Learning about Islam

Answering Jihad: A Better way forward by Dr Nabeel Qureshi (HarperCollins)

Understanding Jesus and Muhammad: What the ancient texts say about them by Dr Bernie Power (Acorn Press)

Review by Richard Schumack

It is no exaggeration to say that Islam provides the contemporary global church’s greatest missional and socio-political challenge. If I am right about this, then properly understanding and engaging with Islam is one of our most urgent needs. The bad news is that until very recently, we here in Australia were badly under-equipped to do so. Few Christians knew much about Islam, and even fewer had any interest in reaching out to the Muslim world.

This is understandable. Conservative forms of Islam were very distant from most of our ordinary lives, and our mission efforts were historically focused on overseas people groups following other traditional religions, or local people who followed little or no religion.

But the world has changed and Islam is on the move. Nearly all of us know Muslim neighbours, Muslim work/playmates, or, at the very least, Muslim taxi drivers! Stories related to Islam dominate our media, and our national security forces are heavily focused on Muslim refugees, Islamic terrorism and the Islamist agenda in the Middle East.

The good news is that the church is also responding. Refugee ministries are booming, mission organisations are redeploying toward the Muslim world and Christian scholars are developing a deep understanding of Islam.

Finally, too, we are seeing the emergence of high-quality literature that is aimed at helping the average Aussie Christian meaningfully engage with their Muslim neighbours.

Two new offerings are hot off the press: Understanding Jesus and Muhammad: What the ancient texts say about them by Dr Bernie Power from the Melbourne School of Theology; and Answering Jihad: A Better way forward by Dr Nabeel Qureshi from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

 Both authors are unusually qualified to contribute to the field. Qureshi, a former committed Muslim with a Masters degree in studies of religion, is a full-time apologist in regular dialogue and debate with Muslims. Power lived and worked in the Muslim world for many years and, uniquely among Christians, pursued doctoral research into the historical traditions to do with Muhammad – the so-called hadith.

Despite tackling mostly different topics, there are two striking similarities between these two books. First, both are built upon the crucial idea that Islam cannot be properly understood without reference to its foundational texts. These texts are the Qur’an, the hadith and (less well-known) the authoritative biography of Muhammad by 8th-century Arab historian Ibn Ishaq. 

Second, both books were forged in the context of real-life conversations between Muslims and Christians. This means that the ideas you find in each are not abstract theological concepts, but the ideas you will commonly run into when you speak to Muslims, or try to understand why Muslim groups, like ISIS, behave the way they do. It also means the discussions are framed in everyday language, as well as having been road tested for facilitating helpful conversations.

In Answering Jihad Qureshi tackles 18 important questions surrounding the Muslim idea of jihad – that is fighting for, or struggling for, the Muslim faith. He divides these questions into three groups. The first group help us understand the Muslim mindset – asking, for example, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” and “Is jihad in the Qur’an?” The second group address the nature of jihadi Islamist groups, like ISIS, that are operating today. Here Qureshi asks things like “Why are Muslims being radicalised?” and whether groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are genuinely Islamic. 

A third group of questions compares and contrasts the Islamic take on violence to that of Christianity. Here he tackles thorny issues like how jihad compares to warfare in the Old Testament and the Crusades. Qureshi’s answers to the questions are concise, but carefully researched and nuanced. They are genuine attempts, from a former (and not bitter) true believer, to present a traditional Muslim position on its own terms. In each case he appeals to the Muslim texts, or the Bible, to support his view that violent jihad is authentically mandated in the Qur’an, and evident in the life of Muhammad, as well as historical Islam.

Pointing out the very real presence of violent jihad in Islam is no cold hatchet job for Qureshi. As a former devout Muslim it is personal. So, he beautifully weaves into his argument his personal testimony of how, while still a Muslim, he painfully came to realise the inherent violence in Islam through carefully reading what his revered texts actually said. Like most Muslims, he had grown up read very little of them. 
Ultimately, though, there is one question Qureshi is most interested in: How should Christians respond to the reality of Muslim terrorism in the world today? His answer is clear, if challenging. Fight jihad not with violence or fearful rejection of Muslims, but with truth and grace. By this he means having tough conversations with Muslims about what the Islamic texts really say about violence, as well offering them a different way of doing religion. That is, the way of grace found in following Christ.

Understanding Jesus and Muhammad is aimed at precisely that. It hopes to equip the average Christian – and Muslim – to openly and honestly discuss the truth about Muhammad and Jesus. All the usual beliefs that come up in discussions between Christians and Muslims are here: the trinity, incarnation, religious violence, human rights in Islam, scriptural reliability and so on. 
As the title suggests, each belief is evaluated by examining what each faith’s key texts have to say and then seeing if it stands up to theological or historical scrutiny. The book is unusual in its style of going about this.

Most chapters begin with a brief story to introduce the topic. From that point on there are lots of dot points, lists of references, diagrams and summaries.

This is not a weakness; rather, it is a strength. That’s because this is designed as a book to be used, rather than read. It is, in short, a handbook for discussion that summarises the key things you need to know about each topic, including what responses you will likely get to different points. It is worth the price for the volume of information packed into the summary charts and diagrams alone.
As a handbook, Understanding Jesus and Muhammad is a great resource for any Christian who is speaking about faith with Muslims. In my experience, most traditional Muslims have a very high degree of confidence that Muhammad is the perfect model of a faithful person, and that Christian beliefs about Jesus are weak fabrications. Usually, though, this confidence is misplaced since it is not grounded in actual knowledge of either Jesus or Muhammad. 

Very few Muslims are familiar with the hadiths, and it is extraordinarily rare to meet a Muslim who has read Muhammad’s biography. Instead, Muslim knowledge of both Muhammad and Jesus is generally very patchy and unreliably based on what others tell them (this is precisely the testimony of Qureshi in Answering Jihad). The material that Power places in our hands here offers a great way to move past the initial bluster and on to conversations of substance. 

Obviously neither of these short books will complete your library on Islam. They are too brief for that. Indeed, their brevity makes some of their discussions unsatisfying. So, for example, some of Power’s illustrations of complex Christian doctrines are oversimplified, and Qureshi’s quick sweep over Old Testament violence might not be entirely convincing for some. But this is a small quibble. They are both excellent books worth having on your shelf – and, in the case of Understanding Muhammad and Jesus, in your backpack, ready to pull out at university or on the bus. 

As Australia comes to terms with Islam, and especially radical Islamism, Christians should be leading the way. We are among the few left in our rapidly secularising society who can genuinely understand people who are motivated by theological conviction.

More importantly, we are the only ones who can respond to Islam’s theo-political ideology with a theological alternative in the gospel that can properly satisfy the misplaced zeal of Muslims for God. These two books will equip you better to do just that.