Today, January 13th, is celebrated around the Muslim world as the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. In the Muslim world the day is called “Mawlid.” The earliest roots of the celebration dates back to the 8th century when the birthplace of the prophet was turned into a place of prayer. Public celebrations date to the 12th century. The public introduction of the prophet’s birthday as a religious celebration was, in part, an attempt to counter Christian celebrations of the birth of Christ and to strengthen Muslim identity. Today Mawlid is celebrated in most of the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia being the most significant exception due to the influence of Wahhabi clerics and leaders.
Signs of its popularity can be found as close at hand as Siri:
Dear Muslims, if you have an iPhone, ask Siri ‘what day is it, Monday?’ right now. You will love the answer. #creepingsharia
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) January 12, 2014
But why regard Mawlid as a significant day in church history?
Well, quite simply, without the birth of Muhammad there would be no Islam. And, at this point in history, Islam represents one of the most significant religious challenges to the claims of Christianity. Not since Christianity’s earliest encounters with Judaism have Christians faced a religious and cultural identity as tight as Islam.
Vast areas of the world that were once home to Christianity are now solidly Islamic. Islam, a missionary religion like Christianity, reminds the Christian world that it can no longer take for granted its position as a world religion. Lands once boasting some of the world’s greatest churches now feature some of the world’s greatest mosques. Places where Christians once worshipped freely are now places where the profession of Christ might cost you your life. There are other Muslim lands where Christian minorities may worship freely. But some of those lands were places where Christians once comprised the majority. This is not to stir any panic about immigration or Muslim birth rates. Muslim children are made in the image of God like all children and persons. I believe people should be able to immigrate and freely move around God’s planet in accord with the laws of a given land (Rom. 13), and that God even determines our habitations with redemption in mind (Acts 17). I’m simply making the point that since the 7th century Islam has been successful at gaining and holding regions that once were largely open to the spread of the church.
Islam presents the most significant worldview challenge Christianity has faced in centuries. The simple claim that “God is one” challenges the Bible’s Trinitarian revelation of God. In its denial of the deity, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, Islam rejects the basic Christian understanding of redemption and redemptive history. Islam claims that Judaism is the elementary school, Christianity the high school, and Islam alone the university of religious understanding. In that claim is a certain view of religious history, asserting that the final word from God and the perfect prescription for human living is found in submission to Allah–not faith in Jesus Christ. That narrative subsumes Christianity as a local subplot and makes Jesus a prophet to the Jews only, belittling the Christian claim while simultaneously recasting it to serve the ends of Islam. The narrative privileges chronological lateness and anachronistically reads Islam back into biblical history, making it a powerful script in a world widely ignorant of history and theology.
Islam provokes fear in the hearts of a lot Christians. That should not be the case. God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power, love and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). The Christian response to neighbor–whether perceived as friend or foe–is love, not fear. Yet, far too many Christians are suspicious and fearful when they see the hijab or the long beard. A steady stream of Arab Muslim terrorists in blockbuster movies, repeated images of angry Muslim mobs or smoking towers waters the worst of human imagination and insecurity. Here’s the deal: You can’t love people you fear. And, more than that, we can’t obey our Lord’s command to love–with all its radical implications–if we give in to fear. Perhaps for the first time in Christian history, that fear paralyzes the church’s witness and tempts us like nothing else to forsake our missionary mandate–a mandate which itself is an expression of love.
Islam poses one of the toughest missiological challenges to Christianity since the Reformation. The Reformation, with its world-changing schism between Rome and Protestants, featured a contest over the definition of the gospel and the nature of the church. The Reformers, as the name suggests, sought a church reformed by the word of God. Their theological heirs, like the Puritans, carried forward that hope of seeing a people formed by and constantly reformed by God’s word. The missiological task was to get the word–the gospel–right and to live visibly by its commands and precepts. The strong Muslim objection to basic Christian doctrine and western lifestyles (so easily mistaken for Christianity because of the church’s worldliness) have made it difficult to pierce the veil over Muslim hearts. Islam’s recalcitrance in the face of Reformation-old formulations has forced a series of healthy and not-so-healthy missiological developments. We’ve seen debates over whether or how to translate fundamental Christian terms like “Son of God” and whether Muslims converted to Christ must break from Islamic culture and practices or may remain inside them. Many missionaries and aspiring missionaries puzzle over how much authority to give the Qur’an or whether to use it in Christian evangelism. Meanwhile, much of the church seems unaware that these discussions return us to fundamental issues involving the definition of the gospel, the nature of the church and the cost of Christian discipleship.
All of this is to say nothing of the considerable cultural, economic and military realities created in the wake of Islam’s historical spread. I say nothing of those things not because they’re unimportant, but because they’re not chiefly the Christian concern. Here, too, Islam tempts the church. It lures many to entanglements with civilian affairs when our battle is fought on an entirely different front with entirely different means. We are citizens of earthly kingdoms in which we have many responsibilities and privileges. But most fundamentally we are citizens of the heavenly kingdom, to which we owe far greater allegiance and honor. Which brings us to a final challenge:
Islam tests our faith in the Gospel. Are we really confident that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation? Are we unashamed of the gospel? When we face a religious and cultural worldview arrayed in opposition to nearly everything we believe, with rival claims about the nature of God, the way of salvation, and holy living, are we prepared to recommit ourselves to the foolishness of preaching and trust that real power resides in “weak” words?
We just celebrated the Incarnation of our Lord. Unlike our Muslim friends and neighbors, we do not believe this was the birth of just another human being or another prophet. We believe God the Son, the eternal Son of God, veiled His glory in human likeness. We believe it was necessary for Him to bear our likeness so that He could become for us both a perfect High Priest to represent us before God and to become the perfect Lamb of God to take away our sin. We believe He was born with a singular purpose: to glorify God the Father and to reveal the love of God toward sinners through His perfect life, His death as a sacrifice in our place, and His resurrection for the justification and eternal life of all those who repent of sin and believe in Him as Savior and God. We believe that this narrative, this truth, demonstrated in space-time history, has power to change the human heart and the course of the world and eternity.
This gospel has changed us and the many brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we worship and live. Do we believe it will change our Muslim friends and neighbors? Do we believe there’s a better birthday celebration for our Muslim neighbors to embrace than that of the prophet Muhammad? I do. And if they come to celebrate the birth of Christ in faith, they’ll come to celebrate their new birth. At which point, the birth of Jesus Christ becomes the most significant day in the history of Islam.