From the Archives: An Explanation of the (Christian) Heresy of Islam for Orthodox Believers

A friend of mine has been encouraging me to put something together on this for a church publication.  I wanted to write so much more (e.g. presenting more of the patristic work on the subject), but time and space didn’t allow for it.  I am guessing that some of the audience will find the title provocative.  But a spade is a spade and almost always takes the hand (and denial of Christ is always wrong and, without repentance and mercy, always gets set).  Anyways, here’s a draft of the article for your consideration. (First published here in 2011).

An Explanation of the Heresy of Islam for Orthodox Believers.
Islam has been around for a long time (the 7th century) and currently has over 1 billion adherents throughout the world. This leads to the first thing to recognize about Islam: it is marked by tremendous theological and cultural diversity. For example, you can no more assume to understand the faith and motivations of the Muslims in Pakistan based on your knowledge of your Muslim neighbor in Pittsburgh than you could the faith and motivations of a priest in Kyiv based on your knowledge of your Methodist coworker. There are, however, certain things that all Muslims profess. What I would like to do is explain these things both as they are understood by Muslims and how they relate to the Truth and Fullness of Orthodoxy.
St. John of DamascusOne God. The Muslims are “radical monotheists”. They believe that there are other spiritual beings (e.g. the angels and djinn), but explicitly deny the Trinity; “They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah.” (Koran 5:73a). So while they recognize that there is only one God and that He is the creator and sovereign over all things, they are missing the salvific truth about Christ and the Holy Spirit. Muslims often reach out to Christians by sharing their respect for Jesus, but they only recognize his role as a great miracle-working prophet; Islam refers to Jesus as the Messiah and confirms his virgin birth, but it denies His divinity, His death on the cross, and His resurrection (e.g. Koran 5:72b). Presaging anti-Christian scholars like Prof. Bart Ehrman, Muslims claim that the leaders of the Christian Church made up these things about Jesus and modified scripture to support their claims.
While we can certainly affirm the Muslim’s worship of the unity and uniqueness of God, out of love for them we must affirm that their rejection of the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit will – should they be left to accept the consequences of their own beliefs – leave them outside of salvation. For the God-man Christ Himself said; “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (St. John 3:36)
The Perfect Word of God. The prophet of Islam was Mohamed. It is tempting to compare his role in Islam to that of Christ in Orthodoxy, but this is mistaken. A more useful theological comparison is between Mohamed and the Virgin Mary. Why? Because while Orthodoxy confirms that the perfect and pre-eternal Word of God was incarnate in this world through the Virgin Mary, Muslims believe that the perfect and pre-eternal Word of God was brought into this world through Mohamed. The true Word of God is Christ Himself; Islam offers in His place a book, the Koran.
When we see this connection (i.e. that Muslims believe the Koran is the Logos, the Perfect Word of God), we gain a new appreciation for some of the things that Muslim do. For example, something that perplexes many non-Muslims is why such an emphasis is made on reciting the Koran in its original language, something that is unintelligible to so many of the faithful. Why would someone recite something they do not understand? Why would sainthood be bestowed on those who manage to memorize and recite it from beginning to end, regardless of comprehension? If the Koran is seen as simple scripture, something to be studied and understood, then these things make no sense; but if one believes it to be the Incarnation of Perfection, then having it on one’s lips and bringing it into one’s mind becomes a genuine mystery, a way to commune with the divine. Sound familiar? None of us understand the Body and Blood of Christ in communion, but we are transformed by taking it onto our lips and into our bodies.
Even the iconoclasm of Muslims can be understood in this way: they ban the use of images because they have no Christ that could make the human form worthy of veneration. We venerate icons of saints because the image of the Word (Christ) is revealed in them. Muslims decorate their temples not with images of The Word as found in the saints, but with verses from the Koran. This is also why Muslims treat their Korans with such respect and become upset when others do not. The defilement of a Koran is theologically less like the defilement of a Bible and more like the torture of Christ Himself.
Muslims revere and venerate the Koran because their faith in its divine perfection. Unfortunately for the Muslims, the Koran is not perfect. It is a mixture of beautiful psalmnody, fractured parodies of Hebrew scripture, proclamations of pseudo-Christian heresy, and situational verses designed to support the politics and desires of a 7th century warlord. God reveals Himself most perfectly through Jesus Christ, not the Koran (or any scripture); and we commune with Him most perfectly through His body and blood. As Christ said; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (St. John 6:51)
Islamopraxis. You may have heard of the “Five Pillars of Islam.” These describe the main practices of Islam. The first is the profession of faith in Allah and Mohamed as his prophet. This implies a belief in the perfection of the Koran (the thing that was revealed through Mohamed, allegedly by God) and the righteousness of Mohamed as a role model for all believers. Unfortunately, Mohamed spent the last half of his prophetic ministry as a warlord. While his behavior may have been enlightened by 7th century Arabian standards, it – especially as elaborated in the official Haddith (the sayings of Mohamed and his followers) and Sunnah (the biography of Mohamed) – it is hardly civilized by modern (much less Christian) standards. Tyrants and terrorists are not making things up when they claim to be acting in accordance with Islam. Thank God that most Muslims are more selective in deciding which of Mohamed’s behaviors to follow.
Three of the other pillars – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (tithing) – are very similar to our own, although Muslims often seem to take them more seriously than we do. For example, every pious Muslim sets aside several parts of each day for prayer. This prayer is marked by prostrations and is often done in common, especially on Friday, the holy day of the week in Islam. Daily prayer rules and prostrations are proscribed for the Orthodox, but seem most often honored in the breach. This practice develops a sense of community, humility before God, and piety among the Muslims that we would do well to recover for ourselves. Similarly, almsgiving is a set percentage (2.5%) of total assets that sets the minimum yearly standard for Muslims. The resulting charity is greater than the “dues” expected in many of our parishes. Real sacrifice satisfies the goal of charity of assisting the poor and developing compassion for the oppressed and thanks to God among the giver.
The fifth pillar, the holy pilgrimage or haij is similar to our own concept, but on a much grander scale. All Muslim men who are able are required to go to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The closest many of us get to the solidarity of the yearly hajj is homecoming in a major football town. Now imagine that, but with over a million people all renewing their dedication to God and building solidarity with other Muslims of every race and culture. If we had a sense of the true universality of the Church and the transcendence of the Divine Liturgy, every Sunday would be a greater Hajj than theirs and would have an even greater impact – for our pilgrimage is not to a holy place but to heaven itself and all are called to make it every week. We would recognize the unity of the Church and the divisions between us would simply melt away.
Jihad – the Sixth Pillar of Islam. Jihad means “struggle” and there are generally thought to be two expressions of it within Islam. The first is the “inner” struggle. It is the Islamic equivalent of Orthodox asceticism: all Muslims are called to continually submit to God and live righteous lives. The second can range from a political struggle for righteousness to violent conflict or holy war (there really is a lot of the latter in the scriptures of Islam). When it comes to violent jihad, all Muslims are called to support it when they live in an Islamic state and that state is invaded by non-Muslims. This is why al-Qaeda and the Taliban insist that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were Western invasions of Muslim lands: to the extent Muslims accept this frame, they must support their efforts. The legitimacy of other violent jihad varies: a minority of Muslims find support in their scripture for a continual violent war against unbelievers; and while all believing Muslims desire that all men submit to Allah and Islam (like Christianity, it is an evangelical faith), few support violence in getting there.
More on Jihad. Those who are familiar with our Old Testament, and especially books like Joshua, will note that it can be quite violent: God calls for a holy war against many nations just as Allah does in the Koran. So what is the difference? Why is the modern world threatened more by Islamic jihad than Christian jihad? There are two main reasons, one sociological and the other theological. Sociologically, majority Muslim nations feel themselves to be disadvantaged (not without reason) by the world system and express their rage using the idioms and expectations of Islam, to include jihad. Theologically, Christians do not base their actions and faith on scripture, but on Christ and His Church. The violent parts of the Old Testament are interpreted through the love, mercy, and salvation of Christ and the Church teaches this correct understanding. The Muslims have no such filter for their scripture: the Koran is perfect. The only filters between the violence in the Koran and violent action by believers are the humanity of each Muslim and that of their teachers. Glory to God that His image and breath are in them and His Spirit tries to bring them to the Truth!
In Conclusion, Islam contains enough of the truth for it to be considered a Christian heresy. It is not the Truth, but has enough echoes of it to point the earnest seeker in the right direction. It is our responsibility as Orthodox Christians to use the things we share with the Muslims as bridges so that we can lead them to the hope, joy, and truth that are most perfectly found in Christ and His Church. We cannot demonize Islam or Muslims, nor can we pretend that their heresies are trivial. It is Christ’s desire that all be saved, and it is only through Him that this is possible. Mohamed set a severe stumbling block before Muslims when he made the rejection of Christ a fundamental part of Islam. We must help them over this obstacle. As Christ Himself said (St. Matthew 28:18-20); “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Fr. Anthony is the priest at St. Michael’s in Woonsocket and teaches about spirituality at St. Sophia Seminary. He wanted to write more. He encourages you to speak up if you want to know more about Orthodoxy and Islam or want to point out the problems in this presentation.


  1. I really like your summation of the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam here. I’ve never lived in a majority-Orthodox country, but I have lived in Saudi Arabia for a while and I think that what you’ve written here is very fair. I had a friend whose children learned Koran excerpts by memory- the kids didn’t understand what they were memorizing. I like the way that you explain their view of the Koran as a ‘perfect’ document.

    It may be useful to add that Mohammed is characterized by temporal power. He was a prophet, and a warlord, but he was also a banker/ merchant. “Trifecta.” My understanding is that for Muslims, any true and successful prophet will embody this “trifecta”. Sort of like the old Protestant idea that God’s grace is indicated through prosperity. To my mind, this is an important point because it shows a fundamental difference between Muslim and Christian world views.