The Challenge of Islam 3

The Challenge of Islam (Part 3)

AS STUDY on my Master's program at our theological seminary neared completion in the spring of 1957, I entered into correspondence with authorities at the University of the Panjab at Lahore about continuing my graduate studies there since I would be teaching in Pakistan. This school, third oldest in the subcontinent, is also one of the larger and better. . .

Former Evangelist and Teacher, Pakistan; Islamic Historian

The Two Islams

AS STUDY on my Master's program at our theological seminary neared completion in the spring of 1957, I entered into correspondence with authorities at the University of the Panjab at Lahore about continuing my graduate studies there since I would be teaching in Pakistan. This school, third oldest in the subcontinent, is also one of the larger and better. I hoped that studies there would offer me the opportunity to continue my academic work in the theology of a religion I knew little about the Muslim faith.

After my return to Pakistan I learned with disappointment that because of my lack of skill in Persian and Arabic the university would not permit me to study in my chosen field. Instead, I would have to switch from theology to history. But with God's help, in the courses pursued I be came acquainted not only with the social, political, and military history of Islam from its inception until the present but also had opportunity to study its theological growth, and, as a sideline, as much of its theology as I felt essential.

During this study I became aware of the existence of two Islams. These are not the Sunnis and Shiis, the two large segments that divide Islam today, as Protestantism and Catholicism cleave Christianity. They are rather the new and the old the developed Islam of the theologians and the more simple faith of Mohammed. Most Muslims and Islamists think differently. Yet history and the present existence of reformers show that there has been serious change.

Those Muslims who insist that there is only one Islam contend that contemporary Islam finds its roots in the Islam of Mohammed. This is similar to apostolic succession in Christendom. Others, with equal erudition, make a strong case for their Islamic faith premised upon Islamic apostasy and change. There is some truth in both contentions. For though out of the simple grew the complex (as the one group maintains), yet those same influences that contributed to apostasy in Christianity gnosticism, Neo-platonic and other Hellenistic philosophies, mysticism, and anti-Judaism, much of which resulted from contact with an already corrupting Christianity brought great change to Islam (re-enforcing the arguments of the second group).

Limited space makes it impossible to trace the development of Islam through centuries that brought it to its present state. Actually, Islamic theology did not begin serious formation for nearly two centuries after its inception. W. Montgomery Watt declares: "They were in fact following the ninth century's conception of the example of Muhammad, and therefore the early ninth century's values." 1 Although Watts may not have had this point in mind, the statement does illustrate the changed and changing conditions within Islam then and later. Seventh-day Adventist evangelists who work among Muslims should become familiar with Islam's theological history, particularly to understand its tenacious hold upon people. Duncan Black Macdonald's book, Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence, and Constitutional Theory, is excellent. The book was first written in 1903 and reprinted in Lahore, West Pakistan, in I960. Its distribution has been banished in some places. All English-reading Adventist ministers could peruse with profit his account of the free will-predeterminism controversy in Islam2 and the arguments regarding the created versus the uncreated Quran as the eternal Word of God. A smaller, much newer book is Watt's Islamic Philosophy and Theology. While it highlights movements, it does not detail theology as does the other.

Tradition in Muslim Theology

Tradition has always played a prominent role in determining Muslim theology. While the omnipotence of God and His eternal oneness occasioned theological and philosophical discussion and is central to Islamic thought when disputants could not agree on the Quranic interpretation, they appealed to the ahadith (Traditions) for the answer.3 As politics influenced the discussions, leaders felt the need of vindicating policy or buttressing dogma. Where such support was lacking in the genuine Traditions of their prophet's behavior or sayings, they often made their own additions.

Serious scholars, alarmed, tried to remedy this ill by creating an isnad (chain list of reliable Tradition transmitters). Although this led to the rejection of thousands of spurious Traditions, emphasis was on the trustworthiness of the transmitters rather than on the truth of a Tradition's content. Thus, as Watt stated in the above quotation, the final authority for a Tradition's relevance was based upon personal interpretation of those Traditions in the context of the time the isnad was made. This allowed for that theological mutation that created the climate for the two Islams. Yet in fairness it must be stated that many purists also appeal to Tradition in support of their position. The differences then arise on the matter of interpretation.

After the acceptance of isnad as a principle for establishing the sound Tradition, a process tantamount to giving it canonicity, little new was added to Islam. During the next several hundred years Islam remained a cold, intellectual, legalistic formalism. The life had departed. It might suit the lawyers, philosophers, and hairsplitters, but although the common people held it as a culture and a social ethic, it failed miserably in meeting their spiritual needs. Islam could appeal to the mind, but not to the heart.

The Contribution of al-Ghazali

The greatest Muslim after Mohammed, al-Ghazali,4 an Aristotelian logician and philosopher, sensed this lack and united the schoolmen and the mystic Sufis in himself. This union brought life back to Islam. Now those seeking a deeper emotional or ecstatic experience could have it while still remaining Muslims. But also by this fusion the dual character of Islam was guaranteed permanence.

Johannes Damascenus (John of Damascus) has sometimes been called the last of the Greek Church Fathers. He lived near the close of the first century of Is lam. During the time the Umayyids ruled the new Muslim empire from Damascus he rose to prime minister,5 even though he was a Christian. Later, he retired from public life to enter a more contemplative one. It was during this period that he authored the book History of the Heresies (sometimes known by other titles). One of the last three heresies or heterodoxies discussed is Islam.6 John was in a unique position to know and understand Islam. 7 This volume raises for us today an interesting academic question, Was the Is lam of his day classed as some kind of Christian sect?

Islam and Christianity

Islam today is never so classified, nor to my knowledge has it ever been since Islam's theological developments under men like al-Bukhari, al-Ashari, and al-Ghazali. There is insufficient historical data to decide whether or not Islam, under the Umayyid caliphs, was so regarded. But if so, a course of theological development away from Christianity is a likely answer to the change in classification. Again, did Mohammed himself really reject Christianity at the same time he rejected Judaism? And need that necessarily make him a false prophet during his earlier prophethood? The intent here is not to support any classification, but to note the implications regarding an old and a new Islam and the significance of the idea for Adventist evangelism.

There exists among Muslims a view that the course of Islamic theological development and the pressures of political, economic, and social changes produced a departure from a purer, simpler faith. The fact that Tradition brought change tells the same story. Also, interpreters of the Quran recognize variants in the text. Some hold with Moulvi Cheragh Ali (who wrote nearly a century ago) that pristine Islam has fallen. "Islam, by which I mean that pure Islam taught by the Arabian Prophet, Mohammed . . . and the Mohammedans in general have much fallen from the precepts of their Prophet." 8 In this setting, does the second angel's message have relevance?

Mohammed and Christianity

No Arabic Old or New Testaments are known to have existed in Mohammed's time, so he could not have copied his religion from that source. Christian Arabs did exist even among his close relatives, but to charge Mohammed with using ideas taken from them does not explain the existence of stories in the Quran of persons known to Christians and Jews from the Bible, nor fully account for the inclusion of Biblically based religious truths. The accession of Christians to the Islamic state and/or Muslim-Christian dialog resulted indirectly in passing Christian concepts to Islam. It is not to be supposed, however, that any direct copying for the sake of copying took place. 9

What significance could all this, and much more, have for Seventh-day Adventist evangelists? A re-interpretation of Quranic doctrine along Bible lines could give more common ground with modern Muslims and make a great alteration in methods of approach. It is not likely that such an exposition will eliminate Islamic objections to Adventist evangelistic theology. However, this approach to Islam seems worthy of careful consideration.

Jesus Christ wants a heart response today from people. He wanted their hearts also in Mohammed's time. Was Mohammed so adverse to Jesus as Saviour as is so commonly thought? 10 Perhaps not. Also, in many respects, one finds that the Quran parallels the Bible more than a cursory glance might indicate. Adventist evangelists to Muslims might do well to re-appraise their methods in the light of these thoughts.

(To be continued)




1. W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology, p. 75.

2. For example, Macdonald says that some predeterminists argued that if a man wore a finger ring, and moved that ring finger, the ring also moved; in doing so, the ring acted according to God's predetermined plan. Duncan B. Macdonald, Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence, and Constitutional Theory (1960 ed., Lahore), p. 142.

3. Ahadith and Sunnah are almost identical. "Hadith is thus the vehicle of the sunna, and the whole corpus of the sunna recorded and transmitted in the form of hadiths is itself generally called 'the hadith.' " H. A. R. Cibb, Mohammedanism, pp. 74, 75. See the second article of this series for the paragraph on Islamic priorities for authority.

4. Watt, op. cit., p. 114.

5. Macdonald, op. cit., p. 131. Some say rather, he was put in charge of the civil rulership of all Christians, as the logothete. Cf. Berthold Altaner, Patrology, tr. by Hilda C. Craef., p. 635. Whatever is the case, he was held in high respect by both Christians and Muslims, and the government gave him great responsibility.

6. Some say that there is evidence that these last three heresies were added later by another author. Altaner, ibid., p. 636. Such a situation only makes the argument for two Islams stronger.

7. For John's attitude regarding Islam, see his book De Haeresibus Liber in J. P. Migne's Patrologiae Graecae, vol. 94, cols. 764-773. For a competent English translation of John of Damascus, see Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (translator), "On Heresies," The Fount of Knowledge (1958 ed.), pp. 153-160, esp. p. 153.

8. Cheragh Ali, The Proposed Political, Legal, and Social Reforms in the Ottoman Empire and other Mohammedan States, p. 183.

9. Watt, op. cit., p. 66.

10. Dr. J. W. Sweetman suggests that whatevermay have been Mohammed's Christology, his understanding of the man Jesus is central to his knowledge about the Christian Scriptures. (See The Bible in Islam, pp. 14, 15.) It is interesting to note, however, that while the Christology of Mohammed maybe open to interpretation, and though Muslims today observe certain strictures reminiscent of the Old Testament and the sanctuary such as animal sacrifices and abstinence from food with blood in it there seems to be no reference of any kind to redemption from sin. The truth or falsity of Mohammed also may be determined by his doctrine of the nature of man in death and the punishment of the wicked. For example, there are only seven references to "sleep" in the Quran, and all of them refer to a night's repose, so that none of them describe a condition in death. This fact should not prevent the evangelist from being as courteous as possible, or from seeking to find points of common ground.

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Former Evangelist and Teacher, Pakistan; Islamic Historian

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