The Incompatibility of Islam and Christianity

by Jonathan T. Engel

I read the Qur'an (specifically the Oxford World Classics edition first published in 2004 and translated into English by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem). This is something I've actually meant to do for years, and finally got around to doing so. I've been slowly plodding through it, caterpillar-like, for quite a while now, jotting down quotes and impressions as I went along, and I've finally finished.

Many times over the years, I have heard through various media – reporters and politicians and purported scholars and various other talking heads – about the supposed the true nature of Islam. I've read some books, but I've also wanted to rummage through the Qur'an myself and form more of my own impressions. I want to share some things from reading the Qur'an that jumped out at me.

But first, some important caveats: as a Christian, I find it annoying when people glibly rip quotes from the Bible out of their context and misuse them (while critics of the Scriptures often do this, unfortunately Christians do it too). I don't want to do that here with the Qur'an. To that end, I want to offer a couple thoughts:

  1. For any given quote, it's at least hypothetically possible that there are subtleties or nuances, contextual or historical or cultural or linguistic or something else, that color the meaning of the passage but of which I am unaware.
  2. Whatever a passage means, it is highly unlikely that every single person who self-identifies as Muslims interprets or applies the passage in exactly the same way; consequently, we ought not be too hasty make universal assumptions about every single Muslim person. Just as we, as Christians, are influenced by our backgrounds and cultural in how we read the Bible, Muslims are going to be heavily influenced by outside cultural elements in the practice of their religion.

These caveats don't mean that we cannot form meaningful impressions and opinions about the text, but we should keep in mind our own limitations.

I have tried to provide quotes with context or share what appear to be fairly clear, unambiguous statements. Many passages are rather, well, "cryptic and ambiguous" is an understatement. I passed over some of the murky ones. But however it may be that present-day Muslims in various places and cultural contexts interpret and apply certain passages, the fact remains that the passages are there.

One thing that this reading of the Qur'an made clear to me is that just as, say, Roman Catholicism is more than just the Bible (i.e. it also involves a vast array of human traditions), so also Islam is more than just the Qur'an. That's not an earth-shattering discovery, of course, but it's not something that is brought out very much by the drive-by media's portrayals. There are other texts or bodies of tradition (e.g. look up Sharia and Hadith) that are a huge part of what constitutes the religion known as Islam.

This is important (at least for me) to understanding a different way of thinking. So far as I am concerned, Christianity IS the Bible – there are no other sources or traditions that deserve to be placed on a level of theological and moral authority anywhere remotely close to it; the Bible alone is completely sufficient to "do" Christianity. Though the Qur'an is certainly the most famous element of Islam, it is not the only one, and equating Islam with the Qur'an misses the whole picture. (I actually suspect it would not be possible to practice Islam if all one had was the Qur'an.) To use my earlier metaphor, it would be similar to how equating Roman Catholicism with the Bible would egregiously miss the weight Catholics assign to church tradition. In this sense, Islam is more similar to Roman Catholicism (with it's immense array of human traditions in addition to the Bible) or Mormonism (with the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, etc., in addition to the Bible) than it is my conception of striving for Bible-only Christianity. To put it another way, "What Islam teaches" is more than just "What the Qur'an says." It includes other writing or traditions. And even once we recognize the full array of sources that constitute "What Islam teaches," we have to consider how other cultural factors can be at work in shaping how those who identify as Muslims actually practice their religion and what they actually believe.

All these caveats and qualifications are to say that merely reading the Qur'an may be necessary to help understand some aspects of the world of today, but reading it alone so is not sufficient to fully understand (and hopefully someday I'll delve into some of those other writings). Okay, the long-winded but hopefully helpful caveats are done.

I have repeatedly heard various talking heads – politicians, reporters, scholars – in the drive-by media attempt to paint Christianity and Islam as very similar, or even morally equivalent. As a Christian, I would have to say this is about as far from the truth as we can get. Yes, there are some elements of moral teaching in the Qur'an that appear similar to messages found in the Bible, but that doesn't make the Qur'an a morally good book, nor does that make it compatible with the Bible. Effective lies often make liberal use of truth, after all (as Paul puts it, Satan disguises himself as an angel of light).

It seems to me that Mohammed is the most successful false prophet in all of history. And it's worth remembering that the Bible has a lot to say – negatively – about false prophets. First, I want to draw attention to passages that really drive home how utterly incompatible and contradictory the Qur'an and the Bible are.

2.136 "So [you believers,] say, 'We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was given to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we will devote ourselves to Him.'"

Yeah, see, making NO distinction between Jesus and all the other prophets is pretty unacceptable for a Christian.

3.59 "In God's eyes Jesus is just like Adam: He created from dust, said to him, 'Be,' and he was."

While Paul, in Romans, does present Jesus and Adam as parallels, he doesn't make them totally equal. This passage is highly incompatible with the Bible, such as the message of John 1 – Jesus was NOT created.

4.157 [talking about the "People of the Book"] "and said, 'We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.' (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him."

No crucifixion, huh? It's not the like death and resurrection of Jesus are important to Christianity, are they? Oh, wait.

4.171 "People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, directed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a 'Trinity'—stop [this], that is better for you—God is the only God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to truth."

Jesus was "nothing more than a messenger," and God has no son?

5.17 Those who say, 'God is the Messiah, the son of Mary,' are defying the truth.

Saying that the Messiah the son of Mary is God is not true, huh?

5.72 "Those who say, 'God is the Messiah, son of Mary' have defied God.

In case you missed it before.

5.75 "The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food [like other mortals]. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are."

The Messiah was just a messenger like all the other messengers. Nothing special about him.

5.109-118 "On the Day when God assembles all the messengers and asks, 'What response did you receive?' they will say, 'We do not have that knowledge: You alone know things that cannot be seen.' Then God will say, 'Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favor to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in our infancy and as a grown man; how I taught you the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel; how, by My leave, you fashioned the shape of a bird out of clay, breathed into it, and it became, by My leave, a bird; how, by My leave, you healed the blind person and the leper; how, by My leave, you brought the dead back to life; how I restrained the Children of Israel from [harming] you when you brought them clear signs, and those of them who disbelieved said, 'This is clearly nothing but sorcery'; and how I inspired the disciples to believe in Me and My messengers—they said, 'We believe and bear witness that we devote ourselves [to God.'

When the disciples said, 'Jesus, son of Mary, can your Lord send down a feast to us from heaven?' he said, 'Beware of God if you are true believers.' They said, 'We wish to eat from it; to have our hearts reassured; to know that you have told us the truth; and to be witnesses of it.' Jesus, son of Mary, said, 'Lord, send down to us a feast from heaven so that we can have a festival—the first and last of us—and sign from You. Provide for us: You are the best provider.' God said, 'I will send it down to you, but anyone who disbelieves after this will be punished with a punishment that I will not inflict on anyone else in the world.'
When God says, 'Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, 'Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God'?' he will say, 'May you be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say — if I had said such a thing you would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know what is within You, You alone have full knowledge of things unseen — I told them only what you commanded me to: 'Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.' I was a witness over them during my time among them. Ever since You took my soul, You alone have been the watcher over them: You are witness to all things and if You punish them, they are Your servants; if You forgive them, You are the Almighty, the Wise.'"

More denials of the deity of Jesus.

9.29-31 "Fight those of the People of the Book who do not [truly] believe in God and the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden, who do not obey the rule of justice, until they pay the tax and agree to submit. The Jews said, 'Ezra is the son of God,' and the Christians said, 'The Messiah is the son of God': they said this with their own mouths, repeating what earlier disbelievers had said. May God confound them! How far astray they have been led! They take their rabbis and their monks as lords, as well as Christ, the son of Mary. But they were commanded to serve only God: there is no god but Him; He is far above whatever they set up as His partners!"

Claiming the Messiah is God, taking him as one's lord, these are bad things, eh?

43.57-59 "When the son of Mary is cited as an example, your people [Prophet] laugh and jeer, saying, 'Are our gods better or him?' – they city him only to challenge you: they are a contentious people – but he is only a servant We favored and made an example for the Children of Israel."

Jesus is merely a servant, huh?

61.6 "Jesus, son of Mary, said, 'Children of Israel, I am sent to you by God, confirming the Torah that came before me and bringing good news of a messenger to follow me whose name will be Ahmad.'"

So, what about passages like Hebrews 1, or John 1, that present Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God, hmm?

What is the point of all this? The Qur'an repeatedly and emphatically attacks the foundation of Christianity. It claims Jesus was created, that he is not God, that he was not crucified (and by extension, if not crucified, also not resurrected). This is the heart of Christianity (what, again, did Paul say he taught was of "first importance" in I Corinthians 15?). Christianity is not some body of random moral teachings with stories about some ancient hippie named Jesus tacked on for flavor. Everything else in Christianity – the meaning, the moral teaching, all of it – hinges on the truths that Jesus is Lord, Son of God, crucified and buried and raised from the dead. Christian morality is derived from the nature of God – the God whose revealed his nature most completely in Jesus! It is absolutely impossible to reconcile the repeated and (as best I can tell) quite plain teaching of the Qur'an with the core of Christianity. So what if Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet? That matters not in the slightest if it denies his crucifixion and resurrection, his divinity, his role in creation, his lordship over all creation. Jesus is my God – a belief the Qur'an repeatedly condemns. There is no meaningful sense, then, in which people can claim Christians and Muslim worship the same god.

I don't see how we, as Christians, can make any kind of meaningful comments about or response to Islam in the present day without first recognizing this essential difference between the two religions. We must not be blinded by superficial similarities. The nature of Jesus is the crux of the conflict between Islam and Christianity. Not supposed, often mischaracterized, historical misdeeds by this or that group. Not modern-day terrorism. Not moral teaching. Jesus. As a Christian, I cannot regard Mohammed merely as an influential religious teacher that I don't happen to follow - he is a false prophet who has led millions astray in rejecting the lordship of King Jesus.