Islam was founded by Muhammad (A.D. 570-632), in the midst of religious pluralism, idolatry, and division among his Arab people in Mecca and the Arabian peninsula.
Muhammad’s hatred of idols led him to place an immense emphasis on the unity and transcendence of God. Islamic theology thus holds that God is too highly exalted to enter into any kind of relationship–he reveals only his will to us. Even in paradise, people will not know God as he is.
Muhammad’s day was characterized by tribal warfare, brutality, and promiscuity; he thus emphasized divine control, and opposed religious liberty and separation of church and state. Since Allah is Lord, he must be Lord of all. Thus Muhammad created a civilization, not merely a religion–a way of life for all people, governing personal autonomy and all morality. Islam attempts to provide the answers to every conceivable detail of belief and daily life.
The religion of the day was extremely complex and polytheistic; thus Muhammad constructed a faith which emphasizes simplicity. There is only one central idea: there is but one God, who is Maker and Absolute Controller of all things and people.
Sunnis and Shiites
Muhammad left no designated heirs. The “caliphs” (Arabic for “successors”) continued his movement, led first by Abu Bekr.
Soon, however, divisions began to emerge. Most Muslims followed the caliphs and their successors; these are known as Sunni’s today. But some believed that only the fourth caliph (Muhammad’s son-in-law) was the true successor Muhammad, and have supported his successors; they are the Shiites. 90% of Muslims are Sunnis; 10% are Shiites, living primarily in Iran.
Islam means “peace” or “surrender.” Muslims worship Allah, the Arabic name for “God.” It views mankind as free yet under the sovereignty of Allah. The Koran is the central focus of Islam. “Koran” means “the reading.”
View of God and ultimate reality: all reality is grounded ultimately in the one sovereign personal being of God who has created the world–Allah.
View of mankind: freedom, overshadowed by the sovereignty of God.
Central focus: the Koran, as Allah gave it through Muhammad. It was given over a period of 23 years in the Arabic language, and contains 114 Surahs (chapters) and 6236 verses.
In addition to the Koran, the Hadith (a collection of the “sayings” of Muhammad) and the Sunna (the record of the personal customs of Muhammad and his community) give guidance for Muslim life. But the Koran is the only divine revelation.
Salvation: “Islam” means “peace” or “surrender.” Salvation in this faith involves our submission to the sovereign will of God, along with an almost dominating emphasis on the necessity of good works. These words are detailed in the “five pillars of Islam,” found in the Koran:
The “witness” (“shahadah“): “La ilaha illal lah Muhammadur rasulul lah”–“There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” Every Muslim must declare this aloud at least once in his life very slowly, with deep meaning and full commitment; most Muslims repeat it many times each day.
Prayer (“salah“): with directed motions, five times a day, facing toward Mecca, the holy city.
Almsgiving (“zakah“): approximately 2 1/2% of all one’s income and permanent annual worth, to the poor. This is an act of worship.
Fasting (“sawm“): especially during the month of Ramadan, which commemorates the giving of the Koran. From dawn to sunset every day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a Muslim refrains from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations.
Pilgrimage (“hajj”): to Mecca at least once from every believer who is physically and financially able to make the journey.
In addition, jihad (“holy war”) can be declared the unequivocal religious duty of the Muslim man, as the will of God.
Note that strict morality is a hallmark of Muslims. They obey strong prohibitions against drinking wine, eating pork, gambling, and practicing usury. They invoke the name of Allah at the slaughter of all animals. They also require a specific dress code: men–covering from navel to knees; women–covering of whole body except face and hands, with women above the age of puberty required to cover their face while going out and meeting strangers; pure silk and gold not allowed for men; prohibition of women’s clothes for men and vice versa; symbolic dress of other religions is not allowed.
Final destiny: a final day of judgment, consummation of history, and the assigning of heaven and hell to all persons on the basis of their acceptance or rejection of the message of God and their accompanying good works.
Allah is depicted as weighing the good and bad works on a delicate scale of balance which is accurate even to the weight of a grain of mustard seed (Koran 7:5-8; 21:48; 23:103-5; 101:6-8).
Those in heaven will be rewarded with sensual pleasure; those in hell will live forever in unspeakable pain.
Islam’s spread worldwide has been the fastest of any religion in history. Within a single decade, A.D. 622-632, Muhammad united the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula into a single cohesive nation, gave them a monotheistic religion in place of their polytheistic, tribal faiths, organized a powerful society and state, and launched his world-wide movement.
Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bekr. Under his reign and afterward Islam continued to spread, promoted by extensive military campaigns.
Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Islamic empire stretched from Arabia west through North Africa, to Southern France and Spain; also north of Arabia through the Middle East and east throughout Central Asia, to the borders of China. In the process, Islamic expansion took in much of the oldest and strongest Christian territory.
The spread of Islam in western Europe was finally checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours (in France) in A.D. 732, exactly a century after the death of Muhammad. Spain was later reclaimed for Christianity, but a wide belt of territory from Morocco to Pakistan and Indonesia remained Muslim, and has so to this day.
In the meantime a series of Crusades were conducted from A.D. 1095 to 1291, making the Christian mission to Muslims immeasurably more difficult.
Islam has dominated the Middle East for the last 12 centuries, threatening Europe during much of that time. Today it extends from the Atlantic to the Philippines. In Africa, south of the Sahara, it is currently making tremendous advances, far outstripping Christian expansion.
Islam in America
There are between 1.8 million (David Barrett’s estimate) and 4.6 million (Islamic Society of North America’s estimate) Muslims in this country. Most put the figure at between 3 and 4 million.
This is a “denomination” larger than either the Assemblies of God or the Episcopal Church in the United States. In the next thirty years Muslims will outnumber Jews to become the second-largest religion in our country.
Muslims have come to the U.S. in several migratory waves.
While there is no unified Islamic movement in America, there is an increasing effort to evangelize to the Muslim faith in our country. Saudi Arabia is leading the way in funding projects to promote Islam around the world.
Note also the growth of Black Muslims in the U.S., a movement which rejects Christianity as racist. This crusade began in 1931 among the Blacks in Harlem. One of the early leaders, Malcolm X, preached a gospel of black superiority; his heir, Elijah Muhammad, attempted to move the Black Muslims toward orthodox Islam. This movement is known today as The Nation of Islam, and comprises one-quarter to one-half of the total Muslim population in America.
Relation to Christianity
How do Muslims relate to the Christian faith? Because Islam began in the Middle East subsequent to Christianity, it has always had some reference to Christianity. Islam’s holy book, the Koran, maintains this reference to Christianity, speaking specifically of Jesus and the Christian religion.
However, Islam is completely independent of Christianity in faith and philosophy. There is almost no direct quotation in the Koran from either Testament. All we know for certain is that Muhammad was aware of Jews and Christians and knew something of their history. Tragically, the “Christianity” Muhammad encountered was heretical, and gave him an erroneous picture of Christ and his followers.
Muhammad claimed to be a biological heir of Abraham through Ishmael. Through this tie Muhammad saw himself as the establisher of the true religion of the one God in Arabia. He claimed that the religion Abraham bequeathed to the Arabs became corrupt. He claimed to receive direct revelation from God identical in content with the original revelations to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and thus claimed to be in direct succession with the Old and New Testament prophets.
Muslims have historically tolerated Christians and Jews as “people of the Book” in that they have a revelation related, though inferior, to that of Muslims. Nevertheless, various regulations are imposed on Christians in Muslim lands. One of the most difficult is the law against a Christian’s converting a Muslim, accompanied by an absolute prohibition against the Muslim’s accepting Christianity.
In addition, recent persecution of Christians has made tensions much greater between the two faiths. For instance, Saudi Arabia threatens to punish any Muslim who converts to Christianity with beheading.
Begin with common ground:
We both believe in one God, and see Jesus as holy. Muslims believe that they worship the God of Abraham and Jesus. They deny the divinity of Christ and thus do not worship our Lord. But we share belief that there is one God of the universe.
We both emphasize personal morality. The difference is that Christians have a relationship with God based on his grace, while Muslims believe they must earn Allah’s acceptance. No Muslim can be sure that he or she will go to heaven. In Christ we have the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life with God.
Understand Islam’s view of Jesus:
Islam denies the divinity of Christ. Muhammad proclaimed that there is no God but God; thus Jesus cannot be divine. He was God’s messenger, not his Son.
Islam denies the crucifixion. When the Jewish leaders approached Jesus with the intent of crucifying him, God took him up to heaven to deliver him out of their hands; then he cast the likeness of Jesus on someone else, who was crucified by mistake in his place.
Islam ignores the sin nature which requires atonement, and therefore the need for Jesus’ death for us.
Islam holds that Jesus was one of God’s prophets. There were 313 messengers sent from God to man; of these, 25 must be remembered by every Muslim. Jesus is one of these. However, Muhammad is the last of all the prophets, and there will be no other.
Understand Islam’s view of the Koran:
The Muslim believes that the Koran has exited from all eternity with God in the Arabic language. In every particular it is the utterance of God himself, with no human element at all. The Koran is seen in purely verbal, propositional terms. Additionally, the Koran does not reveal Allah to us, but only his will. He remains hidden from all men.
Christianity has always seen the Bible as God’s self-revelation of himself to us, mediated through the instrumentality of human personality. Christ, not the Scriptures, is the central focus of our faith (cf. John 20:30-31).
Emphasize the difference between grace vs. works:
While the Muslim believes that Allah can be merciful, he also accepts that he is responsible for his own salvation by faith and works. He does not believe that he can know his final destiny before his judgment before Allah.
Christianity offers grace, full pardon for sin, and salvation today.
Prove God’s love in yours:
Pray for Muslims, by name if possible.
Build relationships based on unconditional friendship. Look for ways to affirm and include them.
Seek opportunities to share what the living Lord Jesus has done in your life.
Invite the person to have the assurance of heaven through Christ.