Lent 2 Year C

Islam and Abraham

“On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” (Gen. 15. 18).  


There can be few people from almost four thousand years ago who have been as significant in the history of the world as Abraham.   The people of Israel trace their history back to and through him; and so as a result we Christians are able to do the same.   But Christians and Jews are not the only great faiths to be able to treat Abraham as one of our forefathers:   Muslims do so as well.   The line of Isaac, Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah,   is the line of the Jewish people:   the line of Ishmael, his son by his slave girl Hagar, is that of the Arabs – and thus of the people of the Muslim faith.   Abraham and Ishmael, therefore feature quite prominently in the Koran.  


It seems ironic, then, that three religions which have so often been in conflict in the course of their history all have a common ancestor:   Abraham, to whose descendants God promised – as we heard in this morning’s first reading – all the land between Egypt and the Euphrates river (now in Iraq).   But today I don’t want to dwell on historic conflicts;   I want to look at the present day.   Islam has come to the attention of people in the West perhaps more than ever before as a result of the atrocities of September 11 th 2001, and subsequently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Muslims have been increasingly vilified, and despite the insistence by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that the wars of the last two years were not wars against Islam, I suspect that there are considerable numbers of people who nevertheless associate Islam with terrorism.


My central question today, then, is this:   is Islam friend or foe to Christianity?   Are Muslims really our enemies – or can our common origins prevail over those things that keep us apart?   I will look first at three especially contentious aspects of Islam:   the doctrine of jihad; the role and treatment of women; and sharia law.   I will then set out some areas of common ground between Christians and Muslims, before highlighting certain crucial differences.


First – jihad.   For many people in the West, the notion of jihad – holy war – is enough to make us write off Islam completely.   How can a religion justify fanaticism in the name of God?   Is it not a cynical means of manipulating impressionable young people to sacrifice their lives without regard for the bloodshed which ensues?   The idea of ‘jihad’, however, is more complex than people in the West usually realise.   The root meaning of the word is actually to do with ‘striving’.    Mohammed said ‘the best jihad is by the one who strives against his own self for Allah, or God.   Such striving can be both peaceful and physical.   According to one Islamic writer , “ the meaning of jihad, as a 'holy war', is something which is totally foreign and not from Islam.” So there is a sense in which the term ‘jihad’ has deviated from its original core meaning.   That being said, Muslim belief does allow for wars, both defensive and offensive, which are fought on behalf of the weak and the oppressed.   This is not greatly different from the Christian doctrine of a ‘just war’, in that strict limits are set on what is permissible in such a jihad.   When fighting an unjust enemy, no matter how unjust they are, Islam forbids that their retreating forces be mutilated, tortured or slaughtered. The treacherous violation of treaties and carrying out assassinations after a cease fire, are also prohibited. The killing of women and children is forbidden; also the elderly, the sick, monks, worshippers and hired labourers should not be attacked.   Burning crops and vegetation, polluting waters and destroying homes, monasteries, churches and synagogues are also forbidden by the Koran. Especially significant is the Koran’s prohibition of suicide – even in the cause of jihad.  


So it is interesting to see that much of what is described as being done in the cause of jihad does not in fact reflect true Muslim beliefs.   Secondly, there are some interesting discrepancies between prevailing Western views of women in Islam and the views of Muslims themselves – and what is set out in the Koran.   According to the Koran, women and men are equal in their humanity; neither is superior to the other. Islam sees women and men as having different qualities, arising from their different natures; each is therefore more able than the other to carry out certain responsibilities.   Islam certainly does not forbid women from being educated.   In a marriage, the husband has a duty to provide materially for his family; the woman has a right to expect this, but as long as family circumstances permit it, she may also work outside the home.   A woman chooses her husband; she does not lose her name on becoming married.   The Koran – some 1,400 years ago – gave women the right to vote.   A woman’s dress – covering most of her body – is designed to be a protection against unwelcome male attention, and to keep society from an unhealthy obsession with sex.   So when we see women being badly treated in Muslim countries, we should not assume that this is a result of the Muslim faith, just as the behaviour of some supposedly Christian societies does not reflect the true nature of our own faith.


The third contentious area I want to mention – briefly – is that of the ‘sharia’ law.   This ancient Muslim legal system prescribe punishments which are extremely severe compared with what is the case under most Western law – there have been some very controversial cases in the news recently, such as the woman in Nigeria who was condemned to death by stoning for becoming pregnant outside marriage.   Some Muslims argue, however, that sharia law was intended for a society in which modern methods of imprisonment and rehabilitation were not available.   It was also used as an alternative to the spontaneous acts of revenge which might otherwise be directed towards a criminal (rather like the original purpose of the Jewish ‘eye for an eye’ principle, which was designed to limit punishment rather than make it excessively severe).   So the problem is really that sharia law should now be largely consigned to history – but that certain Muslim societies refuse to do this.


By considering these three areas of Islamic belief – jihad, the role of women, and sharia law – I have tried to show that Islam should not be rubbished just because of distortions and abuse by some people of its basic beliefs.   Indeed in its beliefs about the nature of God, Islam has much that it shares with Judaism and Christianity:

These are just a few of the areas of overlap between Islamic and Christian beliefs. However – and it is quite a big ‘however’ – there are some fundamental differences:
•  Muslims do not believe in the Trinity – God, for Muslims, is One and not Three-in-One.
•  In Islam Jesus is seen as a prophet, not the Son of God.   There was therefore, for Muslims, no once-and-for-all act of redemption by Christ.
•  Human beings, in Islam, are not seen as inherently sinful, but capable of both good and evil.  
•  There are of course many other areas in which our religious practices and beliefs differ, such as attitudes to music, images, and sacrifices.   Some of these are cultural and historical, some more fundamental.

I have tried today to dispel some of the myths about Islam which have taken root in western society.   I have reminded you of our common roots with those of the Islamic and Jewish faiths – if we go back to Abraham.   Also I have shown that there are some beliefs which we share, although the differences in our beliefs are quite deep.   But to return to my opening question:   is Islam friend or foe to Christianity?   We should certainly not be foes, and we should find ways of working together where possible – peacebuilding, international relief and development, medical care, economic co-operation, academic collaboration.   But we should also be inspired by the commitment to God which we see in devout Muslims – praying five times a day, fasting regularly, going on pilgrimage – and in all these things reflecting the core meaning of the very word ‘Islam’, which is submission to the will of God. For many people in Western society today, by contrast, Christianity has become little more than a blend of New Ageism and ‘being nice’. Can we Christians, then, rediscover the Christian message of God’s love, shown through his Son Jesus Christ, in a way that matches the devotion and commitment which is shown by so many Muslims?  


Muslims are not afraid of showing God to the godless – can we be as effective in bringing Christ to those who do not know him?

Islam - A Religion of Terror ?   Invitation to Islam , Issue 5, October 1998

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