Where were you when the Danish cartoon controversy broke in the fall of 2005? Do you remember what you were doing when you heard that thousands of Muslims worldwide were in the streets shouting and protesting and sometimes killing others in the name of Allah—all over a handful of roughly-sketched editorial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad?
Most of us do not remember the beginnings of this culture clash, certainly not with the same specificity and emotion of the 9/11 attacks, and rightly so. But these two events are inextricably linked. They point to the same issue—the growing disconnect between Muslims and the rest of the world, between East and West, between the have-nots and the haves, a divide that is only increasing in our 21st century world.
They also share this: they leave many Westerners, and many Western Christians, scratching their heads with bewilderment. “Why do Muslims act that way? Why do they hate the West so much? Why are they so violent? How can we understand them?”
Many experts on Christian-Muslim relations have compelling, insightful answers to these questions. They speak on the same themes—that Muslims are no further from the reach of the gospel than we are, that sharing the gospel with Muslims means developing a friendship with them first. And sometimes their advice is conflicting—on whether there is hope for peace in the Middle East, for example. But a common thread winds through their counsel: We cannot afford to ignore the religious and cultural divides between us. The Lord has called us to reach out in love, past our differences, and to graciously share the good news of the gospel with the Muslims around us.
The Stakes Are High
There are well over one billion Muslims in the world today. Additionally, Islam is arguably the fastest growing religion on the planet (largely because of biological growth). “One of the biggest misconceptions in the U.S. is that we can ignore Muslims,” says Scott Seaton, former head of Mission to the World’s (MTW) Enterprise for Christian-Muslim Relations. “But Europe is a prime example of what will happen if we don’t start relating to the Muslims in our backyard. We will experience problems like the Danes and Germans and French are having.”
Seaton believes that Western Christians must be willing to explore their misunderstandings about Islam, and vice versa. “There is a great challenge to clear up misconceptions on both sides, to educate ourselves about Islam, and to encourage churches and believers to make Muslim ministry a priority.”
Iraj, an Iranian immigrant and Christian convert who heads a “Light for Islam” ministry, agrees. “The majority of American people don’t know what to believe about Islam,” he says. “After 9/11 everyone was on the bandwagon to learn about Muslims, but that has died down. We must show Christians how to build bridges of love to Muslims. I believe God has brought Muslims to the U.S. for a reason, but the church has not woken up to its responsibility to share Christ with people in desperate need for it.”
Ask any student of Christian-Muslim relations about the challenges inherent in this ministry, and the conversation inevitably turns to misconceptions. Muslims carry wrong beliefs about Christians, and vice versa. Following is a primer on the most common errors Christians make about Muslims.
1. “They’re all the same.”
“There’s a huge difference between Muslims from different parts of the world,” said Jud Lamos, current director of MTW’s Enterprise for Christian-Muslim Relations. “Asian, Middle Eastern, and even African cultures are very different from American culture. The 220 million Muslims in Indonesia are different from the 60 million Muslims in Turkey, for example.”
“This sounds obvious, but not all Muslims are terrorists,” said Carl Ellis, whose Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Project Joseph ministry reaches out to African-American Muslims. “Ninety percent of Muslims are peace-loving people. They have the same hopes and fears that we do.”
2. “They’re unfriendly.”
“Muslims are incredibly hospitable,” said Seaton. “Their honor is on the line when they have you in their home, and they consider friendship precious.” In fact, community, or umma, is at the heart of Islam. The concept of family is the backbone of society, and is much stronger than in the West. “One of the problems of Christianity is that we’ve lost the art of community,” said Ellis. “We’re too individualistic.”
“If you strike up a relationship with a Muslim, you will likely be good friends for life,” said Lamos. “They place a high value on personal relationships in the community.”
“I had a Muslim say to me, ‘Americans are friendly, but they are not good friends,’” said Ashton Stewart, the director of Persian ministry for the Association of Reformed Presbyterian Churches (ARP), and a church planter. “Americans are pleasant enough when we meet Muslims, but we don’t want to open our homes and lives to them.”
3. “They share our same worldview.”
This is one of the most problematic misconceptions, says Seaton. “This is why we can’t understand why Muslims act the way they do. We believe they’re coming from the same worldview we are.” But actually, Muslims don’t see religion as part of life—as Westerners do—but life as part of religion. The complex forces of modernity and globalization, along with Muslims’ cultural need to uphold honor and avenge shame, explain why some Muslims act in anger and violence.
“The flap over the Danish cartoons created an opportunity for Muslims to air their grievances,” said Iraj. “Violent Muslims do not see us eye-to-eye. They see the West as exploiting them. So the West becomes a common enemy for Muslim nations. It prevents them from looking at their own problems.”
Lamos agrees. “When people can’t articulate their interests at the voting booth they often express their interests in the streets. We have seen this in France with recent student riots over the attempt to change employment laws. We also saw this in Eastern Europe just before the wall came down.”
Additionally, Islam is not just a religion, the way that we understand religion in the West. “Islam is a way of life governing the individual’s personal religious duties, as well as giving directives for the running of a state and for the shaping of cultures under theShari’a—Islamic law,” said Stewart. “Generally, Muslims look at life in social and political terms rather than spiritual terms. They see the West as a huge, looming entity, and modernity and democracy as a threat.”
4. “Allah is the same as our Jehovah God.”
This is a complex issue, according to Seaton. “Muslims pray to the same God that Christians do. In fact, ‘Allah’ is a pre-Islamic name that is still used by millions of Christians. But the Islamic understanding of God is radically different, as Muslims believe Allah is utterly transcendent, impersonal, and disconnected from our daily lives. Allah cannot and will not draw near to us.”
The Muslim Allah is stern, aloof, and unknowable, says Anees Zaka, who heads “Church Without Walls,” a PCA ministry that promotes meetings for better understanding between Christians and Muslims. “Muslims are amazed by Jesus’ willingness to come to earth. God is selfless, whereas Allah is selfish. This unconditional love and grace is new to them.”
Iraj grew up in Iran, trying to appease Allah. “I finally learned that the tyrant god I had worked so hard to please wasn’t real. I had been looking for God since I was 13 years old. But I knew in my heart that Allah wasn’t the true God. What a gift to realize that I was already accepted by God, that He had already done all of the work for me.”
Believing in Jehovah God provides assurance of salvation, something else that is foreign to worshipers of Allah. “Muslims carry a burden all their lives,” said Iraj. “God is unknown to them, and they are never sure about whether they’ll be allowed into heaven.”
5. “They’re uninterested in spiritual conversations.”
“Actually, Muslims like to talk about God,” said Lamos. “In Islam, God is sovereign. He designed and controls all of life, so it is the most natural thing in the world to talk about him, especially if you talk about God in the context of your daily life.”
However, debates and well-reasoned logical presentations of the gospel seldom bring Muslims into the kingdom, says Stewart. “When you press a Muslim about his faith he will always defend his religion. Instead, it is best to explain Christian values through parables and personal stories rather than the Bible. Take time to open your life to him. It is far better that you whet his appetite and allow him to ask questions about your beliefs.”
Stewart relates the story of an American man who was painting a storefront and noticed a lone Middle Eastern man walking in the street in front of the store. He struck up a conversation, and the man came around every day for a week. By the end of the week they had become such good friends that the Muslim man was willing to visit church. Today that man is an elder in an Iranian church.
Some Difficult Truths
Not all stories in Muslim ministry resolve so neatly. In fact, ministry to Muslims is notoriously labor-intensive, slow, and difficult. And hard truths remain, despite our best attempts at cross-cultural sensitivity.
“Islam’s ultimate goal is to bring the world under Islamic law,” said Stewart. “Though not all Muslims live this way, this is what is preached from the mosques. Muslims are taught to acquire property and social standing, and to increase their political power so that they can Islamicize the world. Where Islam is the dominant religion—at least 55 countries in the world—no other religion is tolerated unless it agrees to submit to Islamic rule.”
Consequently, confronting Islam is a spiritual battle, says Stewart. “Christians need to take seriously the weapons of prayer and the Word. Every time you witness to a Muslim your faith will be tested.”
If the Christian’s goal were world peace, this would be especially troubling, says Stewart. But that’s not so. “Taking sides on peace in the Middle East is the wrong conversation for the Christian church. We are called to spread the gospel to all nations, including those in the Middle East.”
Christians and Muslims are inevitably in conflict, says Jud Lamos. “In many ways, we are traditional enemies. Many Muslims still seethe with anger over conflict that goes back as far as the Crusades.” So inevitably, there is polarization on both sides. “As societies, they hate us, so we hate them,” said Lamos. “They are afraid of us, and we are afraid of them. So it is important that we see Christ as the ultimate answer to the hatred that exists between nations and peoples. We need to be followers of Christ and love our enemies while at the same time exercising our abilities to protect our freedoms.”
Stewart reported that an American friend began to rethink his attitude toward Muslims as he learned more about them. “I was wrong in hating Muslims,” the friend said. “I can see now that God loves them and is working in them. I don’t want a spirit of fear or revenge to control me.”
Reaching Out to the Muslims Around Us
There was a time when one had to travel thousands of miles from the U.S. to take the gospel of Christ to Muslims. No more.
Muslims in the U.S., who now number between two and six million, are more responsive to the gospel than those in their culture of origin, says Iraj, estimating that some 20 percent of them convert to Christianity. “These Muslims are generally more open because they have more freedom, less pressure from their family and peers, and are influenced by an American way of thinking.”
Anees Zaka’s Church Without Walls ministry allows him frequent interaction with Muslims in the U.S. “I pastored Presbyterian churches in the Middle East for years and was never able to enter a mosque,” said Zaka. “But here in the U.S. I meet with Muslims in mosques several times a week.”
Though the average Christian is intimidated at the thought of talking about faith with a Muslim, opportunities abound. “We all encounter Muslims now—everywhere,” said Carl Ellis. And believers don’t necessarily have to study the Koran or know all about Islam to befriend them. “The Word of God does the heavy lifting when applied to each individual’s issues.”
Ellis suggests that Christians ask about their Muslim friend’s core concerns as they share Christ. “At the age of 14 I was on the path to the mosque,”said Ellis. “But two godly believers met with me and answered my questions about things deeply important to me, like my significance and identity as I grew into manhood.”
Another significant part of sharing Christ with Muslims in the U.S. is making clear the difference between Western culture—which is often characterized by hedonistic and materialistic behavior—with biblical Christianity. Many Muslims believe that Western culture and Christianity are one and the same.
“Muslims see the West as immoral because of our popular culture,” said Zaka. “But as Muslims get to know godly Christians they begin to see the difference between American secular culture and Christianity.”
Finally, Christians need to surround converts from Islam with community. “When you leave Islam, you’re designated as an apostate,” said Stewart. “It’s a shameful thing, and often your family and friends disown you. That’s why it’s so important to provide safe haven for new believers.”
The Good News
Despite the increase of Islam, deep pockets of disillusionment have emerged within the movement. An encouraging sign comes in an unlikely form. “All across the Middle East and North Africa you see satellite dishes on roofs,” said Stewart. “People are now able to view Christian programs on television that have been prohibited in their country until now.”
He also speaks of the great power in the testimony of Muslim background believers. Some now host house churches, often using unconventional methods. “I heard about an Iranian pastor preaching in Toronto, and there was a woman on the front row who held up her cell phone throughout his sermon,” said Stewart. “He later learned that she had dialed her husband back in Iran, and was broadcasting the pastor’s sermon to 40 believers in a house church there.”
“God is doing something extraordinary in our lives,” said Seaton. “Never before in history have we seen so many Muslims coming to Christ. One long-term missionary said, ‘I never allowed myself to hope that I would see this picture in my lifetime.’”
Jud Lamos of MTW sees an encouraging picture as well. “More Muslims have come to Christ in the last 40 years than the last 1,400 years combined. I believe that’s because local churches, made up of Muslim background believers in Christ, are sharing the gospel with their neighbors at phenomenal cost to themselves and their families.”
In the end, God simply calls us to share Christ with our neighbors. Lamos described an encounter with a Muslim who eventually came to Christ, partly through the testimony of Muslim background believers. “God did the work of the gospel in his life without my trying to argue him into the kingdom,” said Lamos. “Is it any different in any culture? God does the work, often through us, but through others if we are not available. I don’t know of any other real story. It is the story of being available to share Christ’s life-changing love with a neighbor.”
Melissa Morgan is the news editor for byFaith magazine.