Our pull-out series for 2021 is taken from Understanding Islam from a Christian Perspective, by Rosemary Sookhdeo, Barnabas Fund’s International Director of Finance.
The following excerpts from her popular and informative book give invaluable insights into areas where the religion of Islam, which was established 600 years after Christ, has borrowed from Christianity and explains the key theological differences between the two religions.
Theological Differences between Islam and Christianity
Some say that Christianity and Islam have much in common and that they are blood brothers. But on a close analysis the two religions are found to be poles apart; the divide between them is so great that it can never be bridged.
At the heart of the division is the person and work of Jesus Christ. The centre of the opposition between Islam and Christianity is the deity of Christ, His status as Son of God, His atoning death on the cross and His victorious resurrection from the dead. Muslims vehemently reject the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. Instead, they claim that Jesus was transported alive into heaven without passing through death. Thus, Islam denies and distorts the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.
Jesus to a Muslim is not the Son of God
Jesus, to a Muslim, is not the Son of God, but a mere man and a prophet of Allah like other prophets who preceded him. It is Muhammad, the final prophet, who has superseded the other prophets and even Jesus. On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews makes precisely the opposite claim and proclaims the finality of Jesus over every preceding prophet and revelation.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe”
Islam rejects Jesus as the Christ
Islam rejects Jesus as the Christ. The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word Christos, which means the “Anointed One”. It is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. The Old Testament prepares Israel and the world for the coming of the Messiah – the one who would be specially anointed by God and sent by God to save the world. Islam’s categorical repudiation of Jesus’ claim to be God’s Messiah is characterised as a lie in the First Letter of John.
“Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son”
(1 John 2:22).
Islam condemns the Trinity as polytheism
The very mention of Jesus as the Son of God presupposes the doctrine of the Trinity and the Trinitarian nature of God. Islam condemns the Trinity and calls it blasphemy. Conversely, Christianity holds the Trinity to be a central pillar of the Christian faith and those who have not accepted this have historically been known as heretics.
The Quran asserts that God is one in several places (e.g., suras 16:51, 44:8, 47:19, 112:1-4), and monotheism or tawhid is the foundational doctrine of Islam. Muslims assert that the doctrine of the Trinity compromises this monotheism and entails tritheism. They insist that Christians worship three gods and thus commit the unforgivable sin of shirk – polytheism or associating partners with God. Shirk is also the worst form of idolatry.
The verses in the Quran that address the doctrine of the Trinity
There are three main verses in the Quran directly addressing the doctrine of the Trinity. The verses come from suras 4 and 5.
Believe therefore in God and His Apostles, and say not, “Three”
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. The Messiah (himself) said: O Children of Israel, worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Lo! Whoso ascribeth partners unto Allah, for him Allah hath forbidden Paradise. His abode is the Fire … They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve
They misbelieve who say, “Verily God is the third of three.” … The Messiah, the son of Mary, is only a prophet … and his mother was a confessor, they both ate food
And when God shall say, “O Jesus son of Mary hast thou said unto mankind, ‘Take me and my mother as two Gods besides God?’”
From these verses, it is clear that Mary, rather than the Holy Spirit, is included as the third person of the Trinity. Either Muhammad received distorted information about the Trinity from heretical Christian sects, or he himself confused the identity of the persons in the Trinity. Muhammad mistakenly thought that Christians believed that God had a physical relationship with Mary that resulted in the birth of Jesus. The first Muslims therefore believed that the Trinity was comprised of father, mother and child: God the father, Mary the mother and their son Jesus. The Quran also makes it explicit that Christians are unbelievers who will be doomed to Hell for believing in the Trinity.
It is because Muhammad fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented the doctrine of the Trinity, that he taught that it was not possible for God to have a son.
Islam has a false understanding of the Trinity
Muhammad replaces the Holy Spirit with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and assumes that Christians worship Mary. In the process, he dilutes the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and renders it ambiguous.
When Muhammad was asked about the Spirit, he could not give a clear answer. The Quran describes Jesus as the “Spirit of God” breathed into Mary (sura 66:12). It claims “To Jesus the son of Mary we gave clear (signs) and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit” (sura 2:253). The Quran also goes on to say that God strengthens all believers with his spirit: “He has written faith in their hearts and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself” (sura 58:22). Islam fails to identify the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God as a Person of the Trinity.
The Bible does not mention the word “Trinity”
So how can Christians defend the notion of a Triune God? Although the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, the doctrine of One God in Three Persons is clear from many verses. All three Persons are called God in different places in the Bible. Examples are: Father in Galatians 1:1; Son in John 20:28; Spirit in Acts 5:3-4. All three Persons are mentioned close together on an equal basis in many places. For example, in Matthew 28:19 we are commanded to baptise in one Name but three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another example is “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2). It is interesting to note that God sometimes refers to Himself as “us” (e.g. Genesis 1:26).
In the fourth century, St Augustine of Hippo attempted to demonstrate that the fundamental logic of the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated in seven statements:
- The Father is God.
- The Son is God.
- The Holy Spirit is God.
- The Father is not the Son.
- The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
- There is only one God.
The Jewish creed affirms the oneness of God
The Jewish creed, the Shema, affirms the oneness of God. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians accept this creed and even recite it in the liturgical services of some Christian traditions. Indeed, the New Testament emphatically reiterates this Jewish Old Testament creed. When Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment, He quotes the Shema: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one’” (Mark 12:29). In his letter, James the brother of Jesus writes, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:19).
The early Christians were all originally monotheistic Jews. As they continued to worship the one God of Israel, they were faced with two historical events – the resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit. First, they were confronted with Jesus – His life, death and above all His resurrection. They recognised that there was something supremely divine about Jesus. Thomas the apostle fell at Jesus’ feet and confessed Him as “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The Gospel of John went back to the beginning and located Jesus as the Word who existed with God from the very beginning. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
The doctrine of the Trinity, which had already been articulated by the apostles, was established at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and ratified at the Council of Constantinople (381 AD). The doctrine of the Trinity completely debunks the simplistic and superficial assumption that the Triune Christian God is the same God as the Allah of Islam. Muslims would find such a theological equivalence deeply offensive.
Islam rejects the doctrine of original sin
The Bible presents us with bad news and good news. The bad news is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not sinners because we sin. Rather, we sin because we are sinners. Our innate propensity to sin comes from the “original sin” committed by our ancestors Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If there is no sin, there is no need for salvation and if we are not sinners, we do not need a Saviour.
In the Quran, Adam does not “fall” and Adam’s sin has no consequences for the “fall of mankind” (sura 2:36). Adam and his wife do sin in Paradise, but they confess their sin and God shows them the straight path (sura 2:37), since they sinned in a manner that they said of themselves, “We have been unjust to ourselves” (sura 7:23).65 Hence, because there is no “original sin”, there is no need for a Saviour since “no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another” (sura 39:7). When man forgets God’s commands, strays from them, or obeys the “whispers” of Satan, who is mankind’s “enemy” (sura 35:6), he commits a sinful act. “However, he is not basically lost as a result, nor is he fallen or separated from God. When he again remembers God’s commandments and takes refuge in God, he is in the position to again do good.”66
61 Sura 4:171 in George Sale (trans.), The Koran: commonly called the Alkoran of Mohammed. London: Frederick Warne and Co., nd., p. 72.
62 Sura 5:72-73 in Marmaduke Pickthall (trans.), The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. London: Everyman Publishers Plc, 1992, pp. 128-129.
63 Sura 5:77-79 in E H Palmer (trans.) The Qur’an: The Sacred Books of the East: Vol VI, Part I. 1880, repr. Delhi: Low Price Publications, 2006, p. 108.
64 Sura 5:116 in J M Rodwell (trans.), The Koran. 1909 repr. London: Everyman’s Library, 1968, p. 499.
65 Sura 7:23 in M H Shakir (trans.), Holy Qur’an. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., p. 138.
66 Thomas Schirrmacher, The Bible and the Koran. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018, p. 67.