The Soul of Islam
By Jay Haug
Special to Virtueonline
September 5, 2011
The following was an address given recently at a Christ and Culture Dinner, a monthly series hosted by the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Jacksonville, Florida, which seeks to relate Biblical Christianity and contemporary issues.
I want to speak to you this evening about the soul of Islam. Since the death of John Stott, many people have been wrestling with what his legacy might be. One big part of it was John's challenge to the church engage in what he called "double listening." He said that Christians to be effective in the world must listen both to the Scriptures and at the same time to what the world is saying. Unless we listen to God's word, we have no message, no transforming hope for the world. But we must also listen to the struggles, the beliefs, the hopes of all people, and the pain of those who have not yet come to know God. Unless we listen, we will fail to apply the Scriptures to the particular human souls in our path. We will fail to stand in the only place we can, on equal ground with another human being at the foot of the cross. We will miss our opportunity.
A classic parable of deep listening is Aesop's fable of Androcles and the Lion. A young Androcles comes upon a majestic but fearsome lion in the forest. The lion is roaring and growling, making him a dangerous and unapproachable figure. But as Androcles stays with him and watches the lion despite his fear, he notices that the reason for the lion's roar is that a thorn has become lodged in the lion's paw. Herein lies the dilemma. Does Androcles dare approach the lion to remove the thorn or does he flee leaving the lion to his agony? Androcles decides to take the risk, approaches the lion and removes the thorn. As a result, the two become the best of friends. Brothers and sisters, this is a parable of the Islamic world because what we often hear from Islamic religion and culture is the roar and it is a frightening one, no doubt. It is a roar that is often deadly and must be addressed politically, culturally and sometimes militarily. But what we must behold is the wound behind the anger and if possible remove the offending thorn.
So as we begin what will be a number of sessions on Islam, I am sure, I want us to listen beneath the surface to comprehend what the real problem with Islam is and what the real answer is. And so I want to address the soul of Islam tonight, rather than its outward manifestations. We know what the answer is. It is Jesus, the only Savior the world has ever known and the only deliverer from sin and death, the only one who can turn pain not only to good but to glory. The truth is that we as Christians are the only ones who can minister to the wound, hidden by the roar of Islam. But lets not go too soon to the cure before we comprehend the diagnosis. I also want to say that there are kind and wonderful individual Muslims in the world today. We are not talking about them this evening. We will be discussing Islam as a movement, a religion and a system of thought. I hope that is clear.
The truth is that Islam does not begin with the birth of Mohammed. To begin in the 7th century will never get us to the soul of Islam. The fact is that the Bible predicted the problem of Islam nearly 2500 years before Mohammed was born. Oh yes, on one level, that of religious organization, political and even military efforts, clearly Mohammed is Islam's founder. But on the spiritual level, when we ask what is the driving force behind Islam, we must turn to the Bible not the Koran and to Ishmael, not Mohammed.
How do we understand that the roots of Islam reside in Ishmael? It is pretty simple: God's promise to Hagar was that her descendents "will be too numerous to count." (Genesis 16:10) This is a parallel promise of God's promise to Abraham that his descendents would be innumerable and to Sarah that she would be "the mother of nations." Just as God's promise to Abraham concerning Isaac can only be understood as referring to his subsequent large numbers of Jewish and Christian descendents, so God's promise to Abraham concerning Ishmael, in Genesis 21:13 said that his descendents too would become a nation. Several things we must notice here. 1. Both promises of large numbers of descendents are primarily spiritual promises not political. The Apostle Paul takes up the theme in Romans 4;18 when he says "Abraham in hope believed and became the father of many nations," forever linking those who believe as Abraham's offspring. 2.The promise cannot refer to any individual Arab or Muslim nation because Egypt already existed and none other would qualify in fulfilling it in history They are simply too small. 3. Mohammed himself believed, rightly or wrongly, that he was descended from Abraham through Ishmael, identifying himself with the slave child of Hagar. Thus the verdict of the Bible, of history and of Islam itself all tie Islam to Ishmael, the slave child of Abraham and Hagar, long before Mohammed was born.
So what am I saying is this: Just as our humanity bears the resemblance of Adam and our destiny bears the mark of Christ, so Islam bears the inheritance of Ishmael. But why is this important? It is important because we can talk a lot about the problems with Islam, it's anti-Semitism, the destructive commitment to jihad, and the scourge of shariah law. Moreover, let us hope and pray that sharia law is never admissible in any United States court. Mark Steyn has jokingly echoed "The Sound of Music" by asking, "How do you solve a problem like sharia?" We can reference Islam's repression of women, freedom of religion and speech, honor killings and so many other things, but unless we find out why these things are part of Islam, we will not be able to break through to win Muslims to Christ. We must dig deeper to address and confront the "soul" of Islam, not just its outward manifestations that often block the view.
So what is the inheritance of Ishmael, which I am arguing is the soul of Islam? The spiritual inheritance of Ishmael is bitterness and resentment. Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham in bitterness against her own failure to conceive. She then sent Hagar and Ishmael away saying "that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance of my son Isaac." Genesis 21 :10. Ishmael was born as the rejected son, the one never to be favored in the eyes of God, even though God made provision for him. This was Ishmael's negative spiritual and relational legacy, one of wrong choices and seemingly irreversible events, leading to entrenched bitterness.
Bitterness and its evil twin resentment can be fuel for many evil outcomes in the world. They were major fuel in Adolph Hitler's rise to power and Germany's vulnerability to a message of revenge and reclaimed honor after World War I. But where do they lead? Inevitably, the ungodly reaction to bitterness is to take things into our own hands or worse to attempt to exercise power over those we view as threatening us. Young Muslim men with no jobs and smart phones, angry at their own failed culture are easily radicalized. The spirit of resentment and bitterness drives Islam in its hatred of Jews and the subjugation of women, and attempts to compensate for it by the use of terrorism, jihad and homicide bombing. These are guaranteed to produce unceasing conflict. Should we have hope for the so called Arab spring? Not if one kind of unelected tyranny is replaced by another. James warns us about the reaction of bitterness. "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from the desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet but you cannot have what you want....you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives..." James 4:1-3
On the other hand, Hebrews urges us to "see to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See to it that no one is sexually immoral or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance." Heb.12:15-16. At least Esau, Ishmael's half-nephew, had an inheritance to sell. When people believe they are doomed to live life as the "unchosen", then life can become a dangerous path to immorality. We know this in our own culture because the single greatest indicator of a life of crime is the fatherless male, "unchosen" by his own parent. Nearly every 9/11 terrorist and Osama Bin Laden himself was a regular consumer of either strip clubs or of porn, which is, spiritually speaking, the embodiment of resentment, the taking of something God has not provided to soothe a perceived lack in the soul. In fact, too much of Islam is institutionalized resentment, which unchecked leads directly to immorality, evidenced by both force and self-indulgence.
The bitterness of the unchosen is rank throughout Scripture. Think of Cain killing Abel because his sacrifice was less acceptable. Or Joseph's brothers throwing him in a cistern because of his noticeable superiority complex. In John 7:5 we are told "even his (Jesus)'s brothers did not believe in him." Perhaps they wondered why one of them had not been chosen to be the Messiah. Today, numerous Muslim countries who care little for the Palestinian people and will not take them into their own countries, goad them into uprisings for one single purpose, to stoke the flames of hate toward Israel, the one nation that reminds them of their unchosenness. Little do they know that God will welcome them too if they will but come to Him.
God makes three statements about Ishmael.
"He will be a wild ass of a man"., the word means zebra...he will always be wild and untamable. No zebra ever became a horse. This is no donkey where to look at him might tempt you to break him. A donkey might offer some hope for the family farm. Not here. No one will be able to break him...ever. There is approximately one missionary to Muslims for every one million Muslims in the world. There is a reason for that. It's tough. Many Christians are murdered in these countries. Many other nations are closed to Christians, much less missionaries. But Muslims are coming to Christ for one reason...because Jesus is irresistible...because Jesus redeems and heals and gives hope where there is none. Even the wild man can be tamed by the Lion of Judah and healed by the balm in Gilead.
Here is the problem: Every other major religion in the world is either peaceful, or like Christianity from the 17th century on went through a reformation and renounced inquisitions, violence and religious persecutions. Not Islam. We have in too many emanations of Islam a seventh century religion in a 21st century world. Furthermore, too much of the world is either too politically correct or too weak to speak out against this injustice. Europe is caving in to Muslim demands even as we sit here tonight.
2. The second thing God says about Ishmael is this: "His hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him." This is not a picture of occasional conflict or consistent enemies. No, this is a picture indicating that anyone who crosses him can be a potential enemy at any time. One of the most bizarre facts in the world today is that the group that kills most Muslims are other Muslims. Why is this?
To answer this question we must address the compensating force used to address bitterness, the pursuit of honor and the avoidance of shame. Though God clearly loved and provided for Ishmael and his descendents and uttered promises for him, Ishmael was never going to be the child of promise. His descendents were never going to be God's chosen people in the flesh. What happens to people who have never been chosen and don't think they ever will be? Their despair turns into anger and violence. This fact is crucial to understanding the Islamic world and the rise of Mohammed as a prophet. In essence, the Islamic world as we see it is based on the attempt to gain favor before God and man by force and human effort, an attempt doomed to failure, and yet being lived out tragically to this day in the Islamic world. We Americans are not immune to this. We engage in a more subtle form of it. We do it by materialism, educational degrees, sports achievements, corporate competition and in myriad other ways. But institutionalized bitterness is dangerous when engineered through strict religious observance backed up by force.
What Muslims and many legalistic Christians fail to see is that even Abraham himself, to whom Muslims look as their father, according to Paul in Romans 4:10, was credited as righteous "before not after circumcision." Human effort can never put us right with ourselves or others, let alone with God. Yet even today, the Muslim world's "hand" is too often against all others, even other Muslims, and its "hostility" is evident in fiery rhetoric read daily in newspapers and on the web, all reflecting the need to assert some kind of status before God and man, backed up by the force of shariah law or worse.
The great news is that God through Christ has broken for all time the false notion of "unchosenness." The good news here for the Muslim and for the whole world is that in Christ, God has welcomed them too if they will come to Him. He has made provision for their inclusion in the family of God, a family where "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28. This is the faith that changed the world and remains its only hope. Sadly, like Javert in Les Miserables, many would rather die than accept the glorious liberty of the children of God, received in grace and mercy.
Connected to attempts to win favor is the desire for honor. Anyone who has lived in the Middle East knows that honor and hospitality are intimately related. Guests are treated with food and drink, lavish gifts and attention, even when or sometimes especially when they are unknown to their hosts. Arnold Palmer was once in the Middle East and was told by a wealthy sheik that he would be given a golf club as a gift. Palmer was expecting a long thin UPS delivery at home when instead he received in the mail a deed to a 300 acre country club. Dishonoring someone can be met with the severest penalties. Several years ago, an American college student decided to take an adventurous trip to Yemen, a country in which seven year old boys routinely ride around with loaded automatic weapons. Near the end of his stay, the young man was gathered in a tribal tent with a sheik sitting in the customary circle. Suddenly he realized and then announced that his cell phone was missing. The sheik, who by now had pistols in each hand, asked everyone in the circle to empty their pockets. The missing cell phone fell from another man's hands onto the floor, whereupon the sheik shot the offending party through the head. This is how seriously dishonor can be punished.
At the very bottom of the Islamic soul and the soul of all humanity is shame. Mark Twain said that "man is the only animal that blushes and the only one that needs to." The Muslim world, par excellence, is built on the avoidance and elimination of shame. Stonings, honor killings and the unequal treatment of women in sharia law are all attempts to do the impossible, to drive shame away, to remove it and destroy it. But the truth is that shame cannot be destroyed in this life. It can only be absorbed. Someone has to take the blame. Justice demands it. Do you remember the scene in the Fellowship of the Ring when they gathered at Rivendell to discuss how to destroy the ring? Gimli attempts to smash it with his axe, but to no avail. The ring could not be destroyed but only be born by another to its place of doom. It could only be dealt with when Frodo came forward to say, "I will take the ring." No, shame cannot be destroyed until someone first bears it. But who will take it to himself? Ask a group of kids who broke a window playing baseball or an antique vase, "Who did it?" and one is likely to get "Who me?" "I didn't do it." or "Johnny did it." This is as old as time. "The woman thou gavest me..." The Jews were given the scapegoat, (Lev. 16:10) who received the sins of the people through the laying on of hands and then was driven into the wilderness.
The mistake the Islamic world makes is to attempt to cast this curse upon others by violence or inflammatory rhetoric, which only continues the cycle of shame and dishonor. Often this takes the severest form of humiliation, of cutting off hands and feet, as Islamic radicals did to American workers when they hung their bodies from the bridge at Fallujah during the early stages of the Iraq War.
So if Muslims, or anyone else, cannot create their own honor by assigning it to those who oppose them or violate Islamic law to shame, where are they to turn? What can stop the endless cycle of "living in hostility against all his brothers"? There is only one answer and it is provided by the same God who received Abraham by faith, the same God who nevertheless provided for the unchosen Ishmael. Jesus will take the shame. In fact, He has already taken all the shame for all time from the beginning of time to the end of human history. He bore this "in his own body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness." (I Pet. 2:24.) Isaiah proclaims "surely, surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows." This is the news that can deliver the whole world. It is the only message that can save Muslims today.
A big problem in communicating the gospel is that Muslims often see Westerners as not experiencing shame and dishonor as they do. How can we ask them to take this step toward the cross when they see us a standing above, oblivious to their plight?. It is at this point that we must share with them our kinship in the story of sin and redemption. We too have experienced rejection, exclusion, dishonor and our own accompanying attempt to justify our own existence. We too have attempted to use power to compensate for life's perceived short straw. This may not have come through oppressing others, violence and sharia law, but it has come in many other ways, through false trust in material things, power, position, boasting and myriad other attempts to assert our status over against others. We must share with them Christ's provision for us and for the whole human race and stand with them equally at the foot of the cross.
The truth is that believers, Muslims, agnostics and the whole human race can only meet at the leveling place at the feet of Jesus. It is there and only there that we allow Jesus to do his work and take the shame for all mankind and for each of us individually. It is absolutely essential that we meet the individual Muslim there as an equal, before God, as both condemned and redeemed sinners. It is at the cross that "we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort that we ourselves have received from God." (2 Corinthians 1:4) Until that shame is removed by the sinless Son of God, there will be no recovery in the Muslim world.
But we cannot stop there. There must be a new heart placed within us all and that includes the Muslim who turns to Christ.
"I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people and I will be their God." Ez. 11:19-20. The new heart comes from the dramatic truth that yes, in Jesus, God has chosen them too.
The irony and glory of what God offers the Muslim is this: Jesus has broken the curse of Ishmael for all time. He has already established all those who turn to him as his sons and daughters forever through his death and resurrection. There are no second-class citizens in Christ; There are no more Ishmaels; There is no more exclusion, based on birth order, parentage or any such thing. There can be no more striving for the honor that has already given as a free gift. Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. No more violence to drive away shame. Force is no longer needed because the shame has been born away once and for all. Law is no longer imposed. It is written on every human heart. God's message to all humankind including the Muslim is this: "No longer will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother saying know the Lord, because they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest." (Jeremiah 31:34.)
This is where the healing of the Muslim worlds begins. Where it will lead is anyone's guess. But this we know. It will be to a much better place both politically and relationally than we could possibly imagine today. May we all begin to build those bridges as God gives us the opportunity.
---Jay Haug is a member of Redeemer Anglican Church in Jacksonville, Florida. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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