We're continuing to examine other religions and their relationship to Christianity in our Bible study based on Adam Hamilton's Christianity and World Religions. As always, we're just scratching the surface of the other faiths in these sermons -- there's a lot left out and there's probably plenty of folks from these other faiths who would see things differently than I've explained them here. So you should probably read a little bit more about them before you engage in much discussion ;-)
I imagine few other religions in the world today interest Christians (and a lot of other faiths) as does Islam. Different versions of the Islamic or Muslim faith, combined with several different cultural groups, have brought a good deal of unrest and unease to many parts of the world. People in these movements see themselves as opposed to all other religions and cultures, and believe they have a holy mandate to bring the entire world to their way of thinking, speaking and acting.
At the root of Islam is the prophet Mohammed, a man born in the Arabian peninsula town of Mecca in the last decades of the sixth century. Mohammed, a merchant, was more or less disgusted with some of the multiple gods worshipped by many of his fellow Meccans. He noticed that two groups – Jews and Christians – seemed to have different ideas about following God, and those ideas led to what he saw as a much more moral lifestyle.
Mohammed began to pray to this God, whom the Jews and Christians who spoke Arabic called Al Illah, or “The God,” and when he was about 40, he began having visions of the archangel Gabriel coming to him with sayings, commandments and stories. Mohammed had come to believe his people were the literal descendants of Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, and so he believed he was hearing a revelation from Al Illah, or as it was known in an abbreviation, Allah, the God of the Jews and Christians.
After a series of troubles, which included being chased out of Mecca by people who didn’t like his new religious ideas, Mohammed came to be the political as well as the religious leader of the group of Arabs centered at Mecca. During the later years of his life, people began to collect the things he had been told by Gabriel into a book, which was finalized after Mohammed’s death in 632 and called the Quran. The Quran teaches Muslims how they are to behave and worship Allah, or God.
Mainstream Muslim belief holds the Quran to be without error and the words of God himself, with Mohammed the instrument of their communication. Some Christians believe the Bible is inerrant, too. But their belief is that God worked through human beings and inspired them to write its books. Muslim teaching says that Mohammed copied down what God had already told him.
According to the Quran, there are five pillars of the Islamic faith. Being a good Muslim requires submission to God and his commands, including these pillars. The word at the root of Islam and Muslim is, in Arabic, slm, which is like the Hebrew root word that brings us the word shalom, or peace. In Arabic, it means submission, and in Islam, that submission is specifically to God.
The Quran requires Muslims to publicly confess their faith in God as the only God and in Mohammed as his prophet. It also requires them to stop whatever they are doing, five times a day, and pray. It requires them, during the month on the Muslim calendar called Ramadan, to fast from dawn to dusk. It requires them to annually donate a percentage of their income to the poor or agencies that help the poor, and to make, at least once in their lives, a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Christians can and should find some familiar things in Islam, in addition to some admirable things. Among the admirable ones are the praying five times a day. Paul may have told us to pray without ceasing, but most of the time I find myself ceasing without praying. The idea that I would stop whatever I was doing, whenever I was doing it, to pray out loud with everyone else is something I’d like to try to get to someday.
We will also see many of the figures of the Old and New Testaments in the Quran, up to and including Jesus. But we may not recognize them, because Mohammed’s visions told different stories about them and he said those stories were meant to set right what Jews and Christians had wrong.
Jesus, for example, is a prophet – the greatest prophet, in fact, after Mohammed. He was born of Mary, but he did not die on the cross and was taken up by God to return someday. He did not need to die for the sins of the world, because, according to the Quran, God forgives our sins when we erase them by doing enough good things.
Submission and obedience to Allah are the cornerstones of the Muslim faith. They are the path to salvation.
I’d welcome more Christians accepting the idea that how we act matters just as much as what we believe, and that our behavior reveals the truth about our beliefs just as much if not more than our doctrinal statements.
But as Christians we reject the idea that we can be obedient enough, or righteous enough, or whatever enough, on our own, to earn our way into Heaven at our deaths. The separation from God that would bar us from his presence in the afterlife comes from our separation from him, not our displeasing of him. After all, Christ came into the world “while we were yet sinners,” we’re told. God acted to save us before we were worthy of that action. God chose to love us when we were unlovable and continues to do so even when our progress towards lovability seems microscopic.
As Christians, we claim, at the roots of our faith, that we do not submit to God in order that he will love us. We claim that God loves us, and therefore we can submit to him.