Islam3George W. Braswell Jr.’s Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power is a concise yet fairly comprehensive introduction to the history, doctrines, and practice of Islam. Braswell, a Baptist professor of missions, has spent the majority of his career understanding and teaching on the beliefs of Islam, in both Muslim and Christian contexts. Though an evangelical Protestant, Braswell strives for objectivity and fairness in his reporting, perhaps to a fault. It is nearly impossible to find any moral judgments in this text, even when he refers to Muslim armed conquest, harsh legal penalties, or the practices of sexual slavery and concubines. In this paper, rather than merely summarizing what is essentially a dry but informative overview of Islam, I remark on the salient texts, and provide some Christian comparisons and reflections on notable doctrines and practices as they might stand out to Christian readers. I also include some sidebars, which discuss surprises that most westerners, including myself, discover about Islam along the way.

1  Islam Not a Monolith

Although this point should go without saying, it is particularly poignant and necessary in our time, since the media, which typically reports bad news, only shows us the negative side of Islam – acts of terror, Arab oil barons, and oppressive Islamic governments. With this in mind, Braswell intones:

Few know that the largest Muslim populated nation is Indonesia in Southeast Asia and that tens of millions of Muslims live in Central Asia, China, and India.….According to popular conception, early Muslims have been presented as militant warriors from the hinterland of Arabia. Westerners know little of the excellence of medieval Islam’s art, science, literature, medicine, architecture, and urban development….Other images should also inform us. Former President Sadat of Egypt, leader of a predominantly Muslim nation, made peace with his neighbor, Israel. King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace accord with Israel.[1]

Naturally, this is not enough to disabuse skeptical westerners of their negative stereotypes of Islam, but It should challenge the honest reader to examine her assumptions, since for most of us, realizing that most Muslims are not Arabs indicates that we are wrong on one of the simplest assumptions. Additionally, if we reflect on our own tradition, we know that Christianity itself is not a monolith, though skeptics often paint us so – in one instance we are all Crusading Catholics, Puritan witch hunters, materialist prosperity preachers, or Southern anti-abolitionists. What is needed is to separate the fringe from the mainstream, the aberrations from the norms, and the teachings of the scriptures from the historical accretions. Braswell asks us to attempt all of these distinctions.

In a later chapter, Braswell speeds through the implementations of the various flavors of Islam across many historic and modern nations, giving us a broad and dizzying tour of the varied players in Islamic history. Like myself, many readers will be surprised by the variety of leaders and kingdoms governed by Islam, not least of which are the Black American expressions of Islam, and the 1400 year reign of the Ottoman empire all the way up to World War I. However, a closer inspection also shows us that the urge to violence, and conquering and replacing existing cultures is a very common theme across Muslim history, even if Braswell merely hints at such themes.

2  Mohammed and the First Caliphs

Many students of Islam understand that Mohammed’s earlier, Meccan proclamations regarding the Jews and Christians were somewhat more gentle and inclusive. However, from the start, it is obvious that Mohammed envisioned a complete rule of Allah and his principles over all people, a comprehensive way of life to be implemented triumphally over all peoples. This was in contrast to the Christian tradition, which allowed for separation of church and state, as well as a plethora of views on non-central issues such as warfare, politics, economic matters, and diet. While many paint Mohammed as a victim of persecution in his early days, it is hard not to wonder if he brought much of it on himself with relatively uncompromising demands, or solutions like the jizyah, which to him probably seemed a minimal imposition for protection, but to an objective observer, would probably be seen as an oppressive, non-egalitarian coercion under threat of forced conversion or death. Islam’s self-serving view can be seen in the story of Mohammed’s restraining his armies from excess shedding of blood and similar ‘acts of clemency.’ One writer reports of him saying:

“Has any conqueror in history behaved so gently or mercifully with the vanquished foe?”[2]

The fact that a champion of faith was conquering in the first place seems dubious at best.

The author covers the expansion of Islam across the centuries, but makes little mention of the bloody battles that ought to be part of any historical account. The spread of Islam in Braswell’s account seems a magical fait accompli, a Deus ex machina, where we are left to imagine a bloodless triumph of Muslim ideals as the primary cause. Here is an example of what seems like a gentle evasion by the author:

Why was it possible within one hundred years of the Prophet’s death for Islam to spread so widely and so quickly? Some have said that it was the fanaticism and brutality of Muslim armies. Holy war, in part, may promote fear and atrocity. Some of that occurred. But Islam also spread for other reasons.

The Byzantine and Persian empires had become exhausted in a long series of wars. Christianity was destabilized by schisms and heresies. Many who lived near the Arabian peninsula hoped the Arabs would bring them stability and peace.

The Islamic Arabs quickly conquered and integrated the new people into their culture. They considered Jews and Christians as People of the Book and granted them special protections and allowed them to maintain their own religious traditions as long as they were peaceable and paid their taxes (emphasis mine). [3]

The fact that their targets lands were weakened, obviating the need for brutality, hardly seems like a satisfactory exculpatory statement. Also, the ‘allowances’ provide for Christians and Jews still amounted to subjugation, and this says nothing of the people who were not Jews or Christians – if they were not given such ‘allowances,’ what was their fate? I suspect that in traditional fashion, they were offered the choices of conversion or death, or perhaps for the young women, the ‘mercy’ of sexual slavery.

The major Shi’a / Sunni schism that has persisted until the present began at Mohammed’s death, where there was a disagreement over who should assume leadership of Islam. Shi’ites supported a nepotistic familial succession, preferring to see Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali installed as Caliph, rather than a choice of someone faithful from the community who had already established leadership (the preference of the Sunnis). And though Ali was eventually installed as the 4th Caliph, his leadership was challenged, ending in the murder of Ali and the poisoning of his son. Shi’ites don’t really recognize the first three Caliphs, but start their succession from Mohammed with Ali as the first Imam, their term for leader.

2.1  Surprise #1: The Untimely Deaths of the Caliphs and Imams

What passes by with little remark in the history of the caliphs is the number of them that were murdered. While some were ‘martyred’ by rebels in the lands they conquered, many were murdered by internal factions vying for power. While this sort of intrigue happens within any organization, if we compare the demise of the early popes, we see that NONE died as a result of internal squabbles or disaffected conquered peoples – most that were martyred were killed merely for the preaching of their message. Jesus was certainly right in rebuking Peter for thinking that armed conflict is how the Kingdom of God is spread, and the consequences of using the sword (cf. Matthew 26:52), and the history of Islam’s leaders bears this out.

3 Formation of the Qu’ran

Also missing from Braswell’s history is the story of the codification of the Qu’ran by the third Caliph, Uthman. A reader would expect that this process is very important to a religion whose canon is so central. This topic is of specific interest to many who challenge Islam, because while Muslims claim that the Christian and Jewish scriptures are corrupted, and point to the many divergent manuscripts, what is often overlooked is that Uthman chose the manuscripts he thought were canonical, then had all others that he could access burned. This might not be controversial on its own, but Braswell later mentions that the Qu’ran was verbally dictated to Mohammed, a very different method from the inspiration model of Christianity, where plenary inerrancy depends not on dictation, but inspiration.[4] The existence of alternate manuscripts, or the destruction of them, would seem to contradict the Muslim assumption of dictation.[5]

4 Muslim Theology

Braswell takes the reader through common but sometimes relatively unknown (in the West) doctrines of Islam, including the 99 names of Allah, the so-called Satanic Verses (a phrase not coined by Salman Rusdhie), the somewhat expanded and different function and importance of angels in Islam, heaven and hell, and the superiority and perfection of the Qu’ran as compared to the inspired but corrupted Jewish and Christian canons. However, there are some surprise doctrines as well.

4.1 Surprise #2: Thousands of Prophets

Surprisingly, Muslim tradition holds that God has sent prophets to all of the peoples of the earth up until Mohammed – over 124,000 prophets.[6] However, the Koran only identifies twenty five of them, most already in the Christian Bible. This claim is ostensibly to provide the truth to all people so that they can be fairly judged. This claim of many prophets, though, is in a hadith that is not considered to be as reliable as others.[7] This problem of those who have not heard also arises in Christianity, which supplies a number of possible theodicies, including a newer one proposed by myself, i.e. Generational Justice.[8]

4.2 Soteriology

In discussing the Muslim doctrines of heaven and hell, Braswell importantly notes that, while Islam does not believe that one’s good deeds alone can merit forgiveness and heaven, one must do good deeds, believe in the Prophet-hood of Mohammed and obey the Muslim pillars in order for Allah to consider granting eternal forgiveness. In light of this uncertainty, it is no wonder that many Muslims are glad to die in Jihad in order to be assured of gaining Paradise. The author quotes al-Faruqi in describing this state of uncertainty in Islam, and it reminds me frightfully of my time as an Arminian holiness Christian who had to depend on his persistent and ever increasing devotion to be assured of heaven:[9] [10]

Religious justification is thus the Muslims’ eternal hope, never their complacent certainty, not even for a fleeting moment.[11]

4.3       The Non-Fatherhood of God

Despite the mystical claims of Folk Islam such as the Sufis, Islam proper does not allow for any personal relationship with God, and certainly not a Father-Child relationship.

He has no son, no daughter, no parents, and is above having such a relationship. He cannot be called father. The basic relationship between God and humankind is God as Lord (al-Rabb) and humankind as slave servants (Abd). Human response to God must be total submission.[12]

Not only is this a denial of the trinity and sonship of Jesus, it is a stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus on the nature of God.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.~ John 15:15 (NIV)

The Apostle Paul further clarified this relationship when he stated:

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will. ~ Ephesians 1:5 (NASB)

mideast_beastBraswell could have mentioned the many impacts of this view on the practice of Islam, but did not, again, perhaps in sticking to plain facts instead of extrapolating such doctrines to praxis. For example, he could have mentioned that Islam forbids adoption, though it allows adherents to care for orphans or other children. An even more interesting precursor related to the non-Fatherhood of God doctrine is that this may be a result of Mohammad’s upbringing, as author Joel Richardson remarks in his book Mideast Beast: The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Antichrist:

It is easy to see the generational bitterness of Ishmael being channeled through Muhammad’s teachings. Not surprisingly, Muhammad himself was also an orphan, having lost a few of his closest caregivers during his upbringing. So in Muhammad, Ishmael’s resentment found a perfect conduit. From a spiritual sense, then, we may view Islam as the broken and bitter cry of Ishmael, the fatherless, the orphan, memorialized and canonized as a religion.[13]

4.4 Jihad

Braswell explains that there are two types of Jihad (or ‘struggle’), the inward and the outward. Interestingly, the inward struggle is called the greater jihad, whereas the outward, which we are accustomed to seeing as terrorist and guerrilla warfare, is called the lesser (less important) struggle. More interesting is that the greater, inner struggle is seen as having two components: the heart, and the tongue (the lesser jihad has one component – the sword). The struggle of the heart is the effort to pursue the will of God, and the struggle of the tongue is to fulfill missionary work. Of course, with regard to the outward jihad, there are no surprises here – in multiple ways, Mohammad approved of armed warfare in the service and spread of Islam, and he defined enemies with such a wide swath that essentially, anyone who denies that Mohammad is a prophet, or refuses to be subjugated, is an enemy who is worthy of killing in the eyes of Allah. In addition, revenge is sanctioned in Islam, in stark contrast to Christianity, in which Jesus and Paul both commanded us to love our enemies.[14]

Armed conquest, however, is justified in Islam with a simple moral calculus – peoples that lack submission to Islam are defined as ‘chaotic’ and ‘lawless,’ and so introducing them to Islam, even through conquest, is seen as a mercy. Braswell quotes Marcel Boisard on this:

The ‘holy war’ (jihad) is in effect that instrument which if needs be must impose the reign of Islam…peace and justice under the protection of the revealed law – upon a recalcitrant and aggressive ‘world of war.’[15]

4.5  Divine Command Morality

Although Braswell does not mention this doctrine by name, nor spend a lot of time on it, he does mention it in passing, quoting Ram Swarup on Mohammad’s teachings on revenge in the hadith:

To [Muslim believers] morality derives from the Prophet’s actions; the moral is whatever he did. Morality does not determine the prophet’s actions, but his actions determine and define morality. Mohammad’s acts were not ordinary acts; they were Allah’s own acts.

It was in this way and by this logic that Mohammad’s opinions became the dogmas of Islam and his personal habits and idiosyncrasies became moral imperatives: Allah’s commands for all believers in all ages in climes to follow.[16]

The impact of this, again unexplored by Braswell, is that the atrocities of war and conquest are not really viewed as such by Muslims because their morality in these defined activities is not determined by reason or observation, but merely upon the divine commands of Allah and his Prophet. Of course, post-hoc justifications are plenteous in Muslim apologetics, as they are in Christian settings when we have to defend the conquest of Canaan, the sacrifice of Isaac, or the butchering of pagan priests by Elijah (1 Kings 18:40). However, Christians make few such exceptions in modern ethical discussions and Christian praxis, and do not take the actions of the Patriarchs as prescriptive. Thankfully, we have a robust New Testament ethical tradition stemming from the Sermon on the Mount.

5  Praxis

Beyond the various histories and doctrines of Islam are the actual resultant practices, which range from, in the eyes of this western Christian, noble to horrific.

5.1 A Comprehensive Model

One prominent selling point of Islam, and goal of Mohammed, was to supply a comprehensive world view that covers all of life. This appealing teaching exists in both Christianity and Islam, but in the latter, it is much more explicit. That is, in Christianity, such rubrics have to be distilled from scripture, and everyday life is often covered by principles but not exhaustive rules. Braswell communicates that ‘instructions for personal life, family life, social life, economic life, and political life’ are provided.[17] This mirrors very closely one of my favorite Christian models, sometimes called The Five Spheres of Government, which divides up life into the major authorities in each relationship in our life – self, family, ecclesial, economic, and civil governments.[18] But a more explicit and comprehensive worldview, along with copious rules, is appealing, both in their philosophical integration, and in their alleviation of having to use principle and reason, which is perhaps an infantilizing and easily accessible system for new adherents. The appeal of legalism has infected religion from the Pharisees to the Catholics to the Protestant holiness movements, even if such rule following is not baked into Christianity as it seems to be in Islam.

5.2 Surprise #3 – Shaving of Private Parts

Regarding detailed rules for all of life, Mohammad was also concerned about cleanliness, and passed down ten qualities that are now enshrined in Muslim practice:

…cleaning teeth, cleaning the nose with water at the time of prayer, cleaning the mouth likewise, cleaning finger joints, washing with water after urinating, clipping the mustache, shaving pubic hair, cutting nails, not cutting the beard, and removing hairs under armpits (emphasis mine). [19]

I was surprised to find that this custom is followed by both men and women, though the method of hair removal varies (plucking the underarms sounds not fun).

5.3 The Role of Women

This is where Islam has the most to defend against critics. While it can claim some egalitarian positions, it is the non-egalitarian that may be offensive to progressive sensibilities. Such practices as polygamy (though justified to protect women who could not otherwise support themselves), marriage and coitus with girls as soon as they have reached menses, the approved practice of female sexual slaves and concubinage, and the practice of muta (temporary marriage, typically used to have sex without sinning with a prostitute) seem hopelessly backwards, hypocritical, sexist, and immoral to the Christian mind.[20] And perhaps such judgments are well warranted. It is telling that Islam’s machoism is even reflected in superlatives regarding Mohammed’s sexual prowess.

Narrated Qatada: Anas bin Malik said, ‘The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were eleven in number.’ I asked Anas, “Had the Prophet the strength for it?’ Anas replied, “We used to say that the Prophet was given the strength of thirty.’[21]

5.4 Surprise #4: You may not date – unless it’s your first cousin

Another shocker to me was the fact that, though Muslims prize sexual purity and fidelity (with the many aforementioned male-serving exceptions, to say nothing of the rampant practice of Bacha bazi, sex with boys in Islam)[22], the preferred marriage partner for any male is the daughter of his uncle.[23]

This too, seems backwards, if not biologically unhealthy to western ears, but then again, much of the Islamic approach to women conflicts with modern sensibilities, despite our shared concern for modesty, chastity, and a complementarian view of women among some Christians.

5.5 Devotion

If there is perhaps one arena in which Christians could learn something from Islam, it would be in the area of devotion. While Muslims may seem to be motivated by fear, threat, and uncertainty in their devotion, there is surely also an inspirational component, wherein Muslims desire to be pleasing to God for His sake. With regards to giving of alms (required of Muslims), there is an inspiring dialogue with Mohammed on giving within our ability:

The Prophet said, “Charity is a necessity for every Muslim.” He was asked “What if a person has nothing?” The Prophet replied: “He should works with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity.” The Companions asked: “What if he is not able to work?” The Prophet said: “He should help poor and needy persons.” The Companions further asked: “What if he cannot do even that?” The Prophet said: “He should urge others to do good.” The Companions said: “What if he lacks that also?” The Prophet said: “He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity.”[24]

Spiritual people can learn from the devotion of others, regardless of what they are devoted to, as long as there is some positive benefit. Whether it is the rigorous prayer schedule of the Muslim, or the discipline of the athlete, the devotion of Muslims provides some helpful perspectives.

6 Christian Missionaries to Islam

Beyond addressing the Crusades, Zionism, and the evangelization of Muslim nations that are an ongoing insult to Muslims, Braswell ends his book with some encouraging, if not inspiring biographies of Christian missionaries motivated by love and the gospel. One such character is Peter the Venerable, abbot of the monastery at Cluny from 1122-1156, who not only worked tirelessly to translate biblical materials into Arabic, he penned such important ideas to fellow Christians and Muslims (resp.) as these:

TO CHRISTIANS: There had grown a strong conviction that the avowed purposes and goals of the Crusade had omitted entirely what should have been the most central Christian concern, namely, the conversion of the Moslems

TO MUSLIMS: I attack you not as some do, by arms, but by words; not with force, but with reason, not with hatred, but in love….I love; loving, I write you; writing, I invite you to salvation.[25]

Another wonderful exemplar from Christian history included by Braswell is Raymond Lull (1232-1316), a Franciscan missionary, who pursued relationships with Muslims through ‘apologetics, education, and evangelism,’ and who wrote:

I see many knights going to the Holy Land beyond the seas and thinking that they can acquire it by force of arms, but in the end all are destroyed before they attain that which they think to have. Whence it seems to me that the conquest of the Holy Land ought…to be attempted…by love and prayers, and the pouring out of tears and blood.[26]

Of course, the Reformers like Luther were not friendly towards Islam, but Braswell also mentions others who exemplify a less combative and perhaps more effective outreach to Muslims such as Samuel Zwemer, William Cantwell Smith, and Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg.

7 Conclusion

Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power is a succinct, if not dry and fairly comprehensive introduction to Islam’s history, beliefs, and practices. It displays an almost antiseptic approach to the more ethically questionable parts of Islam, and sometimes misses some important features of Islam in its desire to be non-offensive to Muslims. For example, Islam’s antipathy for homosexuality is mentioned, but the harsh penalties prescribed and practiced towards them is not included. A reader looking for controversial topics and theological back and forth with Chrsitianity won’t find it in Braswell’s volume, but what they will find is a fine education in the basics, and in some ways, the best that Islam has to offer.

Notes

[1]   George W. Braswell, Islam : Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics, and Power (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 1-2.

[2] Afzal Iqbal, The Prophetʼs Diplomacy : The Art of Negotiation as Conceived and Developed by the Prophet of Islam, Iad Religio-Philosophy (Reprint) Series (Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1984).

[3] Braswell, 28.

[4]   ibid., 50.

[5]   Adnan Rashid James White, “Was the Quran Reliably Transmitted from the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) ?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhTSwTH0gUU.

The fact of textual variants is a challenge to both Christianity and Islam, but in Islam, the very existence of textual variants challenges the verbal dictation of the Koran, unless one assumes a preservationism that guided Uthman. And while Christians also require a doctrine of preservationism if they are plenary inerrantists, they do have reasoned alternatives, and admit to the existence of such variants, while Islam resists this fact. Beyond this debate, James White has written much more on this in his recent book What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an (2013 Bethany House Puslishers)

[6] Braswell, 49.

[7] Burhan, “124,000 Prophets”, Islamhelpline.net http://www.islamhelpline.net/node/2630 (accessed 2014-11-22).

[8] Daniel G. Sinclair, “The Unreached: Can God Justly Punish Those Who Have Never Heard?” http://www.wholereason.com/2013/05/the-unreached-can-god-justly-punish-those-who-have-never-heard.html (accessed 2014-11-22).

[9] Daniel G. Sinclair, “Scrupulosity 1 – How Catholicism and Arminianism Obscure the Gospel and Create Neuroses”, Wholereason.com http://www.wholereason.com/2013/10/scrupulosity-1-how-catholicism-and-arminianism-obscure-the-gospel-and-create-neuroses.html (accessed 2014-11-22).

[10] Daniel G. Sinclair, “Major Shifts in My Thinking over the Last 25 Years”, Wholreason.com http://www.wholereason.com/2012/09/major-shifts-in-my-thinking-over-the-last-25-years.html (accessed 2014-11-22).

[11] Braswell, 57.

[12] Ibid., 47.

[13] Joel Richardson, Mideast Beast : The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Antichrist (Washington, D.C.

New York: WND Books ; distributed by Midpoint Trade Books, 2012), 252.

[14] Braswell, 84.

[15] Ibid., 145.

[16] Ibid., 83.

[17] Ibid., 101.

[18] Daniel G. Sinclair, “The Five Spheres of Government” http://www.wholereason.com/2005/03/the-five-spheres-of-government.html (accessed 2014-11-22).

[19] Braswell, 116.

[20] Ibid., 150.

[21] Ibid., 111.

[22] “Bacha Bazi”, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacha_bazi (accessed 2014-11-22).

[23] Braswell, 120.

[24] Ibid., 66.

[25] Ibid., 259.

[26] Ibid., 260.