Muslims consider Islam to be an extension of Christianity and Judaism, and as such dates back to the formative moments of Mesopotamian monotheistic religion. The systematic belief that separates it from its predecessors began as early as the expulsion of Ishmael, first son of Abraham the Biblical patriarch. Whereas Abraham’s son Isaac received the covenant and blessing of God, Muslim belief has it that it was Ishmael and his descendants that have received the word of God, whom they called Allah. When Abraham took Ishmael and his mother off to be separated, it was to Mecca that he took them. Later it was also to Mecca that Abraham returned to check on the status of his son, and where it is tradition that they built the Kaaba. This place, and Mecca itself, are now the holiest of places in the Muslim religion, as the Temple and Church of the Nativity would become holiest of places in Judaism and Christianity – though through Isaac and later Jesus, rather than Ishmael. This tradition and others form a chain of connections between Christianity and Islam.
As the Jews’ movement to Jerusalem and Jesus’ movement to Nazareth began the dogmatic beginnings of faith for their religions, Muslim faith did not fully develop until their figure, the Prophet Muhammad, moved; his wanderings took him from his birthplace of Mecca to Medina (an occasion called Hegira which marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar). It is from that location that subsequent followers of Muhammad called the caliphs began to spread the Islam world through conquest. This they accomplished more through the sword than through the spirit. Warfare not only provided the opportunity to take land, but did not scare the faithful as death would be rewarded by automatic entry to paradise. As a result Muslim countries spread throughout the whole of the Mediterranean and even into southwest Europe by 732. It was only through military defeat in France that the whole of Europe did not become part of the Islamic world.
Just prior to the invasion of Europe, the first schisms appeared in the religion. Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali was passed over for leadership and the conflict that followed saw Ali’s followers, upon his murder become the Shiite branch, which opposed the orthodox branch of Sunni. Open revolt was to come in 747 and a new family, the Abbasids took power. They moved the capital away from Damascus to Baghdad in the east which grew rapidly. The capital saw great Persian and Greek influence; arts, science and overall intellectual movement created a new form of renaissance. This spurt, though, did not prevent the breaking apart of the Empire.
Even as groups of Muslims separated their territories into independent caliphates, conservative Islam secured more and more control over the original areas of Ishmael and Muhammad’s lands, and by the 20th century, a large swath of land, from Asia Minor to the Middle East to North Africa was joined as one dogmatically, if not politically. This is where the main Islamic world stands today.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Islamic Faith
Islam has two main strengths which are undeniable. They buttress the religion against outsiders and encourage courage from within. The first of these is language. By and large, all followers of Islam speak, or are encouraged to learn, Arabic. This is not to say that there aren’t variations and dialects that differ, but it is a certain starting point. As a result, the traditions or Hadith, made up of Ahadis and Sunna are spoken in the same manner and meaning everywhere among the faithful. This built in orthodoxy bridges many of the differences the widespread peoples have, and offers common ground to return to and share. It contrasts, then, from Christianity which frequently runs into problems of unification due to linguistic turns. Further strengthening these social ties is the unassailable connection between religion and law.
The Quran is not only the holy book, but is law. Along with the Hadith it governs Islamic life. With such daily concentration on living the religious, faith in Allah is reinforced. Rather than reliance upon a lifetime to repent of sins, the Muslim is preoccupied with the knowledge that swift judgment comes daily to the world. Violations of the laws of Islam can result in censure, imprisonment and even death. Life, even moment to moment, is about belief in Allah and his Prophet Muhammad. This strengthens universally the believers and their faith. This zealous law and tradition keeping, ironically, is also the source of a great weakness.
Rigid, sometimes rabid orthodoxy leads to disagreement. As a point of law becomes contentious, it is human nature to fight against it. This has happened in Islam. Sects have sprung up, weakening the structure as a whole. Succession issues caused the primary split into Shiite and Sunni branches, representing legitimists and traditionalists. Further revisions have created the Wahhabis who rule Saudi Arabia and many more factions, some of them growing increasingly fundamentalist and less likely to reunify. This splintering effect is the most serious challenge and weakness of Islam, as it threatens to overwhelm the traditions that bind its followers together.
The Christian Approach.
Pursuant to the Great Commission, Christians must reach out to individuals, peoples and countries. Islam offers quite an opportunity. The very first thing a Christian needs to do is prepare properly. It is too easy to approach a Muslim with the attitude that pervades the West today that ‘these people’ are enemies of ours politically, socially and religiously. This sort of value prevents any conversation and all conversion. One must take advantage of the common ground that Islam and Christianity shares and start there. Even the Quran calls Christians by the respectful title ‘People of the Book’ and shares their history and origins. When a Christian returns this respect by shared story, a heart can be opened to friendship. This is the first step. What follows should be straightforward rationale. Sharing the story of the Old Testament, a story that will reverberate for the Muslim, will naturally lead to the point of digression – that of descendents from Isaac to the Christ. If a believer, witnessing to a Muslim, can patiently, and proudly, explain his belief that God’s word followed this path, and that Jesus is the Messiah as the result of God’s measured plan, the soul can be turned through the mind. Peaceful parley will yield the heart to God’s power.
The opposite approach, one full of protest and ignorance of shared histories will only serve to create new Crusaders and Mohammedans. There will be no exchange of hearts, no reaching out of souls. It will only reinforce the strengths that Islam possesses, and serve only to draw the believer back into his safety net of faith. The strong cultural bond between Muslim and his society will force the person to scream apostate at his would be messenger. A soul would be lost.
Christians must approach Muslims to share their faith in the one true God. Jesus Christ must become each person’s Messiah. In order to do this, the evangelist must be prepared – not only in his heart for God – but also in his mind and intellect. The Christian can follow up this paper’s background information and take the study even a bit further. I would suggest discovering even more of the details behind schisms of the Muslim church. In that way, similarities with Christianity will begin to abound and the conversation will grow quite naturally. Sharing the Gospel remains the pinnacle, however.
Approaching a follower of Islam is as simple as talking over shared relatives. Beginning with Old Testament stories and ancestry, and seeking to find common ground before diverging, the Christian will open the heart and prepare the listener for truth. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this religious worldview, the contemporary Christian can be armed with much more than the Crusader’s sword as he attempts to bring non-believers to Christ’s redemption. Ultimately, he will be much more successful than the Crusader, as well.