Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Saviour: A Beautiful Name of God

Roland Clarke

The desire of every true believer is to gaze on God's beauty, adoring him for his wonderful attributes and names. Drawing near to God in this way is of supreme importance according to both the Bible and the Qur'an. We read, "And remembrance of God is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt." (surah 29:45) “The one thing I ask of the Lord – the thing I seek most – is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, delighting in the Lord's perfections and meditating in his Temple.” (Psalm 27:4) 'Zikr' is the word Muslims use for adoring and reciting the beautiful names of Allah.

Reading through the prophets, one notices two Divine attributes – Creator and Savior – which stand in contrast to idols.

As Creator, God deserves to be praised

God created everything thus proving he is the only true God. As it is written, “Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! He is to be feared above all gods. The gods of other nations are mere idols, but the Lord made the heavens!” (Psalm 96:4,5)

As Savior, God deserves to be praised

Notice, however, that the psalmist also sings God's praises saying, “Each day proclaim the good news that he saves.” (v.2) This attribute of "saving" is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible and the Qur'an. The prophets referred to God as Savior although Muslims are not familiar with this beautiful name. It is not included in their list of 99 names of Allah.

God is portrayed as deliverer or savior in many stories which are familiar to Christians and Muslims. Noah, for example, was saved at the time of the world-wide flood. Lot was saved when massive judgment fell on Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah was saved from a near-death experience in the belly of a large fish. Moses and his people were saved from a great plague and from the murderous attacks of Pharaoh.

The Bible rejects idols because they are powerless to save, whereas the true and living God is able to save. The prophet Isaiah makes this clear in 46:4-9, “I made you and I will ... carry you along and save you. To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal? Some pour out their silver and gold and hire a craftsman to make a god from it. Then they bow down and worship it. ...when someone prays to it there is no answer. It can't rescue anyone from trouble. Do not forget this! Keep it in mind! Remember this you guilty ones. Remember the things I have done in the past, for I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like me.”

Notice how Isaiah emphasizes "REMEMBERING the things in the past." It is most fitting that 'zikr' highlights God's oneness and his surpassing greatness compared to idols. Among the memorable feats God has done, we know of various rescue stories where people were saved out of deep troubles and perilous circumstances. The power to save is a distinguishing characteristic of God - something mere idols cannot do.

The epic Exodus rescue story

One story which is repeated more often in the writings of the prophets than any other is the Exodus. The Qur'anic account is very similar to the Bible, saying, “We delivered them [Moses and Aaron] and their people from the Great Calamity.” “And remember, We divided the Sea for you and saved you and drowned Pharaoh's people within your very sight.” (surah 37:115; 2:50)

Like most of us, the Israelites were forgetful, so God had to remind them repeatedly. The prophets who arose centuries after Moses time, recalled the Exodus story in order to emphasize that God alone is worthy to be worshiped, “But I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me.” (Hosea 13:4)

Israel's deliverance from Pharaoh proved to the world that the Lord was the only true God. Speaking through Moses, the Lord told Pharaoh, “By now I could have lifted my hand and struck you and your people with a plague to wipe you off the face of the earth. But I have spared you for a purpose to show you my power and to spread my fame throughout the earth. But you still lord it over my people and refuse to let them go.” (Exodus 9:15-17)

This warning came to Pharaoh after he repeatedly refused to let Moses' people go free. Seeing Pharaoh's mounting resistance, the Israelites might have been inclined to lose hope but God assured them he would overpower Pharaoh and free them. In fact, God knew that the more Pharaoh hardened his heart the more mighty and awesome the final confrontation would be. This is why he foretold that the final outcome would result in God's fame being “spread throughout the earth”.

A few days after crossing the Red Sea, we begin to see how God's fame began to spread. Moses met his father-in-law, Jethro, a priest of Midian and “told him everything the LORD had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians on behalf of Israel. He also told about all the hardships they had experienced along the way and how the LORD had rescued his people from all their troubles. Jethro was delighted when he heard about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel as he rescued them from the hand of the Egyptians. 'Praise be to the LORD,' Jethro said, 'for he has rescued you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. ... I know now that the LORD is greater than all other gods.'” (Exodus 18:8-11)

Some years later we see how Pharaoh's defeat at the Red Sea resulted in Israel's God becoming even more famous. For example, when the Israelites entered the promised land, one of the Canaanites, confided to two of their spies, “I know the LORD has given you this land. We are all afraid of you. For we have heard how the LORD made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, ... No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! ... For the LORD your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.” (Joshua 2:9-11)

Many years later when the Israelites had wandered far from God and were under discipline, the prophet Isaiah voiced some questions that were perplexing the Israelites. They knew that in the past, God had performed awesome wonders, rescuing their forefathers from Egypt. Knowing this they struggled to understand why the Lord seemed so far away. We read in Isaiah 63:11-13, “Then they remembered those days of old when Moses led his people out of Egypt. They cried out, 'Where is the one who brought Israel through the sea ... making himself famous forever?' ... You led your people and gained a magnificent reputation.”

We have noticed how the Exodus story increased God's honor, “making him famous forever”. Although this story happened three and a half thousand years ago it still lives on today. Since 1950 two prominent movies have reenacted this epic story, 'The Ten Commandments' and 'The Prince of Egypt'. These have served as a reminder of God's greatness. Both movies have been circulated worldwide – the latter one was dubbed into 17 languages.

This story glorifies God not just by vindicating himself against proud Pharaoh and his gods, it also honors God as Savior.

Does 'Savior' have a spiritual meaning?

Someone might ask, “Does this title refer only to physical deliverance or does it also have a deeper, spiritual meaning?” “Is there any spiritual meaning in the rescue stories of Noah, Lot and Jonah?”

If we look at the story of Jonah we see a clue that suggests a spiritual meaning. God mercifully spared Jonah's life when he admitted that he was to blame. Notice Jonah's prayer, “As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD, and my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple. ... Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God's mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise ... For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:6-9)

The Qur'an says Jonah's repentance 'glorified' God. (surah 37:143) It is interesting to see how this corresponds with other biblical accounts where people glorified God by confessing their sin. (Joshua 7:19)

An underlying spiritual meaning is also implicit in the Exodus rescue. We must remember that parting the Red Sea was not the critical turning point in the story. The 10th plague was the pivotal moment, causing “a loud wail throughout the land of Egypt—a wail like no one has heard before or will ever hear again.” (Exodus 11:6)

It was this crippling blow that made Pharaoh finally agree to let the slaves go free. So it is not surprising that this 10th plague, which included the Passover Lamb, was the focus of the Jewish Passover festival. As it is written, “On that night I will pass through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn son and firstborn male animal in the land of Egypt. I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt for I am the LORD! But the blood on your door posts will serve as a sign marking the houses where you are staying. When I see the blood, I will pass over you. This plague of death will not touch you when I strike the land of Egypt.. This is a day to REMEMBER. Each year from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the LORD. This is a law for all time." (Exodus 12:12-14) Note: the word 'REMEMBER' which I capitalized translates the word zikkaron derived from the root 'zakar' of which the noun form is 'zikr' [Hebrew/Arabic]

The 10th plague effectively imposed a death sentence on every family living in the whole land of Egypt. This poses an interesting question, “Why did God threaten to kill first born Israelites along with the Egyptian first borns? Why didn't the Lord simply instruct the angel of death to kill the first born Egyptians? Surely this would have been sufficient to break Pharaoh's resistance, wouldn't it? If God's intention was to free the Israelites the very next day – and we know it was - why would God want to place Moses' people under a threat?” Another way of asking this question is, “Was it really fair for God to make a threat against the Israelites?”

If you think about it, I'm sure you'll agree that the Lord was 'fair' in passing a death sentence on ALL first borns. The Israelites were by no means innocent of wrong doing. As we read in the prophets, “Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD.” (Malachi 3:7; compare Psalm 78) If the Lord had not given this all-encompassing death sentence it would have given the Israelites the wrong impression -- that they were too good to deserve punishment.

On the other hand, the fact that the Lord made provision for sparing any first born sons, was an indication of his mercy. It is interesting to notice that the idea of a lamb dying in place of a first born is not foreign to Muslims. Each year at Eid-ul Adha they make a similar sacrifice in memory of Abraham.

Let us recap what we've been saying so far. We have concluded that the One true God is superior to idol-gods because he is Creator and Savior. The rescue stories of Jonah and Moses suggest that the title 'Savior' has a spiritual meaning.

Savior of the Jews only?

It is one thing for Jewish people to call God Savior but how is this meaningful for us Gentiles? “Is the Savior of the Jews also concerned to save Gentiles?”

We begin to glimpse an answer to these questions where Isaiah wrote, “There is no other God but me, a righteous God and Savior. There is none but me. Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God there is no other. I have sworn by my own name ... Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me.” (Isaiah 45:21-23)

Not only does God summon the world to "look to him for salvation", elsewhere the Lord foretells that his salvation will reach the ends of the earth. We read in Isaiah 49:6 that the Lord's servant, the Messiah, will be “a light to the nations that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

Perhaps you want to take a closer look at how this prophecy was fulfilled. A short meditation is available explaining the miraculous birth of Jesus and how he received a special name. The Qur'an describes this special event as a “sign for all peoples”.

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