I confess I’ve not studied a lot on Islam. But these days am investing more time to understand for reasons I’ll get to in the post. Islam seems to be gaining more of a presence, not just globally, but locally as well. To be sure, there are growing concerns and quite amount of fear lingering in Christian circles because of the rise of ISIS and other attacks perpetrated under the name of Islam. I’ve observed that this fear has caused strong reactions among Christians against Muslims and the desire to repel them from out midst.
But there is a reality Christians cannot afford to overlook. Islam continues to grow. According to this article, Muslims are projected to be the 2nd largest U.S. religious group behind Christians. The Pew Forum indicates that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. By 2050, this religious group will equal that of Christians in size. Now we can advocate for the U.S. to remove all Muslims as I have heard many Christians decry. Yes, I’ve actually heard Christians say this!
Concerns are valid but I question if our fearful reactions aren’t counterproductive to people who are to be salt and light. There is disagreement on whether these extreme groups actually represent authentic Islam. The short answer is yes and no and it depends on who you ask. I’ve been reading through Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity. Nabeel Qureshi recounts his journey from Ahmadi Islam to his conversion to Christ, explaining Islam and distinction among groups along the way. I found this excerpt compelling, from his thoughts about what happened after 9-11;
In the twelve years since that day, I have learned that the question is far more complex than it first appears. The most important consideration is the definition of Islam. If by Islam we mean the beliefs of Muslims, then Islam can be a relition of peace or a religion of terror, depending on how it is taught.
In the West, Muslims are generally taught a very pacific version of Islam. Just like Baji and I, Western Muslims are taught that Muhammad fought only defensive battles and that violent verses in the Quran refer to specific, defensive contexts. Jihad is here defined as primarily a peaceful endeavor, an internal struggle against one’s baser desires. When asked about their religion, Western Muslims honestly report what they believe; Islam is a religion of peace.
In the East, though, Muslims often have a less docile view of Islam. They are taught that Islam is superior to all other religions and ways of life and that Allah wishes to see it established throughout the world. They often define jihad as a primarily physical endeavor, a struggle against the enemies of Islam. When asked about their religion, these Muslims will honestly report what they believe; Islam will dominate the world.
So if we define Islam by the beliefs of its adherents, it may or may not be a religion of peace. But if we define Islam more traditionally, as the system of beliefs and practices taught by Muhammad, then the answer is less ambiguous.
The earliest historical records show that Muhammad launched offensive military campaigns and used violence at times to accomplish his purposes. He used the term jihad in both spiritual and physical contexts, but the physical jihad is the one Muhammad strongly emphasizes. The peaceful practice of Islam hinges on later, often Western, interpretations of Muhammad’s teachings, whereas the more violent variations of Islam are deeply rooted in orthodoxy and history.
Of course, like all people, Muslims in the East and the West generally just believe what they are taught. Rarely is there much critical investigation into historical events, and the few that invest the effort usually do the same thing I had done in TOK class: attempt to defend what is already believed, potentially ignoring or underestimating evidence that points to the contrary. This is only natural, since it is extremely difficult to change beliefs that are dear to the heart.
Here you have from the mouth of a former Muslim who not only has studied Islam, but also lived it, explaining why just drawing caricatures of ALL Muslims as violent people who need to be dispelled from our midst is unhelpful. But more importantly, it’s from HIS mouth, not a non-Muslim trying to explain Islam out of fearful concern.
And that leads to my reasons for proposing that we thoughtfully engage with the growing rise of Islam. As Christians, and especially those in the West, we cannot afford to allow fear to glibly reject any dealings with Muslims and think they just need to be banished. What if God wants to bring some of these Muslims to himself?
My church is located in an area with a significant Muslim population. Out of love of God and neighbor, we have had a growing outreach ministry that has involved organized meetings where presentations are made around a particular topic. There is a presentation from a Muslim perspective and then one from a Christian perspective. A Q & A session follows giving people the opportunity to hear directly from either Christians or Muslims on what they believe. Make no mistake, this is not interfaith sessions to find common ground in belief. We rigorously and lovingly proclaim the gospel. But really, the gatherings are more to listen, understand and engage. But more importantly, it’s building relationships and getting to know each other, know what’s going on in people’s lives, see them as people made in the image of God. This has spawned smaller, more intimate gatherings, including a ladies group. It has compelled me to want to know more about what they believe and how they see Christianity. I confess, that at times it is uncomfortable but serving as a witness to Christ will not always be easy. I’m thankful for our leadership who have really made inroads in this process.
While there certainly are violent streams of Islam, as Nabeel explained, in the West we have the luxury of interacting with more peaceful forms. He ends this chapter with a charge to us all, I think.
In my heart of hearts, I wanted to know the truth about Islam, but it would be nearly impossible to challenge my childhood beliefs just by investigating them. I would keep finding ways to ignore difficult truths. What I needed was something that would not let me get away with my biases. I needed something that would mercilessly loop my bad arguments before my eyes, again and again and again, until I could avoid them no longer.
I needed a friend, an intelligent, uncompromising, non-Muslim friend who would be willing to challenge me. Of course, not only would he have to be bold and stubborn enough to deal with the likes of me, but I would have to like and trust him enough to dialogue with him about the things that mattered to me most.
Who is your neighbor? Increasingly, we know they are Muslim and who knows how many Nabeels.