Within the space of two years, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have propelled the issues surrounding the Islamic faith into the forefront of the American mind. No longer relegated to some distant land, the violence of the Middle East has been brought to the United States’ doorstep through the terror campaigns of extreme Islamic fundamentalists. Of course, the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and, increasingly, in North America they are our neighbors and our co-workers. In fact, Islam has been a steadily growing cultural force in North America over the last 20 years as its Muslim population grew to more than 7 million. And, if recent reports are correct, Islam will continue to exert more and more influence over the next two decades as it surpasses Judaism for the greater number of American adherents. All these changes raise a number of questions for the Christian community in America, not the least of which is the question of similarity between the two monotheistic religions.
With these questions in mind, Dr. Timothy George, the founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, wrote his book, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Written primarily with the American Christian community in mind, the book is an exploration of the Islamic faith, as well as a comparison between Christianity and Islam. A noted historian and theologian, George’s interest in Islam began in the 70’s, during his first journey to Jerusalem, where he was confronted with the reality of religious strife in the Middle East. It was there he first saw the plight of the Palestinian Christians who live as minorities among militant Jews and devout Muslims. These experiences propelled him to study the Islamic faith at some length during his years at Harvard and during his subsequent travels to the Middle East. Recently, I had the chance to talk with him about the evangelization of Muslims, Trinitarian theology, and the differences between Islam and Christianity.
[RELEVANTmagazine:] You recently wrote a book, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad, which contrasts Islam with Christianity. In this cultural mood of increasing religious pluralism, did you feel there was a real need to differentiate between these two streams of faith?
[TIMOTHY GEORGE:] Yeah … I really wrote this book in an effort to make a statement in the face of two contradictory and countervailing influences, both of which I believe are mistaken and wrong-headed. One of them is what I call the Christian “bashing of Islam”; the rather naïve and widespread practice of coming at Islam as the great wicked and heinous religion, attributing all of the violence that we see in Osama Bin Laden to the Islamic faith. This has come from some pretty prominent Christian leaders, some of whom are my friends. But, I think it’s a mistaken approach and doesn’t take into account the real variation within Islam. On the other side of the fence is this kind of uncritical pluralism that basically reduces all religious traditions to the lowest common denominator. So that Jesus is a way, Buddha is a way, Confucius is a way, and so on and so forth.
[RM:] Sort of the Beliefnet.com approach…
[TG:] Yeah! And that approach is the dominant cultural approach; it’s what you hear on “Larry King: Live” and read in the media. That approach suffers from dishonesty and disrespect. What I’m really trying to say is that, rather than approach Islam in either of those ways, we’ve got to look at Islam honestly and with integrity and understanding. (Islam) is a complex thing and we can’t just get at it in some superficial way. …At the same time, there are some really critical, irreducible differences between Christianity and Islam…
[RM:] Could you talk about some of these?
[TG:] There are many, many differences, but there were three that I was interested in writing about. The first major difference is the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s clear that Christians believe in a God who has forever known himself as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that this God has revealed himself in history, not as three gods, but as one God in three persons. Christians believe that at the heart of the divine reality there is relationship. That’s what the Trinity is about; it’s about love. Whereas in Islam there’s this strong commitment to the oneness of god, in fact that’s a key word in Arabic: Tawhid. In some ways, it’s the central concept of Islam: unity, oneness. But, it’s an undifferentiated one-ness, it’s a oneness that doesn’t allow for relationship. So, Islam refuses to call God, Father, because they believe that Jesus cannot be the Son of God because of God’s one-ness. Actually, on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, in beautiful Arabic script, those words are written: “God has no son.” So, that’s the fundamental difference: the nature and character of God. Both traditions claim to worship the one God, but the question is: “what do we mean by ‘God’, who is ‘God’?”
The second difference is Jesus. Both traditions believe in Jesus, both believe in the virgin birth, and both believe he did wondrous miracles. But, Muslims don’t believe Jesus died on the cross or that he was the Son of God. I have a statement in my book, “There can be no Christianity without the cross; there can be no Islam with the cross. That’s a real dividing point. It’s interesting: in Islam it’s often believed that there was a substitute for Jesus, that maybe Judas was crucified instead. There was a crucifixion; everyone admits that. But, (Muslims believe) that Jesus was “raptured,” or” taken up” prior to death on the cross.
The third difference is how to be rightly related to God, the issue of salvation. Islam has a very elaborate doctrine of salvation. Islam is a religion of salvation, but the kind of reunion with God, in Islam, is based on moral pretense, or what Christians would call “works.” In the Christian faith, salvation is totally at God’s disposal, by his grace and mercy. So, there’s a major-league difference between Islam and Christianity and how we are rightly related to the one true God.
[RM:] It’s interesting that you talk about the Trinity, there seems to be a rebirth in some Christian theological communities of looking at and celebrating the Trinity. Do you feel that this will be one of the keys to dialoguing with Muslims?
[TG:] I think it’s absolutely crucial. A lot of Christians ignore the Trinity, but you’re right, in the last 50 years there has been something of a renaissance of Trinitarian theology. There are places where I occasionally go to speak, young churches where there are church leaders who are trying to recover things like Saint Patrick’s confession and some of the Celtic forms of worship, which are very Trinitarian. I think that’s wonderful and I really hope that will increase…
But, the place where you will encounter the subject of the Trinity immediately is when you meet a Muslim. You cannot get to the second paragraph of a serious discussion with a Muslim without them bringing up the Trinity. You don’t have to bring it up; they will bring it up. Unfortunately, though, many Christians are practical heretics when it comes to the Trinity. Many people really don’t understand the very concept at the heart of the Trinity, which is that God is a god of relationship.
[RM:] In a very pragmatic, rubber meets the road, type of way, how does the average Christian minister to the average Muslim?
[TG:] I think the first step is to take a Muslim to lunch. First, you just want to get to know people. The heart of the Christian faith, or the Trinitarian faith, is love and relationship and community. This where we start, this is where Jesus started. That’s what stories like the woman at the well are about! When he met the Samaritan woman at the well he sat down and said, “What time is it?” and “Do you have a drink of water?” So, the first thing is just to get to know Muslims. And it’s not as hard as you might think because there are many areas where our concerns overlap, especially in the areas of ethics and public policy.
I would say that after you’ve taken the effort to make a friend, find areas of commonality where you have shared concern. Then, when you get to the point of really sharing your heart and sharing your faith, one of the best things to do is to find a way read the scriptures together. You may have to read the Qumran. You might have to say, “I’ll read your Qumran, if you’ll read my Bible.” Don’t be afraid of that kind of commitment, because all Muslims say they accept the Bible as a part of God’s revelation; in Islam, Jesus was a prophet, one of the 124,000 from Adam to Mohammed. So they have a reverence for Jesus (they call him ISA). But, not many of them have actually read the Gospels. They’ve never heard the parable of the prodigal son or the Good Samaritan, (they’ve never heard) all those wonderful, wonderful stories that depict the reality of Christ. Now, once you get to the point where you can read through the Gospels with a Muslim, then you just have begin to pray that the Holy Spirit would use that to bring them to Christ.
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