Divine revelation means two different things for Muslims and Christians respectively. Christians believe the Bible to be principally divine self-revelation. That is, God is most interested in unveiling Himself to the human race, at first through His determined relationship with Israel through good times and bad, and then ultimately through Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God, who became flesh to draw near to us. The Mosaic Law and the prophetic writings are important, not simply because they elucidate laws that God intends human beings to obey, but also because they teach human beings about the nature and priorities of the One who established them from the beginning. The goal of biblical revelation is to draw lost human beings back into loving fellowship with the God who created them and from whom they have been separated by their sin.
Muslims, on the other hand, believe that though the Qur’an is indeed divine revelation, it is not divine self-revelation. God is unknowable in his essence, and even if he were knowable, he is not interested in sharing himself with humanity. The Qur’an does not offer humans the opportunity to draw near to God in tender fellowship. Allah’s reward to obedient followers is not the promise of unending love and intimacy with him but rather a membership card to a heavenly brothel and epicurean club. God himself is not to be found in this sensual paradise. His throne is far above even the highest (seventh) level of heaven with which he rewards his most favored followers.
The Bible for Christians is not the be-all and end-all in terms of revelation, primarily because it is a written source, and in itself cannot wholly convey the relational nature of the God who seeks to know and be known by His creation. As such, the Bible serves best as a rich resource pointing its readers to the One who reveals God most fully in ways we can understand Him most clearly, Jesus. It is Jesus, God the Son (second member of the Trinity) who becomes incarnate as a human being in order to draw us into relationship with God through the agency of the Holy Spirit (third member of the Trinity). This is why the Gospel of John refers to Jesus as the eternal Word (who was with God and was God from before creation) made flesh to dwell among us. It is the living. breathing Jesus who shows us what it means to say that “God loves us.” He is, as the apostle Paul says, “the image of the invisible God,” or in Jesus’ own words, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” He is the apex of God’s revelation to the world, which is why Jesus could make this astounding claim to the Pharisees: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).Or again, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46). Luke records in his Gospel that when Jesus first appears to a gathering of most of his disciples post-resurrection, and they respond with fear and disbelief, he gently scolds them for their slowness in understanding the Scriptures, declaring, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms about me.” The phrase “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” was a shorthand way in first Century Israel of summing up what we today would call the entire Old Testament.
So, Christians believe, the Word became flesh and fully incarnated truth and grace for us to experience. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the Word became paper. That is, the eternal Word of God, which was inscribed from eternity on a tablet in heaven (the “mother of the book” according to Quran 13: 39 and 43:4, or a “well-guarded/preserved tablet” according to 85:22) and then “sent down” orally through the agency of the angel Jibril to Muhammad who repeated what he heard to his listeners. It was not until after Muhammad’s death that all this material, memorized or written in various formats, was gathered and put in codex (book) form. Muslims believe this process of transmission was flawless, and that the Qur’an they hold today is exactly as originally revealed. Since it was unveiled in Arabic, this divine book is only Allah’s true revelation in Arabic. Memorizations and recitations must be done in Arabic. To the objection that roughly three quarters of the Muslim world does not understand or speak Arabic, scholars reply that it is not necessary to understand the text. Divine blessing flows from simply memorizing and reciting the correct Arabic sounds, even if one remains oblivious of what he/she is saying. Of course, understanding what one reads or recites is even better, but it is not required. It is enough to possess the Qur’an, to revere it, to memorize and recite it, and to protect it from blasphemers.
The average Muslim is not expected to study the Qur’an and make up his/her own mind as to the meaning of the text, but rather to accept the interpretations of past scholars whose stature has been affirmed by the majority over the centuries. Novel interpretations (known as bid’a, or innovation) are at the very least frowned upon, at the worst they may lead to banishment or execution. Hence most Muslims see the Qur’an as a revelation to which they do not have direct access, but whose message must be mediated to them through learned scholars. It is a book of laws to obey and of dictums to recite. It points not to the possibility of an eternity of loving fellowship with God but rather of the reward of eternal fleshly hedonism or of the endless torments in the flames of hell.
Whereas the God of the Bible extends His welcoming hands in love to a lost and wayward humanity through the life, death and resurrection of the Word made flesh, the god of the Qur’an issues his guidance for humanity, and then watches to judge the actions of human beings as to the level of their obedience. Obedient slaves are likely rewarded (though Allah reserves the right to exercise his sovereignty in any way he chooses); disobedient slaves are undoubtedly destined for the flames.
For Christians, then, God’s revelation stems from His love for the human race, and His desire to redeem. For Muslims, the revelation of Allah stems from his role as Judge, and becomes the main yardstick by which he rewards or condemns his slaves. And since no Muslim, or any other human being, can perfectly live out the commands of Islam (or any other religion worth its salt), the result is guilt and fear. One must hope that Allah grades on the curve, and that one scores above the curve’s cutoff point. There is no certainty of salvation, or of mercy.
For the Christian, on the other hand, God’s love is seen most fully in His actions undertaken to win salvation for human beings. The atoning work of Jesus Christ assures his followers of their reconciliation with the Heavenly Father, removing the guilt and sentence of sin and promising a transformed life of holiness and glory. Instead of guilt and fear, the Christian lives with freedom and joy, resting on the assurance of God’s unassailable and unending love.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Muslims know nothing substantive about this God of love, for they are taught of a distant divine Judge who will one day pronounce his verdict on slaves who cannot know him and whom he does not deign to embrace. It is the calling of Christians to share the good news of God’s love with those who have little hope, especially those trapped in a system of beliefs fraught with despair.
More than ever, in this Easter season, when through the resurrection of Jesus God has revealed His victory for humanity over sin, death and the devil, we have the privilege of serving as heralds of joy, issuing the invitation for one and all to run into the outstretched arms of their Heavenly Father, made possible by the Word made flesh, the light of life for all humanity. Let’s spread the word.