MuslimViewOfChristianityIn A Muslim View of Christianity: Essays on Dialogue (Faith Meets Faith), Mahmoud Ayoub attempts to initiate, describe and model Muslim/Christian dialogue. These collected lectures are meant as an honest appraisal of the history of Muslim/Christian dialogue, our commonalities, and our differences. While Ayoub seems to make no compromises on the core beliefs of his Muslim faith, he does address the strong supersessionist tendencies in both faiths, and differs from some of his more conservative compatriots on issues which he thinks the Koran offers more breadth for acceptance of other faiths and peoples. In this paper, I will review his approach to both the commonalities and obstacles to Muslim/Christian dialogue, and offer a few critical concepts that were left unexplored.

Ayoub begins building a bridge by emphasizing the need for dialogue between us. Our two faiths constitute half of humanity, and it behooves us therefore to take the call of God to heart, if not merely to please God, but for the sake of humanity. But what is this call? Echoing James 1:27, he intones

Obeying God means to clothe the naked, to care for the children, to do social work, in short, to work together toward achieving a just society. 1

This affirmation of a common view of true spirituality opens the conversation to discuss other commonalities upon which we can build trust and cooperation between our two faiths. However, even in the short discussion of our commonalities, hints of our obstacles subtly offer themselves as spoilers.

Moving Beyond Tolerance to Acceptance

Before Ayoub presents the shared views upon which dialogue and friendship can be built, he suggests that we must first change our approach and theology of religion with regard to the other. He admits that even our best efforts to keep peace between us have been merely a mutual tolerance, which does little more than to isolate us and keep us from examining our negative attitudes towards one another. He suggests that we must move toward acceptance of one another’s faiths, both as legitimate expressions of God.

In making this request, he is asking us to, in the language of Paul F. Knitter, move from supercessionism or replacement theory to an acceptance model of Islam – that is, that God can and does speak salvifically through other faiths. 2 This request, on the surface, appears generous and liberal, asking both sides to make identical, considerable concessions to the other. However, because Islam appears chronologically after Christianity, its concession may not be equally deep, but a lesser concession to fulfillment theology, whereas Christianity, coming before, cannot truly claim fulfillment, and must therefore move to acceptance. As Ayoub later confirms:

Islam is a post-Christian religion. Thus, while pre-Christian philosophies and religious dispensations might be regarded as a prelude to the Gospel, or preparatio evangelica, Islam could not be fitted into this schema. 3

However, on a more humanistic note, Ayoub is calling for us to both view one another as equal partners in dialogue, and to set ground rules for fair discussion, evaluation, and cooperation with one another. He asks us, despite our differences, to commit to friendship, partnership in the ‘quest for social and political justice,’ mutual respect for one another’s faith, and fairness in our communication. 4

Commonalities Between Islam and Christianity

Assuming a commitment to egalitarianism and fairness, Ayoub describes the four Islamic rules defining true religion, which he assumes the three Abrahamic faiths fall into. All true religions must:

  • Be enshrined in a divinely inspired scripture
  • Acknowledge and proclaim God’s absolute Oneness
  • Enjoin dynamic faith in God and the last day
  • Foster righteous living 5

But already there is a problem – while Christians readily affirm God’s Oneness, they also affirm the deity of Christ in the Trinity. And not so well hidden in the second affirmation above is a commitment to God’s ‘absolute’ Oneness, which is merely code for a denial of the Trinity. To the Christian reader, the above affirmation feels like trickery, where Muslims can claim that we fully affirm the same basic principles, thereby justifying a common foundation and legitimacy. However, hiding in this equivocation is an admission that Trinitarian Christianity is illegitimate. As we will discuss, this Christology is at the heart of our ideological disagreement with Islam, perhaps even more than the author imagines.

Beyond these four principles, Ayoub touches on a shared respect for the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the person of Jesus, and the Almighty God and Creator, and the aforementioned duties of service to humanity. However, the bulk of the book is based on the need to fairly discuss and attempt to resolve our differences.

Historic Roots of Conflict

Ayoub identifies four historic roots that Christians must consider in order to understand Islamic mistrust and antipathy to Christianity – supercessionism, colonization, evangelization, and other results of orientalism.

Supercessionism

Again, Islam can claim the high ground by seeing itself as a fulfillment of both Judaism and Christianity, but Christianity does not have that luxury, and is therefore given the choice of supercessionism, in which it invalidates the legitimacy of Islam, or acceptance, in which case Christianity is either superseded, or must admit that one or both faiths are mistaken on various points of disagreement, like the deity of Christ. Ayoub intones that supercessionism is a huge obstacle to dialogue, which of course is true. However, his appeal for both sides to give that up requires a much stronger concession on the part of Christianity. This concession, however, might not be a showstopper for the Christian if they can adopt a partial fulfillment view, which can admit that God speaks through Mohammed and Islam, but is incorrect in its Christological and soteriological claims.

One deeply offensive result of the supercessionist view of Islam is the prevalence of anti-Islamic literature in Christianity, declaring it anti-Christ and demonic, likening it to Nazism because of its rampant practice of anti-Semitism (despite what apologists say about the contents of the Qu’ran), and in recent times, the growing theological view that a revived Ottoman empire, not Roman, is the kingdom from which the anti-Christ will arise, which includes the idea that the Mahdi, or Islamic Messiah, is actually the anti-Christ of scripture. 6 Islam, being supercessionist, does not have to declare any religions as demonic, since it replaces them, and can view them as proto-evangelistic. However, this exculpatory view ignores the fact that they believe that anyone who denies Mohammed as a prophet is against the true faith, which might as well be calling it demonic. While such claims can be mere polemics, and Christians should not throw them around lightly, Muslims ought to address these reasoned concerns head-on rather than hide in offended sensibilities.

Colonization

As a Christian, I found Ayoub’s discussion of the impact of colonization by the West into Muslim lands revealing. Notable is their perception of the cooperation between the governmental colonizers and the missionaries. While the missionaries themselves probably had little affinity for the plundering and domination of the target cultures, the fact that they sought protection and resources from the colonizers made it appear that they were in agreement with the abuses – that is, that they agreed that these inferior “Oriental” cultures ought to be replaced by Western culture, and that plundering their resources and enslaving their people was ethical. In addition, Muslims saw that the colonizers attempted to cloak their deeds in the veneer of the missionaries’’ faith and good works, as if the colonizers were taking part in doing the will of God. This activity continued into the 1900’s, as discussed by Mark Shaw in a recent essay on African missions:

Some missionaries were so elated by the added security and development promised by colonial overlords, they crossed the boundaries of Christian morality to advance the colonialist cause. 7

Evangelism

This view of the inferiority of the Oriental cultures (Orientalism) is compounded by the very act of evangelism, because beneath it is the assumption that the local religions are inferior and must be replaced or significantly amended. This perhaps unintended insult is something that all evangelistic faiths should consider – that without dialogue and respect, targets of evangelization get a clear message that they are ignorant, wrong, or inferior. If for no other reason than to remove this offense, it behooves Christians to treat other people of faith as dialogue partners. However, sharing the gospel even in that context may be offensive to Muslims, since turning one away from Mohammed is a grave offense. Not only is apostasy condemned and arguably punished by execution (e.g. Q4:88-89), evangelizing can be seen as striving against Islam, also arguably a capital offense in Islam (Q5:33).

The Crusades and Zionism

Naturally, the historic conflicts of the Crusades and the Zionism must be brought up. Here, however, Ayoub fails to honestly evaluate the Muslim role in these conflicts, euphemizing prior Muslim conquests as Mohammed’s “expeditions,” 8 and misunderstanding the Christian attacks as an attempt to spread the faith (which is how Islam views itself in conquest) instead of a defense of the seats of Christianity (Jerusalem and Rome) and the people dominated by Islam in formerly free lands. I would argue that, rather than apologizing for the Crusades, it may be more honest and productive to ask Muslims to view them in light of Muslim conquest, not as the initiation of later colonization or 20th century Zionism. 9

Interestingly, evangelism and Zionism are viewed by Muslims as a continuation of the efforts of the Crusades and colonization – that is, they see a progression towards less violent means, but the continuation of the same ignoble ends in the west – that is, to replace the Islamic faith and culture with western faith and culture. Even worse, since in Islam there is no separation of religion and cultural values, Muslims who rightly evaluate the west as economically and philosophically materialist, and filled with immodesty, pornography, and glorification of sexual immorality and substance abuse, associate these with the attempts at Christianization by missionaries.

This dislike for immorality is a glaring similarity between us and Muslims, and is perhaps one of the best points on which to dialogue and cooperate. However, because Islam is more narrow in what it accepts in the role of women and the use of alcohol, as well as the proper ethics for dealing with homosexuality, there will be considerable room for dialog.

Ideological Differences

Ayoub identifies at least three ideological obstacles to dialogue, which of course, may then form part of the subject matter for dialogue – they are Christology, soteriology, and dhimmitude.

Christology

The author makes an interesting point that a unique Christology can be distilled from the Qu’ran, and on an intellectual level, that needs to be appreciated and examined independently of any Biblical Christology. Both the attributed sayings and deeds of Christ in Islam are interesting, often derivative, and rarely insulting to a Christian reader. In recent times, these passages have formed the basis of a new method of evangelization – that of presenting the excellence of Jesus to Muslims with scriptures from their own canon. One popularizer of this approach is Baptist missionary Kevin Greeson, who “uses the Quran to establish three main points: ’Isa, or Jesus, is holy; ’Isa has power over death; and ’Isa knows the way to heaven.” 10

But beyond the high view of Jesus in Islam is its steadfast refusal to see him as part of the Trinity. This is a genuine impasse that the majority of Muslims will not budge on, and Ayoub’s collection of Muslim essays from a broad range of Muslim theologians makes this clear. For that reason, perhaps the best we can do is agree to disagree, and approve what we can confirm about Jesus in our two texts.

Soteriology

Surprisingly, at the heart of the Islamic opposition to Christian soteriology, according to Ayoub, is the idea that it is unjust to allow an innocent man (Jesus) to die for guilty humanity – that is, that God would not do such an unjust thing.

How can we say that God had reconciled His justice with His mercy through the crucifixion of Christ when in reality this had nullified them both. For God allowed Jesus to suffer as a man without having committed any sin that merited this great punishment. God, therefore, cannot be both just and merciful if in attempting to reconcile the two, He loses them both….The claim of the people of the cross, therefore, that clemency and forgiveness are opposed to justice, is unacceptable. 11

This ethical objection to penal substitution arises even in Christian circles, and has given rise to the Christus Victor view. However, in my view, it shows a love that goes beyond the mere judicial assessment – a love that is beyond the comprehension of a very rules-based Islam. It is, of course, the willing transfer of guilt to Jesus that makes this a ‘mercy beyond justice.’

There is perhaps, another deeper reason why Muslims must reject the gospel of righteousness by grace through faith alone – because it invalidates their own works-based soteriology. With regard to dialog, I think it important to describe the gospel in terms of God’s great mercy and generosity, especially in forgiving the worst sinner without the need for slavish obedience in order to earn salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 is a strong statement of this grace, and in addition, when this gospel is finally understood, I would fully expect the Muslim to retort along the lines of Romans 6:1

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? (NLT)

Dhimmitude

Perhaps the biggest offense of Islam in the eyes of Christianity (and Judaism) is the idea and practice of dhimmitude, in which non-believers in Muslim lands are accorded a ‘protection’ by the Muslim government in exchange for a tax (the jizya) and the acceptance of a second-class citizenship which may not afford them the full set of legal rights in society. Here, Ayoub fails to fully address the inherent ethical duplicity and self-interest of the Muslim position. He makes a valiant effort to explain how the inequality of the practice of dhimmitude is a modern accretion, not part of the original concept. However, as with the euphemism of the ‘expeditions’ of Mohammed, he fails to acknowledge the unethical and immoral underlying doctrine and practice of conquering and subjugating lands for the sake of Allah.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that Mahmoud Ayoud has worked very hard to articulate a Muslim worldview that takes into consideration the concerns of Christians. In parts, he displays a very in-depth knowledge of Christian history and doctrine that would rival a Christian seminarian. He has attempted to criticize the extremists in his own camp, and has held back from overly criticizing Christianity and its historical abuses, or producing straw men with which to appear polemically triumphant. In fact, his explanations of the perception of colonization, evangelism, and debauched Western culture are all items which Christians ought to consider in their dialog with Muslims, if not in their own practice of faith.

However, without addressing the foundational issues of the Muslim doctrine and practice of expansionism by war, the overwhelming role of abrogation of violent surahs in modern Islam (though he does blame some of that on Shia Islam, since it values the later hadith), and what it means to be a Muslim follower of Isa, he has not gained as much ground as he could have.

Notes:

  1. Mahmoud Ayoub and Irfan A. Omar, A Muslim View of Christianity : Essays on Dialogue, Faith Meets Faith (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2007), 15.
  2. Paul F. Knitter, Towards a Protestant Theology of Religions : A Case Study of Paul Althaus and Contemporary Attitudes (Mit Deutscher Zusammenfassung ), Marburger Theologische Studien (Marburg: N. G. Elwert, 1974).
  3. Ayoub and Omar, 42.
  4. Ibid., 66.
  5. Ibid., 2.
  6. Joel Richardson, Mideast Beast : The Scriptural Case for an Islamic Antichrist (Washington, D.C. New York: WND Books ; distributed by Midpoint Trade Books, 2012).
  7. Mark Shaw, “Great White Father,” Christian History 1997.
  8. Ayoub and Omar, 22,27.
  9. Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions : The Case for the Crusades, 1st ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2009). Stark is known as a historical revisionist (perhaps in the best use of that phrase), and deconstructs in depth the modern Muslim perceptions of the Crusades, writing “Many critics of the Crusades would seem to suppose that after the Muslims had overrun a major portion of Christendom, they should have been ignored or forgiven; suggestions have been made about turning the other cheek. This outlook is certainly unrealistic and probably insincere. Not only had the Byzantines lost most of their empire; the enemy was at their gates. And the loss of Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy, as well as a host of Mediterranean islands, was bitterly resented in Europe. Hence, as British historian Derek Lomax (1933-1992) explained, ‘The popes, like most Christians, believed war against the Muslims to be justified partly because the latter had usurped by force lands which once belonged to Christians and partly because they abused the Christians over whom they ruled and such Christian lands as they could raid for slaves, plunder and the joys of destruction.’ It was time to strike back….The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions….current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth-century creation, prompted in part by ‘post-World War I British and French imperialism and post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.”
  10. Kevin Greeson, Camel Training Manual : The Secret of the Camel Is Out … Muslims Are Coming to Faith in ʻisa (Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, 2004).
  11. Ayoub and Omar, 175.