Islam and the Bible Side by Side
John C. Rankin (7 March, 2017)
The question of Islam dominates much in today’s political landscape, but I want to probe deeper, from a biblical, indeed, a proactive posture. This involves two realities: 1) an honest definition of terms, and 2) a level playing field for all ideas to be heard equally, serving a love of hard questions in all directions.
Here I am seeking to define historical Islam on its own terms, recognizing that in the West, there are Muslim scholars and leaders who embrace a “reform Islam” that pursues freedom, and I affirm their pursuit. But in order to understand why reform is an agenda, we need to start historically, and her, that includes eight side-by-side realities between Islam and the Bible:
- What is the nature of the Qur’an, and the nature of the Bible?
- Who is Allah and who is Yahweh Elohim?
- Who is Jesus in the Qur’an and in the Bible?
- How do Muhammad and Jesus compare between Islam and the Bible?
- What is the nature of politics in Islam and the Bible?
- What is jihad in Islam and holy war in the Bible?
- What is the nature and definition of peace in Islam and the Bible?
- What is the nature and definition of freedom in Islam and the Bible?
Let’s address each in turn:
First: The Qur’an is understood to be the pure word of Allah, delivered verbatim by the angel Jibril to Muhammad as the Messenger of Allah, in A.D. 610-632. Muhammad receives the 114 Suras or recitations, in his internal person with no other input or witnesses. It is later written down, and is hortatory (i.e., preaching) in nature. Muhammad’s life is not profiled in the Qur’an, but that comes later in the Sira and the Hadith, which are viewed as human not divine documents. The Qur’an refers to many biblical stories and persons, but never quotes the Bible itself, while claiming to supersede the Bible. Sura 1 sets up the whole Qur’an, and in it, the Day of Judgment already exists. The rest of the Qur’an is ordered essentially from the longest to the shortest sura.
The Hebrew Bible and New Testament equal the singular, true and universal storyline defined by the themes of creation, sin and redemption, introduced in Genesis 1-3. It is chronologically ordered overall from Genesis to Revelation, but with the widest range of literary genre and overlapping and complementary thematic sections along the way. It is written over a timetable of some 1500 years, rooted in a prior 2300 years of history, as it compiles the eyewitness accounts of thousands, then finally written down by multiple dozens, and redacted further to its present state – all within the checks and balances of the covenant community through whom the Holy Spirit works.
The Bible starts, in Genesis 1-2, with eleven positive assumptions concerning the nature of God, the heavenly court (i.e., the nature of angels), communication, human nature, human freedom, hard questions, human sexuality, science and the scientific method, verifiable history, covenantal law and unalienable rights. In fact, these assumptions set the foundation for the liberal arts and sciences in a university education.
Second: In Sura 1, Allah is called the “Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds.” Islam believes him to be the one true creator, yet the name and images of Allah can also be traced to a pre-Islamic male moon god within a larger pantheon, in Arabia and beyond, and for whom the crescent moon is the symbol. In the Qur’an, Allah is singular in terms of human number, he does not interact with people directly, and by this distance his greatness is defined.
Yahweh Elohim is the Creator named in Genesis 1-2 and rooted in the grammar of Exodus 3. In Genesis 1, which addresses the grand design of creation, Elohim is the masculine plural for El, but whenever he is referenced across the Hebrew Bible, it is always in the singular case. He is thus “the God who is greater than all the so-called gods,” meaning also that he is greater than the human concept of number. Yahweh is the covenantal name introduced in Genesis 2, the one who relates directly to Adam as Yahweh Elohim, and gives him the covenant of freedom. When Elohim appears to Moses in Exodus 3, he calls himself Ehyeh, which is in the first person and imperfect tense of the verb “to be,” which is to say, I AM (who always was, who is and who always will be). Moses is to call him Yahweh, which is the third person and imperfect tense of the verb “to be,” which is to say, HE IS. In other words, Yahweh Elohim, in his Name and essence, is greater than space, time and number.
Third; In the Qur’an, Jesus is said to be the last prophet before the arrival of Muhammad as the Messenger of Allah. He is said not to be the Son of God, and none of the references to, or stories about Jesus, quote any biblical material. In fact, at least two stories about him are drawn directly from some fifth century Gnostic writings that have no biblical foundation. In the Qur’an, Jesus is a miracle worker, and a human who did not die on the cross, but will come again to usher in Allah’s final rule.
In the Bible, Jesus is Yahweh Elohim incarnate, the Son of God and Son of Man. In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the language of “I am” thirty-one times, and most crucially in John 8:58, when he says to the religious elitists: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Thus, they sought to stone him for blasphemy, knowing he was calling himself Yahweh. The Greek term here for “I am” is ego eimi, as also found in the Septuagint, the fourth century B.C. translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It is exactly how Yahweh calls himself Ehyeh in Exodus 3, the ego eimi, the “I AM” who is greater than space, time and number. Thus, the incarnation, life, atonement on the cross, the resurrection, ascension and second coming of Jesus find their basis.
Fourth: In Islam, there is no biographical material on Muhammad in the Qur’an – this comes in the later Sunna, or traditions, of Muhammad’s life. The foundation of the Sunna is the Sira, or the life of Muhammad, and the most ancient, authoritative and extant Sira is that by Ibn Ishaq, written nearly one and a half centuries after Muhammad’s death. Ishaq, as a devout Muslim, does a superb job tracing back to the eye-witnesses of Muhammad’s life. The modern biographies of Muhammad, written for the western world, leave out or edit much of the brutal realities that are no problem for Ibn Ishaq,
Thus, a comparison between Ibn Ishaq and the four gospels can be quite controversial to “modern” sensibilities, but it represents historical Islam honestly on its own terms. We can make ten observations: 1) Muhammad is anti-Jewish; Jesus is the King of the Jews; 2) Muhammad fears the demonic; Jesus drives out demons; 3) Muhammad commends violence in the advance of Islam; Jesus refuses violence en route to the cross; 4) Muhammad eschews hard questions; Jesus embraces hard questions head-on; 5) Muhammad gets angry when mocked; Jesus forgives his mockers; 6) Muhammad only survives in the early Meccan period because of the religious freedom given to him by certain pagans, Jews and Christians, only later, himself, to deny religious freedom to all pagans, Jews and Christians; Jesus is denied religious freedom by his enemies, only to die to give them such freedom; 7) Muhammad calls his soldiers who die in battle, “martyrs,” while trying to kill their enemies; disciples of Jesus who are “martyrs” (Greek for “witnesses”) are those who are killed while seeking to love their enemies; 8) Muhammad endorses polygamy; Jesus honors marriage as one man, one woman, one lifetime; 9) Muhammad orders the assassinations of more than thirty of his enemies, rooted in a deep ethos of revenge, including two singing girls who made fun of him; Jesus dies for us so that all killings can be abolished, and where mercy triumphs over revenge; and 10) Muhammad bribes a number of pagan leaders to join Islam; Jesus tells his listeners to “count the cost” before choosing to follow him.
Fifth: The Qur’an and Muhammad expect the whole world one day to submit to the government of Islam (i.e., a caliphate under Shari’a law). One either does so as a Muslim, or as a second class dhimmi, which means Jews and Christians; pagans can only convert or be put to death. The word islam itself means “to submit” to Allah and his Messenger. From the origins of Islam, it has advanced its government by sword or intimidation. There are two domains in Islam: dar-al-islam, the “abode of Islam,” and dar al-harb, “the abode of war.” If people are not members of dar al-islam, they are part of dar al-harb, subject to conquest.
The Bible is deeply political from the beginning, but its politics never involve coercion of the human will. The kingdom of the heavens, or kingdom of God, only advances through the invitation to freedom, and its full establishment is when Jesus returns. For the first several centuries of the church, it was a suffering community that never raised the sword to advance the Gospel. This was reversed with the Constantinian church in the early fourth century A.D., where state power came to be used to enforce “orthodoxy,” thus persecuting “heretics,” Jews and pagans. It took at least 1400 years to begin to cleanse the church from this infidelity.
Sixth: Jihad is an Arabic word for “striving” or “struggle.” In the Qur’an and in Ibn Ishaq, it is almost always used in the military or pre-military sense against Jews, Christians and pagans. In such jihad, the Muslim soldiers keep 80 percent of the booty, giving Muhammad (or the caliph) 20 percent. Abu Bakr was the closest lieutenant to Muhammad, and he became the first caliph (“successor”) in Islam following Muhammad’s death. He said: “Allah sent Muhammad with his religion and he strove for it until men accepted it voluntarily or by force.” The word “strove” is rooted in the Arabic jihad.
Holy war in the Bible is when Yahweh Elohim commanded the destruction of pagan nations that were dedicated to false gods, literally demons, who sought the destruction of the Messianic lineage. Yahweh Elohim gave these peoples 400 years to repent of their sorceries, sacred prostitutions and child sacrifices before he had Israel judge them. Only Rahab repented, was thus able to save her family, and she also became a foremother to Jesus. In this one-time conquest of the Promised Land, all booty belonged to Yahweh as “holy,” and the Hebrew soldiers could take nothing for themselves. After the conquest of the Promised Land, holy war was only defensive in nature. With the coming of Jesus, he immediately starts driving out demons, and this is the only holy war for Christians, not against, but for all peoples and nations, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Seventh: The word for “peace” in Arabic is salaam, a cognate to the word islam, and it means the absence of conflict, and as such, peace happens only in submitting to Allah and his Messenger. As such, over the past century, Islam has advertised itself as “a religion of peace.”
Though salaam sounds similar to the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, there is no etymological, no written connection between them. The only connection is oral, as Arabic was not fully a written language until the Qur’an. The Hebrew shalom refers first to the idea of wholeness and integrity, out of which the idea of peace can then be realized. And Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.
Eighth: In the Qur’an there is no basic idea for freedom, apart from the “freedom from” in the manumission of slaves. But Surah 2:256 is often quoted here: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error.” However, there are also contextual questions as to the reference point for these words. Nonetheless, this is a double negative, a freedom from And as we have noted in Abu Bakr’s words, jihad is a means of forced conversion. Islam is historically a one-way religion – you may be born into it, convert by choice or be forced. Regardless, you may not leave Islam apart from the risk of death.
In the biblical order of creation, we have the only positive definition of human freedom in history, a proactive, a freedom for doing the good, and all the creativities that may involve. It is rooted in the first words of Yahweh Elohim to Adam in Genesis 2, using the metaphor of a banquet with an unlimited menu of good choices, and yet we are not forced to eat the good choices. The one choice of the poisonous fruit is also there, with the warning of its deathly danger. This is the level playing field to choose between good and evil, freedom and slavery, life and death. Yahweh Elohim provides Adam an honest definition of terms so that he can choose life.
With this definition of biblical freedom, we find basis to address the present immigration debate, or any other debate – to define terms honestly and without prejudice, and welcome hard questions. This is the basis to serve justice for Muslim persons, as for all peoples equally, to choose life and freedom.
Thus, Muslim persons should not be banned as Muslims, and likewise with any religion or ethnicity; but we should affirm the terms of our own biblical and constitutionally defined liberties. Thus, here is a proposed law for the U.S. Congress to consider:
All citizens, visitors and other persons living in the United States, or its territories, must affirm the following:
“I affirm that all persons living within the jurisdictions of the United States of America have full religious, political and economic liberty under the rule of law.
“I thus affirm that all such persons are free to change their religious, political and/or economic affiliations as they see fit, free from any forms of coercion.”
As the implications and outworking of this language are grasped, freedom lovers, regardless of religion, will embrace it; freedom haters, regardless of religion, will not.