Many Muslim theologians consider Jesus Christ the most important aspect of Islamic eschatology. In fact, the Qur’an declares Mary and Jesus as a “sign for all people” (19:21; 21:91; 23:50).² When he returns, he will slay the false Messiah (Anti-Christ, or dajjal) and establish peace and righteousness on earth. Some commentators feel that the Qur’an is referring to this occasion when it says, “And on the Day of Judgment He will be a witness against them” (4:159).
There are typically two responses to ISIS. ‘ISIS has nothing to do with Islam’ or ‘ISIS are the real Muslims’. It’s easy to understand why so many Muslims—especially in western contexts—dissociate themselves from ISIS. They are thoroughly embarrassed to think that non-Muslims around them might assume that because they are Muslims, they must have some sympathy with ISIS and all that it is doing. They therefore argue that many of the practices of ISIS are completely un-Islamic, even anti-Islamic and cannot be justified by the legal traditions that have been developed over many centuries.
At the other extreme there are many Christians—and, dare I say, especially evangelical Christians—who believe that ISIS is much nearer to the spirit and practice of early Islam than moderate Muslims of today. They point to particular verses in the Qur’an (e.g. about beheading, crucifixion and slavery) and passages in Hadith literature, the biographies of Muhammad and legal texts to show the connections between the brutalities of ISIS and early Islamic texts.
Both of these approaches are thoroughly unhelpful and need to be challenged.
Would Calvin Understand Muslim Anger Over Muhammad Drawings?
Undoubtedly, there are many motivations besides religious zeal that inspire gunmen in Texas, Charlie Hebdo terrorists in France, and ISIS in Iraq who deface historical images, but their justification is the same. It is rooted in Islam’s rejecting any depictions of their prophet–or of God. They cling to that stance for the same reason I wanted to shield Prem from a picture of Jesus. They see it as a stumbling block that pulls people towards sinful idolatry. Islam was born in a region rife with polytheism and idolatry, so like Judaism, Islam reacts against them. Though the Qur’an doesn’t specifically address prophetic images, it does reject pictures of God: “Behold! He said to his father [Abraham] and his people, ‘what are these images to which you are so assiduously devoted?’ They said, ‘We found our fathers worshipping them.’ He said, ‘Indeed, you have been in manifest error – you and your fathers” (21:52-54). Also, the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), upon which much Islamic law is based, warns against images for the same reason.
Muslims, however, are not alone in forbidding or destroying religious imagery. In fact, during the aftermath of the horrific killings of the Charlie Hebdo staff, some French may have recalled 16th century iconoclastic riots in France in which Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) rioted and killed clergy in their zeal to rid the land of religious images. They were inspired in part by John Calvin, who wrote extensively on images in the Institutes (1.11), and warned that depictions of divine figures have a tendency to tempt followers toward idolatry: “Since this brute stupidity gripped the whole world–to pant after visible figures of God, and thus to form gods of wood, stone, gold, silver or other dead and corruptible matter–we must cling to this principle: God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to Him.”