The relationship between Islam and Christianity is definitely a 'live' issue, an issue of contemporary concern. It is an issue of concern in our world, given the ongoing problems in Iraq and Palestine and the controversial role played by our own government and the government of the USA in those parts. It is an issue of concern in this country, given the increase in asylum seekers and refugees who are of Islamic faith coming into this country. Also, in the last 20 years some 20,000 people born here in the UK have converted to Islam. It is an issue of concern for many of us on a personal level, the Muslim people we work with, live near, that our children perhaps go to school with.
As with all religions, but perhaps more acutely with Islam because of the national and international political issues, the pressure is on to downplay the differences between Islam and Christianity and emphasise the similarities, even to the point of saying along with President Bush, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. But before I start to show just some of why that is a false assumption I want to make a couple of things very clear. These differences between Christianity and Islam are never an excuse for political hatred. They are never a valid justification for war. Neither do they justify more stringent immigration control. None of those things are a valid way to apply these differences.
I'm going to answer this question under two headings, similarities and differences.
There are many similarities between Christianity and Islam, here are some of the main ones as far as I can tell.
Both say that there is One God.
And that God is sovereign, he rules history.
The existence of angels is another similarity.
Islam and Christianity both have prophets and prophecy (including many of the same characters Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Jesus).
Both believe in a Heaven and Hell and God's future judgment.
So, what's the difference, given all these things in common? After all, isn't 'Allah' just the Arabic word for 'High God'?
The main differences centre around Jesus.
Although Muslims believe in one God, as do Christians, they reject as heresy that this one God is three persons. For more detail on what Christians believe on this, see the slot we did on this a few weeks ago which is posted on our website. For now, let's suffice to say that Muslims reject the idea of God being three in one. Especially, the Qu'ran (main holy book of Islam) is strong on saying that Jesus isn't God;
'Isa (Jesus) was simply a created human being, and a slave of Allah'
Jesus is given great honour in the Qu-ran, his status as a prophet and as a miracle-worker, even as God's Christ is strongly affirmed. But he's not God. In contrast the Bible is adamant that far from being just a created being, that Jesus is God himself become a human being.
'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.'
John 1:1 and 14
Because Jesus is just a prophet, (albeit a great one) it is unthinkable to the teachings of Islam that a prophet of Allah could die a horrible shameful death like a crucifixion. So the Qu'ran actually goes so far as to claim that Jesus didn't die on the cross, Judas died in his place, God made him to look like Jesus as payback for his wicked betrayal of Jesus and the two were switched at the crucial time.
'…in reality he was not killed or crucified, and those who said he was crucified lied.'
In contrast, the early Christians were willing to stake their honour, face ridicule and shame, by declaring that Jesus was the messiah who was crucified, that he did die a shameful painful public humiliating death. So Paul can even boast that
'…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to Gentiles.'
1 Corinthians 1:23
Because they disagree over these two things there is a third fundamental disagreement between Islam and Christianity.
In Islam, the way someone gains God's approval and escapes his wrath on the final day of judgment is by 'falah', that is a word that means self-effort or positive achievement. Submit to God and follow all of his directives as found in the Qu'ran. Judgment day will involve some kind of weighing up of what we've done wrong and what we've done right. And even then entry into heaven is down to whether or not Allah decides to grant you mercy on the last day. This is diametrically opposed to Christianity. According to the Bible, no-one can ever be good enough to deserve God's favour, to win God's heaven, because from birth we are all pre-disposed to rejecting God and living our lives our own way. That's why it was necessary for God himself to shrink into a human body and die on a cross, dying the death we deserve.
The only way to escape judgment and rejection from God according to the Bible is for God himself to have taken the full force of that judgment for us, which is what Jesus' humiliating death on a cross was all about. What we need according to the Bible is not 'falah' but faith. To have faith in, to trust, to rely on Jesus and his death as our escape route. Those with faith in Jesus now can be sure that in the future God will welcome them into his heaven with wide open arms as if they deserved to be there as much as Jesus himself.
Ultimately then Islam and Christianity present two very different gods who may share some similarities but who have different identities and ultimately different standards. To pretend they are the same is patronising to both Muslims and Christians. Such smoothing over the cracks is also dangerous as it might well prevent people from engaging with the real issues, who is the God who is really there and how can I be in relationship with him?