Ever since 9/11, American perception of Islam has been rather narrowly focused on the fundamentalist, radical wing of the religion, tending to highlight the extremists and stereotype all Muslims as dangerous. For example, recently an account of a Muslim sharing the definition of what is considered an “infidel” has been circulating, adding to the fear of some Christians that they are a target for violence by Muslims. To some it becomes a holy battle to defend our country and people against “them.” Many feel that inherent in the religion of Islam is hatred toward non-Muslims and that the goal of every Muslim is to take over the world. What in these accounts is true? Our experience with Muslims leads us to suggest a number of responses to these ideas.
1. We’re not all the same.
An important place to start is with the understanding that Islam and its followers are like Christianity and those who call themselves Christians. For many, being a “Christian” is a matter of where and into which family they were born. That is to say, the religious identity they hold is as much a matter of their culture as anything else. Simply being an American would qualify one as a Christian, in the minds of many, even though true faith in Jesus might be lacking. Such people know precious little of what the Bible teaches, and their experience of being part of a congregation of believers is probably even less. Others of us use different criteria to define what it is to be a Christian, and we cringe when these “Christians” speak for Christianity and affect its reputation. Yet for those people, being a “Christian” is still a significant piece of who they are.
2. Belief is shaped differently for different people.
So there’s a distinction between a religion, its sacred texts, and its followers. Many Muslims do not know much of what the Qur’an says. Although vast numbers of Muslims learn to recite it by heart, most Muslims do not speak Arabic to know what the Qur’an says. Going to the Qur’an, then, is not the best way to learn what is important to the common Muslim or to understand their beliefs and perspectives. Just as we don’t want other faiths to misunderstand us, it is only fair that we make every effort to try to really understand the people (1.59 billion) who willingly identify themselves as Muslim.
3. By definition, most people are not extremists.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are not interested in killing anyone. They are normal human beings who want the same things in life as everyone else does: a good life, a happy family, a roof overhead, and food enough on the table. What’s more, many are hungry to know more about Jesus (called Isa in the Arabic Bible and in the Qur’an) and are very open to friendship with Christians, so long as they do not sense that we are trying to turn them against their own peoples.
4. “Who is my neighbor?”
Regardless, we are commanded to love our neighbors, even if they are our enemies. Our focus should be on being peacemakers and loving Muslims, not fearing or fighting with them. We all need to learn how to go beyond having only confrontational relationships with Muslims and become their friends. Even if we can only see them as unbelievers, wasn’t Jesus accused of being the friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19)? May we all be considered as He was. And while loyalty to our own nation is important, our true allegiance must be to the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. Our primary role is ambassador of that Kingdom, representing biblical and not political or cultural values, engaging in acts of love and peace and not hate or control.
5. We should begin with what we share.
In reality, there aren’t as many differences between us as most people think. Those “infidels” that the Qur’an talks about are not referring to true Christians or Jews who worship the one true God. Since “Allah” was a term used by Arabic-speaking Christians before Muhammad was even born (and is still used today), it doesn’t necessarily denote a different god. Rather, like the Jews, they worship the same God as we do but do not truly know or understand Him. Therefore making the distinction between “Allah” and “Jesus” can be misleading, with the possible results of inciting strife, fear, and possibly hatred. Islam teaches people to follow the Creator God, and many Muslims around the world sincerely seek Him. Only by turning to Jesus will they discover the true nature of Allah, and they wait for us to share with them the good news.
Watch the eyes of a Muslim when you meet them: they are watching you. They are watching your response to them to find out whether you bear good news for them or not. What will they see?