In the last few weeks we've had three bulletins centered on Islam: Take the Quiz, Islam Basics: 5-4-3-2-1, and Jihad. Hopefully by now you're feeling more familiar with the subject, so let's turn our attention to connecting with Muslims.
Growing up in Florida and New Jersey, I was brought up around Christians and Jews. I never met a Muslim until I was 23, as a student in Europe. When I led Bible discussions at the University of London, it was often the Muslims who turned out in droves. They were proud of their religion, critical of the West, and passionate. As it dawned on me that this was an important religion, my interest grew. At 24, I spent a month in Muslim-majority Malaysia, visiting my first Mosque.
Fast-forward 20 years, to terrorism in the news, the West alarmed by 9/11, and clerics issuing fatwas (in effect, death decrees) against those who "insult" Islam. Not surprisingly, when I first started producing materials on Islam, I was leery. I didn't feel comfortable using my real name. My nom de plume would be Kalb ibn Yaqub, literally Dog son of Jacob. (In America, Douglas is often shortened to Doug; I only shortened it one letter more. Ibn Yaqub means son of Jacob, the root name of Jacoby. Dog son of Jacob -- a humble, self-deprecating sort of name, to throw the crazies off track.)
The Islamic world hasn't batted an eye. Probably I'm not important enough to merit censure. Or perhaps it's because I've striven to show respect, and spent a lot of time in the Qur'an, that they have welcomed me. As for the countries where I could get into real trouble -- well, since my views on Muhammad are public, those places may not grant me a visa anyway. At any rate, the pseudonym proved superfluous. (Besides, what self-respecting Arab would name his child "dog"?)
I've been able to write a book on Islam, debate an imam, engage Muslim intellectuals on university programs, and speak in 20 nations with large Muslim populations. I teach about Islam at Lincoln Christian University, and network with brothers and sisters evangelizing in the Muslim quarter of the world, hoping somehow to be a resource for them. Now and again I bring a Muslim to church. Though of course I'm cautious, overall I'm relaxed in my witness to Muslims. My head is still on my shoulders. (Not to make light of those who have lost theirs: see previous bulletin.)
All this to say: Now that you're aware, don't be afraid to connect! Most of us are more likely to be ignored than persecuted. Many Muslims react positively when they learn the truth about Jesus Christ. We who understand the gospel have an obligation (1 Corinthians 9:19; Romans 1:14).
So what should our strategy be? Is it enough only to be informed? Of course not. All I can do is make a few suggestions; they will have to be general. Every person is different, every situation requires its own approach.
Avoid sensationalism, spend time with a Muslim
There's a lot of chatter about terrorism, and such talk will nearly always be more interesting than the mundane side of Islam. Most Muslims are peace-loving. Let it not be said of us that Islamophobia became the new antisemitism. Hatred, bitterness, objectifying others -- these are not Christian virtues. When we fail to see others as fellow humans, it's easy to misrepresent, blame, and ultimately to avoid them. We may end up with an Israel/Palestine, neither side talking with the other, let alone sharing their faith.
A personal relationship with someone of another faith goes a long way in breaking down barriers. For a heart-moving talk on this very subject, please listen to my Palestinian friend share about how he (as a Muslim) came to see Jews and Christians through fresh eyes. The lesson is The Wolf Will Lie Down with the Lamb.
Search for common ground
Of course we ought not to be naive about the substantial differences between Islam and Christianity. Shirk, the association of any other being with Allah, is the unforgivable sin. On such an understanding, Jesus cannot be the Son of God. Grace in Islam seems to be merited rather than freely received. And yet there is much common ground between the two faiths. Consider the unity of God, the day of judgment, or even the need for submission. (All Christians believe in obedience, Islam in this sense.) Emphasizing only our differences will lead to a stand-off; stressing only our similarities is naive and only conceals significant differences that deserve discussion. Strive for balance.
Talk about Allah
Muslims and Christians agree that God is one. He is powerful, majestic, omniscient, and just. He deserves and demands our obedience. In the 600s, Muhammad challenged a largely polytheistic Arabia to renounce idolatry and embrace the true God. (Had Jews and Christians in the peninsula grown lukewarm in their outreach?) Yet he is more monarch than father, more commander than friend. Christians frequently underemphasize his authority, so the Muslims have a point -- yet at the cost of a personal relationship with the Lord. He is simply too lofty, distant, aloof. Allah would never live in our hearts.
Among his "99 names" are Avenger, Afflicter, Lord of Retribution, Bringer of death, Humiliator, and Subduer. Most of these have biblical counterparts. Allah is also Compeller -- which doesn't harmonize well with the oft-quoted verse claiming there's no compulsion in religion (2:256). And yet Christians believe that at the last day it will be too late to choose; God will "compel" us. (Maybe it's more accurate to say that judgment is the result of our own choices.) The Qur'an says "Allah is the best of deceivers" (3:54). That doesn't sound good, yet then again there's 2 Thessalonians 2:11, where God sends a powerful delusion to those who refuse to accept the truth. But who ultimately chooses? The Islamic doctrine of fate dictates a strong determinism. Most Christians are (rightly) uncomfortable with a deity who predestines every decision.
I find that the Qur'an, rather than wholly lacking a biblical conception of God, is many times nearly biblical. Yet it stresses the more frightening aspects of God, while omitting most of his comforting and personal ones. The imams might disagree with me, and I admit my perception is subjective. I want to be fair, not to paint Allah in darker colors than is warranted. And yet frequently he doesn't feel like the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6).
While Christians don't conceive of God as a sexual being (masculine or feminine in the human sense), we do experience him as Father. When we say Jesus is Son of God, we don't mean that God had a wife, or that the Son of God came into existence when Mary conceived. Among the ancient Arabian tribes, the gods and goddesses had offspring. I am guessing that popular Christianity, with its recently embraced devotion to Mary as Mother of God and obsession with prayers to the saints, felt to Muhammad more polytheistic than monotheistic. Historical considerations aside (in case this is becoming tedious to you the reader), Father is definitely not one of Allah's 99 names. Think about that.
Talk about Jesus
Not only should we talk about God; we should also focus on Jesus, the "seal of the prophets." The Muslims honor Jesus in their own way. Jesus is viewed as miracle-working, sinless, born of a virgin, the Messiah, the one to come again at the last day. He is mentioned more often than Muhammad. He is the Spirit of God and even the Word of God (4:171). Ponder this last point: God, Word of God, Spirit of God -- there's a Trinity!
And yet Islam misses the central truth about Christ: he is God in the flesh. Further, the Cross has caused offense and thus been dismissed (1 Corinthians 1:18-23). What prophet ends up executed? Weakness is a sign of value, unworthy of Muhammad, unthinkable of Allah. Surely Allah protects his messengers from harm. So the Muslims reason. Yet Christians know a God who stoops down to make us great. He took on human flesh (Philippians 2). This sort of weakness is actually strength (2 Corinthians 12:9, 13:4)! God is greater than Allah.
Mainstream Muslims reject Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, which is the very heart of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1ff). Yet the Qur'an states that Christians should follow the gospel (Injil, 5:46-47).
Be respectful, appreciate the stakes
Christ-followers are called not only to proclaim the faith, defending it with their intellect and, if need be, their lives (Revelation 12:11). We are also to do so with respect (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:23-26). Part of respect is appreciating the dishonor that attaches to becoming a Christian -- especially to the act of baptism -- for most Muslims. It's the ostracism of the blind man (John 9) on steroids. Most Muslims are part of closely knit families and communities. Conversion often means disinheritance. It certainly means loss of friends. In many places it means automatic incarceration, if not execution.
The psychological block to conversion is enormous, dwarfing the minor challenges we in the West may face when we take a stand for Christ. A man who articulates this principle with crystal clarity is Nabeel Qureshi. (Check it out.) Another is Steven Masood, whose story will inspire you that the Lord is at work among true seekers in the Islamic world (see the reading list below). The stakes are high indeed.
Historical perspective is also helpful, and explains the shame and humiliation that drive radical behavior. For a period of centuries, the caliphate enjoyed not only political power, but also some degree of cultural superiority. The Europeans, by comparison, were backward people. Once the caliphate was strong, it was even said, "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs." Yet the caliphate slowly disintegrated. Soon after W.W.I it dissolved completely. As we know, some Islamists today seek to reestablish it: not so much to create the caliphate as to recreate it, to regain what was lost.
Islam was born 600 years after Christianity. 600 hundred years ago, what were the religious freedoms and democratic rights of the common man in Europe? Not all that great. True, there is an embarrassingly level of backwardness in the area of politics, human rights, and even infrastructure in the contemporary Muslim world. Yet when we consider the religious intolerance and patriarchy of Europe in the early 1400s -- comparing apples to apples -- there's nothing to be proud of! "Democratic" traditions aren't easy to build. The Muslims had a late start; perhaps we shouldn't be condescending.
Be faithful, reach out
Have you ever reached out to a Muslim? It's not that hard to do, especially if you live in Europe or the Americas. Have you ever baptized a Muslim? That's more difficult. (I have, though I want to do more.) Yet today multitudes of Muslims are coming to Christ. This even includes some imams! I met a newly baptized sister in the Middle East a few months ago -- what a joy! I know Muslim background brothers who are laboring to make a difference in the world, like my friend George, founder of SALT Impact. I have friends dedicated to the dangerous work of reaching Muslims in the territory contested by Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Perhaps if we would see the Muslims as Jesus sees them, we'd have more of an impact. Instead of hiding from Muslims, skulking around afraid to share our faith, we could be known as God's sincere, giving, and joyous people. We would invite Muslims to dinner, stand up for them when they are misrepresented, and even appreciate the truths their religion proclaims. Instead of being labeled "infidels" and "hypocrites," as is too often the case, we would be perceived as knowledgable about our scriptures and theirs, eager to build bridges, and respectful (though never compromising).
Jesus sought out those at the margins, those who were misunderstood, those from whom others kept their distance. Doesn't the promise of John 12:32 apply to Muslims? When they see Jesus lifted up, will not they too be drawn to him?
Don't stop now
At this point, we know plenty of facts. Let's continue to learn about Islam. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Don't get complacent. Keep up. Last week I promised a fuller list of helpful materials for those who want to go further. Here it is. (Sorry if I left out your favorite book!)
Christ, Muhammad and I, by Mohammed Al Ghazoli
An Introduction to Islam for Jews, by Reuven Firestone
Answering Islam, by Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb
Jesus & Islam, by Douglas Jacoby and Aziz Sarah
Paul Meets Muhammad, by Michael Licona
Into the Light, by Steven Masood
Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?, by Gerald R. McDermott
Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think, by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed
Alone With a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War, by Aaron D. Taylor
Allah: A Christian Response, by Miroslav Volf
Son of Hamas, by Mosab Hassan Yousef
Jesus Among Other Gods, by Ravi Zacharias
Audio, Articles, and more
It's time to connect. Don't wait till you're some kind of an expert, or your company transfers you to Dubai. Act now. Reach out.
Hopefully our approach to the world's second largest religion can serve as model for how to approach other faiths: know the basic facts, be respectful, reach out, and so forth. We're assembling a tool-kit of outreach strategies.
Next week, leaving Islam behind, we'll move on to lightly touch on a few more world religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism.
The week after that will be devoted to biblical Judaism, which was so radically different to all contemporary faiths, and laid the essential foundation for Christianity.
In the seventh and final installment, we'll summarize the most vital lessons. You will learn what to say if you have only a short time to share your faith with someone from another faith.