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It seems like the dominant political theology issue of 2015 was the simple question, “What are we to do with Muslims and Islam?” Some Christians answered this question brilliantly with active outreach to Muslim refugee populations in America and by aggressively but graciously crafting apologia to strengthen and arm others who struggle with living in our pluralistic age. Other brothers and sisters have been a bit more disappointing, using social media to defensively vent often toxic and almost always uninformed opinions about Muslims and the Islamic world.
This post is for both of those sets of fellow believers. Those who have decided that crisis must always be responded to with ministry deserve the support of the rest of the kingdom. Those who respond to pressure with hate need to see the humanity in those they despise. I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to both minister to Muslims and also to learn about the history and culture of the Islamic world from Muslim experts. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about these fellow image-bearers that I think could be useful to both ends.
1. They may think we worship the same God, but they almost certainly don’t care.
At times, it seems like the greatest affront to the Evangelical mind is that some Muslim somewhere believes that the deity they call Allah is the same person that Christians and Jews call God. This has gotten a lot of attention lately. From a Christian perspective, it is clear that the claim that we worship the same God as Muslims is obviously false on the grounds of the divinity of Christ alone. If one does not worship Christ, they definitionally do not worship God.
The classical position of Islam on this topic is a little more complicated. To the Muslim mind, Allah (the Arabic word for God or “the deity”) is the one who created the world, molded Adam, and spoke to Abraham and Moses. To that mindset, if you worship the God who did all those things, you worship the one true God, even if you have innovated things that cause you to worship him falsely. This is what Muslims make of both Christians and Jews, but especially Christians.
That said, in my experience, few Muslims actually care about this. They may use this reality in an attempt to create rapport or argue for mutual understanding, but most educated Muslims understand that a Christian has drastically different understandings of the word “God,” than a Muslim does. Most less-educated Muslims may not even be aware of the theology behind the concept. I’ve heard more than a few Muslims intentionally use the phrase, “my God,” when referring to Allah around Christians to note that he was referring to something other than what the Christians worshipped.
In other words, what has been drummed up about this has largely been drummed up by defensive Christians and by American secularists trying to group and classify religions together. It’s not something that Muslims talk or really care about, even if, if pressured, most would say it’s true.
2. They have differing degrees of piety.
I’ve said this a lot around friends who’ve asked me about my experiences with Muslims. Most people who call themselves “Muslim,” want about the same thing that most people who call themselves, “Christian,” want: the freedom to do mostly as they please without much interference from any external person or authority.
Of the Muslims I’ve met in America, I would say a little under half would be what their own communities would call a, “good Muslim.” My Islamic Studies professor offered extra-credit for attending a class fieldtrip to a regionally significant mosque, but also admitted to needing to attend mosque more often in almost the exact tone that many drunkards in my hometown would say they needed to get back to church.
So, as you interact with Muslims, you should know what their religion requires of them. Books like Introducing Islam William Shepard or How to Share Christ with Your Friends of Another Faith by Jeff Brawner can do a great job of providing this overview. Taking a class on Islam from a public or Christian school could be very instructive as well. Just keep in mind that just because a faith requires something does not mean that all adherents will agree on that requirement or fulfill it. Don’t assume that every Muslim you meet is a, “good Muslim,” but instead understand that even if they aren’t they still probably very strongly identify with Islam culturally.
3. Superstitions may mingle freely with their faith, especially if they’re poor.
The superstitions that can end up associated with Islam because of geography and history should be kept separate in your mind from Islamic mysticism, also called Sufism. I’ve met very few Sufi Muslims, but you could think of them to a degree as being similar to American Charismatic traditions in Christian history. Entirely distinct from them, however, are superstitions that have persisted among the less educated parts of the Islamic world for a very long time.
Once, when going on an outreach with to a community of Muslim refugees, the mother of the household began burning incense, which her husband said was good for growth and good fortune because it smelled good, and thus kept away evil spirits. This led into a conversation that demons prefer to live in restrooms, and therefore one shouldn’t talk at length while one was a restroom.
This would be absurd to wide berths of the Islamic world, but the likelihood that a Muslim sees their superstitions as inseparable from their practice of Islam increases the less affluent and less education-saturated their home is. Don’t be surprised at such references. Also don’t feel superior. It’s pretty well documented that, without sufficient education about the natural world or theology, Christians also create absurd-sounding superstitions, like becoming cursed by an angel to become a werewolf, for example.
4. They see themselves as peaceful.
A friend without much experience around Muslims once asked me if I though Islam was ultimately a religion of peace of religion of violence. A long discussion of many topics followed, but one of the most important was that overwhelmingly, Muslims saw Islam as a peaceful religion, requiring peace and kindness from them.
This seems to be a point some of my fellows have difficulty immediately grasping. After all, they’ll usually pretty quickly answer, aren’t al-Qaeda and the Islamic State both just expressions of Islamic theology? They forget that Islam is one of the largest religions of the world and that the groups that belong to or support those organizations are small parts of that massive religion. For every educated Muslim like al-Bagdadi, the head of the Islamic State, there are over 126 highly regarded Muslim experts on Islam decrying acts of violence like those the Islamic State do.
That link is a link to a letter signed by 126 Muslim scholars and leaders. If you feel that Muslims could prove that they truly thought that their religion was peaceful by advocating for peace, then you can rest satisfied. So as you work with Muslims, you can largely be free from any suspicion of danger. Even if you’ve seen some post on Facebook quoting a verse of the Quran that made you afraid that the intent of the Islamic religion was violent toward non-Muslims, you can know that the vast majority Muslims don’t see their religion that way and accordingly don’t practice it that way, either.
5. They need to gospel.
I imagine that if this blog or I were significant enough to be seen by a very large number of people, that they might accuse me of being overly fond of Islam or somehow twist something I’ve said to support a syncretist position. As you minister to Muslims, you have to keep in mind the high truth that these are individual people who have lived lives of joy and sorrow, as all bearers of the image of God do. And they are ever on the precipice of encountering the wrath that their sinful nature merits.
That should make us shudder. That should make us long to see God call some of his own sheep out of the Muslim world that is abroad and also here in the United States. That calling out only happens upon the preaching of the gospel. Let the urgency of their need propel you to gospel-based reconciliation.
Every year, a quarter of a million Muslims enter the United States, on top of those who are born here every year. Let’s thank God that he has provided such an opportunity to be amongst and share the gospel to these people. The field is ripe. Let’s pray that God would use us as workers.
Logan Hurley is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Lexington, KY and senior at the University of Kentucky where he studies Communication, Arab & Islamic Studies, and Philosophy. He desires to attend seminary in Fall 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @loganmhurley.