A common word

In the September issue of The Briefing, Moussa Ghazal wrote about making conversation with Muslims. He spoke of two alternative approaches: befriending Muslims and patiently sharing the gospel, and the polemics of ‘expose-the-errors-of-Islam’. He suggested the former method is something any Christian can do, and the latter is probably best left to experts who have extensive knowledge of Islam (and Christianity!). Samuel Green is one such expert, and although he’s no stranger to warm, personal, gospel conversations, here he takes on the task of responding to ‘A Common Word’, an attempt by Muslims to engage in interfaith dialogue with Christians over what they claim is shared ground: love of God, and love of one’s neighbour.

Say [Muslims], O people of the book [Christians], let us come to a common word between us and you, that we will worship none but God and not associate with him anything and not take from among ourselves lords besides God. And if they [the Christians] turn away then confess, “we have submitted [we are Muslims]”. (Qur’an 3:64, author’s translation)

In 2007, 138 Islamic scholars issued an open letter called ‘A Common Word’. The letter is based on the Qur’anic verse 3:64, which is a call to Christians to worship God alone and associate nothing with him. The committee of ‘A Common Word’ has phrased this letter in the language of love in the hope it will resonate with Christians. They’re asking Christians to agree to love God alone, and to love their neighbour—which sounds good—but by loving God alone they mean to not associate anything with God, but instead to maintain a clear distinction between God and man. That is, according to ‘A Common Word’, we should love God as God alone, and man as our neighbour alone. We are not to love God as the man Jesus Christ. The letter provides evidence from the Jewish and Christian scriptures and the Qur’an and Hadith to argue that this particular definition of love is consistent with both religions.

The online invitation to Christian and Jewish organizations to respond has collected 71 Christian responses to date.1 The responses vary. All of them praise the committee of ‘A Common Word’ for the initiative, saying that this type of dialogue is essential. Some went further and said that they agreed that we should worship God alone and associate nothing with him and love our neighbour. Some said that they agreed that we must worship God alone but they see Jesus as God, and are not really convinced that the Qur’an and Hadith says to love your non-Muslim neighbour.

It is encouraging to see that some of the responses are careful to defend the divinity of Jesus and challenge Islam about its love of neighbour. In this article I want to raise a related question: does Islam really worship God alone and associate nothing with him?

Tawheed and shirk

‘Justification’. ‘Sanctification’. ‘Atonement’. Christians use technical words to carefully define what they believe. The same is true in Islam, and two important words for Islam are ‘tawheed’ and ‘shirk’.

Tawheed means to unify and maintain the unity of God in every area of life. It is the driving force of Islamic theology, worship and governance. In much the same way that the gospel is the passion of Christianity, tawheed is the passion of Islam.

Shirk means ‘to associate’ or ‘share’, and is the breaking of tawheed by associating something with God. This is the most serious sin in Islam. It comes from verses like 3:64 and 9:31 where Muslims are commanded to worship God alone, to associate nothing with him, nor to take humans as lords beside him. This is broader than polytheism or idolatry; it can include democracy, as this is to associate the laws of man in a place where there should only be the law of God. Another example is holiness. While the Bible speaks of holiness as being based on the image of God—“be holy as I am holy”—this is shirk to Islam. Instead, holiness in Islam is based on tawheed—not associating anything with God in any area of life. It is this understanding of the application of monotheism that is at the heart of ‘A Common Word’.

When Christians say Jesus is God or the son of God, Muslims see this as shirk, the worst sin. They claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is a denial of the simple unity of God. In the context of interaction with Islam, it is helpful to see that the unity of the Father, Son and Spirt is something revealed over time throughout the prophets—the same prophets that Muslims claim to follow.

There is God, his Spirit, and his word in Genesis 1. God makes us in his image, showing that his attributes can be shared while maintaining his unity (the Qur’an denies this in 42:11). There are the “let us” statements in Genesis and the visions of the divine man in Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7 and 10. God promises through Isaiah to send his Spirit-filled Son who will bring glory to God’s name, salvation for God’s people and judgement on the nations. It is upon this foundation that the Gospel gives the final revelation of the unity of the Father, Son and Spirit. Jesus’ unity with the Father is explained as the Word of God (John 1:1), the glory of God (Heb 1:3), and the image of God (Col 1:15ff).

The fact that Islam denies that God is father or has any type of son (Qur’an 5:18) means that it is the one out of step with all the prophets. We Christians have the solid ground of the Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel for our understanding of God. In contrast Islam is only based on Muhammad—we need to challenge the assumption that Islam worships God alone and associates nothing with him, for Muhammad is associated with God in every area of Islam.

More than a prophet

In Islam, Muhammad is only a man—but not just any man! He is a messenger from God, the final prophet; but more, he is sinless, and the perfect model for mankind. In fact, his life is the context of the Qur’an, which revolves and evolves around his life.

The Prophet is closer to the believers than their selves, and his wives are (as) their mothers… (Qur’an 33:6, Pickthall)

Narrated Anas: The Prophet said “None of you will have faith till he loves me more than his father, his children and all mankind.” (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 1, book 2, no. 14, Khan)

You need to feel this passion and love for Muhammad to understand Islam; but Muhammad is even more than this. Even though he is just a man he is associated with God at every point in the Islamic religion.

Muhammad is associated with God in faith

The Shahada, the Islamic confession of faith, includes confessing Muhammad as well as God: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”.

Compare this to the Shema of Moses where God alone is confessed.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut 6:4-5)

Muhammad is associated with God in prayer

The Salaat is the Islamic prayer ritual prayed five times a day: “Greetings to you, O Prophet, and the mercy and blessings of Allah”. Muhammad is addressed in this prayer, even though prayer should be to God alone:

And the places of worship are only for Allah, so pray not unto anyone along with Allah. (Qur’an 72:18)

And who is further astray than those who, instead of Allah, pray unto such as hear not their prayer until the Day of Resurrection, and are unconscious of their prayer. (Qur’an 46:5)

Muhammad is associated with God in location

Mosques are to be places of worship to God alone (tawheed). For this reason no one is ever to be buried inside a mosque; nor are mosques to be erected over graves. This would be to associate a person with a space that is for God alone.

And the places of worship are only for Allah, so pray not unto anyone along with Allah. (Qur’an 72:18)

Narrated ‘Aisha and ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas: When the last moment of the life of Allah’s Apostle came he started putting his ‘Khamisa’ on his face and when he felt hot and short of breath he took it off his face and said, “May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their Prophets.” The Prophet was warning (Muslims) of what those had done. (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 1, book. 8, no. 427)

Yet, Muhammad’s grave is inside the mosque in Medina. The mosque in Medina is a major place of pilgrimage for devout Muslims—but it is shirk.

Muhammad is associated with God in love and forgiveness

Love and forgiveness in Islam do not come from God alone to us (tawheed), instead they are through Muhammad (shirk).

Say, (O Muhammad, to mankind): If you love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Qur’an 3:31)

Muhammad is associated with God in blessing

The idea of relics giving God’s blessing is shirk because the power of God would be associated with his creation in some way. However, amongst other things, Muhammad gave out the relics of his hair as a blessing to others.

Abu Bakr reported: (He called for) the barber and, pointing towards the right side of his head, said: (Start from) here, and then distributed his hair among those who were near him. He then pointed to the barber (to shave) the left side and he shaved it, and he gave (these hair) to Umm Sulaim (Allah be pleased with her)… (Sahih Muslim: book. 7, no. 2992, Siddiqui)

Narrated Abu Juhaifa: I saw Allah’s Apostle in a red leather tent and I saw Bilal taking the remaining water with which the Prophet had performed ablution. I saw the people taking the utilized water impatiently and whoever got some of it rubbed it on his body and those who could not get any took the moisture from the others’ hands… (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 1, book 8, no. 373)

Muhammad is associated with God in salvation

Salvation in Islam does not come from God alone to us (tawheed), instead it is through Muhammad (shirk).

Narrated Ibn Umar: On the Day of Resurrection the people will fall on their knees and every nation will follow their prophet and they will say, “O so-and-so! Intercede (for us with Allah),” till (the right) intercession is given to the Prophet (Muhammad) and that will be the day when Allah will raise him into a station of praise and glory (i.e. Al-Maqam-al-Mahmud). (Sahih al-Bukhari: vol. 6, book. 60, no. 242)

O Prophet! … accept their allegiance and ask Allah to forgive them. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Qur’an 60:12)

Muhammad practised shirk

In the Law of Moses and the Prophets it is very clear that we are not to use sacred stones as part of our worship. The worship of stones was a part of the pre-Islamic culture, yet, Muhammad continued this pre-Islamic practice with the Black Stone.

Bukhari, Muslim and Abu Daw’ud reported that ‘Umar approached the Black Stone and kissed it. Then he said: “I know that you are a mere stone that can neither harm nor do any good. If I had not seen the Prophet (peace be upon him) kissing you, I would have never kissed you.” Al-Khatabi said: “This shows that abiding by the Sunnah (custom) of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is binding, regardless of whether or not we understand its reason or the wisdom behind it.” Such information devolves obligation on all those whom it reaches, even if they may not fully comprehend its significance. It is known, however, that kissing the Black Stone signifies respect for it, recognition of our obligation toward it, and using it as a means of seeking Allah’s blessings.2

All Muslims today must continue this idolatrous practice when they go on pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca, even though it is such obvious shirk. Why must they do it? Because Muhammad did it.

Christian-Muslim dialogue

Do not be fooled when Islam puts itself forward as the bastion of monotheism. Muhammad is the patron saint of Islam and is associated with God at every point. His presence in Islam is so strong that even obvious idolatrous practices like kissing the Black Stone become acceptable. Muhammad is exalted in Islam in a way that is completely unacceptable for someone who claims to be just a man.

Christians may feel tempted to see the Trinity as a weak point in Christian-Muslim dialogue when compared to the “simple clarity” of tawheed, but this is not the case. The Trinity actually provides the unity of God in every act of worship in a way that Islam fails to do. Far from relying on a mere man to provide access to God, we have God himself in the person of Jesus Christ, a much firmer foundation. Muslims have been quick to ask Christians about the Trinity; it is time we ask them about tawheed and Muhammad.

The open letter from ‘A Common Word’ is to be welcomed and engaged with. It is a historic opportunity to publicly dialogue with Muslim theologians. It is a great opportunity to proclaim and defend the person of Christ, to question Islam about its love for its non-Muslim neighbour, and to challenge Islam about the way it associates Muhammad with God.

  1. See http://www.acommonword.com. There is also a book on the subject: A Common Word—Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, ed. Miroslav Volf, et. al., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2010.
  2. As-Sayyid Sabiq, Muhammad Saeed Dabas, and MS Kayani, Fiqh us-Sunnah Volume 5: Hajj and ‘Umrah, American Trust Publications, Indianapolis, 1992, p. 75.

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