shutterstock_181171805By David Gunn

The sun dawns. A new day has begun. Before the magnificent flaming celestial orb tinges the clouds pink at sunset, the name Allah will have been spoken hundreds of millions of times. As muezzins across the globe issue the call to prayer, devout Muslims bow toward Mecca, praising Allah and bringing their petitions before him. Recitations extolling Allah’s virtues are repeated throughout the day, both for comfort in times of distress and as expressions of celebration in moments of victory. “Allah is great!” one adherent shouts. “Allah is the light of the Heavens and the Earth,” another intones. The words of the Shahadah (“there is no god but Allah; Muhammad is his prophet”) spill effortlessly and habitually from the mouths of the Islamic faithful. They are whispered into the ears of sleeping Muslim infants. They are earnestly confessed as the final words of countless who are dying.

The impact of Islam on the world could scarcely be overstated. Boasting more than a billion adherents, it is the planet’s second-largest religion, and one of the fastest-growing. But Islam’s relationship with Western cultures has been long and complicated. Events such as the Crusades (11th–15th centuries), the conquest of Constantinople (1453), the Barbary Wars (early 19th century), and various terrorist attacks and retaliatory strikes in our day have tended to cultivate deep resentment between Islamic and Western civilizations. This is not universally true, of course. Due to multiculturalism, tolerance of and respect for other religions and traditions are at an all-time high. Still, most Christians have only a passing knowledge of Islamic history and theology at best. Some react with fear and hostility to the presence of Muslims in their neighborhoods, while others are content to ignore them entirely. Operating under the assumption that God would have us “make disciples of all nations” (not just the non-Islamic ones), and understanding the truism that a people group must be understood before it can be communicated with, this article is offered as a brief introduction to Islamic history and theology.