Thinking Critically about Islam
November 15, 2022
I always teach my students to distinguish between Islam and Muslims. Islam is a world religion with adherents composing about 20% of the entire population on earth. They are called Muslims. As Christians, we are called to love everyone and preach the good news of Jesus Christ to every human being, including Muslims. We are not called to accept, follow, or love any ideology, but rather, in discernment and wisdom and based on biblical fidelity, we should test every thought and claim. Distinguishing Islam from Muslims is important, as we are called to love Muslims as Christ does, but it is important to think critically and biblically about the claims of Islam and subject them to the word of God and what it teaches. Here I offer you ten things you should know about Islam.
1. Islam means submission and surrender.
In many circles in the West, I hear people say that the term islam means peace. This is incorrect and either ignorant or misleading. The word means surrender and submission. Muslims understand it to reflect total devotion to the deity and the commands of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. As a religion, Islam is built on laws and rules that require total submission (thus, islam). During Muhammad’s time, he was known in the latter part of his life as a commander who launched raids against his enemies. When they submitted to him and to his rule, the Muslim sources described the action as entering Islam or converting to Islam. This notion reflects the core meaning of the term—it is giving oneself to a set of religious commands, presumably revealed by the deity through his messenger to humankind.
2. Islam has two major foundations.
As a faith system, Islam is built on two foundations: Allah’s word and Allah’s messenger, i.e., the Quran and Muhammad. These are two important foundations, without which Islam collapses. The Quran is Islam’s scripture. It is believed by Muslims to be inerrant and infallible. It does not follow chronological order nor does it provide clear context, at times, to certain passages. This is why it is relatively difficult even for Muslims to comprehend. They rely on later commentaries, without which they do not understand the text. The second foundation is Muhammad, known in Islam as the final and best prophet sent by Allah. For Muslims, Muhammad is the best man who ever lived. His life is the precedent which reflects the best application of the Quran. This is why Muslims try to imitate the stories of Muhammad’s life as they seek to apply the Quran.
3. Islam’s deity is Allah.
The name of Islam’s deity is Allah. He was known before Islam as one of the deities in Muhammad’s birthplace, Mecca. Some Arabs thought that Allah had three daughters who acted as mediators and intercessors, taking requests to him. The characteristics and adjectives about Allah have many similarities to the God of the Bible, although Allah has specific distinctions explicitly given to him in Islam. One of the most important distinctions is that he is not a personal deity. While Christians always emphasize a personal relationship with God, this notion is significantly foreign in Islam. Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews use the name Allah to refer to the God of the Bible, although arguably what they understand about him deviates in many ways from Allah’s character and attributes.
4. Islam is more than a religious system.
If you think of Islam as a religious system with many rituals, rules, and laws, you wouldn’t be mistaken, but you wouldn’t be totally correct either. While Islam is indeed a religion, it goes beyond that. For Muslims, it is a social identity and a nationalism as well. Muslims feel proud to follow Islam even though they often say they do not understand or know its basics. It is part of their cultural identity. It encompasses all aspects of their lives, which makes abandoning it very difficult on the family structure. Muslims fear abandoning Islam will bring shame to their families, so they may abandon the idea. Moreover, it is not only a cultural identity but a nationalism. Muslims feel pride for thinking of themselves as the umma (community) of Muhammad. They pride themselves on this, claiming no other religion connects its people as Islam does. This rosy picture is not always factual, especially if you see how Muslims deal with each other in majority-Muslim lands, where social castes play a major role in the daily life.
5. Islam has two major sects or denominations.
The major two sects of Islam are Sunni and Shiite (or Shia). Sunnis make up about 85% of Islam and Shiites 13%. The disagreements between the two sects are often diluted in media outlets, but the reality is that the disputes are deep theologically and politically. It is even a well-known fact that most adherents of each sect believe the other sect are not true Muslims.
6. Islam is a works-based system.
In Islam, acceptance before the deity relies on good works with good intentions. If Muslims want to please Allah, they should intend well and do good works, precisely following the prescribed duties given by Allah through his messenger, Muhammad. For the vast majority of Muslims, the prescribed duties are many, but the most important are labeled the Five Pillars of Islam. They are the confession of faith (shahada), the daily ritual prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting during Ramadan (sawm), and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in a lifetime. These deeds bring man closer to Allah, but there is no guarantee in Islam for eternal bliss, except for martyrs who gave their lives in the path of Allah.
7. Islam is a strong worldview with precise anti-Christian claims.
The Islamic worldview is built on the Quran and Muhammad’s sayings. The worldview controls how Muslims view the world and respond to humans. There are various elements in the Islamic worldview, but we should note that the view that stems from Islamic texts has strong anti-Christian elements in it, such as (1) Jesus is not God, (2) God is not triune, (3) the Bible is altered and corrupted. When we talk with Muslims, we need to recognize these elements of the worldview so that we can explain our biblical worldview and refute misconceptions.
It is a marvelous time to proclaim the gospel to Muslims around us.
8. Islam preaches a different Jesus.
Islam has a specific view of the Jesus of Christians, calling him Isa. Muslims always declare that they believe in “Jesus” and they complain to Christians, If we believe in your Jesus, why don’t you believe in our Muhammad? The Islamic Isa is very different from the biblical Jesus. Isa in Islam is not God, nor the Son of God. Isa is merely one of the prophets sent by Allah to humankind. The portrayal of Isa in the Quran and Muslim sources demonstrates a distorted picture of what Christians actually believe about the Lord and Savior.
9. Islam does not permit apostasy.
One of the gravest sins in Islam is associating partners with the deity, i.e., polytheism. However, abandoning Islam is also one of the major sins. All classical Muslim schools of law insist that the penalty of abandoning Islam is a death sentence. This is why many Muslims avoid declaring their apostasy. Some progressive Muslims argue that the claims of classical Muslims are not suitable for today, and we should adhere to human reasoning and allow every person to follow the religion of his or her choice.
10. Islam is not the fastest growing religion.
Many are under the misconception that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. This assumption often relies on the fact that the number of Muslims is growing worldwide, according to some statistics. However, this does not mean Islam is growing, nor does it mean that truly the number of Muslims is growing. In many circles, Muslims have been growing in number in past generations, because first, Muslim families tend to have more children, and second, Muslim women often stay at home which results in more children. This does not mean “Islam” is growing, nor does it mean that these trends are still continuing today. In fact, some statistics show that the rapid growth in Muslim families is now fading and most Muslims—due to economic pressures—are beginning to have less children. No, Islam as a religion is not growing in attracting adherents—it is actually the exact opposite. Many recent statistics show that Muslims are abandoning Islam in droves, especially as the Internet has given access to Muslims to read for themselves what the primary sources of Islam reveal. Many Muslims have begun to question the Quran and Muhammad—the two elements which used to be the untouchables of Islam. More Muslims are abandoning Islam today, we can argue, than in past centuries all together. It is a marvelous time to proclaim the gospel to Muslims around us.
A. S. Ibrahim is the author of Reaching Your Muslim Neighbors with the Gospel.