IN the religious pluralism of America today, Muslims emphasize the similarities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
All three faiths are "Abrahamic." Jews and Christians trace their lineage to Abraham's son Isaac. Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham's son Ishmael, whom God saved in the wilderness in the book of Genesis. Islam embraces the moral and ethical teachings of Moses and Jesus. Honesty, dignity, decency, and equality are central to the Prophet Muhammad's message.
Yet Islamic and Christian beliefs are profoundly different when addressing such concepts as God, spiritual history, and the roles of Jesus and Paul.
The greatest difference may be Islam's claim as a final truth. In Islam, Christianity is an important but incomplete expression of Islam. "The only particularity Islam imposes ... is the fact that it considers Islam to be the last expression of the long chain of prophetic utterances," writes the Iranian Shiite-Sufi Seyyed Hossein Nasr in "A Young Muslim's Guide to the Modern World." "Allah willed that the last assertion of the truth concerning the nature of reality should come with the Koran."
In Islam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are viewed as early Muslims - paving the way for Muhammad's revelation of truth in AD 621. Muslims agree that God chose Isaac to bring forth Moses and Jesus.
Yet after Jesus' mission on earth, say Muslims, it became clear to God that Jews primarily, and Christians secondarily, had been unfaithful to Jesus. In 621, as one Islamic scholar puts it, "God switched."
God appointed the line of Ishmael to inaugurate a new chosen people responsible for keeping the word of God as revealed to Muhammad. To the devout Muslim, this is a sacred task. "The Muslims are like marines," says one imam. "They are here to protect God's word."
The resurrection of Jesus, the central event for the Christian, showing God's power over death, is not acknowledged in Islam.
The Koranic writings say Jesus was betrayed and sentenced to die on the cross. But Jesus was not crucified; instead, a man who looked like him was, Islamic scriptures say. Muslims believe Jesus did not die but ascended to heaven, from whence he will one day return to fight the final battle against the anti-Christ.
GOD in Islam is an incorporeal Deity whose unity is supreme. His character is Old Testament - a sovereign judge, terrible in His all-power.
Yet unlike the Judeo-Christian Deity, God is not regarded as a parent being. Neither Father nor Mother is used in Islam, though in some Koranic verses, His (never Her) love is compared to that of a mother. Human beings in Islam are judged in the final days as individuals. This fact in Islam looms large to believers. But on earth, a Muslim's role is more important as part of the collective ummah, the people of Allah.
Then there is the question of church history. Muhammad's role as the preeminent Prophet renders most Christian church history moot to the Muslim. The apostle Paul in particular is anathema because he "got things going in the wrong direction," as one Islamic scholar puts it.
For the most part, Christians such as St. Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther - and events like the Reformation - are seen as not relevant and even counterproductive from the view of mainstream Islam.