Whether we like it or not, we can no longer bury our heads in the sand about Islam. There may have been a time in the West when Islam was an esoteric and foreign oddity. That time has passed.
Islam is a significant part of our world—and, in many respects, a significant part of American life.
As Christians, we would be wise to get informed. We need to know our Muslim neighbors in order to love our Muslim neighbors. Part of that includes having a clear picture of what they believe, particularly in how it differs from Christianity.
I want to deal here with two significant aspects of understanding Islam. First, I’ll look at common misconceptions that Westerners have about Muslims. Second, I’ll show where Christianity and Islam part ways most dramatically—in their view of salvation.
When the average Westerner hears “Muslim,” a number of images come to mind—mostly negative. But most Muslims would be just as horrified as we are at the assumptions entertained about them. Here are two of the most common misconceptions:
(1) Most Muslims support terrorism.
Christians won’t usually come out and say that they think all Muslims are terrorists. But many assume that the majority of Muslims support terrorism, albeit quietly. Much has been written about how Islam was established “by the sword,” or how Muslims who engage in terrorist activity are simply obeying what the Qur’an tells them to do. It is certainly easy to find Muslims using the Qur’an to justify violence. Even when you give the Qur’an a charitable reading, asking “What would Muhammad do?” will lead to a very different place than “What would Jesus do?”
That said, most of the Muslims you encounter—either in Western or in Islamic countries—are not violent people. They are kind, peaceable people, and they are often embarrassed by the actions of Muslims throughout the world. While there is a good chance they see world politics very differently from the average Westerner, you will most likely find them warm, hospitable, and kind.
Yes, sincere Muslims believe that Islam will one day rule the world. And we can certainly chide Muslims for not speaking out more against terrorism. But we won’t get very far with them when we assume things about them that are not true.
(2) All Muslim women feel oppressed.
Westerners often think of the Islamic woman as severely oppressed. They have a mental picture of a woman, hunched over, walking six feet behind her husband, staring dutifully downward. She can barely read, can’t write at all, and longs for freedom from the oppressive rule of Islam and her dictatorial husband.
This is often far from the truth. Consider three truths.
(a) Many Muslim men and women are happily married.
The married couples I met when I lived in a Muslim country certainly didn’t do “romance” as Westerners are accustomed to. But neither were the women the demeaned sex-slaves that many Westerners often assume.
There were, of course, some exceptions. I had friends whose wives were rarely allowed out of the back of the house, much less out into the community. And there are certain cultures (Afghanistan, for instance) in which oppression seems more the norm than the exception. But it is an overstatement to say that all Muslim women consider themselves to be oppressed.
(b) Women are often the most ardent defenders of Islam.
Ironic but true: despite Islam’s history of oppression, women will often be Islam’s most ardent supporters. Many Islamic women, especially in the Western world, call for reform in how women are treated in Islamic culture, but rarely for an end to Islam itself.
(c) The Qur’an and Hadith nevertheless, in fact, often speak disparagingly of women.
The Hadith says that 80 percent of the people in hell are women. In explaining why the witness of a woman is equal to only half of a man’s in court, it says, “Because of the deficiency in their brains.” The Qur’an says that Muslim wives “are like a field to be plowed,” which has often been used to legitimize patriarchy and male dominance. And none of this takes into account localized practices, many of which often exceed the Qur’an in brutality.
Some Islamic scholars will say that I am reading these texts wrongly. But the fact remains: much of the worst oppression of women happens in Muslim countries. Islam lacks the robust Judeo-Christian teaching that asserts the equality of men and women as both made in God’s image. It may not be universal, but many Islamic women do feel imprisoned. In contrast, showing Muslim women their dignity in Christ has, in many places, proven to be an immensely effective evangelism strategy.
The Ultimate Religion Of Works
The biggest difference between Christianity and Islam is our view of salvation. Islam stands as a paragon of works-righteousness. Christianity alone stands as a religion of grace.
The Qur’an gives a long and detailed list of how to act, dress, think, and behave. If you follow carefully these instructions, Allah will approve of you, and you are more likely to be accepted into eternal bliss. Islam is the ultimate religion of works. From top to bottom, it exemplifies the principle “I obey; therefore, I am accepted.”
Islam’s path to righteousness never works, for three reasons:
(1) Works-righteousness fails to address the “root” idolatries that drive our sin.
The root of sin is esteeming something to be a more satisfying object of worship than God. Works-righteousness religions, including Islam, fail to address that issue. They simply give a prescribed set of practices to avoid judgment or inherit blessings.
Islam, for example, warns Muslims of the terrors of hell and uses that to motivate Muslims to obey. It promises them sensual luxuries in heaven if they live righteously. Many Muslims pursue these things without caring for God at all. They are using God. For them, God’s favor is a means to an end. But any end other than God is idolatry.
The starkest New Testament example of this kind of attitude is Judas Iscariot. Many New Testament scholars believe that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was disappointed with him. Judas wanted a Messiah who would reward “the righteous” (himself included) with power and money. Jesus taught that He Himself was the reward. Judas never accepted this. For him, Jesus was always a means to something else, and never the end itself.
Love for God is genuine only when God is a means to nothing else but God. Righteous acts are righteous only when they are done out of a love for righteousness and not as a means to anything else.
The Qur’an is not an adoring, worshiping love letter about God. It is a guide for what behavior will increase your chances of avoiding hell. Merit, threat, and reward form the entire foundation on which Islam is built. And this never addresses the root of man’s sin—our desire to substitute God with something else.
(2) When our acceptance is based on our performance, we exacerbate two root sins in our heart: pride and fear.
When we meet a religion’s standards of goodness and acceptability, we feel proud and look down on those who don’t meet those same standards. At the same time, we live in constant fear that if we don’t meet those standards, we will be rejected. Our religious devotion is fueled by our fear of rejection and love of praise. This kind of motivation might change our outward behavior, but only at the cost of magnifying the root sins in our hearts.
Islamic culture is rife with both pride and fear. Pride is easy to see in the ostentatious rituals of many Muslims, the way shameful elements are hidden in Islamic communities, and in the violence some Muslims commit against outsiders.
Fear is present in the heart of even the most ardent Muslims because their status before God is never sure. Islam has no way of gaining assurance of the tender affection of God.
(3) The insecurity of always wondering if we’ve done enough to be accepted causes spiritual fatigue and even hatred of God.
When you constantly wonder if you’ve done enough to be accepted by God, you resent the God that threatens you with punishment. You may outwardly continue to attest your love for him, but inwardly you will inevitably rage against the God that “enslaves” you. As the wickedness of your heart surges inside of you, you begin to resent the God who makes you act contrary to your heart’s desires and holds you captive only by his power to throw you into hell.
The Apostle Paul was a great example of a religiously zealous man. Paul said of himself that, though zealous for the law, he could not keep his heart from coveting. The commandment of God to “not covet” only exacerbated his desires, stoking the power of sin. Paul states in Romans 7:8–10:
But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. . . . The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of people—like he once was—who are zealous in religion, giving even their own bodies to be burned in sacrifice. But for all their devotion, they cannot produce an ounce of love in their hearts for God.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (vv. 1–3)
Without the love of God, Paul says, all religious devotion is worthless.
Such a description matches Muslims perfectly. They live with the understanding that after living the best life they can, they must still walk the tightrope of God’s judgment, unsure if their goodness is sufficient to carry them to heaven. This produces fear, fatigue, and resentment of God. You cannot really love someone whom you fear will finally reject you.
Only the gospel of God’s perfect, unconditional love for us can create a real love in our hearts for Him. God’s love for us begins to overflow in us toward others. We begin to serve others not as a way to gain favor from God, but because we know that we have it. We don’t do religious, moral, or “loving” things merely because we have to, but because we want to. Love begets love: love from God produces love for God.
To summarize John Owen, religious devotion may trim down the fruits of sin, but only the love of Jesus can pull up the roots.