Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Fulfillment of Islam: The Messiah and the Muslim World

 (Image: from the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem; photo by Andrew Shiva, shared under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Note: This piece is a follow-up to my earlier post on the Christian revival in the Muslim world. While somewhat speculative, it does present a serious scholarly possibility regarding the early history of Islam and its possible connections to Christianity.

In our Western world, and particularly in America, where most of our interaction with Islam is on the level of news bulletins about terrorism, it's important to understand that there are other dimensions of Islam out there. There are even elements of Islam which some former Muslims now view as something God used to prepare them for their experience of Christ. I wanted to put forward this perspective on Islam, which may sound foreign to many of us Western Christians, but which is gaining some adherence in the Muslim world. In short: there is a range of interpretation among Muslim-background believers (now Christians) about what to do with their Islamic heritage. Some see their old faith as an anti-Christian set of falsehoods to be left in the trash-bin of history. But there are also many others who see Islam as a preparatory stage in their spiritual development, which God has now fulfilled and built upon with their new faith in Christ. This essay explores that intriguing theological suggestion.

When I served as a volunteer for a mission group in North Africa, I had the privilege of befriending a handful of former Muslims who had converted to the Christian faith. While some of them regarded their previous life in Islam as an ungodly, benighted, "works-righteousness" sort of religion that constituted a closed chapter in their lives, I was surprised to find several who regarded their Muslim years as a season of spiritual preparation which had now found its fulfillment in Christ. One of them, Mahmoud (name changed to protect his identity), was a philosophical middle-aged fellow, who liked to discuss theology and comparative religious studies, in between trying to convince me to choose one of his daughters as a wife. He told me that he saw the person of Jesus Christ as the true light of God, shining down on us, and that, because of this, Christianity is the only true religion. But he also said that the light of Christ, of God's divine logos, had shone on all cultures (Jn. 1:1-5), striking them like light hitting a crystal prism. And humanity's innate love for God, its yearning for redemption, present in that light of Christ, had shone down on the prism of human culture and fractured into countless beams and colors, of which Islam--the Arab longing to find and follow the righteousness of the one true God--had been one such example. He explained to me that his life in Islam--its prayers, its worship extolling the majesty and compassion of the Creator-God, and its care for the poor--had set the foundation for him to encounter the true source and motivation of all those things, Jesus Christ. "Jesus the Messiah," he told me, "is the fulfillment of Islam."

While even Mahmoud would say that there are certainly elements in Islam that have twisted the truth about God and distracted Muslims from recognizing and following the way of Christ, he is a representative of a growing wave in the Muslim world that sees Islam not as something foreign to Christian belief, but as a stepping-stone from which a sincere seeker of God might be made better ready to receive the truth of Christ. Now, to be clear, there are elements of Muslim belief that obviously do not fit with Christian orthodoxy; indeed, which are antithetical to it. I'm thinking here not only of those passages which encourage Muslims to use violent action against unbelievers, but also the very clear teaching of Islam that Jesus is not the Son of God, that Christians have perverted the true message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the Trinity is a blasphemous idea (although it ought to be noted that Islamic theology, rooted in the Qur'an, makes several clear evidentiary mistakes about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, apparently believing it to be a union of God the Father, Jesus, and Mary, and that the Incarnation was achieved by a physical act of procreation).

But there are other, rather surprising elements of Islam which dovetail with Christianity in some remarkable ways. Although the Qur'an clearly holds a heretical view of Jesus' claims to divinity, it nevertheless does refer to Jesus as being endowed with the Holy Spirit (2:87, 2:252, 5:110), performing miraculous signs (2:87, 2:252, 43:63), born of a virgin (3:47, 19:21-22, 21:92, 66:12), the Messiah (3:45, 5:75, 9:31), the Word of God (3:45), the bearer of "Good News"/Gospel (5:46, 5:111, 57:27), dying and rising again (19:32; though this is often reinterpreted in Islam as referring to something other than the Passion narrative as recorded in the Gospels), a sign to all mankind (23:50), and coming again at the Last Day (43:62) to defeat the Antichrist (al-Masih ad-Dajjal). Some Muslim tradition also holds that he was without sin. If one reads the Qur'an from cover to cover, one is struck by just how rooted it is in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition. It disputes some elements of that tradition, reinterprets others, and adds in some additional accounts from apocryphal sources, but on the whole, it's dealing with the same subject matter that Judaism and Christianity are: the nature of the historic revelations of the Creator God, who entered into relationship with Adam, Abraham, and the prophets. 

One of the most intriguing things about the historical period of Islam's rise is that, by and large, it was not considered a new religion by outside observers. Not for several hundred years was it thought to be a separate religion. So what was it? In the eyes of its earliest observers (such as the last of the great church fathers, John of Damascus, who served as a palace official in one of the first Islamic dynasties), it was a Christian heresy. Let me say that again: Islam, in its earliest form, was perceived as being a branch of the Christian religion. Not a true, orthodox part of the Christian family, but a doctrinally-deficient derivative, just like any of the old heresies: Arianism, Marcionism, or the Ebionites. This is why, in those early centuries, Christians generally referred to it not as Islam, but as "Mohammedanism," since using the founder's name was the normal way of naming heretical varieties of Christian doctrine. 

In fact, there are a number of academic historians and linguists, specialists in the field of Islam's origins, who posit a major heretical-Christian influence on the rise of Islam. Arabia was an area which was known to be fertile ground for Christian heresies during that period, since many of the heretics had been pushed out from the Christian Byzantine Empire, and Arabia was a common destination for these exiles. As noted above, the doctrine of Jesus Christ is clearly one of the main concerns of the Qur'an, and at many points it does read like a heretical Christian polemic against orthodox Christianity, rather like what the doctrines of the Ebionite sect were purported to be. The Qur'an actually quotes stories about Jesus' boyhood life which we know for a fact came from fringe pseudo-Christian texts (such as a tale about the boy Jesus making a clay bird and then bringing it to life, derived from the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas"). Muslim doctrine about Jesus does indeed appear to follow the same contours as established heretical Christian groups: in that region of Syriac-speaking Christians, there tended to be a stronger emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, and in a few fringe groups this emphasis came at the detriment of the doctrine of his divinity. The Qur'an appears to echo the beliefs and concerns of those fringe groups almost verbatim. Interestingly, there are old accounts of Muhammad's close interaction with some Arabian Christians in the historical record (including one Christian hermit who is said to have predicted his rise as a prophet of God). A good deal of Muslim devotional practices (such as their manner of prayer) appear to have been derived from Syriac Christian practice. There are other clues as well--some scholars have noticed that there appears to be a possible Syriac lectionary text underlying some portions the current text of the Arabic Qur'an--indeed, that the word "Qur'an" itself might be directly derived from the Syrian word for a lectionary service-book (though these propositions are still much debated). Even the name "Muhammad" was not actually a personal name until the rise of Islam; it was an Arabic title (likely meaning "the praised one") which appears to have been attributed to Jesus by Arabian Christians before it was ever applied to Muhammad. 

One of the wildest (but oddly compelling) academic suggestions on this point is that the inscription on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which is just about the earliest major piece of original Islamic text available to us, refers to Jesus as "Muhammad." If you read the inscriptions (available here), you'll notice that in the preamble it does mention Muhammad as "the servant of God and his messenger." Keep in mind for a moment that Muhammad is an Arabic word that was a title, not necessarily a personal name at this point in Muslim history. Now note that the entirety of the rest of the inscription is about Jesus, pretty much from beginning to end. If we dug up this inscription on a papyrus, without reference to a Muslim context, we would immediately look at it and say, "This is the creed of an early Christian heresy." In the inscription, Jesus is clearly referred to as "the servant of God" and God's "messenger" multiple times--the same exact offices listed for "Muhammad" at the beginning of the inscription. Given the fact that the inscription appears to be entirely about Christological doctrine, with no other obvious reference to the historical personage of Muhammad, the Arab prophet, some scholars have suggested that "Muhammad" in this passage is actually a reference to Jesus as "the praised one." If you read the inscription by saying "the praised one" instead of "Muhammad," you'll notice that it sounds like it's all referring to Jesus. This is a much-disputed interpretation, but, I'm sure you'll agree, a fascinating one. And even if "Muhammad" in the inscription really means Muhammad, it's instructive that this early Islamic creed is still almost entirely concerned with the theology of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, even some of the more moderate scholars of early Islamic history (such as Fred Donner) are suggesting that Muhammad's intent was not to found a new religious community, but rather to spark a monotheistic reform movement within the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, distinct only for its Arabic cultural basis. It might be the case that the transformation of Islam into a wholly separate religion was, in part, a piece of statecraft by the Abbasid caliphate some two centuries after Muhammad. All of these historical arguments remain somewhat speculative, and much debated in those historical circles brave enough to venture upon the issue, but they do serve to indicate that Islam's origins may have been far closer to the family of Christian belief than we tend to assume; rather more like Mormonism's relationship to orthodox Christianity than Buddhism's or Hinduism's. 

In my study of world religions, I've found that, for the most part, they don't seem to be of clearly demonic origin (as some Christians suspect). Rather, along with C. S. Lewis, I tend to view them as expressions of the innate human moral nature, given to us by God. And, in the absence of the true light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our "image of God" nature leads people and cultures to create systems of morality and doctrine that they believe will lead them to the intimacy with God's divine nature for which they were created, and for which we all innately long. These religious systems, apart from the revelation of Christian truth, will of course be riddled with error; but they will also often possess a great wealth of moral wisdom and insight. They are cultural vehicles which both God and the enemies of God can use, either to direct people's gazes toward the truth of Christ, or to blind them to that truth. It's clear that in Islam's case, doctrinal errors have unfortunately been used to blind many Muslims' eyes to the truth of Christ. But we're now finding that that's not the only dynamic at work--God is also using the heritage of Islam, those pieces that do reflect and hint at true Christian doctrine--to open people's eyes to Jesus. And there are many aspects of Islam that God is able to use--their devoted lives of prayer and fasting, their generosity to the poor, their reverence for the prophetic tradition of the Scriptures, and their desire to walk according to a code of righteousness. "Islam" itself is a word that means "submission" to God. There are also hints and foreshadowings in the Islamic historical tradition that God can use to ready hearts and minds for the true doctrine of Jesus Christ: the passion narrative of Husayn (a key figure in Shia Islam) shares many of the themes of Christ's own passion, and the Shia longing for the end-of-time return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi--usually conceived as being contemporary with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ--opens the door for the startling message that Jesus himself is the true object of their longing.

As I said at the beginning of the post, many former Muslims see Islam as riddled with too many errors to make it worthwhile holding onto. But there is a growing community of other Muslim-background-believer Christians (MBBs) who are worshiping Jesus from within the context of their Islamic faith. Some of the new converts to belief in Jesus continue to worship God in the mosque every Friday, just as first-century Jewish Christians continued to worship in the synagogues and in the Temple in addition to their Sunday Christian observance. As one might expect, the Christian message in Arabic/Islamic cultural contextualization is proving far more attractive to Muslim converts than our Western-stylized ways of doing church.

All of this makes me think that my old friend Mahmoud was not far off. Jesus is the fulfillment of Islam. If indeed it did start as a sort of Christian heresy, then its roots and its destiny are in the family of Christ, and I believe that God will bring them back around to a full understanding of the One that they believe is the Messiah, the Word, the bearer of God's Good News, born of a Virgin, and coming again in glory. Let's pray for the day when the "submission" of Islam becomes a submission to their Lord Jesus Christ, "the praised one." 

"The desert and the parched land will be glad!...They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God... Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped... Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert... Those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads."  (from Isaiah 35:1-10)