Ramadan 4 — True or False Believers?

The first entry in this series can be found here.

So if you’re a regular around this blog, you’ll note that this post (series) is different from my typical content. You’ll notice in a few moments that my initial text is not from the Bible, but instead from the Qur’an. Why?

I want to read the whole Qur’an this year, and I thought there would be no better time to do it than during Ramadan. As such, these posts will not be exhaustive; rather, my goal is to look a little closer at a text that stood out to me. I will do this by reflecting on the words of the Qur’an, looking at a Qur’an commentary to make sure I’m not twisting the text for my own purposes, and concluding by making a connection (or contrast) with Christian theology/practice. This is to be at one-and-the-same time edifying, exhortative, and apologetical.

Let me know how I do. I would love to have some interaction in the comments section on this series. (The plan is to write a post every day for the next 30 days; we’ll see how I do; the more feedback I get, the more inclined I will be to keep going; help me get this done.)

At the outset, it should be noted that my emphasis is not to promote Islam, but rather to use Islamic teaching as a launch point to compare and contrast it with Christianity. I am trying to be honest about what both sides believe–there are too many caricature of both religions today. But at the end of the day, I am a Christian, and I am promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, there is no guarantee that what follows is 100% true to Islamic teaching; please use the comment section below to offer counterpoints.

* * *

But they are not all alike. There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied [the reward] for whatever good deeds they do: God knows exactly who is conscious of Him.

— Al-‘Imran 113-1151

This text describes what true religion looks like. And while the Qur’an makes it clear that many Jews and Christians (“People of the Book”) are fake, this passage is extremely encouraging. In fact, this passage gives us a list of what true religion looks like:

  • Reciting of God’s revelations at night
  • Bowing down in worship
  • Believing in God and the Last Day
  • Commanding what is right
  • Forbidding what is wrong
  • Being quick to do what is right

This is encouraging to me, because when I look at my life I can say that I recite God’s revelations (albeit earlier revelations whether through Moses or David or Jesus; cf. Al-‘Imran 3-4), though not necessarily at night; I’m too given to sleep. I can say that my heart is committed to worship, though the specific posture of “bowing” is not always practiced. I can say that I wholeheartedly believe in God and the Last Day. I can say that I command what is right and forbid what is wrong. I greatly desire to be quick to do what is right.

But what do Muslim scholars have to say about this text?

The plain sense of the verse suggests more strongly that it is addressed to Muslims unsure of how to judge the belief and actions of the People of the Book, informing Muslims that God does not reject the good deeds of the People of the Book when they are truly good and that they (the People of the Book) are not all alike (3:113).2

The commentary also suggests comparing Al-‘Imran 110 to better understand the text in question.

[Believers], you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God. If the People of the Book had also believed, it would have been better for them. For although some of them do believe, most of them are lawbreakers.

— Al-‘Imran 110

The commentators explain:

[S]ince belief (īmān) is contrasted with being iniquitous (fāsiq) rather than with being a disbeliever (kāfir), the sense of being false to their own religions seems to be highlighted here.3

In other words, those who fail to follow their own religion prove themselves to not be believers (cf. Al-‘Imran 85; Al-Baqara 62). “[T]he Quran and Ḥadīth do not refer directly to a Muslim (i.e., a follower of Muhammad) as one of the People of the Book or vice versa. This fact does not prevent the scope of muslim—namely, one who submits to God—from embracing others beyond the followers of Muhammad.”4

The Christian Scriptures are clear on this as well. If you call yourself a believer, but you don’t do what Jesus said, it’s worthless. Jesus questioned people, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say?” (Luke 6:46).

Jesus said many things, but for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on six things, as found in Matthew 5:20-48. These six things can be summed up via the first and last statements in this text:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:20, 48

Let’s look at this list of six things: If Jesus is a prophet of Islam, then these commands are for Muslims as much as they are for Christians too (“One could thus hold that the Quran, when referring to the Injīl that the Christians have with them, includes both the text and the normative tradition around that text insofar as they convey Christ’s original message to his apostles, which was given to him by God” [commenting on Al-‘Imran 3]5). So here are six of Jesus’ commands:

  • “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
  • “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces e his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.’ But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)
  • “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.’ But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King.” (Matthew 5:33-35)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

In other words, Jesus commanded people to not hate others, to not take advantage of others (even mentally), to love wholeheartedly and selflessly, to not swear oaths, to not exact retribution, and to go above and beyond in love for enemies and persecutors. Let’s add this list to the list from the beginning of today’s post:

  • Reciting God’s revelations at night
  • Not hating others
  • Bowing down in worship
  • Not taking advantage of others
  • Believing in God and the Last Day
  • Loving wholeheartedly and selflessly
  • Commanding what is right
  • Not swearing oaths
  • Forbidding what is wrong
  • Not seeking retribution
  • Being quick to do what is right
  • Loving your enemies and persecutors

This list just became a whole lot harder to accomplish. And it’s made even harder when we remember what Jesus said.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:20, 48

True believers follow the commands of Jesus; they don’t just assent to them mentally. They strive to live these commands out each and every day.

But where’s our hope, if we’re expected to be “perfect”? If Allah requires perfection, how could you ever hope to enter Paradise?

In the Christian Scriptures, James explains, “For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all” (James 2:10). Take a dish, for example. If you drop the dish, even if it doesn’t shatter–even if all that happens is a tiny chip comes off one edge–that dish is no longer perfect. The whole dish has been broken. And let’s imagine it’s your mother’s absolute favorite dish–maybe a gift from her wedding or something. How can you ever replace that dish? How can you ever make up for the fact that you broke it? You can’t. The dish was unique–irreplaceable.

It’s the same thing with God. His Law is perfect. If we’ve broken even one command, we have no hope of entering Paradise. He demands perfection. This is what Jesus revealed to us in Matthew 5:48. On our own, we are doomed.

But this is where the Christian message becomes so beautiful. Jesus came down to earth, lived an absolutely perfect life, and died on the cross in our place. We all deserved to die and go to hell for breaking God’s Law, but Jesus traded places with us. As Paul explained, “[God] made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). When we believe in Jesus, we get His perfection, and thus God can show mercy and grace to us.

We then strive, every day, to live the perfect life Jesus laid out for us in Matthew 5. And truly, then, for those of us in Christ by faith, God is merciful and gracious.6

Would you consider believing in Jesus today?

He’s full of mercy and grace, ready to forgive you for your lawbreaking.

Thanks for reading.

In this with you.

References

  1. All references from the Qur’an are pulled from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an, Oxford World Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Emphasis in original.
  2. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Study Quran (New York: HarperOne, 2021), Kindle Edition, 163.
  3. Ibid., 161.
  4. Ibid., 162.
  5. Ibid., 129.
  6. This leads directly into a theological discussion of the difference between “justification” and “sanctification” in Christian theology. Simply put, “justification” is how God sees those who have believed in Jesus; “sanctification” is our daily progress (and sometimes regress) in righteousness; God only needs grant “justifying” forgiveness once; we get “sanctifying” forgiveness each and every time we find our life is not matching up to what God has called us to. The true believer hates that he is often “a lawbreaker” (cf. Al-‘Imran 110); the false believer could care less about his lawbreaking. Romans 7:7-25 demonstrates this experience in the mind and heart of a true Christian believer.

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