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Volume 2/Issue 1/February 2016

The Universal Questions Muslims Ask

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David W. Shenk is an author and teacher whose global engagements especially relate to faithful Christian witness and peacemaking among Muslims. He has invested many years in East Africa, Central Europe, and North America. His global interests have taken him into more than 100 countries. At present he serves as global consultant for Eastern Mennonite Missions.

EDITOR’S  PREFACE

Understanding between Christians and Muslims is of great importance in the global community. As a result of recent events in Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, France, Belgium, and the United States, there is fear and confusion. Christians who are interested in grasping why recent events have taken place, and how to understand Muslims, will need to look beyond the sound bites of the evening news or the internet, and consider this important subject more deeply. 


The relationship between Islam and Christianity deserves careful exploration from many angles. Christians should explore the text of the Qur’an and compare it with the Bible. Insight can also be gained by comparing specific beliefs of God, Messiah, salvation, Bible, and cross. These will undoubtedly provide clarity and show the significant differences between these two faith traditions.

Another means deserves to be explored as well. How does the average Christian relate to the average Muslim? How could the Christian begin to converse in a respectful manner with a Muslim about matters of faith?

It is from this perspective that the following article is written. Most Muslims have never spoken with a Christian about the gospel. Most Christians do not know what they will encounter even if they begin. This article provides five starting points for conversation. It is not intended to be a substantive theological exploration.[1] Some will inevitably want more depth. What follows comes from a man quite experienced in addressing Muslims on their terms. It is in this spirit that this article should be read.

The pastor in a largely Muslim village in Bangladesh told me that he had never conversed with the imam who led the Muslim community.

The pastor explained, “I am afraid of the Muslims. Furthermore, I do not know how to answer their questions.”

So I observed, “Recently you translated and published in Bengali a book of Muslim-Christian dialogue.[2] What if we passed the word on to the imam that we want to meet him and give him a book on Muslim-Christian dialogue? Might that open the door for conversation between you and the imam?”

That is what the pastor did. He sent an emissary to the imam, who responded by inviting us to come that afternoon to his madrassa (a Muslim training center). When we arrived, the madrassa was packed with teenage students who were memorizing the Qur’an. We were escorted into a large room. The students were dismissed from their classes.

Quite likely this was the first time in the history of that village that a pastor and an imam met together within the sanctuary of a Muslim madrassa. The getting-acquainted niceties were completely disarming as we greeted with the Arabic peace greeting: salaam aleikum. Somber excitement characterized the spirit of our gathering.

The imam and his teachers were delighted to receive gift copies of A Muslim and A Christian in Dialogue. This book is a dialogue between a Muslim, Badru Kateregga, and myself. We wrote the book in East Africa when Kateregga and I were teachers at the Kenyatta campus of the University of Nairobi.

The madrassa where we met was comprised of two buildings. One was the classroom and the other a spacious one-floor office for administration and teachers. Students stood around the outside and listened, but they could not participate. The windows were open and without glass so those closest to the window openings could hear best. Every window was filled with faces with eagerly listening ears. I suppose fifty faces crowded all space within those open windows.

It was when the gifts of books were presented that it happened, as it most often does. Our hosts had probing questions about the Christian faith. During the rest of the afternoon our precious time with these students and faculty focused on the five questions that Muslims ask Christians. These were not pre-planned questions. The questions did not flow in one, two order. But in the space of an hour we spoke, albeit briefly, into the five universal questions.

The faculty was not hostile and the questions were not accusatory questions. Rather they were questions rooted in curiosity and perplexity. They were the honest questions that Muslims ask Christians around the world wherever Muslims and Christians meet one another at the belief or theological level of interchange. One of the inhibitors of congenial relations is that Christians are often perplexed as to how to respond to these five questions. What are the questions?[3]

  • First, have you changed or corrupted the Bible? 
  • Second, what do you mean by saying that Jesus is the Son of God?
  • Third, what do you mean by Trinity?
  • Fourth, how could Jesus the Messiah be crucified?
  • Fifth, what do you think of Muhammad?

It is most unlikely that a Muslim will consider the Christian faith unless Christians take these questions seriously and respond in ways that a Muslim finds to be persuasive. That was evident in a recent conversation with the local imam in my home town. He said that for some time he had considered becoming a Christian, but then decided not to go in the Christian direction, because he did not get satisfactory answers to his questions. A participant in that meeting offered to meet regularly with the imam with the express commitment to responding to the questions.

That is what happened in the madrassa in Bangladesh. We had questions. So did the Muslims. A scripture that guided the response of the Christian team that afternoon was 1 Peter 3:15. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

There are other questions as well, but these five statements have occupied Christian/Muslim discourse from the very beginning of the Muslim movement. They never go away. These are the persistent questions Muslims bring to the tea table.

I will describe aspects of our conversations that afternoon in Bangladesh. Our responses might be helpful in other settings as well. I attempt to write in a manner that Muslims can understand. Within an hour each of the five questions had been posed by our hosts. Our hosts were not reaching for philosophical conjecture. Each question invited us to respond with clarity. We also responded being cognizant of the reasons for the questions. Our responses did not exhaust the possibilities. Nevertheless with remarkable focus we touched the key questions Muslims ask Christians.

The First Question: Has the Bible been changed or corrupted?

This first question was about the trustworthiness of the Bible. That question persists because Muslims are perplexed about differences between the Bible and the Qur’an. For example, when our family was serving in Somalia, a student asked for a Bible. The next day he returned to our home and placed the Bible on my desk as he exclaimed, “This is not scripture. It is, to the contrary, a history book. The Qur’an is not history. It is instruction. But I read Genesis last night, and it is clear the Bible is mostly history.”

The Bible as history is the primary reason Muslims around the world assume that the Bible, therefore, cannot be scripture. The Christian view of Scripture does not fit into the Muslim view.

There are other reasons as well for dismissing the Bible as changed and corrupted. The many translations of the Bible are quite troubling for a Muslim who believes the Qur’an is an exact copy of an original Arabic Qur’an in heaven. The Bible is not that kind of book. Another troubling reality is the contradictions between the Bible and the Qur’an. Noteworthy is the apparent denial of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Qur’an and the centrality of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel.

We responded to the imam’s question about the Bible by beginning with the Qur’an that does communicate great respect for the Bible. In fact the Qur’an specifically mentions the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel as being revealed scriptures. Both the Qur’an and the Bible assert that God will protect the scriptures God has revealed. We pointed out that the Bible is the account of God coming down to save us and reveal himself to us. That is why the Bible is history; it is the account of God acting in history as he calls forth people to believe in him and serve faithfully in his kingdom.

Accounts of our sinfulness are also part of the Bible. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers to write truthfully the accounts of human faithfulness to God as well as our sinfulness and rebellion.

The news that God loves us is so wonderful that everyone should have the opportunity to hear or read this good news in their own mother tongue. That is the reason that everywhere the church goes disciples of Jesus give high priority to translating the Bible into the languages of people around the world. These Bible translators rely on the scholars who study the original languages. The first part of the Bible was written in Hebrew and the second part was written in Greek. There are thousands of ancient manuscripts of the Bible. So we can say most confidently the Bible is the true and trustworthy Word of God.[4]

The Second Question: What do you mean by Son of God?

This question is rooted in a confusing assumption. The Bible was not available in Arabic at the time of Muhammad. So what Muhammad and the Muslims knew about Christians came mostly through the oral Christianized cultures on the fringes of Arabia. It appears that the oral Christian tradition was informed by the notion that Trinity means God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Son. This is polytheism, a notion that Muhammad strenuously opposed. In fact there was a shrine in the Meccan community dedicated to the three daughters of Allah. Opposing the daughters of Allah was a defining characteristic of the Muslim movement. The Qur’an condemns such idolatry.

Christians likewise condemn all forms of polytheism. In the Bangladeshi mosque, we indicated horror at all such polytheistic notions. However, we observed that Son of God is not a name given to Jesus the Messiah[5] by human kind. Rather the name Son of God is bestowed on Jesus by God himself. When the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary the coming birth of the Messiah, the angel declared, “He will be called the Son of God.[6]” Furthermore, twice in the ministry of Jesus the Messiah, God spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Beloved Son.” So we should take note. What does God mean when he addresses the Messiah as “My beloved Son?”

“Let us hear what the Gospel says about this.”

We looked at the Gospel of John where we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[7]

Muslims sometimes refer to Jesus the Messiah as Kalimatullah, meaning the Word of God. When Muslims refer to the Messiah as the Word, what they most likely mean is that Jesus the Messiah was created by the Word just as Adam was created through God’s almighty Word. However, in the Gospel we read, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and only who came from the Father full of grace and truth.”[8]

This means that Jesus the Messiah is the living Word of God who lives with us. God and his Word are one. God’s Word is his self revelation. So when we meet the Messiah we are meeting the one who is the full revelation of God. That is what the Gospel means when Jesus says, “When you have seen me you have seen the Father.”

Notice how Jesus refers to God as “Father.” The Messiah had a perfect relationship with God, the Father. When we believe in Jesus the Messiah, we experience fellowship, reconciliation and forgiveness. Believers are invited into the family of God. So all who believe become sons and daughters of God.

This means that there are at least two meanings to the name, “Son of God.” First Jesus the Messiah is the Word through whom God creates and sustains the universe. Second, Jesus the Messiah had a perfect relationship with God the Father, a relationship that all who believe will also experience in part. In Jesus the Messiah we can know God as loving heavenly Father. That is the reason Christians in prayer address God as our Father in heaven.

We have observed that there are some surprising names for Jesus in the Qur’an. For example, the Qur’an refers to Jesus as the Messiah. We might, therefore, assume that there is complete agreement between the Gospel witness concerning Jesus and the Qur’an. However, when we ask Muslims about the meaning of the name, Messiah, they will probably reply, “Messiah means that Jesus had a limited mission for a limited period of time only to the house of Israel.”[9] Jesus is the mystery figure of the Qur’an and Islamic piety. Although wonderful names are bestowed upon Jesus, nevertheless, Jesus in Islam is not Savior and Lord. Christian witness seeks to open doors into the mystery of Jesus the Messiah so that Muslims may also believe in the Messiah as revealed in the Bible.

The Third Question: What do you mean by Trinity?

When living in Nairobi a mosque was just across the street from our home. One Friday after the noon-day sermon, Lugman came rushing across the street and pounded on our front door as he called on me to open. When I opened he blurted out, “It must stop! We will not tolerate your preaching about three gods right here on our street.”

I responded, “I do not know what you are talking about. I am not preaching about three gods. What do you mean?”

“The Trinity,” he exploded!

In that brief and very emotional exchange Lugman was revealing a potentially deep fissure in Christian / Muslim relations. On the face of it, the rejection of God as Triune seems to be only a semantic misunderstanding. The Muslim assumption is that such references to God are really polytheistic bunk. Those misperceptions must be addressed. No Muslim would consider accepting a Christianity wherein god married a wife. All Muslims are repulsed at the thought of a trilogy of gods known as Yahweh the creator, the Virgin Mary as a mother goddess and a son who is their offspring. Such notions appalled the Muslims meeting us in the madrassa in Bangladesh. We had to confront the question with clarity. The pastor was forthright. He exclaimed, “We believe in one God only!”

However, even after the clutter of misunderstandings is addressed, the Triunity of God in Christian experience needs to be expressed. Although we cannot adequately explain the mystery of God as Trinity, we know God as Trinity for we experience God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in God as Trinity for we experience God as our Triune Savior. In Islam God never comes down to save us. God sends his will down, but God never lives and serves among us. God as Redeemer and Savior is not a Muslim understanding of God. Speaking of God as Trinity is our inadequate way of bearing witness to the reality that God is love.

Briefly and simply we shared with our hosts in the Bangladeshi madrassa, “Within God there is loving communion. God does not keep his love to himself. In fact, God so loves that he has come down to live among us and redeem us. It is in Jesus the Messiah that God has most clearly come down to save us. In his crucifixion and resurrection the Messiah offers all who believe the grace of love and forgiveness. Through the Holy Spirit Jesus the Messiah empowers all believers to participate in the loving, reconciling fellowship that is central to the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, to say that God is Trinity is to say God is love. God commissions all believers to extend the love of God around the world, even to our enemies.

Lugman was amazed; thereafter he addressed me as “Brother David.” In contrast, on another occasion a Muslim cleric responded to the accounts of God’s love by exclaiming, “It is impossible for God to love that much!”

We pled, “Let God be God. Do not put God in a box. Let God surprise you with the revelation of his great love for you, and for all humankind.”

In Islam God is so compassionate that he sends books of revelation down to us instructing us in regard to right belief and practice. In the Gospel we meet God who comes down personally to seek the lost and redeem and forgive. How much does God love? That was a central concern in our discussion in the Bangladeshi mosque.

Physical analogies of God as Trinity are not adequate. For example, some will explain that Trinity is like water: liquid, steam, and ice. Such an analogy communicates nothing of the essence of our Triune God, who is love. I prefer staying with Biblical language. It is significant that the Qur’an does refer to the Messiah as the Word of God and to the Holy Spirit. Christians bear witness that God is creator; he is the eternal Word; he is the Holy Spirit with us now. It is impossible to separate God from the Word or God from his Spirit. The Creator, the Word, the Spirit must be one! The essence of God as Trinity is the good Shepherd who cares for and seeks the lost sheep. We proclaim the good news, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” That message is what we shared in the mosque in Bangladesh when that congregation of Muslims invited us to explain the meaning of the Trinity.

The Fourth Question: How could the Messiah be Crucified?

The discussion about the crucifixion of Jesus in the Bangladeshi madrassa is grounded in the core question: how much mercy is characteristic of God? The question about the crucifixion of the Messiah brought back a memory of my first visit to Bangladesh some thirty years earlier. I was invited into a circle of Bangladeshi farmers. Night had fallen. A pressure lamp provided a modicum of light.

After getting acquainted, I asked, “Do you have any questions to ask me, as a Christian?”

“Yes,” they said. “Do you believe that the Messiah was crucified?”

I responded, “Yes, I believe the Messiah was crucified.”

Their unanimous response was, “How can that be? The Messiah is anointed with the power of God. It is impossible that he would suffer crucifixion. The Messiah is never affected by us. The power of God would guarantee that the Messiah must escape suffering.”

This objection to the cross within Islam is rooted in the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an asserts that God sent an illusion so that people thought Jesus was crucified, but in reality he was rescued from such a fate.[10] However, there is an alternative verse wherein Jesus is blessed the day he dies and the day he is resurrected.[11]

Wistfully some Christians look at these verses and suggest the possibility of opening the door of the Qur’an to accept the crucifixion of Jesus.

On one occasion I ventured that possibility with several Muslim theologians, “As I see it, the Qur’an does not shut the door on the possibility of crucifixion for the Messiah.”

Their immediate and unanimous response was that although a crucified Messiah might be possible exegetically, theologically, “Never.”

These sophisticated Muslim theologians presented the same objections that the village farmers had ventured sitting around the pressure lantern many years earlier. The theologians said, “Crucifixion is impossible, for the Messiah is anointed with the glory of God, and the glory of God can never suffer.”

The objection to the crucifixion is a theology that was born within the soul of the Muslim community at the time Muhammad and his followers fled from Mecca to go to the safety of Medina. Subsequently the Muslim forces were successful in their wars against the polytheists. Muslim theology was profoundly formed by the reality of victory over the enemies of the Muslims. The flight from Mecca to Medina is so significant in Muslim identity that this event has become the beginning of the Muslim era. Not the birth of Muhammad; not the beginning of revelations; rather the era begins with the flight from suffering to victory over enemies in the fields of battle.

There is little or no space in Islam for a suffering savior. That is what we talked about at the madrassa in Bangladesh that day. We shared that the cross is not defeat, for God raised the Messiah from the dead; that is the confirmation that the Messiah and his kingdom will endure forever.

It is helpful to link discussions about the cross to Abraham. He is significant for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Every year when Muslims take the annual pilgrimage to Mecca they offer tens of thousands of animals as a sacrifice remembering that God rescued a son of Abraham from death by providing, “a tremendous substitutionary sacrifice.”[12] Christians believe there are several significant dimensions of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. The substitutionary sacrifice that saved a son of Abraham from death is a sign pointing to one of those dimensions; that is the substitutionary atonement. This is to say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken our place. The outstretched hands and arms of Jesus crucified are the arms of God inviting us to come to him to receive forgiveness and reconciliation.

A friend who was formerly Muslim often described the careful preparation for the feast of sacrifice in their home in central Somalia. A year before the sacrifice, his father would select two lambs, each a year old. They were the best from the flock. When the feast finally arrived, the family would select the best of the two lambs that had been set aside. The best lamb was sacrificed. Then his father would take the blood and dab the blood on the door post and lintel. In special ways the family would seek forgiveness of their sins. After the sacrifice and feast were concluded, the family would choose two perfect lambs for the sacrifice the next year.

In commending Christ to Muslims, the Muslim feast of sacrifice is a persuasive sign of the meaning and necessity of the cross of Jesus the Messiah. Muslims believe there is a balance scale. The wrong we do goes on one side of the scale, the good on the other. But none can know whether the good deeds are adequate to justify him or her. The final judgment will ultimately reveal the status of each person. In contrast, within the feast of sacrifice we meet a sign pointing to Jesus who is the Lamb of God.[13] He has taken our place. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God who is the fulfillment of all the animals given in sacrifice at the annual pilgrimage. In fact, he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and especially of those who believe! This is the reason that Christians bear witness that their sins are forgiven. The balance scales is gone, for Jesus, the Lamb of God, is our substitutionary sacrifice. This is the reason Christians bear witness, “Our sins are forgiven!”

Fifth, what do you think of Muhammad?

We had indeed participated in a most fruitful afternoon of searching questions. The gist of our conversation is woven into the responses I have described, with some editorializing. The conversation was respectful and probing. The students’ faces filled the windows as they listened pensively. Never before had they heard Christians responding to the great questions. We were ready to leave. Tea had been served. The imam and pastor were committing to meet again from time to time. Then just as we were about to shake hands, the imam turned to me and said, “What do you think of Muhammad?”

The pastor turned to me and observed, “The imam has requested your response to that question.”

I thanked the imam for the question, for it is a good and important question.

Then I observed, “Muhammad did much good. In his lifetime polytheism was eradicated in Arabia, as the whole region turned away from polytheism to worship only the one true God who is the almighty creator of the heavens and the earth. Injustices, such as female infanticide, were abandoned. I appreciate Muhammad’s struggle for a more just society.

“Let me add that, as we study the writings of the prophets that are contained in the Bible, I learn that, beginning with Adam, God promised a Savior, who would bring salvation to all nations. God promised that the Messiah, who is the promised Savior, will bring this transformation to pass. The prophets proclaimed that the Messiah is the center of all truth and that in him there is forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

“So the basic question for me is whether Muhammad and the Muslims are proclaiming that the Messiah is the Savior of the world. Or does Muhammad take us in a different direction? As for me I have found full salvation in Jesus the Messiah. He is the one to whom I am committed. I began to follow the Messiah already when I was a child, and I shall follow him all the remaining days of my life. In fact, even after death comes my way, I shall serve the Messiah who is my Savior.

“Thanks for your very important question!”

Concluding Comment

The imam and the madrassa students shook hands all around, and implored the pastor to visit the imam and his students again. The obvious unstated reason for meeting again was to continue the conversations that began that afternoon! We entrust to the Holy Spirit the mission of revealing the Gospel; our calling that day was simply to bear witness by responding to each of the five great questions.

These questions take us into the heart of the Gospel and the nature of the Christian faith. The questions Muslims bring to the table push Christians to be careful theologians. The five universal questions we have explored open the door to understand more fully the Muslim perplexity or objection in regard to the nature of the gospel.

The Muslim movement has turned away from the center of the Christian faith; exploring their questions may open the door for fruitful discourse on themes such as the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. We give thanks when the Muslim questions open the door for a retrieval of what has been lost as the Muslim movement turned away the Messiah of the biblical scriptures. We are grateful wherever the door opens for Muslim and Christian conversation in regard to the five questions that come our way again and again.

An important aspect of retrieval is to hear and respond to the Muslim quest to bring every area of life under the authority of God. What shape does the will of God take? Most Muslims would say the shape of God’s will is the Qur’an and the way of their prophet. The Christian will confess that Jesus the Messiah is the full revelation of the essence of the kingdom of God. The five questions we have explored push both Muslims and Christians to explore the essence of the kingdom of God wherein God’s will comes on earth as it is in heaven.

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 [1] A more detailed examination of the theological matters can be found in David Shenk’s Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, the Mission of two Communities  (Kitchener: Herald, 2013).

 [2] Badru D. Kateregga and David W. Shenk, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue  (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2011).

 [3] For a more thorough description and response to the five questions see chapter 7 in my book, Christian . Muslim. Friend. Twelve Paths to Real Relationship  (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2014).

 [4] 1 Timothy 3:16

 [5] The Qur’an has several names for Jesus, as well as comments in regard to his mission.According to the Qur’an the following are true about Jesus the Messiah.

•  Messiah (3:45)

•  Good News (3:45)

•  Born of a virgin (19:16–35)

•  The Word of God (4:171)

•  The Spirit of God (4:41)

•  Miracle Worker (3:49)

•  The sinless one (19:19).

•  Established the former Scriptures (5:49)

•  Brought the Gospel (5:49)

•  Predicted the coming of Muhammad (61:6)

•  Not the Son of God (9:30)

•  Limited mission (13:38)

•  A sign for all nations (21:91)

•  Rescued from death on the cross (4:157)

•  Taken to heaven without dying (3:55–58)

•  Returning at the end of history to get the world ready for the final judgment (43:61)

[6] Luke 1:36

[7] John 1:1

[8] John 1:14

[9] Qur’an: (The Thunder): 13:38.

[10] Quran: (the Women) 4:157

[11] Qur’an: (the Family of Imran) 3:55–58

[12] Qur’an: (Those Ranged in Ranks) 37:107

[13] Hebrews 11:9–15; John 1:29

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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