Last week I wrote about learning culture in order to illustrate the truth of God’s word. When it comes to the risky area of illustrating with, or building bridges with, Islam, we should affirm that some bridges do exist in Islamic theology, history, and culture that can help Muslims understand Christian concepts that Islam itself rejects. J. Nelson Jennings proposes that Christians should view other religions as being like a three-legged stool:
“the three legs represent sin, Satan, and searching… one must not view Islam as simply sinful and Satanic. Similarly, one must not view Islam simply as Muslims searching for (and perhaps adhering to) the truth. Islam, like all religious traditions, evidences morally sinful, deceptively Satanic, and genuinely searching (and true) aspects.”
I find this metaphor to be very well-balanced (pun intended). We need to acknowledge the reality that so many Muslims are sincere in their error, zealous for the law as it were, alongside the fact that Islam itself is a Satanic system of deception which empowers the sinful nature. This doesn’t open the door at all to Islam being a way of salvation, but still acknowledges that many Muslims are indeed searching for truth – no surprise given that Islam has inherited so much Judeo-Christian content, albeit by co-opting it for its own narrative.
It is with the aspect of Islam which is genuinely searching that bridges can prove to be helpful, rather than harmful. In building bridges, one seeks to illustrate the truthfulness of a doctrine by demonstrating that the hearer already adheres to an analogous or similar belief to that which they are currently rejecting. Put another way, building bridges is an attempt to seek those truth categories that already exist in a religion or a person’s mind and to link those categories with biblical content in order to show that biblical content’s truthfulness, goodness, and beauty. It is category renovation rather than category creation, an attempt at moving from shadow to substance.
Jennings, “The Deity of Christ for Missions, World Religions, and Pluralism,” p. 270.
Sometimes Muslims will seize on Jesus’ favorite title for himself, Son of Man, as evidence that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God or that he didn’t claim to be divine. There is a passage where Jesus uses the title, Son of God, for himself. But here we’ll deal with the claim directly – Does Jesus’ usage of Son of Man mean that he is emphasizing his mere humanity? At first glance, it would indeed seem that this title is emphasizing humanity. Perhaps Jesus knew that people would naturally ascribe divinity to him, given his many miracles, and he wanted to guard against this? However, as with so many other questions, a better answer comes from reading the passage in question in the context of the whole Bible.
Jesus isn’t the only one who is the recipient of the title, Son of Man. Many of you reading this know where I’m going, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world have never heard of the book of Daniel, much less the vision of the Son of Man contained in chapter seven. Here is that vision from Daniel 7:13-14.
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (ESV)
In this passage, this Son of Man figure is pictured coming on the clouds of heaven. This is not merely a note about the mode of this person’s arrival. This is theophany language, phraseology used to describe when God reveals himself. Only YHWH is pictured coming on the clouds in the Old Testament. If the clouds in Daniel 7 are not meant to imply divinity, then, according to the scholar Peter Gentry, this would be the only time in about seventy Old Testament occurrences.
This Son of Man comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days, apparently possessing the kind of standing and glory necessary to approach the throne of God himself. Then he is given dominion and universal service (another translation could render this term as worship) and an everlasting kingdom. These two things, universal service/worship, and an everlasting kingdom, belong to God alone, as every faithful Old Testament believer would attest. But in this passage, the Son of Man is given both. Furthermore, he is mysteriously presented as distinct from the Ancient of Days, yet also possessing the unique attributes of the Ancient of Days. Sounds a lot like and the word was with God, and the word was God. Somehow distinct, yet somehow the same. The Son of Man is clearly presented here as mysteriously divine.
But how do we know that Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 when he uses the title, Son of Man, for himself? Couldn’t he be using it to say he’s not God, as is the usage in Numbers 23:19? Maybe it’s just royal language like is used in Psalm 8:4? Or maybe Jesus has a particular affinity for the prophet Ezekiel, who is called Son of Man more than ninety times in his book? I actually find the linkage to the Psalm 8:4 and and Ezekiel helpful, though they are not usually mentioned in talking about the background to Jesus’ usage of this title. Apparently, the title Son of Man has Davidic-Messianic meaning as well as context informed by Ezekiel, the prophet who suffers in exile on behalf of his people. Very appropriate for the Messiah-King-Prophet who would suffer exile from God for the sake of his people.
But Jesus himself lets us know which passage he has in mind as the primary lens through which we are to view the meaning of Son of Man.
 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (ESV)
Apparently the high priest understood Jesus’ allusion to Daniel 7 all too well. We also are to understand Jesus’ choice of the title, Son of Man, primarily through the figure of Daniel 7. This means that the title Son of Man is Jesus claiming to be divine every single time he uses it. And the gospels are absolutely saturated with his usage of this term.
Far from being a title that proves Jesus didn’t claim divinity, Son of Man is instead a radical self-claim by Jesus that he is with God, and that he is God, that he has received an eternal kingdom and is worthy of universal service and worship. So, if you ever encounter the objection that Son of Man is emphasizing Jesus’ mere humanity, take your friend to Daniel 7 and Matthew 26 and draw the connections. They are mysterious, yes, but they are clear.
Hamilton, Jim, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology
First, some historical background. There were Arab Christians before the emergence of Islam that used Allah to refer to the Christian God. These were Arab tribes such as the Lakhmids, the Banu Taghlib, and the Ghassanids who lived on the borders of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. In fact, one of the oldest sources of written Arabic is a monastery inscription written by Hind, mother of the Lakhmid king, Amr, which reads “This church was built by Hind, mother of King Amr and servant of Christ… May the God for whom she built this church forgiver her sins and have mercy on her son.” Arabic Christians have continued throughout history to use the name Allah to refer to the God of the Bible to the present day. The name Allah is linguistically related to the Aramaic name for God, Alaha, and more importantly, to the Hebrew name, El. So in terms of history and etymology, Allah has a strong case. It has been conveying the meaning of the God of Bible’s identity for at least 1,500 years among Arabic-speaking Christians. Its sister languages have been similarly using its cognates for even longer than that.
But what about Islam? What happens when a rival religion emerges and hijacks the name for God the Christians have been using, filling it with unbiblical meaning? The god the Qur’an describes is vastly different from the God the Bible describes. The god of the Qur’an is a simple unity who is transcendent, but not imminent. The God of the Bible is a complex unity, a Trinity, who is both transcendent and imminent. The nature of the former means he cannot become a man to die a shameful death on a cross for the atonement of sins. The latter did, as the eternal Son took on flesh and became the man, Jesus Christ. Despite this and many other differences, Arab Christians throughout history, including our evangelical brothers and sisters, have held onto the name Allah for God. They are the linguistic insiders, the ones best qualified to know whether the biblical meaning of God can still be communicated by the form, Allah. English speakers should defer to native Arabic speakers, agreeing that within the Arabic language, Allah can be used to speak of the Christian God.
As English speakers, a little reflection on our own word, God, can be helpful here. In spite of its polytheistic Indo-European and Germanic baggage, the name God has been redeemed and filled for a millennium and a half with biblical meaning. Therefore, our own experience tells us that names of deities with pagan baggage can become faithful linguistic servants of the true revelation. Let’s say Mormonism, with its own unbiblical views of God, overtakes Christianity in the West and becomes the dominant religion. Would we abandon the name, God? Unlikely. We would probably labor for thousands of years to refill the form with its biblical meaning, not unlike what Arab Christians have done.
The name Allah should not be used to refer to the God of the Bible outside of Arabic-speaking communities. There are at least three reasons for this.
The first is that Christian history and missions history have shown that whenever possible, Christians should seek to redeem the indigenous word for the all-powerful creator God that already exists in that language, if one exists. Again, we English speakers live this reality every day when we say God instead of YHWH or El. Why has redeeming the chief divinity’s name been so effective throughout history in hundreds of languages? My theory is that the name for the all-powerful creator god in a given language represents an ancient remnant of early monotheism, diluted sometime after Babel into polytheism, but still there, waiting like a time-bomb for a Christian missionary to come along and connect that name back to its source. He has not left them without a witness to himself (Acts 14:17).
The second reason for not using Allah in other linguistic contexts is that Allah primarily represents/means the god of Islam in those other languages, making it more harmful than not to communicating the biblical God. Languages other than Arabic don’t have the broader range of meanings of Allah that Arabic has, in which Allah continues to be used also as the God of Arabic Christians and Jews. These languages often have another namefor the all-powerful creator god in addition to the more narrowly-understood Allah proclaimed among them by Islam. This is true of the Muslim Central Asian people group that we work among and many others. Our focus people group, interestingly enough, has a name for God that is a very distant cousin-cognate to our English term, God. When they use this indigenous name, it carries a broader sense than Allah does, thus giving us more room to build biblical categories. We sense this even in English. When someone speaks of Allah we understand that that person is speaking of the god of Islam in a narrower sense than we use the term God in English. Words really do carry around meaning-baggage with them, and we need to acknowledge it and carefully judge if a name is already so tied to unbiblical meaning as to be not worth the salvage effort. In other languages, Allah is not worth the effort it would take to redeem it, especially when God has preserved an indigenous name for the all-powerful creator god in that language.
That brings me to my third reason to not use Allah to refer to the biblical God in non-Arabic contexts. Islam teaches that in order to please God, you must pray, worship, and live like a 7th century Arab. It teaches that Arabic is the language of heaven and thus holier than all other languages. This means that all those other people groups who are Muslim have been raised to believe that their language is inferior for praying to Allah and that they will only get the spiritual merit they need to gain paradise if they pray in 7th century Arabic. In a real sense, they must become Arabs or they will go to hell. Why have the Persians, the Turks, the Kurds, the Berbers, the Dari, the Pashtun, the Baloch, the Somalis, and so many others blindly accepted this linguistic and cultural colonialism? It is tragic that no one has taught them that gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved, and therefore, they do not have to become Arabs. Missionaries run the risk of contributing to this Arab-supremacist heresy when we thoughtlessly or “creatively” use Allah among non-Arab people groups. Instead, we should be proclaiming that the true God knows their language and knows their people, that he loves them and desires for them to worship him in their own language as a unique manifestation of his glory – that he will even preserve worship in their language for all eternity (Rev 7:9). These truths are precious and powerful for oppressed people groups in a way that dominant people groups (like English and Arabic speakers) sometimes struggle to understand. Yes, the gospel will call them to transcend their ethno-linguistic identity as members of the race of Christ, but first it will honor their ethno-linguistic identity. In salvation, God will come to them and will speak to them in their mother tongue. So should we.
So, can Christians use the name of Allah to refer to the God of the Bible? It depends. If it’s in Arabic, absolutely. In other languages, let’s avoid it wherever possible.
Arab Christian History Source: Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 92
It was 1:00 am in Richmond, VA, 2015. I was sitting next to a young Middle Eastern immigrant, reminiscing about what we missed about his native region. This young man was in an enviable situation, one which many are in fact dying to achieve as they freeze to death in refrigerated lorries or drown in the waters of the Aegean. My friend had legal residency in the USA, was going to a good university, and had a steady job at his uncle’s Mediterranean restaurant. As we talked and sipped black tea (loaded with egregious amounts of sugar), the topic of ISIS came up. At that point they still controlled an area of the Middle East comparable to the size of many countries. While we spoke, this young man confessed to me that he watched ISIS propaganda videos and followed some of their accounts. And, in spite of everything, his heart was stirred. He still insisted that their violence did not represent true Islam, but it was clear that there was a powerful resonance in their message, one which at the very least caused some measure of internal doubt and wavering for a young Muslim with a promising future in the West.
There’s a good reason young men (and women) from all over the world joined ISIS, and continue to join it and similar groups. It has nothing to do with them being uneducated or from impoverished backgrounds, as is sometimes reported in the media. In fact, most who volunteer for jihadist groups are actually well-educated and from middle class or upper class families. Instead, many join because of a powerful understanding of history that goes like this: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.
No, I’m not speaking of that redemptive history, which begins with God’s creation of a good world, which then falls into a curse through man’s sin, a world that is redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is now restoring all things, culminating in a new creation. That’s the original and true metanarrative, wonderfully fleshed out in the recent wave of biblical theology texts and children’s story book bibles. I am instead speaking of a diabolical hijacking of that story. It goes something like this. Creation: Long ago there was a united and just society, the Islamic Ummah. This society, established by God and led by the caliph, ruled a huge empire and ushered in an unprecedented age of justice and enlightenment. Fall: Sadly, this world was undermined by the scheming of pagan Western nations, who finally divided the Islamic Ummah and ended the caliphate at the close of WWI. The Muslims of the world have been under the curse of foreign domination and internal division ever since. They have strayed far from the teachings and lifestyle of Mohammad. Redemption: This tragic situation can be redeemed if faithful Muslims from all over the world are willing to sacrificially return to the true teachings and lifestyle of early Islam, spilling their blood in noble jihad to restore the caliphate once again. Restoration: The blood of the martyrs will lead to victory and a renewed caliphate, which will once again rule the world in righteousness and usher in the day of judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Cue the epic music and visuals and you have a very moving propaganda video, especially for those who have felt any sense of inferiority as Muslims.
What exactly does the secular West have to combat a powerful metanarrative like this? Be true to yourself? Follow your heart? YOLO? Human rights because… Nazis are bad? Story after story of Western converts to Islam contain the same line, “I found my partying and my secularism to be empty. In Islam I found meaning and purpose.” Many young Muslims, like people everywhere, want to be part of something greater than themselves. When an individualistic pursuit of pleasure or success comes up empty (and it always does), when a community experiences oppression (real or perceived), the metanarratives beckon, promising purpose, redemption, and eternal life. This is bad news for a Western world too jaded to believe in metanarratives anymore. The West pumps trillions of dollars into stopping Islamic extremism and yet only succeeds in tripling the global number of jihadist fighters. Sure, the West has better physical weaponry, but when it comes to ideology, they’ve brought their Beyonce CDs to a gun fight – at least when it comes to the radical minority that is awake to the desire for glory, honor, and immortality (Rom 2:7).
Once or twice I have tongue-in-cheek explained my job as taking potential ISIS recruits and turning them instead into Southern Baptists. No, this is not exactly what is going on, but there is a grain of truth to this playful distortion. The scriptures reveal to us the one true account of redemptive history, the authentic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. We have access to the only metanarrative that can cut deeper to the heart of a young radicalized Muslim than the sermons of the late Al-Baghdadi. Sadly, as things currently stand many will never hear this true account, but only the hijacked version. As much as it is up to us, then, let us resolve that every potential jihadi recruit has the chance to hear the gospel in a language he can understand, and from the mouth of a believing friend.
I came across it again yesterday in a Facebook thread. A local Muslim was claiming that Jesus never says that he is the Son of God, but that it’s only his mistaken followers who claimed this about him. So I posted this often-overlooked verse into the discussion:
…do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:36 ESV)
There it is. This is Jesus speaking about himself. And he directly says, “I said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” I think this may be the only place in scripture where Jesus himself makes this direct and obvious a claim to the title, Son of God. Yes, there are dozens and dozens of other ways in which Jesus makes this same statement in other forms. Many of these ways are indirect, but some of them only seem indirect to us, removed as we are from the worldview of first century Judaism.
Ironically, many Muslim apologists will reject these seeming-indirect claims to Jesus’ divinity (e.g. “the Son of man has authority to forgive sins”) when they themselves come from a culture steeped and skilled in indirect communication. It’s helpful sometimes to point out, “Listen, friend, Jesus was a Middle Easterner! He teaches like a Middle Eastern teacher, where a lot can be clearly stated indirectly” (In Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, a “no” even means “yes” the first couple times an invitation is extended). At the same time, as long as Muslims and others continue to repeat the line that Jesus never claimed the title Son of God for himself, John 10:36 is there. Strangely absent from many of these discussions, yes, but there nonetheless, ready for a gentle but painfully true refutation that can advance the conversation onto fertile ground.
We wound our way slowly up the mountain’s dirt road, carefully choosing tracks for the tires that avoided the worst of the ruts caused by the spring rains. It was only the two of us taking this outing to the top of the mountain, myself and my peculiar friend, a village Sufi mystic who was missing many teeth and who was at least twenty years my senior. My friend, a mullah (teacher) of sorts, had aggressively befriended me in the way only a villager in an honor-shame culture can, hoping, I later found out, that I would be his ticket to America. But on this day all I knew was that he wanted to take me somewhere special.
Sufism is the experiential “denomination” of Islam, roughy analogous to Pentecostalism within Christianity. The focus of Sufi Islam is on achieving mystical union with God, thereby experiencing his power and his love. But this is accomplished through good works, prayers, mantras, etc. It’s my opinion that the Sufis borrowed heavily from mystical Middle Eastern Christianity and that they came the closest to the Christian idea of God as they strayed further from orthodox Islam and into “heretical” ideas, such as the belief that God could become a man incarnate. The Sufis reached their zenith in medieval Islam, but in the last hundred years or so have lost much of their influence as Saudi-funded Wahabiism seeks to return Islam to its own interpretation of the faith’s original form and sources. If you’ve ever heard of the whirling dervishes, then you’ve heard of one expression of Sufi Islam. Sufism is declining, but it holds on in contexts like ours, where it once ruled.
As we traveled up the mountain we passed a few shepherds with their sheep dogs, goats, and sheep, as well as a man on an ambling tractor. The temporary vibrant green grass and flowers of spring complimented the view as we climbed higher and higher above the village, its valley, and its flashing lake. Many other mountain peaks were now in view and I soaked in the beauty of this ancient region. After about twenty minutes of driving we arrived at the end of the road. On our left we could now look down over the other side of the mountain where we could see a large town and the soaring peaks beyond it, home to local guerrilla fighters who are, of course, regularly bombed by neighboring countries. The town in the valley below us had its own tragic history of genocidal bombing at the hand of a former dictator. Just in front of us was a shepherd’s hut, but we turned and walked up the slope to our right toward a small grove of wild gum trees.
My friend reached for a cut made in the trunk of one of these gum trees and handed me a glob of cloudy white sap, encouraging me to chew it. It’s consistency was surprisingly like chewing gum, but the only flavor was bitter pine-needle, without any sweetness whatsoever. I forced a smile and kept chewing it for politeness, but looked for a good opportunity to discretely spit it out. In spite of my deep desire to “go native” I just haven’t been able to understand the delights of chewing on Pine Sol-flavored sticky tack. Next, we came to a natural spring, which I was genuinely happy to take a drink from. The way that God causes springs of water to gush up out of the tops of mountains is simply magical and delightful, especially in a land that turns into a desert for nine months of the year.
Now we came to the main attraction, an ancient oak tree, squat and bordered by a small fence. Hundreds of small colored cloths hung from its branches and swayed in the wind. And in the middle of the fenced area was a grave.
“This man was the son of the caliph, Umar,” my friend announced. “They came here with their armies and my ancestors gave them a bloody resistance. We killed so many of the invading Arabs that they still call those of us from this area ‘The Killers of the Disciples.’ Ha!”
“This man,” he went on, “killed thousands upon thousands of my people.”
It was a poignant scene. In front of us was the grave of a man who took part in religiously-motivated genocide. In the valley below us lay a town where thousands of the same people group had died by genocide, once again, but as recently as the year I was born. Just beyond that town lay the mountains where jets continue to drop their bombs to this day. What came out of my friend’s mouth next left me speechless.
“This is a holy man. This is a holy place. We should pray here.”
It was then I fully understood the horrific irony of this place. The locals understood this man’s grave to be a shrine. That’s why the little colored cloths were tied to the branches of the old gnarled oak, Asian-style, to represent a prayer. Somehow my friend could not see the awful contradictions of his words, his ethnicity, his history, and his religious beliefs. Two plus two did not equal four. The son of the caliph of Islam could kill thousands of his ancestors in the name of Islam and his grave could still be considered a holy shrine. And just that morning my friend had reassured me that ISIS’ violent actions did not represent true Islam. Yet here we were.
My friend entered the enclosure and lifted his hands to pray, in Arabic, the language of his people’s conquerors.
For my part, I turned and walked away. I did pray, but not to the shrine of a killer. Rather, I prayed to the God who made the mountains, the wild gum trees, and the mountain springs, the only one who hears prayer, the one who has called us to love our enemies, and the one who alone can open the eyes of the blind. Even one so blind as my friend.
The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is a heavenly message. As such, it often takes a little while until earthly ears can actually understand it to the point of rejecting it for what it is. Many who reject the gospel reject it without having actually understood the message. Very often, and in spite of our best efforts, unbelievers initially hear another message of “do good in my way so that God will accept you.” When possible, acknowledging this dynamic means that we should labor to present the gospel multiple times to a given friend before we conclude that they have actually rejected the gospel.
Years ago, when I was here in Central Asia as a single, I spent the night in a friend’s college dormitory. Many of the students there were from a conservative village area and they spent the whole night trying to convert me to Islam. I graciously returned the favor, in turn spending the whole night trying to explain the gospel to them. Some hours into the night, I remember realizing that these students simply weren’t understanding what I was actually saying. They were processing everything I was sharing with them about faith and the forgiveness of sins through a works-righteousness framework. I had recently received some training on how to share the gospel with Muslims through a series of Old Testament sacrifice stories, culminating in the presentation of Jesus as the final sacrifice for our sins, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).” So I gave this approach a shot.
The ringleader of the students was a young man whose father was a mullah (an Islamic religious teacher) back in the village. I’ll never forget when this student turned to me early in the morning and announced, “I will never allow Jesus to be the sacrifice for my sins. I will be the sacrifice for my own sins!” While grieved by this young man’s self-righteousness and hardness of heart, I was at the same time encouraged. He got it. He understood that we were no longer in a discussion about “my rules are better than your rules,” but that I was presenting was a completely different system of salvation – salvation accomplished by faith in the sacrifice of the God-man. The shift from speaking in more abstract theological categories to speaking in more concrete categories (guilty and forgiven vs. accepted by a sacrifice) seemed to be part of the breakthrough in clarity in this situation.
It is vitally important that we share the gospel to the point where we can see that our friends are actually understanding what we are saying. I fear that rejection of the gospel stemming from misunderstanding is probably more common than we think. Differences, in language, culture, background, and just plain old fallenness usually keep people from being able to really hear us in our first gospel presentation. Even when someone rejects the gospel having clearly understood it, that does not always mean we move on. If I regularly speak of Jesus, and my friend is still open to hanging out with me, then this can mean that in some way my friend might be open to Jesus after all.
And observe the prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Surely good deeds take away evil ones. That is a reminder to the mindful.
Sūra 11:114 (Hūd), The Qur’ān, A.J. Droge
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Colossians 2:13-14 (ESV)
Technically that’s three verses. Nevertheless, the contrast is clear. Sin is canceled by human good deeds vs. sin is forgiven by God through Jesus’ work on the cross.