‘Discipleship’ in Islam and Christianity, a discussion

Disciples cartoonThe figures of Muhammad and Jesus are very different. So too is the nature of discipleship in Islam and Christianity. See

Reflections on discipleship in the Qur’an,                                                                       at the Janssen Spirituality Centre, 22 Woodvale Rd, Boronia. 28 March 2015


There is no clear word for ‘disciple’ in the Qur’an. In sura 29:69 reference is made to ‘ways’ (tariqa, pl. turuq), which has the general meaning of the attitudes and practical requirements as set out in the Holy Book.

“We shall be sure to guide to Our ways those who strive hard   for Our cause: God is with those who do good.” Al-‘Ankabut (29), 69 (Haleem translation)

The word ‘sharia’ also means ‘way’, but in Sufism tariqa acquires a more precise sense. Thus the word tariqa becomes closely associated with Sufis, while the word sharia is more generally used in other forms of Islam.

For the early Jewish rabbis the word ‘path’ referred to the community. The word ‘path’ or ‘way ‘ is at first an appellation of the Christian community, but becomes more centred on the figure of Jesus who says ‘I am the way’ (Jn 14:6) for he is the essence of the ‘way’. The further descriptions, ‘truth’ and ‘life’, are epexegetical commentaries on the word ‘way’, meaning that Jesus is the true and life-giving way. The following sentence ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ is a further analysis of the word ‘way’. In other words, he is the way, which nothing else can supersede or replace.

 Aspects of the path

It was pointed out that in Christianity the command is given to the disciples to go and teach. (Mt 28:19-20) Discipleship and commission go together. Do Muslims have the task of spreading Islam? It depends on the meaning of word da’wa, which means the ‘call’ or invitation to Islam. There are also Muslims who go out and convey the message to others (tabligi jamaat). Other Muslims feel that their duty is simply to give witness to the truth of Islam in their daily lives. Thus he style of da’wa is variously interpreted.

The question was asked about what corresponds to the call in the Gospel to feed the poor etc. Is there such a thing in Islam? What is the call to social justice? Zadaqa (‘spending for the sake of others’) is an important element as shown in some places where the poor are fed at no cost. But the obligation of zakat, one of ‘the five pillars in Islam’, has a different meaning. It is a tax designed to promote equality in the community. Every Muslim believer must contribute a certain amount from his regular income to the needs of the community. Thus zakat is to be distinguished from zadaka.

 Submission, faith, discipleship

The essence of the ‘way’ in 29:69 is submission. It is first and foremost submission to God, who reveals Himself through the Qur’an and not submission to the Prophet Muhammad, whose role is to be the perfect example of how the Qur’an should be lived out. The true Muslim who submits to God through the revelation of the Qur’an will strive to imitate Muhammad.

This is different from the relationship between the Christian and Jesus, which is not customarily termed ‘submission’ but ‘faith’. The distinguishing mark of the Christian is faith in Jesus as the Christ. In Islam, the believer is one who has faith in God and in Muhammad who is God’s Messenger.

The Christian disciple is called to follow Jesus. Submission to Allah does not have such an inherently dynamic sense. In the Gospel the first four disciples are called to follow Jesus (Mark 1:16-20), and in the very last chapter of John, the last words of Jesus are ‘Follow me’. (Jn 21:22) This call suggests movement. Where is Jesus going? Mystery and uncertainty are inherent in Christianity. He is the way and to follow him means walking the same path, which is that of sacrifice etc.   Jesus is constantly moving. Is the movement eternal? The God of the Christians is not a static God as might be said of the Platonic forms.

It was pointed out that the phrase, ‘Obey God. Obey Muhammad’ (Al-Nur 24:54) is very strong, for it links God and Muhammad in parallel literary form. However, it would be contrary to the spirit of Islam to see the same closeness as in the phrase from John ‘He who sees me sees the Father’. (Jn 14:9) The Muslim believes in Muhammad only in the sense that he is acknowledged as a perfect example of the message of the Qur’an.

 The Prophet

Many topics were raised within the scope of the theme of discipleship. The question arose about the meaning of the term ‘prophet’. The Qur’anic text has two terms: rasul and nabi. The word rasul refers to one of the five historical persons who have produced a Book: Abraham (although his Book has been lost); Moses, through whom the Torah was revealed; David, through whom the Psalms were revealed; Jesus, through whom the Gospel was revealed and Muhammad, through whom the Qur’an was revealed. The nabi are those appointed by God to call a corrupt age back to the purity of the revelation. In the Qur’an, some nabi are named (Adam, Noah, John the Baptist, etc.) but there are countless others who are not named. Some Muslims would even include the Buddha, for example, as one of the nabi.

 Muhammad, his actions and behaviour (sunna)

In Islam the Qur’an, as already noted, is the revelation that God sent down in the form of a written text through the medium of Prophet Muhammad. By contrast in Christianity Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God’s Word (Jn 1: 1-4 + 14), is the culmination of divine revelation. Hence we cannot compare Jesus Christ with Muhammad but should compare him with the Qu’ran. Though the prophetic identity of Jesus is emphasised in the Synoptic gospels, in the New Testament in general, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Emmanuel, God with us, the image of God as a true human, appearing in the universe.  This would merit further examination.

Muhammad is the model for all Muslims. Why must he be perfect? Some in the group thought that if the message of the Qur’an was to be given truthfully, its messenger, Muhammad, must have been perfectly truthful and, therefore, without fault. If the message is perfect, the messenger must also be perfect.   However, the Qur’an does mention an occasion when God brought Muhammad to task for neglecting the poor in favour of the rich. In Surah ‘Abasa [He Frowned], (80), 1-10, the Qur’an indicates that the Prophet Muhammad needed correction. Muhammad Asad explains that the Prophet was engrossed in a conversation with some of the most influential chieftains of pagan Mecca, hoping to convince them of the truth of his message. At that point, he was approached by one of his followers, the blind ‘Abd Allah ibn Shurayh with the request for a repetition or elucidation of certain earlier passages of the Qur’an. Annoyed by this interruption of what he momentarily regarded as a more important endeavour, Muhammad “frowned and turned away” from the blind man and was immediately reproved by the revelation of the first ten verses of Surah ‘Abasa. In later years he often greeted Ibn Umm Maktum with these words of humility: “Welcome unto him on whose account my Sustainer has rebuked me!” (Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Bristol: the Book Foundation, 2003, p. 1061, footnote 1)

The perfection of Muhammad is implied in the Qur’an and developed further in the tradition of Islam. The question was asked as to why Muslims became offended when Muhammad was criticised in any way. One reply was that Muslims have an intense devotion to the person of Muhammad, so that any criticism of him is seen as injurious to them. It is like our attitude to our parents who, we know, are not perfect but we will not tolerate any criticism of them.

On the Last Day, no one will have the power of intercession except those to whom Allah gives permission [Surah Maryam (19), 87]. Some verses seem to imply that the Prophet will be given permission to intercede on that day. Moreover, a few verses in the Qur’an are interpreted by Muslims to refer to the second coming of Jesus [cf. Surah Al-Nisa’ (4), 159 and Surah Zukhruf (43), 63] but the Hadith traditions give a much clearer picture of the way Jesus will come again before the end of the world takes place.

In ‘Pelagianism’, Jesus is the model for our salvation, but not the means. The question arose in our group about the Pelagian aspect of Islam, where Muhammad is the model but not the means. In response the point was made that the Pelagianism that is presented in St Augustine’s teaching on grace may not in fact truly reflect what Pelagius himself actually taught. The point was further made that there appears to be a certain rehabilitation of Pelagius at the moment. However, the point remains that Muhammad is the example but not the means of salvation whereas in Christianity Jesus is both the model and the means.

 The Companions

The discussion continued about the relationship between the Muslim and Muhammad. What is the significance of the ‘companions’ (sahaba) of Muhammad? The term as such does not appear in the Qur’an, which simply refers to those who were with the Prophet (m‘ahu, with him).

Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Those who follow him (m’ahu) are harsh towards the disbelievers and compassionate towards each other. You see them kneeling and prostrating, seeking God’s bounty and His good pleasure: on their faces they bear the marks of their prostrations. Surah Al-Fath (48), 29

This has a different connotation from the disciples who are ‘with Jesus’. There is an intimacy involved in faith in Jesus, which may not be the case between Muhammad and those who are ‘with’ Muhammad.

The Companions of Muhammad are specifically mentioned in the Hadith. They are companions in the sense that just as he is model for other Muslims so too they are models to help Muslims follow the Qur’an. The first companions of Muhammad became living models of the behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad (sunna).   For this reason, they are highly regarded by those who collected and compiled the traditions of the Prophet (hadith). Bukhari and other Traditionalists relate from Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri that God’s Messenger warned:

Do not curse my Companions! Do not curse my Companions! I swear by Him in Whose hand my life is that, even if one among you had as much gold as Mount Uhud and spent it in the way of God, this would not be equal in reward to a few handfuls of them or even to half of that.


The helpers (ansar) in the Qur’an were the Medinan Muslims who welcomed and supported the emigrants (muhajirun) from Mecca. Although the word for ‘companion’ (sahaba) does not appear in the Qur’an, these people acted as companions for the emigrants.

God will be well pleased with the first emigrants (muhajarin) and helpers (ansar) and those who followed them in good deeds, and they will be well pleased with Him: He has prepared Gardens graced with flowing streams for them, there to remain for ever. That is the supreme triumph. Surah Al-Tawba (9), 100

A Sufi view of discipleship

Some Sufi writers highlight the teacher-disciple (pir-muridi) relationship. For instance, the great Sufi teacher of Bihar, Sharafuddin Maneri (d. 1381), writes in The Hundred Letters, p. 95:

Among the member of this group, a person is called a novice if he is seeking Him but has not yet obtained his desire. The sheikhs have said, “He is a disciple who, in compliance with his guide, is like a dead man in the hands of the washer – he turns whichever way he is turned! A novice should be so submissive to his guide that, at the slightest hint from the latter, he would gladly offer his life, his spiritual riches, and his worldly goods, but not leave his guide!

Discussion continued on the Sufi terms disciple (murid) and teacher/guide (murshid). The Sufi points of view seem to be highly influenced by Indian thought. Sufism starts in the area located between India and Iran and seems to adopt some aspects of Indian thought, particularly on the role of the guru.


The term ‘abad is also used to indicate the servants of Allah, not of Muhammad. Their service is to accept and obey the revelation of the Qur’an.

We gave knowledge to David and Solomon, and they both said, ‘Praise be to God, who has favoured us over many of His believing servants (‘abad).’ Surah Al-Naml (27), 15

 Jesus and his disciples

The Qur’an uses the word hawariyyun to refer to the disciples of Jesus. Muhammad Asad explains that this term (al-hawariyyun) refers to “the white-garbed ones” and was probably used to denote a member of the Essene Brotherhood. (Cf. Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, Bristol: the Book Foundation, 2003, p. 89)

When Jesus realized they (still) did not believe, he said, ‘Who will help me in God’s cause?’ The disciples said, ‘We will be God’s helpers; we believe in God – witness our devotion to Him. Lord, we believe in what You have revealed and we follow the messenger: record us among those who bear witness (to the Truth).’ Surah Al-‘Imran (3), 52-53

 Faith in the Qur’an

The discussion went on to discuss the type of ‘flexibility ‘ that is acceptable for the exegesis of the Qur’an. It was felt that to regard the Qur’an simply as a legal text would diminish flexibility for the exegete. However, there is a ‘spirit ‘ of Allah present in the Qur’an, a certain sense of the truthfulness, which attracts and earns the conviction of the believer. Indeed, it was noted that the very act of submission is itself a guide to the interpretation of the text. The submission of heart and soul and mind leads to a correct understanding of the verse. So submission has priority over reason.

The question was asked: is there a presence of Allah in the Qur’an, which could be found ‘between the lines’? In this broader sense, the spirit of God is present in the Qur’an. Indeed, Jesus is referred to as ‘spirit’ (ruah). Are there implications in this appellation for the understanding of the Qur’an? In the Old Testament, there is a strong sense of the Spirit of God pervading everything and giving life. This same sense is evident in the Qur’an but it is taken further in Christianity where the Spirit is seen as personal and divine.

Muhammad is beyond criticism and the Qur’an is inimitable because it is the final revelation. However, one person may hear the Qur’an and make their submission whereas another person may hear the Qur’an and not become a believer. What happens within them that makes their responses so different? The reply was that belief and disbelief are the work of God. Indeed all is the work of God. As the Muslims say: inshallah. Other commentators may add that the angels inspire a person to faith. In the Sufi tradition, the guide (sheikh) has a special role in leading his disciple to faith. Indeed, in the Sufi tradition, one cannot advance along the ‘path’ without a guide (sheikh).

The discussion on discipleship was far ranging and vigorous. It has, however, only just begun.

The Mela Interfaith Association (MIA) seeks to promote the bonds of friendship between members of different faith traditions in order to learn from each other’s spiritual experience and to journey together in peace and harmony.

Among its purposes is to learn from each other’s sacred texts; and link our reflections to Christian texts. In keeping with this purpose, we have embarked on a series of discussions on verses of the Qur’an. Our procedure is to discuss the text, and produce audiotapes as well as written summaries which will be available on the Mela Interfaith Association website (http://www.melainterfaith.org)

In attendance

Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission; President, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Herman Roborgh (Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Mr Tom Thomas (Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Dr Jacob Kavunkal svd (Associate Professor, MCD University of Divinity / YTU).

Apologies: Dr Stewart Sharlow (Public officer and Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Dr Merrill Kitchen.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
This entry was posted in Interreligious dialogue, Melbourne, Muslim Catholic relations, Muslim Christian relations. Bookmark the permalink.

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