Our Muslim friends

Nowadays, the Muslims are constantly in the news … and mostly for bad reasons. Various civil wars are raging in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East. Millions of people – mostly Muslims, but also many Christians – are fleeing from the war-affected countries. Wherever the fugitives go, there is resistance and political unrest. Everywhere in the world, but especially in Africa, there are Muslim radicals who sow death and destruction. Many people see these radical Muslims as the greatest threat to world peace. Should we, as Christians, hate and fight all Muslims?

Who are the Muslims?

Are all Muslims so radical, so militant? What do we know about their religion, the Islam? Is it a non-violent religion?
After Christianity, Islam has the most followers worldwide … more than a billion people. Although most of them live in North Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and Pakistan, there are also Muslims living in our neighbourhoods and streets these days … they are our fellow citizens, ordinary peace-loving people that only wish to carry on with their lives. In fact, their way of greeting is “Peace be upon you!” (Salaam alaikuum). In South Africa, Muslims are less than 2% of the population. They are dispersed everywhere, but they are most strongly present in the Western Cape (the Malay communities). Then there are also many Muslims who come from India and Pakistan. It is therefore important that we, as Christians, learn to know them and live and work with them.

Islam means “submission, obedience”. It came into being as a religion in the 7th century after Christ. Mohammed was the founder. Islam is deliberately a post-Christian religion that acknowledges Christ as an important prophet. It also acknowledges Old Testament prophets like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Elijah. However, they regard Mohammed as the greatest and ultimate prophet. Muslims believe that God himself gave (dictated) his revelation to Mohammed, through the angel Gabriel, and it was written in Arabic in the Koran. This holy book consists of 114 chapters (suras) containing the whole religious content of Islam. Because it was given in Arabic, all Muslim children in the world learn this language and memorise the Koran in special schools that are called madrassas.

Together with Judaism and Christianity, Islam is also considered as a “religion of the book”. Islam is monotheistic, because – just like Christians and Jews – they believe in one God. All three these religions also stem from Abraham, even though the Muslims follow the line of Ishmael (Abraham’s son with his slave, Hagar).

What do the Muslims believe?

For Muslims, their whole lives hinge on the mosque, where the religious leader (imam) stands ready to give guidance. Their religion fundamentally rests on five pillars.

1. The Confession of Faith (Shahada)

All Muslims live with the following creed on their lips: “There is only one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”. Who confesses this, is a Muslim. In the deepest sense, Islam is hence about submission to Allah. Because they do not worship Mohammed – he is only Allah’s prophet – it is wrong to call Muslims “Mohammedans” (like some people do).

2. The prayers (Salaat)

Five times a day, the imam summons the Muslims to prayer. Then the Muslim rolls out his little rug and, facing Mecca, recites the ritual prayers. On Fridays, especially, the men love going to the mosque to worship together. Clothed in pure white, they first remove their shoes and wash themselves according to the cleansing requirements before entering the mosque. In rows, flat on the ground, with their bodies moving simultaneously like one great body, they worship Allah with reverence and dedication.

3. Alms-giving (Zakat)

It is obligatory for every Muslim to spend 2½ % of his income on charity. They are therefore eager to care for one another and for the poor. Hospitality is an important offering, particularly when practised towards strangers.

4. Fasting (Saum)

The month of Ramadan is, according to tradition, the month in which the Koran was dictated to Mohammed. Each day during this month, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims fast. Fasting teaches them discipline, compassion for those who go hungry, and dependence on Allah. Furthermore, pork and alcohol are forbidden for Muslims. They also have a prescribed method for the slaughtering of animals. Only pure food (halal) is eaten. A special sign on the packaging of foods identify halal products in supermarkets.

5. Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hadjdji)

Every Muslim who can afford it, has to try to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, the hundreds of thousands of Muslims walk around the holy altar of black stone, the Kaaba. According to Muslim tradition this is where Abraham had to sacrifice Ishmael (not Isaac!). Here, Ishmael submitted himself to God’s will in a special way. In a remarkable stone-throwing ceremony the Muslims even commemorate how Ishmael bombarded the devil with stones when the devil wanted to tempt him not to be sacrificed. Someone who has completed the Mecca pilgrimage receives the honorary title hadjdji.

Can we co-operate with the Muslims?

Apart from the fact that such a rigid set of customs is not prescribed for Christians, the good life practices and ideals that are expected of Muslims, are actually very similar to those of Christians, and can be a basis for working together towards building a better community. We can be good neighbours or friends, who share each other’s sorrows and joys, and treat one another with respect.

How should we deal with our different religious convictions?

There are nonetheless important, fundamental differences of which we can mention a few.
The first is the status of the Koran. For Muslims, the Koran has more or less the same meaning as Christ has for Christians. The Koran is the literal and authoritative words of Allah, in Arabic. (The different schools of interpretation, the role of traditions, and Mohammed’s successors have, among other things, led to separations and hostile groupings among Muslims, for example the Sunnites and Shiites.)

Muslims do not recognise the divinity of the great prophet Jesus. “God cannot have a son,” they say. And furthermore, they believe that Christians worship three gods: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (which we Christians of course deny). Islam therefore denies Christ’s work of redemption. That is why it is a contentious matter whether Allah can be identified with the God of the Bible. Different opinions exist, but one thing is sure: For Christians Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, and the way to salvation. And the God that we learn to know from the Bible is the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Muslim “earns” his/her salvation by good deeds, especially the prescribed good deeds. For the Christian everything comes only by the grace of God, and good deeds flow from a new life through the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:12, John 14:6, Romans 1:17, Ephesians 2:8-10).

This is the “good news” that we want to share with our Muslim neighbours: We cannot, and we need not earn our acceptance from God! God loves us; He pleads with us to accept his redemption work (2 Corinthians 5:20). We can only communicate this message if we respect them, and live in such a way that they can see that we care for them. In fact, every aspect of our lives need to witness that the Lord has changed our lives, and that we obey and serve him with joy. We have to be friendly, loving people. As Christians we may have appreciation for the Muslims’ dedication and self-discipline. The manner in which they live out their religious convictions and witness to the world is often puts us to shame. Christians are not better people than Muslims. There is enough in our history that ought to put us to shame. We have to stand together against those people who – both in our tradition and in theirs – give unbelievers a reason to reject all religion. We need to work together for the good, and against the bad news of the day, like poverty, abuse of power, lawlessness and licentiousness, and contempt for authority.

As Christians we are called to witness about our salvation in Christ to our Muslim neighbours – exactly because God also loves them, Christ died for us all, and the Holy Spirit desires to give true “peace with God” to them as well. We need to do so with firm religious conviction and with decisiveness.
Therefore we are called to boldly pray salaam alaikuum to our Muslim neighbours.

Prof Dons Kritzinger

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