This essay sets to emphasise a newer Qur’ān-centred approach in Muslim/Christian dialogue. It advocates an approach focused on considering not simply what Muslims and Christians might differ on but a crucial reason for those differences and the worldviews of both religions that emerge from those differences. It examines the genesis of where the two paths divergence how that divergence has resulted in differing theological viewpoints.

Such a fundamental starting point has been sometimes circumvented in order to open spaces for more obvious discussions around major points of theology, namely, from Christian theology – the Incarnation, Divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the Crucifixion. Although each of these is certainly crucial, each of them emanates from the subject of this piece, from what I term the Adamic Conundrum.

This starting point is crucial, and precisely so because of what it reveals about the way God is presented in both the Bible and the Qur’ān. Fundamentally, the most important of all affairs relates to who God is, and what our relationship with Him is. Both texts claim to present to their readers such an understanding, and though there are points Muslims and Christians will agree on, it is the foundational point from which and why differences emerge that require further discussions, and which should form a central component in the Islamic daʿwah effort.

The fundamental of this thesis begins by considering God and His relationship with His ‘fallen’ servant, Adam.

In the theological outlines of both faiths, it is to know what God considers and expects of His creation from such time immemorial that is paramount. For Christians, the conversation does indeed begin here. Jesus Christ is viewed as the essential manifestation of God’s love to right the wrongs of Adam and subsequently his progeny.

Christ, the saviour, God-man, is said to have an earthly salvific role. The second person of the Trinity, Christ is held be the redeeming Son of God. This sequential order of theology was highlighted by the missionary James Langford who called on Christians: to “do their best to present the Gospel, including the fall of mankind through Adam and Eve’s original sin, [by] draw[ing] attention to the love of Jesus Who was the Creator, and let the Holy Spirit activate the Muslim mind to perceive his need for God as the Redeemer of mankind.”1 Christian evangelist Dr. William Lane Craig posits that, “Christ’s death on the cross is God’s means of reconciling a sinful and estranged humanity to Himself.”2 Similarly, I. Howard Marshall asserts that the central theme or message of the New Testament is reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.3

The conundrum that this essay highlights stems from the Book of Genesis but is furthered by Paul’s letter to the Romans 5:12-21. This is cited here in full:

(13) To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. (14) Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. (15) But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (16) Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. (17) For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! (18) Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. (19) For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (20) The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, (21) so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.4

The chasm and rift that emerges between God and His creation, due to Adam’s sin is drawn upon in considerable detail by Dr. Robert D. Luginbill in his elaborate study of sin in Christianity. He explains that due to the proliferation of inevitable sin caused by Adam “we are separated from God at birth because of our corrupt nature, and the personal sins which we later commit demonstrate this innate corruption. It matters little when or how or to what degree we commit, or possibly even refrain from committing, personal sins. The fact is that because of our corruption at birth we will die physically, and since we must at the very least acknowledge that we are not completely pure, holy and righteous, we can have no reasonable expectation of anything good beyond physical death (absent salvation by means of divine grace).”5

This, in line with Protestant theology, presents a very bleak picture – an inescapable conundrum for Adam and his progeny for their standing as sinning creatures. Dr. Luginbill’s words suggest an initially unapproachable God, cut off from His own creation who then reconciles Himself back to His creation through the act of the incarnation and the subsequent crucifixion-atonement event.

In the Christian attempt to explain the happenings between God, Adam, Satan and the salvific purpose of Jesus many early theologians drew up a range of atonement theories. The earliest were the Christus Victor theory and that of the second-century bishop of Lyons, Iraneus who formulated the Recapitulation theory in which Jesus takes on the human role of Adam, successfully obeying Him as a counter to Adam’s disobedience, “the Son’s effective counter to Adam’s disobedience is to remain in a condition of receptivity throughout his entire life, to wait on God where Adam did not.”6 Another hugely important and influential theory was that of Anselm of Canterbury who proposed a ‘satisfaction’ theory in his text Cur Deus Homo which advocated instead that such a theory as the Christus Victor, is quite inadequate in explaining the true reason behind Jesus’ redeeming purpose. Aside from defeating Satan, the price of sin argued Anselm, had to be compensated (satisfactio) through the incarnation and suffering of Christ that man’s sins no longer besmirch the holiness of God. This becomes necessary due to the justice of God, since to overlook the sin would be unjust and go against God’s very nature of being just. The dishonouring of God through sin cannot be annulled simply by God’s compassion, instead the sin needs to be punished “since it is not right [recte] to cancel sin without compensation or punishment; if it be not punished, then it is passed by undischarged” (I.12). For Anselm compensation is “voluntary payment of the debt” (1.19), arguing that humans themselves can never pay back to God the debt of sin requiring God to become a man and pay it back himself for our salvation.

Many other atonement theories took their place in Cristian theology as well, listed here by Steven Porter: “Athanasius’s mystical theory, Augustine’s ransom theory, Abelard’s moral-influence theory, Anselm’s satisfaction theory, Scotus’s acceptilation theory, and Calvin’s theory of penal substitution, to name only a few of the historical stand-outs.”7 In explaining the atonement theory espoused by the Genevan-Italian Reformed scholastic theologian François Turrettini, evangelist Dr. William Craig gives reasons to how sin as a “mutual enmity between us and God…For Turretin it is a mutual enmity, not only that we are opposed to God but that He is opposed to us.”8

As can be seen, the paradigm of Adam is of premier importance here. It is one, often circumvented in Muslim-Christian dialogue and regrettably, since it provides us with a necessary understanding of who God is. The question of Adam takes centre stage in the hamartiology of both faiths but only does so expressly in the soteriology of Islam. In the soteriology of Christianity Adam re-appears through Paul in the Book of Romans as Jesus’s antitype. Since Adam was unsuccessful in his task, his role as father of humanity is replaced by Christ who assumes his role through the latter’s salvific function. Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology Gary A. Anderson notes that “the elevation of the first Adam could not be allowed to overshadow the second. For this reason, Christian writers preferred to speak of the incarnate Son as he who was elevated above the angels. This argument is made at great length in the Epistle of the Hebrews. For this writer, Christ is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…when he had made his purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent that theirs. (Hebrews 1:3-4 )”9

Adam in the Islamic context

Islam, instead, upholds that it is God, Perfect in his wisdom, who created Adam with the free will to err as well as to perform beautiful acts of righteousness. In contrast to the Christian presentation of God vis-à-vis Adam and his transgression, the Qur’ānic narrative draws not so much on the claim that all of Adam’s progeny would have acted the same way, and thus Adam serves as our proxy – even though Adam’s progeny is inspired by both moral depravities and saintliness: “Consider the human self, and how it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be. And inspired it to know its own rebellion and piety!”10 – but that God acted towards Adam in the same way that He deals with us all, by facilitating openings towards His mercy and acceptance. It is God’s love that shines through. In the Christian Adam-Christ model God is portrayed as a Being whose mercy comes to be contingent on the shedding of blood, whereas in Islam God grants forgiveness to all those who call upon Him and sincerely repent. It is more of a personal turning towards God that is the mainstay of the Islamic approach to salvation.

What makes the Qur’ānic presentation a great reflection of maximal goodness and holiness is firstly, that His holiness is never compromised by anything His creation does or does not do. God declares: “And you will not cause failure to Him upon the earth or in the heaven. And you have none other than Allāh any protector or any helper.”11 One translation has it, “Not on earth nor in heaven will you be able to frustrate His Plan.”

Contrary to the Christian story, the Qur’ān explains that though Adam lost his footing and the splendour of a heavenly realm, he was never denied spiritual closeness to a maximally loving and pure God who created Him – fully aware of the weaknesses inherent in his very being. God did not create a perfect being in Adam and nor expected perfection from him, but in that creation’s dependence, remembrance and longing for God – would Adam and Eve – find God’s unceasing pleasure. The theological anthropology of Islam thus resonates with a profound bearing on the paradigm of hope. Notwithstanding the gravity of their moment of lapse, the Qur’ān describes it as a ‘slip’ (zall): But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that in which they had been. And We said, “Go down, as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time.”12 Adam had been exposed to his lower self, of craving, of allowing ephemeral promises of grandeur impede upon divine assurances: “thus he led them on with deluding thoughts.”13 God reminds both Adam, and thereafter reminds us through him, in these two verses: “So We said, ‘Adam, this is your enemy, yours and your wife’s: do not let him drive you out of the garden and make you miserable.”14

“O children of Adam, let not Satan tempt you as he removed your parents from Paradise…”15

Secondly, in the Islamic model, God’s enabling of Adam to seek forgiveness resonates with maximal love and forgiveness. God does not emerge vengeful, incessant on a blood sacrifice as the only mode of forgiveness but instead recognises man’s dual tendencies of sin as well as goodliness. That forgiveness becomes contingent on the acceptance of a human blood sacrifice in the Christian model is set against the Islamic paradigm of personal repentance of remorse, beseeching of God and of self-rectification. Instead of an eternal estrangement from God, Adam’s “slip” was met with God’s divine grace from a maximally loving God. In the Quran we are told that “Adam was met with words from his Lord”16 is further a reflection of God’s maximal love towards Adam since there was no one else around to assist him. There was not a Prophet he could entreat in the hope that he would be shown how to ask for forgiveness. It was only him, and so God fully aware of his vulnerability reaches out to Him so that Adam once more becomes an object of His compassionate attention. This is truly a reflection of the maximal love of God.

Original forgiveness then, in this narrative, takes centre stage. Some points can be deduced: 1) The Qur’ān’s positioning of Adam’s sin as a slip/stumble. In essence, as al-Ṭabarī explains, “Satan caused them to slip from obedience to God.”172) God’s immediate ‘reaching out’ to Adam to assist him to find repentance 3) Adam and his wife beseeching their Lord for mercy and forgiveness 4) God’s pardoning of His two servants.

The other crucial point here is in really understanding the soteriological model of Islam. The verse describing such a ‘reaching out’ is a fascinating presentation of mercy of a maximally loving God. Adam had erred, both Biblical and Qur’ānic accounts confirm this, but the Qur’ān describes how Adam was prevented from feeling stranded and hopeless following his being admonished for succumbing to Satan’s insinuations. In the timeless beauty of the Arabic text the words fa talaqqā Adam min rabbihi kalimāt [then Adam received from his Lord some words] press upon God’s closeness to his remorseful servant. God aided Adam in teaching him and his progeny how to forever return to their Lord’s pleasure: “Then Adam received from his Lord some words, and He accepted his repentance: “Indeed, it is He who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.”18

In the soteriology of Islam Adam is still present as an actor, not forever condemned but censured and then forgiven. The encounter between God and Adam in the Qur’ānic account is magnificent in the exposition of perfect being theology. A striking example, and one which entirely concurs with the love forgiveness model expressed in the Qur’ān is here in relation to three individuals who were censured for not participating with the others in the Battle of Tabūk (630AD).

Each one underwent his own experiential undertaking of seeking repentance. The Adamic paradigm of forgiveness is shown clearly in this example. Just like Adam was not separated from God – who instead stressed on His being Ever-Near (al-Qarīb) to His servants, as shown, it is always Allāh who first aids His creation in finding their way back up, finding their way through the haze of disobedience into the reassurance of a loving God. This is contrary to the Christian outlook on distance and separation from God emanating from the sin of Adam and forever decreed until Jesus appears in his salvific mode. The verse here from Sūrah al-Tawba illustrates the loving nature of God:

“And ˹Allāh has also turned in mercy to˺ the three who had remained behind, ˹whose guilt distressed them˺ until the earth, despite its vastness, seemed to close in on them, and their souls were torn in anguish. They knew there was no refuge from Allāh except in Him. Then He turned to them in mercy so that they might repent. Surely Allāh ˹alone˺ is the Accepter of Repentance, Most Merciful.”19

The verse is striking in the way it juxtaposes man’s despondency and stricken state with the encompassing mercy of God. The imagery of the earth and their souls “closing in around them” reflects what the consequence of sin creates in man when he is conscious of his error and seeks reconciliation with God. Adam too, further to his transgression says a prayer that denoted internal blame and a realisation of the consequence of his sin. In Islam God reveals Himself as Al-Karīm, the Most Generous:

“He is the One Who initiates the favours before they are deserved, donates goodness without seeking a reward, forgives sins, and pardons the wrongdoer.”20

Christian commentators however in their consideration of the Islamic outlook on sin and salvation have little, or nothing to say about mercy, love and forgiveness from the Adamic paradigm as reflected in Islam. In Smith’s (1993) study on soteriology in Islam there is no discussion of Adam.21 Norman Gulley in his evaluation of Catholic and Islamic soteriology has the same omissions. In addition, his points are often lacking. He begins his commentary for example by asserting, “Salvation in Islam is not a gift. It has to be earned through vigorous works.”22 This essay has clarified the overriding emphasis in Islam on the love of Allāh and a love reflected in His giving and forgiving nature. Contrary to Gulley’s selective reading, though Islam of course does stress on the need for man to submit to God – seek, revere and love One’s Creator, to do good, to keep faith, to strive and commit oneself to pursuing social goodness – it also stresses that nobody can attain to heaven on account of his or her deeds: “none would be able to enter Paradise because of his deeds alone. The Companions asked: Allāh’s Messenger, not even you? Thereupon he said: Not even I, but that Allāh wraps me in His Mercy”23 In Islam the reward one receives for good deeds is not the natural consequence of those acts but instead due to the grace and mercy of Allāh. The types of reward are in the full prerogative of Allāh. At the same time, punishment for sins is not an unalterable consequence of man’s acts. Allāh, All-Knowing and All-Wise has the full prerogative to punish as well as to pardon. Everything that Gulley asserts thereafter is only a reflection of the initial point about the need to do good works as a measure of one’s devotion and love of God. Gulley comments, “Muḥammad places human works in place of Christ’s gift of salvation” without considering that salvation in Islam is dependent on the mercy of a loving and forgiving God. At least seven time in the Qur’ān is it repeated that everything is completely dependent on the maximally perfect grace and mercy of Allāh:

“Had it not been for Allāh’s grace and mercy upon you, none of you would have ever been purified. But Allāh purifies whoever He wills. And Allāh is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”24

“If it were not for God’s bounty and mercy and the fact that He is compassionate and merciful.”25

“Had it not been for Allāh’s grace and mercy upon you in this world and the Hereafter, you would have certainly been touched with a tremendous punishment for what you plunged into.”26

“And if it was not for the favour of Allāh upon you, and His mercy, a group of them would have determined to mislead you. But they do not mislead except themselves, and they will not harm you at all. And Allāh has revealed to you the Book and wisdom and has taught you that which you did not know. And ever has the favour of Allāh upon you been great.”27

“And if not for the favour of Allāh upon you and His mercy, you would have been among the losers.”28

“And if not for the favour of Allāh upon you and His mercy… and because Allāh is Accepting of repentance and Wise.”29

In his explanation of this last verse al-Ṭabarī explains: “Were it not for the grace of Allāh upon you, O people, and his mercy on you, and that He favoured His creation with his kindness and with His wisdom over them, He would hasten to punish you for your sins and expose the sinful among you, but instead He covers your sins and not disgrace you with them.”30

While never undermining the great travesty of sin, the Islamic message also resonates with the notion of great hope for the sinful if they turn back to God. The Muslim intellectual Guy Eaton explained the significance of the word Raḥma (mercy) used in the Qur’ān: “In Arabic the three consonants RHM, from which the word raḥma (mercy) and its derivatives, al-Raḥmān (the Most Merciful) and al-Raḥīm (the Most Compassionate), are formed, have the primary meaning of ‘womb’, which indicates very clearly he maternal character of mercy, nurturing and protecting the helpless human creature in its gentle embrace.”31

It is telling that in the Qur’ān, at points wherein people seek something or someone other than Allāh as their object of maximal veneration, Allāh’s mercy and divine attribute al-Ramān is emphasised. For example, when Mary is met with the angel announcing the good news of the birth of Christ, her initial astonishment is an apt reminder of the place of God and His Ever-Nearness to her: “She appealed, “I truly seek refuge in the Most Compassionate from you! ˹So leave me alone˺ if you are God-fearing.”32

What is striking is her reliance on the Most Compassionate (al-Ramān) in the context of what Christians would later allege about her son, that he becomes the source of salvific mercy for the world. The verse highlights that she knew full well that God alone is the source of mercy.

Another example in the same chapter, Surah al-Maryam, is even more vivid. The divine name al-Raḥmān is mentioned several times, and in fact appears the most in this chapter compared to any other chapter of the Qur’ān, occurring 15 times. It occurs at four points in the following verses, underlined here:

“They say, “The Most Compassionate has offspring.”33

“You have certainly made an outrageous claim,”34

“by which the heavens are about to burst, the earth to split apart, and the mountains to crumble to pieces”35

“in protest of attributing children to the Most Compassionate.”36

“It does not befit ˹the majesty of˺ the Most Compassionate to have children.”37

“There is none in the heavens or the earth who will not return to the Most Compassionate in full submission.”

The verses are powerful in the strong vocabulary and imagery used, and in the compelling points raised. For this piece, what is most relevant is the repeated use of al-Raḥmān at four points in the selection of verses. It is as if it say, ‘why would you take another as the source of salvific mercy when God alone is the Most Compassionate?’ A third example here will suffice to highlight the way the Qur’ān reminds its hearers and reciters not to take others as rivals with God, and that such a proclivity in man exists when he seeks salvific mercy in something or someone other than God. Christians, the Qur’ān demonstrates are guilty of doing so with Jesus, and with Mary. In Surah Ṭāhā (20) we learn that the Children of Israel had taken to worshipping a golden calf in Prophet Mūsā’s absence. Allāh informs us that his brother Hārūn (Aaron) had already warned them beforehand, “O my people! You are only being tested by this, for indeed your ˹one true˺ Lord is the Most Compassionate. So follow me and obey my orders.”38 Again, for what purpose would one need to find salvation in something other than God Himself?

The Adamic Conundrum should be a formative point of discussion in Christian/Muslim dialogue because it gets to the root of the issue – who is God in light of this all, and what does He expect from His creation, and what is His relationship with us. The essay has shown the way Christian Church Fathers attempted to explain the purpose of Jesus vis-à-vis the Fall of Genesis and in light of God’s attributes of mercy and justice. The Qur’ān reminds its readers of the mercy of God, that God is Al-Raḥmān, Al-Raḥīm (Most Merciful, Most Compassionate). Further to these beautiful attributes of God, He is also Al-Ghaffār, the All Forgiving, Al-Wadūd – ‘The Most Loving. It is this mercy of God, a part of His maximal love, that delivers man from iniquity and transgression since no human being, however imbued by faith, can remain entirely free from fault and temptation; and all salvation is dependent on the Mercy of God: “none would be able to enter Paradise because of his deeds alone. The Companions asked: Allāh’s Messenger, not even you? Thereupon he said: Not even I, but that Allāh wraps me in His Mercy”39 The Qur’ān calls man to a “sincere repentance: it may well be that your Sustainer will efface from you your bad deeds, and will admit you into gardens through which running waters flow.”40 Mercy itself is a divine gift and one the faithful are called on to acknowledge and acclaim: “Say, “In the bounty of Allāh and in His mercy – in that let them rejoice; it is better than what they accumulate.”41 The soteriology within the Islamic framework of “sincere repentance” necessitates a desisting from sin, committing oneself to not revisit the sin and offsetting any indifference to the sin and its consequence with a conscious remorse. Allāh reminds us of one of His most beautiful names – al-Wadūd (The Most loving, the Most Affectionate). Allāh, ‘al-Wadūd’, is the source of all affection and all mercy emanates from Him alone.

References 1 Langford, J.S.D. (1983). Some Principles of Christian Mission to Muslims. Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 643. Retrieved January 9, 2022 from 2 Craig, W.L. God’s Love and Justice in Contradiction? Retrieved January 9, 2022 from 3 Marshall, I.H. (2007). Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity. Paternoster, chap. 4 4 Romans 5:12-21 5 Luginbill, R.D. Hamartiology: The Biblical Study of Sin. Retrieved January 8, 2022, from 6 Vogel, J. (2007). The Haste of Sin, the Slowness of Salvation: An Interpretation of Irenaeus on the Fall and Redemption. Anglican Theological Review 89:3, p. 442. 7 Porter, S. (2004). Swinburnian atonement and the doctrine of penal substitution. In Faith and philosophy: journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. 8 Craig, W.L. Doctrine of Christ (Part 17): The Work of Christ (10) – Penal Substitution Theory. Retrieved, January 15 2022 from 9 Anderson, G. (2001). The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 36. 10 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 91, verses 7-8. 11 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 29, verses 22. 12 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 2, verse 36. 13 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 7, verse 22. 14 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 20, verse 117. 15 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 7, verse 27. 16 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 2, verses 37. 17 Al-Ṭabarī. (2004). Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī (Jamiʿ al-bayān fī ta’wīl al-Qur’ān) vol. 1. Al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiya, p. 305. 18 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 2, verses 37. 19 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 9, verse 118. 20 Al-Sayyid bin Jādillah, A.H. Ibtigā’ al-ḥusnā bi-ʿilal aḥādīth al-asmā’ al-ḥusnā vol. 2. Dar al-Lu’lu’, p. 305. 21 Smith B.C. (1993). Road Less Traveled: Soteriology in Islam. Honors Projects. 2. Retrieved January 15, 2022 from 22 Gulley, N.R. (2003). A Biblical Evaluation of Islamic and Catholic Soteriology. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 14/2 (Fall 2003), p. 152. 23 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2818 a 24 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 24, verse 21. 25 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 24, verse 20. 26 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 24, verse 14. 27 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 4, verse 113. 28 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 2, verse 64. 29 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 24, verse 10. 30 Al-Ṭabarī. (2004). Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī (Jamiʿ al-bayān fī ta’wīl al-Qur’ān) vol. 18. Al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiya, p. 91. 31 Eaton, C.LG. (1984). Islam and the Destiny of Man. State University of New York Press, p. 68. 32 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 19, verse 18. 33 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 19, verse 89. 34 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 19, verse 90. 35 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 19, verse 91. 36 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 19, verse 92. 37 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 19, verse 93. 38 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 20, verse 90. 39 Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2818 a 40 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 66, verse 8. 41 Al-Qur’ān. Chapter 10, verse 58.