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The Abrahamic Faiths: why can’t Jews, Christians and Muslims get along?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Intelligence officials have been warning Congress that a terrorist plot is coming against Europe and America. FBI Director Robert Mueller recently told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, “Despite the significant counterterrorism pressure abroad, al Qaeda continues to be committed to high-profile attacks directed at the West, including plans against Europe as well as the homeland.”

Mueller also told the Committee that groups and people inspired by al-Qaida are switching to smaller-scale attacks which are easier to plan and carry out. They understand, according to Mueller, that “launching a large attack, perhaps a more devastating attack, is not worth the additional effort when you can get substantial coverage and impact with smaller attacks.”

According to Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, 2010 brought the largest number and fastest pace of attempted attacks since September 11. And more are apparently on the way.

At the same time, talks between Israel and Palestine continue to struggle. Jordan’s King Abdullah, one of the most significant leaders in the Muslim world, recently predicted that if these talks break down there will be war in the region within a year.

Israel is Jewish; Palestine and most of the Arab world are Muslim; America is Christian in background and history. All three religions claim to be descended from Abraham. All originated in the same part of the world. Why can’t they get along? Where is this heading?

Where we’re from Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation, which led to Christianity. Muslims see him as the father of the Arab people through Ishmael. He was a wealthy businessman who grew up in Ur of the Chaldees before moving to Canaan, Egypt, and back to Canaan.

Genesis 22 tells us of the time when God called him to sacrifice his son Isaac at the top of Mt. Moriah; then God substituted a ram for the child. This spot became the eventual location of the Jewish Temple with its Holy of Holies.

However, Islamic tradition states that Abraham offered not Isaac but Ishmael to God, so that the Arabs (Ishmael’s descendants) are the true “chosen people,” not the Jews. They believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the same rock which Jews mark as the location of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, then returned to Mecca that evening. They constructed their Dome of the Rock over this location in A.D. 691. It is the third-holiest site in the world to Muslims, next to Mecca and Medina.

Christianity began within Judaism. Jesus grew up in a very religious Jewish family in Galilee, in a tiny town called Nazareth. After beginning his public ministry, he moved to the business center of Capernaum, where he called leading businessmen to become his staff and help lead his movement.

The first Christians were all Jews. Gentiles began joining the Christian movement at Caesarea Maratime, where a Roman military official named Cornelius became a follower of Jesus. Christianity spread under the Apostle Paul across the Roman Empire, and is predominantly a Gentile faith today.

So, all three religions began in the same part of the world. They all trace themselves in various ways to Abraham. Why, then, can’t they get along?

Where we agree

God is one:

  • Jewish: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
  • Christian: “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6).
  • Muslim: “Your God is One God: there is no god but He, most gracious, most merciful” (Qur’an 2:163).

God reveals himself to us:

  • Jewish: “And God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery'” (Exodus 20:1-2).
  • Christian: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  • Muslim: “It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the Criterion (of judgment between right and wrong) (Qur’an 3:3).

We will be judged by God:

  • Jewish: “God will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth” (Psalm 96:13).
  • Christian: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
  • Muslim: “Those who reject Faith in the Signs of God will suffer the severest penalty, and God is Exalted in Might, Lord of Retribution” (Qur’an 3:4).

We will spend eternity in heaven or hell:

  • Jewish: “they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24).
  • Christian: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
  • Muslim: “Say to those who reject Faith: ‘Soon will ye be vanquished and gathered together in Hell—an evil bed indeed” (Qur’an 3:12).

Where we disagree

The divinity of Jesus:

  • Jewish: “It is taught: On Passover Eve they hanged Yeshu. . . . They found nothing in his favor, so they hanged him on Passover Eve” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a).
  • Christian: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6, 9).
  • Muslim: “They do blaspheme who say: ‘God is Christ the son of Mary.’ . . . Christ the son of Mary was no more than an apostle” (Qur’an 5:72, 75).

Written revelation: Judaism does not recognize the inspiration of the New Testament; Christians do not recognize the inspiration of the Qur’an; Muslims do not believe that the Old and New Testaments are trustworthy revelation today.

The basis for salvation:

  • Jewish: “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6).
  • Christian: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
  • Muslim: “believe in God and His Apostle; and if ye believe and do right, ye have a reward without measure” (Qur’an 3:179).

Vision for the future:

  • Jewish: “I will make the nations [Messiah’s] inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:8-9).
  • Christian: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea” (Revelation 21:1).
  • Muslim: “If they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. . . . And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and Faith in God” (Qur’an 2:191, 193).


“Sharia” means “path” in Arabic. Sharia, or Islamic law, guides every aspect of Muslim life. It is derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna (the sayings, practices, and teachings of the Prophet Muhammed). Precedents and analogy are applied by Muslim scholars, together with the consensus of the Muslim community.

Sharia developed several hundred years after Muhammed’s death (AD 632). There are several “schools” of Sharia, each named for the scholars that inspired them:

  • Hanbali: embraced in Saudi Arabia and by the Taliban.
  • Hanafi: the most liberal and focused on reason and analogy; dominant in Central Asia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, Turkey
  • Malaki: dominant in North Africa
  • Shafi’i: Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Yemen.
  • Ja’fari: Shia law.

There are three categories of offenses: those with punishments prescribed in the Qur’an, those which fall under a judge’s discretion, and those resolved through tit-for-tat (blood money paid to the family if a murder victim). Qur’anic punishments (hadd) are required for:

  • Unlawful sexual intercourse
  • False accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse
  • Wine or alcohol drinking
  • Theft
  • Highway robbery

Punishments range from flogging, stoning, amputation, exile, or execution. They are not often carried out, though vigilante justice is a major problem (cf. honor killings).

Sharia and the modern world—three options:

  • Dual legal system where government is secular but Muslims can choose to bring familial and financial disputes to sharia courts. Britain now allows sharia tribunals governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance; this is similar to Anglican and Jewish mediation. Criminal law remains under the existing legal system.
  • Government under God, where Islam is the official religion and sharia is a source or the source of laws. Examples: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, UAE. In Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, it is illegal to enact legislation which contradicts Islam. Saudi Arabia: women are not allowed to drive, are under the guardianship of male relatives at all times, and must be completely covered in public.
  • A completely secular nation, as in Turkey.

Sharia, modern economies and banking: Islamic banking is growing 15% a year. Riba, charging or paying of interest, is banned under Islamic law. Banks such as Citigroup, HSBC and Deutsche Bank are developing Islamic banking sectors. Sharia-compliant investments are also growing, avoiding transactions related to weapons, alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pornography and pork.


Judaism, Christianity, and Islam envision significantly different futures for humanity. Islam seeks to lead all people to become Muslims, but it also seeks to establish a global Islamic society on earth. Judaism seeks to obey the Torah, while Christianity seeks to lead all people to saving faith in Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

Muslims hope that their obedient adherence to the tenets of their faith will earn them passage into heaven from God. Jews hope that their commitment to the laws of their tradition will earn them a place among the “righteous” with God. Islam and Judaism, like all world religions, are based on human efforts to attain salvation.

Christianity, by contrast, is based on God’s decision to save us. We could not ascend to him, so he descended to us when he sent his perfect Son into our world. Jesus breathed our air, felt our pain, faced our temptations, then died on our cross and rose from our grave. Now when we ask him to forgive our mistakes and become our Lord, he grants us salvation and eternal life in heaven.

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the most famous Christian theologian of the 20th century, was once invited to attend a conference on world religions. He arrived late, to discover the group engaged in a heated debate. Lewis asked about the issue which had spurred such controversy, and was told that the group was arguing the question, “What is unique about Christianity?”

“That’s easy,” Lewis replied. “It’s grace.”