Earlier this year, Muslims from overseas took a listening tour of Presbyterian churches. According to a recent news account, the Muslims endured such questions as: Do you wear shoes in your country? Do you ride camels? Do you wash your faces with cow's urine?
Americans have more questions than answers concerning the world's second largest religion. They also have a lot of criticisms. Christians, like many others, are full of anger about the shedding of innocent blood by militant Muslims and are less impressed by Islam than ever. An October ABC News/Beliefnet poll showed that since January 2002 more Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam and believe that Islam does not teach respect. Pollsters also found that white evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to think that Islam encourages violence.
Continued radical Muslim assaults on the innocent contribute to that assessment. Christian reaction has been swift and strong. A year ago, Franklin Graham called Islam "very evil and wicked." On The 700 Club in February, Pat Roberston said Muslims "want to coexist to control, dominate, and if need be, destroy." In June, Jerry Vines told fellow Southern Baptists that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed pedophile." In October, Jerry Falwell told 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon that Muhammad was a terrorist.
Respect For Differences
Though such comments are emotionally comprehendible, they are offensive to Muslims. They are unbalanced, and they omit key parts of the truth. Christian leaders would be better off sticking to all the facts. No one can honestly dispute that a number of Muslim-ruled nations deprive their citizens of basic rights, that some militant Muslims kill their political opponents, that Muhammad was betrothed to a six-year-old girl and waged war on his enemies. But Islam would not have become the second largest world religion if it were experienced as thoroughly evil, as these comments suggest.
Falwell had the humility to apologize to law-abiding Muslims, and he gingerly removed his foot from his mouth. His apology ("I have always shown respect for other religions, faiths, and denominations") hints at one way to sustain potentially evangelistic relations with Muslims.
Despite profound and irreconcilable differences, Islam and Christianity share some important things: a belief in the power of prayer, a belief in an authoritative revelation from God, and a vision for a moral, just society. As C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, "If you are a Christian, you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through."
At an October gathering in Paris, Bernard Sabella, a Christian living in Jerusalem and ministering to Palestinian refugees, reminded Christian and Muslim scholars, "Man is created in the image of God. Accordingly, all persons, irrespective of background, are my brothers and sisters because they are in the image of God, the Creator."
Respect is a good starting point for evangelistic engagement, but it is not enough, and Christians in the southeast Asian nation of Sri Lanka may be helpful on this point. In Sri Lanka, Christians find themselves in the Sinhala majority (mostly Buddhist) and the Tamil minority (mostly Hindu). That nation's civil war, raging since 1983, has cost 100,000 lives and led to the assassinations of two heads of state. Christians in Sri Lanka are no strangers to religiously inspired violence.
"We don't need to be afraid of appreciating the good in others," says Ajith Fernando, a leading Sri Lankan evangelical. "The Christian method of approaching those of other faiths is to go in love."
Fernando, who works with Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, fears that American Christians, after the September 11 attacks, are tempted to hate Muslims and risk fixating on security issues. "What is the priority? Evangelism or security? I think the priority is evangelism. Whatever it takes for us to bring the Muslim to Christ. That is our agenda."
Terrorism poses a legitimate national security threat and may require our nation and its allies to wage war on Iraq. But this should never distract Christians from their unique calling. "The gospel is something that stands by itself," Fernando says. "It's the answer of the Creator of the world for the problem of this world."
That means, among other things, weighing our public statements about Islam so that the door of the gospel is never shut because Muslims think we're intolerant or hostile.
It also might mean reclaiming common ground with Muslims. After all, before 9/11, Muslims were one of our few international allies in fighting the materialism and decadence that tear at the fabric of families. Is it possible for Muslims and Christians to encounter each other through their families, generating new relationships? The Family to Family program of Venture International, a Christian ministry to the Middle East and Asia, is bold enough to attempt an answer. So far, the program has successfully paired Christian families with more than 450 Muslim and Christian families in the Middle East and Central Asia, providing shelter, education, and employment training.
In short, if we hope to demonstrate the love and saving power of Christ to Muslims, we're going to have to cease the name-calling and reach out in love—yes, especially to those who in some respects now are considered our "enemies."
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Islam and evangelism to Muslims include:
Doors into IslamSeptember 11 has only intensified the dangers and rewards of Muslim evangelism. (Aug. 19, 2002)
Outpaced by Islam?The Muslim challenge is growing faster than our Christian outreach. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Letter from a Muslim SeekerChristians aren't the only ones asking 'Why?' after September's tragedy. (Dec. 5, 2001)
Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?The answer to this question reveals the heart of our faith. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Does God Hear Muslim's Prayers?We must remember that God does not deal with theologies; he deals with persons. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Is Islam a Religion of Peace?The controversy reveals a struggle for the soul of Islam. (Dec. 28, 2000)
A Many Splintered ThingThough Muslims shared allegiance to Muhammad and to the Qur'an, Islam faced division as soon as the prophet died. (Dec. 28, 2000)
CT coverage of controversial comments on Islam include:
Jesus FreakFranklin Graham remains unashamed of the Name, despite public criticism. No generic prayers for him. (Dec. 2, 2002)
Riots, Condemnation, Fatwa, and Apology Follow Falwell's CBS CommentsPresident of the All India Christian Council: "I prayed that the broadcast would not reach India." (Oct. 17, 2002)
Give Franklin Graham Some Slack—and Some CreditThe evangelist shouldn't be defined by his opposition to Islam. (August 23, 2002)
Southern Baptists Boot Gay ProtestersMessengers at St. Louis convention pick Prestonwood's Jack Graham as new leader. (June 13, 2002)
In 2000, Christianity Today focused on Muslim-Christian relations in a series by Wendy Murray Zoba. Articles included:
Islam, U.S.A.Are Christians prepared for Muslims in the mainstream?
Islamic FundamentalsChristians have a responsibility to understand our Muslim neighbors and their beliefs.
How Muslims See ChristianityMany Muslims don't understand Christianity—especially the idea of salvation by grace through faith.
Engaging Our Muslim NeighborsThe Church faces a challenge not just to understand Muslims, but to befriend them.
Adherents.com is the place to go for statistics related to the adherents of any religion.
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