One factor that has influenced the course of history is how Muslims and Christians perceive each other's religions. Most Muslims and Christians hold distorted beliefs of the other's beliefs, as literature in the field amply demonstrates. This article on basic doctrinal differences between the two religions is not meant to be a scholarly discussion or be polemical. Rather, it seeks to give clear answers to several questions a Christian might have about Islam. For a detailed discussion of specific topics, readers can consult the references at the end of the article.
Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have much in common. For example, they are monotheistic and have their roots in the Abrahamic tradition. Islam is closer to Christianity, for Muslims recognize Christianity as being based upon Divine Revelation, whereas Jews do not accord this status to either religion. Ironically, while Jesus is the common link between Islam and Christianity, nearly all doctrinal differences between the two religions center around his nature. Therefore, we shall start with this topic.
What Do Muslims Think about Jesus?
Reputable scholars of Christianity continue to portray Islam and Muslims as enemies of Jesus. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is often a surprising experience for Christians to learn that Muslims hold a deep love and respect for Jesus and Mary. In fact, a Muslim cannot be considered a true believer if he or she rejects Jesus (Qur'an, 2:136). One of Qur'an's chapters is named Mary (Surat Maryam). The Qur'an praises Jesus and his family, and Muslims consider Jesus one of the five great Prophets, among hundreds of thousands of others.(1) In an authentic Tradition, Prophet Muhammad says: I am the nearest of all people to Jesus, son of Mary, in this life and the Hereafter.(2)
The Qur'an acknowledges the virgin birth (19:18-24), reports the miracles Jesus performed by God's will (5:110), and praises his sincere followers not only at his time but also at the time of Prophet Muhammad. We give two examples below:
Behold! the angels said: Mary, Allah gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter, and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah. (3:45)
In their wake, We followed them up with (others of) Our messengers: We sent after them Jesus, son of Mary, bestowed on him the Gospel, and ordained in the hearts of his followers Compassion and Mercy. But the monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them. (We commanded) only the seeking for the Good Pleasure of Allah, but that they did not foster as they should have done. Yet We bestowed on those among them who believed their (due) reward. But many of them are rebellious transgressors. (57:27)
At the root of all doctrinal differences lies the perspective on God and the relationship between God and humanity. The Qur'an leaves no room for subjective interpretation, for God is as He describes Himself: eternal and infinite, with absolute knowledge of everything, and able to do anything. We cannot imagine any form for Him, or define Him in any limited fashion.
Based on this, any anthropomorphic characterization of God or assignation to Him of any shortcomings or partners contradicts what Islam teaches.
Jesus As a Prophet
Muslims believe that Jesus was a genuine Prophet sent by God for the Jews.3 God created Jesus without a temporal father (4:171). But this does not make Jesus the son of God. Rather, it is a sign of God's ultimate power. If such a birth made one a son of God, clearly Adam deserved it more, since he was created without a father or a mother.
The Qur'an relates that Jesus performed miracles. This does not make him a son of God, for all the religious texts report that other Prophets performed miracles. Muslims believe that if Jesus ever used the phrase son of God, he did so metaphorically, as is explicit in several places in Gospels.4 Consequently, Muslims do not believe that God sacrificed His only son so that humanity would be forgiven.
What Do Muslims Think of the Trinity?
In its simplest terms, the Trinity means that God is the union of three divine persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Christian Church accepts this as a divine mystery that cannot be fully comprehended. Muslims acknowledge that a lack of knowledge on something's nature does not imply its non-existence. For example, they believe in angels, God, and Heaven and Hell, yet know little or nothing about such things' nature. However, the Trinity is not one of those concepts.
First of all, the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions reject the existence of any deities other than God. Sometimes the Trinity is explicitly mentioned, as in:
O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (only) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him. Believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not: Trinity. Desist, it will be better for you, for Allah is One. Glory be to Him, (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the Heavens and on the Earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs. (4:171)
They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity, for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. (5:73)
Some Christians say that they do not worship three gods, that Christianity is monotheistic, and that people who say they are worshiping three gods do not understand the Trinity. However, Muslims feels that even if they do not understand the Trinity (but how many Christians understand it, assuming it is a divine mystery?), it is clear to them that God, speaking in the Qur'an, understands it and rejects it for reasons discussed above.
If there were several gods, none of them could be omnipotent, which contradicts the Islamic concept of God. Those who live on the Earth cannot be accepted as God, for they have needs: food, sleep, fulfillment of desires, and so on. In the Qur'an, God invites humanity to reflect upon the universe and thereby realize that God has no needs. The harmony and perfection of creation is enough evidence for His power and oneness. In fact, one can ask the following questions: Where is the evidence of the Trinity? If the concept of Trinity were so crucial to faith, why do the four canonical Gospels not refer to it? Why did Jesus not explicitly detail this issue in his teachings? Such questions make the Muslims doubt its veracity.
Do Muslims Believe in Earlier Scriptures?
Muslims are required to believe in all Prophets sent by God, and all Scriptures revealed to them in their originally revealed form (2:136).
The phrase in their originally revealed form is critical, for if it is ignored the Islamic viewpoint might be misinterpreted. Muslims believe that essentials of pure faith do not change, although laws that Prophets are sent with might be subject to change.5 Thus statements in earlier Scriptures that are at variance with Islam indicate human interference in those scriptures. The Qur'an refers to the Gospel of Jesus and Torah of Moses, but those are believed to be different from the Gospels and Torah as we now know them. This does not mean that Muslims reject the current Scriptures altogether; rather, Muslims use the Qur'an and the authentic Prophetic Traditions as criteria to see what is correct in other religious texts.
How Do Muslims Know That the Qur'an Has Not Been Altered?
The Qur'an was written and preserved immediately after it was revealed. The pieces were assembled shortly after the Prophet's death, and with incredible sensitivity on the collectors' part, and checked against by those who had memorized it fully. This careful process resulted in the Qur'an that eventually belonged to Caliph Uthman, who died 34 years after the Prophet, and which is preserved in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace. There is no difference between it and the Qur'an that Muslims read today. There is no other version of the Qur'an in existence. If anyone can find such a thing, we would be interested in seeing it.
Do Muslims Believe in the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is mentioned in several Qur'anic verses.6 However, this does not refer to the Christian idea of Holy Spirit, but rather to the Angel Gabriel.
Will Christians Go to Hell?
Although this is a frequently asked question, it is hard to find a satisfactory answer. The reason is twofold. No one, not even the Prophet, can say that someone is going to Hell or Heaven unless God informs him on the issue. Also, there is a difference of opinion among Muslim scholars. The opinion we present here is the one that most fits the Qur'an and the essence of Islam.
People who are exposed to pure faith in an undistorted way, have a fairly good idea that it may well be true but do not search further and reject it out of arrogance or stubbornness, and then die in such a state will go to Hell. Those who have pure faith or are ignorant (i.e., they have not been exposed to pure belief) and have no practical means to search for more knowledge eventually will go to Heaven. These two groups are outlined fairly well in the Qur'an. As for those in the middle, meaning most believers in other faiths or in no faith at all, Muslims are told to leave the judgment to God, Who will judge them according to their specific conditions and render a final and absolutely just decision.
What about Original Sin and Salvation?
One fundamental disagreement between Islam and Christianity is Adams original sin. Christianity declares that Adam sinned by disobeying Gods order and that this sin is inherited by all of Adams children. In other words, humanity is born sinful, as everyone is a child of Adam. Gods justice requires a price to be paid for every sin, and only the shedding of blood can wipe out this sin. Since the original sin was infinite in nature, an infinite recompense was necessary. For this reason, God allowed Jesus Christ, His son, to have his holy, sinless blood shed. His suffering and dying on the Cross paid for humanity's sins. Only those who accept Jesus Christ as their redeemer can be saved in the Hereafter. According to Islam, Adam and Eve were created and put into the Garden. After this, God told them to enjoy the Garden but not to eat a certain fruit. Satan deceived them, and they disobeyed God by eating the fruit. As a result, God ordered them to leave the Garden and descend to the Earth, where they and their children would live and die (7:24-25). In the Quranic perspective, both Adam and Eve share this sin. Islam does not recognize Original Sin or the need for a savior to redeem an inherently sinful humanity. It regards children as pure and sinless at birth, says that sin is not inherited, and that no one is responsible for someone else's sin (53:38). God is just and holds every person responsible for what they do. Even after people sin, God forgives those who sincerely turn to Him and seek forgiveness. Thus He did not curse Adam or Eve, for they sincerely sought”and received”forgiveness from God.
Was Jesus Crucified?
The crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ represent the heart of Christianity. Everything a Christian believes in and hopes for is based on Jesus death on the Cross for unworthy sinners. His resurrection is the Divine vindication of the fact that Jesus did not die for any crime he had committed, but died in the place of sinners needing redemption and justification before an infinitely holy and just God. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-19; Romans 4:25, 5:8-11) Islam rejects these events, for the Quran gives very direct and clear information about what happened to Jesus: That they said (in boast), We killed Christ Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah; but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them. Those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow. They killed him not. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (4:157-58) Some Muslim scholars think that Quran 4:159 refers to Jesus return before the Day of Judgment. This belief is supported by several authentic Traditions. Thus, although Christians and Muslims disagree on Jesus mission, they agree that he will return before the Day of Judgment.
Dealing with the Differences
Faced with many things in common and serious doctrinal differences, how do Christians and Muslims deal with those differences? The Quran commands Muslims to avoid counterproductive debate and, whenever a controversial topic arises, to discuss it according to the highest ethics of civilized debate: And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our Allah and your Allah is One, and to Him do we submit (29:46). Though it would be naive to assume that Christians and Muslims do not disagree on certain issues, it would be equally foolish to portray their relationship with each other as composed of conflict. Is there any religion whose followers have no form of virtue? Clearly there is not. And, especially in the case of Christianity and Islam, both parties have a lot to learn from each other. Christian civilization was built upon an Islamic heritage, yet even most respectable Christian scholars are unwilling to admit this freely. This is also true of those Muslims who wanted to stay away from Christian civilization, because the Christians have gone astray. Thanks to advances in mass communication, Christians and Muslims now realize that the other was not that bad. Shortly, we will realize that the other is not so different from us, hence not bad at all. Today, thanks to the Internet, we can increase our knowledge of the other rather easily. For example, the entire Quran can be read online at http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/Quran/, while the Bible can be read online at http://bible. gospelcom.net/. To reach this point, Christians and Muslims living in Americas democratic and highly heterogeneous society have a tremendous responsibility to serve as role models for people in less tolerant and more prejudicial countries, where the vision of the other remains entrenched. We have to carry out this task in the most efficient way, by continuously seeking for opportunities to learn about each other. Even if we can afford to live without getting to know the other, our children cannot
- Bukhari, Prophets, 652. See http://db.islam.org:81/ hadith/ssearch.htm. The other great Prophets are Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Muhammad.
- Ibid. The authentic Traditions of Prophet Muhammad represent the second source of religion, immediately after the Quran.
- The Gospels also state that Jesus was sent for the Jews: For example: He answered, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24).
- For example: Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12); ...and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one (John 11:52).
- That is, believing in a monotheistic God, His Prophets, the Scriptures revealed to them, His Angels, the Hereafter, and that both good and evil are decreed by God.
- For example: We gave Moses the book and followed him up with a succession of Messengers. We gave Jesus son of Mary clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit (2:87).