Four Faces of Islam: Before and After the Terrorist Attack upon America


After teaching Muslim clergy at the Faculty of Islamic Theology of the University of Teheran, Iran, during 1968–1974, and after attending preaching and praying events in dozens of mosques around the world, and after hours of discussions with Muslims in their homes and mosques and around tables of food and cups of tea, I am in agreement with Nobel Prize in Literature winner V. S. Naipaul when he writes, “Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands.”

Religions facilitate the display of many faces among their followers and to outsiders. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack upon the United States, many around the world quickly affirmed the religion Islam as a peaceful one. And so it is. However, one of the faces of Islam is that of warfare. After the attack, some pled the case that Islam is a religion of freedom. The Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, states that there is no compulsion in religion. Yet, the history of Islam is replete with the lack of religious freedom and grave penalties for apostasy. After the attack there was great publicity of the orthodoxy of Islam and its deep meaning for Muslims in prayer life, fasting in the season of Ramadan, in the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and in serious commitments to a disciplined way of life to honor their deity, Allah. How true this religious behavior is. Yet there is the face of tens of millions of Muslims who combine their orthodoxy with folk practices in which they seek folk heroes and saints to answer their prayers and to console them amid the difficulties of life.

After the attack there was much discussion about comparisons of Islam with Judaism and Christianity. Some insisted that on the essentials of religions the differences were small. However, in a comparison between the core teachings of Christianity and Islam on matters dealing with the nature and purpose of the life of Jesus Christ and on the idea of salvation, there are some similarities and some great differences. Islam may accept the Virgin Birth of Jesus and consider Him a prophet and a messiah; however, it emphatically denies the divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, it does not affirm the Christian doctrine of salvation.

Face One: Islam an Aggressive Missionary Religion

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, founded the first Muslim community (the ummah) in Medina, Saudi Arabia, during the years A.D. 622-32 upon revelations received from Allah in heaven by means of an angel, Gabriel. Muhammad was prophet, judge, leader, and commander-in-chief of the community of Muslims. Islam meant submission to the straight path of Allah and to following Muhammad as the final prophet.

Muhammad waged battles against the recalcitrant tribes which would not convert to the teachings and practices of Islam or which refused to capitulate to live under its rules and regulations. Jews and Christians were given the special title and status of “People of the Book.” If Jews and Christians would not convert, then they were tolerated by the Muslim authorities by paying the poll tax and living under certain restrictions imposed upon minorities within the Islamic community.

Islam advanced rapidly after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632 to a predominant presence in much of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and South and Central Asia by A.D. 800. Its missionary advance in recent times has led it to become the second largest religion with some 1.3 billion followers. Although the heartland of Islam has its origins in the Middle East and the Arabian peninsula, the four largest populations of Muslims are convert peoples to Islam and are non-Arabs and not in the Middle East, namely: Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, representing some 43 percent of Muslim peoples. Islam has also become the second largest religion in Europe and the United States.

The worldview of Islam has classically been dualistic. It divided the world into the territory of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the territory of the ignorant or the infidel, and consequently of the enemy and war (Dar al-Harb). The missionary imperative of Islam has been founded upon the view that it alone has the correct view, doctrine, practice, law, and a way of life superlative to any other. Therefore, all peoples should either become Muslim or submit to its authority and governance.

Contemporary Islam finds many expressions among Muslim nations and peoples. Saudi Arabia still looks to the Qur’an and the Shariah (law) for its Islamic foundations. Saudi Arabia allows no churches upon its soil and no non-Muslims to enter the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic of Iran in his revolution in 1979, dismissing any Christian missionaries in the land and placing restrictions upon the native synagogues and churches. The Islamic Republic of the Sudan was founded on an attempt to apply Islamic laws upon the people. Pakistan, since its inception as a new nation breaking away from India in 1947, has struggled from election to election in terms of how Islamic its constitution and governance would be. The Taliban of Afghanistan implemented a view and practice of Islam that included the destruction of Buddhist monuments and the seclusion of women from the public arena.

Since World War II, revolutionary movements in the Levant, in Egypt, in India, in Pakistan, and other countries have initiated aggression against their own governments as well as other nations in order to implement their own visions of “ideal Islam” in a political and social order. Names like Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and many others have been prevalent in portraying certain Muslim aspirations for a new expression of Islam based on the classical ideas and practices of Prophet Muhammad and the early caliphs.

Is Islam a religion of peace and war? Yes it is. The thousands of Muslims I have met in classes, in homes, in mosques, and in commerce have been very peaceful people. I could not have met a more hospitable and peaceful people. The very greeting of Muslims is one of peace. However, the religion Islam was born in an ethos of violence. Its history and expansion have witnessed violence. Much of its missionary approach has emphasized either: first, convert to Islam, second, capitulate to its governance with restricted citizenship, or third, be engaged in war through the personal jihad of a Muslim or through holy- war jihad of a Muslim nation or Muslim group.

Face Two: Questions of Freedom of Religion

The prophet Muhammad established his religion in the face of much hostility, opposition, and violence. In Mecca, his birthplace, with his newfound revelations from Allah, he preached against the polytheism of his kinsmen and other tribes. They threatened his life and the lives of his few followers so that Muhammad fled to Medina. In Medina he established his Islamic community founded on revelations which were later codified in the Qur’an. Various tribes around Medina, including Jewish tribes, were approached to join the new Muslim “nation.” Some acquiesced. Some did not, and Muhammad led his warriors against them. Muhammad personally led his warriors into some twenty-seven battles and sent them into thirty-nine other battles. By his death in A.D. 632, he had recaptured Mecca, cleansed it of its polytheistic idols, and established it and the Ka’aba, a holy site, as the direction of prayer five times a day for all Muslims. Also, Muslims were to make their pilgrimage to this holy city.

Thus under the prophet Muhammad’s leadership, the policy of “convert, capitulate, or have conflict” was the pattern in relations with non-Muslims. Jews and Christians were given a special place as “People of the Book,” sometimes referred to as Dhimmis. They were not forced to become Muslims; however, they had to pay a poll tax, to live as minorities under the Islamic authorities, and have liberty to worship in their synagogues and churches under certain restrictions (not proselytizing Muslims). They could also observe certain laws relative to their traditional religious traditions.

Throughout its history, Islam has faced a challenge in its relations with non-Muslims and with its own who desired to leave Islam for other religious traditions. The apostasy of Muslims leaving their religion has historically been dealt with harshly. Punishments have included banishments from the home and community, beatings, imprisonment, and even death. When Islam has been in the majority with regard to political, constitutional, and police power, it has exemplified a pattern of subjugation toward non-Muslims. Likewise, it has established policies and practices of great restrictions upon those non-Muslims who desired to practice their religions in liberty and freedom.

Face Three: Islamic Orthodoxy and Muslim Folk Religion

Islam is the religion par excellence concerning prescriptions for religious life. Muslims know exactly what they must practice, for the Qur’an tells them. They do not have to wonder or guess what is pleasing to Allah, for they have a daily, monthly, and yearly calendar to follow. Rituals and ceremonies are explicitly detailed in the Qur’an.

Six orthodox practices prescribed are confession (shahada), giving (zakat), prayers (salat), fasting {ramadan), pilgrimage (hajf), and both offensive and defensive struggle and warfare on behalf of Alllah (jihad). These practices are founded upon a belief in Allah as the God who does not share his nature with anyone or anything, in angels, in prophets with Muhammad being the final prophet, in sacred scriptures with the Qur’an being the inerrant, infallible, and last perfect word from Allah, and in a great judgment for all humankind which will result in assignment to either paradise or hell.

All Muslims of every race, nation, and language must believe and practice these essentials of the religion. All Muslims, whether they are native Arab or not, must become Arabized to the extent that they memorize enough Arabic language to say the formal prayers five times daily, to claim enough of the Arab history of their prophet Muhammad and its centuries of growth and expansion, and to claim the holy Arab places of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is to Mecca that they direct their daily prayers and to which they go on pilgrimage. They go to Medina where their prophet is buried. The majority of the Muslims of the world are not Arabs; however, they must be deeply influenced and committed to Arab language, history, and places.

Most Muslims of the world became converts to Islam after the initial advance of the religion by Arab warriors, merchants, and missionaries. For example, Indonesians and Iranians are convert peoples who brought traditions of their

own cultures and religions into their acceptance of Islam, as did other peoples of Africa and Asia. The orthodoxy of Islam has been influenced by traditions such as: visiting the tombs of saints, the veneration of saints, and saying prayers to saints. These practices have been called “folk Islam,” a blend of orthodoxy and popular religion. A Muslim may say highly formal and structured prayers in the Arabic language five times a day in a mosque led by the Imam while in the same day offering prayers to a saint in the vernacular language, voicing concerns of need from the heart. In short, many Muslims pray formally to Allah out of Qur’anic command and traditional habit, while at the same time practicing an informal religion of voicing needs from the heart to someone they expect will hear and respond. It may be said that millions of Muslims practice a folk religion of Islam mixed with magic, superstition, the occult, and a variety of Muslim folk heroes and saints.

Kenneth Cragg, eminent Christian missiologist and Islamic scholar, has pointed out that although the concept of Allah is deep and complex, the many names of Allah do not describe his essence but only his will and law. Allah is independent of his creation. He gives his law. People are to submit to it. Allah cannot be called father; neither can he share his nature with others. He is one, sovereign, and lord (al-Rabb); humans are slave servants (Abel) who must respond to him in submission (Islam).

Face Four: Islam’s Affirmations and Great Denials of Jesus

Islam was founded as a religion during the last ten years of Muhammad’s life between A.D. 622 and 632. Since Islam’s inception, relations between Christianity and Islam have been at best lukewarm and at worst full of ignorance and conflict. Both Christians and Muslims often hark back to the era of the crusades as the most troublesome of times.

There are indeed similarities between the two religions. These include: belief in one God, angels, prophets, a sacred book, and a worldview and practice of similar ethics and morality with an emphasis on prayer and family values. However, there are also significant differences within these beliefs and practices.

Perhaps the greatest point of divergence between Islam and Christianity concerns belief about the nature and mission of Jesus. The Qur’an states many positive and significant beliefs about Jesus which every Muslim must accept because the Qur’an says so. Jesus is one of the prophets. He is called “messiah,” “word of God,” “spirit of God,” and “born of the Virgin Mary.” The Qur’an states that Jesus performed miracles and raised someone from the dead. The prophet Muhammad is given none of these titles and descriptions in the Qur’an. Islam thus calls upon Muslims to honor their prophets, including Jesus, and attributes reverential descriptions to Jesus.

Traditions about Jesus outside the Qur’an have also influenced Muslims. They include views of Jesus returning from heaven at judgment time to defeat the Antichrist, at which time he will ostensibly become a Muslim, kill all swine, break all crosses, marry, have children, and assist Allah in the final judgment day.

As much as Islam affirms some significant attributes of Jesus in the Qur’an, it denies the very beliefs about Jesus upon which Christian faith and practice are founded. The Qur’an denies the divinity of Jesus, the Incarnation of Jesus, the Trinitarian understanding of Jesus, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In these great denials, Islam has no room in its teachings about God sending his Son into the world because of humanity’s sinfulness and making possible the forgiveness of sin with the Son’s death on the cross through crucifixion. Nor does it have room for the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb for victory over sin and death. Whereas Roman historians, the biblical record, and spokespersons of other world religions acknowledge the fact of the crucifixion, Islam denies it because the Qur’an says so.

Thus, Islam differs with biblical Christianity not only in its understanding and description of Jesus, but also in its own theology concerning the concepts of God, humanity, sin, and salvation. Islam believes humanity’s problem is one of basic ignorance. This ignorance can be overcome by proper knowledge and the straight path of the beliefs and strict practices of Islamic law, rituals, and ceremonies.


After the September 11 terrorist attack on America, it was learned that the terrorists had all been Muslims. Information released to the public indicated that the terrorists had acted upon their religious beliefs. United States government officials, representatives of various religions, and mass-media spokespersons in television, radio, and print made statements about the tragic attack and the loss of innocent lives. They said that justice would prevail and those responsible would be held accountable. Much was said about the peacefulness of the religion Islam and that the terrorists represented only a minuscule faction among Muslim peoples.

Muslim spokespersons also condemned the attack upon America, saying that Islam is a peaceful religion and that innocent people were never intended to be attacked in such a way. Some said that although the attack was to be condemned, there were reasons for it, including the American foreign policy of favoritism toward Israel and against the Palestinian people, and the lack of American support for Muslim peoples and their plights around the world. It was difficult to find any Muslim spokesperson in the mass media actually willing to condemn the attack unequivocally and to state that the Qur’an, the prophet Muhammad, and the traditions (Hadith) emphatically condemned such actions.

In my study and experience with Islam and with Muslim peoples, there often has been a vast difference between official and popular Islam, between what the Qur’an and the Hadith state and what Muslims in their homes, classes, and workplaces say. I know peaceful Muslims. I have also known angry and agitated and hostile Muslims who held strong views against what they called “western imperialism,” “colonialism,” a “corrupt Judaism,” and a “corrupt Christianity.” I have known Muslims who respected me as a Christian and a follower of Jesus (Isa). I have also known some Muslims who voiced the superiority of Islam over all other religions and political and cultural systems and indicated that one day it would reign triumphant.

Thus, September 11 has awakened much of the world to the religion of Islam and to the peoples called Muslims. History has taught that Islam is an aggressive religion, having become the second largest in the world. Examples of Islam around the globe where it has predominance in numbers and political power demonstrate that it has difficulty dealing with questions of religious freedom. However at the same time, tens of millions of Muslims practice some form of folk Islam which deviates from orthodoxy and thus reflects a need that official Islam seemingly does not meet. Christianity and Islam, although having some similarities concerning religious history and views about Jesus and other biblical characters, are vastly dissimilar in their beliefs about the nature and mission of Jesus and about the meaning of sin and salvation. The two religions are worlds apart on matters of the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus; and therefore on the nature of sin and its remedy in the salvation offered in Jesus Christ.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Faith and Mission Volume 19 (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002; 2006), vnp.19.2.3-19.2.9.

© 2010 – 2011, Matt. All rights reserved.