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What is the human problem


What is the human problem?

by Mark Durie


Earlier this year, Mark Durie, an Australian Anglican minister, scholar and author, published an important book on Islam titled The Third Choice: Islam Dhimmitude and Freedom (Deror Books, 2010). In The Third Choice, Durie “unfolds step-by-step the basic foundations of Islam and exposes their inner correlations with jihad and dhimmitude, two theological and legal Islamic institutions that shape traditional Muslim behaviour toward non-Muslims” (Bat Ye’or). In this extract from The Third Choice, Durie compares the Islamic and the Christian understandings of mankind’s fundamental problem.

Before we describe the foundational beliefs of Islam, it is necessary to consider what Islam regards to be the greatest problem facing humanity.

Secular humanists might say that the greatest human problem is the perpetuation of limiting social and economic conditions, which reduce individual persons’ capacity to realize their full potential.

A Marxist might say the human problem is the perpetuation of class distinctions and unequal control of the means of production.

If you were to ask almost any Christian congregation in the world what is the primary human problem, their answer would be ‘sin’.

So what is the human problem according to Islam?

The human problem according to Islam

According to Islam, the human problem is ignorance (jahiliyyah).

Imagine being brought as a slave into your master’s house, but you do not know what you are supposed to do to please your master. You may sense that you have a job to do and the house even appears to have rules for those who live in it. Yet no one has given you a job description, or explained how the house is supposed to be run. So you wander around the corridors, getting in the way, and making all sorts of trouble, constantly at risk of incurring the master’s displeasure, because you do not know what your job is or how you should do it.

The solution to your problem is guidance (huda), one of the central concepts of Islam. The master of the house, as an act of kindness, has pity on you, and gives you a book of guidance. Furthermore, because your master is merciful, he also points out someone to you as an example to follow in his service. These two invaluable aids for Allah’s slaves are the book (the Quran) and the example (Muhammad).

According to Islam, Muhammad was not the first prophet. All down the ages Allah had provided messengers, or prophets, beginning from Adam. These repeatedly gave humanity guidance from Allah about how to live according to his laws. In this Allah has been merciful since the beginning of creation. Although the guidance of earlier prophets was diluted or lost, in the fullness of time Muhammad was sent as the final and eternally secure guidance for all humanity.

What then does Islam conceive to be the result of right guidance? What happens for those who submit to it?

For those who submit to Allah and accept his guidance, the intended result is success (falah) in this life and the next. The call of Islam is a call to success.

This call to success is proclaimed in the adhan, or call to worship (salat), which sounds forth to Muslims five times a day:

Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!

Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!

I witness that there is no god but Allah.

I witness that there is no god but Allah.

I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.

I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.

Come to worship. Come to worship.

Come to success. Come to success.

Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!

Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!

There is no god but Allah.

The Quran emphasizes the importance of success a great deal. It teaches that those who submit to Allah will find success in this life and the next. The Quran divides humanity into winners and the rest. Those who do not accept Allah’s guidance are repeatedly called ‘the losers’ (al-khasirin):

Whoso desires another religion than Islam,

it shall not be accepted of him;

in the next world he shall be among the losers. (Q3:85)

If thou associatest other gods with Allah,

Thy work shall surely fail and thou wilt be among the losers. (Q39:65)

In summary, Islam sees ignorance as the problem, guidance as its solution, and success as the result of guidance. If you keep in mind the following key, you will understand the heart of Islam.

Islam: ignorance--guidance--success

The human problem according to the Bible

In the Bible there is mention of ignorance, of guidance, and of success, but these are not the central themes that they are in the Quran, because the Bible’s message is based on a completely different understanding of the human predicament. Indeed the Islamic emphasis on success can seem surprising to people whose religious worldview has been shaped by the life of Christ. The climax of the story of the whole Bible, for Christians, is the apparent ‘failure’ – what Paul calls the ‘folly’1 – of the crucifixion of Christ, and God’s faithfulness to his constantly failing people.

The human problem, according to the Bible, is not ignorance, but sin, which is the opposite of holiness and righteousness. Sin is a breach of relationship through disobedience. It is wrongdoing and rebellion which separates human beings from God, making it impossible for them to be in his holy presence or enjoy right relationship with him. From the point of view of the Bible, while ignorance can contribute to the problem of sin, it is not the root cause of it.

Adam and Eve, when they sinned in the Garden of Eden, did not fall because of ignorance – quite the contrary: the instruction not to eat the fruit had been made abundantly clear to them. Likewise, the people of Israel did not fall under God’s judgment before their exile because of ignorance – they already had the laws of Moses – but because they rebelled against God in full knowledge of the guidance he had given them. Indeed before the people enter the promised land, Moses testifies against them that, although informed by God’s laws, they will surely fall into sin.2 

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans of the paradox that the more ‘guidance’ people receive through the law, the more their sins bring them under judgment.3 Everyone, he writes, comes under this judgment, even those without the benefit of a revealed divine law code, because God’s nature has been revealed even in creation, so that all people are ‘without excuse’.4 

What then saves us from the problem of sin? The solution, according to the Christian reading of the Bible, is God’s forgiveness, promised in the covenant and secured by the sacrifices of temple worship in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Christian belief, forgiveness is ultimately provided through the sacrificial offering by Christ of his own life on the cross. This brings rescue from the curse of sin, and victory over the power of evil. The traditional term for this rescue is salvation (Hebrew yeshu‘ah, Greek soteria).

Whereas in Islam guidance is meant to bring success – in this life and the next – the result of forgiveness in the Bible is salvation – in this life and the next. The Biblical emphasis is not on any superiority of the person – as the word success could imply – but on the gracious action of God in effecting the rescue.

Whereas Islam sees the world as divided into winners (the rightly guided) and losers (the ignorant) in Christianity the world is divided into the lost (the unsaved) and the found (the saved):

Christianity: sin--forgiveness--salvation

A rescued person is not the same as a successful person. A rescued person is humbled by their experience, but a successful person will tend to feel superior and proud of their success. From the perspective of Islam, the losers are the humiliated ones, but from the perspective of Christianity, the saved are the humbled ones.

These deep differences in under-standings about the human problem and its solution mean that Islam and Christianity produce quite different values. For example, in Islamic cultures, which have been shaped by a success-oriented theology, there is a greater emphasis on honour and shame, and this has a considerable influence on how the Islamic Sharia treats non-Muslims, as we shall see.

Success or salvation

It is commonplace for those who make comparisons between faiths to mix up concepts from different religions. A Christian might ask about the Islamic view of salvation, or a Muslim might ask how Christians understand success. Yet such questions cause confusion, because the fundamental outlook in the two faiths is so different. Yes, Islam has an understanding of salvation, just as the Bible has an understanding of success. But the basic outlook in Islam is not oriented to salvation, nor is Biblical faith based upon success.

This contrast has been made clear by the Muslim writer al-Faruqi:

Islam holds man to be not in need of any salvation. Instead of assuming him to be religiously and ethically fallen, Islamic da‘wah [proclamation] acclaims him as the khalifah [representative] of Allah, perfect in form, and endowed with all that is necessary to fulfil the divine will indeed, even loaded with the grace of revelation! ‘Salvation’ is hence not in the vocabulary of Islam. Falah [success], or the positive achievement in space and time of the divine will, is the Islamic counterpart of Christian ‘deliverance’ and ‘redemption’.5 

Success in Islam is not simply a spiritual concept. Muslims down the ages have regarded Islam’s military victories as proof and vindication of Muhammad’s prophetic office, as ‘Ali Tabari stated in his semi-official defense of Islam in the 9thcentury:

… his [Muhammad’s] victory over the nations is also by necessity and by undeniable arguments a manifest sign of prophetic office.6 

As we shall see, one of the manifestations of this ideology of success is the system of the dhimma.


 1. 1 Corinthians 1:18ff.
 2. Deuteronomy 31:15-21.
 3. Romans 7:10.
 4. Romans 1:18-20.
 5. Isma‘il R. al-Faruqi, ‘On the nature of Islamic Da‘wah’, p.41.
6. A. Mingana, trans. 1922. The Book of Religion and Empire, p.14. See also Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia, pp.14, 90.



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