I attended a wonderful worship service today in a small town in California where I’m presently on sabbatical, writing a book. During the Communion service, the pastor reminded us that every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember – to remember what God in Christ has done for us to win our salvation. He remarked on how easy it is for us to forget the grace of God, and to revert to the fleshly notion that scaling heaven is dependent on our efforts. Regular times at the Communion Table drive through our calloused hearts the truth that salvation is of grace – when Jesus uttered “It is finished” on the cross before his final breath, he meant it. The work of salvation has been wrought by the Son of God, and there is nothing we can add to it, only to receive it by receiving Him, with gratitude and allegiance. Remembrance plays a crucial role in weaning us from the striving of “works righteousness.” In the words of Robert Robinson, penned in 1758:
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
As he was speaking on this topic, my mind jumped to the principal meaning of remembrance in Islam (looming in my mind because of my present book project). The Arabic word dhikr is used by Muslims to signify the call to keep the thought of God front and center in the mind. The command to remember God is found plentifully throughout the Quran. Here’s one representative verse: “O you who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance” (Sura 33:41). But in Islam, remembrance isn’t a way to keep us focused on God’s costly grace; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a way to earn brownie points, either deducting some of our sins from our eternal bank account, or accruing extra merit if we’re already super spiritual. For example, Islamic scholars have determined that the absolute best form of dhikr is reading the Quran – or even better, reciting it from memory. They have calculated (don’t ask me how) that every letter read racks up ten rewards, and since there are about 321,180 letters in the Quran, to read it through completely rings up almost four million “rewards” in your merit bank. (I don’t know for sure, but I assume that various sins have differing values of demerits, so if you have a lot in your debit column, you’ll want to be reading your Quran voraciously.) But there are other ways you can earn rewards as well: repetition of the phrase Subhanallah (Glory to God) a hundred times a day will be the same as earning one hundred good deeds, or erasing one hundred bad deeds. Other phrases also count in like measure. You get the idea. (For a chart of all these “remembrance phrases” and what they ostensibly earn, see this chart as developed by one Muslim who researched the early documents of Islam: http://salahtimes.blob.core.windows.net/documents/DhikrChart.pdf
Once again we see the huge chasm between the Christian and Muslim world views. The biblical message announces what steps God has taken to wipe away our sins and adopt us as His beloved children. The quranic message declares what humans must do to overcome the demerits of our sins by using praise of God as a spiritual scrub brush. Grace vs. works. It’s the same old story.
Yesterday I was reading a powerful expose of Muslim theology entitled The Muslim Doctrine of God, authored in 1905 by Samuel Zwemer (who earned the sobriquet “Apostle to the Muslims”), and came across this pithy summation on p. 52: “As regards the moral code Islam is phariseeism translated into Arabic.” So true. So sad. Dhikr is a case in point.
May God raise up a new generation of mission-minded believers whose hearts are tender toward the Muslim world and whose lips are seasoned with the grace of the gospel!