The Core of the Qur’anic Worldview

At the center of the Qur’an’s view of reality are three concepts: The oneness of God, the day of judgement, and prophethood. I had this pointed out to me at a training about five years ago (my thanks, Scott, if you ever read this) and have since tested this framework with the Qur’an itself and with my Muslim friends. It is definitely built into the logic of the Qur’an and also functions as a self-evident truth in the minds of many Muslims that I have known.

The oneness of God (tawhid) means that there is only one God who is supreme over all others beings. Islam emerged at a time when most Arabs were polytheistic and worshiped many gods. The holiest shrine of the Arabs, the Kaaba, is said to have contained over three hundred idols. Muhammad focused on attacking polytheism with this doctrine of the oneness of God. In the process he also used it to attack the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, though there is much evidence that the Qur’an itself is ignorant of what most Christians actually believed (and believe) about the Trinity, since it focuses its rhetoric against the idea that Christians worship three gods: God, Jesus, and Mary. The Qur’an teaches an absolute and simple unity of God. There is one God and any attempt to ascribe partners or distinctions of personhood within God are the worst kind of blasphemy, known as shirk.

The second element of the Qur’anic worldview is the day of judgement. While the Qur’an doesn’t teach that humanity is fallen in the Christian understanding of having a sinful nature, nevertheless, most of humanity is understood to be ignorant and unbelieving. Because humanity has so often turned to idolatry and away from the worship of the one God, they are in danger of being condemned at the final day of judgment. The day of judgment is understood to be a straightforward day of reckoning where God weighs a person’s good deeds and their bad deeds. If the scale is heavier on the side of the good, then that person will go to gardens of paradise. If the bad is the heavier side, then that person will begin suffering right away in fiery torment. The day of judgment is taught to be inevitable, bearing down upon humanity and previewed in history by many destroyed cities and civilizations that were left in ruins because they refused to turn from their idolatry.

However, because the Qur’an teaches that humanity is morally free and able to do righteous deeds which merit eternal life, God sends prophets to call societies back to belief in the oneness of God and the day of judgment. This is where prophethood, the third aspect of the Qur’anic worldview, fits in. The Qur’an teaches that prophethood is a pattern of history that plays itself out repeatedly. A society turns away from God to idolatry and scoffs at the day of judgment. God sends that society a prophet from among them, often with his own book of God’s revelation. That society either repents and returns to the worship of one God and the proper fear of the day of judgment (with accompanying good deeds) or they continue to scoff and God utterly destroys them. This pattern is said to have repeated itself countless times before the emergence of Muhammad among the Arabs.

As the creation, fall, redemption, restoration pattern sets the big plot line for the Bible and shows itself in many smaller, foreshadowing narratives, so the cyclical pattern of Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood play a similar role in the Qur’an. Muhammad is cast as the seal of the prophets, meaning that he is the final messenger who brings this pattern to its final global manifestation. Muhammad is calling the Arabs, and through them the whole world, away from idolatry and to faith in one God and the day of judgment. The regional prophets of earlier times are understood to have been superseded by the global prophet with the final book of God’s revelation.

To tell a Muslim the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is to tell them a new kind of story foreign to Islam, even though they themselves end up echoing this story in other ways. The primary narrative of salvation history painted by the Qur’an is much simpler than the Bible’s. According to the Qur’an, humanity’s need is not salvation, but teaching and warning – teaching about the oneness of God, warning about the coming judgment. As long as someone submits themselves to that basic theology as mediated by Muhammad and the Qur’an, Islam gives them a pretty good chance of being able to earn eternal life.

Many of my Central Asian friends believe that Islam and Christianity basically teach the same thing. It’s all we can do to eventually convince them of the mutually exclusive narratives at the heart of both religions. They believe that all the Abrahamic religions hold to this same simple narrative – because the Qur’an teaches that this agreement exists. So using Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood and explicitly pointing out the differences between that metanarrative and the Bible’s can be a helpful path to take when laboring to demonstrate how the message of the Bible is actually very different from that of the Qur’an.

It also helps to explain the shocking differences Muslims find if they actually read the Old Testament. Many prophets who are held up as simple yet exemplary warners in the Qur’an, men like Lot, Noah, and Abraham, prove to be quite complicated, flawed, and sinful in the book of Genesis. Prophets are understood in the Qur’an to be the holiest of humans, essentially sinless in their mission of proclaiming repentance and submission. In the Scriptures, Muslims find out that prophets deserve hell, just like everyone else, and must be saved by God’s sacrifice alone.

Initially that lands as very bad news. But when Muslims have a good Christian friend who can explain and model the grace of God for them, then it can become the very best news of all.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

The Image of God and the Wonder of Language

So God created man in his own image, 
in the image of God he created him; 
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV) 

Human language is a stunning mystery. There are over 6,000 surviving languages in the world. Yet not one of these natural languages emerged through a process of careful planning and human creation. They simply emerged in an act of collective unconscious (re)creation, complete with complex rules of grammar and diverse and nuanced vocabulary. How in the world did that happen without any planning?

In tribal Melanesia (where I grew up), there are hundreds of unique tribal languages, some so difficult it is said that no one over forty years of age can learn them. Many of these tribes were living in stone age conditions until the mid-20th century. Yet the complexity and beauty of these tribal languages developed nonetheless, making Melanesia the most linguistically diverse part of the planet. It’s almost as if the creative impulse in these tribes, foiled to some extant by the lack of basic technologies, couldn’t help but overflow somewhere else. The result was a linguistic environment just as rich and diverse as the thousands of plant and animal species in the surrounding rain forest.

Human beings seem to be hardwired to create and hardwired to speak. It’s so deep within our nature that we can’t help it. Entire languages and dialects are born on accident. They continue to change and develop over time with a will of their own, shifting and morphing in spite of most heartfelt protestations of the proverbial grammar nazis. Dictionaries and grammar books try in vain to communicate what “proper” language is, but all they do is provide a snapshot of the never-ending human recreation of language. Once a language is formalized and written, it may result in a slower pace of change, but it does not stop the process of language change. Nothing in this world seems able to stop it.

What is to account for this great mystery of human language? I believe our ability to collectively and unintentionally create thousands of languages must be rooted in our own creation in the image of God. What exactly this means has been a topic of great theological debate throughout the centuries. Does the image of God primarily refer to dominion over nature, relational ability between humans, the possession of a soul, the way ancient near eastern kings set up images of themselves in territories under their rule? While much of this is likely, it does seem that language, the ability to speak and understand speech, is one core part of being made in the image of God.

We believe in a trinitarian God, that he is one God in three eternal persons. This means that there has been relationship and indeed, communication between the members of the Trinity for all of eternity. This is so central to God’s identity that one member of the Trinity is named the Word. This same God spoke creation into existence, then spoke to his creatures and gave humans the ability to speak back. He later sent his revelation into the world in the form of inspired written words – in three human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) with loan words from a bunch of others (like paradise which come from Old Persian).

Language is central to the nature of God. As those made in the image of God, language is also central to our own human nature. And it will be for all of eternity. I believe this is a good theological foundation for the wonder of human language. How do we account for the fact that languages seem to emerge out of nowhere with incredible complexity only to be slowly simplified over the centuries? That runs opposite to the logic of Darwinian evolution, where life moves from more simple to more complex. But it does not pose a problem for the Bible, which communicates to us a created world wonderful enough such that the “music” of the world’s founding still has not run out (let the reader understand), but continues to give us a quiet encore each time a new pidgin or creole comes into its own fresh and colorful life.

And, wonder of wonders, this incredible linguistic dance and diversity flows from a God who effectively communicates objective universal truth by the means of our world’s frolicking and unpredictable – even fallen – languages. Again, how in the world did that happen? Yet it did. In spite of the ever-changing nature of language and the overwhelming multitude of global and historic tongues, God and we effectively communicate fixed and unchanging truths through the medium of human language. No language is perfect or comprehensive, but each is effective enough to serve as a vehicle of God’s eternal words. Yet more mystery!

I’m no philosopher, but when I heard it said by some that postmodern philosophy dead-ended in the relativity of human language and epistemology (the study of how we know things) it made sense. What would any worldview without the biblical God possibly do with the problems posed by human language? But for the Christian, it’s not a problem, it’s a mystery that leads to curiosity, more creation, and worship. Oh yes, and Bible translation and literacy for every language of the world.

One final thought. In the face of the mystery of human language and the image of God, we should also embrace a posture of humility. Perhaps by contrasting ourselves with the source of all language, in the style of God’s response to Job:

Were you there when I laid the foundation of grammar? 
When Old Sumerian gasped its first breaths 
And Old Sogdian its last? 
Where were you when I spoke eternal words through the Hebrew tongue?
And forever fixed my truth in what before was like waves of the sea? 
Who wrote the conjugations of Ancient Sanskrit?
And said to Chinese, "No conjugations for you - be verbal aspect!"? 
Surely you know! 
For you are wise and speak maybe two or three tongues,
But I am the source of ten thousand. 

Photo by Joel Naren on Unsplash

Doesn’t the Title “Son of Man” Emphasize that Jesus is Not Divine?

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.

Matthew 26:63–65

[63] 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.” [64] 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.” [65] 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.

Source Material:

Hamilton, Jim, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

What Hath ISIS to do with Story Book Bibles?

Photo by Ryan on Unsplash

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.