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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What does the religion teach about people who follow other faiths?

by John Kaltner

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the Abrahamic religions because they all trace their origins back to the patriarch Abraham. Islam calls attention to that common family ancestry and acknowledges the connections that exist among the three faiths.

Qur’an 3:84 recounts what Muhammad is told to teach his followers about the prophets who came before him. “We believe in God, what has been revealed to us, what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We do not make a distinction among any of them, and to God we submit.” Muslims are required to respect all of the prophets equally and to consider each one a legitimate recipient of God’s revelation.

Islam acknowledges the validity of the other two monotheistic religions, but it also maintains they suffer from some shortcomings. According to the Muslim understanding of revelation, the followers of the prior prophets distorted the message and did not record it in the form in which it was given to them. In other words, the Bible does not accurately relate the content of the revelation received by Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets. This necessitated the sending of a final prophet—Muhammad— whose people preserved the message intact in the Qur’an. He is called the “seal of the prophets” (33:40) because the prophetic line comes to an end with him.

Islam’s relationship with Judaism and Christianity is therefore a complicated and ambiguous one. It considers them to be co-recipients of God’s word through the prophets, and yet it maintains that only it has perfectly communicated that word to the world. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims believe they have a special covenant with God. They claim their faith supersedes the earlier religions in a way similar to how some Christians view Christianity’s relationship with Judaism. In short, with the coming of Islam, the other monotheistic faiths were rendered obsolete and unnecessary. This partly explains the important role that outreach, or da`wa, has in Islam. Because it is the final, corrected version of monotheistic faith it invites all people to join the ummah.

Despite that missionary dimension, Islam does not force itself on non-Muslims. There is a longstanding tradition of tolerance in Islam that is best summed up in Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” People can be encouraged to embrace the faith, but conversion to Islam is ultimately something that is left up to God alone. A person cannot be compelled to convert. This spirit of tolerance and coexistence goes back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, whose “Constitution of Medina” established guidelines for how Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims would live together in that city. It is also seen in the term “people of the book,” a designation found in the Qur’an that is used for Jews and Christians. This title underscores the high regard Muslims have for their fellow monotheists, who have also been privileged recipients of divine revelation.

The theological disagreements Islam has with Christianity are more profound than those it has with Judaism. The main reason for this is the Christian belief that Jesus is God in human form. From the Muslim perspective, this is an example of shirk—associating something from creation with the uncreated nature of God—the only sin God will not forgive. The Qur’an points out the error in this thinking a number of times. “They have disbelieved who say, ‘Truly, God is the Messiah, the son of Mary’” (5:17). In one passage (5:116) Jesus denies he is divine and tells God his followers are misguided. The Islamic text also dismisses belief in the trinity as another example of shirk that demonstrates Christianity has distorted God’s intended message (5:73). Christians often find such texts disturbing or insulting because they call into question central beliefs of their faith.

At the same time, Jesus is a very prominent and important figure in the Qur’an and for Muslims. He is a prophet who is virginally conceived, performs miracles, and is given special titles like “messiah” and “word from God.” His mother Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and chapter 19 of the book is named after her. Jesus is highly respected by Muslims, but they and Christians will never be able to agree on the question of his identity. The best that can be hoped for is that they agree to differ in a spirit of mutual respect and tolerance.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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