Several years ago I took a class of graduate students at a Christian university to a mosque to meet Muslims. The mosque had a new man in charge of da’wah (evangelism or literally “invitation”) who proceeded to tell us what the Bible really says about Jesus. It was disappointing, and I walked away thinking how arrogant of this young man to assume that because he had read the Bible he was now an expert on what it really says, and how he could straighten out our inadequate interpretations of it.

At the time I failed to consider how Christians often act in the same way as this well-meaning Muslim. How often have I heard Christians say they have read an English translation of the Qur’an and now presume to know enough to grasp the authoritative interpretation of the Qur’an and make generalizations about what it teaches, apparently truths that many Muslims have missed over the centuries.

This young Muslim man and other such Muslims, as well as Christians, who assume they grasp the true meaning of the Qur’an, are arrogant and sabotage any effort they may make to reach out to a person of another faith.

I saw this recently in the reaction of many Americans to Carly Fiorina, one of the Republican debaters who is running for president of the United States. Immediately after the debate, a lot of people considered her an effective and well-informed voice among Republicans in a debate that was “highly spirited,” if not at times, divisive.

But no sooner had the media frenzy over the Turner-Megyn Fox interaction calmed a bit, did we see the attacks against Carly. Apparently, within two weeks after 9/11 Ms. Fiorina made certain positive remarks about Islam and Islamic culture. When this was discovered and announced by the media, the frenzy began with articles lambasting Ms. Fiorina for her uninformed opinions about Islam.

Ms. Fiorina’s detractors were angry that she had said something positive about Islam. They went on to say that what she took to be positive elements in Islamic history and culture were actually attributable to non-Muslims within the Islamic state, not to Muslims or Islam. One such article claimed that over the past 105 years only two Muslims were awarded the Nobel Prize whereas 170 Jews had won the award. Apparently this proves Islamic culture produces failures whereas Jewish culture produces winners. Nothing was said about what Christian culture produces.

We’re talking about Christian criticisms of Islam based on Christian interpretations of the Qur’an, and Muslim criticisms of Christianity, based on Muslim interpretations of the Bible. At heart is the assumption that there is one authoritative interpretation of Islam and one authoritative interpretation of Christianity, and that each can be absolutely and irrefutably grasped by a simple read of history and the religious text of each faith.

The reality is that there are diverse groups of Muslims and diverse groups of Christians. Each group tends to interpret their holy book differently than groups within the same faith. If even different groups within a faith can’t read the same holy book and agree on its interpretation, then how can an outsider to the faith, uninformed by the principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) pick up the holy text and grasp its true interpretation? Yet, this is precisely what Muslims and Christians do with respect to the other’s faith.

When we believe the Qur’an has only one meaning and this one meaning is held by true Muslims, which we can also discern, within a single entity called ‘Islam’, then we ignore the reality of the lived lives and particular beliefs of individual Muslims. That is the dynamic of prejudice.

What is the alternative? Admit that individual Muslims–or Muslim groups–hold various beliefs and engage in various practices based upon various interpretations of the Qur’an, and that you and I as Christians do not have the key to discerning its “true meaning.” Rather than pretending we know everything we let Muslims tell us what they believe and use that for engagement. This is the opposite of arrogance and much more adequate logically and philosophically.

Twelve simple ways to stop the alienation:

  1. Relate to individual people, not religions.
  2. Talk to people, be a student, and remain curious about what someone believes and how they live out their faith.
  3. Acknowledge that you are not as knowledgeable as you think. Stay humble.
  4. Ask God to reveal ways in which you operate out of prejudice—ways in which you may have no awareness.
  5. Meet a Muslim, or several Muslims, rather than listening to what the media tells you about Muslim or the generalizations they make about “Islam” or the ‘true Muslim’
  6. Dare to love people—all people—regardless of the cost.
  7. Thank God you were given faith, not because of something good about you—your intelligence or your goodness—but because of something wonderful about God.
  8. Find your worth and value in the fact that Christ died for you and loved you even when there was nothing loveable in you.
  9. Keep your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds. Keep it real and learn from that reality.
  10. Don’t become a hater. Haters are haters even when they claim to be guided by God. When you kill, torture, or hate people because they are not like you, or because they don’t believe what you think they ought to believe, you are a hater and not of God.  You grieve God and displease Him.
  11. Be clear about your salvation. You are not saved by being an American or a Saudi, a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, a Yankee or a Southerner, a Baptist or an Episcopalian, a Christian or a Muslim, a Harvard or Wheaton College grad….You are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that not of yourself. That is not just good news; it is the best news!
  12. There is still time to change and stop alienating people of other faiths. The Holy Spirit is always there waiting for you to love as you are loved.