Series 9 - Comparisons Between Islam and Christianity
The Prayer of the Lost
II. The Opening of the Prayers that Concern the Kingdom of Heaven
1. In the Name of Allah
The Basmala forms the prelude of the Fatiha. It is a fixed formulation that sets the tone for all the 114 Suras except one. The literal translation is: in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.
Some Muslim scholars claim that this introductory phrase was not originally part of the Fatiha nor was it from the other Suras but that it was added later to the beginning of the Qur'an in the process of its publication. Today, Muslims consider it to be an integral part of the Fatiha. The Basmala does not contain an invocation from Allah. It is equivalent to the words of an envoy who is commissioned to speak in the name and order of his distant Lord; however it also bears similarity to the incantation of a magician.
With these introductory words, a Muslim consciously draws himself nearer to Allah's sphere of influence and power; yet he does not actually establish personal contact with him. The Muslim's desire is to pray in the spirit of the Qur'an. He strives to conform to the ordinances of Islam. He wants to walk in the structure of the Shari'a.
The first time we find indirect speech turned into a personal approach is in the fifth stanza of the daily petition. A Muslim does not dare to begin the main prayer of his faith with the words, “You are my God“ or “Our gracious God.“ his official prayer is not a personal conversation or talk with God, where he brings requests, intercession, thanksgiving and worship before him. Rather, the Basmala can be compared to a puny man attempting to draw near to his exalted ruler. He stands with his head bowed, respectful and humble, before his mighty lord, hoping that Allah will listen to his murmuring.
The distinctive meaning of the word Allah gives the Islamic prayer its own special weight; it is the Arabic name for God. The root of the word comes from the Semitic EL, similar to Elohim, and it means “the Powerful One,“ “the Only Strength,“ or “the Mighty One.“ When Jesus stood before the high priest, he used this term: “In the future you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven“ (Matthew 26:64).
The difference between the Jewish Elohim and the Arabic Allah lies in the last syllables of both words. While Elohim allows the possibility of plurality and unity of the Trinity, Allah is limited solely to singularity. Allah cannot be a unity of three Persons, for he is uniquely and solitarily one. Consequently, the very Arabic name for God in Islam makes the antagonism to the Holy Trinity abundantly clear. This principle adds depth to the Islamic confession of faith which peals forth thousands of times daily from the loudspeakers of minarets onto the rooftops of countless cities, towns and villages, with the words: “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is his Messenger.“ The uniqueness of Allah is apparent in this double denial of all other gods.
A non-Muslim could begin to understand the absolute sovereignty of Allah, if he were to contemplate the Muslim's call, Allahu akbar. This phrase, meaning “Allah is greater,“ rings out from minarets 40 times each day. It has also been proclaimed from the lips of innumerable Muslims during the holy wars, and it is shouted by Shiites and Sunnites during mass demonstrations. One should notice that this phrase does not mean that Allah is great, for that would imply the existence of another great being, which is incomprehensible; nor does it mean that Allah is the greatest, for this would mean that he could still be compared to something less sublime. It is necessary to understand this concept: Allah is greater than everything -- greater than all the misfortune that could ever befall someone, more important than all political events, more powerful than all the nuclear explosives ever devised by man. Allah is above all the promises of Communism and all the tempting allurements of Capitalism. Allah is greater than anything we could ever conceive about him. He is the different one, the unreachable one, remote, aloof, the great and all-powerful god. No human being can comprehend him. Every thought about him is insufficient or false. Allah is on the other side of a created being's cognitive faculty. He is the Almighty One who controls everything and who reigns with unchallenged, unquestionable sovereignty. None is equal to him. He is the supreme, unknowable, distant god who has no personal contact with his creatures. You can never understand him, only adore him as his slave.
3. The Merciful, the Compassionate
These two names and characteristics of Allah, included in the Basmala, emphasize that he is the merciful one. Muhammad most likely adopted the concept of the merciful Allah from the language spoken in Yemen, because this word sounded good and personified Allah's mercy. This word seems to have been little known in Mecca then and it required explaining. That is why “the Merciful“ is supplemented with “the Compassionate“. This adjective is meant to deepen the most important name of Allah, rendering it “all-encompassing“ mercy.
If we search for evidence of Allah's mercy in the Qur'an, we find that its contents mainly encompass his deeds as creator and sustainer of the universe. Many of the statements that Christians utter in their first article of faith are similarly expressed in the Qur'an: he is the creator of the universe, preserver, protector, granting success, health, wealth, many sons and esteem in this life and the next. This is evidence of Allah's mercy in Islam. On the other hand, those who appear poor, weak, despised and have no sons, are regarded as living under the wrath of the Most High.
The two friendly names of Allah, which are mentioned about 160 times in the Qur'an, point to the welfare of Muslims in this life and the next. However, this mercy of Allah does not mean a personal attachment to man, nor a covenant to his people, because “Allah misleads those whom he wishes, and guides those whom he wishes“ (Sura Ibrahim 14:4). Allah is exalted high above those whom he created. He remains a distant, unknowable god. Allah is not personable. Even the statement, “Allah is spirit,“ is not permissible in Islam, for no one can know who or what his lord really is.
Any attempt to fathom the essence of Allah from the list of his 99 most beautiful names leads to disappointment, because 27 of these names do not appear in the Qur'an literally. They are theological constructions that developed later. Some names of God, borrowed from the Bible, manifest a strange content that distorts their original meaning. We must accept the confession of al-Ghazali, the great Islamic theologian who compared all the names and characteristics of Allah and came to the following conclusion: “Every name of Allah is contradicted by another of his names. Allah is everything and nothing. No one can approach his greatness or fathom his essence. He remains the unknowable and authoritative God.“
4. Our Father
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples focused neither on God the Almighty nor the Creator, neither on himself nor on the Eternal Judge. He also did not encourage them to pray to Elohim or Yahweh but shared with them his own privilege of being able to call God his Father.
This word offers a new relationship between God and us. What a spiritual revolution! Which mortal man could ever presume to call the Eternal One “Father“? We could sooner imagine the possibility of beginning the salutation with “Oh Creator“ or “Lord of History“. But Jesus wanted to lift his followers up to his level. He did not guide them to a great, distant, unknown God whom none could ever hope to know but whom one was obligated to fear and worship. No, Jesus revealed just the opposite to his followers: the personal God of love who is very near, the Father who in Jesus has bound himself to sinners forever. He remains a father even to lost sons and daughters and is coming for them. His fatherhood is the legal form of his love until eternity.
The fatherhood of God is the central concept of the New Testament, being Christ's theological revolution and answer to the rigid One-God doctrine of Jews and Muslims. Jesus mainly portrayed God as Father to his disciples. In his prayers, he addressed him personally as “Father“. In the four Gospels, Jesus acknowledges the fatherhood of God more than 185 times. According to the Gospels, Jesus veiled his identity, using the name God 99 times. The fatherhood of God remained unknown also to demons. But to his innermost circle of disciples, Jesus revealed this essence of God and his unity with him. The Son always honored the Father and, denying himself, said: “The Father is greater than me. He who sees Me, sees the Father ... I and the Father are one ... The Father is in Me and I am in the Father“ (John 10:30; 14:9-11). It was for confirming the fatherhood of God and his personal sonship that Jesus was condemned to death (Matthew 26:63-66); his first and last words on the cross began with the name of his Father (Luke 23:34,46).
No person can understand the secret of the Father and Son by himself. Jews and Muslims alike believe that God is only one. They cannot tolerate or accept the existence of two or three gods. This sounds like blasphemy in their ears. That is why staunch Muslims despise Christians who believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The existence of the Holy Trinity remains to them a secret and an ugly threat. Their eyes are blind and their hearts are hardened.
With his unique revelation, Jesus wanted to encourage his disciples to trust God as their personal Father and create in them a childlike faith; for he has adopted them, despite their unworthiness and uncleanness (Galatians 4:5). Jesus justified and purified his followers, so that they became worthy to be called sons and daughters of God. They are no longer guests or strangers but members in the family of their heavenly Father (Ephesians 2:19; 1 John 3:1-3). He promised and sent them his Holy Spirit, so that they would be born again and live in his strength and divine essence as his children (Romans 8:14,15; Galatians 4:6). We are, by grace, legally his children by adoption, and in essence his children by his spirit, which cries: “Abba, Father“ giving testimony to our spirit, that we are children of God our heavenly Father.
In the Old Testament, the Lord revealed the following assurance through the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name; you are mine“ (Isaiah 43:1). In 1 John 3:1-3, we read the answer of John the Apostle to this promise:
¡°How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.“
The Lord's Prayer does not adore God in general and glorify him indirectly, but directly guides us to speak to God our Father. Christians have personal contact with God. He hears, knows and cares for them. A Christian lives in a real and continual security, for the Almighty is his Father. Race, education, riches, sex, health and success do not entitle us to call God Father; only our faith in Jesus Christ grants us this privilege. Everyone who believes in him will pray in his name to the Father and experiences that he is accepted into the freedom of the children of God. Every Christian has a so-called “hotline“ with which to call his heavenly Father anytime. The number is never busy, and there is never a time when the Father is not there. He is always present, hearing and answering the prayers of his children. Do you know this “divine telephone number“? Consider the words of God in Psalm 50:15: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me,“ then you will find real help in times of trouble.“
5. Who Is in Heaven
The words, “Our Father,“ do not lead the followers of Christ to speak disrespectfully, presumptuously or in a demanding way, for they know their Father is in heaven. A “holy distance“ remains, despite the very personal relationship. Christians are indeed children of God, but it has not yet been revealed what they will become. The Holy Spirit protects them from crude familiarity and over-confidence.
Heaven is the place where God lives; it is a spiritual realm, not a place that can be located geographically. When Jesus said that the Father is in him and that he is in the Father, it meant also that in Christ heaven has come to earth. On the other hand, Jesus was always in heaven, as long as he was one with the Father (John 3:13). It was only on the cross that the Son was severed from the unity of the Trinity. It was there that he reconciled sinners with God; it was there that he suffered hell; it was there that he bore the penalty we deserve, so that we can have access to the Father in his name. Heaven on earth begins now, invisibly, when the Spirit of the Father and the Son is present in us. But this should not be confused with prosperity or feelings of well-being. This privilege of security in God, our Father, can be experienced by all, whether in a concentration camp or among the hungry in India. Heaven can be found by those in the sky-scraper jungle of New York City, and is just as accessible to the bush tribes of Africa. He who believes in the words of Christ and calls God Our Father enters a new creation. The theme of the Lord's Prayer is not fear but love, not isolation but security, not despair but continual thanks.
Some critics say: “Islam testifies to Allah being merciful and compassionate. Christians call their God “Love personified“. Mercy and love look as if they are the same. Therefore, both religions are directed toward the same God!“ In response to this, we recommend that the critics think about what love and mercy really mean. If a bridegroom were to say to his bride in a condescending way, “I will have 'mercy' upon you and marry you,“ how would his bride respond? If she would not reject him with the words, “No thank you, we're through!“ she would not realize the suffering in store for her. But if her groom were to say, “I love you,“ then the matter would be clear, for he would be placing himself exactly on the same level with her. It is precisely at this point where the difference between a relationship to the God of the Bible and Allah in Islam lies. Even when portrayed with his most endearing and noble characteristics, Allah remains the great, distant and sublime god, who, at the most, may stoop to notice a poor wretched worm and perhaps consider helping him.
In Christ, however, God our Father came down to our human level. He became one of us. He even went lower, for he took our guilt upon himself, dying in our place on the cross. True love means sacrifice for the unworthy. The Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is not only merciful to those in distress; he redeemed the sinners, unable to build up their own righteousness before they were born, and bears with them patiently.
The first words in the Fatiha and the Lord's Prayer determine the content and spirit of both prayers. In Islamic prayer, each thought is directed toward Allah, for Islam is a theocentric culture, ordering all areas of life around the name of Allah. But in the prayer that Jesus taught, it is the fatherhood of God that influences all further requests. Therefore, the matter can be summed up thus: The al-Fatiha glorifies and illuminates Allah, only, whereas the prayer of the Lord exalts “our Father in heaven.“ Whoever has understood these two great names, and the difference between them, has understood the essence of Islam and Christianity and their differences. Islam is in essence the explanation of Allah's eminence. While real Christianity is what has been revealed and born again out of the Father.