Adherents of the two great missionary religions of world history—Christianity and Islam—now comprise the majority of the global population. Of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants, 2.6 billion identify as Christian, while 2 billion identify as Muslim. These statistics include many nominal believers within each faith, as well as those who are genuinely committed.
While the faith propagation strategies between Christianity and Islam feature commonalities and differences, both religions place significant emphasis on “calling.” Christians may be familiar with this concept as “the call of God,” which also comprises a central theme in missiology and missionary recruitment. In this article, I will briefly compare this important concept of “the call” in the respective religions.
“The Call” in Islam
This comparison begins with a significant contrast. While Christians speak of and believe in “the call of God,” classical Islam does not present Allah as a personal deity. Even the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, did not claim to receive messages directly from Allah. Rather, the standard Islamic narrative asserts that the Angel Gabriel delivered the divine messages to the prophet. Thus, Muslims would not be conditioned to believe in a personal call of God, though individual Muslims, and especially Sufi mystics, may try to expand the limits of orthodoxy on this point.
While Islam may not feature a personal “call of God,” observers of the current Islamic renaissance may fail to realize the importance of “the call to Islam” inherent in its successes. Indeed, the closest equivalent to “missions” in Islam is represented by the institution of “da’wah:” دعوة. Da’wah simply means “to call,” “to invite,” “to invoke,” or “to summon.” The term still enjoys wide use in Arabic. Readers of Matthew 10:2 in Arabic Bibles, for example, will note that “Simon who is called Peter” employs a conjugation of that same word, da’wah. 1
The Qur’an utilizes the triconsonantal root underlying da’wah 212 times. 2 Muhammad was commanded to issue the call of warning: “Say, [O Prophet,] ‘I warn you only by revelation.’ But the deaf cannot hear the call when they are warned!” Q21:45 3 According to the Qur’an, believers in heaven will call or “pray” as follows: “Their prayer will be, ‘Glory be to You, O Allah!’ and their greeting will be, ‘Peace!’ and their closing prayer will be, ‘All praise is for Allah—Lord of all worlds!’” (Q10:10). Here the term for prayer (in other English translations it also rendered “call”) is again a form of da’wah. Indeed, in Persian, the general term for prayer is this term, du’a, borrowed from Arabic.
The Call to Islam
In Islam, the “one who calls” is a derivation of the same da’wah term, known as “da’ee.” The title itself and concept have assumed elevated significance in the contemporary Islamic renaissance. Sayyid Qutb articulated the theological roadmap for modern Islamic supremacy and jihad. Qutb begins his seminal treatise, Milestones along the Way (Ma’alim fiit Tariiq) with the term da’ee:
The callers to Islam in every country and in every period should give thought to one particular aspect of the history of Islam, and they should ponder over it deeply. This is related to the method of inviting people to Islam and its ways of training.[/ref]Qutb, Sayyid, 1964. Milestones along the Way, Ma’alim fi’l-tareeq, edited by A.B. Mehri, Birmingham, UK: Maktabah Publishers (2006 special edition), p. 29, emphasis added. https://www.kalamullah.com/Books/Milestones%20Special%20Edition.pdf[/ref]
Qutb pointed to the early Qur’anic generation of Muhammad and his companions as the example for today’s Muslims. He continues his introductory chapter to Milestones:
The spring from which the Companions of the Prophet drank was the Holy Qur’an; only the Qur’an, as the Hadith of the Prophet and his teachings were offspring of this fountainhead…. The Holy Qur’an was the only source from which they quenched their thirst, and this was the only mold in which they formed their lives. 4
For Qutb and these Salafi thinkers, “the call to Islam” became paramount. Reporters appeared puzzled why young Muslim professionals in places in the UK, Europe, and the USA would leave promising futures and careers to go and die as martyrs fighting for ISIS in faraway deserts. They did not understand the power of “the call to Islam” issued by the likes of bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the late ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “The one who calls,” the da’ee, thus attained an important role and function. Though described as “recruiters” or “radicalizers,” Muslim mobilizers were simply issuing the age-old call to Islam.
This call to Islam should not be underestimated. At times, it appears animated or fortified by a spiritual power. It evokes responses that natural calls to arms or to motherland can scarcely evoke. For the Salafists, that power or energy must result from the divine favor of Allah. Yet, the destruction they have caused by attempting to get the world back in submission (al-Islam) by force has caused others to wonder what spirit is driving their movement.
The Communal Call of Islam
Da’wah in Islam also constitutes a collective call to build up the Muslim nation, the umma. Q3:104 states: “Let there be a group [umma] among you who call others to goodness, encourage what is good, and forbid what is evil—it is they who will be successful.” In this verse, the third person conjugation of da’wah, yad’uuna, is used for “to call.”
The umma must command what is good and forbid what is evil. The Arabic word for “encourage what is good” is actually “enjoin” or “command,” ya’amuruuna, and is also used in a nearly verbatim passage six verses later. As Duane Miller astutely has pointed out in his commentary on Q3:110:
Carrying out this mission of spreading and enforcing the shari’a (enjoining the right, forbidding the wrong) can be done by various avenues. This might be accomplished by military conquest, which is historically how Islam initially grew throughout the Middle East and North Africa, or it could be by inviting people to embrace Islam and informing them of the financial and societal benefits to conversion, as was the case in parts of East Africa and Indonesia, and is the case today in thousands of prisons throughout North America and Europe. 5
While Muslims often recite in the West the verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Q2:256) as a proof text of Islam’s tolerance, Muslims themselves hold various interpretations of that clause, including that it has been abrogated by later revelations which contradict it. The Salafists contend that followers of the religions of atheism or polytheism should not compel Muslims to abandon the true religion of Islam for false religions. While there are many interpretations of the La Ikraha (No Compulsion) verse, it would be impossible for the umma to fulfill the Qur’anic call of 3:104, 110 without using compulsion.
In Milestones along the Way Chapter 4, titled “Jihad in the Cause of Allah,” Qutb explains the interaction of the da’wah call, jihad, and the La Ikraha passage:
It would be naive to assume that a call is raised to free the whole of humankind throughout the earth, and it is confined to preaching and exposition. Indeed, it strives through preaching and exposition when there is freedom of communication and when people are free from all these influences, as ‘there is no compulsion in religion’; but when the above mentioned obstacles and practical difficulties are put in its way, it has no recourse but to remove them by force so that when it is addressed to peoples’ hearts and minds they are free to accept or reject it with an open mind.[/ref]Qutb, ibid, p. 72, emphasis added.[/ref]
Duane Miller notes:
According to the metanarrative of Islam, which has been outline here, sooner or later some Muslims must try to establish some political control or influence, because they need the power of law to enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong (Qur’an 3:104)—this is the whole purpose of the umma and, moreover, it is Allah’s will. 6
Finally, Qutb continues his logical progression in Milestones to rebuke those who claim jihad should only be a defensive operation. He states the obvious that neither the Persians nor the Byzantines attacked the nascent Muslim community in its cradle of the Arabian Peninsula. Rather, the Muslims surged abroad to attack these civilizations by force and bring their peoples into submission under Islam. And this was the exemplary Islamic generation.
While this article has quoted Sayyid Qutb due to his massive influence and logical thinking, most Muslims do not follow his teachings. What about “the call” for them? Due to the impersonal nature of Allah, and the closure of prophecy with Muhammad, Muslims are generally not looking for a personal call from Allah, as Christians might think of a “call to ministry” or a “life calling.” Nevertheless, many Muslims are looking to the Qur’an and Hadith for guidance, as well as to their imams. Due to Islamic belief in kismet (divinely-ordained fate), Muslims may feel that circumstances themselves can shape one’s life direction or vocation.
Sometimes the wisdom of others may provide that guidance. My father shared with me an interesting story from his high school years in Qom, Iran. He was contemplating either becoming an imam (mollah) or a medical doctor. Interestingly, a local mollah advised him that he could serve God by becoming a doctor as well as by becoming a mollah.
In a concluding word regarding the call in Islam, Muslims and those living in Muslim lands will be familiar with the “call to prayer,” or adhan. The adhan also features a call to come: “Come to prayer, Come to success.” Bassam Madany explains the significance of the call to prayer in a recent article in Biblical Missiology. 7
As a part of their call, Islam emphasizes the responsibility of Muslims to bear witness of their faith. The first pillar of Islam, the Shahada, literally means “The Witness.” The Islamic call to prayer five times daily rings, “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah; I bear witness that Muhammad is the apostle of Allah.”
Therefore, the concepts of witnessing and calling that are well-known to Christians are certainly not foreign to Muslims. Both faiths share the commonality that all believers should and must bear witness to their faith. Some of the hyper-secrecy employed at times in Christian missions may prove unnecessary when one realizes that the concept of witnessing is not only understood by Muslims but appreciated by many Muslims who value authenticity.
The Call of God in Christianity
Like Islam, Christianity features a keen sense of calling. Unlike Islam, the Bible emphasizes calling as a divine function rather than a human activity. Indeed, the Old Testament narrates in 1 Samuel 3 the personal calling of young Samuel. His mentor, the aged priest Eli, did not initially perceive that it was Yahweh Himself who was directly calling Samuel. The prophet Jeremiah similarly testified of his divine call:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ (Jer. 1:4-5)
In the New Testament, Jesus summoned His disciples with the “call to come” and the “call to go.” First, they were called to be with Him, to know and love Him. Then, Jesus would send them out: “And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out the demons” (Mark 3:13-15).
This rhythm has been understood by Christians for two millennia: come to Jesus, and then go for Jesus.
The General Call, the Individual Call, and the Corporate Call
Different types of callings can clearly be seen in the Bible. Though we live in times of rampant individualism and narcissism, it should not be assumed that the divine call is only between God and an individual. Below follows a summary of various types of biblical callings.
First, the Bible states that the Holy Spirit calls, woos, and convicts sinners. Jesus explained to His disciples this important role played by the Spirit: “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:8-9). The work of the Spirit reflects the great love of God in initiating conviction, repentance, and faith in the lives of unbelievers. Such divine activity is absent within the orthodox Islamic theological understanding.
Second, Jesus issues a collective call to the Church. As quoted above in Mark 3:14, “He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach.” The first church was a collective body, the growing body of Christ. The Gospels largely narrate collective instruction and commissioning. Less frequently do they portray Jesus functioning as a one-on-one coach. Largely missing from evangelical discourse and the preaching diet today is the collective question, “What is Jesus calling the church to do collectively at this time?” Indeed, Muslims today may be more intentional, and perhaps more successful, than Christians in considering their collective calling and corporate responsibility.
Third, God indeed initiates individual calls. As He did with Samuel and Jeremiah, God called Saul of Tarsus. This man, later known as the Apostle Paul, understood his vocation. He opens his epistle to the Romans with an autobiographical statement: “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). Paul, the rabbi, was directed by God to focus his ministry among Gentiles. God revealed this to an apprehensive Ananias in Damascus before he would meet and minister to Saul: “The Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
Fourth, the call of God may come upon a nation. The Jewish people received a unique calling from God. Though they struggled at various times to fulfill their divine call, Paul notes that God does not snatch away His calling: “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Many nations have received special callings from the Lord to send out missionaries.
Fifth, God may give His call to His followers through the Bible. As a new Christian, I was reading Genesis 3:23, which states regarding Adam, “The Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.” Somehow, God impressed deep in my heart a life calling from that verse. I was to cultivate the ground from which I was taken. Since I was born and raised Muslim, I interpreted this as a call to minister to Muslims.
Finally, God may work together with human instruments to issue the call. John writes in the final passage of Scripture: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev. 22:17). The final call is a unified invitation from the Holy Spirit and the Church. For 2,000 years, Christians have obeyed Jesus’ Great Commission to go forth and preach the gospel. That mission continues until the Lord’s return.
Any study of the growth of Islam and Christianity would be incomplete without analyzing the role of “the call” in each faith. The Islamic institution of Da’wah is the literal outworking of the Arabic, Qur’anic word for “call.” Christian ethics would not allow for all forms of faith propagation allowed by Islam, such as the use of force or deception. Nonetheless, those who call people to Islam, da’ees, play an important role in Islam in general. Salafist da’ees have largely catalyzed the modern Islamic renaissance.
The call of God in Christianity includes some overlaps with Islamic understanding but varies due to the different nature of God. Jesus is divine in the biblical narrative, while he is explicitly not divine in the Islamic narrative. Therefore, these two religions must, by rules of mutual exclusivity, be referring to two separate deities. Thus, it cannot be that the same deity that is calling both Christians and Muslims.
Furthermore, the biblical deity is a loving, personal God. This reality opens the possibility for the interpersonal divine call, either by God of the individual, or collectively by God of the church. Both types of calling are operational in the Bible, as well as in contemporary Christian missiology.
The future growth or attrition of Islam and Christianity may be largely determined by how faithful their respective believers are to their sense of call. Both faith traditions honor those who have sacrificed for their faith and for the deity whom they believe in. In the Christian tradition, God himself visited the earth, both to summon believers and to make sacrifice for their sins. Believers in Christ herald that good news, in obedience to His command, in what can be considered a truly biblical missiology.
- NASB used throughout. ↩
- https://corpus.quran.com/qurandictionary.jsp?q=dEw ↩
- Quran.com translation used throughout. ↩
- Qutb, ibid, 30. ↩
- Miller, Duane A. 2018.Two Stories of Everything: The Competing Metanarratives of Islam and Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Credo House, p. 48. ↩
- Miller, ibid, p. 102, emphasis in original. ↩
- https://biblicalmissiology.org/blog/2023/04/26/on-minneapolis-allowing-the-islamic-call-to-prayer/ ↩