to relate meaningfully to the Muslim worldview and ideology. It is unfortunate that evangelical writers have generally ignored the subject in their writings about Islam.
A Key Concept – Submission
The principal idea that integrates everything into one cohesive system is found in the word
Islam itself. It is an Arabic word that Muslims love to say means “submission,” while the term
Muslim means “one who submits.” The corresponding verb (aslama ) means to “make peace,” “surrender,” or “submit.” It is typically used of the vanquished laying down their swords before the victor. The word expresses the Islamic ideal that every aspect of life, of the individual, or of society should be lived in submission to God.
This ideal is expressed in the principal synonyms for God and man in the Qur’an: Rabb (“Lord”) and `abd (“slave”). Five times a day when Muslims perform the Ritual Prayer, they recite the first Sura of the Qur’an, addressing God as “Lord of the worlds” (Sura 1:2), and bow with faces to the ground as his slaves. This ideal is also expressed in many of the names Muslims give their sons, which combine the form `abd with Allâh or one of the 99 names of God: e.g., Abdur-Rahman, Abdul-Aziz, Abdul-Haqq, etc.
It is good to recall that the Bible also speaks of submission to God (e.g., James 4:7). Submission to God is part and parcel of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship and the kingdom. The theme of serving God is important (the Hebrew term “servant” and related terms are from the same Semitic root as the Arabic term `abd). We may, therefore, affirm that Muslims cannot lay exclusive claim to being in submission to God. And yet we must also say that the biblical idea of submission differs radically from that of Islam. This is because the Islamic idea is based on very different premises.
Five Basic Assumptions
Five ideas, also quite foreign to the Christian worldview, help to explain the Islamic understanding of submission. They are assumed in all that is said and done, without necessarily being expressed in so many words. Of course, many other concepts are involved as well, but these are mentioned because they are basic to an understanding of how the Muslim worldview differs from ours.
1. Absolute Transcendence
The first concerns the nature of God. Whenever I read Muslim writings on the doctrine of God, I am always struck by how often there is much that is formally similar to what Christian theologians have to say (see, e.g., Kateregga and Shenk 1980:1-8). Differences there are, but these are less striking than the similarities and are more subtle and harder to interpret. There is one difference, however, that accounts for many of the divergences that exist between Islam and Christianity. This is Islam’s doctrine of absolute transcendence. Muslims insist that God is wholly other or, in the language of the theologians, “dissimilar to contingent beings” (al-Gazâ’iri 1987:16/2). An oft-quoted passage of the Qur’an declares that “there is nothing like unto Him” (Sura 42:11).
Christians, of course, also hold a doctrine of transcendence, but the Muslim doctrine is more rigorous. The Muslim view implies that to all intents and purposes God is unknowable; Christians believe that God can be known (John 1:18; 14:7; 17:3,6). Muslims will often claim to have a knowledge of God, but they mean by that a knowledge of truth about God, not the knowledge of God as a person. They insist, against the Christian view, that God does not reveal himself to people; he reveals only his will. There is likewise no analogical relationship between God and people such as one finds in the biblical teaching that human beings are created in the “Image of God” (al-Faruqi 1963:286, 291). In a word, God’s transcendence is absolute.
2. Human Goodness
Closely related to this is a second assumption concerning human nature. Islam holds that people are essentially “good” and “pure” (cf. Sura 95:4), although “weak” and “forgetful” (Sura 4:28; 20:115). In the qur’anic account of Adam and Eve, they did not intend to disobey; they simply “forgot” God’s command. And after Adam sinned, God “relented” and “forgave” him, promised him “guidance,” and assured him he had “nothing to fear” provided he followed that guidance (Sura 20:115-127).
Islam categorically rejects the biblical doctrine of a moral fall. Muslims insist that our present separation from God is due essentially to God’s transcendence, not sinful human nature. Although we do sin, this is attributed, e.g., to “ethical misperception” rather than to sinfulness (al-Faruqi 1968:64). We have the moral power not to sin; we can do the good. Indeed, Islam teaches, on the strength of a rather obscure passage in the Qur’an (Sura 30:30), that man is born “Muslim,” i.e., submissive to God by nature (Kateregga and Shenk 1980:18; al-Faruqi 1976:395ff.). What we need then is not salvation from sin, but “guidance.” With guidance from God we are able to live a life of submission that pleases God (al-Faruqi 1976:398-401).
For the Muslim, then, our present situation is the normal human condition. According to the Bible, it is abnormal. God did not create us as we now are, nor does he intend that we stay that way. In Christ, we have the hope of one day being “liberated” from the creation’s present “bondage to decay” and experiencing the “redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:21-23). Islamic eschatology does not offer such a hope.
3. Divine Guidance
A third assumption is that God has provided the guidance that people need. “Guidance” (hudâ ) is one of the central themes of the Qur’an; the verb form of this root alone occurs some two hundred times, and the noun form 85 times, not to mention similar terms and ideas. Guidance is said to be found in “the Torah and the Gospel” (Sura 3:3-4, etc.), but above all in the Qur’an, which is called “a guidance and a mercy for believers” (e.g., Sura 27:77). The Qur’an, together with the traditions (hadiths) concerning what Muhammad said and did, and certain other sources, constitute the Religious Law (the Shari`ah) which Muslims believe to be the very law of God.
The Bible has something important to say about religious law as well, but here the emphasis is quite the opposite. According to Romans 8, religious law is “powerless” to help us live in perfect submission to God as he requires because it is “weakened by the sinful nature” (v.3). Admittedly, the passage is speaking specifically of the Law of Moses, but the principle applies to all religious law – including the Shari`ah of Islam.
4. A Community of Submission
The preceding assumptions lead naturally to a fourth, the Muslim concept of community. By A.D. 622, Muhammad’s preaching had aroused violent opposition in the city of Mecca, and the future of the new religion appeared to be in jeopardy. He had, however, attracted a sizable following in the city of Medina, some three hundred miles to the north. The Muslims of Medina invited Muhammad to mediate their differences with various tribal groups in the city. Muhammad accepted and emigrated with his followers to Medina.
That well-known event, called the hijrah (“emigration”), gave Muhammad the power base that enabled him to eliminate the opposition and take control of Medina, and eventually the entire Arabian peninsula and beyond. Muslims have made it the starting point of the Muslim calendar, and consider it the pivotal event of history. It represents the birth of a new universal social order which is identified with the ummah or “community” of Islam. Muslims consider that early community to be the first in history to live in true submission to divine law (Kateregga and Shenk 1980:48-53; Smith 1957:22ff.). Muhammad, as Prophet and Lawgiver, was its first head of state. He was succeeded by a series of caliphs (caliph = “one who comes after”) who ruled the community in his place.
Here is where Islam becomes highly ideological. That first community at Medina is considered to be the model “community of submission” of all time – the exemplar which Muslims must thereafter strive to emulate. It is said to be superior to other types of social organization (e.g., capitalism, communism, or socialism) because it is based on divine law, not man-made law (see, e.g., Esposito 1983:67-98). This is thought to make for a greater degree of submission than exists outside Islam. The model requires a Muslim government to provide the legal and social framework necessary to facilitate submission to the law. There is no separation between the sacred and the secular, between church and state. This community is one, universal, and cohesive, representing for Muslims the kingdom of God on earth.
5. A “Heavenly” Culture
One noteworthy aspect of the Muslim idea of community is the notion that Islamic culture is of “heavenly” or divine origin. This notion derives from the way the Qur’an describes the revelation process – as a “sending down” of material from an archetypal heavenly scripture, the “Preserved Tablet” or “Mother of Books.” The term “send down” ( nazzala) is used in various forms over 260 times. From this, Muslims conclude that the Qur’an has an absolutely unique divine status that makes it supra-historical, and that the Arabic language in which it came is a supernatural language (see e.g., al-Faruqi and al-Faruqi 1986:100-107). This explains why Muslims commonly refer to the Qur’an as tanzîl (“a sending down”) and “heavenly scripture” (kitâb samâwî) , and to the Arabic language as “the language of heaven” (lughat as-samâ’).
This idea of a heavenly culture is expressed in a variety of subtle ways (see Sanneh 1989:211-214ff.). It is commonly affirmed, e.g., that the Qur’an cannot be translated; its words are said to be too rich in meaning to be put into any other language. In this way Muslims are conditioned to believe that to fully understand the Qur’an, indeed to be fully Muslim, one must read it in the sacred Arabic. Related to this is the requirement that the ritual prayers and other liturgical acts must be recited in Arabic. Similarly, converts are encouraged to take “Muslim” (i.e., Arabic) names, and parents give Muslim names to their children. Finally, mention should be made of the extreme hostility Muslims have for the historical-critical study of the Qur’an and Islamic history. To this day, no Muslim has ever dared undertake to establish a “critical edition” of the Qur’an. To do that would be incompatible with its supposed supra-historical nature and tantamount to kufr (infidelity).
Deepening Our Understanding of the Muslim Worldview
Certain historical factors add important nuances to the Muslim view of reality, and help explain why Muslims are still captivated by this ideology today. These provide a broad context for understanding the development and outworking of the preceding assumptions.
Consider, first of all, the long and brilliant history of Islamic civilization. Not only did the initial Muslim conquests advance at a remarkable pace, but by the tenth century the Muslim world had become the center of civilization at a time when our ancestors in Europe were going through the Dark Ages. Islamic civilization has demonstrated an extraordinary resilience and ability to absorb a wide variety of peoples and cultures. In the minds of most Muslims, these facts alone confirm its superiority to other types of society.
As Islamic civilization matured and extended, however, a gap appeared between the ideal Islam and the real. A discrepancy arose between what the community supposedly was in the days of the Prophet and how people themselves experienced it. Thus, it is that only the first four caliphs are recognized to be “rightly-guided” (the khulafâ râshidûn) . Despite its failings, however, the community continued strong for many years, and faith in the essential truth of the ideal remained intact. Confidence that the ideal Islam would ultimately prevail remained high despite these inconsistencies.
Nevertheless, beginning around the fifteenth century, Islam went into decline. The Muslims began to experience setbacks and loss of territory as the vast empire began to disintegrate. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Muslim community experienced its darkest hour. It became politically fragmented, economically underdeveloped, and largely subservient to Western colonial powers. After the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, there was no longer a caliph governing the community anywhere, as required by Muslim ideology.
One can readily understand the crisis of faith precipitated by this decline. In the Qur’an, God had seemed to promise political power if Muslims lived in submission to his Law (Sura 63:8; cf. 24:55). This was taken to mean that, as in the days of Muhammad, there should be a united community in full control of its own destiny and a center of world power. How was it then that they were now backward, hopelessly fragmented, and in subjection to non-Muslim powers? It was particularly galling to be ruled by “infidels” (kuffâr).
The situation provoked considerable discussion over the reasons for their decline and what was to be done about it (see Arslan 1982). Most agreed that the fault did not lie with Islam itself, but with the Muslim community. Beyond that, analyses differed. Some concluded that the Muslims had deviated from the straight path of submission and that God had therefore forsaken them. Others maintained that the problem was their antiquated perception of reality; they had rigidly held to a medieval understanding of the world – and ceased to keep pace with modern civilization. Differences in analysis naturally led to a variety of solutions. Most attempted in one way or another to reform Islam; a few countries more or less abandoned Islamic Law entirely.
About the middle of the twentieth century, Islam appeared to have turned a corner. In the decade following World War II, most Muslim countries became independent once again. Many adopted forms of government with a degree of continuity with Islamic Law but patterned mainly on Western political models, especially socialism. Expectations were high that things would turn around economically and politically. Most constitutions declared Islam to be the “Religion of the State,” but limited the role of the Shari`ah one way or another. Few declared it to be the law of the land. The Western concept of the nation, defined in terms of the equality of its citizens, had widely replaced that of a universal
ummah . Secularism was making inroads. All these things were in conflict with the Muslim ideal of a single community governed by a Muslim ruler, but they were accepted in hope of better things.
Now, a generation later, more and more Muslims are becoming disillusioned by the grand experiment with Western models. Expectations have been unrealized, and the masses are generally worse off than before. Many feel that in spite of independence, they are still not respected by the West, and are still being exploited and manipulated. There is a rising tide of anger and desperation to be reckoned with that is directed, not only at the West, but also at their own governments which many feel have betrayed them. Fundamentalists are preaching that God is against them because they have followed Western rather than Islamic values. Pressure is mounting for a “return to Islam.” There is an increased tendency to blame the West for their problems. Many Muslims see a “great conspiracy against Islam” in the way the West, especially America, has treated the Muslim world; our handling of the Palestine situation and the Gulf crisis are but two examples. They cite the decadence of the West as further reason for rejecting Western models.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the Muslim world have begun to turn around. God has seen fit to give Muslims control over most of the world’s oil reserves. The oil-producing Muslim countries now have considerable political and economic clout, which they use for the benefit of Islam. The rapid demographic growth of Muslims (doubling every 24 to 30 years) also favors the spread of Islam; Muslim immigrants have taken Islam with them, and their proselytizing has been quite successful in Europe and America. One can understand that many Muslims are confident that the tables will be turned, and that a united Muslim community will once again be dominant.
The Lack of a Christian Response
It is clear that Muslim ideology has important implications for the church, as well as for the world in which we live, and calls for a vigorous Christian response. Unfortunately, Christians have failed to respond in any adequate way to the issues raised by Muslim ideology. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, such an undertaking requires a fairly good grasp of Islamic history, which many Christians lack. Then there is the tendency to equate apologetics with polemics.
Possibly the most important factor, however, is our tendency in the West to focus almost exclusively on the spiritual side of the biblical message. This is largely due to the influence of the concept of the “two realms” – the realms of Christ and Caesar, church and state, the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the political. Although this distinction originated in Christian theology, it has become such a part of our Western cultural framework that it is now one of our unspoken, and often unrecognized, cultural assumptions.
Consider the typical gospel presentation; the topics usually covered are the holiness of God, the sinfulness of human nature, our need of redemption, the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ, the way of salvation, and the hope of heaven. These are the essentials, of course, but the gospel has political and social implications that need to be brought out in any witness in Muslim society. We tend to ignore these in the West because the two-realm distinction has become so much a part of our cultural framework.
The advantage of this approach is that it helps us eliminate everything but the essentials, but there is a disadvantage as well. We have grown so accustomed to ignoring the sociopolitical dimension of the gospel that we have become very fuzzy on the subject. As a result, we open the door to misunderstanding and distortions of the gospel in societies that do not recognize the two realms, as is the case with Islam. In such circumstances, the approach does a disservice to the cause of Christ.
A typical article in an Arabic Muslim magazine is a good illustration of what happens ( Al-Muslimoon 1990). The article attacks “Christianizing” broadcasts in Arabic in the Middle East. At first it complains that they “attempt to Christianize Muslims.” This is of course true. But the article calls this “a totally immoral and despicable act no matter which standard we may use to appraise its nature” (1990:56). As if Muslims were not trying to Islamize Christians and others! Later it is conceded that to propagate one’s own religion is legitimate, but then claimed that “the Western missionary effort is part and parcel of an imperialistic invasion of our Eastern countries” (1990:57). The article concludes: “These efforts of the Christian missionaries are not really aimed at converting people to Christianity. Rather, their activities represent one aspect of a multi-faceted campaign launched by an aggressive Western imperialism to dominate our peoples and our countries” (1990:58f.).
Notice how spiritual ministry is transformed into imperialism. Muslims draw such a conclusion because Islam does not make a distinction between realms. The charge of imperialism is of course hypocritical; Islam is as imperialistic as they come. The ultimate goal of Muslim da`wah (missionary work) is to establish an Islamic social order wherever possible. Certainly, the requirement that the Qur’an be read and recited, and liturgies performed, only in Arabic is nothing less than cultural imperialism.
The real reason Muslims see secret imperialistic designs behind Christian missionary work is that they themselves have imperialistic designs, and cannot conceive of mission without them. Such attacks are not concerned with truth; they are disinformation campaigns intended to distract the public from hearing the Christian message. The point of all this, however, is that focusing on the spiritual aspects of the message and ignoring its sociopolitical dimension opens the door to such charges. In such circumstances it is only natural for Muslims to assume Western missions to have some hidden imperialistic agenda.
Needed: A Culture-Specific Apologetic
What is needed to meet this challenge is a contextualized apologetic that presents the case for Christian faith in relation to Muslim ideology. This has been called “culture-specific apologetics” (Netland 1988:297). I want it to be abundantly clear that I am not calling for more of the polemic that was used so much in the past, e.g., polemic attacks against the prophet of Islam, its scripture, its ethics, or its institutions, etc., but which fail to challenge its ideology – or win the Muslim.1
The principal aim of an apologetic that addresses Islamic culture must be to expound and to defend the gospel. As J.H. Bavinck has so aptly put it, “what is new must be portrayed in such a way that it is possible to compare it at every point with the old” (1960:149). This involves sensitively but firmly unmasking the rebellion against God that is inherent in Muslim ideology while explaining the sociopolitical implications of the gospel. This is necessary in order to disabuse Muslims of the idea that Christian mission has hidden imperialistic designs on the Muslim world and, more importantly, to provide a springboard for the proclamation of the gospel.
The Biblical Doctrine of the Kingdom versus Islamic Ideology
Bruce Nicholls has suggested that the biblical concept of the kingdom of God “effectively meets both the religious and cultural needs of the Muslim and offers a comprehensive response” to Muslim ideology (Nicholls 1979:156). Not only does it establish a common ground with Muslims in recognizing the importance of submission to God, but it also helps to focus the discussion on basic assumptions, and provides an excellent basis for expounding the biblical message. We have, however, yet to see anyone attempt to expound the biblical doctrine of the kingdom in relation to the issues raised by Muslim ideology.
It has been noted that the biblical data takes account of two distinct phases of the kingdom (Ridderbos 1962). The kingdom of God in provisional form was inaugurated in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. These events show that he is the promised Messiah – the divine King anointed and appointed by God to rule the earth. The kingdom is found only in mystery or in provisional form in the present age; that is, it is spiritual in character and hidden in the hearts of those who are committed to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and who look forward to his coming again.
The kingdom of God will come in its fullness only at the second coming of Jesus Christ, at the end of the age. At that time, he will raise from the dead those who have been redeemed by his blood – who have committed their lives to him. It is important to point out that the redeemed are raised to an incorruptible state – free from the power of sin. At that time, Christ will establish his universal and eternal reign of justice and of peace.
In the remainder of this article, the concept of the kingdom will be used as the basis for a culture-specific apologetic to Islam. In this connection, several important points need to be made relative to the Muslim ideology of the
ummah . These will be summarized here, but will need elaboration and explanation in works written for Muslims.
Only a Society Ruled by God Can Be Considered a Divine Order
The biblical concept is based on the premise that only a society in which the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government are all under the direct control of God may be considered a divine order. Anything less, e.g., where any of these functions are in human hands, is ipso facto not a divine order, even though it may possess a religious law.
The eschatological nature of the kingdom is all-important. The kingdom is indeed now present in provisional form through the person and work of Christ, and Christians may experience kingdom life in the here and now. But the kingdom has yet to come in its fullness. We must, therefore, not delude ourselves into thinking that by our own efforts we can transform society into a divine order. God’s promise of the kingdom will only be realized when Christ returns and the redeemed are resurrected in a new body free from sin. Only then will a just social order be realized. In the meantime, as “children of the kingdom,” Christians are called to submit to the cross in their lives daily, and to combat evil and injustice in order to make society as just and equitable as possible. At their best, however, they can never pretend to have risen to the level of what they should be, and what they will one day become.
As we communicate the gospel to Muslims, it is extremely important to acknowledge that, like the rest of mankind, Christians are by nature sinful and unable in their own strength to live in submission to God. Neither the church nor any other community can claim identity with the kingdom of God! In our zeal to communicate the wonderful truth that Christ liberates from sin, we must be careful not to give the impression that we think we have arrived. When we are not transparent, Muslims also find it difficult to admit the truth – that Islam is not the superior social order it claims to be.
Religious Law Is Powerless to Effect Submission
The biblical doctrine is also based on the premise that unless divine law is interpreted and administered by God himself, it is no better a basis for society than any other legal system. In the hands of humans, good laws can be, and all too often have been, turned into instruments of injustice. Even with the best of intentions, human societies are never perfectly righteous, equitable, or just. States that are based on religious law tend to be oppressive because they put human judges in the place of God.
According to the Bible, the problem is that law is “weakened by the sinful nature” (Romans 8:3); it cannot of itself bring about the perfect obedience required by God. One might acknowledge, for the sake of argument, that the Shari`ah of Islam is good in many respects, e.g., as when it forbids killing, stealing, adultery, and the like. This is to make the point that even if it, like the Torah of Moses, were the Law of God, as Muslims claim, it would still be powerless to effect complete submission to God. According to the Bible, the Mosaic Law was given, not to make people righteous before God, but rather to expose the sinfulness of sin and the hopelessness of our condition, and to point people to Jesus Christ who alone can atone for sin.
A Society Based on Religious Law Is No Better Than Any Other
This means that a social order based on religious law is not intrinsically superior. Every attempt to establish such an order has fallen short of the ideal of a society in submission to God. This may be readily demonstrated from history. For example, although the Hebrew nation had the Law of Moses, this did not keep it from plunging so deeply into idolatry and oppression that God had to punish it severely through exile. Christians likewise have at various times tried to set up religious states based on the Bible, but these too came to naught. Finally, the Islamic community has claimed to be a superior order because it is based on a religious law, but it too has failed to evidence the superior qualities claimed for it.
It is appropriate to ask Muslims on what basis they suppose that a return to Islamic law will solve the problems of the community today, when earlier the law was unable to prevent its decline. One can affirm, on the basis of the above principles, that the ummah has never been and never will be the superior social order it claims to be. Such a utopian view of Muslim society is only a formula for more frustration, oppression, and violence. 2
We must make it abundantly clear that we are not trying to disparage Islam, or to make counterclaims of superiority for the Christian community. We are simply challenging the claim that the Muslim community is intrinsically superior. To make such a claim assumes gratuitously that people have in themselves the moral power needed to live in submission to God, and that “guidance” is sufficient to bring about obedience. This assumption is contradicted by the facts. Moreover, from the Christian perspective, the Islamic claim to superiority is both blasphemous and idolatrous; it dishonors the Creator by attributing to him the actions of human beings, and it deifies creatures by elevating their judgments to the status of divine law.
Several Concluding Observations
I conclude then that the biblical concept of the kingdom needs to be made a prominent component of the gospel message in a Muslim context. It clarifies the sociopolitical dimensions of the gospel, and in the process defuses the notion that Christian mission is imperialistic. It must be made clear that the church is not out to “Christianize” the world in the same sense that Muslims are out to “Islamize” the world. The kingdom of God is eschatological in nature; it cannot be established by human effort.
We must be perfectly honest, however; most of us are citizens of some Western country, and are implicated in its sins – and its imperialism. We must also never forget that our task as Christians is to defend the gospel, not Western civilization. We should love our country, but must remember that we are “pilgrims” on this earth; “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We would, therefore, do well to acknowledge the validity of many of the criticisms Muslims level against the West – its decadence, its abandonment of moral values, its greed, its ungodliness, etc. In so doing, we underline the truth of the biblical view of humanity, and bolster the assertion that no society can claim to be intrinsically superior. Christians should also agree with Muslims that every aspect of life is sacred and is to be lived in submission to God.
One may also conclude from the above affirmations that a separation of realms in the exercise of power is justified in the interim. We live in a fallen world. No human being has the cognitive or moral perfection needed to interpret the law and legislate with complete equity. A separation of powers is therefore justified to protect society from the abuse that inevitably occurs when religion and state are one. I say “justified” advisedly; I am not aware of any Scriptures that mandate a separation of powers, nor is it indispensable to the church’s existence, as we tend to think.
Finally, it must be recognized that Christians differ markedly in their interpretation of the biblical data on the kingdom, and, consequently, in their understanding of the nature of the kingdom. These should not, however, affect the basic truths that have been affirmed here. It is hoped that this essay will stimulate further reflection on the sociopolitical implications of the gospel and encourage more and better responses to the ideology of Islam. This is urgently needed, not only to counteract the distortions of Muslim polemic, but also to give the churches that exist in Muslim society the sound contextualized theological basis which they need in order to survive.
1 See, e.g., Islam Revealed, by Anis Shorrosh (1988), the videos of his debates with Muslims distributed by the Anis Shorrosh Evangelistic Association, and The Islamic Invasion , by Robert Morey (1992). Contrast these with the irenic apologetic, replying to a Muslim polemic, of William Campbell in The Qur’an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science (1993).
2 Since this article was published, quite by providence I came across a book that provides abundant documentation, from all over the Muslim world, of the conflict and oppression that have resulted from Islam’s utopian vision for society. This book is: The Struggle Within Islam: The Conflict between Religion and Politics , by Rafiq Zakaria (New York, etc.: Penguin Books, 1989. ISBN 0 14 01.0794 0). As a Muslim, Zakaria still thinks that the problem can be solved Islamically, but the Christian apologist has every reason to call this assumption into question in the light of over 14 centuries of recorded Islamic history.
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Contemporary Islam and the Challenge of History. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Kateregga, Badru, and David Shenk
Islam and Christianity: A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. Nairobi, Kenya; Uzima Press Ltd.
McCurry, Don, ed.
The Gospel and Islam. Monrovia. CA: MARC.
1992 The Islamic Invasion. Eugene, OR: Harvest House.
“Christianizing Broadcasts have Invaded Our Homes” (11 January 1990). Translated in Seedbed 6 (4 th Quarter 1991):53-59.
“Toward Contextualized Apologetics.”
Missiology 16(3): 289-303.
Nicholls, Bruce J.
“New Theological Approaches in Muslim Evangelism.” In The Gospel and Islam. Don McCurry, ed. Pp. 155-162. Monrovia, CA: MARC.
The Coming of the Kingdom. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Islam Revealed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell
Islam in Modern History. New York: Mentor Books.
Tisdall, William S.
The Sources of Islam. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
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Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road. Monrovia, CA: MARC.
The Struggle Within Islam: The Conflict between Religion and Politics, New York, etc.: Penguin Books, 1989.
Reproduced from Missiology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (April 1993), with permission of the author and the publisher.
Further articles by
Gabriel D Odonkor