Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
NO DOUBT THE ABOVE TITLE strikes you as a bit odd coming from a Christian theology blogger. Please know that I believe Islam to be a false religion; that there is only one God, in three persons, and that Jesus Christ is wholly God and wholly man. I steadfastly trust the inerrancy of the Bible. I wholeheartedly believe in the virgin birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I strive to study and adhere to the doctrines of Christianity.* However, I am most assuredly impressed by the unfailing loyalty and discipline of Muslims to the faith—devotion to daily prayers and to memorizing the Qu’ran. There is much correlation between Islam and Old Testament Judaism relative to devout reverence. In each of these faiths ceremonial observance of laws is regarded as superior to heart-felt faith.
“I lay prostrate in a large Muslim prayer hall, broken before God. The edifice of my worldview, all I had ever known, had slowly been dismantled over the past few years. On this day, my world came crashing down. I lay in ruin, seeking Allah.” — Nabeel Qureshi
In his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi describes a regimented and consistent life of devotion in Islam, beginning each day with the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Daily prayer serves to acknowledge Allah each day from sunrise to sunset. Muslim worship is similar to the Jewish tradition, with a dedicated ion to following every edict and tradition.
Muslims rise each morning to adhan, or the call to prayer, intending to arouse themselves and one another to the presence of Allah. Traditionally, every Muslim child must hear the adhan the moment they are born. Accordingly, fathers recite it softly in the ear of their newborn children. The primary purpose of attendance at mosque is for corporate (or “congregational”) prayer, called salaat. There are five obligatory prayers in Islam: fajr (sunrise), dhuhr (noon), asr (afternoon), maghrib (sunset), and isha (night). Each prayer has a specific window of time in which it must be completed. There is much dedication regarding facing Mecca, standing, bowing, genuflecting, and lying prostrate, before sitting on the heels to continue praying. Each repetition is called rakaat. Seventeen rakaat are required daily as a minimum obligation, and optional prayers can be offered as well. Prior to prayer, Muslims perform a ceremonial washing of the arms, face, and feet, called wudhu. Daily prayer is a means of cleansing the soul in the same manner wudhu cleanses the body.
Muslims are required to memorize the Qu’ran in its original Arabic language. In fact, Muslim clerics and Imams believe translations of the Qu’ran into English or other languages is not truly the Qu’ran as its meaning only holds true in the original language. Tradition teaches that every word in the Qu’ran was spoken aloud by Allah to Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel. In fact, the word qu’ran means “recitation.” In addition, Muslims study the life of Muhammad as an exemplar. Every devout Muslim is called to venerate the Prophet, so they must learn stories about his life from books of surah and hadith and be guided accordingly.
Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, is comprised of three core scriptural texts (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41), in addition to proscribed prayers. This forms the vital part of daily worship. The word Shema refers to the first word in the passage, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (see Deuteronomy 6:4), and can be interpreted as “hear and do.” There is a sacred duty to learn, study, and apply the Torah to everyday life as a profession of one’s faith. Life in the Jewish holy community is understood to encompass every level of human existence. The corpus of rabbinical laws morphed from the original Ten Commandments (the Mosaic Covenant) into 613 commands or mitzvot with the intention of establishing the way to behave, or the way of walking. Halakha (Jewish law and jurisprudence) is based on the Talmud, and serves to guide not only religious practices and beliefs, but establish Jewish requirements for daily life. We see this reflected in table blessings, Kiddush (“sanctification” of the Sabbath and festivals), the erection of the booth (sukka) for Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles), the seder (the festive Passover meal) with its symbols and narration of the Exodus from Egypt, and the lighting of the lamps during the eight days of Hanukkah (the Feast of Dedication).
Like Islam, Judaism puts much more credence in deeds than beliefs. Because Judaism is a set of practices as well as a religious faith, it’s called a Way of Life. MacArthur believes a major factor that contributed to widespread misunderstanding regarding the Messiah was because “…most Jews simply did not see the need for a sin-bearing savior” (1). Israel expected a conquering Messiah who would vindicate the Jewish people and finally elevate Israel to world dominance politically and militarily. Paul provides a critical piece of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Christ: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). The Jews returned from captivity under Pharaoh with a new devotion to the Law. A strict stress on legal obedience (with a particular attention given to the Law’s external and ceremonial features—dietary laws, dress, ritual washings, and visible symbols of piety) resulted from this orientation. By the time Jesus arrived, sheer legalism was the dominant feature of Judaism. MacArthur believes this “…stemmed from the fact that they didn’t really feel the weight of their own guilt” (2).
Muslims believe Jesus is no more than a prophet. To call Jesus “God incarnate” would be blasphemy, and would cause anyone who made such a claim to be condemned for heresy. The Qu’ran states, “…by their blasphemy and their terrible words of slander against Mary, and their saying, It is we who killed the Christ Jesus son of Mary, the messenger of God—they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them” (4:157). The single most important belief in Islam is Tawhid, the oneness and unity of God. To Muslims, God is not three persons, nor did He manifest Himself in the body of a man. Muhammad is believed to be the true and final messenger of Allah. This is so critical to the faith that Muslims claim Muhammad was the last and greatest of the prophets of Allah’s revelation, sent to set the record straight regarding the corruption of God’s revelation in the Bible and the misidentification of Jesus as the God-man. Muhammad is considered the Seal of the Prophets, and the Qur’an is God’s final and absolute word.
The Cost of Clarity
Nabeel passionately pursued clarity. Who was this God we are called to worship? How can we know whether our personal belief is in line with ultimate spiritual truth? C.S. Lewis said, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ” (3). If a fruitful church makes disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20), a fruitful movement makes disciple-making churches. This is precisely where the Protestant Reformation gets mixed reviews. McGrath said perhaps the proper term is Protestantisms, plural (4). Vanhoozer notes the tendency in some circles to view the Reformation as the story of a divided kingdom. I believe the essence of the Reformation is simple: man in his very nature destined to be free to worship God independent of institutional ecclesiology. Troeltsch said, “Protestantism became the religion of the search for God in one’s own feeling, experience, thought, and will” (5). He feared that a church freed from church authority would be tossed to and fro on the sea of individualism. Yet, Martin Luther gave us a Christianity devoid of works. Indeed, no unambiguous Protestant template or paradigm arose from the ashes of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Some biblical scholars ask whether sola scriptura can ever produce consensus? To be Protestant is to strive to be biblical.
Nabeel wanted truth, but his search slammed him up against the wall of Islamic indoctrination. Judaism likewise clings to devout adherence to codified practices as if one’s behavior could become holy enough to earn eternal salvation. Martin Luther burned with desire to wrest Christianity from the grips of the papacy, yet he risked causing a movement of radical religious individualism. Luther’s sola scriptura seemed to cause dissension and schism, borne on the wave of biblical authority apart from church authority. But I truly believe the application of sola scriptura must be rooted in consensus among the community of believers and not the rulings of a dictatorial clergy as with Roman Catholicism.
When Nabeel finally believed that Jesus is the Messiah and fell to his knees, accepting the redemptive work of the crucifixion, he did not immediately convert. He says, “I told God I know what I needed to do but I needed time to mourn.” He turned once again to the Qu’ran for personal guidance. This time he looked for comfort, realizing there is not one verse in the Qu’ran designed to comfort a hurting man. Turning to the Bible, he read, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). He continued reading through the Gospel of Matthew: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (10:32-33). Nabeel said to God, “But if I proclaim you Father, I have to give up my family.” He then read Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Nabeel realized he was being asked to deny not only his family, but his whole life. Then he read, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (10:38-39).
Nabeel says, “God knows the cost we must pay to truly surrender our will and our life to Him. It’s the same heavy cost the disciples faced 2000 years ago. The cost we all must be willing to pay if we’re going to follow Jesus.” As he finalized his decision to convert, Nabeel prayed, “Lord, I believe you are Jesus, and I submit to you.” He he did not truly understand the commitment he’d made until a few days later when he told his father he had become a Christian. His father began weeping uncontrollably, and said, “Nabeel, today I feel as if my backbone has been ripped out from inside me.” His mother didn’t say a word. Nabeel remarked, “It was like there had been a light in her eyes up to that moment and I just turned it off. She hasn’t been the same since.” Nabeel cried out to God, “Why didn’t you kill me? Before my parents found out I was a believer, I was saved. I would go to heaven if you killed me. I’d be happy, you’d be happy, and my parents would be happy. Everyone would be happy! Why didn’t you just kill me?” Nabeel said he heard these words: “Because this is not about you.” At that moment, Nabeel’s life and his theology were rebooted. He realized the gospel is not something you simply hear and believe. He said, “If it doesn’t change your life, it hasn’t hit you yet.”
At that moment, Nabeel realized, “This God is worth everything.”
“Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).
(1) John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 47.
(2) Ibid., 48.
(3) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 171.
(4) Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 62-63.
(5) Ernest Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam, 1912), 98.
* The Doctrine of the Word of God; the Doctrine of God; the Doctrine of Man; The Doctrine of Christ; the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit; the Doctrine of Redemption; the Doctrine of the Church; the Doctrine of Last Things.