A few years ago, while working as a bi-vocational church planter, I formed a friendship in my secular employment with a Muslim. He knew I was a Christian pastor, and I understood that he was a committed Muslim, and we enjoyed many conversations comparing various aspects of our faith. He watched as I fasted through Lent, and I watched him fast through Ramadan. For me, the faith I expressed was my own. For him, he was wrestling with a faith that might eventually become his own, but was still largely impressed upon him by his parents.
Ever since that time, I have had a desire to better understand Muslim beliefs. A part of that interest began when my Muslim friend and I both realized that the faith we held resulted in the frustrating experience of dealing with stereotypes placed upon us by those who don’t share our faith. As a Christian minister, I have been thought of as a swindler – a carried over stereotype associated with television evangelists and greedy preachers. Other times, it was assumed that I must hold positions against any number of things: science and evolution, “progress,” immigration, culture and society, Democrats, etc. It can be difficult to convince people that you are not the sum of their experiences with other Christians, or the image that popular media paints of Christian ministers. But no doubt, the stereotypes my Muslim friend experienced were far more difficult than the ones I experienced. I remember, quite distinctly, on my last day of that job, when he shook my hand and said to me, “Thank you. I have never met a Christian who was so kind to me. You never even asked if I was a terrorist, or if I have family members who kill Christians.” Whatever frustrating stereotypes I occasionally deal with, I have thankfully never had anyone make that kind of assumption, let alone comment, about me.
In recent years, there has been a steady stream of news reports about terrorist events involving Muslim extremists. Each time, there are Muslim voices which say “This is not who we are. This is not who Muslims are. This is not who Allah is.” And I have wondered for myself – who is the Allah? And just what does the Qur’an say about violence?
I realized that if I was going to be informed about these issues, I would have to go to the source. So I determined that I would read the Qur’an.
That’s a difficult task. For starters, it is a book for a people of a faith that I do not share. So it is impossible, I confess, for me to read the Qur’an “faithfully” – that is, sharing in the faith tradition of the people for whom the book is intended. But it is also difficult, because the Qur’an is written with a set of assumptions that are foreign to all but the most extreme fundamentalist Christians, which is to say, the Qur’an is a book that is not to be questioned. Allah is a god who is not to be questioned. He is supremely sovereign. He must not be questioned, denied, or debated. (As a frank disclaimer – these are “take-aways” of a non-Muslim. My apologies for my inadequacies in describing the Muslim faith). On the contrary, the Jewish and Christian God is a God who expects to be questioned, with whom wrestling results in reward (Jacob), etc.
As I have worked through the Qur’an (and I am not yet finished), I studied it using Michael Lodahl’s (a good Nazarene, by the way!) “Claiming Abraham: Reading the Bible and the Qur’an Side by Side.” Even if you’re not interested in the Qur’an, this book is wonderfully insightful about Jewish and Christian scriptures. In any case, Lodahl describes the God’s openness to being challenged brilliantly as he points out the exchange between God and Abraham in Genesis, where we see Abraham challenging God about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, even bartering with him “should there be even a few faithful” (summarized paraphrase), or when we see Sarah laugh at the thought of childbirth in her old age, and so on. In the Qur’an’s telling of these stories, those instances are notably absent. Though this is a fitting portrayal of God, it is not a fitting portrayal of Allah.
There has been debate as to whether the God of Muslims is the same as the God of Christians. That tends to be a situation in which people talk right past one another. Depending on one’s perspective, the answer may be “yes” or “no.” No doubt, Allah is described in vastly different ways from the Christian God. However, the Qur’an is derived from the stories of the Jewish and Christian God – so to a faithful Muslim, it is indeed the same god. (For what it is worth, “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God” – it is not a different title, but the same title in Arabic).
It may help to understand some of Muhammad’s intentions behind the Qur’an. Muhammad was very familiar with the Jewish scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Rabbinical tradition (Jewish tradition of interpretation). There was violence between Jews and Christians, disagreements about how God was described, how scriptures were interpreted, etc. Muhammad desired an unquestionable answer (which is how an unquestionable “Allah” came about). The Qur’an is an effort to correct the “problem” of the Jewish and Christian traditions, which Muhammad believed had corrupted their scriptures. (This is part of the reason it is considered so important to read the Qur’an in Arabic – because a vital part of reading the Qur’an is that it is the ‘pure’ scripture of Allah, which is diluted or ‘corrupted’ when translated). For Muhammad, the Qur’an represents an uncompromised revelation of Allah.
I have found this exploration to be enlightening and fascinating. Just as there are various Christian traditions, there are likewise many various Muslim traditions. However, in my own, admittedly biased and poorly informed reading and interpretation, it seems to me that the only viable reading of the Qur’an is what would be considered a “fundamentalist” reading if we were to put it in terms of how Christians interpret scriptures, which is to say, the Qur’an is to be understood in the most literal, unquestioned, plain-reading sense, and interpretation is always to be built upon previous readings instead of fresh readings.
I am still processing so much of what I am only now beginning to understand – and there are undoubtedly vast differences between how the Christian God is perceived, and how the Muslim Allah is perceived. My goal in reading was never to try to reconcile differences, but to understand them, and perhaps speak in a more informed way.
I may post more on this later – but for now, I fear that I am fumbling along a bit as I process early thoughts, and I am certainly and humbly open to correction if I have misrepresented anything. I confess my bias, reading these words as a Christian, and not sharing in the faith of those for whom the book is written. It hasn’t been my intention to cause offense, and where I have spoken in ignorance, it has not been with ill intent.