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Lecture on Islam to Christian theology students

My one-hour lecture on Islam, its relationship with Christianity and Judaism, and the origins of terrorism and extremism amongst Muslims.


Delivered 21 November 2017. Posted 4 March 2018

On 21 November 2017 I spent just over an hour lecturing on Islam to over 20 theology students at Nazarene Theological College, followed by about an hour of questions and answers.

On this page are the following:

  1. An outline of the lecture
  2. A video of the slides I used together with an audio recording of my presentation.
  3. A partial transcript of the question and answer session.
  4. Background information on how I came to be giving the lecture

An outline of the lecture

The PowerPoint presentation contains 93 slides and has the structure below.

For some of the items I have stated what time in the recording they commence, to make it easier for people watching the video over more than one session.

  1. The speaker (1:01)
  2. Scene setting: “A religion of peace?” (1:58)
  3. Distinguishing between a religion and its adherents (3:08)
    1. Judaism
    2. Christianity
    3. Islam
  4. The importance of disentangling theology from history (9:40)
  5. Islam
    1. Authority in Islam (10:20)
    2. What I believe (13:14)
    3. The Islamic sources (20:36)
    1. Abrogation (34:40)
    2. Some belief components (38:49)
    1. Salafi-Jihadism (49:00)
    2. The Constitution of Medina (57:22)
    3. Bibliography (1:00:00)
  1. Q & A (1:03:30)

A video of the slides with an audio recording

A partial transcript of the question and answer session

The question and answer session was also recorded. However, I am not publishing the audio recording for three reasons:

  1. I do not have the permission of those asking questions to publish their recording.
  2. While the sound quality of my responses is very clear, the questioners were some distance from the microphone. Accordingly, in many cases their questions are almost inaudible.
  3. Most importantly, the live dialogue heard cold is not particularly informative.

Instead, I have listened to the Q&A session and, where I regard the questions as being worth sharing, have written down a condensed version of the questions and my responses, improving the clarity of both the question and the response where appropriate.

Are the Arab conquests, eventually stopped by the battle of Tours / Poitiers in 732 A.D., evidence that Islam was being spread by military force?

Undoubtedly the Muslim Arabs set out to build an empire by conquering their neighbours and appropriating control over their lands. This was normal behaviour at that time, just as the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Sasanian Empire sought to do. Indeed, a key military reason for the success of the Arabs was that the Byzantines and the Persians had exhausted themselves through their extended conflict.

The Arabs were clearly out to conquer, and I reject any arguments that their expansion was purely defensive.

The key question is whether the Arabs sought to force the peoples they conquered to convert to Islam. This is well covered in Hans Kung’s book on Islam. He is quite clear that in general the Arabs did not force people to convert. Indeed, Kung quotes correspondence from a local Muslim governor complaining that too many of the local citizenry were converting to Islam, and that this was reducing the receipts of the Treasury which he managed from payments of the Jizya.

The Jizya was a special tax paid only by non-Muslims, which substituted for both the obligation to perform military service and the obligation to pay Zakat (a levy compulsory upon Muslims), although in general Jizya was a greater burden than Zakat. Accordingly, the more people who converted to Islam, the lower the Treasury’s receipts.

Of course, it was Muslim Arabs who ran their Empire. However, they co-opted into their administrations both local Christians and local Jews, who could rise to very high administrative positions, although not to the very top level of being the ruler.

There were unquestionably periods when Muslim rulers forced people to convert to Islam. For example, this occurred in Spain at the time of the Almohad dynasty which is the key reason that Maimonides left Spain and eventually ended up in Egypt. However, such forced conversion was very much the exception rather than the norm.

Arabs ruled the Middle East and North Africa for over 1,000 years. Had they wished to force all Christians and Jews in this region to convert to Islam on pain of death, clearly there would have been no Christians or Jews remaining. As it was, there are still millions of Christians in the Middle East and there were very large Jewish communities until after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

The Arab Empire was established by wars of conquest; these were not wars to convert the conquered peoples to Islam.

Since the actions of some Christians and some Muslims give a very poor impression of Christianity and Islam respectively, what is the best way to gain a proper understanding of Islam?

To understand Christianity or Islam, you must study Christian theology and Islamic theology respectively. Fundamentally, both religions are systems of belief and need to be understood as such.

As a separate matter, you may wish to compare Christianity in the real world and Islam in the real world. There are two basically different ways this can be done.

Compare the best with the worst

You can look at the behaviour of Christians in European countries today and compare this with the behaviour of ISIS in the Middle East or Boko Haram in Nigeria. If you do that, there is no surprise that Muslims look worse.

Compare all Christians with all Muslims

I consider that it is more appropriate to look at the behaviour of all Christians who have ever lived and add up their good and bad deeds, and then do the same with all Muslims who have ever lived. As the numbers of Christians and Muslims differ, one may wish to average the total amount of good and bad that they have done per capita.

While carrying out such a historical exercise would be challenging, my view is that if it were to be carried out Christians would come off significantly worse than Muslims.

One key reason is that the more power one has, the more evil one can perpetrate.

It was Christian Europe that was able to colonise North and South America due to superior technology, and then after the Industrial Revolution to colonise places like India and other large parts of Asia and Africa. The colonisers had far more power than the people who were colonised and were able to perpetrate much more evil. The more power you have, the more you can misbehave.

How can one best understand what God wants from Christians or Allah wants from Muslims?

To understand this, for both Christianity and Islam, I believe that one should take the entire spectrum of historical behaviour by Christians and Muslims.

From the earliest days of Christianity, there has been a very wide range of theological beliefs such as the Gnostics, the Cathars, the Catholics, the Orthodox etc. You should look at this entire sample set of religious behaviours and then study the source texts (the Bible for Christianity) to decide which of those religious behaviours you consider to be closest to the Bible.

In my view, the Christian religious group that best epitomises good behaviour are probably the Mormons.

In my opinion some of the best behaviour amongst Muslims was in the early days of Islam when they actively sought knowledge from all sources, including the philosophical works of people such as Socrates and Aristotle, without any concern for the fact that these ancient Greeks held entirely different religious beliefs. Those Muslims were also eager to learn from the Christian and Zoroastrian societies that they had conquered, which in many cases were far more advanced than the society of the Arabian desert where Islam came from. They were very open to new thinking about all matters including theology; for example, the Mutazilites.

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same god?

One of the students did not actually ask this as a question.

Instead he asserted, with the confidence that comes from the ignorance of youth, that Muslims and Christians categorically do not worship the same god. His argument was that Muslims do not recognise the divinity of Jesus, so Allah must be a different god from the God of the Bible.

To me, it is crystal clear from reading the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Quran that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same divine being, God. As explained in “Triangulating the Abrahamic faiths – measuring the closeness of Judaism, Christianity and Islam” Muslims and Jews have the same absolutely monotheistic understanding of God.

Those Christians who believe in the Trinity (which is most but not all of them) have a somewhat different understanding of monotheism. However, that does not mean that they worship a different God from the God that Jews worship, and I am not aware of any Christians asserting that they do. However, the God worshipped by the Jews is the same God who is worshipped by Muslims.

The Roman Catholic Church is categorical on this point. To quote from Nostra Aetate, as I do in “Triangulating the Abrahamic faiths”:

“The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems.

They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.

Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion.

In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.”

From a Muslim perspective, how do you understand the Gospel and the message of Jesus?

The Quran makes it clear that Muslims believe in the revelations which came before, the Torah and the Injil, which is how they are named in Arabic in the Quran. Muslims also believe that those texts have been distorted by those people who have them, so that the versions of the texts that we have available today are not the originals revealed by God.

However, Muslims are not very good at specifying what the distortions are. In practice, most Muslims simply ignore the Old Testament and the New Testament; they simply do not read them. I regard that as a serious failing, and strongly encourage Muslims to read both books in order to understand Jews and Christians better. The reading should be a sympathetic one, aiming not to find material to disagree with, although it certainly exists (such as New Testament assertions of the divinity of Jesus,) but rather simply aiming to understand what Jews and Christians believe.

When it comes to the nature of Jesus, Jews believe that he was just another man, albeit rather enthusiastic about his religion, and someone who has been misrepresented after his death.

On the other hand, Muslims believe that Jesus had a virgin birth, but also consider this does not stop him being entirely human. He was just a man, albeit a prophet who communicated with God and was enabled by God to work miracles. Jesus worshipped God; he was not God himself.

Did the Prophet Muhammad perform any miracles?

As far as I am aware, the answer is no. The miracle of the Prophet was the Quran itself.

How would you react if your child came home with a copy of the Bible that he wanted to read?

It would not bother me in the slightest.

Most Muslims tend to ignore the texts of other religions. It is not so much hostility to those texts; they are just not interested in them.

Attending Christian and Jewish religious services

I regularly find myself in churches and synagogues attending religious services such as funerals and other services.

The big between them difference is that I have never found any part of a synagogue service that I could not wholly participate in. I do not even have a problem with synagogue prayers for the state of Israel since I do not want Israel to be destroyed. I want it to live in peace and harmony with a Palestinian state alongside it.

However, in churches, every so often I have to stop singing because the hymn contains language (about the divinity of Jesus) that I cannot agree with.

Should Muslims put hadith to one side and rely solely on the text of the Quran?

In my view no. There is a group amongst Muslims, known as Quranists, who ignore hadith entirely and rely solely on the text of the Quran.

In my view the problem with Quranism is that a very large part of Muslim religious practice is known only from hadith and from traditions handed down over the centuries. It is not covered in the Quran, which is a short book. This includes such basics as the details of how Muslims pray. Discarding all hadith and all traditions would leave a religious shell lacking any content about most elements of religious practice.

While I believe in retaining hadith, I consider that you need to test all hadith by asking:

  1. Does it agree with the text of the Quran? I regard any hadith that contradicts the Quran as being unreliable.
  2. Does the hadith make historical sense and is it rational? If not, then again it should be regarded as extremely dubious. For example, there are hadith which promise incredibly large rewards for microscopic good deeds, and others which threaten the direst penalties for the most trivial of offences. Such hadith make no sense if you believe in a rational God.

God must be plural since in the Old Testament He says, “Let Us make man in Our image.

This student asserted that the God of the Old Testament must be different from the completely monotheistic Allah because He used the plural references “Us” and “Our” in the sentence from Genesis quoted above. Furthermore, the very first verse of Genesis in Hebrew uses “Elohim” to refer to God, and Elohim is a plural word in Hebrew.

I cannot remember if this student was the same one who was arguing earlier that Muslims worship a different God from Christians.

His approach illustrates perfectly the maxim “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” The student knew enough about Hebrew to recognise Elohim as plural but had never heard of “the plural of majesty” and appeared oblivious to the fact that Jews have a completely monotheistic view of God!

I explained that when the Queen of the UK writes a letter saying, “We believe that this should be done”, that does not mean that there is more than one Queen.

Why do you as a Muslim think that Jesus was born of a virgin?

I do not know. There are many religious questions that I cannot answer. Obviously, it demonstrated God’s miraculous powers, but beyond that I do not know.

There are many challenging questions in religion. For example, when the Bible refers to God making man in his own image, does that lead to an anthropomorphic view of God or is the Bible intending some other kind of similarity. Jewish views have changed over time and today most would probably consider it as a reference to the nature of God and the nature of man.

To be a Christian you must believe that Jesus Christ was God

This assertion may have come from the same student as the one previously arguing with me about the identity of God and Allah, or a different one, I cannot remember.

However, the question illustrates again the confidence that is born of ignorance. The questioner has obviously never heard of Unitarian Christians.

What do Muslims want? Do you see any prospects of terrorism ending in the UK?

One key point about terrorism is that when it is happening, people think it will go on forever. Furthermore, people have very short memories.

For example, about 130 years ago there was a very widespread terrorist threat in Europe and the United States from anarchists. We have had phases of Irish nationalist terrorism from the Fenians in the past, and more recently the Irish Republican Army. In the 1970’s we had the Red Brigades terrorists in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany etc. These things do eventually blow over.

I am completely confident that the same will eventually be true of violent Islamist extremism. It will not happen overnight, and it will require a combination of security measures, challenges to the terrorists' theology, and also ceasing the propagation by some Muslims of hatred against other Muslims and against non-Muslims.

Why does the Quran say that abandoning Islam is a major sin when Quran 2:62 makes it clear that Jews and Christians also go to heaven?

This was undoubtedly the best question I was asked during the entire evening.

I explained that, from memory, all of the Quran verses condemning the act of leaving Islam referred to people reverting to polytheism / paganism rather than to people leaving Islam to become Christians or Jews. The context was not Jews or Christians who had embraced Islam reverting to Judaism or Christianity but rather pagans who had become Muslims reverting to paganism.

I can see God being very unhappy if a Muslim abandons Islam to become an idol worshipper.

However, my opinion is that God would be much less concerned about a Muslim abandoning Islam to become an Orthodox Jew, given the way that both Muslims and Orthodox Jews are completely monotheistic, worship God, and follow very similar lifestyles. In my view, in theological terms Islam is basically Judaism without a chosen people – because it is a universal religion.

I consider that a Muslim becoming a Christian is somewhat worse because Christians do not practice the same absolute monotheism that Jews and Muslims practice. In my view Christians misrepresent both the nature of Jesus and the nature of God, both of which would upset God. How much, I do not know because only God decides who goes to Paradise.

So, would you put religions in a hierarchy?

Absolutely. First Islam, then Judaism, then Christianity.

If the Bible talks about God taking the form of a man to wrestle with Jacob, how can you say that Christians are wrong about the nature of Jesus?

I have no way of assessing the accuracy of the story in Genesis. For the purposes of the answer, let us assume that the story is literally true.

I have no problem accepting that God, if He so wished, could take the form of a man and then wrestle with Jacob during the night. I do not claim to understand His purpose in doing so, but He undoubtedly has the capability to do so. That however does not cause God to cease being a single unique god who has temporarily assumed physical human shape for His own purposes.

That is quite different from what Christians say about the nature of Jesus.

Does Islam accept that God is love? Would Muslims refer to God the Father?

God is love” is a phrase that Muslims should agree with. It is not a phrase that they tend to use, but love is undoubtedly an attribute of God. Muslims have a list of 99 wonderful attributes of God that are mentioned in the Quran.

Muslims of course understand God to be the Creator, but would not refer to God as the Father, because that implies sonship and gets back to the Christian assertions of the divinity of Jesus.

Background information on how I came to be giving the lecture

There are some important messages about the importance of always carrying business cards, talking to people, and being open to new encounters.

On 6 August 2017 I was at BBC Radio Manchester prior to going on air to give my “Thought for the Week” and do the Newspaper Review. While my Thought is written and submitted to the BBC a few days prior, the Sunday newspapers have to be scanned quickly on the morning so I can find four stories to talk about.

Accordingly, I apologised to the person who sat down opposite me for not being able to talk, but did exchange business cards with him. He was Sean Ryan, who is responsible for the Caritas Social Action Network for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salford.

That evening, I emailed him after listening on the BBC iPlayer to his appearance on the programme which had taken place while I was still scanning the newspapers. Sean responded and also introduced me by email to Revd. Canon Phil Rawlings, Co-Director, Manchester Centre for the Study of Christianity and Islam at Nazarene Theological College.

By email, I arranged to visit Phil Rawlings on 17 August 2017. During my visit, I was asked to speak on one session of an 11-week course that he runs on Islam for Christian students. I volunteered, and that was my talk above.

Contemporary Issues: ‘Missionary faiths (Christianity & Islam) living together – in harmony?’

That is the title of the course Canon Rawlings runs, and I have copied the outline of the 2017 course below. Consequently, the title of my session was given to me.

However I did not want to assume that the students already had a good working knowledge of Islam, and therefore decided to devote most of my session to explaining the basics of Islam and its relationship with Judaism and Christianity.

Giving the lecture and the Q&A session confirmed the wisdom of my decision.

  1. Islam in the UK – facts and figures.
  2. Islam – History, practices and beliefs.
  3. Islam – different streams and denominations.
  4. Visit to a Mosque
  5. Islam – a religion of Peace – Visit from Imam. [My session. Of course I am not an imam.]
  6. What is happening in Islam? – visit from Muslim barrister.
  7. Christian views of other religions.
  8. Historical approaches between Christians and Muslims
  9. Methods of dialogical engagement.
  10. Visit by Imam to answer questions.
  11. A Wind in the house of Islam - Believers in Christ from a Muslim background


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