The need for a respectful approach
I have many Muslim friends whom I love and respect very much. Throughout my interfaith service work and dialogues all Muslims I have met and worked with were very kind, charitable, and community-minded individuals. Many have repeatedly told me that they feel freer to practice their faith here in the United States than anywhere else. How do we as Orthodox Christians go about talking about our faith with Muslim friends or colleagues? What is the best way to go about doing this?
I have only discussed theology with a few of these Muslim friends, and whenever we talk about Jesus in Islam and Christianity, they of course tell me they do not believe Jesus was God, and ask, “How could you believe Jesus (peace be upon him/”PBUH”) was a god?”
One thing you will notice right away is that Muslims always attach this honorary suffix to Jesus’ name, as well as any person they consider a prophet other than Muhammad, their final prophet, to whom they say, “May Allah honor him and grant him peace”. On the internet you will see “peace be upon him” often abbreviated by English-speaking Muslims to “pbuh” or the Arabic transliteration into Roman letters, “A.S”. That this suffix should be given to Jesus (Isa in Arabic) should immediately strike Christians as a positive thing.
It is very important to recognize in someone the common ground you share, and reaffirm your respect for them before you begin to civilly discuss your differences. A lot of people are very ignorant about Islam and are unaware of both its commonalities with many Christian teachings, and its many differences. There have been many cases since the September 11 attacks of Muslim American citizens being brutally attacked for their faith, as well as Americans of the Sikh faith being attacked because the attackers erroneously thought they were Muslims.
Having a respectful dialog with a Muslim can really go a long way in giving them a positive impression of Christianity in the event that they feel negative towards our faith. It is also an important part of the Christian Way to condemn violence and hatred wherever it is found, whether it is directed against those of our faith, as is often the case throughout the Middle East today where Christians endure severe persecution and restrictions on their basic liberties, or those outside our faith.
One area we have in common with Muslims is that we both accord Jesus a very high place of honor. In fact, someone cannot be a Muslim if she or he does not believe Jesus was a prophet of God and among those “nearest to Allah” (Sura 3:45). (Allah is the Arabic word meaning ‘The God’, the only God). Thus, if a Muslim ever insults Jesus during your conversation or speaks disparagingly about any of His miracles (many of his miracles are mentioned in the Qur’an, as well as some alleged ones which the Bible does not mention) do not be surprised if his or her Muslim friends rebuke or chide them.
Jesus in the Qur’an: in some ways similar, in many very different from Jesus in the Bible
The Qur’an repeatedly and emphatically states that Jesus was only a Prophet of God (4:171, 5:17, 5:75). It goes further, saying that at the Day of Judgment Jesus will emphatically deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity (5:116, 5:72, 3:55). This is a direct refutation of Christian claims that Jesus was the Son of God and God Incarnate. Islamic jurisprudence considers shirk, (شرك) that is, making partners to God, the sole unpardonable sin: “Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden [Paradise] and the Fire will be his abode.” (5:72). In Sura (chapter) 5:17, those who believe Christ is God are condemned as living “in blasphemy”. Make special note of these passages, since many Muslims today raised in Western countries may not actually be familiar with them.
Islam thus incorrectly assumes that Christian belief in the Trinity is tritheism, belief in three gods, and therefore the unpardonable sin of shirk. In effect, the Qur’an teaches that Christians were misled or deluded into making Jesus and Mary ‘gods’ beside Allah (9:31, 19:88-92). This view of course ignores that Orthodox, Catholic and some Protestant Christians honor and venerate (see Luke 1:46-55, the scriptural text of the Magnificat), but do not worship Mary, and consider Jesus to be fully God, not God’s ‘partner’ or a separate god beside Him.
Interestingly, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be directly revealed from God, holds that Jesus performed many miracles (5:110, 3:49), but by Allah’s power, not his own. Jesus in the Qur’an is only God’s servant, His prophet. Curiously, the Qur’an refers to Jesus indirectly and by name almost one hundred times in fifteen suras (chapters), far more than it refers to the Prophet Muhammad.
The Qur’an holds Mariam (Mary) in very high regard. In Sura 3:42 the Qur’an calls her “chosen” of God and “pure”, the virgin whom God has “preferred above all the women of creation”. The only woman mentioned by name in the text, it mentions Mary far more than the New Testament does. She is highly honored throughout the book (21:91, 23:50), which affirms her annunciation from the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) and her virgin birth (19:19-22).
The Qur’an also promises Jesus’ Second Coming (43:61), yet ironically, Prophet Muhammad is not expected to return to earth. Muslims believe Jesus was a devout Muslim (one who submits to Allah), was the Messiah sent to preach to the people of Israel, and heralded the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.
In its view of Jesus, the Qur’an can be considered an antithesis or attempted refutation of the Christian Gospel. It explicitly denies the Crucifixion (4:157) and thereby the Resurrection, claiming instead that Jesus was assumed bodily into heaven without death. Prophet Muhammad, by contrast, died and was buried at Medina, Islam’s second holiest city in modern day Saudi Arabia, where he and his first supporters found refuge after the Meccans expelled them.
Correcting two major misconceptions which Muslims tend to have about Christians
1) “Don’t Christians believe in three gods?”
The Qur’an accuses Christians of believing in three gods. This shows a clear misunderstanding of the Trinity. If the person or group of Muslim friends you are talking with wants to learn a bit more, then you can discuss the Trinity with them, but it is important not to get bogged down in complicated theology. You should share that the only people who claim to be Christians who worship anything resembling three gods are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, known among themselves as “Latter-day Saints” or LDS). Technically, Mormons are not tritheists, but henotheists because they believe in a possibly infinite number of ‘exalted’ beings who become gods through a process called exaltation, but they only worship the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Latter-day Saints are tritheists in the sense that they reject the Trinity, believing instead that the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three ‘separate beings [gods] united in purpose’. This will likely horrify or shock your Muslim friends, since it fits the very definition of shirk in Islam. You can also share that Mormon prophets historically taught, and many Mormons still believe, that God the Father was once a man who they believe progressed through a process called exaltation to become God, and that He has a tangible body of flesh and bone.
This will horrify Muslims, as it horrifies you. Muslims are strict monotheists, so in establishing common ground with Muslims, you can repeatedly reiterate that you believe Mormons beliefs about God/gods are not yours.
2) “Don’t Christians worship Mary?”
This is an area where many Orthodox and Catholic Christians struggle in convincing evangelical and some mainline Protestant Christians that we do not, in fact, “worship” Mary. You should make clear that while you venerate and honor Mary as the Virgin Mother of Christ, and therefore the Mother of God Incarnate, (God come into the flesh among Men), you absolutely do not worship her, for she, while exalted and made holy by the power of God, is still human, a created being, and therefore not deserving of worship.
The Discussion: Planting doubt in a Muslim’s mind that Jesus was only a Prophet
1) If Jesus never claimed He was God, but the Qur’an says that at his Second Coming Jesus will insist to Allah that he was merely acting as His prophet and servant, why does the Qur’an put Christians (along with Jews) in a relatively protected status as “People of the Book”? Our Holy Book, the Bible, transparently supports Jesus’ divinity, which is considered the sole unpardonable sin of shirk, that is, ascribing ‘partners’ to God. Why then does the Qur’an considers the Christian Scriptures, which, it claims, so distort Jesus’ true message heralding the coming of Muhammad, worthy of honor?
Why, if Jesus truly never said the things about Himself which the New Testament preserves about Him (His repeated claims to divinity and the path to salvation only through faith in Him), would Muhammad order his followers to leave Christians alone, when what we believe about Jesus is the very antithesis of what Prophet Muhammad taught about him, deserving of eternal “fire” (5:72) due to our “blasphemy” (5:17)?
From Islam’s perspective, Trinitarian Christians commit “shirk”, that unpardonable sin of making “partners” to the One God (Allah), so why then does the Qur’an often put us in a more positive light than it does Jews, when Jews are strict monotheists, closer to Islam’s standard for monotheism, than we Trinitarians?
2) Islam claims to be the fulfillment and correction of both Judaism and Christianity, but nowhere in the Qur’an are Muslims urged to read the Torah or any of the books of the New Testament. The latter makes sense, given that the New Testament clearly lays out that Jesus is the Son of God and God Incarnate, but how can the Qur’an claim to be the fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity when its ‘predecessor’, Christianity, included the Jewish holy scriptures into its canonized scriptures (the Holy Bible) as the Old Testament, and yet Islam does not make any actual use of the Jewish scriptures or Christian ones? Also, given that Muslims mirror Jewish dietary practice by consuming only halal foods similar to Jewish kosher rules of slaughter, and see the Old Testament prophets, especially Adam, Moses, Elijah, and Ishmael, as forerunners of Jesus and Muhammad, why do Muslims still not use the Hebrew Scriptures?
3) In the Qur’an, Jesus ascends to heaven by bodily assumption, he never dies, and he is foretold to return to earth at the Second Coming. Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, died and was buried, did not ascend to heaven, and will never return to earth. Muslims at the Day of Judgment believe that Jesus will deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity, yet Jesus alone of all the prophets in Islam was assumed bodily into heaven and will return to earth close to the Day of Judgment. Somehow, despite his bodily ascension, his miracles, his birth to a virgin, and his foretold return, Jesus is still considered only God’s servant, the same as the Prophet Muhammad or earlier prophets. This does not make sense when you consider that all other prophets, believed to have acted and performed miracles through Allah’s power and grace, died, were not born to virgins, did not ascend bodily to heaven, nor will any of them come again to this earth.
Ultimately, from a Christian perspective, the claims of the Qur’an about Jesus only being a Prophet come off as an attempt to ignore Jesus’ divinity or cover up the claims He made in the Bible, while limiting the miracle-performing parts of Jesus’ life, as well as his true role and scope as Messiah to the people of Israel. The result is a kind of ‘hybrid’ Jesus who is plainly greater than the other prophets given all the unique things the Qur’an teaches about him, but he is still emphatically not considered divine. Why thus did Islam’s greatest and founding prophet Muhammad die, never to return again, yet Jesus in the Qur’an never died, but is to return again to earth? Surely this means Jesus is greater in Islam than the Prophet Muhammad- yet such a statement outrages and offends devout Muslims!
4) In the Qur’an Jesus’ mother Mariam (Mary) is held in very high regard. In fact, she often appears with the suffix “peace be upon her”, the only woman honored in this way by name in the Qu’ran. In fact, an entire sura (19) is named in her honor. In the text, Mary is a righteous virgin who is astonished when the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) appears to her and reveals that she would conceive Jesus not by a man, but by the “holy spirit of God”. Islam honors Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Ishmael, Moses, and most of the Old Testament prophets, yet no prophet’s mother, not even Muhammad’s, conceived virginally or by the “holy spirit of God”! In the Qur’an, Jesus also miraculously spoke at his birth (19:22-33); not even the New Testament has Jesus speaking at birth! Surely, a mere prophet does not speak from his cradle and proclaim himself, at birth, to be a prophet!
5) A common explanation I’ve heard among Muslims for why Jesus could not possibly be divine is that in the Qur’an, there is a verse attesting that Jesus and Mary both had to eat food for sustenance.
“Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. . .” (5:75).
This is a really weak argument. If Allah, the One God, deigns or chooses to become Incarnate in His infinite grace and love for the world, then why should He not, if He deigns to take on humanity, then eat? Why should He not do so? He is God, capable of all things, of anything He commands or wills! Why should He not partake of a small part of His creation, of some food? Just because God deigns to eat does not mean He needs to eat for sustenance!
Thus, Islam argues, the Christian understanding of Jesus must be some kind of weak or flawed ‘god’—a god who needs to eat, what kind of god can that be? Christianity sees Jesus as fully man and yet fully God, who loses none of His divine majesty and transcendent power by choosing to take on our humanity.
This is what befuddles Muslims more than anything, since they reject the Incarnation entirely, and so once you plant doubts in their mind about Jesus’ role as only a Prophet in Islam, you can hopefully begin to start talking to them about the Incarnation and how everything the Christian Scriptures ascribes to Christ, and indeed, the miracles recorded in the Qur’an, make much more sense as the accomplishments and will of God Incarnate, than a mere Prophet.