Islam and Current Events

Today was the first day of a week-long class called “Islam and Current Events” (interesting timing with the death of Osama bin Laden). It was very stimulating. The professor (Dr. Nabeel Jabbour–from off-campus) noted that there are two sides of the coin in terms of what is presented regarding Islam and the Middle East. Muslims get one side; the West gets another. One of the aims of the course is for us to get the side we don’t normally hear.

Joel noted accurately that pretty much everything he said today is new material. It was all very interesting, but what was of particular interest to me was trying to understand Islam from a Muslim point-of-view.

Christians normally approach the topic with what they assume is a direct-correspondence approach: compare our guy and their guy, our scriptures and their scriptures. They have Muhammad, we have Jesus; they have the Qur’an, we have the Bible. We make the connections, assuming their figure and scripture are analogous to ours, and think we understand Islam.

Dr. Jabbour argued that this kind of comparison does not, in fact, work to understand Islam. Christians won’t understand Islam if they assume the same thing about Muhammad and the Qur’an as Christians do about Jesus and the Bible. It’s not simply a matter of saying, the Qur’an is their authoritative book, just like the Bible is our authoritative book.

In fact, the comparisons that work–that is, the views that we could say are analogous between the two religions–are quite unexpected. Here are the main ones we discussed:

1. We  cannot directly compare Jesus and Muhammad. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal, uncreated word of God. Muslims believe nothing of the sort about Muhammad. In Islam, the closest analogy to Jesus is actually the Qur’an, which they believe is the eternal, uncreated word of God.

2. The closest analogy for Muslim belief about Muhammad is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Both Mary and Muhammad are believed to be passive receivers of the eternal, uncreated word of God–Jesus Christ and the Qur’an, respectively. Mary was a virgin, meaning that Jesus wasn’t simply the result of normal reproductive means. Similarly, Muhammad was illiterate, meaning that he did not just record the words of the Qur’an on his own. Mary was miraculously pregnant; Muhammad received the word of God by dictation, which his photographic memory retained rather like a tape recorder. Both have historically been venerated.

(I’m not interested in discussing critiques of the virgin birth or the dictation theory of the Qur’an. I’m simply highlighting the proper belief-comparison as discussed in class.)

3. The Bible and the Qur’an are not directly comparable either. The 10 Commandments would perhaps be comparable, because they are believed to have been dictated (actually inscribed) by God. Historically, however, Christians have not officially believed in a dictation theory of the Bible (divine inspiration and dictation are not the same thing). The Qur’an, by contrast, is believed by Muslims to have been dictated by God (through the angel Gabriel), so that it is the direct word of God.

The best analogy for the Bible in Islam, then, is their books on the life and teaching of Muhammad. Muhammad made a distinction between the dictated revelations he received and his own teachings, much like Catholics make a distinction between the pope’s ex cathedra statements and his other teachings. The professor didn’t say whether Muslims consider Muhammad’s non-dictated teachings authoritative, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do.

So, an interesting lesson. It won’t do to simply compare Jesus and Muhammad or the Bible and the Qur’an. The proper analogies are, in fact,

  • The Qur’an and Jesus
  • Muhammad and Mary
  • The Bible and books about Muhammad’s life and teachings

Fascinating stuff.

7 thoughts on “Islam and Current Events

  1. Randall

    So when the ignorant among us burn the Qur’an in public meetings, we are, in comparison, destroying their “Jesus?”

    A little bit of helpful context which if understood, could actually save lives.

  2. Toni

    It seems to me that failing to understand muslims is something the west rather specialises at doing.

  3. Toni

    I plan to speak about worship soon, based on the book of Daniel, particularly the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo furnace story and the subsequent section where Nebuchadnezzar loses his mind. It is interesting to see the change in his attitude to God between when he sees what he assumes is God in action, compared to when he meets God for himself. Compare this with the assumptions we make as Christians and the view of Muslims, where we have ‘met’ God for ourselves (even if we haven’t really, because it’s part of a cultural heritage) and they who do not have a personal experience of God.

    Then again, many evangelicals come across as demanding everyone worships Him on pain of pain, rather than secure in the knowledge that He’s real and doesn’t need defending. This is not to say that I understand Muslims well, but there often seems to be a difference in the way those who actually know God behave compared to those who believe they are ‘doing his will’. It’s more than just OT/NT difference too: consider David sparing Saul as an example, even though OT practice is much more inclined toward ‘follow the rules or die’. And Islam is (IMO) a religion based in the OT approach to God and faith, rather than NT.

  4. Marc

    It seems Islam is much more nuanced than evangelicals tend to think. There is, for instance, a spectrum across Islam, much like in Christianity, from fanatical to fundamentalist to something in the middle to liberal. All we hear about are the fanatics and fundamentalists. Not much different from what the world sees of Christians.

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