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Muslims, Christians, and Misunderstandings

With world events happening as they are, it is not surprising that there are more and more questions people have about Islam in general and Muslims in particular. Someone in a unique position to answer them is my good friend J.D. Greear. Not only is J.D. an excellent pastor and theologian, he also spent years ministering in a Muslim country. Below are two blogs of J.D.’s about misconceptions Christians and Muslims have of each other. (For further information, get J.D.’s book Breaking the Islam Code)

 

THREE MUSLIM MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CHRISTIANS
Posted by Pastor J.D. on March 2, 2015

The history of Islam and Christianity is hardly an amiable one. Many people from both religions view the other with suspicion (at best) or fear and hatred (at worst). This suspicion existed from day one, and centuries of violence have only served to heighten it. Tragically, the border between Christianity and Islam has all too often been a bloody one.

A dicey past, of course, makes for a dicey present. But it isn’t just our history that transforms the border between Christians and Muslims into a dangerous fault line. A lot also rests on uninformed misconceptions. There are, of course, substantive theological differences between the two religions. And these differences can lead to legitimate conflict. But conversations can’t move forward unless we dispel some pervasive myths. I learned these the hard way, through dozens of awkward and often painful conversations with Muslims in Southeast Asia. You can do what I never could—learn from my mistakes without actually making them.

Many obstacles stand in the way of Muslims coming to faith in Jesus—theological confusion and the cost of conversion being two of the most daunting. And of course the most common reason why Muslims are not coming to Christ is that most have simply never heard the gospel.

That said, there is a set of misconceptions that most Muslims have about Christians that keep them from even considering the gospel. On Wednesday, we’ll look at the flip side—Christian misconceptions about Muslims. But here are three of the biggest misconceptions Muslims have about Christians:

Misconception 1: Christians worship three gods.

This one took me by surprise. I knew that the doctrine of the Trinity was difficult for Muslims (as it is for most Christians). But I never fully realized how badly Muslims misunderstood it and how offensive it was to them.

Several Muslims asked me how I could believe that God could have had sex with the Virgin Mary to conceive Jesus. Christians are blasphemous, I was told, because they worship three gods: god the father, god the son, and god the mother. This was news to me, of course, so I asked where they learned it. They told me: from their local imam, the Muslim religious leader.

Of course, Christians find this depiction of the Trinity just as offensive as Muslims do. And this is a good place to start. The idea of Jesus as a result of copulation between God and Mary is blasphemous, and we should feel free to express our disgust and outrage at the “trinity” as it is thus wrongfully described. Monotheism is central to Christianity, just as it is to Islam. So Christians can wholeheartedly agree with Muslims that there is only one God worthy of worship. Our conception of him is dramatically different…but the offense here is usually misplaced.

Misconception 2: Christianity is morally corrupt.

MTV was huge in the part of the world I lived. Western music videos frequently featured rap stars or scantily clad women wearing crosses. My Muslim friends assumed, naturally enough, that these were Christians and that their behavior was typical of Christians.

I was once even asked by one of my friends, a Muslim college student, if I would throw her a “Christian” birthday party. When I asked what she meant, she replied that she wanted a party with a lot of booze and racy dancing, just like she had seen on television. Misunderstandings like hers, sadly, are the norm and not the exception.

Many Muslims will not even consider the gospel because they know (correctly) that such behavior is offensive to God. You can leverage this for your advantage, though. When Muslims find out you are not that way, they will want to know what makes you different. This is your opportunity to explain to them what a living faith in Christ is all about.

Misconception 3: “The West” and “The Church” are synonymous.

“Separation of church and state” is part of the cultural fabric of Westerners. Muslims, however, do not understand such a distinction. Islam is, in its very nature, a political entity, replete with numerous societal codes. There is no parallel Muslim concept of the “separation of mosque and state.” So when Muslims look at Western nations like the USA, Germany, France, or the UK, they see “Christian countries.” Our presidents are assumed to be Christian leaders, and our political policies are assumed to be reflective of church policy. What the US does, the Church does. I was once asked, for instance, why “the Church” bombed Iraq.

To engage Muslims with the gospel, you must delineate these two entities. And you’ll probably have to, in many situations, put your patriotism aside. If you want to be an advocate for American policies, you likely will not gain much of an audience for the gospel. There is a place for discussion of both, but we each have only enough bandwidth to represent a certain number of issues, and to me (as a representative of the church) it is simply not worth it to sacrifice a gospel platform for the sake of defending American political decisions. I was recently told by a Turkish Muslim that “all of the problems in the world are caused by America.” Do I agree with him? No. But is this where I want to stand my ground? No. For the sake of the gospel, our patriotism must die when we serve in Muslim countries.

As we often say at our church, the gospel is offensive. Nothing else should be. Since so much of our message strikes Muslims as off-putting, we need to equip ourselves to dispel the false offenses of Christianity. Only then can the life-giving offense of the cross shine as it should.

From “Three Muslim Misconceptions About Christians” by J.D. Greear

 

THREE CHRISTIAN MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MUSLIMS
Posted by Pastor J.D. on March 4, 2015

When the average Westerner hears “Muslim,” a number of images come to mind—mostly negative. But most Muslims would be just as horrified as we are at the assumptions entertained about them. Here are some of the most common misconceptions that Westerners have about Muslims:

Misconception 1: Most Muslims Support Terrorism.

Christians won’t usually come out and say that they think all Muslims are terrorists. But many do assume that the majority of Muslims support terrorism, albeit quietly. Much has been written about how Islam was established “by the sword,” or how Muslims engaging in terrorist activity are simply obeying what the Qur’an tells them to do. It is certainly easy to find Muslims using the Qur’an to justify violence. Even when you give the Qur’an a charitable reading, asking “What would Muhammad do?” will lead to a very different place than “What would Jesus do?”

That said, most of the Muslims you encounter—either in Western or in Islamic countries—are not violent people. They are kind, peaceable people and they are often embarrassed by the actions of Muslims throughout the world. While there is a good chance they see world politics very differently from the average Westerner, you will most likely find them warm, hospitable, and kind.

Yes, sincere Muslims believe that Islam will one day rule the world. And we can certainly chide Muslims for not speaking out more against terrorism. But we won’t get very far with them when we assume things about them that are not true. Just as we hate to be maligned, they hate it also.

Misconception 2: All Muslim women feel oppressed.

Westerners often think of the Islamic woman as severely oppressed. They have a mental picture of a woman, hunched over, walking six feet behind her husband, staring dutifully downward. She can barely read, can’t write at all, and longs for freedom from the oppressive rule of Islam and her dictatorial husband.

This is often very far from the truth. Here are three things to keep in mind about the women of Islam:

  1. Many Muslim men and women are happily married.  The married couples I met when I lived in a Muslim country certainly didn’t do “romance” as Westerners are accustomed to. But neither were the women the demeaned sex-slaves that many Westerners often assume.

There were, of course, some exceptions. I had friends whose wives were rarely allowed out of the back of the house, must less out into the community. And there are certain cultures (Afghanistan, for instance) in which oppression seems more the norm than the exception. But it is an overstatement to say that all Muslim women see themselves as oppressed.

  1. Women are often the most ardent defenders of Islam. Ironic but true: despite Islam’s history of oppression, women will often be Islam’s most ardent supporters. Many Islamic women, especially in the Western world, call for reform in how women are treated in Islamic culture, but rarely for an end to Islam itself.
  2. There is no denying, however, that the Qur’an and Hadith speak disparagingly of women. The Hadith says that 80 percent of the people in hell are women. In explaining why the witness of a woman is equal to only half of a man’s in court, it says, “Because of the deficiency in their brains.” The Qur’an says that Muslim wives “are like a field to be plowed,” which has often been used to legitimize patriarchy and male dominance. And none of this takes into account localized practices which often exceed the Qur’an in brutality.

Some Islamic scholars will say that I am reading these texts wrongly. But the fact remains: much of the worst oppression of women happens in Muslim countries. Islam lacks the robust Judeo-Christian teaching asserting the equality of men and women as both made in God’s image. It may not be universal, but many Islamic women do feel imprisoned. In contrast, showing Muslim women their dignity in Christ has, in many places, proven to be an immensely effective evangelism strategy.

Misconception 3: Muslims seek to know a different God than Christians do.

This is controversial, but hear me out. Muslims claim to worship the God of Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Many missionaries find it therefore helpful to start with Muslims using the Arabic term for God, “Allah” (meaning literally, “the Deity”), and from there to explain that the God Muslims seek to worship, the God of the Prophets, was the God present in bodily form in Jesus Christ, revealed most fully by him, and the One worshipped by Christians for the past two millennia. This is not the same as saying that becoming a Muslim is like a “first step to becoming a Christian.” And it certainly doesn’t mean that Islam is an alternate way of getting to heaven. It simply means that we are both referring to the only, One deity when we say “God.”

You might ask, “But isn’t the Islamic God so different from the Christian God that they cannot properly be called by the same name?” Perhaps. The question about whether to say that “Allah” refers to the wrong God (or to wrong ideas about the right God) is a highly nuanced one, and there’s not an easy answer. There is no doubt that Muslims believe blasphemous things about God, and their beliefs about Allah grew out of a distorted view of Christianity. The same could be said, though to a lesser degree, of the view of God of the first-century Sadducees, as well as the Samaritan woman, and (to an even lesser degree) the fifth-century Pelagian heretics—not to mention a lot of the medieval Scholastics.

The question is whether the presence of these heretical beliefs (and what degree of heresy in them) demands that we say, “You are worshipping a different God.” Clearly, the Apostles did not say that about the first-century Jews who rejected the Trinity (even though Jesus said their father was the devil!). And Jesus did not tell the Samaritan woman in her ethnic, works-righteousness distorted view of God that she was worshipping a different God, either. Instead, he insisted that she was worshipping him incorrectly and seeking salvation wrongly. And I’ve never heard anyone say that the Pelagian heretics worship a different God, even though they have been regarded (rightly) as heretics.

At the same time, Paul never said, “Zeus’s real name is Jehovah,” as if the Greeks were worshipping the true God wrongly. So, the question is: is the Muslim view of Allah more like that of Zeus or of the Samaritan woman’s heretical conception of God? That’s a tough question, and one that we need to let the context determine. For instance, many Christians find the use of “Allah” more misleading than helpful. For them, “Allah” falls in the “Zeus” category.

On the other side, however, are many faithful Christians working among Muslims who approach the question of Allah much like Jesus corrected the Samaritan woman. “You are seeking to worship the one God, but you are wrong in your view of him, and wrong in how you seek salvation from him. Salvation is from the Jews.” In my time with Muslims over the years, I’ve found that to be a more helpful starting place. This isn’t driven by a desire to be politically correct, but by a desire to start where Muslims are, and to bring them to faith in the one and only Son of God, Jesus.

When talking with Muslims about the gospel, we need to eliminate any unnecessary distractions. The necessary ones, after all, will be tough enough. We must view Muslims with charity, refusing to pigeonhole them. We live in a world of stereotypes, but love can overcome what political correctness can’t. To listen to someone without prejudice is the beginning of loving them. In other words, “Do unto others” applies here as well: let’s see others as they would like to be seen.

From “Three Christian Misconceptions About Muslims” by J.D. Greear

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