Christians have interacted both with Muslim persons and the religion of Islam for fourteen centuries. Yet, those interactions have largely increased in the past half century. If the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran did not bring the religion of Islam to the center stage of world events, then the events of 9/11 in 2001 certainly did. Now, twenty years after 9/11, the Taliban (literally “students” of the Qur’an) have conquered Afghanistan. Simultaneously, there exists genuine sympathy, concern, and support among many evangelical Christians for Uyghur Muslims who are undergoing a harsh persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
News headlines aside, Muslims, like the adherents of all other religions, have migrated into various lands. Thus, Christians in many places are more likely to have met and personally know Muslims than would have been likely in centuries past. In many cases, these emerging personal relationships are mutually enriching and synergistic.
We live in an age of terminological confusion which provides unprecedented obstacles to an informed and respectful discussion of nearly any topic. Layered upon this linguistic difficulty is the tendency in the West to mistake criticism of Islam for hatred of Muslims. In such a climate, now globalized through social media, how can Bible-believing Christians develop Scripturally-grounded perspectives regarding Islam and its 1.8 billion adherents, the Muslims of the world?
This article provides assistance to Christians in overcoming this challenge. Initially, the article decouples the term “Muslims” from the term “Islam.” This proves necessary in the face of a modern terminological evolution which attempts to wed and then force a similar perspective regarding both terms. Next, the article employs a biblical study of the divergent uses of kosmos, or “world.” The article recommends that Christians are to love Muslims, who are part of the world of people whom God so loves. On the other hand, Christians should not love the religion of Islam, which is part of the system of this world that opposes the love of the Father and the glorification of the Son. The article concludes with points of praxis to help ensure that Christians do not conflate the two points, and thereby lose our missional urgency and voice of witness in relationships with Muslims.
The Attempted Coupling of “Muslims” and “Islam” in Public Consensus
We live in a world in which new words are coined and then promoted. One such example is the term “Islamophobia,” recently minted in the West. Various definitions of this term tend to erroneously conflate, or at least, link perceptions regarding Muslims and Islam. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Islamophobia as a “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force.”1Oxford English and Spanish Online Dictionary. https://www.lexico.com/definition/islamophobia. Similarly, Merriam-Webster defines the same term as an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam.”2Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Islamophobia.
One possible rationale behind the confusing definitions of Islamophobia presented above would be to equate criticisms of Islamic doctrines or beliefs—a normal part of comparative religious study—with hate speech against Muslims. This coincides with the attempts of some Muslims to fend off serious or satirical evaluations of the prophet Muhammad. Whether such evaluations are presented in a somber manner or in a humorous one lies secondary to the probing nature of the evaluations themselves.
The hate speech discussion requires further reflection. Even the “United Nations Plan of Action and Strategy on Hate Speech” document concedes that the definition of hate speech is “controversial and disputed”:
What is hate speech? There is no international legal definition of hate speech, and the characterization of what is ‘hateful’ is controversial and disputed. In the context of this document, the term hate speech is understood as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.3United Nations, 2019. “United Nations Plan of Action and Strategy on Hate Speech.” https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/UN%20Strategy%20and%20Plan%20of%20Action%20on%20Hate%20Speech%2018%20June%20SYNOPSIS.pdf, p. 2, emphasis added.
By this statement, the UN is not upholding the standard of an open marketplace of ideas. Any “pejorative” language critical of Islam is coupled with hate speech against a “person or group.”
The coupling of perspectives on Muslims and Islam is evident not only in the wider public discourse, but in Christian theology and missiology as well. The Christian theological journal Themelios addressed the topic of Islam back in 1978 in only its third issue. The editor, Dick France, requested Rev. Colin Chapman to contribute an article, which was entitled, “Thinking Biblically About Islam.”4Colin Chapman, “Thinking Biblically About Islam” Themelios, Volume 3, No. 3, (April 1978), pp. 66-78, https://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/themelios/Themelios3.3.pdf Rev. Chapman, a recognized expert in the field of Islamics at that time, struggled to overcome the challenge of conflating the religion of Islam with its adherents, Muslims: “Our most natural starting-point is to ask how the Bible can help us relate to Muslims.”5Ibid., p. 66, emphasis in original. Yet, the article proposed to help Christians think biblically about Islam.
Jihadists struck the United States embassy in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, killing the presiding ambassador. The US government was not forthcoming about the motive for the attack. They blamed it on a cheaply-produced Youtube video trailer critical of Muhammad.6FactCheck.org. https://www.factcheck.org/2016/06/the-benghazi-timeline-clinton-edition/ More important for this discussion, however, was President Barack Obama’s subsequent speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2012. In that speech, President Obama stated, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”7Obama White House Archives Online. (September 25, 2012). https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/25/remarks-president-un-general-assembly.
Since this statement features the coupling mechanism under consideration, a closer examination of it is warranted. First, the term “slander” is a legal term meant to protect people from unwarranted and injurious ad hominem attacks. Second, since Muhammad produced a holy book and uttered thousands of sayings which Islam considers authoritative (the Hadith literature), the corpus of his theological output cannot be shielded from open-ended scrutiny by a blanket “slander” defense. If this were so, any comparative religious study regarding Islam could easily be deemed “slander” or “hate speech.” Third, Muhammad taught that the Bible has been corrupted and that the Savior Jesus Christ is no such Savior. Yet, the world does not observe Christians protesting this as hate speech on the part of Muhammad or Muslims. An open marketplace of ideas remains paramount in a free world.
Decoupling Perceptions about Islam from Perceptions about Muslims
Amit Bhatia conducted an important doctoral research project at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School which was published in book form as Engaging Muslims & Islam: Lessons for 21st-Century American Evangelicals. Bhatia noted regarding evangelicals in Chicago: “They may have a fairly positive perspective toward Islam but a negative attitude toward Muslims, or vice versa.”8Amit Bhatia. Engaging Muslims & Islam: Lessons for 21st-Century American Evangelicals. (Urban Loft Publishers, 2017) p. 25. Bhatia’s research gives pause to any assumption that views regarding Muslims and Islam must necessarily correlate strongly.
Often, simplicity provides the best tool of interpretation. Christians have long believed and preached, “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” This guidance typically pertains to behavioral sins, rather than religions as a whole; nevertheless, this short saying proves instructional for Christians in decoupling and then firewalling indignation toward a behavior or belief from any hostility toward the people who practice those behaviors or espouse those beliefs. This holds true even when such non-biblical positions crystallize into political movements that can result in the persecution of Christians. Error must be opposed, but people are always loved. Jesus modeled this position in His compassion toward the woman taken in adultery. He forgave her sins: “I do not condemn you, either.” Yet, He did not condone the sin: “Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
A Key in the Cosmos
The article, as noted in its title, endeavors to assist Christians in developing biblical perspectives regarding Muslims and Islam. One helpful word study relates to the New Testament Greek term for “world,” kosmos (or cosmos, from which we get associated words such as cosmic and cosmopolitan). Kosmos appears 187 times in the New Testament with at least three distinct meanings. First, kosmos may connote the physical earth or universe. Ephesians 1:4 speaks of “the foundation of the world:” “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (NASB95 throughout). Mark 16:15 records Jesus telling His disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” This first definition is of lesser importance biblically; it will be notated as kosmos-earth.
The second main NT definition of kosmos is all people, the inhabitants of the earth. Jesus famously stated, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves all the people of the world. Men, women, and children. At all times and everywhere. God not only loved the world, but He so loved the world. This connotation—all the people of the world—will be notated as kosmos-people.
In seeming contradiction to this second usage arises the third definition: kosmos as the system of the world that appeals to man’s fleshly desires. This will be notated as kosmos-system. Thus, this is not a matter of a Greek term being used differently by various NT authors. John, after reporting that God so loved the kosmos, curiously and emphatically warns his readers to “love not the kosmos”:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
In this short passage, John uses the word kosmos six times, all in a decidedly negative fashion. Rather than referring to the physical earth, or the people in it, this usage refers to an evil system of the world, opposed to the Father and Christ. It is the kosmos that inspires lust and pride, the same temptations that resulted in the eviction of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Christians are not to love this world. The Blue Letter Bible provides this definition of kosmos: “the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments, riches, advantages, pleasures, etc., which although hollow and frail and fleeting, stir desire, seduce from God and are obstacles to the cause of Christ.”9Blue Letter Bible Online. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g2889/nasb20/tr/0-1/
Paul describes the “course of this kosmos” in Ephesians 2:1-3:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
This cosmic system tempts mankind toward death, sins, transgressions, satanic principalities, disobedience, lust, the flesh and wrath. God hates the elements of this kosmos-system.
In summary, God loves all people of this kosmos-people world, saved or unsaved. God does not love this evil kosmos-system, a kingdom that is neither submitted to the King of Kings nor to His Kingdom of God. Bible-believing Christians must likewise love all people. Yet, if they love this evil world system, the love of the Father does not abide in them. Christians must maintain the same quality of distinction in choosing to love Muslims, yet not to love Islam.
Points of Praxis
The following points are provided to improve the life interactions between Christian and Muslims. As Christians implement these points of praxis, their witness for Christ will be strengthened.
1. Promoting a Biblical Perspective on Muslims as Unbelievers
Due to stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists, some Christians may view Muslims as anthropologically different than themselves. This, however, is a mistake. Muslims are humans of the kosmos-people world; they are sinners just like all other people. They are not by nature worse sinners than other sinners, even than those sinners born to Christian parents. The grace of God can extend to Muslims, and that grace is rushing like a river in our days.
After laying a foundation in theological anthropology in which Muslims are sinners like other humans, a few additional comments follow. Muslims committed to jihad and world domination are a formidable subset of Muslims worldwide, but they are not representative of Muslims in many contexts. Based on observations after having personally traveled and ministered in every region of the Muslim world, Muslims have the general tendencies of being a) God-oriented, which is a refreshing variance from secular-oriented cultures, b) family-oriented, and c) hospitality-oriented. All these characteristics are biblical in nature. These are orientations to which Christians similarly aspire.
2. Promoting a Biblical Perspective on Islam as a Religion
It is commonplace in comparative religious studies to create charts which compare and contrast the doctrines of various religions. In undertaking such a comparison of Islam and Christianity, similarities and well as differences naturally arise. Regarding similarities, both religions teach the following concepts:
- There is one God
- He created the world in six days
- Angels exist as unseen ministering spirits
- Demons oppose both people and God
- Satan is the chief of demons
- People live only one life on this earth
- After this life is over, each soul will encounter a day of judgment
Naturally, these commonalities provide abundant opportunities for contextual bridging when speaking to Muslims about Christ. Significant common ground exists.
Nevertheless, on the key points of Christian orthodoxy—those elements at the heart of the gospel—Islam diverges on each one. First, Islam rejects that God is eternally existent as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Second, Islam denies Christ’s saving work on the cross. In Islam, the mortal Jesus is rescued from the cross, rather than rescuing sinners through the cross. Third, Islam rejects the doctrine of human sinfulness, which thus requires a savior. And fourth, Islam rejects the Bible as the authority for life and doctrine, substituting the Qur’an in its place.
In light of the prevalence of similarities and difference in this comparative religious study, how should Christians view Islam? Should one focus on the forest or the trees? Hendrik Kraemer proves helpful by insisting on a broader focus. He advises:
In the first place, no religion is an assortment of spiritual commodities that can be compared as shoes or neckties…On the contrary, every religion is a unity or individual whole in which each teaching, myth, or ritual must be understood in relationship to all else. In the second place, when exposed to the light of God’s revelation in Christ and the Scriptures, even those parts of another religion that might appear to be lofty are parts of a whole that is under the judgment of God.10Hendrik Kraemer, 1962, pp. 134-136. Quoted in Hesselgrave, David J. Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2005) p. 104.
Kraemer’s advice perfectly fits the situation regarding a biblical evaluation of Islam. Similarities indeed exist, yet the whole religion is “under the judgment of God.” Islam, based on the beliefs it presents, “when exposed to the light of God’s revelation in Christ and the Scriptures,” can only be considered part of the ungodly kosmos-system.
While Kraemer presents a statement generically regarding “theology of religions,” Samuel Zwemer makes a specific application to Islam: “Islam denies the incarnation and the atonement. Therefore, with all the good names and titles it gives our Saviour, Islam only proves itself the Judas Iscariot among false religions by betraying the Son of Man with a kiss.”11Samuel Zwemer, The Nearer and Farther East, (1908), p. 21. These assessments from Kramer and Zwemer, though dating from the last century, prove particularly prescient in formulating strategy for ministry to Muslims.
3. Continuing a Robust Witness to Muslims
Since Muslims are human beings in this kosmos-people world whom God loves, Christians should love Muslims. Since Muslims have inherited the errant, worldly kosmos-system of Islam, Christians are commissioned by Christ Himself to share the saving good news of the gospel with them. Fears induced by television stereotypes should neither rule the day nor silence the witness of Christians.
Muslims worldwide are coming to Christ. The Islamic Republic of Iran is experiencing the highest evangelical growth rate of any nation on earth. The Iranian church is growing by 19.6% per annum, in the face of great persecution.12See Operation World online: https://web.archive.org/web/20210228041754/https://www.operationworld.org/hidden/evangelical-growth, and The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/fastest-growing-church-world/. Afghanistan is ranked second in the same survey. The first major global census of Muslim-background believers in Christ was conducted by Patrick Johnstone of Operation World and researcher Duane A. Miller. They cultivated the best available reporting for the year 2010, publishing their results in 2015.13Johnstone, Patrick, and Duane Miller, “Believers in Christ from a Muslim background: A Global Census.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 11, Article 10 (2015), page 11. These researchers provide an estimate of 5 million to 15 million believers in Christ from Muslim background. The numbers no doubt have increased yet again during the past decade.
This may surprise some Christians, but it is clear that many Muslims are open to the gospel—and we are called to reach them. Amit Bhatia reports: “One pastor invited his Muslim friend to an eight-week Bible study on ‘The Life of Jesus.’ After the series ended, the Muslim friend stated, “If you ever do anything like this again, I want to be in it.”14Bhatia, ibid., p. 207.
Responsible missiology calls for proclaiming the good news of Jesus. This final point of praxis should be conducted with the theological fortification of the previous points. In summary, Christians should seek meaningful, positive, holistic relationships with Muslims, marked by God’s agape love for the kosmos-people, always being ready to share the hope in Christ which lies within.
A Christian perspective informed by the Bible warrants polar-opposite attitudes toward Muslims as people and Islam as a religion. Muslims as people are loved by God and should be loved by Christians. This holds true not only for Muslims, but for all the people of the kosmos-people world. Islam as a religion minimizes Christ and therefore cannot be celebrated, as a whole. The religion founded by Muhammad, when studied through the lens of the Bible, can only be categorized as part of the evil kosmos-system of the world. No Christian is called to love that system. Thus, when it comes to developing biblical perspectives on Muslims, and then on Islam, the respective views warranted by the Bible remain worlds apart.
The Christian approach to Muslims must remain one that is simultaneously evangelical, evangelistic, and pastoral. Pastors minister to many seekers and inquirers who retain anti-biblical beliefs. Certainly, many new believers in churches could be found who espouse new age beliefs or cherish ideas that do not meet a biblical muster. Pastors do not hate these people, though they reject the aberrant teachings. The global church should adopt a similar position of loving Muslims but rejecting Islam. A spiritual maturity that is biblically anchored will guard against misplaced animosity.
This proves us to be true servants of the biblical God: showing love to prisoners, and hating their prison. In Psalm 107, we read of those who sit in iron chains, suffering in darkness and forced to labor bitterly because they reject the Lord’s commands—yet the moment they cry out to Him, He cuts chains of iron and breaks gates of bronze in order to set them free. Likewise, as ambassadors of this God, we are called to love those crying out for freedom from Islam, and to wage spiritual warfare in order to break the chains that hold them fast.
This is the day of harvest for Muslims to come into the Kingdom of God. Those who contend for an illogical coupling of “Muslims” and “Islam” may do so to protect the religion of Islam from the open examination it has tended to evade for centuries. Such an examination, however, is needed and warranted. Those who promote it will ultimately be proven to be true friends of Muslims.
- 1Oxford English and Spanish Online Dictionary. https://www.lexico.com/definition/islamophobia.
- 2Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Islamophobia.
- 3United Nations, 2019. “United Nations Plan of Action and Strategy on Hate Speech.” https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/UN%20Strategy%20and%20Plan%20of%20Action%20on%20Hate%20Speech%2018%20June%20SYNOPSIS.pdf, p. 2, emphasis added.
- 4Colin Chapman, “Thinking Biblically About Islam” Themelios, Volume 3, No. 3, (April 1978), pp. 66-78, https://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/themelios/Themelios3.3.pdf
- 5Ibid., p. 66, emphasis in original.
- 6FactCheck.org. https://www.factcheck.org/2016/06/the-benghazi-timeline-clinton-edition/
- 7Obama White House Archives Online. (September 25, 2012). https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/25/remarks-president-un-general-assembly.
- 8Amit Bhatia. Engaging Muslims & Islam: Lessons for 21st-Century American Evangelicals. (Urban Loft Publishers, 2017) p. 25.
- 9Blue Letter Bible Online. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g2889/nasb20/tr/0-1/
- 10Hendrik Kraemer, 1962, pp. 134-136. Quoted in Hesselgrave, David J. Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2005) p. 104.
- 11Samuel Zwemer, The Nearer and Farther East, (1908), p. 21.
- 12See Operation World online: https://web.archive.org/web/20210228041754/https://www.operationworld.org/hidden/evangelical-growth, and The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/fastest-growing-church-world/.
- 13Johnstone, Patrick, and Duane Miller, “Believers in Christ from a Muslim background: A Global Census.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 11, Article 10 (2015), page 11.
- 14Bhatia, ibid., p. 207.