Allah or Yahweh: an Introduction to Islam
Rev C Bouwman
Christians for centuries have known about Islam. But –generally speaking- Christians for centuries have done little about Islam. The Book of Praise includes a prayer “for the mission among Jews, Moslems, and heathen, who live without hope and without Thee in the world.” Yet, when all is said and done, the Christian church has historically been negligent in confronting the Muslim world with the gospel of Jesus Christ; mission instead, for whatever reason, was primarily directed to the heathen.
It may not remain so. Though there is plenty of heathendom in the world of today, the Lord our God has led things in such a way that every last one of us is now confronted directly with the Muslim faith. The large movement of peoples around the world since the Second World War has resulted not just in Christians of European origin moving to second world countries, but also Muslims of Middle Eastern origin. Australia today has no less then 95 mosques (Muslim church buildings). The Muslim population of our land is growing, and two factors conspire to suggest that this will continue. The first factor is the tide of refugees that have come to our nation’s shores in the last while. The second is the new zeal in some Muslims circles for mission. Already one in seven persons of the world’s population is Muslim, and given current trends the number of Muslims worldwide will outnumber the world’s Christian population by the middle of the present century. We also need to be aware that the world’s most populous Muslim nation is Australia’s closest neighbor – Indonesia. In a word: Muslims have slowly, gradually become our neighbors.
Of course, what snapped the Muslim faith into sharp focus for us is the events of September 11. That single event has fixed into our minds the conclusion that Islam has a certain aggression built into it, and that in turn fills us with a measure of fear. Muslims are part of our national fabric, share our communities, maybe even our streets, but what are we to think of them? What do they really believe?
I cannot in one address lay before you all the aspects of the Muslim faith; there is just too much involved in that. Instead, I intend to lay a finger on the most central aspect of Islam, its Monotheism. That’s the Muslim insistence that there is only one God, and this God is the Almighty, the Great One who needs always to be praised – Allah. Though around us one hears that Allah is at bottom the same as the God of the Bible, I want to show you that it is not so. According to the Bible, to be a Christian is to have a God in heaven who loves you tenderly – Yahweh. According to the Koran, to be a Muslim is to make it your business to submit obediently to the only one of heaven –Allah- lest you perish in the judgment.
2. Background of Islam
To understand Islam’s Monotheism, I take the liberty to tell you first something about the background and origin of this religion. After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles set out to obey the command the Lord had given to them, viz, to preach the gospel to all nations (Mt 28:18f). By the grace of God, the gospel took firm root in various parts of the known world, including southern Europe, northern Africa and pockets to the east of Judea. But the Arabian Peninsula seems to have remained in its heathendom. The heathens of Arabia knew of a Supreme Being, but in practice directed their worship to some 300 gods and goddesses. The city of Mecca was a center of pagan worship, where particularly its sacred stone –the Ka’aba (originally a meteorite)- received attention from the worshipers since long before Christ was born.
In this world of heathendom Mohammed was born in the year of our Lord 570 (give or take; the precise date is unknown). His father died before his birth, and his mother died when he was six. An uncle took him under his wing, but poverty made the lad’s life difficult. In the course of years he found employment with a rich merchant-woman named Khadija, who he married when he was 25 and she was 40. Humanly speaking, this marriage set him up for his life’s work. His marriage into money gave him prestige in Mecca, gave him opportunity to travel (and so come into contact with various peoples, religions and philosophies), and gave him freedom also to meditate. In one of those moments of solitary meditation in the year 610, Mohammed claims that he received a prophetic call from God through the angel Gabriel. Though he first feared that an evil spirit deceived him, his wife encouraged him to believe that he was really called by God to be a prophet, and so he took up the prophet’s mantle. His basic message consisted of belief in the one sovereign God and the last judgment. He also preached the need for charity to the poor and care for orphans.
Notice that Mohammed opposed the going religion of the Arabians of his town. Whilst they served hundreds of gods, Mohammed insisted there was but one. A multitude of gods means by definition that the gods compete for the adoration of their worshipers, and so no god gets all the praise. To Mohammed’s way of thinking, this competition was beneath the dignity of an god worthy of his name. So Mohammed preached the existence of one God, the universal judge.
Who is this God Mohammed preached? Where did Mohammed obtain his insistence that there was but one God?
There is no doubt that Mohammed was aware of the Bible and its contents. I say that simply because the writing Mohammed left behind (called the Koran = reading, reciting) contain numerous references to persons also mentioned in the Old and New Testament. In fact, Mohammed insisted that he was not a new prophet, but was simply repeating, in pure and fuller form, what God had earlier revealed to prophets as Abraham, Moses and Jesus. As the New Testament fulfilled the Old, so –said Mohammed- his Koran fulfilled the New Testament. He added that differences between the Koran and the Bible are due to the fact that the peoples after Abraham, Moses and Jesus corrupted God’s original revelation to them into the perverted messages found on the pages of the Bible. We conclude: Mohammed claims to stand in one line with what God revealed to important persons of the Bible. So he also copied elements of God’s revelation in Scripture – be it that he made alterations to suit his own understanding of who God should be.
This connection between Mohammed and the Bible leads Mohammed –and the world’s Muslims with him- to insist that the God of Islam is in fact the God of the Bible. We with our English ears hear the term ‘Allah’, and conclude that he is a god different from the God of the Bible, just as Bhudda is a god different from the God of the Bible. But in fact the word Allah in Arabic is the same word as Elohim in Hebrew – and our Bibles translate the Hebrew word Elohim as God. Muslims are offended if you would insist that their God is a different god than the God of the world’s Christians. I think we need to respect that insistence, and that’s why in this paper I use the word ‘God’ when I refer to Islam’s Allah.
For his Koran, Mohammed drew some of his information from the Bible. He drew also from various heretical Christian writers, from the Jewish Talmud, from Christian apocryphal writings, from Zoroastrianism, from Greek philosophy, etc. The Lord God has told us that the human mind is deceitful above all else and desperately corrupt (Jer 17:9), and so does not hesitate to alter God’s revelation in a manner more pleasing to the sinful human mind. Working with the theologies and philosophies he’d come across, Mohammed did precisely that.
What, then, did Mohammed teach about God? Printed with this article is a copy of one (very short) chapter from the Koran. Sura (=chapter) 112 reads as follows:
name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
For our part, we are accustomed to look carefully at whatever the Bible may tell us about our God. After all, He created us in His image, and the point is that we are to image, to reflect in our behavior what God is like. So we want to come to know God well. But to Mohammed, and therefore to the faithful Muslim, “the greatest challenge upon this earth is not so much to explore God as to remember that there is one [God].” As another author put it: “the heart of Islam is not to know God but to obey him. It is not to meditate on his essence but to submit to his will.”
That doesn’t mean that the Muslim has no concept of his God. He does. He knows his God to be transcendent, Almighty, absolutely Sovereign, far above men, holy, in no way like anything on earth. In a word: distant, abstract. He’s infinitely great, and therefore the only God; a great God cannot have competition from a second God, for two Gods cannot both be sovereign. So the Koran insists that God is “The One.” That’s monotheism, a word that means literally “one God”. There is no second God, nor is this God divided in any way. Because is “The One” all creatures must praise him. Those who thumb their nose at him will invariably receive his wrath. For this mighty God will judge the earth one day, and all those who acknowledge him as the Great, the Almighty, the One God, will receive heaven, while those who do not acknowledge him for what he is will receive fire – hell.
This greatness of God means to the Muslim that all of life must be lived in the service of this great God. A Muslim does not divide life into sections, does not separate religion from daily life, religion from politics, religion from education, etc. In fact, because of God’s greatness, not only must every act of life be lived in submission to the will of God, but every person in this world must live in submission to the will of God. The highest calling of the brotherhood of Allah’s people is that they live in such a way that their faithful obedience to God’s law and their endless admonitions prompts Jews and Christians, apostates and heathens, to acknowledge the One true God. This, in fact, is the true jihad, the true “exertion in the cause of God” or ‘holy war’ – as the term has been commonly translated in the west. Mohammed would condone the use of the sword to compel unbelievers to serve God, while other groups within Islam would today argue that this jihad should be fought primarily with a pen. Either way, it should be clear to our minds that the Koran’s insistence that God is so great is the driving force behind the duty of all Muslims to cause all men to acknowledge this God. “Freedom of religion is an idea foreign to Islam.”
At this point, I need to interject my story with some analysis. The attentive listener will notice that there is something here that sounds familiar, sounds vaguely Christian. For we believe too that the Lord our God is the almighty, who sovereignly controls all creatures, and so is worthy that all serve Him. I think of the song of the elders in Rev 4:
worthy, O Lord,
Yet there is one enormous and critical difference. It is this: the God of Mohammed is in no way emotionally involved with the creatures of earth, doesn’t have a heart for these creatures; Mohammed’s God –on grounds of His greatness- demands of creatures that they acknowledge him, obey him, serve him – or else. So the relation between people and Allah is one of slave to a master. That’s also why the religion of the Koran is called Islam. For the term ‘Islam’ means submission. And those who adhere to the teaching of the Koran are called Muslims; the term means ‘those who submit’. I realize: the Koran says time and again that God is “Most Gracious, Most Merciful”; every chapter of the Koran (bar one) begins with describing God like that. But Islam specialists point out that characteristics like love and grace and mercy do not function in Islamic thinking; such qualities in the God of Mohammed are passive.
Here we touch the fundamental difference between the God of the Koran and the God of the Bible. The great and eternal God of Islam is distant, detached, cold, while the great and eternal God of the Bible was so touched in the pit of His stomach (Luke 1:78) at the misery into which we plunged ourselves with the fall into sin that He “in His marvelous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from Him” in the Garden of Eden (Article 17, Belgic Confession). The God of the Koran calls upon man to obey and serve him on account of his greatness and in fear of his judgment, while the God of the Bible springs into action to save a fallen mankind from the mess he made for himself, emptied Himself to save sinners – and calls on men to serve Him in response to His deeds of mercy. The God of the Bible draws brings Himself close to people and people close to Him; He established His covenant of grace with sinners, promised to be Father for undeserving people, promised to give up His only Son to pay for our sins and make us righteous before Him, promised to dwell in sinners through His Holy Spirit. So He tells us to call Him Father, and we know ourselves to be His children-by-covenant, loved, protected, safe. The God of the Bible is a God of action-driven-by-love, and so this God of the Bible does not ask for cold, formal obedience but for evidence of gratitude echoing the love that He first showed to us. Recall what we read from I Jn 4.
There is, then, a radical difference between the God of the Koran and the God of the Bible. The one is Allah, an Arabic word that means literally ‘The Divinity’ – and that term captures all he is: remote, great, heavenly, insisting on worship and praise. But the God of the Bible has revealed Himself as He really is: the almighty Creator who acts, who reaches out in mercy to save people from their sins, Yahweh. That is why the Muslim community does not know what love, what compassion is. It’s why the Muslim community is characterised by aggression, by emotions of fear, of insistence on my-way-or-no-way. It’s a bellicosity that’s reflected in the news of our day.
Directly connected to Mohammed’s understanding of God is his understanding of people. Mohammed’s God is not driven by compassion-to-save-people-from-their-misery because –to Mohammed’s thinking- people don’t need to be saved from their sins. According to Mohammed there is no original sin for which each person is guilty. In fact, “man is not born a sinner and the doctrine of the sinfulness of man has no basis in Islam.” So man does not need a Savior. That is why Mohammed had no place in his thinking for Jesus as a Savior, rejected the Bible’s message that Jesus died on the cross, for sinners. That’s to say too: Mohammed denied that Jesus was true God (cf Sura 112.3). So strong is Mohammed’s feeling on the point that he tells us Muslims everywhere that “Allah forgiveth not (The sin of) joining other gods With Him; but He forgiveth Whom He pleaseth other sins than this: one who joins Other gods with Allah, Hath strayed far, far away (From the Right)” (Sura 4:116). And since Christians (according to the Muslim mind) add another God to God (viz, Jesus and the Holy Spirit), Christians are guilty of an unpardonable sin and therefore infidels – enemies of God. This explains in part the hostility of Muslims to Christians.
How, then, according to Mohammed, can one survive the final judgment and receive heaven? Mohammed’s answer is: one pleases the Almighty by acknowledging that he is there, by taking him seriously. Notice: one escapes judgment and enters life not by knowing God or by loving God, but by acknowledging God. And how do you acknowledge this God? It begins with reciting the Muslim confession, and then living accordingly. That confession is this: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is Allah’s apostle.” That little sentence –it’s called the ‘shahada’- summarizes the whole Islamic faith. It testifies of Allah’s greatness, he alone is truly God and therefore worthy of worship and obedience. And he has revealed himself through Mohammed, so that all who would acknowledge this God can know how to serve him, namely, by following the instructions God gave through Mohammed. This confession -“There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is Allah’s apostle”- is the first word whispered into the ear of a newborn, it crosses the lips of every true believer every day, and is whispered into the ear of the dying at the end of his earthly sojourn. Just reciting these words is sufficient to obtain God’s favor, sufficient to obtain forgiveness of sins, assures one of eternal life. For then you satisfy Allah’s desire to be acknowledged.
Now, to be clear, let me hasten to add that the Islam faith insists that your acknowledgment of Allah has to go beyond words; you have to show your genuineness by living according to Mohammed’s instructions. Here’s is where acknowledging God merges into obeying God. According to the Muslim one must adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam in order to obtain eternal life. These five are:
I’ll run through these five briefly.
The shahada or confession (as I’ve mentioned before) is: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is Allah’s apostle.” To become a Muslim you need no secret ceremonies, need no training in doctrine either. You need only to say the words of the shahada from the heart, and you will be a true Muslim, and therefore saved.
The second pillar is Prayer. Every day, five times a day, the Muslim must carry out a well-defined prayer ritual. Facing Mecca at the hour of prayer (together with millions of fellow Muslims), the Muslim bows before his God with his face to the ground, and so acknowledges that Allah is so very great. At each prayer, each Muslim must pray the Al-Fatitah (which form the opening verses of the Koran):
to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
After reciting those words to God, the praying Muslim may, if he wishes, recite in prayer a portion of the Koran. That’s his prayer, five times a day, every day.
There’s a couple things here we should notice. First is the reverence the Muslim displays for his God through his posture. That sense of reverence is commendable. But notice too that the Muslim is not given opportunity to tell his God of his daily concerns. His prayer is to stay general, his God at a distance from his daily circumstances. I should mention too that the very reciting of this prayer on a daily basis is, after the reciting of the shahada, the second most important deed a Muslim can do to earn heaven.
The third of the Five Pillars is almsgiving. God owns all. This beautiful and Biblical principle forms the basis of the third pillar, viz, that people are to give of their goods for the benefit of their Muslim brothers. The Koran nowhere states just how much the pious Muslim ought to give, except to stipulate that it must be ‘according to what you can miss’.
In the month of Ramadan, the Muslim is to fast. That is, during daylight hours he is not to eat, though he may drink. One can understand that without eating, the Muslim isn’t able to produce much work either. That’s why the practice of Ramadan does not help the economies of the Muslim world, and Muslims in western society also run into conflict with their employer during this month. Numerous Muslims therefore request their annual holidays in the Muslim month of Ramadan.
The final pillar important for salvation is that one travels –if at all possible- to Mecca. The very act of travelling to Mecca is sufficient to wipe out all records of any sins you’ve committed. One can imagine too what impact being together in one place with literally millions of fellow believers can have on the dedication of the pious Muslim.
Apart from these five pillars, the Koran also regulates every area of life. Obeying God boils down to doing things the way Mohammed did them. Al-Ghazzali is said to be the greatest Muslim theologian of all time. He wrote the following:
“Know that the key to happiness is to follow the sunna [Mohammed’s actions] and to imitate the Messenger of God [Mohammed] in all his coming and going, his movement and rest, in his way of eating, his attitude, his sleep and his talk…. God has said: ‘What the messenger has brought – accept it, and what he has prohibited – refrain from it!’ (59:7). That means, you have to sit while putting on your trousers, and to stand when winding a turban, and to begin with the right foot when putting on shoes.”
In a word: the Islamic faith regulates every last area of a person’s life. It does so not so that the Muslim may know how to show his gratitude to God for His mercy; it does so instead so that the Muslim may give expression to his conviction that God in his greatness demands minute obedience every second of the day.
We understand that Islam is a religion of works. The cardinal difference between Islam and Biblical Christianity lies in the Person of Jesus Christ. Muslims don’t want a Savior, and so they deny that God has come to us in the Person of His only Son.
5. Where to?
In the light of all this, how attractive is Islam to the people of our world? Is it a pleasant, a satisfying religion? The answer has two sides.
JG Vos, A Christian Introduction to Religions of the World, queries why Islam is so successful. “How,” he asks, “can its rapid spread be explained? And why is it so hard to win Moslems for Christ?” He gives the following revealing answer:
“…Islam is an easier religion than Christianity to live up to; it makes less difficult moral demands upon people. There is nothing in Islam to lead a man to say, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” or “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” A religion with reasonable attainable objectives fosters self-confidence, complacency and spiritual pride - it leads inevitably to self-righteousness, but it does not give the sinner the anguish of a guilty conscience nor the frustration of trying without success to attain in practical living the requirements of an absolute moral standard. In brief, Islam makes a man feel good, while Christianity necessarily first (and often thereafter) makes a man feel bad. The religion of the broken heart is Christianity, not Islam.”
From my reading I conclude that Vos is correct. The Muslim faith arises out of the human heart, and therefore has so many affinities with all other man-made religions, including the Roman Catholicism our fathers rejected in the Great Reformation. Does God Almighty have to reach out to man-dead-in-sin (and therefore be driving by mercy, compassion, love) or does God Almighty just demand people’s worship on grounds that people have within themselves the ‘stuff’ to worship him acceptably? The human heart wants the latter to be the correct answer (for who wants to see himself as dead in sin?), and that’s why the Muslim faith is more attractive than the faith of the Bible.
There you also have the reason why our western world is not offended by Islam, but embraces it as essentially the same faith as Christianity. For today’s common Christianity is not the faith of the Bible – and that includes much evangelicalism; today’s Christianity speaks more of your contribution to salvation than of Christ’s sacrifice for lost sinners.
But the self-sufficiency of man to make himself acceptable to Allah is precisely the weak point in the Muslim’s faith – and that’s the second side to the coin of why Islam is so attractive. It’s in every sinful human heart to think that the ball is in our court, and we’re able to satisfy the demands of the Deity; that makes Islam appealing. But recall the unhappiness that characterized Luther’s life because of his conviction that appeasing God depended completely on Luther! Never could he content himself with the thought that he’d finally done enough, that his sins were really forgiven; how Luther agonized on that point! Ultimately, that same uncertainty is true of the Muslim as well. The Muslim has a cold God, a stern Judge. So the sincere Muslim has to keep asking himself: have I recited the shahada often enough, sincerely enough? Have I prayed enough? Have I lived in adequate submission to the will of Allah in every aspect of life? Have I obeyed his various instructions well enough? I mentioned before: the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’; people are slaves to a distant and cold Allah. That’s the weakness of the Muslim faith; it is a slavery. In practice a Muslim lives in fear of his god. How different, how very different is the God of the Bible, and therefore the gospel of the Bible!
According to RC Sproul, Islam is “the most serious religious challenge to Christianity in the modern world.” Given the aggressiveness of Islam’s advances in the (western) world, this is undoubtedly true. It is for us to rise to the challenge. How? I mention two points:
To view a page of the Koran click here (This file may take up to two minutes to download)
Book of Praise, pg 643.