Gabriel: Torn in Two Directions by Christianity and Islam
“Every time a bell rings, an Angel gets his wings.” So little Zuzu tells her daddy in the much loved Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We think of Clarence, an Angel (2nd class), earning his wings and, right along with Jimmy Stewart, we smile from ear to ear.
Angels are wonderful. Just a few weeks ago they came off of the tops of our Christmas trees. They stood near the Christ-Child in our nativity scenes. We pondered them singing “glory to God in the highest” out in the fields near Bethlehem. A few days ago, we were packing away the Christmas decorations (yes, a little bit late) and I was sliding the angel Gabriel back into his styrofoam home for another 11 months, when a long standing reality hit me: the angel Gabriel is a trouble maker.
At the root of two very different faith traditions, Christianity and Islam, stands an announcement made by Gabriel. For the Christian, Gabriel’s conversation with the Blessed Virgin Mary is really the pivotal moment in history. There, in the womb of Our Lady, God becomes a man. And for the Muslim, Gabriel’s conversation with the Prophet Muhammed in the Cave of Hira is truly the pivotal moment of history. There in the cave, according to Islamic tradition, Gabriel revealed the first verses of the Quran to Muhammed.
Two different conversations. Two very different versions of the Angelic message. Two completely different trajectories. One Angel.
My hand shaking a bit, the tape gun secured the styrofoam box and the climb to the attic began. I couldn’t shake the idea. How could such a beloved figure, God’s messenger to Daniel, to Zechariah, and of course to Mary, be thought of as the key source of Islam? Wouldn’t that be a bit like the Soviets inventing a tale about George Washington to give rise to their claims? The more I considered it, the more it bothered me.
One conversation leads to the birth of the Prince of Peace. The light shines in the darkness due to this child that Gabriel came to announce. Jesus “came and preached peace to those who are far off and those who are near.” (Eph. 2:17) He came to bring “good tidings to the poor, liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18) and to bring God’s goodness and love to a world that desperately needed it. The result of Gabriel’s conversation with Our Lady is the person of Jesus Christ, who’s life and teaching have been such a tremendous source of good in our world.
In the other conversation, the one with Muhammed, Gabriel begins a conversation with him, and him only. What follows over the next twenty-three years (A.D. 609-632) is an alleged series of private revelations from God to his greatest prophet Muhammed. These revelations, recorded in the Quran, become the basis for Islam and supersede the Bible, which Muslims believe to be corrupted. You see, Muslims hold that if the Quran tells a biblical story, something that had already been revealed by God, in a way that is in conflict with the actual biblical story, then it is the Quran that is correct, not the original narrative. This is true for both the Old and New Testaments. For instance, Jesus does appear in the Quran in several places but in the Quran’s version, He is not divine and was not crucified. There is a story in the Quran of Jesus as an infant, in his cradle, speaking in complete sentences to defend his mother from accusations of fornication. The result of this “revelation” is that confusion reigns for many in their search for God.
This confusion is at the heart of the “Islamophobia” debate that rages in our own day. Of course everyone has an opinion on Donald Trump wanting to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. Debates rage on every “news” program. I made the mistake a few months ago of watching Bill Maher’s program one night and it was a remarkable sight to see Ben Affleck laughably try to defend Muslim countries, even despite being presented with the facts about their records on human rights. Several months ago in my own city of Southlake, Texas, I had a gentleman make an appointment with me to tell me that Muslims were taking over the City of Southlake Municipal Government and enacting Sharia Law. Confusion reigns.
And then there’s ISIS and their mission of death, which is closely tied to this confusion. To understand ISIS, we have to understand that the reason they are fighting is because they view themselves as center stage in the events of the apocalypse. In their view of the end times, which are coming shortly, they will rise in power for a period of time, take significant tracks of land, including most of the Middle East, and then be forced to retreat to Jerusalem, where right at their moment of defeat it will be Jesus who will come back to save them and help them win the battle. Yes, you read that right. In a very strange way, ISIS is expressing faith that Jesus Christ will come again on that last great day. They just believe he will be a fighter for ISIS. Confusion reigns.
While most mainstream Muslims would certainly reject this view of the end times, the view itself is on a trajectory that can be traced back to that first conversation between Gabriel and Muhammed. All of it is part and parcel with the Islamic approach to Special Revelation. Muslims and Christians both believe that knowledge of God has been supernaturally given to humanity. God intervened in the normal course of events and disclosed something of His will or His relationship with humanity to chosen people. Christians believe the full revelation to be the person of Jesus Christ, God the Son. We believe that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. A key belief for Christians is that Jesus is the perfection of all that comes before Him. Jesus doesn’t show up and start changing the stories of the Old Testament. He quotes Scripture and He quotes it faithfully. However, Muhammed does not offer the same approach. Where Christ stands in the Judaic tradition, Muhammed stands against it. At the end of the day, the Muslim must conclude that the Bible just got these stories wrong. In the Quran, there are 50 different people that also appear in Holy Scripture and while not all of these people do drastically different things in the Quran’s narratives, many of them do. Islam doesn’t attempt to add to Judaism or Christianity, it attempts to change the Judeo-Christian tradition by re-writing some of the most important details of the story. No wonder confusion reigns. The same characters are present but they are doing different things. When they should zig, they zag. While Gabriel’s greatest mission is supposed to be announcing the birth of Christ, instead it is when he’s in a cave instructing Muhammed.
Ultimately, the two religions offer very different approaches to Special Revelation. Christians see a trajectory of God revealing himself to many throughout Scripture. We see the Bible as a unified revelation, a whole, with a Father who makes promises in the Old Testament and then keeps them in the New Testament. Even beyond the pages of Holy Scripture Christians take this approach. John Henry Newman observed this in his seminal work, “An Essay on the development of Christian Doctrine.” He wrote that one of the very key pieces of information the Christian should look for in determining whether a particular doctrine of Christianity is true, is whether or not it evolves, according to reason, from something that God has spoken or taught before. In other words, the believer asks, “is there a natural evolution? Is this particular doctrine in line with something inspired by God in the past?”
For the Muslim, however, this is not at all a necessary or even desired view of Special Revelation. God revealed himself not to many, but to Muhammed alone, who tells the story of how God interacted with all of the others. Yes, in the Islamic tradition there are other prophets, but only in as much as Muhammed thinks they were prophets. There are even other revelations, such as the Torah, but only in as much as Muhammed wants to reveal them. Certainly, God interacts with His people but Muhammed offers the only key to unlock those interactions.
Islam and Christianity are obviously very different, with very different doctrines and very different versions of the story of God interacting with man. However, it is the foundations of these faiths themselves that provide the most interesting and troublesome juxtaposition to me. Christianity claims as its foundation that God reveals Himself to many in a unified way; that God then incarnates and fulfills that revelation. Islam’s foundation is God revealing Himself to one man and that revelation superseding, and even contradicting in several instances, everything else.
Right from this starting point, from the very beginning, the foundations are in dissonance and that leads the unchurched person who searches for God to much confusion. As Islam gains a stronger footing in the west and our secular culture continues headlong into its post-Christian era, there will be many who will be perplexed upon examining this evidence. After all, the same angel is cited as a key authority in both religions. As Christians seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, we need to offer clarity about the very foundations of these religions themselves. Without that, many will be led astray at worst, or confused at best. It would be a sad thing to lay all of this confusion at the feet of the poor angel Gabriel but it does all go back to those turning point conversations with him. Gabriel is a much loved figure in both religions and yet he is caught in a tug of war. Standing at center stage of two religion’s vital moments, one has to choose which Gabriel they trust. Will the real Angel Gabriel please stand up?