An Overview of Islam and Islamic Beliefs for Christians
A Christian friend of mine asked me to give him an overview of Islam. I am also Christian, so this overview is for comparison for those who already are familiar with most points of Christian doctrine.
Around the year 600 A.D., a young man named Mohammed accompanied his uncle on a journey from Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia to Syria. During the journey, he met a Christian monk named Bahera. Apparently, Mohammed learned the basics of Christianity of this man. However, whether due to translation problems, poor teaching, or lack of time, Mohammed received a distorted view of Christianity.
Mohammed grew up and we find him marrying a rich 40-year-old widow when he was 25. he began to visit a cave outside Mecca, where he would meditate for weeks and months alone. One night, in the cave, he claimed to be visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that Mohammed was a prophet of God. A voice was then heard, which Mohammed said was the voice of Allah, who was the local Moon god. Mohammed visited this cave repeatedly and heard the voice again. Mohammed then repeated what he heard as sermons to a growing group of followers. These sermons became the text of the Koran.
In 622 A.D., Mohammed made a key mistake. In Mecca since ancient times there was a building called the Kaaba. In this building was a meteorite. Also kept in the building were dozens of idols to many different gods. Mohammed proclaimed that Allah was the only god. He was then driven out of Mecca and fled for his life to the town of Medina. This is the Hijra, and the Islamic lunar calendar dates from that day.
In Medina, Mohammed attracted a large following. He then returned to Mecca as leader of a large group of "missionaries" (armed with swords) and conquered - eh - converted the populace that had previously chased him out.
After the conquest of Mecca, Islamic "missionaries" (always armed with swords) conquered the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Eqypt, Palestine, North Africa, and Spain (where they began known as Moors). In Europe, Charles Martel of France defeated the Moorish army at the battle of Tours. In the East, Islam spread through Persia (Iran) into Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. It was repulsed by the Thai civilization, but accepted in Malaysia and Indonesia. Nestorian Christians stopped the progress of Islam into Central Asia, but true Moslem missionairies reached the Chinese court. By the year 1000, a thriving Islamic empire stretched from Persia to the borders of the Byzantine Empire in the midst of Asia Minor, around the shores of the Mediterreaneum Sea to Spain.
In 1099 Christian Crusaders rescued Jerusalem from the Moslems, and then spent the next 200 years in a gradual retreat. Around 1200, a new enemy attacked Islam -- the Mongols rolled out of Central Asia. Persia was conquered by the Mongols. The nominal capital of Islam, Bahgdad, was sacked. Then, Islam was saved (just as Europe was) when the Mongol emperor died and the leaders of the Mongol armies had to return to Mongolia for a sucession conference.
Over the next four hundred years, Islam conquered Central Asia. Arab traders traveled down the East coast of Africa to trade with Madagascar and Zanzibar. The Crusader States and the Byzantine Empire were overun, with Turkish armies going as far as Vienna before being stopped. But in the West, the Moors were gradually driven out of Spain, culminating in their final defeat by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
During the height of their civilization, Islamic libraries kept many of the ancient manuscripts. Much of the Western Renaissance was generated as ancient manuscripts were discovered in Moorish libraries in Spain. Algebra was invented by Al-Jabir, a Turkish mathematician. Astronomy was a major contribution of Arabs traveling in the desert and navigating in the ocean. Many stars today carry their Arabic names.
Islamic beliefs can be seperated into four areas for discussion:
- Mistaken beliefs about Christianity
- The Five Pillars
- Rules for living
Moslems believe that each group of people in the world receives a sacred book from God written in their own language. For Jews, this was the Torah, written in Hebrew and Aramaic. For Christians, the New Testament (written in Greek). For Arabs, this was the Koran, written in Arabic. Technically speaking, many Moslems believe that the Koran cannot truly be translated. Despite this, there are several good translations into English and other Western languages.
In addition, there is a collection of sayings of Mohammed and his early heirs.
Moslems believe that "there is one God - Allah, and his Prophet is Mohammed". In fact, Moslems become Moslems by sincerely uttering this phrase. This is similar to our declaration of faith in Jesus and baptism.
A few things about Allah:
- Sceptics note that there was originally a Moon god worshipped in Mecca. This may have had some influence on early Moslem worship, since lunar phases are still central to the timing of much Moslem worship.
- Despite the possible pagan beginning of Allah, Mohammed was quite insistent that Allah was the only living god, and identified him as the same Yahweh God of the Jews and Christians.
- Allah is seen by Moslems as very high, very far above men. He created the Universe and rules the Universe as a powerful king.
- Unlike the Christian God, Allah is not a personal being. Whereas the Christian God is ready to deal with you on a personal basis, Moslems do not believe this about Allah. He is always distant, wrathful, and powerful. He does not mix with his subjects.
Heaven and Salvation
In Islamic theology, you must strive to be righteous. If you are righteous enough, then upon your death you will be transported to heaven. But if you are not righteous enough, then you will go to Islamic Hell. Notice that there is no assurance of salvation -- a Moslem depends upon Allah's goodwill on the day of judgement. How good is good enough?
In the Koran, there is one assured way of going to heaven. That is when you achieve death as a warrior for Islam -- you become a martyr. Martyrs are rewarded in heaven with a harem of many virgins. The Koran has nothing to say about the fate of female martyrs.
Another interesting point about Islamic Heaven is this: Alcohol is absolutely forbidden in Islamic life, yet in Islamic Heaven there is a river of pleasant drink which runs through the middle of Heaven. Is this alcoholic? It
is somewhat unclear in the Koran.
Allah is one God. This is a strident core belief of Islam. There is no acceptance of Trinity as there is in Christianity.
Islam strongly believes in angels as good spiritual beings, and in djinns as evil spiritual beings. Notice that Allah's messages were sent to Mohammed via the angel Gabriel, who appears in the Old Testament (Daniel 8:16) and New Testament (Luke 1:11). Of course,
there is the interesting fact that Gabriel always delivered the messages to Mohammed in a dark cave on the outskirts of town at night. Is this the
mark of an angel or the mark of a djinn? This is puzzling.
Mistaken Beliefs about Christianity
The Koran spends considerably text discussing Christians and Jews. In the early days when Mohammed was in Mecca and Medina, his statements in the Koran are quite kindly toward "the people of the Book". Expecting the Jews and Christians in the area to join him, he was profoundly disappointed when they rejected his heresy. Thus, chronologically later chapters of the Koran are filled with orders to punish Jews and Christians.
One key mistake which Mohammed made was in his description of the Christian Trinity. Mohammed believed that the Christian Trinity was Father, Mother, and Son -- instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This mistaken belief is a key problem with Islam. After all, if Allah dictated the Koran through Mohammed (as Moslems believe), then how could such a mistake be made? This calls into question the entire validity of the Koran as an infallible document.
Once Mohammed made the original mistake about the Christian Trinity, he took it further. He concludes that Christians believe that the Father and Mother Mary had a sexual union, similar to the exploits of the Greek god Zeus. In this way, the Son was born. This concept disgusted Mohammed and his followers because of the obvious carnality of the situation -- why would a spirit being have a sexual union with a woman? Despite the fact that Christians believe otherwise, (we believe that the Holy Spirit quickened the egg) this myth about Christian belief is steadfastly taught in Moslem households today.
The Koran mentions Jesus prominently as "Ise", a prophet accorded standing with Moses and Elijah. "Ise" is quoted prominently and with respect. However, Islamic belief is that Jesus died on the cross and was not resurrected.
It is important to note that Moslems respect Ise (Jesus), but not the beliefs of Christians and Jews.
These mistaken beliefs of the supposedly infallible dictation of Mohammed is a critical point. How did this happen? What is the truth here?
Many mature Christians believe that Mohammed may have visited Jerusalem and, due perhaps to translation difficulties or the
mistakes of the person explaining Christianity to him, received a garbled version of Christianity which he tried to take to
Mecca. But no one knows for sure.
The Five Pillars
The Five Pillars of Islam are as follows:
- Belief in Allah and Mohammed as his Prophet.
- The Ramadan fast. During the month of Ramadan, an adult Moslem who is healthy must abstain from food, water, and sexual intercourse during the daylight hours.
- The Hajj. Once in their lifetime, each Moslem should make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
- Charity. Each Moslem should give 2.5 percent of his income to charity.
- Prayer. Each Moslem should pray in the direction of Mecca 5 times a day at specific times.
Rules for Living
Sharia, or Islamic law, is a body of law developed in much the same manner as the Jewish Talmudic law. (Once again, if you do not have the Grace of the Lord to live under, then you must attempt to adhere to a Law.) Islam has a complex body of documents which have developed in the same way as the rabbinical discussions developed the Jewish law from the original law of Moses.
Some major tenets of Moslem law are as follows:
- No alcohol, tobacco, or pork products.
- No pornography.
- Women must dress modestly and are under control of their fathers or husbands.
- Men may have as many wives as they can support.
- Non-Moslems may not enter many mosques (Islamic temples)
- In general, the Mosaic law is used as a basis. The Ten Commandments, although not explicitly used, are also the basis for Islamic law.
Islamic law has been extended into almost every area of life. And this is important to understanding Islam in today's world. To many of the Moslems of the world,
Islam is not primarily a manner of relating to God. It is more a series of daily, monthly, and annual traditions that are
observed by all "normal" members of Islamic society. This is similar to the way that most Americans and British attended church on
Sundays, were married by a minister, buried by a minister, said grace before meals, and refrained from certain public vices during the nineteenth century.
Islam has over three dozen sects. A few of the most interesting are discussed below:
- Sunni - This is the dominant form of Islam. Sunni Moslems are found across North Africa, and in Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, UAE, Turkey, Central Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia. Sunni's are less intense than other sects and are seen as moderate, tolerant, peaceful people. Sunni Moslems countries are most likely to have secular governments.
- Shia - This form of Islam is strong in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. Shiites differ from Sunni in a dispute which occured early in Islamic history. A succession dispute resulted in the murder of one of the candidates. This caused the initial split and later on there were disputes over the interpretation of the Koran. Shiites believe in the
holy nature of the first ten leaders of Islam, the ten "Imans", or teachers. Sunni do not believe in this. Shiites are seen as more radical, intense people, and are more likely to become militant to promote Islam.
- Sufis - Sufis are a sect of Islam found in Pakistan, Iran, and India. Sufism emphasizes trance-like states and the mystical side of Islam.
- Wahhabi - This is the dominant sect of Islam in Saudi Arabia. This sect is considered to be a conservative sect, with strict interpretation of Islamic legal principles. Wahhabi's are seen to be rather legalistic, but are straightforward and honest. However, they are rather intolerant of those who break their laws.
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity spread in different ways.
- Judaism is essentially an ethnic group religion -- to be Jewish indicates both a religious belief and an ethnicity. With few exceptions (the most notable being the introduction of Judaism to Kazahkstan), Judaism has not spread by making converts. Instead, it has simply spread by the movement of Jews from one place to another, and their natural multiplication.
- Christianity has spread as a combination of missionairies, military conquest, and the movement of Christian people. In the last couple of centuries, the primary method has been missionaries.
- Islam has grown through a combination of military conquest and the natural growth of Islamic families. Islamic missionaries are very rare.
In the early days of Islam, the religion had a simple method of spreading. Arab armies came near town and suggested that the town surrender. If so, the inhabitants were treated humanely and became subject to the Arab conquerors. Islamic law was instituted. In most situations, pagan inhabitants were ordered to convert or die. Jewish and Christian communities were allowed to remain, but were considered second-class citizens legally and were prohibited from evangelizing the populace. Eventually these communities died out.
In India, a similar situation occured. Islamic conquerors spread into India between the 8th and 12th centuries and established themselves as the rulers of much of the subcontinent. However, due to the strength of the caste system and Hinduism, only about 1/8th of the population converted to Islam. During independence in the late 1940's, Moslems migrated to Pakistan and Bangladesh from India.
Today, Islamic Countries can be roughly classified into four types of states:
- Islamic Kingdoms
- Radical Islamic Countries
- Minority Islam Countries
Secular Islamic countries include Indonesia, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, the Central Asian Republics, Iraq, Tunesia, Algeria, Mali, etc. These countries are ruled by individuals who are Moslem, but not religious. The judicial system of these countries is influenced only modestly by Sharia law, and religious issues are seen only as additional political issues. These countries are relatively tolerant of non-Moslems, although they may dislike Westerners generally due to global political issues. Just because their leaders don't take their religion seriously does not mean that an American is welcome.
The Islamic kingdoms and Sheikdoms of Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Kuwait, Yemen, Morocco, etc. are ruled by generally pro-Western, but distinctly religious rulers. These men take their religion seriously. They respect Christians, but will not allow evangelism in their countries, since they are men who are Moslems first, and rulers second.
Radical Islamic Countries
Iran, Sudan, and until recently Afghanistan are countries where religion and government are combined with a dislike of the West. These countries are anti-Christian and anti-Western and are not safe places for Westerners or Christians.
Minority Islam Countries
Several countries are known for having large or growing minority Islamic populations. Among these are India with over 100 million Moslems, China with an estimated 20 to 50 million Moslems, France with 5 million Moslems, the USA with 3-5 million Moslems, and Britain with 1-2 million Moslems. In these countries, the substantial Moslem populations create a political issue which will become more important over the next few years.
It should be noted that Arabs represent a very small portion of Moslems worldwide. In fact, the countries which contain the most Moslems are Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Most American Moslems come from Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan.
The typical Moslem is not what we see on television. Instead, just as in Western Christianity, the Islamic world contains a majority of people who are ethnically Moslem, but do very little more than pray five times a day and observe the Ramadan fast.
Islam is not a religion which encourages great communication with Allah. Instead, the emphasis is upon daily living according to a series of rules. As long as a Moslem lives within the rules, he is following Islam. Unlike Christianity, the actions are considered to represent the heart. And thus, most Moslems have not thought extensively about their religion and the truth or falsity of it. Just as in Western Christianity, the secular world dominates the daily thoughts of the typical Moslem.
In this lies the key to reaching Moslems.
A rational presentation of the Gospel is required, pointing out the key places where the Koran mis-teaches Christian belief. A discussion of sin, living by the law, breaking the law, and God's standard of righteousness will show that Islam does not have the answers. Only Christ the Saviour can assure someone of eternal life.
If you are Moslem and would like to learn more about Christianity, please contact us. If we have mis-represented Islam, please let us know -- we do not wish to distort, for we believe that an honest presentation of the truth will serve all people best.
If you are Christian and would like to discuss this in more detail, please contact us also.
Copyright © 2002, Brian L. Boley. All Rights Reserved. Revision and Copyright © 2006, Brian L. Boley. All Rights Reserved.