I've been studying Islam for the past several years while teaching a "Journalism and Religion" course at the University of Texas. I'm all for people from different religions talking with each other. I'm for the Bush strategy of building an anti-terror coalition that includes Muslim countries.
Nevertheless, our desire to make friends should not lead us to obscure the truth, as America Online's primer about "Understanding Islam" did recently when it proclaimed, "Same God: Muslims accept the teachings of the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels." Actually, Muslims accept neither the Bible as written (see our cover story) nor the God of the Bible.
A taxpayer-subsidized lesson in manners on the website of PBS is similarly wrong in offering this statement: "One should properly say that Muslims worship God, not Allah, which is simply the word for God (with a capital G) in the Arabic language. Giving a different name to the one God worshipped by the followers of Muhammad erroneously implies that their God is different from the one God worshipped by Jews or Christians."
PBS is the party in error here. Allah is different. Muslims say their god is all-wise and all-compassionate, but Allah merely displays man's understanding of what wisdom and compassion are. There were more things in heaven and earth than Muhammad could imagine, and one of them is the wisdom and compassion of the cross. Another is the way that God can be our father rather than our master.
The Bible shows how God establishes a father-son relationship between Him and redeemed man, and a husband-wife relationship with His church. The Quran stresses a master-servant or master-slave relationship in both theology and marriage. Christians who want to follow Christ become servant-leaders. Muslims imitating their god become dictators. Muslims have a hard time understanding the Christian marriage relationship, with husbands leading but also loving their wives enough to die for them.
Does the god of Islamic imagination act toward man as God described in the Bible does? Read the Quran: If you know anything about the civilization of 7th-century west Asia, you won't find many surprises. The Quran has Allah promising gifts to his warriors, just like conquerors of old dispensed boons to theirs. Suras 44, 52, 55, 56, 69, 78, and others include descriptions of how good Muslims after death will have "a life of pleasure" complete with meat, bananas, and large-eyed, beautiful young women.
Read the Bible, and note especially the rewards promised in the New Testament: Not booty but "a new heaven and a new earth" that still includes work, but with the thorns removed. The great announcement in Revelation 21 is this: "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain."
One reason Christian relationships are different is the experience of Christ, who knew what it was to be unjustly tortured and abandoned, to endure overwhelming loss, and to be unjustly killed. The ancient Greeks distinguished between gnosis (intellectual knowledge) and epignosis, intimate understanding. God has both and, having drawn near to us, He invites us to draw near to Him.
My favorite columnist, Peggy Noonan, recently wrote about a husband and wife swimming in the ocean when "from nowhere came a shark. The shark went straight for the woman, opened its jaws. Do you know what the man did? He punched the shark in the head.... So the shark let go of his wife and went straight for him. And it killed him. The wife survived to tell the story of what her husband had done. He had tried to deck the shark. I told my friends: That's what a wonderful man is, a man who will try to deck the shark."
The Quran has no sense of a God who would become man and give His life to deck the shark. The very idea is blasphemous to Muslims: If God becomes man, doesn't that lower God to man's level? Perhaps the woman had sinned and should be eaten by the shark. Or if she was innocent, Allah from on high could zap the shark.
The Christian response is that all of us because of our sin should be sharkbait. God could simply destroy the shark from afar, but that would not be just. Besides, if God kept His distance, maybe we could venerate Him as Muslims venerate Allah, but would we love Him? As it is, we can say, "What a wonderful God, coming to earth to deck the shark."