Many of the articles on this blog contrast Jesus and Muhammad. This shouldn’t be surprising, as each of these individuals serves as the central figure of their respective religions. One of this blog’s readers, Jeanne, made an interesting and perceptive observation on a previous article upon which I would like to expand. Jesus said in John 15:13 that the ultimate act of love is giving one’s life for others, and Muslims cite examples of Muhammad’s followers doing so as proof of their great love for the prophet of Islam. What can we learn from investigating this ultimate act of sacrifice when viewed from both the lens of Islam and Christianity?
Both Muslims and Christians possess overwhelming love and admiration for their two respective religious figures. Some of the great lengths to which Muslims love Muhammad have been written about extensively on this blog. However, one aspect left untouched relates to how the Muslims’ love for Muhammad was manifested in battle. Early Muslims had such affection for Muhammad that they would be willing to defend him to the point of being martyred for the cause of Islam. Without opening a political can of worms, some Muslims today feel the same way. Islamic blogger and author Mohamed Ghilan describes this propensity by Muslims of Muhammad’s day for self-sacrifice during battle as follows.
“This was a man whose companions would jump up in battle exposing their chests to take arrows that were being shot at him. They did that without any of the training modern day Secret Service personnel receive to subvert their instincts for self-preservation. Their instinct was to sacrifice themselves in order to keep the Beloved peace be upon him safe.” [i]
Ghilan’s analysis is accurate as it correctly reflects events as recorded in the Hadith, one of the primary sources of information regarding Muhammad’s life. There are many Hadith which discuss how Muslims were martyred defending Muhammad in battle. One such example states,
On the day of the battle of uhud, a man came to the Prophet and said, “Can you tell me where I will be if I should get martyred?” The Prophet replied, “In Paradise.” The man threw away some dates he was carrying in his hand, and fought till he was martyred. [ii]
Martyrdom is not unique to Islam. Of course within Christianity, countless numbers of faithful followers of Jesus have been martyred over the centuries. So on the surface this might make it appear as a point of doctrine and practice where Christianity and Islam are analogous. However, a closer look tells a much different story.
An entire article could be written regarding the manner in which these martyrs surrendered their lives, and that deserves its own special look at a later time. For now, consider the timing of these martyrdoms. The first Muslims martyred themselves for Muhammad while he was still alive. However, all of the martyrs for Jesus Christ came after His death and resurrection. This might seem a trivial difference, but bear with me for a moment.
Before anyone was able to give their lives for Jesus, He had to first give His life for them. In other words, nobody died for Jesus until after Jesus first died for them. Not only this, but when Jesus gave His life for us, He did so knowing we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:6). Jesus died for us, not because we were somehow inherently worthy, but rather in spite of our unrighteousness. Jesus did this of His own free will (John 10:18) so that He would be the path to salvation (1 Peter 2:24). Any acts of martyrdom by Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection are only imitations of Jesus and His actions (Ephesians 5:1-2). Giving your life for someone you believe to be a good man is one thing (Romans 5:7), but dying for the ungodly is something else entirely (Romans 5:8). Just as we only can love because Jesus first loved us (1 John 4:19), so too we can only give our lives for Him only because He first gave His life for us.
The early Muslims were willing to take the arrows to preserve Muhammad, but Jesus took the arrow of sin first for us. Muslims saw Muhammad as a man worthy of all protection, while Jesus knew we were completely helpless, not deserving of salvation by our own merit. Yet Jesus provided an avenue of salvation for us nonetheless. In Islam, the followers die for their leader. In Christianity, the leader dies for His followers.