A Thumbnail Sketch of Islam for Christians - page 2


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From the Winter 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Thumbnail Sketch of Islam for Christians

by Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D.
Jordan Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College

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Muhammad (570–632 AD)

  The founder of Islam endured a troubled childhood. He lost his father before he was born, and his mother died when he was six. Then he lived with his grandfather, who perished two years later. The orphan then lived out the rest of his childhood with his uncle. Perhaps because of his own heartbreaks, Muhammad became a religious seeker, often retreating to mountain caves above Mecca for meditation. When he was forty, Muhammad said, the angel Gabriel began delivering to him messages from Allah. These first messages terrified Muhammad. But he received reassurance from his wife Khadijah and her Christian cousin, who assured Muhammad that he had been visited by the same being who had visited Moses, that God was calling him to be a prophet to his people. The earliest messages emphasized that there is only one God (before Muhammad, the Arab tribes had worshiped 360 different gods, the chief of whom had been called Allah) and that every human being would face the judgment of this God. These messages and later revelations, all of which the illiterate Muhammad dictated to his disciples, make up the Qur’an.

The Qur’an

  The Qur’an is about the same length as the New Testament, but the similarities end there. It was dictated by only one man (the New Testament was composed by many writers) and is neither a book of history (as the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles purport to be) nor a life of Muhammad (in contrast, the Christian gospels aim to provide the theologically significant events of Jesus’ life) nor theological treatise (as Paul’s Letter to the Romans could be considered). Instead, it is a book of proclamation—that God is one and sovereign, judgment is coming, and we need to submit to Allah.  


  You can also find these themes in the Bible, but Muslims and Christians have very different conceptions of the nature of scriptural inspiration. While Christians believe the Bible is a joint product of both human and divine agency, Muslims believe their holy book contains not a shred of human influence. Christians usually want to distinguish Paul’s personal writing style or cultural influences from the divine Word, for example, but Muslims deny that Muhammad’s personality or cultural affinities had anything to do with the words of the Qur’an. Muslims, then, accept a dictation theory of inspiration that nearly all Christians reject for their Bible. This is one reason why the Muslim community was so outraged by Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The novel insinuates that the Qur’an is not the Word of Allah, but has been altered by either the angel Gabriel or Muhammad’s followers who first recorded the revelations entrusted to the Prophet. Rushdie’s title is even more sinister; according to Islamic tradition, very early versions of the Qur’an contained verses that suggested the worship of three goddesses alongside Allah. Muhammad soon had them removed, explaining that the devil had given him disinformation. They have been known ever since in Islamic lore as the “satanic verses.” So the implication of Rushdie’s title is that the entire Qur’an, which for Muslims is as sacred as the person of Jesus is to Christians, has been corrupted.

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