Essentials of Islam - Lesson 7

Islam and Christianity

Islam and Christianity have major theological differences including their view of Scripture, the nature of God, who Jesus is and what is required for salvation. There are specific strategies that can help us witness to Muslims genuinely and effectively.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Islam
Lesson 7
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Islam and Christianity

Islam and Christianity

I. Major Theological Differences

A. Islam rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.

B. Islam rejects the deity of Jesus Christ.

C. Islam rejects the incarnation.

D. Islam rejects the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ.

E. Islam rejects the reliability of the Bible.

F. Islam teaches salvation by works.

G. Islam teaches God cannot reveal himself, only his will.

II. Witnessing to Muslims

A. Build genuine relationships.

B. Ask thought-provoking questions.

C. Read the Qur'an.

D. Present your faith candidly and in love.

E. Pray with your Muslim friend.


For more on Islam and Christianity, go to "Introduction to Islam" in the Leadership Education section of this site:

Lecture #13 - Jesus and the Qur'an, Part 1 and Part 2

Lecture #14 - Biblical and Theological Issues

Lecture #15 - Cultural Issues

Lecture #16 - The Christian Community in an Islamic Context

Lecture #17 - Islamic Apologetics Surveyed

  • The purpose of this course is to provide an introductory study of the structure, beliefs and practices of Islam. Special emphasis will be placed on a study of the theology of the Quran.

  • In 6th-century Arabia, geography and culture shaped the emergence of Islam. Muhammad, once leading a normal life, at 40 claimed revelation from Gabriel about worshipping one "true" God, Allah. His Qur'an recorded further revelations. Destroying family idols, he fled to Medina with supporters, facing outnumbered battles. Muslim mosques built hold deep religious and historical value.

  • The Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a divine revelation from God given directly to Muhammed beginning in about 610 a.d. The Five Pillars of the Islamic religion are the confession of faith, ritual prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage.

  • Muhammad's successors were call caliphs. From the beginning, there was disagreement about what characteristics would qualify someone to be a caliph. The four "Rightly Guided Caliphs" were in power in successive years from 632 to 661. The two major divisions in Islam are the Shia and Sunni Muslims. One of the major differences between these two movements was over how the successors to Muhammad would be determined. A third movement in Islam is known as Sufi.

  • Along with the Qur'an, the Hadith is another source of revelation for the Muslim religion. The Hadith addresses many social and economic issues that come up in daily life. The Sunna is a collection of oral tradition about Muhammad, and the Hadith is a collection of narratives about Muhammad that are written. The Sunnis also have a provision for the community coming to a consensus about something new being agreed to as having equal authority with the Qur'an and Hadith. In the Shia community an Imam can declare something as revelatory truth. These components combine to make up Sharia law, which governs the Muslim community.

  • If we look at this as an exegetical statement, we can see that from looking at the teachings of the Qur'an, Islam is not a religion that at its root, advocates peaceful propagation. If we look at this as a historical statement, Islam has not historically been a religion of peace, even though some of its followers may advocate living at peace with others. The two contradictory principles that exist in tension in the Muslim religion are Da'wah and Jihad..

  • It is timely to explore the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and how that has resulted in the rise of Osama bin Laden and recent terrorist activities. An effective response to this movement will require a Christian presence among Muslims around the world.

  • Islam and Christianity have major theological differences including their view of Scripture, the nature of God, who Jesus is and what is required for salvation. There are specific strategies that can help us witness to Muslims genuinely and effectively.

 There are seven messages that will introduce readers to the historical context, key tenents of the Muslim faith, distinctions and divisions found within Islam, and a basic strategy for engaging Muslims with the gospel.

Recommended Books

Essentials of Islam - Student Guide

Essentials of Islam - Student Guide

This course serves as a summary of the beliefs and practices of Islam. There are seven messages that will introduce readers to the historical context, key tenents of the...

Essentials of Islam - Student Guide

I. Major Theological Differences

At this time, I would like to develop a brief reflection on, “What are the major differences between Christianity and Islam?” There are so many ways that Islam is similar to Christianity. Islam and Christianity both believe in one God. Islam and Christianity both believe many of the same events in both the Old and New Testament occurred. Islam believes, for example, that Abraham was a great father of faith. Islam accepts the fact that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Islam accepts the Ten Commandments. Islam accepts that Jesus was a miracle worker, that he was born of the virgin, that he lived a sinless life. These and many other things are affirmed in the Qur’an. It is helpful, I think to clearly state, “In what ways are we different from Muslims?”

I want to just briefly mention seven major differences between Christianity and Islam.

A. Islam rejects the doctrine of the Trinity

First, Islam rejects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. If you look at the Qur’an, the Qur’an is repeatedly attacking the idea of the Trinity. My view is that the Qur’an doesn’t really ever understand what Christians actually teach about the Trinity.

As you know, the Christian position is that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three persons united into one Godhead. We do not believe in three separate deities. We do not believe in any kind of immoral, procreated acts between the Father and Mary, and other kinds of misunderstandings that are present in Muslim writings. The Qur’an itself indicates that the Trinity refers to the Father having sexual intercourse with Mary and the result is the birth of Jesus, who is adopted into the Godhead.

These kinds of heretical ideas are widely held by Muslims. They think that is what we mean when we say “the Trinity.” So, whenever I am talking to a Muslim and a Muslim says to me, “Do you believe in the Trinity?” I never just answer simply, “Yes.” I always say, “What do you mean by Trinity?” When the Muslim explains one of these bizarre, heretical ideas, I try to show absolute shock on my face and to say, “No Christian believes such horrible heresy. We agree with you if that is your rejection of the Trinity.” Then they will invariably ask, “Well, what is the Trinity?” And you begin to demonstrate the wonderful, relational nature of God.

This is the great truth of the Trinity, that God by nature is relational. There are relationships within the Godhead. The Father is related to the Son. The Son is related to the Spirit. There is harmony, fellowship and knowing within the community of the Trinity. The Puritans said it so well years ago about the Trinity when they said, “God in Himself is a sweet society.” That is the point that Muslims do not understand because Allah is non-relational. Allah does not relate to his creation. You see, this is the great truth of the Trinity, that God by nature is relational. Therefore, God is able to send Jesus into the world to rescue the human race. The Trinity makes incarnation possible. It makes the resurrection possible. All of the things that we celebrate are ultimately related to the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood. Yet this is an area where Muslims reject it.

I think originally in the Qur’an, Muhammad rejected the caricature of the Trinity; but as time has developed, the Muslims have come to reject the Christian position of the Trinity, even as articulated the way it properly should be because they just simply have these verses in the Qur’an which seem to be against the Trinity. That is a big difference between Islam and Christianity.

B. Islam rejects the deity of Jesus Christ

The second major difference is that Islam rejects the deity of Jesus Christ. It is true that Muslims affirm many wonderful things about Christ. They claim that He is a messenger, he is a prophet, he is a servant. He is a word from Allah, he is the spirit of God. Theologically the Qur’an infers he is sinless, that he was born of a virgin, that he was a great miracle worker and all of this. But the problem is, they fall short of affirming his deity.

If you were to call me a prophet, I would feel honored and I would feel flattered that you would call me a prophet. But to call Christ a prophet only is actually to diminish the true stature and dignity of the full deity of Jesus Christ. Muslims do not believe that Christ is divine. They also believe that Christ only points to Muhammad. This is taken from John 16:7 when Christ said, “Behold, I send you another, a comforter who will lead you into all truth.” They believe that this “comforter” was actually a reference to Muhammad. Therefore, they have Jesus in John’s Gospel as pointing to Muhammad.

We know that in fact, the whole revelation of the Bible is pointing to the emergence of Jesus Christ. As the Scripture says, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Christ represents the apex of God’s revelation, the apex of God’s working in the human race, the apex of God’s rescue of the human race. All of these points are missed in the Islamic caricature of Jesus, which gives a truncated view of Christ. It is not that what they affirm is wrong. It is that they don’t go far enough. They will not bring this all the way to the deity of Christ. Therefore, it is essentially an Aryan type position and fully Aryan, certainly one like you would find among Jehovah Witnesses and others today, who will not accept the full deity of Jesus Christ.

C. Islam rejects the incarnation

Thirdly, Islam rejects the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. They find the whole doctrine to be very troubling, again because of this fundamental misunderstanding regarding the nature of the doctrine. They ask, for example, “How can God be hungry or tired? If Jesus was hungry, if Jesus was tired as recorded in the Scriptures, then how in the world can this be applied to God? God can’t be hungry or tired.” Muslims will often produce a syllogism which goes like this: First proposition: God cannot die. Second proposition: Jesus died on the cross. Therefore, the third proposition: so, Jesus is not God.

This kind of syllogistic thinking goes against the very nature of our understanding of the proper doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation is not just the belief that Jesus is God, but that Jesus is the God-Man; that Jesus fully embraces the full deity of the Godhead as well as the full humanity of one born of the earth. Of course, Jesus as the God-Man is hungry. Of course, Jesus as the God-Man is thirsty because that is part of the human experience. The incarnation encompasses that.

It is the same with Christ’s death upon the cross. No Christian believes that on the cross the divine nature was killed on the cross, or exterminated. You cannot put to death the divine nature. Jesus as the God-Man died. It is an experience of the united incarnation, not just a separate Logos that was put to death. It is simply a misunderstanding by the Muslims of the two-nature, one-person doctrine. It is even true for us - you can kill my body, but you cannot kill my nature, it is simply impossible. You can put me on the cross, you can nail me to the cross, I can die; but my nature cannot be extinguished. Therefore, it was without Lord Jesus Christ.

D. Islam rejects the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ

The fourth major difference is that Islam rejects the centrality and the necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for salvation. Again, you can see that Christology represents the heart of this problem between Muslims and Christians. Muslims do not properly understand the death of Christ. The Qur’an offers several explanations about the death of Christ, the most prominent being that Christ did not actually die on the cross, the so-called “swoon theory,” that Jesus was taken down from the cross and did not actually die, or someone died in his place, perhaps Judas or Simon of Cyrene is often offered. The poor Muslims have someone else not only carrying the cross for the last mile, but also while he was there, they went ahead and crucified him. This kind of impostor theory where someone was in the place of Christ, or that Christ swooned and was taken down before he died, is something that is rejected by all Christian theology that is orthodox.

The Muslims believe that Christ, apart from dying, ascended into heaven because they believe that the true prophet would never experience the ignominious death of death on the cross. This of course is a huge problem theologically because the cross presents the way in which God has redeemed his people. This is the great rescue of the human race. This is Christ bearing the sins of the world. This is Christ paying the penalty which we deserved. This is the whole exchange of the divine judgment and divine favor which takes the judgment which we deserve and places it upon Jesus; and the divine favor of his Son being placed on those whom he has reconciled. This is the great exchange. Without the death of Christ, the Christian faith is vacated of its power. By Islam rejecting the centrality and necessity of his death, they have essentially cut once again into the heart of Christianity.

E. Islam rejects the reliability of the Bible

Fifthly, Islam rejects the reliability of the Christian Bible, thereby rejecting its inspiration and its authority. The Bible is viewed as an inferior document to the Qur’an. They believe it has been corrupted. They believe it has been misinterpreted by Christians. They believe that the current text we have is not a reliable text.

From our own studies and research into the authenticity of the New Testament we have over five thousand manuscripts or portions of manuscripts of the New Testament dating back to the second century, early as the Chester Beatty Papyri. These early documents prove that the Gospels could not have been changed or altered subsequent to the rise of Muhammad. Muslims widely believe that the Bible was changed in order to create an anti-Islamic bias. But in fact, we know, as a matter of scientific record, the historical record, there are no differences between the Gospel that was present in Muhammad’s day and what we hold today. The reliability is consistent with the time period of Muhammad’s birth.

The spread of the Gospel writings was already so great throughout Syria, Egypt and throughout the Middle East, that it would have been impossible for all of these documents and copied manuscripts to be recalled and changed. I can tell Muhammad, “It is simply too late in history.” If Muhammad had arisen in the early second century or mid-second century even, we could see an argument being made. But it is simply impossible in the late date of the emergence of Islam. The Muslims often cite the Gospel of Barnabas. This is an apocryphal document they cite as being the true Gospel; but this is in fact a manuscript that does not actually exist and the one that we have today is actually a 16th century document with no historical ties back to any earlier document. It has text in that clearly shows that whoever wrote it was unfamiliar with the geography of The Holy Land. For example, you have Jesus sailing from Jerusalem to Nazareth in a boat. There are many problems with this; but this is certainly one of the big differences between Islam and Christianity. They reject the reliability of the Christian Bible.

F. Islam teaches salvation by works

The sixth major difference between Islam and Christianity is that Muslims believe that salvation comes through works, not through the grace of God and Jesus Christ. Muslims believe in a final judgment, just as we do. They believe that the trumpet will sound and everyone will die; and then everyone is raised to face final judgment. You are raised in your original reconstituted body, not a spiritual body as Paul says in I Corinthians 15. We are then gathered before the throne and we will be there between one thousand to fifty thousand years, where we will receive judgment. The judgment occurs when everyone comes before the throne and their good works are placed on one side of the scale and their bad works on the other side of the scale.

The Qur’an or the hadith teaches that every person has two angels. This is also alluded to in the Qur’an in surah 18, verse 49 - it is also brought up in the hadith – that everyone has two angels, one which records all of your good deeds and one who records all of your bad deeds. These angels will put all of these deeds on the scale of justice. If your good works outweigh your bad works, then you will go into heaven.

The word “sharia” in Islamic law means “the straight path.” This is brought up in final judgment. Everyone is made to cross over a very straight and narrow bridge which passes over to hell. Anyone who has more bad works than good works will fall into the chasm. Therefore, judgment is essentially by works, not by the grace of God. We believe that if it was based on works, everyone would be lost. This actually demonstrates that Christians have a more profound view of God’s holiness and the true sinfulness and the severity of our sinfulness, than do the Muslims.

It is true that there are some Muslims who believe that Muhammad will intercede on the judgment day and that Allah will be merciful and will deliver all Muslims into salvation, even those who have not been good Muslims. The belief is that Muhammad can transfer some of his good deeds onto the scale and help those whose scales were perhaps tilted the wrong direction. Now, Muhammad becomes a life of super arrogation; that is, where his deeds would become salvific for others. Muhammad has come a long way from the early point where we saw Muhammad was viewed as only a passive conduit of revelation. He later becomes a source of revelation; and now even potentially, at least in part, a source of salvation.

Throughout the Qur’an, salvation is clearly through works, not through faith as in Christianity.

G. Islam teaches God cannot reveal himself, only his will

The seventh major difference between Islam and Christianity is that Muslims believe that God cannot reveal himself to us, only his will. If you read the Qur’an, it repeatedly points out the glory and the majesty and the might of Allah. There are these famous passages where Allah is enthroned; where Allah has this great and mighty holiness; Allah is unreachable and unknowable. One famous Muslim scholar said just the words of this objection when he said, “Allah does not reveal himself to us, only his will.”

That says a lot about Christianity versus Islam because fundamentally we believe God is not just interested in revealing his will, but He wants to reveal Himself. Again, it is rooted in the Trinity. It is rooted in the relational nature of God. God’s will is in fact revealed, but His will is to draw us into a personal relationship with him.

Muslims, on the other hand, do not believe that they are being adopted into the family of God. They are simply doing the will of God. This creates a big gulf between the Muslim and the Christian views of God.

II. Witnessing to Muslims

I want to disclose a few tips on witnessing to Muslims. Five guidelines to help you be a more effective witness to Muslims.

A. Build genuine relationships

I think it will be wise to seek to build genuine relationships with Muslims, rather than kind of a hit-and-run evangelism. I do not think it is very helpful to pass out tracts and other kinds of simplistic ways of witnessing that sometimes are effective in our own context.

Muslims have a lot of baggage against Christians and against the West. Therefore, I think it will grow out of a relationship. Get to know the Muslims. Spend time with them. Learn to love them as people. Then the opportunity will arise to share your faith.

B. Ask thought-provoking questions

Secondly, learn to ask thought-provoking questions, rather than just arguing with Muslims. It is easy to get into an argument with a Muslim over doctrine or theology, the Qur’an, the Bible or Muhammad’s life or whatever. Instead, ask thought-provoking questions. For example, “Tell me about Islam. Can you be sure that you are saved? Do you know you are going to heaven? If so, how?” Most Muslims cannot answer that question. It is good to learn to ask good, thought-provoking questions.

C. Read the Qur’an

Thirdly, take time to read the Qur’an. There is no better way to really get insight into Islamic thinking than to read the Qur’an and to read it thoroughly. Then you can ask them and have the authority to ask them to read the New Testament. There is nothing more embarrassing than trying to witness to a Muslim, giving them a copy of the New Testament or the Gospel of John and ask them to read it, when they come back and say, “Have you read the Qur’an?” and you have to say “No.” “Then why should I read your Gospel?” they will say. Instead you can say, “Yes, I read the Qur’an; but I found the beauty and the simplicity of the Gospel to be so profound, I want you to experience it.” The Bible is the greatest missionary in the world. There is no better way to bring the Gospel into the heart of anybody than their own “read through the Bible.” The Bible is the most self-authenticating book in the world. It bears witness to Christ. It points to the Lord. It is divine revelation. It brings them into the very presence of the revelation of God.

If you can get Muslims to read the Bible, it is one of the greatest things you can do. If reading the Qur’an helps that to happen, it is a very strategic and valuable thing to do. Even on a more practical level, I have found that by knowing the Qur’an quite thoroughly, I have been helped in my witnessing to Muslims because Muslims will often quote things. They will say, “The Qur’an says this, the Qur’an says that” when in fact, the Qur’an doesn’t say that. Then you can say, “No, the Qur’an doesn’t teach that.” And they realize that you are the person who is taking their religion seriously. I have had Muslims turn around and ask me questions about Islam because they don’t know that much about Islam. They therefore become open and a seeker and begin to be redirected to “Why are you, knowing all you know about Islam, why are you a Christian?”

D. Present your faith candidly and in love

Fourthly, present your faith candidly and in love. Don’t forget that Jesus is after all a Person, not just a doctrinal position. Talk about your relationship with Christ. Tell what He has done in your life. Share your testimony. It is a powerful thing to share your faith in an open, candid way; not using a doctrinal rod to destroy somebody, but as a relational rod to attract them like a lightning rod, to attract them to the vibrancy of your relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

E. Pray with your Muslim friend

Fifthly and finally, I encourage to pray with your Muslim friend, for only God can open someone’s heart. Praying is something that is already so important to Muslims. Muslims have learned to embrace prayer, to talk about prayer. One of the five pillars is of course the salat, the ritualized prayers. Muslims from birth up have been told the importance of prayer. I have never met a Muslim who would refuse, if you ask them, “May I pray with you? Or, may I pray for you?” They are thrilled if someone prays for them.

So, pray with your Muslim friend. The point of that is when you pray, the Bible says that where two or more are gathered in His name, there am I in their midst. If a couple of Christians gather around and pray with a Muslim, the presence of Jesus is there. You have actually brought your Muslim friend into the very presence of Jesus Christ. That is a presence which is transforming. That is a presence which is liberating. That is a presence which will draw that Muslim to our Lord Jesus Christ. I would highly encourage you to do this. Even Muhammad himself said in surah 43, Iah 83 of the Qur’an, “If the Lord of Mercy had a son, I would be the first to worship him.” We can tell the Muslim world through our actions, through our prayers, through our deeds that the Lord of Mercy does have a Son; and call Muslims to come and worship the True God.

Let’s take a moment to pray even now for our Muslim friends. Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to reflect on these great themes and Islam. We pray that you would help us to be effective witnesses of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We thank you for our Muslim friends, many of whom, Lord, are very close to receiving the Gospel. Open their hearts, we pray. We know, Lord, there are thousands of Muslims around the world that today are responding to the Good News of the Gospel. Lord, help us to reap this harvest. Lord, it is the turn of Muslims, we believe.

We pray that as Christians go out around the world, that in this time when Muslims expect our hatred, when they expect our animosity because of the events of 9/11; Lord, may we instead not give them hatred, not give them rejection, not give them animosity; but Lord, may we give them acceptance and love and prayer and support. Lord, may we demonstrate a true sacrificial love and service to the Muslim people, that they might see the Gospel of love and the Gospel of Christ flowing through us, to the end that Muslims around the world would fall down on their faces, not just facing Mecca, but on their faces before our Lord Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord, who did in fact die upon the cross, who laid down his life for the sins of the world. So, Lord, we pray that this would indeed be a great day for the Muslim world to turn to Jesus. And we pray that You would do this in good speed, in our lifetime. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

It has been a pleasure to share these lectures with you and I hope that this brief summary of the larger course, Introduction to Islam, has helped you to gain an overview of many of the great themes of the course. God bless you. Thank you very much.

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