The global Muslim population will grow by 35 percent over the next 20 years, from 1.6 billion to 2.2 billion by 2030. This reader’s question seems relevant today: “Why are Westerners drawn to Islam?” Other readers ask similar questions: “What is the contrast between salvation by grace vs. works in Islam? And what is a true comparison between Islam and the Bible?” How should Christians respond?
Let’s take the second question first. “Islam” is typically translated “submission,” in this case to the will and laws of Allah (the Arabic word for “God”). These laws are often summarized as the “five pillars of Islam.”
First is the “witness” (shahadah), declaring that “there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” Second are the prayers (salat), five times a day facing Mecca. Third is hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Fourth is fasting (sawm) during Ramadan, the month when the first revelation of the Qur’an was given to Muhammad in AD 610. Fifth is alms-giving (zakat), at least 2.5 percent of one’s goods to the poor.
Here’s the point: no Muslim can know if he or she has kept these laws well enough to be granted a place in paradise. By contrast, the Bible teaches: “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In religion, we try to climb up to God. In Christianity, God climbs down to us.
Why would a works-based religion be popular in Western culture today? Actually, the vast majority of “new” Muslims in Europe and America are immigrants or children of Muslims. Only 20,000 Americans convert to Islam each year, a number smaller than one of several megachurches in the Dallas area. Since the Muslim birthrate in Europe is three times higher than non-Muslims, it’s easy to see why Islam is growing on the Continent. But its works-righteousness is not the primary reason why.
What about Islam and the Bible? Muslims are taught that God revealed himself in the Old and New Testaments, but Jews and then Christians corrupted his revelation; so he revealed himself a final time in the Qur’an, which is his “pure” revelation to mankind. Actually, textual scholars are convinced that the Old and New Testaments we have today are almost identically the same as the original manuscripts. However, not long after Muhammad’s death, so many different versions of the Qur’an existed that Caliph Uthman ordered all but one version destroyed. As a result, no Muslim can really know if the Qur’an he or she reads today is consistent with the original.
Let’s close with my favorite story regarding the grace of Christianity. An elderly professor of world religions surprised his colleagues by declaring his commitment to Christ. He explained: “It was as if I had fallen into a deep, abandoned well. Muhammad came by and told me it was the will of Allah that I be in this well, then he left. The Buddha came by and told me if I would cease desire I would cease to suffer in the well, then he left. A Hindu teacher came by and told me if I was faithful in the well I would escape through reincarnation, then he left. Confucius came by and told me if I’d not tripped I would not be in the well, then he left. Jesus came by, saw me, and got into the well with me. That is why I am a Christian.”