At a recent apologetics conference, one of the speakers I was most interested to hear could not finish his presentation on Islam. He was thoroughly prepared, but the audience interrupted him with so many questions that he only got through a few slides. It was clear they were eager to know more about Islam.
Most Christians, myself included, have spent little time studying Islam. Don’t agree? Did you recognize the photo above without reading the caption? I’ve heard about Mecca all my life, but can’t recall ever seeing a single photograph of it—as if it were a mythical place. The Atlantic Monthly did a recent photo essay showing the development of Mecca over the past 128 years. The development has caused quite a bit of controversy, even within the Islamic world.
Truth be told, our ignorance can be a barrier to understanding why there is so much strife between Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout the world, and to sharing our faith. This new blog series on Islam will lay out the basics—without being disrespectful and without being naïve. (This is Veracity after all.) The posts will be short, in the hope that you will follow the hyperlinks to learn more about Islam.
One caveat before we start. If you asked someone to explain Christianity, consider how the answer might be shaped by the person answering the question. Depending on whom you asked, you might get an informed, orthodox answer or a completely off-the-wall distortion. To get the essence of Christianity, you have to get the Bible right. So for these posts on Islam we will focus on the orthodoxy of the Quran, the Hadith Collections, and the biography of Muhammad—the foundational documents of Islam. There are profound contradictions in these documents, ranging from peaceful and passive teaching to calls for extreme violence. Much of the material in these sources is contradictory, so we’ll spend some time on the Islamic Doctrine of Abrogation as well.
What is Islam?
Adherents of Islam are called Muslims, and believe that the Quran was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Muslims are taught to accept the authority of the Quran. The word ‘Quran’ means “the recitation.”
The small building at the center of Mecca is the Kaaba, which is considered to be the “House of God.” The Kaaba is considered the holiest site in Islam. Muslims must pray their Salah five times each day facing the Kaaba. The Salah is part of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are mandatory for Muslims.
Start with the Quran
The Quran can be found online here. (This site loads the Arabic script with the English translation and individual pages can take some time to load, so be patient; their legacy Quran version seems to load faster.) There are many English translations. If you prefer to have it read to you, Audible has an English version of the Quran in three volumes (that will take 19 hours to hear). The only authoritative version of the Quran is in Arabic, although today 85 percent of the Islamic world does not speak Arabic.
The Quran is organized into 114 chapters, called suras, roughly arranged in descending length (not chronological or thematic order). Each surah is divided into verses, the smallest having three and the largest having 286. Of the 114 suras, 86 are classified as Meccan, while 28 are Medinan. Each surah has a name, and how each name was ascribed is unclear, although some were named directly by Muhammad.
Most Christians will never read the Quran. Even if that’s true for you, at least read Surah 1 and Surah 2. One of the keys to Islam is Surah 2:106. It might help to understand while reading these suras that Muslims believe Christians—by way of belief in the Trinity—are ‘polytheists.’ They also believe that the Christian Trinity consists of God the Father, Jesus, and Mary (not the Holy Spirit).
So why study Islam? Why take the time to read the Quran? Maybe we can gain some insight into the religious strife that grips our world. Well, maybe. Reading the Quran and studying Islam won’t give us credentials, but it does take away the rejoinder, “Have you ever read the Quran?”
More importantly, maybe by first reading the Quran we can then have informed, empathetic, civil discussions about Christianity with Muslims.