Chapter 9

Islam and Other Faiths

Chapter Summary

All human beings are equal – all receive revelations and Prophets – Qur'an, Muhammad and Islam are the criteria by which to measure other faiths – the duty to invite others to the way of Islam (da'wa) – status of the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab) – no compulsion in religion – Jews and Christians in the Islamic state – apostasy – God alone is the judge – classification of religions – polytheism – non-theism – nature religions – problems with historically later religions – privileged status of earlier revelations – no blanket judgements – the Jews – problems in accepting the Qur'an and prophethood of Muhammad – treason in Madina – Jews accused of falsifying scriptures and claiming ownership of God – Jewish–Muslim relations in history – Christians in the Arabian peninsula – Christians: the closest in affection to Muslims – controversy over the Son of God – God does not couple with human women – use of Son of God in Hebrew scriptures – theological language of the Eternal Word of God and the incarnate Jesus – Christian and Muslim understandings of the Word of God – Muslim problems with the idea of incarnation – Muslim problems with any talk of the threeness of God – trinity – the meaning of person/personae/prosopon – models for talking about the trinity – Jesus in the Qur'an – Prophet and Servant of God – born of the Virgin Mary – miracles – sent with the Injil – foretold the coming of Muhammad – did not die on the cross – taken alive into heaven – will return in the Last Days

The Qur'an declares itself as the criterion of judgment for matters of life and faith (Q. 25.1). Similarly, Muhammad is the standard for the Muslim life. In the end, other faiths are meandering lanes in comparison to the Straight Path. Through da'wa, Muslims invite others to claim Islam, but humans have free will and can reject the invitation. Early on, Islam encountered many people who were Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book; see Q. 3.20; 4.47; 5.65–66). The Qur'an identifies these groups as Jews, Christians and the less familiar Sabeans. The Ahl al-Kitab were technically equal with Muslims in dhimmi status, but restrictions were placed on the public aspects of religious practice. No Muslim was permitted to convert to another religion.

Classification of Religions: The most hated sin in Islam is shirk (association of something with God). Islam forbids all polytheism, pantheism and paganism. One problem in Islamic practice is the reverencing of saints and other holy persons. Since Muhammad is the last Prophet (Q. 5.3), Muslims reject the claims of Mormons and Baha'is.

The Ahl al-Kitab have a clearer relation to Islam. Every Muslim believes that Moses and Jesus were prophets of God (Q. 2.136, 285; 4.150–152). Food that is kosher for Jews is halal for Muslims. Muslim men are allowed to marry women who are Ahl al-Kitab. Muhammad himself received a delegation of Christians from Yemen, allowing them to pray in his mosque. The status of salvation for non-Muslims who are Ahl al-Kitab is not clear, though all final judgment belongs with God alone. The Qur'an does not hesitate, however, to criticize the shortcomings in both Judaism and Christianity.

Jews: Muhammad assumed that the Jews of Madina would accept his status as Prophet; they questioned his status since his revelations contradicted their scriptures and he was not a Hebrew. Jews were included in the Constitution of Madina as an umma alongside Muslims. When Makkans attacked Madina in 627, one Jewish clan was accused of treason and dealt with as such. After that event, Jews were regarded as a fifth column and were sent into exile (Q. 59.2–17). After this incident, the Qur'an accused Jews of turning away from the guidance of islam revealed by Moses (Q. 2.63–64), falsifying their scriptures (Q. 2.75–81) and, in arrogance (Q. 2.80, 7.169) claiming God's mercy for themselves alone (Q. 57.29). These theological problems did not completely rupture Jewish-Muslim relations. The political situation of Israel/Palestine has recently obscured a history of practical co-existence.

Christians: Muhammad was in contact with Christians early on in his life, as was the early Muslim community. The Christian groups in the Arabian peninsula during Muhammad's time were likely refugees from Byzantine orthodoxy with many different theological (especially trinitarian) commitments. Q. 5.82 favorably contrasts Christians with Jews. Other passages in the Qur'an are critical of Christians. Some of these critical statements are directly related to the occasion of revelation.

The Qur'an specifically rejects any talk of a "Son of God" (Q. 9.30, 112, 4.171). The greater context of these criticisms is the original Islamic context of polytheism: God has no wife, no sons and no daughters. The Hebrew Scriptures use "Son of God" to offer a title rather than a biological description. The language is more emphatic in Christian usage; the term emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus, as articulated in the Nicene Creed and its insistence that Jesus is "eternally begotten of the Father." The Christian belief that Jesus is the Word (logos) that exists beyond time and before creation began can be related to Muslim attempts at adequate language for the Kalam Allah (the eternal, uncreated Speech of God).

The incarnation is rejected by Muslims. One can affirm incarnational theology, however, while still respecting the Muslim assertion that God does not "share divinity with any created being." One resource may be the Sufi concept of fana, the state of being completely transparent to the light of God. Other approaches to the conversation are possible. The primary point is that differences should be real and not based merely on misunderstandings of speech.

The Qur'an rejects any talk of the "threeness" of God (Q. 5.73, 42.11). Christian talk of the Holy Spirit is based on the ruach of the Hebrew Scriptures. Some trinitarian language does sound like talk of three separate gods. The term prosopon was deemed inadequate and theologians began speaking of God has one ousia (substance) with three hypostases (mode of being or self-subsistent reality). Through all its inadequate analogies, Trinitarian theology seeks to affirm the oneness and transcendence of God.

Jesus in the Qur'an: The Qur'an mentions Jesus 93 times. He is affirmed as a Prophet (Q. 5.46–47) who led an exemplary life (Q. 43.57–59). Jesus was sent to the Hebrews; Muhammad is the universal Seal of the Prophets. Sufis revere him as an example of the ascetic life. The Qur'an affirms Jesus' miraculous birth to Mary (Q. 3.35–47 and 19.16–35). Despite his miraculous prenatal, infant and childhood existence, the Qur'an is clear that Jesus is not more than a Prophet. Jesus is most often referred to in the Qur'an as "Jesus, son of Mary" and Christians are told to not make excessive claims about him.

As a Prophet, Jesus is believed by Muslims to have received a book called the Injil (Q. 5.46). Christians have either misplaced or intentionally hidden this book (see chap. 3). Jesus is believed to have foretold a Messenger named Ahmad to follow him. Christians believe that Jesus was speaking instead about the Holy Spirit, though Muslims have insisted that the Christian scriptures have been corrupted.

The Qur'an is clear in its view that Jesus was not crucified as Christians believe (Q. 4.157–159). Muslim scholars have disagreed on how to interpret these verses. Indeed, the Islamic scenario of the Last Days has Jesus dying and being buried after defeating the forces of evil. He will then be raised in the general resurrection. This is perhaps the most serious Qur'anic rejection of Christian belief.

Key Names, Terms, and Concepts

  • Ahl al-Kitab
  • apostasy
  • shirk
  • Mosque of the Two Qiblas
  • Qurayza
  • Nicene Creed
  • periclytos
  • Injil

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  1. Why do Muslims object to anyone being called a "son of God"?
  2. Through what lenses do Muslims approach and analyze other religions?
  3. In the West, we have developed a general assumption of the freedom of religion. How has this assumption been approached by Islam, especially in its early years of expansion?
  4. Explain why Muslims assume that Jews and Christians have corrupted their scriptures. How does this complicate Jewish-Christian-Muslim theological conversations?
  5. In our contemporary world, religion is a subtext of political conversations. Explore how Jewish-Christian-Muslim interreligious dialogue could provide resources for discussing the conflict in Israel/Palestine.
  6. It is often assumed that religious differences lead to conflict. In your perspective, how might we foster interreligious engagement and dialogue that nurtures peace rather than hostile division? For dialogue to occur, do we need to simply minimize differences?

For Further Reading


  • Maurice Bormans, ed., Guidelines for Dialogue between Christians and Muslims (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue), trans. R. Marston Speight (New York: Paulist, 1990).
  • Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim: An Exploration (Oxford: Oneworld, 1999).
  • Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Chicago: New Amsterdam, 2001).
  • Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Charles Kimball, Striving Together: A Way Forward in Christian-Muslim Relations (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).
  • Ovey N. Mohammed, Muslim-Christian Relations: Past, Present, Future (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999).
  • A. Christian Van Gorder, No God but God: A Path to Muslim-Christian Dialogue on God's Nature (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003).
  • Kate Zebiri, Muslims and Christians Face to Face (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997).

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