God in the Bible, Allah in the Qur’an, and Teaching your ex-Muslim Christian
In October of 2018 we founded al kanisa al masihiya fi Madrid—the Christian Church of Madrid—an Arabic-language weekly fellowship. We were meeting in a borrowed space from a Latino Assemblies of God congregation in Tetuan, a neighborhood with a large Muslim population north of downtown.
As a teaching pastor I had to decide what sort of material to teach on. I remembered then a conversation with a priest and a nun in Turkey who were working in a city with no historical Christian presence. They served at a church where people interested in conversion and baptism regularly approached them. I asked about how they prepared people for baptism and they answered that they started with the Old Testament. This surprised me. “Why not start with the gospels?” I asked. I will summarize the answer:
People interested in leaving Islam for Christianity often believe that the personality of God is the same; they have heard that Christians worship the true God but our fault is in associating Jesus with him, calling Jesus God’s Son. So when they move from Islam to Christianity they tend to focus on superficial differences regarding dress and diet. They rightly realize that they are getting rid of Muhammad and declaring allegiance to Jesus. These differences are real and can be significant, to be sure. But ignored is that fact that the character, the personality of the god of the Bible is radically different from the personality of the god of the Qur’an.
After some reflection I realized that the priest and the nun were making a profound statement, and a true one. The Qur’ans deity is noncommittal, fickle, and aloof. The Bible’s deity is not like that. Furthermore, the Qur’an has many stories that are corruptions of Biblical material, or it mentions characters from the Bible without telling you much about them. For instance, the Qur’an contains a version of the Garden of Eden story, but it is radically different from that in Genesis. Ditto for the Nativity. The Qur’an further mentions biblical characters like Noah and Solomon without very much detail. It is easy for the Muslim to assume that he knows about these events and characters because he read them in the Qur’an, but this would be an error.
For this reason at our little Arabic-language fellowship in Madrid we started with some psalms and then went straight to the beginning: Genesis 1. What kind of God creates the universe like this—gradually and deliberately? Why does this God bless the fruitfulness of the creatures? What does it mean that his Creation was good? Why does he rest on the seventh day? What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God? (That last teaching is antithetical to Islam.) And so on.
My intention here is not to propose a particular curriculum of study, as many already exist. But as you design your own syllabus or select from existing material, this overarching principal should always be kept in mind: the personality of God in the Bible is very different than the personality of the god of the Qur’an. If you begin by studying the gospels be aware that it is likely that your inquirer or convert will assume that the personality of God the Father is the personality of the Qur’an’s Allah. Know that when your friend hears “As in the days of Noah…” or “Son of David, have mercy on me!” they have no reference to Noah or David other than what they think they know from the Qur’an.
Studying Scripture is not the only way to put this principal into action. You can also remind them of these things in your prayers and how you talk to God. With Muslims I will often begin my prayer saying, “Oh God, you made us from nothing and you loved us, you love us now, and you will always love us. You yourself are love.” It may sound repetitive but the goal is to get the Muslim to consider a vision of the personality of God that is, to put it bluntly, anti-Islamic. The deity of the Qur’an does love some people, to be sure, but you don’t know if he loves you; he can and does forgive some people their sins, but you never know if he has forgiven you. Allah’s personality is the personality of Muhammad, a man who wavered between vindictive pettiness and magnanimous generosity. This is not the reality of the one true God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
With this in mind we started all the way back at the beginning of the Bible. We have been going chapter by chapter (mostly) through Genesis. We’re getting to know the personality of this deity: why does he gradually create the earth, day by day, instead of all at once? Why did he create humans to begin with? How are they different from the other animals? What type of God shares his authority with a man, allowing him to name the animals? What was God’s original commission to Adam and the woman? (She has no name until after they expelled from Eden, if you want to know why—shameless plug— check out Two Stories.) Why is Abel’s offering pleasing to him but not Cain’s? And so on. With all of these questions we are delving into the personality of the main character of the Bible.
Rev. Dr. Duane Alexander Miller lives in Madrid with Sharon and their three children where they teach and minister at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer. He is associate faculty at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid (UEBE). You can contact Duane here.