This January, I have been taking a three-week class on Islam, taught by Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali. Given the difficulty (impossibility!) of adequately teaching the history and theology of any religion in three-weeks, it has been a good introduction to a rich and diverse faith. It is becoming increasingly important for Christians to learn about the Islamic faith for two reasons in particular: (a) the growth of the Muslim population in the West means that, in a very practical sense, our neighbors, whom we are called to love (Mark 12:30-31), are increasingly Muslim, and (b) the rise of extreme Islamist fundamentalism taints the average American Christian’s view of Islam, leading to fear and mistrust of all Muslims, most of whom do not share extremist views. If Christians are to avoid “bearing false witness against our neighbor” (Ex. 20:16), it is increasingly incumbent upon us to try to understand the depth and complexity of Islam.
This blog post is not an attempt to iron out all of the theological tensions between Christianity and Islam (or within Islam itself). It is also not an attempt to downplay the important differences between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as if, in the name of tolerance, we ought to pretend that we all essentially believe the same thing. It is also not meant to comprehensive or authoritative. This blog post is simply my addition to the conversation.
I believe that we can conceptualize the entire Christian religion (and Judaism too) around the Hebrew concept of shalom. Shalom is often translated into English as the word “peace.” The problem with this translation is that it is too narrow; there is no exact English equivalent. Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight.” It is the idea that everything is in its rightful place, in right relation to everything else. Genesis 1-2 describes a world characterized by shalom. People are in right relation to each other, to the earth, and most importantly to God. Revelation 21-22 also describes a world characterized by shalom. The remaining 1185 chapters in Bible describe a world in which the state of shalom has been compromised. The root of this condition is “sin”- as Plantinga calls it “culpable shalom-breaking. As a result, there is brokenness in the relationship between people and people, people and creation, and people and God. Christians believe that Jesus restores shalom. By his life, death, and resurrection, he reconciles people to God. But not only that, he “reconciles all things” (Col. 1:20). Ethically speaking, Christians strive for shalom on earth, now. Eschatologically speaking, Christians hope for a day when shalom will be completely restored on earth.
Shalom (S-L-M) is etymologically related to the Arabic term Salam (S-L-M). Salam is also translated as “peace” as in “asalam aleykum” – “Peace be with you.” This translation is equally narrow. Allow me to explain. For Muslims, God is absolutely one and absolutely sovereign. The right relationship with God, for any created being or thing, is one of submission to God’s good will. This submission results in harmony with God, neighbors and creation because when we are obedient to God’s will, God’s good pleasure becomes a reality through and in us. Islam (iSLaM) is the resulting state of submission, harmony and peace that comes from being in right relation to God. The muslim (muSLiM) is the one whose life is characterized by salam. Because people were created with free will, people have the ability to live a life characterized by islam, or to be disobedient to God’s will. There is no equivalent Islamic concept of a “fall” from grace, as is found in Genesis 3. Each and every person must struggle to live an islamic life, in faithful submission to God (this “struggle” is referred to in Islam as jihad). The prophet Muhammad revealed guidance from God about how to be muslim in Islam’s holy book, the Qu’ran. Ethically speaking, Muslims strive for salam on earth, now. Eschatologically speaking, Muslims hope for a day when the entire world will be characterized by salam, in other words, the entire world will be muslim.
One can immediate see that there are profound similarities between the Christian and Muslim views of shalom/salam. There are also profound differences. Hopefully this understanding of salam will help us to better understand our Muslim neighbors. It is easy for Western Christians to become afraid when they hear that Muslims want the entire world to be islamic, or muslim. When we understand the relationship between these Arabic words (salam, islam, and muslim) to the Hebrew concept of shalom, we will see that we too hope for a world characterized by the universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight that comes in being in right (obedient!) relationship to God. As Christians, we see this as being achieved “in Christ” (Eph. 1:4) through his life, death and resurrection. This is something that Muslims, as Muslims, cannot accept, and it is something that Christians, as Christians, cannot concede. As long as there are Christians and Muslims, this difference will exist. Differences, however, do not negate the call to love our neighbors as ourselves, God help us.