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Gospel Centered Relationships with Muslims
There are many similarities as well as significant differences between Christianity and Islam. Throughout history, the relationship between Christians and Muslims has ebbed and flowed between peaceful coexistence, avoidance, and violence. Even during times of peace, mutual misunderstandings often pervade, leading to a tenuous relationship at best. Initial feelings of mutuality often disintegrate into an us versus them framework where each group’s identity is solidified as the “other,” or worse, a common enemy to unite against. Considering that a little more than half of the world’s population self-ascribes as Christian or Muslim, it seems imperative to consider a different approach—one defined by the fruits of the Spirit rather than the ever-tempting clash of civilizations paradigm where the differences between Christians and Muslims set them on a predetermined course for constant conflict. This does not mean we must agree to disagree and keep our distance from one another. Nor does it mean focusing solely on similarities or pretending we believe the same things. Simply seeking the lowest common denominator is also short-sighted. As we develop deeper relationships with Muslims, differences will indeed arise. When they do, we should strive to have these conversations with humility and love rather than arrogance. Whether or not Muslims decide to take such an approach does not absolve Christians from doing so. We must heed the call to fearlessly proclaim the Kingdom of God with both wisdom and gentleness. Below are a few principles to help Christians develop meaningful relationships with Muslims and hopefully avoid being unnecessarily offensive. Most importantly, these principles will help ensure that the gospel remains central in our relationship with Muslims so they can encounter our risen Lord.
There is no need to make Islam look bad in order for Christianity to look good. When Christians and Muslims talk about their faith with each other, comparisons are inevitable, but that does not mean it should be a strategy. We will hear each other’s beliefs and naturally consider points of similarity and difference with our own beliefs. This is to be expected. Understanding something new often comes through comparing it with what we already know. We might be tempted to accelerate this process by making comparisons for Muslims, but this is an unhelpful approach. This style of evangelism is popular with media ministries, and there is more than enough content online, making such an approach unnecessary. When we talk with Muslims, we want to ensure our focus is on sharing what we believe rather than disproving Islam. We do not want our love for Jesus overshadowed by our opinions about Islam.
There is no need to make Muhammad look bad for Jesus to look good. When Christians discuss Jesus with Muslims, a temptation may arise to begin making comparisons between Jesus and Muhammad. This can quickly escalate into what is reminiscent of two schoolchildren arguing about whose dad would win in a fight. The Christian’s goal in such an approach is to try and show Christ’s superiority over Muslims’ beloved prophet. However, showing Christ’s supremacy over all created things can be done without diminishing that which Muslims adore. Comparing “the Son who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Heb. 1:3) with any created thing is not a worthwhile endeavor. It may even diminish Christ in the mind of the hearer because of the negative views of Muhammad articulated in the process. Imagine someone trying to tell you how lovely their spouse is by insulting your beloved. Not only would you find the person offensive, but you might also conclude that their spouse is not as great as they imagine. You might even be tempted to denigrate the other person’s spouse in order to prove your spouse’s superiority. Sharing about spouses in this way does the opposite of what is intended. I sense the same thing is happening when Jesus and Muhammad are compared. Maybe the well-known parental advice is appropriate here, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” Or, better yet, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Muslims will go to great lengths to defend the reputation of Muhammad. Some have even acted out in violence against those who insulted their prophet. Christians do not need to express an opinion about Muhammad to share Christ with Muslims. If you have negative opinions about Muhammad, it may be best to keep them to yourself lest they become the stumbling block for Muslims encountering Christ.
Not comparing Jesus with Muhammad does not mean avoiding the topic of Jesus. There is no need to hedge on our Christian faith to love Muslims well. On the contrary, we should talk to our Muslim friends about Christ early and often. Keep in mind that Jesus holds a prominent position in Islam as a prophet. Of course, Christian ideas about his death, resurrection, and divinity will be an obstacle and may even be offensive to Muslims. This is understandable since Paul tells us that Christ crucified can be both a stumbling block and foolishness to those who do not believe (1 Cor. 1:23). I can understand why Muslims refuse to believe that God would allow Jesus to die in a seemingly unjust way.
I can also understand why Muslims struggle with the concept of Christ’s divinity. After all, it took Peter two years of walking with Jesus before confessing that he was the Messiah. Even after this was revealed, Peter initially refused to believe that Christ’s death was necessary for our redemption (Matt. 16:16). Only after the apostles encountered the risen Lord did their wrong assumptions about Jesus and the Kingdom come to light. They were looking for a Davidic king and kingdom. Instead, they got death on a cross, a crown of thorns, and a sign that mocked Jesus as “King of the Jews.” Only after the resurrection could they see that Christ’s life was not taken from him but laid down by him as a ransom for many. Do not assume that Muslims will comprehend the nature of Christ or his work on the cross any quicker than the disciples did. Be willing to share about Jesus as much as your Muslim friend is willing to listen. When you do talk about Jesus, consider sharing stories where the hearers are left with the question: “Who is this man?” Think of all the times people asked that question in the New Testament. Who is this man who calms the sea, forgives sin, raises the dead, and heals so many? Muslims agree that Jesus was indeed a man, but maybe these stories will help reveal that there is more to him than his humanity.
Another tempting comparison is the Bible versus the Qur’an. There is nothing wrong with looking at two religious texts side by side so long as it’s done charitably. However, what often happens is that violent verses from the Qur’an are taken out of context and compared with the pacifistic teachings of Jesus. A better approach would be to recognize that both the Bible and the Qur’an have difficult passages encouraging violence and other unacceptable behaviors in the twenty-first century. Christians will often brush away difficult passages in the Bible by claiming that they are irrelevant because they are in the Old Testament. This is reminiscent of Marcion’s heresy that the vengeful god of the Old Testament was different than the loving god of the New Testament. The point is, that both Christians and Muslims have worked painstakingly on various systems for interpreting their texts. If you are not using the Muslim exegetical tradition, do not quote the Qur’an in hopes of proving a point. We dislike it when unbelievers misuse the Bible to make a mockery of Christianity, so why do it to Muslims?
Not comparing the Bible with the Qur’an does not mean avoiding the Bible. You might be surprised that many Muslims want to read the Bible. I will never forget when I brought a student named Luke with me to meet a Muslim family that needed help with English tutoring. When we got into my car, he asked me if it was okay for him to wear his cross necklace. I asked him if he put it on just for the Muslim family or if he always wore it. He replied, “I always wear it.” I told him to keep it on. The next question took me off guard. He asked, “Is it okay to bring my Bible inside to meet the family?” I asked whether he typically brought his Bible with him when meeting someone for the first time and he replied “yes.” So, I told him to bring it with him and not to feel the need to change what he would do naturally just because we were meeting a Muslim family. I wanted him to feel comfortable being himself.
After going through introductions, we sat down for tea and the father asked about Luke’s book. I told him it was a Bible. The father then asked Luke to read something aloud. Luke proceeded to read a short passage from the Psalms. When the father heard it, tears filled his eyes, and he asked me if I also owned a Bible. I told him that I did. I will never forget what came next. He said, “It’s like you have had a light this whole time and you have been hiding it from us.” He basically told me I had been hiding a lamp under a basket. I was so embarrassed that I wanted to run out of the room! I apologized and told him from now on, every time I came to his house, I would have a Bible story ready. That day changed my life. Ever since then, when I meet a Muslim, I try and share something from the scriptures. Since I am not accustomed to carrying my Bible with me everywhere like Luke, I share something that I have memorized, and it is always received with gratitude. I have come to realize that this is what most Muslims expect from a person who says they love God.
Comparing religious histories is also a bad idea. Again, it is not necessarily wrong to look at two religious histories side by side if it is done carefully and with integrity. However, much like the textual comparison, this approach tends to compare the best representations of Christians with the worst representations of Muslims. This is dishonest and not Christlike. Muslims and Christians both have troubling past and present expressions of their faiths. Both are guilty of religious violence against each other and their own faith communities. I am reminded of a conversation with CIU’s Christian History professor Mike Barnett after President Obama tweeted “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” Dr. Barnett commented that it would have been more accurate to say that every religion, at some point, condoned the killing of innocents, including their own people.
I was painfully reminded of Christian intrareligious violence while touring an Anglican church next to the Martyrs Memorial in Oxford, England. While admiring the courage of the Protestant reformers, a local guide asked me if I had visited the memorial to the Catholic martyrs. Only a few blocks away, I found a small plaque memorializing two Catholic priests and two laymen who were hanged by Protestants for their Catholic faith. The priests’ body parts were displayed throughout the city of Oxford as a warning that practicing Catholicism was punishable as an act of treason. In fewer than forty years, both Catholics and Protestants were martyred in Oxford by one another for their differing expressions of Christianity.
Some may argue that these deaths had less to do with religious belief and more to do with political power. However, the same arguments are made by many Muslims in the twenty-first century regarding groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. We should allow Muslims to speak for themselves rather than allow the actions of radicals to define the more than 1.8 billion Muslims spanning the globe. The Oxford memorials demonstrate that religious violence is not exclusively a Muslim problem but a human one. All the more reason we should approach Muslims from a position of seeing the plank in our own eye before making judgments about the violence of Muslim communities (Matt 7:3-5). We should also be willing to engage in corporate repentance for the ways in which misguided zealous Christians have mistreated Muslims rather than trying to distance ourselves from past sins of our heritage.
See Muslims as Image Bearers
All Muslims, including Muhammad, are image-bearers and therefore have inherent value and the potential to reflect God’s character and glory (Gen 1:26-28). We should consider our interactions with Muslims—or any human being—as divine encounters. Your speech and actions are an opportunity to demonstrate what a life hidden with Christ looks like. We should avoid the temptation to curse any image-bearer with the same tongue that praises the one whose image they bear (James 3:9). Consider spending more time seeking the image of God in your Muslim friends and less time looking for how the image might be distorted. In other words, be on the lookout for where God is working in the lives of Muslims and give him the credit. The same goes for aspects of Muslim practices that are genuinely biblical. For example, when a Muslim is hospitable, demonstrates care for parents, shows concern for the poor, or is faithful in their prayers, tell them you thank God for giving them these desires. Or you could say something like “I see in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). Ask if you can pray for them and thank God for working in their lives.
Yes, you can pray in the name of Jesus. Muslims know that you think Jesus is God. I have never had a Muslim refuse prayer or voice offense that I pray to God the Father in the name of his son Jesus Christ. Remember that prayers are sacred spaces and that by inviting Muslims to participate, they will meet God in a new way. You may find that your Muslim friend will begin coming to you with prayer requests. Do not say I will pray for you and send them on their way; rather, pray immediately. Before you leave their home, ask if you can pray a blessing over their household. I cannot overstate the importance of praying with your Muslim friends. If you do not take the opportunity to do so, the assumption may be that you do not pray at all.
Listen to their Stories
When I did my doctoral research, I would ask my Muslim participants to share their story with me. Almost without fail, when they finished sharing their story, they would ask me to share mine. Hearing someone’s story will give you a deep sense of connection with the person and provide insight on how to pray.
When you get a chance to share your story, do not glorify your sinful life before coming to Christ. “Amazing” testimonies about deliverance from addictions and immorality may not be received the same way by Muslims as they are by Christians. Airing your previous dirty laundry may be considered shameful and offensive rather than a testimony of God’s grace. Instead of taking the typical approach of life before and after Christ, think of your story as an opportunity to share how God has been pursuing a relationship with you ever since he formed you in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14; Jer1:5). Be sure to emphasize that the peace you have with God and your confidence in approaching his throne is because of the assurance that your sins are forgiven. Speak about being with him one day in heaven and the joy of your salvation here and now. Most Muslims have no assurance of salvation and often are terrified of the Day of Judgment. Your confidence in the grace and mercy of God will be refreshing.
In addition to sharing your life stories, look for opportunities to do life together. Muslims need to see your faith in practice. For Muslims, faith without works is dead. A godly person will demonstrate their love for God through charitable deeds. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. We are also set apart in Christ to do good works that he prepares for us (Eph 2:9-10). So, live out your faith authentically and in front of your Muslim friends by conforming your life to the image of Christ. Share with them the importance of prayer, fasting, and serving the poor. And when you fail to live perfectly as Christ did, share how you still have peace with God no matter the good you do or fail to do because of the cross.
Confessing Christ as Lord is not simply a process of cognitive ascent but of spiritual illumination. Few, if any, Muslims will be argued into the Kingdom of God with wisdom, eloquent speech, or by attacking their beliefs with poor comparisons. The reality is that our faith may be considered foolish to Muslims despite our deep convictions (1 Cor 1:17-18). This is to be expected since our faith is in a King and Kingdom that are not of this world. Loving your enemies, blessing those who persecute you, and taking up a cross in order to truly live is indeed foolish in the eyes of unbelievers. While our faith defies the world’s conventional wisdom, we should still be prepared to testify to the power of the cross as our hope in this world and the one to come (1 Pet 3:15).
Finally, remember that the Holy Spirit is the one who reveals the true identity of Jesus to a person (2 Cor 4:4). Consider the possibility that the Holy Spirit is already at work in the lives of Muslims even if they do not believe that the divine Spirit exists. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, our words will fall on deaf ears and our good deeds will go unnoticed. This is not meant to be discouraging but reassuring. We should take comfort in knowing that we will never convert a single soul. If Muslims following Jesus were up to us, it would be too heavy a burden for anyone to bear. However, we are called to be a living witness for Christ and the Kingdom of God initiated through his death and resurrection. While the Holy Spirit has the job of convicting the world of sin and drawing people into a new life in Christ, our role is to be the one who reveals what that new life looks like and how to pursue it. He has chosen us, his church, to be co-laborers with him in extending an invitation to Muslims to become part of his royal priesthood and chosen possession. So, walk alongside your Muslim friends and pray that the Holy Spirit demonstrates the love and power of God both in and through you along the way!
This article is adapted from a chapter in Mission in Praise, Word, and Deed. This compendium came out of the CIU 100 year mission conference and represents some of the latest missiological thinking from field practitioners and academics. The official release date is September 26, but you can pre-order the book by clicking the link below:
Dr. Trevor Castor is the Director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. He is also a professor of Muslim Studies and program director for the MA in Muslim Christian Relations at Columbia International University. He and his wife served as missionaries and worked in South Asia among a 100% Muslim population. He has a Ph.D. in Muslim-Christian Relations from the Australian College of Theology.