The freedom of Christ and the law of Muhammad
Does the Quran outshine the New Testament?
James M. Arlandson
Assuming the email is genuine, I got one that represents a common belief:
Recently while making dialogue with some Muslims, I was told by them that a Muslim life is much much harder than following a Christian life. The reason they gave was that Christians go to church only once a week, while Muslims pray 5 times a day which is probably more than a typical Christian. That was the way they saw it they said.
I did not have an answer since I was a bit unready for something like that. It was embarrassing. Let me ask you what you think about that.
At first glance, working hard in a religion appears pious and devout. And in some ways this is true. But is harder always better? How do we decide?
That question goes to the heart of the matter. There is an avenue we can take to answer it. Judaism serves as the background of Christianity and Islam (though Judaisms influence on Islam is more distant and problematic), so one way to decide is to compare Christianity and Islam in light of the Old Testament. The Quran itself invites this three-way comparison.
Allah asserts that he has brought clear guidance and light to the People of the BookJews and Christians (the Book is the Bible), bringing them out of darkness, as if things had been muddied.
5:15 People of the Book [Jews and Christians] . . . a light has now come to you from God, and a Scripture [the Quran] making things clear, 16 with which God guides them who follow what pleases Him to ways of peace, bringing them from darkness out into light, by His will, and guiding them to a straight path. (Haleem, the Quran, Oxford UP, 2004. His translation is used in this article, unless otherwise noted) (cf. Sura 4:157)
These two verses throw down a challenge to Christianity (and Judaism).
For their part, Christians honor and revere the Old Testament as inspired by God. However, Christ says that he has come to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20), and the inspired New Testament authors are in perfect agreement. (This process of fulfillment is done very subtly, so readers are invited to read this article that explains how.) Therefore, if a religion claims that it is better, but goes backwards to the Old Testament in such matters as sacrificing animals and keeping a required kosher diet, then this claim is an automatic signal that the religion is misguidedfrom a New Testament point of view. Why?
Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament.
So at the same time that the Quran asserts that it shines a light for Christians, does it drag them back to the Old Testament? Answering this question will also clarify the claim that harder is better.
It must be emphasized that this article goes deeper than deciding merely which religion is harder. Instead, it replies to Sura 5:15-16. Does the Quran really shine a light on Christians, bring them out of darkness, and guide them along a better path? This article explores the big differences—especially in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit—between Islam and Christianity, using Sura 5:15-16 as our foundational verses.
We begin with the key doctrine that will guide us through the other three.
It is a sad fact that when a religion ignores or diminishes the Spirit, the extra-religious members will pile on endless rules and regulations to control people and produce holiness in them from the outside in. Does this work in the long run?
The Old Testament
The Spirit was working in the hearts of some of his people. This is seen in the Spirits empowerment. For example, he empowered Joshua with leadership skills and wisdom (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9). He empowered the judges to deliver Israel from their oppressors (Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25, 14:6, 19, and 15:14). He empowered Saul to fight against the enemies of God (1 Samuel 11:6). He anointed David as king "from that day forward" (1 Samuel 16:13). He empowered a man with artistic skills for building the tabernacle and equipment (Exodus 31:3; 35:31), who could then teach these skills to others (Exodus 35:34).
The Holy Spirit also inspires revelation in Biblical prophets and authors. For example, he inspired Balaam to speak blessings over ancient Israel (Numbers 24:2). He inspired Ezekiel to speak the words of God (Ezekiel 11:5). Zechariah 7:12 says that the Spirit sent words to prophets, who spoke in the name of God.
Next, the Old Testament prophets predicted that God would put his Spirit in people in a new and more powerful way so that they could obey him more freely and powerfully. The old way simply did not work.
Ezekiel 36:26-27 says that God will put his Spirit in his people:
I will give you a new heart and a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to keep my decrees . . . .
Joel 2:28-32 is another good example. God promises his people restoration after divine judgment. He promises them that he will pour out his Spirit on them to restore and bless them and give them supernatural abilities to prophesy, dream dreams and see visions:
2:28 I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
People in Old Testament times could experience the Holy Spirit, who is a full Person, not an impersonal force, but this experience seemed limited to a select few. Also, the Spirit did not reside in every believer in a fully permanent and powerful way, but Ezekiel and Joel predicted that this would happen in the future.
The New Testament
It is in the New Testament times that this promise in Ezekiel and Joel was fulfilled, after Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected from the dead. In the New Covenant, everyone who asks for the Holy Spirit in Jesus name receives him fully, permanently, and powerfully.
The inspired Apostle Peter applies Joels prophecy to the church that Jesus established. It is the Day of Pentecost, a celebratory feast (see Exodus 23:16). God sends his Holy Spirit like a mighty wind and fills everyone who was praying in an upper room. Acts 2:1-4 describes the blessed scene:
2:1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Peter applies the prophecy in Joel to this holy moment (Acts 2:16-21). God continues to send his Spirit into people who ask him in Jesus name, just as he promised (John 16:5-16).
In an exhaustive concordance in which every word in the Bible is listed, the word "Spirit" or "spirit" of God or the Lord in the Old Testament takes up almost two columns. In the New Testament, the same words take over three columns. It should be noted that sometimes an evil "spirit" is listed in both Testaments (though not many times), but the number of columns still gives us an idea of the importance of the Spirit in the New Testament as compared to the Old Testament. This is especially remarkable, since the Old Testament is much, much longer than the New Testament.
In the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit, as a full Person, lives in every believer to help him follow God and receive his love. Many functions of the Spirit in the Old Testament can be found in the New Testament to a greater degree. Holiness and righteousness is therefore produced from the inside out, not from the outside in.
So do Spirit-filled Christians have to pray five times a day? No. Instead, they "pray continually" or "without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Only the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart can do this. Do they pray legalistically and ritualistically? No. Instead, they "groan" inwardly in the Spirit; that is, they pray fervently as the Spirit directs (Romans 8:26-27). Only the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart can do this.
However, if Christians out of their own free will choose to pray five times a day, then they are certainly permitted, but not commanded. In Christ, they are free.
Islam borrows the language and vocabulary of Judaism and Christianity, but it alters them in small and big ways. This is true of the Qurans pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit). The references to the Spirit are far, far fewer than those in the New and Old Testaments. In fact, the references in the Quran, below, are complete (or nearly so).
The Spirit in the Quran has similar functions as those in the Bible, but the Quranic Spirits role is weaker and less defined. Specifically, the Quranic Spirit seems to be involved in creation (Suras 15:98; 32:7-9; 38:71-72). He helped Mary conceive Jesus (Suras 19:18-19; 21:91; 66:12). The Spirit appeared in the form of a man to Mary (Sura 19:18-19). He strengthened Jesus (Suras 2:87; 2:253; 5:110), and the believers (Sura 58:22). Jesus is called a "spirit from God" (Sura 4:171; cf. 2:253). He inspired and revealed the Quran (Sura 16:102; 17:85; 26:192-193; 97:4). Finally, he is a witness or participates in some way in the Last Day (Suras 70:4; 78:38), warning of impending judgment (Sura 40:15).
Thus, the Qurans view of the Spirit overlaps somewhat with the Bible (creation, conception of Jesus, and inspiration), but in other ways the Quran is confused and deficient (Jesus is a spirit; the Spirit appears as a man; his helping believers is mentioned only once).
But none of this confusion and deficiency matters, because traditional Islam reduces the Holy Spirit to the archangel Gabriel. Why? The fully developed doctrine of the Spirit wreaks havoc on a strict Unitarian doctrine of God. But regardless of the why, the result of this diminishment is that Muslims are unable to experience the true presence of the True God.
Contrasting Christianity and Islam on the Spirit
It is clear from the Quran that the Spirit plays a vague and minor role in Islam, compared to Christianity. The New Testament references to the Spirit extend to three columns of small font in a large concordance. The Qurans references were summarized above, amounting to about twenty passages.
One of the results of this diminishment of the Spirits role in Islam, at least from a New Testament point of view, is that Muslims have to work extra-hard to feel the presence of Allah in a way that would even come close to resembling the presence of the blessed Holy Spirit in a Christians heart.
This difference between Islam and Christianity in their pneumatology only stands to reason; it is not intended as an insult. If a Christian is filled with the Spirit of God in Jesus name, then his holiness and righteousness come from the inside out, with the Spirit helping him. If a Muslim does not receive the Holy Spirit in Jesus name, then his holiness must come from a lot of self-exertion and self-discipline. That is true by definition.
The process of deciding whether harder is better compares Christianity and Islam with the Old Testament in the background. The Quran falls short of the Old and New Testaments on the doctrine of the Spirit. The absence of the felt presence of the Holy Spirit in a religion does not make that religion intrinsically better. In fact, this absence may drive a religion to pile on countless rules in order to make the followers appear acceptable to God. On the other hand, a Spirit-filled Christian lives in Christ, so he is not required, for example, to pray five times a dayunless he wants to do this out of his own free will. In Christ, he has freedom.
Thus, complications that come from numerous regulations are not signs of superiority. Harder is not always better; as religious laws pile up on a believers shoulders, religious bondage may develop, and he may become entangled in a list of requirements.
In its own peculiar way, Islam would drag Christians backwards, toward the Old Testament, though the Old Testament surpasses Islam on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the Quran does not outshine the New Testament (nor the Old Testament). In Christ, Christians are free under the Spirits direction.
For more information on the Spirit in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran, go to this article (scroll down to "Who is the Spirit?"). It convincingly argues that the Spirit in the Quran cannot be Gabriel, without damaging other aspects of Islamic theology.
The Old Testament uses animal and grain offerings to atone for sins. The New Testament teaches the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, so Christians are no longer required to kill animals. The Quran takes a complicated path.
The Old Testament
The first seven chapters of Leviticus spell out the how and why of five offerings: Burnt, grain, fellowship, sin, and guilt offerings. For example, in the sin offering, the priest is to bring a bull "without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed" (5:3). "He is to present the bull at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting [the mobile tabernacle] before the Lord. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it before the Lord" (5:4).
That and other procedures are the how of this offering, now what about the why? The answer is clear in the procedure for community sin, a leaders sin, or an individuals sin (a male goat): "In this way the priest will make atonement for the mans sin, and he will be forgiven" (vv. 26 and 35). Thus, through the blood of animal sacrifice a man was made pure before God and reconciled to him. Says Moses in Leviticus: "For the life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is blood that makes atonement for ones life" (Leviticus 17:11).
All in all, the Levitical offerings have different procedures and purposes: for the expiation of sins, the sin and guilt offerings were established. For consecration to God, the burnt and grain offerings were provided. For communion and fellowship with the Lord, priest, community, and family, the fellowship offering was laid down (including the vow offering, thank offering, and freewill offering).
Priests led the people into the presence of God, with the Great High Priest (Aaron) being the leader. Of course, any believer in the Old Testament could pray directly to God; the believers faith prevailed, but the blood of animals ratified Gods forgiveness in the sight of the community and in the presence of God in the tabernacle.
The New Testament
Jesus fulfills this ceremonial or ritual aspect of the Torah.
Aaron was the foremost high priest of the Old Covenant, but he could not compare with the great High Priest [Jesus Christ] of the New Covenant. Aaron entered the earthly tabernacle, but Christ entered the heavenly. Aaron entered once a year, but Christ for all time . . . Aaron offered many sacrifices, Christ only one [himself]. Aaron sacrificed for his own sin, Christ only for the sins of others . . . (John MacArthur, New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, p. 258)
When Christians read about animal sacrifices in Leviticus, they focus on Christs sacrifice, realizing that the old sacrificial system pointed to him. They offer a sacrifice of praise to God: "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise" (Hebrews 13:15). This Spirit-inspired verse was written in the context of Christs sacrifice of his blood on the cross outside the city of Jerusalem. We also commemorate the sacrifice of Christ in Communion or the Eucharist with the bread (his body) and wine (his blood) (Luke 22:17-23). To sacrifice animals all over again would be a blasphemous insult to this Ultimate Good Work of Christ
Also, Paul says that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices: "holy and pleasing to Godthis is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1, emphasis added). Jesus Christ inspires all believers to lift their vision beyond the literal, bloody sacrifice of animals and look to him, the literal and once-and-for-all and unique sacrifice for all times. Now Christians can approach God directly and boldly because their sins have been covered and expiated two thousand years ago, once they receive the cleansing of the Holy Spirit in their lives today.
Animal sacrifice in Islam is derived from pagan origins and allegedly from the Bible in Abrahams near-sacrifice of his son, who is unnamed in the Quran (Sura 37:107). Already this drags us back to the Old Testament.
For example, the Quran in Sura 22:36-37 says:
We have made camels part of Gods sacred rites for you. There is much good in them for you, so invoke Gods name over them as they are lined up for sacrifice, then, when they have fallen down dead, feed yourselves and those who do not ask, as well as those who do. We have subjected them to you in this way so that you may be thankful. It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God but your piety. He has subjected them to you in this way so that you may glorify God for having guided you. (Haleem)
In this passage, Muslims are commanded to perform sacrifice, but the blood and flesh do not "reach God," but the believers piety does. This states the obvious, but it also begs the question: if sacrifice has nothing to do with reaching God, then why sacrifice camels or cattle in the first place? Thankfulness? Anyone could be grateful to God for these animals and his guidance while they live and without slaughtering them.
However, this hadith, related by Aisha, Muhammads girl-bride, says that spilling blood is important.
Man has not done anything on [Id al-Adhah or Feast of Sacrifice] more pleasing to God than spilling blood; for verily the animal sacrificed will come on the day of resurrection with its horns, its hair, and its hoofs, and will make the scale of his (good) actions heavy. Verily its blood reaches acceptance before God, before it falls upon the ground . . . . (Source; scroll down to Idu l-Azah, the spelling has been modernized here in this excerpt)
It seems, then, that Islam acknowledges the importance of blood in sacrifice. During Judgment Day, the animal makes the mans scales heavy with good deeds, for the blood of the sacrifice is noticed by Allah in some way.
Further, the sacrifices were to take place in the vicinity of the Sacred House or Kabah shrine and at an appointed time (22:33). So the precinct and time make the bloody slaughter special and sacred. It is not a mere show or an ordinary event. It is important to realize this because Islamic animal sacrifice has a few of the elements found in Old Testament sacrifice, but is not identical to it.
However, Sura 22:36-37 (and v. 33) does not express the full doctrine of sacrifice in Islam, so we need a clearer and fuller definition. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam says under its entry "Sacrifice":
The most common sacrificial ritual is the compulsory slaughter of an animal as part of the obligatory pilgrimage (hajj) and the optional slaughter of an animal by non-pilgrims on the occasion of Id al-Adhah (Feast of Sacrifice), which commemorates Abrahams sacrifice. Most recently the ritual has been interpreted as fulfilling the needs of social welfare and charity . . . Aqiqah is the optional traditional sacrifice of animals on the occasion of a birth. Animal sacrifice may also be made in fulfillment of a vow or as an expiation of a sin during pilgrimage.
This excerpt says that sacrifice is made for these occasions and reasons: (1) compulsory slaughter during pilgrimage or hajj (Id al-Adhah sacrifice), which commemorates Abrahams alleged near-sacrifice of "Ishmael" (Sura 37:107); this commemoration can take place apart from the hajj; (2) welfare or charity (e.g. Sura 22:36); (3) optional aqiqah or sacrifice for a birth of a child; these three hadith say that after the animal is slaughtered, its blood is rubbed on the head of the infant (Abu Dawud, no. 2831; and then look at nos. 2832 and 2836); (4) fulfillment of a vow; and (5) expiation for a sin (e.g. Sura 5:95).
Contrasting Christianity and Islam on sacrifice
Fulfilling the requirement of animal sacrifice, Christianity boils everything down to Jesus Christ, thereby eliminating any complications. But Islam keeps many elements of sacrifice from paganism and dilutes the Old Testament. We examine only three purposes of sacrifices found in the Oxford Dictionarys definition just now cited.
First, even though meat and blood of the animal sacrifice do not "reach God," in Islam a sacrifice can expiate a pilgrims sin (Sura 5:95). In contrast, Christs sacrifice on the cross means that animals do not have to be slaughtered for expiation. Christs own final and once-and-for-all sacrifice expiates for all sins—even the smallest or the largest. The ritual does not need to be repeated literally and endlessly by means of animals. Christs sacrifice "reaches" God.
Second, in Islam sacrificial animals are used to commemorate the near-sacrifice of (the unnamed) Ishmael; Christianity does not add this ritual to Christs sacrifice on the cross. Christians celebrate (a bloodless) Communion or Eucharist only in honor of Christ, not an Old Testament patriarchand certainly Christians do not slaughter animals to commemorate a patriarch or Christ or anyone else.
During the hajj, Muslim pilgrims may offer the sacrificed animals to the poor as charity. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But a sacred purpose beyond charity is in view because anyone could give to charity through the Islamic zakat tax (the Third Pillar). And this sacred purpose of animal sacrifice is the dividing line between Islam and Christianity. Christ is our sacrifice, and our giving to the poor is done with food distribution or money, not in the context of a sacred rite that involves slitting an animals throat.
To sum up, Jesus paid it all on the cross, fulfilling the Old Testaments sacrificial system. So Christians no longer have to shed the blood of any earthly creature for any reason whatsoever. Christianity has moved beyond this bloody business.
Islam, on the other hand, perpetuates the bloody ritual of animal sacrifice for a cacophony of reasons. Islam dilutesnot fulfillsthe Old Testament rituals of animal sacrifices and carries forward pagan rituals. Thus, Allahs assertion in Sura 5:15-16 of shining a light on Christians would actually drag them back towards the Old Testament, in Islams peculiar way. For Christians this is completely unacceptable, especially in sacrificing. In Christ, Christians are free to rise above needless ritual sacrifice, and look to Christ.
Thus, harder is not always better. In fact, religious bondage may develop in the heart and mind, as religious law builds up on the believers shoulders.
Therefore, the Quran does not outshine the New Testament. There is freedom in Christ.
It must be admitted from the outset that eating or not eating certain foods is not an earth-shattering issue. But, once again, it goes to the heart of the claim that complications and difficulties make a religion superioras if harder is always better. More importantly, it goes to the claim in Sura 5:15-16 that the Quran shines a light on Christians and guides them better.
The Old Testament
In Leviticus chapter 11, God lays out the rules about clean and unclean animals (see also Deuteronomy 14:3-21). For example, verse 4 says: . . . "The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you." Verse 7 says: And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you." What was the goal of these rules? Verses 44-45 speaks about consecration and holiness: "Be holy, because I am holy." So one path to achieve holiness in the Old Testament is to keep a kosher diet.
The New Testament
Christianity says that food does not bring about holiness; only a relationship with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit does this, as the life of Christ flows through the believer. Christians are permitted to eat whatever foods their conscience allows them (Mark 7:14-19). If they voluntarily keep away from traditionally unclean animals like swine, then they are free to do this. But this is not a requirement from Christ or the New Testament authors. In Christ, all foods are ritually clean. After he ascended into heaven, he sent a vision to Peter about animals becoming clean. A voice from heaven said to the lead Apostle: "Do not call anything impure what God has made clean" (Acts 10:15).
The inspired Apostle Paul preaches the freedom of Christ so clearly that he says it does not matter whether meat has been purchased in the marketplace where it may have been sacrificed to idols:
We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world, and that there is no God but one . . . But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Corinthians 8:4, 8).
Paul speaks common sense derived from freedom in Christ. Food is only a material object, and it cannot make anyone holy in the final analysis, now that Christ has come into the world and fulfilled the Old Testament; in fact, Paul affirms that Christ created all thingsimplying even the pig and other ceremonially unclean food (vv. 5-6). However, he recognizes that some weak believers may have barriers to such freedom. In that case, he counsels the Corinthian Christians to be sensitive to them, even if that means refraining from eating certain foods (a Spirit-inspired concession that incidentally agrees fully on the decision reached by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:29). But this restraint is not done because food really makes us unclean, but because loving a weak brother in Christ is dear to Gods heart.
The Quran in Sura 2:173 forbids these foods:
He has only forbidden you carrion, blood, pigs meat, and animals over which any name other than God has been invoked. (Haleem)
What is so interesting about this verse is the clause "animals over which any name other than God has been invoked" (see Suras 5:103, 6:121, and 16:115). Sura 5:3 adds: "You are forbidden . . . anything sacrificed on idolatrous altars." Clearly, Muhammad confronted the same problem Paul did in the Corinthian church six hundred years earlier. What about food that has been sacrificed on pagan altars? Muhammad forbids itthough he adds that if a man is starving, then he does not sin if he eats these unclean animals. However, extreme cases make for distracting discussions, so they are omitted in this article. In normal circumstances, Muslims are not allowed to eat certain foods.
Contrasting Christianity and Islam on foods
These two religions have the goal of holiness (as each religion defines it), but in regards to food, they go about achieving this goal differently.
Biblical Christianitypresented in its fullest freedomsays that food is no longer a best means of achieving holiness. Christ and the inspired New Testament authors preach freedom in the Holy Spirit. The Biblical Christians ultimate holiness rises above the animal kingdom, up to Christ on the cross and Gods kingdom. However, if a Christian out of his own free will wants to keep a kosher diet, as long as he realizes that the New Testament does not force him, then he is free in Christ to follow this path.
Islam, on the other hand, drags society backwards to the law of Moses, which for Christians has been fulfilled in Christ. Islam preaches religious legalism and external holinessdont eat this or that food! Allah will punish you! From a Christian point of view, Muslims still follow legalism and external righteousness that comes from self-effort without the Holy Spirits work in the heart.
So adding ceremonial food laws that complicate things does not make a religion intrinsically better. Harder is not always betterindeed, religious enslavement may grow in the mind and heart, as the rules multiply.
In a regressive way, Islam would drag Christians back towards the Old Testament on the matter of eating or not eating this or that food.
Therefore, the Quran does not outshine the New Testament. In Christ, his followers are free.
Moving beyond ritual and doctrine, we now analyze an historical aspect of the three religions: establishing holy sites to which pilgrims may flock to fulfill religious requirements.
The Old Testament
In the Old Covenant, God gives commands on how to build a mobile tabernacle (Exodus 25-27). Then he gave special permission to Solomon to build a permanent temple (1 Kings 5:1-6:38 and 7:13-8:66). Under divine command, pilgrims traveled to the Temple three times to fulfill a religious requirement, during the Passover Feast, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16; Psalm 84:5; Luke 2:41-42). This means that Gods presence dwelled in a specific location in Jerusalem, although ultimately he is the Creator of the universe and not contained by any location or building (1 Kings 8:27-30).
The New Testament
Jesus fulfills this earthly temple in his own person and in his church. Jesus says to the Pharisees, referring to himself: "I tell you that one greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6). Jesus says this in the context of keeping the law and sacrificing in the temple. He now fulfills the temple sacrifices and becomes a living temple through his new people of God: his church (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 1 Peter 2:4-8). His church is found around the world now, so his living temple is worldwide.
Jesus lifts our vision much higher than a geopolitical holy site. In chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her for a drink, and she complies. Then he asks her to call her husband. She replies that she does not have one. In order to heal her heart, he reads it and informs her that she has had five husbands, and the one she is living with now is not her husband. Surprised by truth, she changes the subject to a political, religious dispute over the right mountain on which to worship. His response:
4:21 Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem . . . 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" . . . .
The key phrase is in spirit and truth, which transcends time and place. In these verses Jesus remains consistent to his mission only to change peoples hearts and not to get involved in geopolitical matters. Christians are therefore looking for a New Jerusalem in heaven (Revelation 21), instead of an earthly Jerusalem. Not only for some days or weeks, but our whole life is a pilgrimage to the City of God (as Augustine calls it), not to a mundane city.
However, if Christians want to take a pilgrimage out of their own free will, then they are free to do this, as explained below ("Contrasting Christianity and Islam"). But they are not required to do this. In Christ, they have freedom.
The Quran reinstitutes a holy site, paralleling (in its own logic) the temple in Jerusalem and taking over a pagan ritual. This verse announces to believers that pilgrimage to the Kabah shrine in Mecca is a duty or requirement, from which the Fifth of the Five Pillars is derivedhajj:
3:97 Pilgrimage to the House [Kabah] is a duty owed to God by people who are able to undertake it. Those who reject this [should know that] God has no need of anyone (first addition in brackets is mine; the second is Haleems)
The next verse asserts that Abraham settled Ishmael in Arabia near Mecca so that he could lead the Arabs in prayer and denounce idol worship:
14:35 Remember when Abraham said, "Lord, make this town [Mecca] safe! Lord, preserve me and my offspring from idolatry . . . . (insertion in brackets is mine)
Finally, this verse claims that Abraham and Ishmael, while in Mecca, built and dedicated the Kabah, which houses a black stone:
2:127 As Abraham and Ishmael built up the foundation of the House [Kabah] [they prayed,] "Our Lord, accept [this] from us" . . . . (first insertion is mine; the second is Haleems)
Already this brings us back to Abraham in the Old Testament. Though Abraham is a venerable prophet, for Christians this is going backwards to a fulfilled sacred book, not forward to Christ, the Son of God, and to the New Testament, in the matter of holy sites.
In any case, why would Muhammad either fabricate this legend or absorb Arab folk belief about Abraham visiting the Kabah? Why did he reinstitute a pilgrimage to the site? Four reasons answer these questions.
First, he was deeply attached to the Kabah shrine. While living in Mecca, he often circled it and prayed to Allah. One early Muslim historian, Ibn Ishaq, whom historians even today respect as a reliable source (except the miraculous elements), says he kissed the black stone. And the reliable hadith collector and editor Bukhari says he kept up this kissing ritual (Bukhari and Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume, Oxford UP, 1955, p. 131). This attachment prevented him from rising above a religious, geographical location and looking to a "spiritual" Kabah alone, so to speak, as Jesus looked beyond the earthly Jerusalem (John 4:19-26). This motive of Muhammad is psychological.
Second, the Kabah drew numerous pilgrims to it, long before the new religion Islam arrived on the scene. But it was dedicated to polytheism, so Muhammad could not let that stand. Indeed, he says in another passage that his Muslims should fight polytheists there until "the religion becomes that of Allah" (Sura 2:193, Majid Fakhry, An Interpretation of the Quran, NYUP, 2000, 2004). This motive is theological, mixed with jihad.
Third, it cannot be denied that the Meccans persecuted Muhammad before his Hijrah, so permission from God was granted to him to fight the polytheists until "the religion becomes that of Allah." He thus incorporated the dubious Arab custom of retaliation into the eternal Quran. This motive is religious and cultural.
Finally, we must not overlook the fact that the Kabah generated a lot of money from pilgrimages, and it would have increased the fortunes of the Muslims. Simply put, Muhammad, from the moment of his Hijrah and his aggressive raids against Meccan caravans, to his military conquest of the city in 630, wanted to control the popular Kabah. The Quran supports this reason: "God has made the Kabahthe Sacred Housea means of support for people, and the Sacred Months, the animals for sacrifice and their garlands" . . . . (Sura 5:97). This motive adds up to fame through prowess (an Arab cultural value) and fortune.
Contrasting Christianity and Islam on holy sites
If Christians want to take a pilgrimage to the holy land or another site like Lourdes, France, then they are permitted to do this out of their own free will. But this act of worship has not been imposed on them from the outside by Jesus or the New Testament authors. The Lord and his inspired authors lift the Christians vision to heaven. Also, the Christians spiritual benefit comes from the church of Jesus Christ in the unity of the Spiritthe church or the people of God as the new temple of God. In Christ, people are free.
Islam, on the other hand, imposes the duty of pilgrimage to a black stone (the Fifth Pillar). Muhammad even goes so far as to claim without any shred of evidence that Abraham traveled about a thousand miles down to Mecca, even though the Bible says nothing about this. Muhammad used to kiss the stone. It is disappointing that the prophet could not have risen above such petty material objects. Instead, he goes backwards and mimics the Old Testament in his own peculiar way.
The Old Testament has been fulfilled in Christ on the subject of earth-bound holy sites. Complications do not necessarily improve on a religion.
Harder is not always better, and it may even produce religious slavery, as the rules pile up on the shoulders of the believers.
In an old-fashioned way, Islam would drag Christians back towards the Old Testament on the matter of geopolitical holy sites.
Therefore, the Quran does not outshine the New Testament. In Christ, Christians are free.
This article examines four topics: the Holy Spirit, sacrifice, foods, and holy sites. We could have chosen more. For example, the Old Testament allows polygamy (though it is honest enough to reveal the problems inhering in this custom: e.g. Genesis 16:5 and 1 Samuel 1:6-7). The New Testament affirms the original model in the Garden of Eden: one man and one woman (Matthew 19:3-6). Islam looks like the Old Testament and permits polygamy, an institution that favors the man. So Christianity protects and honors women.
Additionally, practicing the four topics harms no one materially or physically, so if Muslims believe that their way of doing them is the best and insist on maintaining them, then this is their prerogative. But they must remember that Muhammad himself threw down the gauntlet in Sura 5:15-16. He is the one who said that his way is brighter and clearer than Judaisms and Christianitys. These four topics, however, seek to answer Muhammads challenge. They illustrate the differences between Islam and Christianity in the light of the earlier religionJudaism.
With that said, in each of the four areas, the Quran falls short of the New Testament in two big ways
First, it is frequently claimed on Islamic websites and print publications that Islam encompasses every aspect of the individual and society. This means, so the reasoning goes, that Islam is superior to Christianity because the historically earlier religion does not lay down countless rules and regulations and requirements.
But what happens if this Islamic "encompassing" of "every aspect" drags people backwards to an old law in a haphazard and diluted way? What happens if Islamic law is oppressive? Why, then, is this detailed religious control a reason to boast?
Second, in the introduction to this article, Sura 5:15-16 was quoted, which says that the Quran shines a light for Christians (and Jews) and leads them out of darkness and guides them down a better path. However, the truth brought forward in this article says that the Quran goes backwards to the Old Testament and distorts this holy book. This is reason enough for Christians to reject the Quran. It does not enlighten them, bring them out of darkness, and guide them along a better path.
For Christians, Christ fulfills the Old Testament, so returning to it in the way that Islam prescribes necessarily means that Christians would be regressing, not progressing. Christians honor and revere the Old Testament, and they can learn timeless truths in it, but they do not have to keep its laws to please God. And certainly they should not follow the Qurans misinterpretation of the Old Testament.
True followers of Christ are filled with the Spirit, so holiness and righteousness are produced from the inside out.
Harder is not always better.
Therefore, the Quran does not outshine the New Testament.
Jesus Christ liberates. Muhammad complicates.
This article has a companion piece, which analyzes Muhammads life and practices, and compares them with Christs. This comparison is another way to find out whether Islam improves on Christianity.
Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson and used by permission. Originally published at Answering Islam.