Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog


Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 the Christian world has become increasingly conscious of Islam and the hundreds of millions of Muslims that exist all over the earth but especially in the lands of the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia. For the first time in at least four hundred years the Church has begun to take Islam seriously though the awareness has once again led unfortunately to a generally militant reaction. In the early centuries the Muslim world was viewed as the greatest threat to Christendom and the Church's initial response was to send numerous Crusades to the Middle East with the sole aim of subduing the nations of that region and annihilating their inhabitants. The recent resurgence of Islam has not really been a change to the course of history but rather a return to the way things traditionally were, a back to "business as usual" as it were between two traditional foes.

The intervening centuries were characterised by a largely apathetic approach and the Muslim world was largely ignored by a Christian Church now assured that the so-called Saracens, Turks and Mahometans were no longer a serious threat. The Western world today, however, can no longer be defined as a realm where Christianity dominates and it is interesting to compare the attitude of modern secularists with conservative evangelicals towards Islam. Both seem to have very little sympathy with what appears to be a troublesome people with nothing to offer the modern age but hijackings, hostage crises, terrorism, fanatical fundamentalism and the like. There have been many scholars, however, who have endeavoured to study Islam objectively and the last two centuries have generally been the first in which a truly historical assessment of every facet of the Muslim heritage has been made.

There remains a third approach which the Church could adopt, namely to love the Muslims of the world with same kind of selfless love which Christians have experienced so graciously from God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a revolution is already taking place in many parts of the world where Christianity and Islam come face-to-face with each other. One of the central issues here must be a proper appraisal of Islam in every aspect of its heritage – its founder, its scripture, its history and its character. This book is the first in a series of four designed to present the real world of Islam before Christians seeking to know Muslims and witness meaningfully to them.

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is the theme of this first volume. He has been variously regarded in Christian writings and historically his image has hardly been a positive one. The purpose here is not to reverse this image but rather to present him as impartially as possible, not glossing over aspects of his life that appear to be justifiably censurable but also not failing to give credit where this is due. The memory of Muhammad is at the centre of Muslim affections as much as anything else in Islam and unless his reputation is properly assessed and appreciated it is not likely that a Christian seeking to reach out to Muslims will easily gain a response from them. It is as true with the Gospel as with any other communication that one has to first earn the right to be heard before one can speak authoritatively. This series of books on Islam aims to inform Christians about the Prophet of Islam, his scripture the Qur'an, his religion and faith, and its heritage over many centuries as objectively as possible for this very purpose.

In this volume the presentation of Muhammad's course and his claim to be the recipient of divine revelation has often been described as Islam perceives it in the interest of getting as close to its spirit as one can. On such occasions the Muslim reader in particular should not presume that the writer is sympathetic with or agrees with the Muslim perspective.

It is assumed that the average reader will not know much about Islam and every attempt has been made to present a simple and factual account of each particular subject. No documentation or notation has been made here of the many books on the life of Muhammad which have been consulted in its preparation as the reader will in all probability have very little access to them. They have been listed in the bibliography at the end of the book and in each case the edition consulted is the one dated though, where the date of original publication is known, this is included in parentheses.

Every effort has been made, however, to base the presentation of Muhammad's life, character and his experiences on the earliest of Islamic sources. The scripture of Islam, al-Qur'an, is the obvious original source of his life but the book is not written in the style of an historical narrative and one has to turn to the earliest records of his life as they appear in the traditional writings of Islam for an overall perspective on his biography. Reference has been made here solely to the records that are presently available in English. The earliest accounts of his course appear in the three works of Sirat literature which outline his life in biographical form. Two have been translated into English and are widely quoted in the text.

The first and most famous is the Sirat Rasulullah ("The Life of the Messenger of Allah") of Ibn Ishaq. Only a later recension by Ibn Hisham survives and it is this work which is quoted. The other source is the Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir ("Book of the Major Classes") of Ibn Sa`d.

Neither of these carries the same weight or authority in the Muslim world as the great works of Hadith literature. There are six records here which are regarded as generally authentic records of Muhammad's life though their contents are not set out in biographical form as their compilers were more concerned about defining the basis of Islamic law and its heritage rather than simply outlining the course of Muhammad's life. The two greatest works were the Sahih al-Bukhari ("The Authentic Record of al-Bukhari") and the Sahih Muslim ("The Authentic Record of Imam Muslim"). A third has been translated into English, namely the Sunan Abu Dawud ("The Standard according to Abu Dawud") and these three works are frequently quoted throughout the book. Also mentioned is the legal volume known as the Muwatta Imam Malik, a volume compiled by one of the greatest of the early Muslim jurists.

The transliteration of Arabic words has been done as phonetically as possible, indicating the actual utterance of each word or clause in classical Arabic speech.

The photographs that accompany the text are all of works of art concentrating on events in Muhammad's life done by prominent Muslim artists over the centuries. In the history of Islam orthodox Muslims have often frowned severely on any form of human representation in Islamic art and these artists have often deferred to their scruples by representing the Prophet himself and sometimes his mother and other members of his close family without depicting their faces. The facial visage has simply been left uncompleted in white as a mark of respect though in many great works, as will be seen, the artist has readily portrayed it. Muslim readers who might object to such paintings are requested to bear in mind that they were all done by prestigious Muslim artists and are treasured as valuable expressions of the Islamic heritage in many parts of the Muslim world.

This book has been written mainly for Christians, however, as an introduction to the great Prophet of Islam. It covers the historical context in which he was born, his life, his personality, his experience of the revelation of a scripture, and his legend in the hearts of the Muslim masses. It should serve to provide the average Christian with an adequate basic knowledge of the founder of the Muslim faith.





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A map of central Arabia during the time of Muhammad. The two major cities were Makkah and Madina (formerly known as Yathrib). The only other major centre was at-Ta`if to the south-east of Mecca.