So what does sola Scriptura (by Scripture = the Bible alone) and four other statements of the Reformation have to do with Islam? In this piece, I will assume the truthfulness of each of the Solas, and see what effect this has on our view of Islam.
What are the 5 Solas?
A strict Latin scholar would object to my use of the word ‘solas’ in the question, as the plural of sola in Latin would be solae, but for ease of use, I will stick with solas. When the word sola was used to describe something, it says that it means the object plus nothing. If I say, “my family is a sola Ford family” it means that all vehicles in my family must be Fords, and there is no room for a Silverado GM pickup. It cannot be Ford pickups plus GM pickups. No, it must be uniquely Ford pickups. You can see where this is going.
When the Reformers came along, they saw a tendency to use the plus sign with elements of Christian truth. It was the Bible plus the traditions of the Catholic church, faith plus some extra good works, and so forth so that at the end of the day one would not say “to God’s glory alone” (Soli Deo Gloria). Instead of God’s honor getting elevated, humans claimed some credit for the salvation plan. In effect, the Reformers noted that instead of God getting all the glory, he had to share it with humans.
The five Solas were as such:
- Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
- Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
- Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
- Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
- Soli Deo Gloria (“to God’s glory alone”)
Now we will look at each of them as they interact with Islam, by asking the question, “If it is true that Christians who value the Reformational beliefs in Scripture, faith, grace, and Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone, what difference does this make as we understand Islam?” Is it possible that Islam poses a challenge to each of them?
Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
For the Reformers, this statement meant that the Bible was its best interpreter and that it did not need to submit to the dictates of a Church Council or an interpretive tradition (e.g. a belief that the Pope can give a final ruling on a meaning of the Bible) that had grown to be held as true in Church history. The Reformers based their views on the fact that the Author of the Bible has one message, and that the more difficult parts of that message could be interpreted by the easier parts. The most common texts that were appealed to by the Reformers was 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21. The first reads:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.2 Timothy 3:16
The verse prior to this one also indicates the effect that Scripture can have on a person, as the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, his understudy that these “sacred writings” (i.e. the Bible) “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The second text reads:
For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.2 Peter 1:21
This text tells us that the Bible is seen as a “thus says the Lord” prophecy, but they did not make up the message themselves, but rather, they were guided by the Holy Spirit.
What we can see from these verses is that, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, is that the Holy Spirit speaking through the Bible is able to cause salvation “through faith in Christ Jesus” and that it is the unique among all the sacred texts in the world, as no other text can do this.
And what about Islam?
As much as Islam declares that the Qur’an is sui generis (“one of a kind”), we must ask the question, is this is a direct challenge to the one of a kind status of the Bible? To answer that question, we would have to ascertain if the Qur’an can “make a person wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15), or if Muhammad spoke as he “was carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 2:15). That is to say, has it ever been shown that a Muslim has come to salvation and true knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and the God of the Bible with the name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, only by reading the Qur’an? Secondly, is there any evidence that the Qur’an is God-breathed? Since the Muslim Jesus is by Islamic definition, a created super-human who can talk from his cradle, do some miracles under the permission of Allah, and serves as a John the Baptist-like figure to point to the prophethood of Muhammad, he is obviously not the God-man able to make salvation possible. Using Biblical categories, he is ‘another Jesus’ than the biblical Jesus. Thus, by reading the Qur’an only under normal circumstances, a Muslim cannot and will not come to a saving knowledge of the true Jesus.
A. Since the Muslim Jesus is by Islamic definition, a created super-human who can talk from his cradle, do some miracles under the permission of Allah, and serves as a John the Baptist-like figure to point to the prophethood of Muhammad, he is obviously not the God-man able to make salvation possible. Using Biblical categories, he is ‘another Jesus’ than the biblical Jesus. Thus, by reading the Qur’an only under normal circumstances, a Muslim cannot and will not come to a saving knowledge of the true Jesus.
Someone might object and say that they heard a story of a Muslim who had read the Qur’an and was convinced that they needed to check out this Jesus person. Stories like that do exist, but we must be careful not to make them prescriptive, just as we do not invoke the talking donkey of the story of Balaam in the Bible to come up with a prescription for getting divine guidance from donkeys.
Interestingly, Nabil Qureshi, a former Ahmadiyya Muslim, stated, “it was while I was reading the New Testament, I ultimately came to know that Christ is Lord.”
B. Can a Christian assert that the Qur’an is God-breathed? The doctrine of sola Scriptura says that there is only one sacred text efficacious for salvation, and that is the Bible. This is because the Bible is the written result of the out-breathing of the Trinity with the Father, Son, and Spirit all in unison saying, “thus says the Lord.” Any sacred text that contradicts, or says that it stands as a needed complement to what is revealed in the Bible, thus, by logical deduction cannot be said to be God-breathed. Additionally, only the Bible reveals the persons of the Trinity in all of their glory, leading to this revelation through Christ.
Someone might object that Muslims say that the Qur’an is the word of Allah that is found in the preserved tablet as the Mother of the Books, and it eclipses all other revelations. The problem with this argument is that Joseph Smith of the Mormons said exactly the same thing, and what is there to prevent yet another person coming along and asserting the same? Both Islam and Mormonism allow a token place for the Bible, yet they both deny the biblical Trinity.
Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
Behind this sola is the question, “what does it take for a person to be in right standing (i.e. justified) in relationship with a holy God?” A sub-question is “is faith in Jesus Christ enough, or is there something the believer must do?” The Reformers responded to the Roman Catholic assertion that “faith and good works yield justification” with the assertion “faith yields justification and good works.”
Briefly, the Reformers asserted that when a person put their trust and faith in what Christ had fully accomplished, they did not need to do anything else to make what Christ had done any better. However, due to a desire to show their gratitude for what had been done for them, Christians want to respond with good works.
And what about Islam?
The question, “What does it take for a person to be in right standing (i.e. justified) in relationship with a holy God?” is important in Islam, but approached slightly differently. First, a Muslim by definition is a person who is known as a slave of Allah or as some people are named Abd [=slave] Allah or Abdullah. The slave has no assurance of a good standing with the master, but only a hope that it will be so. Thus the phrase, “God he is tolerant” is often heard on the lips of Muslims; expressing a hope that Allah will look the other way when he sees sins.
By definition, Allah is said to be completely other, and in a fashion, this touches on the idea of holiness. It is different from the holiness expressed in the Bible, however, as there God is defined, among other things as absolute purity, absolute majesty, absolute justice, absolute righteousness, and absolute goodness. Thus, holiness in the Bible expresses the idea that all of God’s attributes work together to be an absolute unity. A Christian could thus never appeal to the fact that the Living God as the Judge of the whole earth could be tolerant towards sin, as his standards of perfection demand that they be satisfied.
The word for faith in Islam is iman, and the Muslim theologian Muhammad Abdul Quasem distills it down to “belief in the Oneness of God, belief in the prophecy of Muhammad, belief in life after death.” Some other lists require belief in prophets, the angels, the sacred books, resurrection, and fate. Not only does iman in Islam include intellectual assent, it is intimately connected to good works.
In Islam, thus, the attempt to be in good standing with Allah can be summarized by the statement: “striving in the cause of Allah.” One must strive and as the Qur’an says, to “do the good and avoid evil” (Q. 3:104,110) Islam also suggests that good deeds done by a person will outweigh the bad deeds (Q. 11:114) and thus it is possible by aggregating as much merit as possible, and avoiding as much demerit as possible, to perhaps gain the favor of Allah. In addition, promises are made to the Muslim for following the example of Muhammad, said to be “the good example” (Q. 33:21) as closely as possible, and again this improves one’s chances of having a good standing with Allah.
In summary, Islam repudiates sola fide and replaces it with ‘sola striving.’
Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
Behind this sola lies the question, “Did you do anything to earn your salvation?” The Reformers insisted that salvation was a free gift due to the unmerited grace of God, and that humans did not contribute anything to it. They often cited Ephesians 2:8-9:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”Ephesians 2:8-9
They also said, “salvation belongs to the Lord” alone (Jonah 2:9), or that God was both the source and means of salvation. This stood in contrast to the prevailing view that God dispensed an initial measure of grace to the church-person, and they needed to top it up when their account started to be depleted.
And what about Islam?
If we ask a Muslim, “Are you doing anything to earn Allah’s favor or to be one of the successful ones?” they will have a definite answer. Perhaps their mind will go to surah 7:157 where they are told that by believing in him (i.e. Muhammad), honoring him, helping him, and following the light [of the Qur’an]“which has been sent down with him, it is they who will be successful.”
One can notice that the question is not about earning salvation, as Islam has a different concept of salvation than Christianity. In the call to prayer, the Muslim is called to “come to prayer, come to falah.” Some have translated falah as salvation, but more accurately, it has the idea of success in getting to a goal especially that of safety, or more loosely; choosing to be on Muhammad’s winning team. The Muslim Ismāʿīl al-Fārūqī said,
Islam holds man not to be in need of any salvation. Instead of assuming him to be religiously and ethically fallen, Islamic da’wah acclaims him as the Khalifah of Allah, perfect in form and endowed with all that is necessary to fulfil the divine will indeed, even loaded with the grace of revelation! ‘Salvation’ is hence not in the vocabulary of Islam. Falah, or the positive achievement in space and time of the divine will, is the Islamic counterpart of Christian ‘deliverance’ and ‘redemption.
A brief story might illustrate the difference between the Islamic view of grace and that of Christianity.
I lived in a Muslim-majority country and was asked by a local pastor to preach on friendship Sunday. In preparation for this sermon, I asked my Muslim worker about the concept of Abraham being called the friend of God (Ar. khalilullah) in the Qur’an (surah 4: 125). He remembered the passage and said that Abraham was called the friend of God because of his complete obedience in sacrificing his son Ishmael. I told him that the Bible also talks about Abraham being a friend of God in James 2:23 where it reads “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God.” I explained the story of how God befriended Abraham before Abraham had done anything, and was in fact, an idolater who lived in Ur. Yet in his grace, God called Abraham to leave his pagan life and to live as God’s friend.
My Muslim worker looked astonished as he remarked, “So Abraham did nothing to earn God’s friendship?” Of course, he was operating from the Islamic idea that a person does religious things to gain God’s merit. I responded that Abraham simply believed in the God who had befriended him first.
What can be observed in surah 7:157 above is that success in Islam is tied to following the person of Muhammad and his teachings. In the next section, we will see that salvation in Christianity is about following the person of Jesus Christ and his teachings.
Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
The Reformers stood on the Bible teaching that there is one, sole mediator between God and humans, and nothing else. They read this in 1 Timothy 2:5:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus1 Timothy 2:5
In appealing to this verse, they eliminated any kind of intercession by saints, Mary, priests, and the Roman Catholic Church to bridge the gap between God and humans. They also eliminated the value of indulgences, relics, self-flagellation in whatever form it took, and meritorious behavior. Rather than reliance on humanly-constructed institutions and actions, the Reformers advocated that a person throw themselves on the value of Christ’s perfect obedience and full surrender to the will of God.
This text also demonstrates the uniqueness of Christ. There is simply no room for another mediator, and this is built on the fact that only Jesus is the God-man, able to bridge the gap between God and humans. This mediation continues as Jesus makes intercession for the people of God from his position at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. His heavenly position as a mediator presupposes that he has died, he is risen, and he will come again. That is the essence of the Christian faith.
And what about Islam?
In response to the question, “Who is able to make intercession on the last day?” a hadith was written. Recorded by at-Tirmihdi and attributed to Abu Said Khudri, it begins by suggesting that Muhammad stated, “I am the leader of the descendants on the day of judgement, and this is no boast.” Then this hadith describes people running from one prophet to another—including Adam, Abraham, and Jesus—and asking if they could intercede for them. They all reply in the negative, and even Jesus is reported to say, “I am not fit for this, go to Muhammad the servant whose past and future sins were forgiven by Allah.” Muhammad is then pictured as interceding for Muslims, with Allah saying, “‘(Muhammad!) Raise your head. Ask, and your request will be granted; say, and your saying will be listened to; intercede, and your intercession will be accepted.’”
Clearly, this hadith demonstrates the Islamic position of Muhammad as being the ‘seal of the prophets’ which implies the last and final one. It also positions Muhammad as a competitor to the Reformation idea of solus Christus or the fact that Christ is the one and only mediator.
Furthermore, Muslims hold Jesus to be a prophet, and prophets are supposed to tell the truth. As well, prophets, and especially Jesus are known not to sin. Yet, Christians state categorically that Jesus claimed to be God, and was the God-man. For Muslims, this is a contradiction in their minds because the Qur’an states that if anyone states that Jesus is God, he is destined for hell-fire (Q 5:72-73). For Muslims, Jesus cannot be the God-man because a true prophet would not be subjected to the humiliations that Jesus endured, and for them, the Incarnation of God taking the form of humans is simply impossible.
In summary, Islam denies the essence of the Christian faith expressed by the fact that Jesus, the God-man came to earth, died, was resurrected, is seated at the right hand of God the Father, and will come again in his full glory as the Son of God to judge the living and the dead.
Soli Deo gloria (“to God’s glory alone”)
The Reformers looked at a question behind this statement: “By whose power and for whose honor is this salvation enterprise?” In the context in which they found themselves, they saw that the official Church held the ‘keys’ to heaven and hell and so held ultimate power. They also observed that it could attract honor to itself as the mediator of salvation. The Reformers responded by stating that the entire salvation enterprise was made efficacious by God’s power, and because of this, he received all the glory for it. Following Ephesians 2:9, they showed that no one, or no institution could boast about their contribution to salvation.
What about Islam?
If one were to ask a Muslim “by whose power and for whose honor” is the driving force of your religion, I wonder what they would say? Likely the default answer is that it would be the power of Allah and for the glory of Allah. They might refer to the frequent references to Allah in the bismillah (in the name of Allah), the statement of hope in the will of Allah, as they say inshallah, and the praise given to Allah for something with the sayings subhanallah or alhamdulillah.
It is the last phrase that we will investigate further, as it is very close to soli Deo Gloria. The Muslim scholar Muhammad Asad suggests that alhamdulillah means “all praise is due to God alone” and the translator Muhammad Muhsin Khan renders it “all the praises and thanks be to Allah.” This phrase comes from the first surah of the Qur’an and is part of the daily prayers of Islam. In context, surah 1:2 reads,
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds(Shakir rendition)
In the traditions about the life of Muhammad, it was said that he said:
- The best remembrance of God is to repeat lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh and the best prayer (du’a) is al-ḥamdu li-llāh. Reported by Jabir ibn Abd-Allah.
- Any matter of importance which is not begun with al-ḥamdu li-llāh remains defective. Reported by Abu Huraira.
- God is pleased with his slave who says, al-ḥamdu li-llāh when he takes a morsel of food and drinks a draught of water. Reported by Anas bin Malik.
At first glance, it would appear that a Muslim is showing proper thankfulness for the provision by the creator. Yet, there appear to be other factors at play. For example, traditions are reported where the frequent repetition of this and other phrases are said to be meritorious. They appear to have the quality of a mantra, more than an expression of wholehearted thanks for what another—such as God in Christ—has done for a person. The thanks are for provision of material needs, for the prospect of avoiding hell-fire, and for being a member of the so-called “best of all people” (Q. 3:110). Can one detect a certain self-congratulatory aspect to these thanks?
Secondly, in response to the phrase “all praise is due to God alone” one must ask the following questions:
- Who is this God who is getting praise? Is it the Trinity?
- Why is he getting praise? Is it for his works of salvation?
The Muslim commentators ibn Abbas, al-Tabari and Mamoud Ayoub reflect on this phrase as well, when they state:
It is also said: laudation [praise-worthiness], absolute unity and godhood all belong to Allah Who has neither progeny, partner, helper nor an assistant.
– Tafsir, Ibn Abbas
The meaning of al-ḥamdu l-illāhi is: all thanks are due purely to God, alone, not any of the objects that are being worshipped instead of him, nor any of his creation… These thanks are due to God’s innumerable favors and bounties… God also warned his creation and alerted them about the means and methods with which they can earn eternal dwelling in the residence of everlasting happiness.
Ayoub, cites Muhammad who is reputed to have said, “When you say, ‘All praise be to God, the Lord of all beings,’ you will have thanked God and He will increase His favor to you.”
A careful look at ibn-Abbas’ and al-Tabari’s comments reveal that they would preclude any worship of Jesus, who they see in competition with the worship of Allah, and who is seen as a partner or progeny of Allah. They have no room for the worship of Jesus as God, nor any room for the statement in a Christian’s heart of ‘thank you, Jesus.’ Ayoub’s quotation, meanwhile, suggests that by thanking Allah, a person can increase their quota of divine favor. In light of what Jesus has done, and in light of the fact that he alone is the vehicle of receiving God’s favor as the One in whom God is “well pleased” this seemingly innocuous statement, as interpreted by Islamic commentators, steals the thunder from Jesus.
The five Solas are a summary of what the Reformers stood for. They responded to the theological context of the day in which salvation belonged to the Church and its interpretation of Scripture, to one’s meritorious contributions added to the work of Christ, and to trust in one’s own ability to top up grace. Overall, the Reformers saw the five solas as a challenge to the status quo, and the status quo as a challenge to the five solas.
Today, we ask if Islam poses similar challenges to the five solas. Thus, we can ask if the status of the Qur’an as the so-called final revelation, challenges sola Scriptura. We can ask if sola striving of iman in Islam challenges sola fide. We can ask if sola merit challenges sola gratia and solus Christus. Finally, we can ask if “all praise is due to God alone” is a direct challenge to soli Deo Gloria.