Frequent readers of this blog know I focus on the theological differences between Islam and Christianity. Yet I know that there are many people who see the two religions as quite similar. The question must be raised as to why this is so. Certainly their perception is born out of some amount of data. Perhaps it isn’t accurate or complete, but it must come from somewhere. I recently received some insight on why this might be so.
This past week I went to the local mosque after a fairly long hiatus. I am always intrigued to hear what the khutbah, or message, will be about. This past week it was about how Muslims should interact in the world in which they live. Both toward Muslim brothers, as well as toward those on the outside, Muslims were instructed to make a positive difference in the world in which they live. Several examples were given about Muslims of history. Hadith from the life of Muhammad were quoted regarding things he did to help those around him, and concrete steps were given for how Muslims could operate today to make such a positive impact on the world.
One parable given as an illustration was that of perfume. When perfume is used, it permeates all of its surroundings. Scents move through the air indiscriminately, affecting every corner, every space, until the entire area is saturated with its smell. The message continued that this is how Muslims are to be, a beautiful scent that penetrates into every part of the world. In essence, be a sweet smelling fragrance to everyone around you.
Does this sound familiar? Of course it does. Paul used this metaphor when speaking of how the gospel should be spread (2 Corinthians 2:14). Jesus preached that as Christians we should be a positive force for change in our world, and He relates other examples that got the same point across. For example, he called us to be light in the midst of a dark world (Matthew 5:15-16). Light always brightens an area, regardless of how dark it is (Luke 11:36). Another parable Jesus tells to illustrate this point is that of salt. In Mark 9:50 and elsewhere, Jesus admonishes us to be like salt. Salt has the property of both seasoning as well as preservation. So too, salt infuses itself into every bite of food. It works its way through the entire portion.
It’s no wonder people see Islam and Christianity as being so similar. If I went to a mosque and heard a khutbah about being perfume in the world, and then went to a church and heard a sermon about being salt and light in the world, what else would I conclude? The point is the same. The only difference is that the parables choose distinctive substances that each have penetrating qualities.
Yet perhaps more illustrative is what this says about the culture of our day. You can go to many liberal churches where you will hear the same type of sermon preached. Be kind to others, lend a helping hand, be generous, and leave the world a better place than you found it. These are admirable intentions, and to be sure, qualities we all hope everyone possesses in abundance. But by themselves do they constitute a religion?
Where does faith come into play? What is its role? Without Jesus’ redemptive action on the cross, what point is there in all of our efforts? God tells us that our work apart from Him isn’t worth anything (Isaiah 64:6). Do our good deeds, done in the flesh according to the law, please God who calls us to walk in the Spirit? (Galatians 5:4) The Bible is clear that our acts done apart from God are at constant war with what it means to follow Him by His Spirit (Galatians 5:17). Making the world a better place is a wonderful and admirable goal. Yet it’s no better by itself apart from faith than it is for faith to by itself apart from works (James 2:17). Trying to curry favor from God by spreading good intentions, whether we are inspired by the parable of perfume or light or salt, is a non-starter; without Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross, those efforts may help the physical world, but are dead spiritually.
So do many Christians see similarities between Christianity and Islam for good reason? Yes, they do. If their experience or understanding of Christianity comes from sources outside those which preach the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, they could well draw such a wrong conclusion. Our good works should come from the Holy Spirit who works within us, who was given to us as a down payment on our inheritance which is yet to come (Ephesians 1:14). Understanding God’s work through Jesus sheds an entirely different light on why we strive to be salt and light (or perfume) to others (Galatians 2:21).