Happy New Year! In my last blog, I promised several follow-on blogs with regard to Islam, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long. Among other things, 2016 marks my 20th year as a Christian and my 11th year studying Islam. That experience has made me the frequent target of many questions, and uncomfortably frequent hostility (and not from Muslims). As Muslim presence in America grows, and as events like those in Paris and San Bernadino dominate the headlines, it is more important than ever for Christians to understand Islam and work to reach this critical mission field. In this series of blogs, I hope to bring readers to a better understanding of Islam, equipping them to engage in well-reasoned and informed conversation with both Muslims and fellow Christians. To start, let’s look at three key points that may drive subsequent discussions:
- Islam is not monolithic. Broad generalizations, especially hasty or inaccurate ones, are unhelpful (even harmful) in understanding Islam. My Facebook feed is filled with memes and posts from friends around the world, many of them making this error. “Islam is not a religion of peace.” “Islam is evil.” “Islam is ________ .” Fill in the blank however you like, I can assure you the sentence will be a gross mischaracterization, perhaps an outright falsehood. Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic, and much like Christianity, Islam is plagued by sectarian strife and disagreement. Most Christians are familiar with at least the Shi’a and the Sunni, the two largest sects within Islam. The Shi’a and Sunni have been in conflict since the 7th century, and today their differences encompass a wide range of both political and religious beliefs. The Sunni comprise more than 85% of all Muslims, and are separated into four Islamic “schools of thought” or jurisprudence (the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i). The Shi’a, a small minority within Islam, share many of the same practices and beliefs as the Sunni, but also differ in key areas of authority, practice, succession, and worship. Beyond these two primary sects, Islam also encompasses the Sufi, Wahhabi, Druze, Alawi, Abadi, Ahmadi, and a number of other “denominations.”
There are peaceful Muslims, and there are violent Christians. There are large subsets of Islam that are horribly violent, and there are large subsets of Islam that practice almost total pacifism. When discussing Islam, or when talking to Muslims, Christians should never make the mistake of thinking all Muslims believe the same things, act the same way, or feel the same way about those who disagree.
- Every Muslim is a precious child of God in dire need of salvation. Yes, this includes every member of ISIS, and every ruthless killer who has beheaded, burned, crushed, and tortured Christians (and many fellow Muslims). I am frequently shocked by the responses I receive from other Christians when confronted with this challenging topic – unbelievably, these response have ranged from “a good Muslim is a dead Muslim” to “kill them all.” No doubt these responses are highly emotional and reactionary, but I can’t help but think that they also couldn’t be more unbiblical. 1 Timothy 2 tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” – all men, including Muslims, lost souls that God wants. In Acts 19, Paul pleads with the idolaters worshiping false gods in Lystra, saying “…turn from these [false gods] to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.” Paul is beaten and stoned, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. In verse 20, we read that Paul got up and went back into the city, then continued to preach. Think about that for a minute. Beaten, stoned, and left for dead, he thinks, “But there are still unsaved people in the city…” Similarly, we all know well that Jesus prayed for the savage guards who flogged Him and crucified Him. And our response to Muslims, engaged in comparative acts in today’s age, is “kill them all”? No, as Christians one of the most important things we can realize, which should guide every thought and action with regard to Muslims, is that each and every one – from Hilmi, the rug dealer I befriended in Istanbul to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS – is a precious child of God, in desperate need of the saving grace of Christ and our help to guide them to it. The Gospel Coalition recently wrote a blog about this approach, encouraging us to treat Muslims with dignity and respect, to find common ground with them, and to look for opportunities to show love and compassion to them. I couldn’t agree more.
- Understanding is key. Many Christians I encounter would rather hate Muslims than understand them. Others prefer parroting (repeating what they’ve heard someone else say) or emoting (saying what they feel rather than what they think), instead of doing the difficult work of understanding how Muslims think and what they believe. I’ve spent more than a decade trying to understand Islam, and I’m just scratching the surface – so please don’t think you can read a blog, see a meme on Facebook, or watch a special on Discovery, and understand Islam.
Three areas are really essential to a thorough understanding of Islam – history, culture, and (by combining those two) context. Muslim theology has adapted to cultural change from the start, and even adapted as Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century. If you don’t know why Mohammed moved the early Muslims to Medina, or the history of the rise of the Ottoman empire, it will be very difficult to accurately understand Islam. Similarly, Islam for Muslims is more than just a religion – like the early Jews under the theocracy, Islam defines not just their religious beliefs but also their legal, political, and economic systems. If you only look at Islam as a religious worldview, you’ll miss an enormous and critical part of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam simply cannot be understood in isolation from its historical and cultural context.
In future blogs, we’ll look at how to engage Muslims in conversation, some key differences between the Muslim and Christian concepts of God, and perhaps even tackle some of the bigger issues like violence and jihad. Let me know what you’d like to hear about, any and all questions welcome!
Hey Mike, thanks for finally posting another blog. I enjoy the read. Man, a lot sure has been done in the name of Islam since your last post almost a year ago. I’m grateful that most of the Muslims are peaceful.
I of course have a few questions and one request. Feel free to answer some, none or all in due time.
1. Do you believe the God of Islam, Christianity and Judiaism is the same God and that we just worship Him differently?
2. We know what the cross means to Christianity. What does the crescent moon mean in Islam?
3. If Mohammed “peace be upon him” were alive today. From your understanding and reading of history, Koran and Hadiths would he be more in line with your friend at the carpet bazaar or ISIS or perhaps in between. I know you can’t possibly know for sure but I wonder as a student of Islam what you think? I think if he were here, it would be the most accurate form of Islam.
4. Do you believe there is any threat to Christians, or our homes and countries around the world by a Muslim world view or theology. Perhaps caliphate, sharia law, eschatology to name a few. Any threats to worry about.
Please don’t take these as rhetorical, Its hard to express sincerity on a computer. and don’t answer my question with a question. That’s what I would do.
In Islam as you know they practice apologetics from early on. Called Dawah. Something Christianity should learn from. They are taught to refute Christ’s deity, crucifixion, ressurection, Trinity, and many more using our own Bible. Can you outline some of their common refutations to Christianity and how we might defend against them?
Hey brother Aaron! Great to hear from you…and wow, that’s a lot of questions. I’ll do my best, and I promise not to answer with a question!
1. “Do you believe the God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is the same God and that we just worship Him differently? Wow, this has certainly been a hot topic in the media lately. I’ve lost count of the blogs and articles I’ve read about “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Well, from my perspective the answer is a quick and easy NO. They simply do not. The God of Christianity, properly defined, is a Godhead — a Trinity — who was made manifest in the flesh, died a propitiatory and sacrificial death to pay the penalty for our sins, and was raised three days later declaring victory over death. The Qur’an, and all orthodox Muslims, would almost certainly reject all of those premises (the Godhead, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and the resurrection). Therefore, this is not just a matter of worshipping the same God differently, our definitions of God are irreconcilably different.
2. “We know what the cross means to Christianity. What does the crescent moon mean to Islam?” This is a great question, and actually one that is debated within Islam. The easiest answer is that the crescent moon was the symbol of the Ottoman Empire, not of Islam — but as the Ottoman empire expanded and became equated with the expansion of Islam, many nations (on their flags, for example) adopted the symbol of the Ottoman empire (the crescent moon). Many Muslims believe that having a symbol to represent Islam would be a violation of certain statements in the Qur’an prohibiting using symbols to represent God (Allah). In most mosques I’ve been to, including some of the largest ones in the world in Cairo and Istanbul, you’ll never see the crescent moon and star — what you see, over and over again, is the Arabic word for Allah. My short answer is that the crescent moon and star is a historical symbol, NOT a religious one, and I think Muslims would agree.
3. “If Mohammed (pbuh) were alive today…would he be more in line with my friend Hilmi or ISIS or perhaps in between?” Man, another great question! I think he would be in between. As you study the Qur’an, which was revealed directly to Mohammed, you find a lot of both peaceful and violent commands, but relatively little insight into Mohammed (pbuh) himself. This insight is probably best gained from the sunna (the teachings, deeds, and sayings of Mohammed), especially the hadith (sayings). Studying the hadith, I think we would find that Mohammed would readily and flatly reject the actions of ISIS, which are in direct violation of not only numerous hadith but also the Qur’an itself. I think he would be shocked at the actions of ISIS, especially with regard to their treatment of fellow Muslims. I think he may also be disappointed in those Muslims who are making no effort to spread the faith, much as I feel about many Christians who are content to simply live a private faith and feel no compulsion to spread the Gospel or defend their faith. Good question!
4. “Do you believe there is any threat to Christians, our homes, and countries by a Muslim worldview or theology?” Absolutely yes, and without question — but with a caveat. Many who claim Islam act in a manner completely inconsistent with what many believe the Qur’an teaches, and it is those “Muslims” who present the greatest threat. As you know, I’ve traveled to and studied in numerous Muslim countries, and have many Muslim friends, and I find that the vast, vast majority are just like you and me — they want to live their lives, worship Allah, do well at their jobs, feed the families, and raise their children. Really no different from you and me. There are a select few (between 5 – 15 percent, depending on what study you read) that are, without a doubt, a very real and severe threat to Christians and perhaps even to other non-Muslim nations.
I’ll have to address your request (apologetics to Islam) in another comment…that’s all for tonight. Hope this helps!
Thank you for sharing this. I really appreciate your informed insight on this complicated subject and look forward to future blogs.