Chapter OneWHAT IS ISLAM?
To hold back from the fullest meeting with Muslims would be to
refrain from the fullest discipleship to Christ Not to care
about Islam would be not to care about Christ.
How would you characterize someone who believes in the literal,
verbal inspiration of Scripture, who holds that Jesus is
God's virgin-born Messiah, that Jesus healed the sick, raised
the dead, bodily ascended into heaven, and will one day return
to do battle with the antichrist and in the end truly reign on earth?
This person knows that Satan is alive and well on planet Earth,
that angels and demons are real forces to be reckoned with, and
that after death everyone on earth will go to one of two places-the
burning fires of hell or the beautiful palaces of heaven. This
individual does not believe in evolution, but believes that God created
the world in six literal days. This person happens to be a teetotaler,
is strongly pro-life, and is committed to traditional family
values. Women are highly regarded in the religious community to
which this person belongs, but they do not function as preachers
and leaders there. This person is also deeply patriotic, regards
pacifism as a weakness, deplores the separation of church and
state, and believes that government (ideally) should enforce God's
will in every area of society.
Do you recognize this person as a strict, conservative, Bible-believing
Christian? Well, maybe. But he or she might just as well
be a devout, conscientious Muslim! More than any two religious
traditions on earth, Christianity and Islam share both striking similarities
and radical differences. Historically, the relationship
between Christians and Muslims has been strained at best. All too
frequently it has been marked by bloodshed and violence. But
there is a verse in the Quran that presents a helpful perspective.
This verse tells Muslims, "You will surely find that the nearest in
affection to those who believe are the ones who say, `We are Christians"'
(5:82). On this good note, we begin our brief overview of
the world's second largest and fastest growing religious tradition.
Who Are Muslims?
Muslims are sometimes called Muhammadans, after the
prophet Muhammad. He organized the first Muslim community,
or ummah, in seventh-century Arabia, and through him the Quran
was given to the world. But Muslims themselves take the wordMuhammadan as an insult. For all their devotion to Muhammad,
they regard him neither as divine nor as the founder of their religion.
Muhammad did not claim to be sinless or perfect, and,
unlike Jesus, he did not receive worship from other human beings.
Another word still found in most dictionaries is Moslem, the
anglicized form of the Arabic Muslim. Moslem is also heard as a
term of condescension that harks back to colonial times, a word
coined by stodgy Westerners with stiff upper lips who found it difficult
to make the mu sound!
More than one billion Muslims in the world are followers of
Islam. The word islam literally means "submission" or "surrender."
It comes from the Arabic root word s-l-m, which connotes
peace in Semitic languages-as in the Hebrew greeting shalom or
in the name of the holy city, Jeru-salem. We hear echoes of this
same root word in the common everyday greetings of Muslims-salamalek ("peace be with you)" andbissalma ("go in peace"). Muslims
believe that the very word islam, as well
as the way of life to which it points, was
revealed by God himself in the Quran.
Some eighty days before he died in A.D.
632, Muhammad received a final word
of revelation. After warning Muslims
not to eat pork or any animals that
hadn't been slaughtered in a ritually
pure manner (a kosherlike procedure
called halal), God said to them, "This day I have perfected your
religion for you and completed my favor to you. I have chosen
Islam to be your faith" (5:3).
Islam, in its original meaning, then, refers to a life of total surrender
and obedience to God-exactly the kind of complete commitment
called for in the love-hymn Christians sing about Jesus:
All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give
All to Jesus I surrender, Lord, I give myself to Thee
Although Muhammad rediscovered this "straight path to God"
(another description of Islam), Muslims believe that this kind of
submissiveness has always been the true natural religion of human
beings everywhere. This is an important point in understanding
the contrasting views of salvation in Islam and Christianity-a
theme to be discussed in chapter 6.
If Islam means surrender to the will of God, then a Muslim is
one who has made this commitment. Who are Muslims? Where
do they live? What languages do they speak? What religious duties
are required of them?
Many people mistakenly think that most, if not all, Muslims
are Arabs. Perhaps this is because so much attention is focused in
the news media on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle
East and the fact that Muhammad himself was from Arabia.
Many are surprised to learn of the truly global reach of Islam. For
example, some 200 million Muslims live in Indonesia alone-about
the same number as live in all the Arab countries combined.
There are more Muslims in China alone than there are Southern
Baptists in the whole world. When we speak of Islam at the dawn
of the twenty-first century, we refer to a world-encompassing faith
that has a growing presence in every continent.
The "Abode of Islam" (as Muslims refer to the Islamic world)
stretches from Morocco in the western part of North Africa to
Indonesia and the Philippines in the Far East. It extends from
Nigeria and Tanzania in sub-Saharan Africa to Kazakhstan and
Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Within this vast sea of humanity, missiologists
have identified five major blocs of people bound
together by common cultural and language networks:
* Arabic-This includes Saudi Arabia, with its Muslim holy
cities of Mecca and Medina, as well as Iraq, Syria, Jordan,
and the Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. It
also includes the Arabic peoples of Egypt and other North
* Indo-Persian-A complex assortment of peoples that
includes the Kurds, many Afghans, the Tajiks of central Asia,
and Urdu speakers in India and Pakistan, among others.
* Turkish-The Turks belong to the same language family as
the Koreans. They include many people groups that live
beyond the borders of modern-day Turkey. Among these are
the Turkmen, Azeris, Uzbeks, Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and Uighurs.
* Malay-This bloc of peoples includes Muslims in Malaysia,
Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other islands of
the South Pacific.
* African-This group includes all the black peoples who live
in African countries south of the Sahara Desert.
Within these five great families of Muslim peoples dwell many
of the world's refugees. From Kosovo to Kabul, from Gaza to
Bangladesh, millions of Muslims have been displaced by war,
poverty, and plague. Although Muslim countries control two-thirds
of the world's oil reserves, the bounty from this natural
resource has not alleviated dire human needs in so much of the
Islamic world. One indication of social ferment in this vast world
is urbanization. In recent years huge Muslim metropolises have
arisen as millions of peasants seeking to survive have crowded into
Istanbul, Cairo, Algiers, Karachi, Khartoum, Teheran, Jakarta,
and Islamabad. These great cities have also proven to be fertile
soil for Muslim militants with their anti-Western and anti-Christian
rhetoric. What is called Islamic fundamentalism is only
one stream of a much larger phenomenon, namely, the recovery
and reassertion of Islamic identity based on a return to the founding
principles of the Muslim faith. This means applying Sharia,
the law of God based on the Quran, to every aspect of life-to its
social and political, as well as religious, dimensions.
One of the most striking religious trends during the latter third
of the twentieth century was the movement of Muslims in large
numbers to the West. Islam is now the second largest religion in
Europe. It will soon surpass Judaism to claim that distinction in
North America as well. There are more Muslims than Methodists
in England-the home of John Wesley-and more Muslims than
Episcopalians and Presbyterians combined in the United States.
United Nations world populations studies project that by 2025
some 30 percent of earth's inhabitants will be Muslims-nearly
one out of every three persons in the world.
Today there are approximately seven million Muslims and
more than 13,000 mosques in North America. Muslims were
among the first slaves brought to this continent from Africa. In
1717, a group of "Arabic-speaking slaves who ate no pork and
believed in Allah and Muhammad" arrived in the American
colonies. From these early beginnings, Islam has become a major
force within the African-American community in North America.
Elijah Muhammad served as the key figure in this development.
Born Elijah Poole, he was the son of a Baptist preacher in Georgia
who moved to Detroit in 1923. There he met W. D. Fard, the
founder of a black separatist movement known as the "Lost-Found
Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America." In
1935 Elijah Muhammad became the leader of this group, which
has continued to grow despite its internal divisions and certain
unorthodox teachings (such as Elijah's deification of Fard as
Malcolm X remains the most prominent national leader to
emerge from this movement. A brilliant thinker and fiery orator,
he made a pilgrimage to Mecca shortly before his assassination in
1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has become an American
literature classic and an introduction to Islam for many new
converts. In recent years, Wallace Dean Muhammad, Elijah's son,
has sought to more closely align this movement with international
orthodox Islam. This approach was rejected by Louis Farrakhan,
who has emerged as the most charismatic and controversial leader
in the revived Nation of Islam. On October 6, 1995, he led the
famous "Million Man March" in
Washington, D.C. In addition to many
Muslims, this event also attracted
Christian participants who sympathized
with Farrakhan's moral rigor
and his call to discipline if not with his
distinctive doctrinal beliefs.
For all the success of these Black
Muslim movements, however, the
majority of Muslims in America are
immigrants and their descendants.
Beginning in 1875, they have come to these shores from all quarters
of the Islamic world. They represent numerous ethnic and linguistic
backgrounds, as well as diverse political traditions.
Physicians, businessmen, automobile workers, university students,
restaurateurs, technicians, and entrepreneurs, they are found in
nearly every walk of life. Their cultural impact on American communities
is noticeable. For instance, a newspaper reporter in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, observed that "during the last twenty
years . the number of Muslim families in the region has
quadrupled, and the number of mosques in the city alone has
quintupled to 30. Ten years ago, there were perhaps only one or
two halal meat markets, Which obey Islamic dietary rules; now
there are at least 10. There was perhaps only one halal restaurant;
now there are at least half a dozen."
What this reporter observed ten years ago has become a major
trend in all large cities, and even in some small towns, across the
United States and Canada. The Muslim presence is felt in other
ways as well. In June 1991, Siraj Wahaj, a black convert to Islam,
became the first Muslim to deliver the daily prayer in the U.S. House
of Representatives. Eight months later (February 1992) Wallace
Dean Muhammad led the opening prayers in the United States Senate.
Muslim chaplains now offer regular religious services for followers
of Islam who serve in the United States armed forces. On
September 15, 2001, when Dr. Billy Graham addressed a grieving
nation from the National Cathedral in Washington, assisting him in
this service of prayer and remembrance were Muslim imams, as well
as Jewish rabbis, Christian ministers, and priests.
Muslim communities in North America are growing through
conversion as well as immigration. The Muslim Student Association,
which was organized in 1963, publishes a monthly journal
titled Islamic Horizons. This journal aims to correct misconceptions
about Islam and to convey the message of the Prophet
Muhammad to non-Muslim students and faculty members. In a
similar vein, the American Muslim Council, begun in 1990, works
to give Muslims a voice on issues of ethics and public policy.
Among other things, this group wants to counter the notion that
American principles of morality and justice are based on the
Judeo-Christian tradition alone. They favor the more inclusive
idea of such values deriving from the Judeo-Christian-Muslim
For the foreseeable future, Muslims will certainly continue to
become more a part of mainstream daily life in North America
and Europe. This means that opportunities for both interfaith dialogue
and Christian witness will increase. Rather than react with
suspicion, fear, or apathy, Christians need to be well-informed
about the Islamic religion and also to understand the distinctive
teachings of their own Christian faith. Without this, how can we
reach out with Christlike love and godly wisdom to our Muslim
neighbors and friends? As a British evangelical leader said recently,
"God was so concerned that Muslims hear the gospel that he has
brought the mission fields to the churches."
Regardless of where Muslims come from or what language
they speak, they hold certain beliefs in common, and certain distinctive
practices set them apart from other religious groups. True
enough, not all Muslims are consistent in their beliefs or devout
in the practices of their faith. There are many nominal Muslims-just
as there are many nominal Christians. In addition, throughout
the Muslim world there is the phenomenon of folk Islam, a
term that describes the worldview of many ordinary Muslims who
accept magical beliefs and practices at variance with the formal
facets of official Islam. In his fascinating book The Unseen Face
of Islam, Bill Musk describes the world of popular Islam, with its
veneration of saints, divinization rituals, and power encounters.
Still, however widely their practices may vary, there are certain
basic tenets and religious duties all Muslims acknowledge as given
by God. At the heart of the Muslim faith are the "Five Pillars" of