Happy New Year! Among other things, 2016 marks my 20th year as a Christian and my 11th year studying Islam. That experience has made me the frequent target of many questions, and uncomfortably frequent hostility (and not from Muslims). As Muslim presence in America grows, and as events like those in Paris and San Bernadino dominate the headlines, it is more important than ever for Christians to understand Islam and work to reach this critical mission field. In this series of blogs, I hope to bring readers to a better understanding of Islam, equipping them to engage in well-reasoned and informed conversation with both Muslims and fellow Christians. To start, let’s look at three key points that will drive much of subsequent discussions:
Islam is not monolithic.
Broad generalizations, especially hasty or inaccurate ones, are unhelpful (even harmful) in understanding Islam. My Facebook feed is filled with memes and posts from friends around the world, all making this key error. “Islam is not a religion of peace.” “Islam is evil.” “Islam is ________ .” Fill in the blank however you like, I can almost assure you the sentence will be a gross mischaracterization, perhaps an outright falsehood. Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic, and much like Christianity, Islam is plagued by sectarian strife and disagreement.
Most Christians are familiar at least with the Shi’a and the Sunni, the two largest sects within Islam. The Shi’a and Sunni have been in conflict since the 7th century, and today their differences encompass a wide range of both political and religious beliefs. The Sunni comprise more than 85% of all Muslims, and are separated into four Islamic “schools of thought” or jurisprudence (the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i). The Shi’a, a small minority within Islam, share many of the same practices and beliefs as the Sunni, but also differ in key areas of authority, practice, succession, and worship. Beyond these two primary sects, Islam also encompasses the Sufi, Wahhabi, Druze, Alawi, Abadi, Ahmadi, and a number of other “denominations.”
There are peaceful Muslims, and there are violent Christians. There are large subsets of Islam that are horribly violent, and there are large subsets of Islam that practice almost total pacifism. When discussing Islam, or when talking to Muslims, Christians should never make the mistake of thinking all Muslims believe the same things, act the same way, or feel the same way about those who disagree.
Every Muslim is made in the image of God and in dire need of salvation.
Yes, this includes every member of ISIS, and every ruthless killer who has beheaded, burned, crushed, and tortured Christians (and many fellow Muslims). I am frequently shocked by the responses I receive from other Christians when confronted with this challenging topic – unbelievably, these response have ranged from “a good Muslim is a dead Muslim” to “kill them all.” No doubt these responses are highly emotional and reactionary, but I can’t help but think that they also couldn’t be more unbiblical.
1 Timothy 2 tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” – all men, including Muslims, lost souls that God wants. In Acts 19, Paul pleads with the idolaters worshiping false gods in Lystra, saying “…turn from these [false gods] to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.” Paul is beaten and stoned, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. In verse 20, we read that Paul got up and went back into the city, then continued to preach. Think about that for a minute. Beaten and stoned, he thinks, “But there are still unsaved people in the city…” Similarly, we all know well that Jesus prayed for the savage guards who flogged Him and crucified Him. And our response to Muslims, engaged in comparative acts in today’s age, is “kill them all”? No, as Christians one of the most important things we can realize, which should guide every thought and action with regard to Muslims, is that each and every one – from Hilmi, the rug dealer I befriended in Istanbul to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS – is a precious image-bearer of God, in desperate need of the saving grace of Christ and our help to guide them to it. The Gospel Coalition recently wrote a blog about this approach, encouraging us to treat Muslims with dignity and respect, to find common ground with them, and to look for opportunities to show love and compassion to them. I couldn’t agree more.
Understanding is key.
Many Christians I encounter would rather hate Muslims than understand them. Others prefer parroting (repeating what they’ve heard someone else say) or emoting (saying what they feel rather than what they think), instead of doing the difficult work of understanding how Muslims think and what they believe. I’ve spent more than a decade trying to understand Islam, and I’m just scratching the surface – so please don’t think you can read a blog, see a meme on Facebook, or watch a special on Discovery, and understand Islam.
Three areas are really essential to a thorough understanding of Islam – history, culture, and (by combining those two) context. Muslim theology has adapted to cultural change from the start, and even adapted as Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century. If you don’t know why Mohammed moved the early Muslims to Medina, or the history of the rise of the Ottoman empire, it will be very difficult to accurately understand Islam. Similarly, Islam for Muslims is more than just a religion – like the early Jews under the theocracy, Islam defines not just their religious beliefs but also their legal, political, and economic systems. If you only look at Islam as a religious worldview, you’ll miss an enormous and critical part of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam simply cannot be understood in isolation from its historical and cultural context.
In future blogs, we’ll look at how to engage Muslims in conversation, and some key differences between the Muslim and Christian concepts of God. Based on your feedback and comments, we can also deal with questions about jihad, the shari’a, or anything else that’s on your mind!
Michael Moyles is holds a Master’s Degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and a Master’s Degree in National Security from the US Air War College, where he focused on Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. He has studied Islam for 11 years, including studies in Egypt and Turkey, completing a thesis on a “Reformation in Orthodox Islam” and another on sectarian issues in contemporary Islam. He currently lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and daughter.