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Purity, Defilement and Muslim Evangelism
The gospel is God’s good news for human beings mired in sin and its consequences. Often, this good news is presented as Jesus’ sacrificial payment of the just penalty for sin. This message is thoroughly biblical, and for many, it is good news indeed. However, for many Muslims, it is an answer to a legal question they are not asking. Rather, Muslims often demonstrate a felt need for cleansing. Jesus’ provision of complete cleansing from sin and a new spiritual nature can speak directly to these felt needs for purity, which are repeatedly affirmed in the biblical record.
Purity features heavily in Islam, and acts of purification are accordingly prominent in the daily lives of most Muslims. According to the Qur’an, every human being is created in a state of purity and right belief known as fiṭra (30:30). One who professes faith returns to this natural state, which is maintained by following Allah’s requirements, among which cleansings and rituals feature prominently. The partial ablution of wuḍūʼ removes minor defilement before the five daily prayers (5:6), and those who are in a major state of defilement are not to “come anywhere near prayer” before they have completed the full-body cleansing of ghusl (4:43). In Islam, acceptable worship, and salvation itself, require purity (87:14-17).
The Bible also stresses the purity that God requires of his people. For example, ceremonially impure Israelites were removed from the camp in which God’s glory dwelled (Num 5:1-4) and were only able to return to the community’s life and worship after completing the required cleansings (Lev 14:1-32). However, biblical accounts emphasize the internal defilement of sin, which negates ritual purity and undermines even righteous acts (Isa 64:5-6). It was Israel’s sin, rather than its ceremonial laxity, that garnered prophetic correction (e.g. Isa 1:12-17), and these rebukes often focused on internal impurity and the sinful hearts from which sinful behavior originated (Jer 4:14, 5:23, cf. Mark 7:20-23). Furthermore, Jesus stressed that such internal sin defiles even when not physically enacted (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28). Physical cleansing cannot remove this internal stain (Jer 2:22). Just as wuḍūʼ will not suffice when ghusl is required, physical cleansing will not suffice where heart cleansing is required. God’s provision for the internal pollution of sin must precede any return to acceptable worship (Ps 24:3-4, 51:7-10).
Islam emphasizes appropriate cleansings for specific types of defilement, and the Bible stresses the particular cleansing that God requires for the heart-defiling stain of sin. As a defiling abuse of holy, God-authored life, sin defiles God’s pure created order (Num 35:33-35, Rom 1:18-25). This defilement is only removed by blood cleansing (Heb 9:22), which expunges the impurity of sin through death. Old Testament sacrifices demonstrated this principle, as the lives of animals – symbolized by their blood – made atonement for sin (Lev 17:11); they were substituted for the lives of those polluted by sin (Lev 16).
The Qur’an challenges blood atonement, teaching that it is the piety demonstrated by a sacrifice, rather than its blood, that “reaches” Allah (22:37). Indeed, in the Old Testament the value of sacrifice was dependent upon faith and repentance (Ps 51:16-17, cf. Acts 15:9, Gal 3). Animal blood could not finally remove the stain of sin (Heb 10:4-11). It rather pointed to the final cleansing that was to come (Heb 9:1-14, 24-28). The Qur’an also teaches that “no soul will bear the burden of another” (6:164). When speaking of human blood, the biblical record agrees that each person bears the defilement of their own sin and faces the death that its purification requires (John 8:21, Rom 3:23, 6:23). Only God’s intervention could provide blood cleansing that removes the stain of sin while also preserving the life of defiled humanity.
The New Testament presents Jesus as the lone exception to human defilement and the unique bridge to divine purity. As God in human flesh, his perfect purity was not vulnerable to the defilement the priests meticulously avoided (Lev 21). Rather, his divine holiness is permanent (cf. Exod 29:37, 30:26-29, Lev 6:27). Jesus is the object of Old Testament faith (Rom 3:21-26), and he taught that true faith – to use the Islamic terminology, the true piety that reaches Allah – is to receive and believe in him (John 6:29).
Jesus’ unmatched purity is also referenced in the Ḥadīth. Muḥammad taught that Jesus alone avoided Satan’s defiling touch at birth. As Satan is treated as both defiled and defiling in the Islamic system of purity, Jesus was therefore born in unparalleled purity. Islamic conceptions of the purity of the Qur’an also provide a bridge for Jesus’ permanent purity. The Qur’an – the word of Allah – is pure (80:11-15, 98:2), and this purity is permanent – it cannot be changed (15:9). Many Muslims also believe that it is uncreated and eternal. It follows, then, that if Allah’s Word takes on an earthly existence, it cannot be defiled.
Jesus’ blood was neither the symbolic blood of an animal nor the already required blood of a sinful human being. As God incarnate, his purity is perfect (Col 2:9, Heb 4:15), and his blood is precious (1 Pet 1:18-19). He alone could provide the heart cleansing that humanity required. He is the perfect sacrifice and the high priest who purifies (Heb 9:11-14).
Jesus’ divine nature also provides the perfect purity that biblical images of salvation require. God has promised to “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28-29) and to transform His people into His temple (1 Cor 3:16-17, 1 Pet 2:5). Such nearness to the holy God requires the perfect and continuous purity of God himself, rather than periodic, external purification that Muslims complete for specific times of worship. This purity is provided by the baptism of the Holy Spirit by which the believer is united with Jesus and shares in his perfect purity (2 Co 5:21).
The Islamic conception of fiṭra is helpful for expressing the new, pure spiritual nature that is an integral component of biblical salvation. Jesus taught that entry into his spiritual kingdom required rebirth. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). Regardless of one’s position regarding fleshly fiṭra (30:30), entry into the pure spiritual kingdom of God requires the spiritual fiṭra of new birth.
This new spiritual nature, like the Islamic concept of fiṭra, includes a disposition towards spiritual purity and obedience (1 John 3:9). However, unlike fleshly fiṭra, it is not vulnerable to human weakness or pollution. Rather, the spiritual fiṭra of Jesus is permanent and undefilable because it is part of his unchangeable divine nature (2 Pet 1:3-4). Those who are baptized by the Holy Spirit are clothed in Jesus’s perfect purity and righteousness and are baptized into his resurrected spiritual life (Rom 6:1-11, Gal 3:27-29, cf. Zech 3:1-5). They share in his perfect, divine fiṭra.
In these ways, biblical descriptions of salvation as a cleansing and a rebirth provide connecting points for Muslims contemplating their bodily and spiritual defilement. Jesus has provided the only blood capable of truly cleansing the heart stain of sin while also preserving the life of the defiled sinner, and his pure nature has also provided the perfect purity that God’s presence requires. No substance or ritual will accomplish this purity – it is the loving gift of God. However, this gift still requires death; the old self which is enslaved to sin must die to be replaced by the new self of divine purity. Biblical purification is not a ritual or a restoration. It is a transformative rebirth.
i Isa 53:5-6, Rom 3:21-26, 4:25, Gal 3:10-14.
ii Hibbert 2008, 344, Jabbour 2008, loc. 1966.
iii Detailed accounts of the procedure for wuḍūʼ are included in the Ḥadīth (al-Bukhari Vol. 1, Bk. 4, Ḥadīth 142).
iv All Qur’anic quotations taken from ‘Abdul Haleem, M. A. S., trans. The Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
v Muḥammad taught that “the key to paradise is salat (prayer), and the key to salat is wuḍūʼ (ablution)” (al-Tirmidhi, 4). He also indicated that believers would be identified as Muslims at Judgment by their “blazing foreheads and bright hands and feet” – the marks of consistent wuḍūʼ (Muslim Bk. 2, Ḥadīth 479-482). By contrast, laxity in purification, as signified by “dry heels,” risked damnation (al-Bukhari Vol. 1, Bk. 4, Ḥadīth 164-166).
vi Muḥammad’s heart washing, which is attested in Ibn Isḥaq’s biography as well as in the Ḥadīth, provides helpful connecting points for these concepts. Before Muhammad’s heavenly journey, he received an angelic heart washing which removed “the part of Satan” in him (Muslim Bk. 1, Ḥadīth 311). This cleansing arguably provided him with enhanced purity – beyond the fiṭra he possessed as a Muslim – that supported his prophetic service and nearness to Allah’s presence in Paradise.
vii al-Bukhari Vol. 4, Bk. 54, Ḥadīth 506.
viii Muslim Bk. 2 Ḥadīth 462.
ix Larsen 2008, 337.
‘Abdul Haleem, M. A. S., trans. The Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
al-Bukhari, Muḥammad. Sahih al-Bukhari. Translated by Muḥammad Muhsin Khan.
Hibbert, Richard. “Defilement and Cleansing: A Possible Approach to Christian Encounter with
Muslims.” Missiology 36, no. 3 (July 2008): 343-355.
Jabbour, Nabeel. The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress,
2008, Kindle Edition.
Larsen, Warren. “Jesus in Islam and Christianity: Discussing the Similarities and the
Differences.” Missiology 36, no. 3 (July 2008): 327-341.
Muslim, ibn al-Hajjaj al-Nayasburi. Sahih Muslim. Translated by Abdul Hamid Siddiqui.
al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa Muḥammad. Jami’ Tirmidhi. https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi.