A Brief Sketch of Some Current Trends in Christian Apologetics to Muslims

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Identifying the single representative weltanschauung for Islam ultimately proves to be difficult. There must certainly be some unifying presupposition (s) to which all Muslims adhere; but the parsing of perfunctory elements, no matter how salient they seem, from indispensable elements of Islamic orthodoxy will demand a narrowing of the scope of current apologetic efforts. As such, there is a general trend within Christian apologetics to try and reduce such perfunctory elements to absurdity. Unfortunately, an apologetic aimed at dispelling the errata of Islam’s obligatory customs proves unhelpful, either positively or negatively, in providing Christians with a tenable response to the fundamental claims of Islam.[1] Those fundamental claims, then, must be clearly articulated, fairly appraised, and systematically refuted where necessary.[2] Islam’s fundamental theological claims, and consequently the loci for Islam’s weltanschauung, all originate from the Five Pillars of Islam.[3]

The first pillar, the Great Confession or “Shahada” declares that, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”[4] According to Braswell, this assertion of monotheism and belief in Muhammad as the final prophet of Allah entails necessarily ancillary doctrines of angels, sacred texts (of which the Qur’an is the preeminent), judgment and an afterlife; it is the “basis of the belief system.”[5] Tim Winter provides important insight into the Islamic understanding of the Shahada and subsequent Islamic theology explaining that theology can only be recognized as Islamic, “to the extent that it may be traced back in some way to the prophet Muhammad and his distinctive vision of the One God.”[6] Consequently, there are other beliefs and theological reflections that contribute to Islamic weltanschauung, but only as they can be traced through the Qur’an to Muhammad via the proclamation of the Shahada.

The second pillar, prayer or “Salat” constitutes much of the liturgy and ceremonial conduct of worship in Islam.[7] In Islam, the place of adulation and personal exchange with God all takes place in daily prayers.[8] The third pillar, almsgiving or “Zakat,” is the discipline in which Muslims are called to serve and minister to their community through giving.[9] The fourth pillar, ritual fasting or “Saum,” calls for a period of abstinence from drinking, eating, and other sensual pleasures during the month of Ramadan. The fifth pillar, the pilgrimage or “Hajj,” obliges every faithful Muslim to visit Mecca.[10]

There is a clear proclamation on behalf of Islam that Muhammad was correcting the way in which Christianity corrupted the message God had given to the Jews.[11] As such, Muhammad and his successors saw the Qur’an as an effort by Allah to set the record straight regarding a “confessional world complicated by Christian disputes.”[12] Naturally, Christians are going to respond in like fashion. Albeit there are some similarities,[13] there are fundamental conflicts between Christians and Muslims. Whether there is distinction in the God-head, whether the Qur’an is a revelation from God and consistent with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and whether Muhammad is a prophet of God are all matters in need of serious attention.

Problematically, some Christian polemicists have abandoned addressing these fundamental claims, and they have resorted to unhelpful tactics. By way of example, Richard Cimino argues that Evangelical Christians, in particular, have pushed rhetoric about Islam to a polemically fevered pitch as a kind of nationalistic, fear mongering response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This ought to be received as a stinging criticism that is indicative of a willingness to focus on what are seen as devious practices within Islamic culture by Christians instead of making lucid arguments against their foundational claims.[14] According to Cimino, this is problematic because much of the positive, global-apologetic toward Muslims argued by polemicists like Ergun Caner centers on a characterization of Islam as dangerous, militant, and cultic.[15] However, this should all be tempered by Thomas Kidd’s research, which demonstrates plainly that such anti-Islamic polemics as Cimino describes were being leveled against Muslims by “Anglo-Americans” as early as 1697.[16]

So, while there is definitely an attempt to demonize the Islamic weltanschauung on the basis of mischaracterization, while there have been periods of interfaith dialogue initiated by Christians and spoiled by terrorists, and while there are clear examples of current Evangelical scholars focusing their apologetic efforts on ancillary issues within Islam, such behavior in no way belongs exclusively to the modern Evangelical movement. That particular characterization by Cimino is unwarranted. Nonetheless, Christian apologists should avoid being trapped by polemics preoccupied by what amount to “straw men” parading around as reductio ad absurdum arguments. There is sufficient dispute to be had with the foundational presuppositions of Islam to diminish the expediency of such distractions.

Perhaps the most direct conflicts between the truth claims of Christianity and Islam come from the Shahada. The Islamic understanding of the Great Confession places Muslim theology at odds with Christian theology regarding the Trinity, the juxtaposition of Jesus and Muhammad, and the message of the New Testament. Islamic thought on the tawhid, or “Oneness” of God, is extremely prohibitive of any notion that derived distinction within the person of God.[17] Muhammad revealed through the writing of the Qur’an that Jesus was indeed a prophet of Allah, but that he was not the Son of God, and was succeeded by Muhammad, the final prophet.[18] Finally, the Qur’an teaches that the divisions between Jews and Christians were the result of the revelation of God given to Jesus, the Injeel, being corrupted by the early church.[19]

What, then, should be the approach Christians use in positive apologetics to Muslims? A simple response is to use the truth of Scripture and the testimony of the Qur’an about Jesus and God. Surely, demonstrating how the doctrine of the Trinity maintains the tawhid of God within Islamic conceptualization will become an important element to bridging the gap between the two. Additionally, settling some of the theological issues that Muslim’s have with Trinitarian theology would necessarily affect their doctrinal concerns over Jesus and the Gospel account recorded in the New Testament. If the Trinity maintains tawhid, then the notion that Jesus is the Son of God is tenable, and there is no need to doubt the veracity of the New Testament accounts. Perhaps to Caner’s frustration and Geisler’s delight, John D.C. Anderson says, “I have never met a Muslim-background believer who regards the God he previously sought to worship as a wholly false god. Instead, he is filled with wonder and gratitude, that he has now been brought to know that God as he really is, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”[20]

[1] However, this claim ought not to be interpreted as saying there is no value in such critiques, only that they prove unhelpful in demonstrating that Muslim presuppositions are fundamentally flawed.

[2] Apologists should appreciate all the while, of course, that many scholars find a great deal of theological overlap within the monotheistic traditions, ultimately making the apologetic effort easier in many ways. See Michael Ipgrave, ed., Building a Better Bridge: Muslims, Christians, and the Common Good (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2008), which features articles by Rowan Williams and Timothy Winter; Hans Küng, Der Islam: Geschichte, Gegenwart, Zukunft (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2004); and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).

[3] See George W. Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 59; Ed Hindson, and Ergun Caner, eds., The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: Surveying the Evidence for the Truth of Christianity (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 279; and Keith E. Swartley, ed., Encountering the World of Islam (Atlanta: Authentic Media, 2005), 88.

[4] Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power, 59.

[5] Ibid., 60

[6] Tim Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 5.

[7] Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power, 60; Swartley, Encountering the World of Islam, 90.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Swartley, Encountering the World of Islam, 92.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Winter, The Cambridge Companion, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] In fact, there is remarkable continuity between the other four Pillars of Islam and the broader expression of Christian belief and practice as seen in the “catholic Church.” Swartley provides a helpful chart in demonstrating the biblical corollaries to the Pillars of Islam. See Swartley, Encountering the World of Islam, 94.

[14] Richard Cimino, “‘No God in Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11,” Review of Religious Research 47, no. 2 (December 2005): 162-74. Perhaps more immediately troublesome for students of Liberty Theological Seminary is the fact that Cimino singles out Ergun Caner’s Unveiling Islam as a polemic set out not only to demonize Islam, but also to “dispel the position of Geisler and Saleeb that Allah is the same God (Jehovah) that Christians and Jews worship.” See Cimino, “‘No God in Common,’” 166. Interestingly, Caner has included Geisler as a contributor in his Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics. While Caner must certainly be given the berth to respectfully disagree with even those he includes in his edited works, all of the articles concerning Islam in the Popular Encyclopedia are authored by Caner. It may all prove coincidental, but such a situation only helps to strengthen Cimino’s critique.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Thomas S. Kidd, “‘Is It Worse to Follow Mahomet than the Devil?’ Early American Uses of Islam,” Church History 72, no. 4 (December 2003): 773.

[17] Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power, 45; Swartley, Encountering the World of Islam, 135-137. Winter also makes an interesting point, “Its [monotheism] inbuilt paradoxes, which had already exercised divided Jews and Christians, ensured that most Muslim thinkers came to recognize the need for a formal discipline of argument and proof which could establish the proper sense of a scripture which turned out to be open to many different interpretations.” See Winter, The Cambridge Companion, 6.

[18] Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power, 278-284; Swartley, Encountering the World of Islam, 35-36.

[19] Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power, 249-252; Swartley, Encountering the World of Islam, 292-295.

[20]
John D.C. Anderson, “The Missionary Approach to Islam,” Missiology 4, no. 3 (1976), 295.

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17 Comments

  1. Interesting and timely post.

    Your last paragraph makes me wonder whether the main source of tension between Christianity and Islam is not different views of God but disagreement over Jesus and Muhammad. Agreement on which of these two is greater seems unlikely.

    Reply

  2. Great article as always Shawn. I think your continued reflections on Islam are deeply needed and your attempts avoid the anti-intellectual and anti-orthodox means of religious reconciliation popular in some unitarian expressions of Christianity is admirable and preferable.

    Josh,

    Perhaps, but I think that Jesus isn’t the only issue. It was Pentecost after all that “clinched” or realized how Trinitarian theology works in relation to the Church and the World, even if that knowledge is forever being worked out and remains unmastered.

    So the “Spirit” being worshiped and glorified with the Father and the Son seems to be just as problematic to Christian/Islamic dialogue as questions over whether Jesus was “divine” or not.

    Reply

  3. Tony,

    Thanks – I think there is a general consensus among sociologists and those who study comparative religion that there is substantial shared information between the monotheistic religions. Enough, I am convinced, that orthodox Christianity can be maintained without doing much damage to the traditions of the other two (of course, we wouldn’t be saying that if it came from the other perspectives). The thing that has puzzled me is this, we seem to have no problem making some appeal to the future in terms of Jewish rejection of Christ and the Trinity, but cannot think in the same terms regarding Islam.

    Josh,

    I think I can make a well-substantiated argument that the Trinity is the linchpin (have a look at some of my other posts on Islam). If Islam will accept the Trinity, then all of these other elements will fall “into line.”

    Reply

  4. Shawn,

    I wonder if you’ve done work on or reflected on the ambiguity within Christianity with relation to “law” and even holy Scripture compared to the Islamic view of the Quran.

    In very few circles within Christianity is Scripture viewed as a “plenary verbal” revelation – let alone hand delivered revelation – which seems to me to be the fundamental conviction of Islam with respect to the Quran.

    Connecting to this, do any branches in Islam have any conception of “Spirit” in “God?”

    Reply

  5. Tony,

    At this juncture, the conversation would enter into precisely the kind of literary and textual criticism that seems to muddy the waters in Christian discussions. The Hadith are a collection of teachings on the Qur’an by early Islamic authorities (think the Church Fathers), and are used in tandem with the Qur’an. In Sufi sects, there are tons of writings from Sufi leaders that are indispensible for mystical enlightenment. I believe I even posted one blog on the Islamic notion that the Qur’an shares some ontological connection to Allah – so, there is actually quite a bit of common ground in the way Muslims use the Qur’an and the way Christians use the New Testament

    From what I’ve read, I think that many modern Muslims are likely to fall back on dictation theories in much the same way that Christians fall back on inspiration in defending the veracity of truth claims. It is why rejecting the New Testament as a corrupted form of the Injeel is important.

    The Sufis believe in the pervasive spirit of God that many would probably view as a pantheistic construct, but really is the vehicle of mystical experience.

    Reply

  6. Right, our trinitarian doctrine is rejected by Muslims. I think what I am trying to get at is this: Christians confessed Jesus as Lord before developing the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged over time as Christians struggled to make sense of what they believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. If Muslims came to believe in Jesus more than Muhammad, then perhaps they too would come to find trinitarian doctrine sensible.

    Reply

  7. Josh,

    Let me offer my opinion from a different angle.

    First, I don’t disagree – if one worships Christ, one will invariably come to a Trinitarian theology.

    Second, the plausibility of this happening seems slim because of Islamic theology which reasons this way – /1/ Jesus is a prophet of Allah, but his message was corrupted, /2/ We know his message was corrupted, because Christians brought distinction into the being of God with the development of Trinitarian theology (in much the same way you have expressed), /3/ We know that the person of God has no distinction, because the Qur’an, delivered by the final prophet Muhammad, clearly teaches that Allah is One. /4/ in order to prevent this from happening again, we have placed strict rules about not worshiping the Prophets as God in place.

    Now, the truth of the matter is that while many Muslims will argue to this end – history proves a slightly different story. Muslim theology and practice developed in much the same way that Christianity did – getting Muslims to admit that is an entirely different story.

    Reply

  8. Josh,

    I’m not at all convinced of the “growth” from “low” (Jesus is Lord) christology to “high” (Johanine) christology scheme of many scholars.

    Reply

  9. Actually, I think the Christology of the NT is all “high.” My point was that the development of trinitarian doctrine was a necessity due in part to the early church’s “high” Christology.

    Reply

  10. St John of Damascus considered Islam a christian heresy akin to Arianism. As the last of the church fathers and also chief financial administrator in Umayyad Caliph’s court in Damascus, I think he had the handle on it. What’s interesting is that he was alive and speaks of the Quran at a time earlier then what Islam has as its final/standardized text.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591020832/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=486539851&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=9004034951&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=0K11PPT0BPZXM2ZJP5EK

    Sit an wait on a good deal for this one.

    http://www.amazon.com/John-Damascene-Tradition-Originality-Byzantine/dp/0199275270

    Reply

    1. Indeed quickbeam, I think that it is more fruitful in apologetics to point to the historical relation of Islam to Christianity and demonstrate its derivity than to discuss the finer points of Trinitarian theology.

      Reply

  11. Quick and Tony,

    I don’t disagree per se. However, something that has arisen (I am learning) in recent Christian apologetics (especially within evangelical circles), is to capitalize on the difference between “positive” and “negative” arguments for Christianity. The “positive” has essentially taken over what I had previously thought to be the realm of personal evangelism. The “negative” is what I had held to be the more traditional role of apologetics in answering criticisms and attacking other worldviews. This blog was posted with the “positive” apologetic in mind.

    So, having said that (if it was already clear, pardon me for being verbose), I believe I see the clear and obvious application of the Damascene position for “negative” apologetics – but how exactly does it fit into the positive?

    Reply

  12. Shawn,

    I think your correct in your assessment. St. John is not what I would call bring a positive apologetic to the topic. I was attempting to bring out that St. John, taken with a grain of salt, brings out the developmental stage of Islam. To understand Islam today IMO one means to know what is has been in the past which includes the positive and the negative. Whether one then brings a positive or negative slant to the discussion is up to the individual.

    Reply

  13. Quickbeam,

    I often struggle with the very issue you raise. So, allow me to offer a couple of more general thoughts.

    /1/ Apologetics seem to have become an en vogue branch of Christian exploration. Where the original apologists (as well as “classical” and “evidential” apologists of today) sought to defend the truth claims of Christianity as a means of supporting and encouraging believers under attack, there has now arisen (in disciplines like scientific, cult, or global apologetics) a desire to prove to people why they should convert. I see the value in one, but I am not sure about the other (Evangelicals may be taking it too far).

    /2/ I understand an outright rejection of the world’s pantheistic religions by Christianity, but I see Christianity’s relationship to Judaism and Islam as much more problematic. An outright dismissal of either seems to not appreciate the kinds of things you bring up. So, I guess I see other religious worldviews as “alien,” but I see the Abrahamic worldviews as dysfunctional cousins. Attacking an outsider always seems easier than attacking a family member.

    In relation to these two points, I think your references to St. John are spot-on and appropriate.

    Reply

  14. Shawn,

    Reference #2 -I agree that Islam is monotheistic. I have an issue with labeling Islam as Abrahamic however. Arabs are descendants from Ishmael son of Hagar the Egyptian is certainly Abrahamic, but what of the Berbers, the Persians and the Indonesians and Philippinoes?
    Their line doesn’t physically come through those lines. Indeed they would be insulted to be called Arab.
    So is it in only a spiritual sense they are from Abrahamic line, much as Christians would view that (but based on Abraham’s faith)? “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these very stones” (Mt 3:9). Faith and the works inspired by it constitute being children of God hence, children of Abraham. So in that sense I would agree.

    Both the North African Berbers and Persians were Christian before they were Muslim, so I don’t know how that fits in.

    On #1 I think Eph 4:14-15 applies as far as those within Christianity to utilize both positive and negative, since one assumes the outside influence is distorting the Gospel.

    As far as converts to Christianity goes I would think the positive commonality is better to start, but at some point one has to provided a reasonable justification to leave Islam for Christianity and that is most likely going to reflect negatively on Islam. Otherwise what would be the point in converting?

    Reply

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