In this blog’s inaugural article, I discussed the antithetical nature of the hijra and the cross. There are many such cases where doctrines and beliefs of Islam and Christianity are total opposites. While many of the articles forthcoming will highlight more of these, there is another aspect of Islam that deserves written space. It is the way in which Islam tends to undermine its own doctrinal stances, and winds up preaching the gospel in a roundabout and ironic fashion. To see what I am referring to, let’s consider the hijra in more detail.
The hijra, or migration, is the pivotal event in the history of Islam. This is true to such an extent that the Islamic calendar is dated and based to this crucial day. The hijra begins the Islamic calendar, and so today’s date would be in the year 1433, A.H., or anno hijra. But let’s return to ground zero, 0 A.H, and look more closely at this most crucial time within Islam and see what irony lies deep within this most foundational historical narrative in Islam.
Muhammad had undergone various forms of persecution from the citizens of Mecca. On this particular day, the tension had come to a head and a meeting was held to decide what to do with this new group, the Muslims. The consensus deemed the best way to thwart this new movement was to take the ultimate sanction against Muhammad, and so the leaders of Mecca forged a plan to murder him. The plan was to surround his house that night with several men from each tribe, and ambush him that next morning when he came out. Muhammad had learned of this plan through a secret convert, and so devised his own counterplot to escape. His cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, would wear Muhammad’s cloak and sleep in Muhammad’s bed that night, giving Muhammad the opportunity to flee without arousing suspicion. Sure enough, the would-be assassins peeked in, saw someone he thought was Muhammad sleeping, and contentedly waited for morning. In their relaxed state, Muhammad was able to sneak out past his enemies that night. When dawn came, all that the would-be killers found was Muhammad’s cousin. From there, the story continues regarding how Muhammad was able to make his way to Medina, but it is the efforts of Ali ibn Abi Talib which warrant our attention.
Ali’s willingness to put himself directly in harm’s way was certainly a brave act, and one that is praised within Islam. Ali might have been killed by accident since the perpetrators could have thought that he was Muhammad. Alternatively, when they recognized he wasn’t Muhammad but Ali, they might have killed him anyway out of frustration. In either case, such a courageous act is certainly one to be admired. While debated by Islamic scholars, some believe that the following verse of the Qur’an itself praises Ali’s specific act of selfless substitutionary act.
[2.207] And among men is he who sells himself to seek the pleasure of Allah; and Allah is Affectionate to the servants.
Muslims are reticent to ever discuss the gospel per se, but in a twist of irony, they are always willing to discuss the gospel when it occurs within Islam. What am I talking about? Consider the words of our Lord Jesus Christ from John 15:13. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Here in the act of Ali we find the gospel buried deep within Islamic historical narrative. While Muhammad was busy mounting his escape, Ali actually shows the correct path of laying down your life for the cause. Of course it was the wrong cause, but conceptually, Ali showed the power of being willing to die in the place of someone else. As a Muslim talks about the worthiness of Ali’s actions, he inadvertently is admitting the power and greatness of substitutionary sacrifice as a model of righteousness, before the next breath when he demeans the “shameful” idea of Jesus offering his life as a substitutionary sacrifice! Everyone knows what it means to pay the ultimate price of your life for the good of others. Muslims will deny it with reference to Jesus, but will proudly acknowledge it when discussing Islamic history.
Of course, all this praise of Ali pales in comparison to Jesus, who not only allowed Himself to be betrayed to the Jewish leaders, who turned Him over to the Romans, but actually did pay that ultimate price for us. There was no escape from the cross for Him. The path to glory is always via the cross. It cannot be circumvented.
As a final note, I am unclear how to effectively use such an example in a ministry context. How exactly does a person have a good conversation with a Muslim about the worthiness of what Jesus did on the cross by using Ali’s example as a crowbar to pry open the door of recognition of substitutionary sacrifice as the ultimate act of love? I would be interested to hear from others regarding their experiences with such dialog.