Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.

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The Doctrine of God: Tawhid versus Trinity

Allah    This topic has absolutely ignited the media in recent months. For whatever reason, this question – whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God – has been all over my Facebook feed, and just in the past few weeks has been posted by Ravi Zecharias, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and Answering Islam, among others…and not always with the same answer.

Without question, there are many similarities. Both Muslims and Christians (and Jews) trace their lineage back through Abraham (Muslims through Ishmael, Christians and Jews through Isaac), and all three maintain a largely Old Testament-based view of monotheism. If a Muslim and a Christian were to list the attributes of God, the lists would look remarkably similar – a “spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal creator God” would accurately describe both. However, similar descriptions cannot mask clear and critical differences. While my perspective may not agree with all these other bloggers, at the very least I hope to clarify the Christian concept (the Godhead or Trinity) as well as the Muslim concept (called tawhid), both of which are frequently misunderstood by Christians.

  1. The Christian Concept: The Godhead.

Most Christians likely (hopefully) have a basic understanding of the Biblical concept of God. He is manifest in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – each a separate person, but all sharing one essence (Godhood). The three are equal in status and power, but distinct in personhood. This has frequently been mischaracterized as polytheism or as an outright contradiction, though this usually does little more than expose a misunderstanding of the theology behind the belief. Some have tried to construct analogies to understand the Trinity (an egg, water, even my role as a father/husband/son/brother/etc), but all of these analogies fall short or commit a logical or theological fallacy. When it comes to really trying to understand the idea of “three in one,” I side with Martin Luther, who said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man who can comprehend the triune God.”  Though this may border on the incomprehensible, it is without a doubt Biblical. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Christian doctrine until the middle of the third century,[1] it is clearly taught through five basic points in the Bible:

  1. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5, 14, 18, 21, 22, 46:9, 47:8, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 8:5-6, Gal. 4:8-9).
  2. God the Father is God (Deut 6:4 and throughout the Old Testament, as well as John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 1:1; Eph 4:6; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ is God (John 8:12-59; Mark 2:3-7, Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13; Ps 130:4; Jer 31:34).
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 1 Cor 2:10-11; Romans 8:9-11).
  5. These three are equal, co-eternal, and distinct (Eph 3:15; John 5:18; 1 Cor 2:10).

Understood this way, it is clear that the actual word “trinity” doesn’t have to appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. There are book-length treatments of this topic (especially good is James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity), but this will have to suffice for now, and it is sufficient to point out the differences.

  1. The Muslim Concept: Tawhid.

In Islam, the doctrine of Allah is called tawhid. It is the central and defining doctrine of all Islam, and declares absolute monotheism, the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.[2] More than just a religious belief, this doctrine has been central to Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Muslims are fiercely monotheistic, insofar as anything that even approaches equating something to Allah is one of the most severe sins in Islam (known as shirk). This strict monotheism is the root of all other beliefs, and the root of all values in the Muslim worldview. All values in Muslim religion derive from devoting one’s heart to Allah, and it is through this singly and wholeheartedly devoted love that a Muslim comes to divorce him/herself from the ways and things of this world.  This level of devotion is actually something that many Christians could learn from, and all Christians should respect.

Despite the differences within Islam and the sectarianism discussed in the prior blog, on this topic Muslims are almost completely united. Tawhid has been a rallying cry of Islam for centuries, uniting the Muslims throughout their history under the banner of various leaders from Ibn Taymiyya (14th Century) to Abd Al-Wahhab (18th Century) to the present day. No matter how diverse Muslims history has been, they have always re-united around the central doctrine of the oneness of Allah, the tawhid.

  1. Key Differences

On the surface, this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theology of God, but when we turn to the center of Christian faith – Christ Himself – the differences emerge irreconcilable. Muslims deny that God had a son, and deny that Christ is divine, and would never consider Allah a “father” in the sense that Christians speak of their God. They deny both the deity of Christ and His resurrection, going so far as to consider these beliefs blasphemy (Qur’an 5:17, 5:73, 5:75). If Christians were to speak only of God the Father, the divine Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and describe His actions and His attributes, Muslims would likely agree with nearly every word. When we advance to the New Testament and the deity of Christ and the resurrection, arguably the two most central doctrines of the Christian faith, we must part ways with the tawhid of Islam and embrace the Trinity of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If we are willing to deny the deity of Christ and the resurrection, then yes — but we cannot. To claim Christianity is to affirm doctrines expressly denied by Islam, and therefore we cannot worship the same God. So how do we engage Muslims in conversation, and what common ground can we find for friendship and evangelism? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next blog.

[1] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2003.

Islam: Three Key Points for Christians

Islam1Happy 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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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!

Thoughts on Islam and the Middle East

Turkey   I recently returned from two weeks in Muslim countries in the Middle East, part of my Master’s Degree in National Security Studies, where I’m focusing on the Middle East. I spent about a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt, learning about their culture, religion, economy, politics, and many other aspects of the region. These two weeks — combined with the last eight years of study on Islam — have really opened my eyes to this religion, and I’ve since received many questions about the trip and about Islam. I’ll spend the next several blogs sharing my thoughts and observations about the trip, and answering some of your questions. Is Islam inherently violent?  Are Muslims on a mission to kill all unbelievers?  What is jihad?  Is the Islamic State (IS) acting in accordance with what the Qur’an teaches?  Who decides what “true Islam” is?  This is timely, as I know many are concerned about the recent actions of IS and other militant groups. I’ll do my best to address those concerns, but first a few thoughts on the trip…and maybe a few cool photos as well!  Yep, that’s me…on a camel…at the pyramids…
Pyramids
 1.  I never felt unsafe. I traveled extensively, both on foot and in vehicles, through Ankara, Istanbul, Luxor, and Cairo, and felt no less safe than I would doing the same thing in San Antonio, Charleston, or Montgomery. We were smart about it — normally traveling in groups, and never alone — and when on official business, we had a private security detail. However, this was largely precautionary, and in retrospect I’m not sure it was even necessary. In Istanbul, a friend and I walked several miles from the Hagia Sophia back to our hotel — through the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet spice market, along the Bosporous, into the underground and up the hill, through the pedestrian district and back to the hotel. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, and we never felt threatened. Several other members of our group went for runs along the Nile, and all was well. Years ago I made a poor hotel choice in Shreveport, Louisiana…and two years ago I got lost on the South side of Capitol Hill in DC…and I felt far more threatened in those two days than I ever did in thirteen days in the Middle East. This is not to say that everywhere is safe — I certainly wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Sinai, or on the Eastern Turkish border with Iran or Syria — but the fact remains that never felt unsafe during my two weeks there. That comes from an American Christian in the military, placing me in three demographic groups that are all relatively unpopular in the region at the moment.
2.   The people are simply beautiful. The country, the city, the people, all of it was beautiful. In the a Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I met an artist named Nick who creates the most incredible artwork, where his only canvas is a plant leaf. Using a cat hair brush sometime Mike and Nick, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbulonly a few hairs thick, Nick scribes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish verses surrounded by the most beautiful artwork you can imagine (watch one of the videos at the link — it’s truly breathtaking). After spending more than an hour listening to him passionately describe his art and how he does it, I asked how he learned to do it or where he saw it done. He simply replied “No one taught me.  I know of no one else who does this. My talent is only from God.”  This generated further discussion, where we shared our faith with each other and I learned that he was an Armenian Christian who fled persecution and had been living in Istanbul since 1968. Simply amazing.
Coptic Prelate, Cairo   In Cairo, we met with the Coptic Prelate (the bishop over all Coptic Christians in Cairo). This amazing, articulate, intelligent man patiently answered our questions, then tearfully asked for our prayers for the families of the 21 Coptic Christians who had recently been murdered in Egypt. As we left, the Bishop said a blessing over me, gave me a replica of the icon of Mary and Jesus that hangs in his church, and even let me choose a small piece of chocolate from the dish on his desk.  He knew the way to reach my heart, no doubt!
3.  Islam is quite misunderstood in the West.  I’ll address this point in much greater detail in future posts.  I was one who thought, after 8 years of study, that I was developing a respectable understanding of Islam — until I spend two weeks in their cities, their culture, talking with members of their religion, visiting the mosques, and hearing their language.  I have much to learn — we all do.  I spent an afternoon at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was the Sultan’s palace for about 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  Beyond its undeniable beauty, I saw an order from the Sultan to have the palace walls torn down and rebuilt so that the local Christian church — the Church of St. Irene — would fall under the protection of the Sultan.  I listened to a former Turkish Ambassador to the UN (a Muslim) speak passionately and tearfully about the 21 Christians who were killed in Egypt a few weeks before our trip.  He was followed by a retired Egyptian 2-star General, now running for public office (also a Muslim) who wants to work toward a community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live in harmony.  As I mentioned previously, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic in future posts, but for now it’s important to understand that any impression that all Muslims want to kill all unbelievers, or that Christians can’t go to Muslim countries without getting beheaded, or other crazy ideas — these are all gross misunderstandings.
In all, it was a wonderful and educational trip.  I’ll share more thoughts, and answer your questions on Islam, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!