It was a gruesome day I will never forget. The 9/11 attacks in NYC, at the Pentagon, and the AA Flights were tragic. Shocking images of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in NY will forever remain in my mind and hundreds of millions of people who watched it on TV. At first glance, I honestly thought it was a scene in a movie until the news anchor announced the reality of the horrific attack that took the lives of over 3,000 people from almost 60 countries.
The world changed drastically that horrible Tuesday morning on September 11, 2001. The effects of that attack on US soil remain with us and will remain perhaps for decades to come.
Remember when you used to travel without the long queues going through security screening at airports? You went directly to the gate a few minutes before take-off and you made it.
But the world changed in other ways too. Islam, ignored for centuries, jumped onto centerstage of the news media. Our Muslim neighbors and co-workers whom we regularly looked past, now became the object of our stare.
Within the Muslim community, there were many leaders distancing themselves from the terror of 9/11, as aberrations of Islam as a religion of peace. Other Muslims around the globe saw the Islamic agenda going forward. Many more Muslims were becoming increasingly disillusioned and disheartened by Islam. But still, within Muslim-dominated countries, there were growing numbers of tragic stories of terror, persecution of Christians, burning churches, and the restriction of the gospel.
A few decades ago the Muslim minority wasn’t even on the radar screen for most American Christians. Today, Muslims seem to be everywhere. They live in almost every community and come from all walks of life. They are from many ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. Some Muslim families have been in the USA for generations; many are new immigrants. But they are not all the same. They fall on a spectrum ranging from extremists to moderates to secular.
Islam and Muslims are entering the American consciousness rapidly. Many Christians continue to struggle with how to digest the phenomenon. As a result, many Christians and churches are still confused as to how to think, feel, and act toward Muslims.
Christian reaction to Muslims and Islam varies. They stem from the heart; five basic attitudes: fear, fury, forgetfulness, fatigue, and even fascination. We will never be able to effectively engage Muslims until we submit our hearts and actions towards Muslims to the Lord, and then let God cleanse us, renewing us with his love and replacing our fleshly actions with Spirit-led acts of compassion.
Many people are afraid of Islam and Muslims. Images of the flames consuming the Twin Towers and people jumping a hundred stories to their deaths are etched into their memories. They are afraid of the physical dangers that radical Islam represents: terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of travelers in Muslim lands, riots, and news reports of burning cars in European cities. These fears are reinforced by images of Muslims shouting, “Death to infidels!” on television.
Many Westerners are frightened by the thought of Islam overwhelming Western societies. Muslim immigration is dramatically altering the demographics and public culture of the West. Many fear that Muslims are not “regular” immigrants, but advocates of separate, sharia-based communities that will compete with the host nation’s culture and government, rather than assimilating into it.1Sharia is an Arabic word for law or constitution. It refers to Islamic law which is based on the two holy books of Islam, the Qur’an and Hadith. Sharia composes a complete system of law for Islamic society.
Fear has also paralyzed the missionary community in many Muslim countries. Many of them fear persecution, they fear being kicked out of the country, and/or they fear hurting the nationals. Western Christians fear offending Muslims, they fear being socially ostracized by the Christian community, or the loss of their job, or being labeled bigoted or oppressive. These fears have dire spiritual consequences for Christians trying to engage Muslims to fulfill the Great Commission.2“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Fear leads to secrecy. Many fearful missionaries hide their identity as Christians and tone down their witness. Fearful Christians traveling or working among Muslims conceal their faith. They don’t tell Muslims around them who they are or what they are doing. Christians who are afraid of offending Muslims tend to water down the gospel and hesitate to alert Muslims that they are sinners in need of salvation. They are afraid to present the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for their sins, and that unless Muslims turn to Christ they will not be saved. They fail to heed Jesus’ principle that, “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.”3Luke 8:16; Jesus prepared his disciples for suffering; he taught them how to speak in the midst of persecution and not to dodge persecution. They should be wise and blameless (Mt 10:16-25. In the midst of persecution, Jesus also taught them to only fear God, not people, for much is at stake (Mt 10:32)
Many Westerners, including Christians, are angry at Muslims for acts of aggression against the West and persecution of Christians in Muslim lands. They see the history of Islam as a series of continual wars of conquest waged against “infidels.” The Islamic invasions of the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia are burned into the West’s cultural memory, and recent events have reopened these wounds. Many Christians find it easier to be enraged than engaged with Muslims.
They are also furious over what seems to be a deliberate attempt to gain political and social dominance as part of the global Islamic agenda of taking over democratic nations and imposing Sharia Law. For instance, recently mosques were sanctioned by the authorities in Minnesota for broadcasting the call to prayer in Arabic five times a day over their loudspeaker. Although many Christians in Minneapolis seem to be unmoved by this development, some Christian leaders are concerned but do not know what to do. They feel that Muslims are attempting to subvert Western society through immigration and political manipulation.
Christian anger leads to strife with Muslims. Many have engaged Muslims with polemics and apologetics in an attempt to defeat Muslim arguments and humiliate Muslim apologists. It ought to go without saying that Christians who are furious with Muslims cannot be effective ambassadors for Christ.
Some Christians don’t want to think about Islam at all. We might say they are “willingly forgetful,” or apathetic. They go about their lives undisturbed by negative or even positive impressions of Muslims. They ignore the reality that Islam is no longer far away but it is growing in size and influence in their community. Apathy is a common attitude, a defense mechanism to protect themselves from feeling overwhelmed by a new phenomenon that they think does not concern them. Most Americans are too busy with their own lives to bother with reaching out to Muslims or building relationships with them, even if they are their next-door neighbors.
In our ministry to international students, I have tried in vain, year after year, to get churches to provide friendship partners for Muslim students. Sadly some of the few individuals in the churches who do sign up to become friendship partners often do not follow through. Other Christians may help for a short period but show little desire to persevere in meaningful evangelistic relations with Muslims. Are they heartless? Do they not care? I cannot judge their hearts but their actions clearly show indifference.
It is commonly held by those who serve on US campuses that 80% of international students never step inside an American home, let alone a Christian one. And the statistic is much higher among Muslim students. Why? Perhaps they do not realize that most Muslims from abroad are wide open and even seek friendship with Americans, especially during the first few weeks in the US.
Beyond that, many Muslim international students begin to gravitate toward one another. At first, many avoid the mosque and other Muslims who may pressure them to be religious. Most of them are not particularly religious. They came to America hoping for a more secular experience. If they do not form meaningful relationships with their American peers, they give up after a while and begin going to the mosque to fill their need for belonging and acceptance. They give up on Americans accepting them, so they push away and revert to their comfort zone. Ironically, this experience often causes them to become more Islamic in America than they were in their countries. They represent a lost opportunity for great commission Christians.
The irony is that I know a number of churches that pray for the Muslim world and ask God to save Muslims and change Muslim countries. And yet these same churches are unwilling to reach out across the street or across town to the many Muslims who live, work, and study among us. It is a shame. If this is not apathy, what is it?
To be honest, some are tired of hearing about Islam. They are exhausted by the unending news of terror and wars in the Muslim world. Some of us paid no attention to Muslims at all before September 11, 2001, and now we can’t turn on a TV, read a paper, or go to church without hearing about them. We’d rather support relief work in Haiti or go on a mission trip to Guatemala: we figure that at least those people don’t want to blow us up. Many Christians do not want to hear any more about Muslims. To use a term from media or marketing, Muslims are currently “overexposed.”
This attitude of fatigue leaves no room for compassion, or for seeing Muslims as people just like us with the same needs and aspirations. As someone who has dedicated his life to motivating and training Christians to share the gospel with Muslims, I’m quite familiar with the withdrawn body language and glazed-over eyes of Christians who don’t want to be told that they should pay attention to the Muslims in their midst. Sometimes the more we say about Islam, the less some people care about the issue. I recognize that an orphaned child in Ethiopia or a family losing their home down the block are more sympathetic figures for ministry. And yet the increased visibility of Islam in the world is evidence that God has made missions to Muslims one of the great challenges and opportunities of our time.
Incredibly, some Christians became curious about Islam after September 11, 2001. They bought books, attended seminars, and even visited Mosques to learn about Islam. And rather than reach out to them with the gospel, they have found Muslims to be “good people, religious and committed to their religion.” This new image of Islam contradicted their previous view of Islam as a group of “bad people who want to kill us.” Some Christians have become enchanted by its complexity and “otherness.” Even some missionaries who were supposed to be sharing the gospel with Muslims become enamored, even intimidated by Muslims’ religious devotion. As they study Islam and their culture, they develop a fascination with and interest in Islam. They come to admire and sympathize with Muslims, not as people lost in a false religion but as heirs of a worthy tradition and members of a rich culture. They become impressed with Muslim devotion and zeal for God, contrasting it to the apparent laxity of many Christians. Indeed, on the surface, Islamic worship does seem admirable: millions of Muslims wake up at dawn to do their ritualistic washings, spread a prayer carpet, and bend their knees to Allah. They appear pious and are willing to die for their religion. Some fascinated Christians begin to convince themselves that we all worship the same God and that while the Qur’an and the Bible do not agree about everything there is still enough common ground to build spiritual bridges to Muslims. This sort of rationalized fascination results in avoiding any form of confrontation that may offend or push away Muslims and jeopardize future engagement.
For those Christians who are bored with or ashamed of Western civilization–or even Christianity itself–Islam offers an exotic, non-Western alternative to their own heritage. They become intoxicated by a mythical religion that seems to be more glorious and enlightened than the familiar but grubby details of Christian history.
Other Christians, tired of conflict and wounded by what they perceive as mean-spirited attacks against Muslims, feel sympathy for this group of maligned people. When exposed to the often admirable social and family traditions of Muslims, and the apparent sincerity of their faith, these Christians often tend toward solidarity with Muslims.
Unfortunately, Western culture has largely eliminated sacred devotion and liturgical practice from daily life. Starved for tangible spirituality, many in the West cannot bring themselves to re-embrace Christianity–perhaps familiarity really does breed contempt. And so for decades, Westerners have been drawn to foreign examples of spiritual practice such as Hindu yoga or the devotion of Buddhist monks in Tibet, and more recently to Islamic mysticism. Westerners who struggle to pray a few minutes a week are impressed by Muslims who pray five times a day. For such people, Islamic culture appears untainted by the modernity and commercialization that characterizes much of Western religion.
I call this attitude of fascination with Islam and the Muslim life “flirting with Islam.” As a married man who flirts with a woman who is not his wife is a fool, so too are believers who flirt with Islam. Flirting with Islam is foolish. Tragically many who flirt with Islam profess they have new ways of understanding Islam and Muslims, but Christians and churches must exercise the mind of Christ, thinking biblically, thinking with wisdom, and seeking to remain faithful to their Lord while also meaningfully engaging Muslims with the gospel by word and deed.
Those who flirt with Islam are often led into compromised views of interpreting Islam, the Quran, and the Muslim life, and hence adopt evangelistic methods and discipleship approaches that are syncretistic. Syncretism is the fusion of different belief systems. Some call this new phenomenon Chrislam, a meshing of Christianity with Islam.
Fascination with Islamic theology muddies the clarity and simplicity of the gospel, the very gospel of which Paul said that he was not ashamed, “because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”4Romans 1:16.
Biblical Reaction to Islam: Boldness, Gentleness, and Truth
All of these reactions (fear, fury, forgetfulness, fatigue, and fascination) lead us to engage Muslims in unbiblical and ineffective ways (secrecy, strife, apathy, exhaustion, and syncretism). The proper Christian reaction to lost people, Muslims or others, is love. The love of Christ should fill us with boldness, gentleness, and truth as well as involvement and action. We need to think and act “Christianly.”
Fear leads to secrecy, but love casts out fear, and produces boldness for the gospel. 1 John 4:17-18 tells us that, “In this way, love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness…There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” If we do not present the gospel boldly and clearly, what good are we as Jesus’ followers? Jesus said that since salt which has lost its saltiness is no longer good for anything, and that since a light on a hill cannot be hidden we should let our light shine before men (Mt 5:13-16). Will that sometimes result in danger for Christians when cultures that stand opposed to Christ are engaged? Of course it will. Did we expect that following a crucified savior would always be safe? (John 15:20)
Fury over past aggression leads to strife, but love melts fury and leads to gentleness. When we were weak, ungodly, and enemies of God, He reconciled us to himself by the death of His Son (Rom 5:6-11). Paul instructs Timothy that, “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful (2 Tim 2:24).” We cannot be faithful servants of the gospel if we are motivated by anger, much less rage. The sentiments in the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” are understandable and inspirational. But the metaphor of carrying the gospel to Muslims as if we were going to war does not capture the proper motivation for missionary work, which ought to be a bold gentleness (a paradox that only Christ can model for us). We must engage Muslims with love and without strife, and patiently explain the good news that Christ commissioned us to bear.
Fascination leads to syncretism, so that we no longer have a distinct gospel. But the love of God teaches us all things. It teaches us to love the true gospel, instead of letting it become polluted with myths and false religions. “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ (Eph 4:15).”
Ever since Adam and Eve fell for the serpent’s half-truths (Genesis 3), mankind’s understanding has been darkened (Rom 1:21). But the Christian is a new man with the mind of Christ and hence should seek to think biblically and speak truthfully. The gospel is not a “cleverly invented story” (2 Peter 1:16), but an eyewitness account of the truth that shall set us free (John 8:32). We must resist the temptation to water down the gospel or fuse it with Islam, no matter how charming or inspirational some of its traditions can be.
Healthy Attitudes Toward Muslims
We talked about the misperceptions we have of Muslims and the unhealthy reactions we have to Islam. But how should we think and feel toward these people who are strangers to most Christians? What are healthy attitudes that we can bring to our engagement with them?
First of all, we must see Muslims as individuals, and distinguish between Islam as a false religious system and Muslims as people. God determined the times and places where all of us are born or live (Acts 17:26). Many Muslims are products of Islamic cultures where they have had little or no exposure to Christianity. They are products of their culture and environment, just as we are. This should fill us with compassion and understanding for the individual men, women, and children that we encounter in Muslim communities. More than that, it means that God has given us (the Church) the seemingly impossible task of sharing his gospel with each one of them.
Second, a healthy attitude recognizes both the good and bad in Islam and Muslims. People are confused when they hear two contradictory messages about Islam. There are those who say it is violent, and that Muslims want to destroy all infidels. On the other hand, there are those who go out of their way to argue that Islam is a religion of peace, a victim of the radical factions twisting its message. There is always a temptation to polarize issues, pigeonholing things into extreme categories. We need to face the fact that Islam has two elements: one peaceful and one at war with the world. The Qur’an has both peaceful teachings and teachings that command the faithful to destroy non-Muslims. We should be honest about both realities.
Third, we must love Muslims while hating the lies that keep them in captivity. That sounds extreme to post-modern ears, which have been taught to tolerate and even respect all religions. But Islam is a false religion, and Muhammad was a false prophet who accepted and promoted a false image of Jesus. He accepted him as a prophet but denied his divinity and claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross to save us from our sins. The Bible teaches that, “There is no name under heaven, other than that of Jesus Christ, by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12).”
How can we value a religion that leads so many people away from eternal life? It is possible to respect people without agreeing with their belief system. It is also possible to respect certain elements of the cultural heritage of Muslim peoples while rejecting the false revelation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an contains biblical characters and stories, but they are all twisted, creating powerful strongholds against the truth in the minds of Muslims. Paul wrote, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).”
Notice that Paul’s goal is “to punish every act of disobedience,” by seeing the sinners’ restoration through obedience. In the same way, we must hope to see Islam condemned as Muslims are saved from it.
Fourth, a healthy attitude sees the lostness of Muslims with a heart of compassion, not contempt. All Muslims are not terrorists. All Muslims did not attack the World Trade Center on September 11. Yes, there have been too many terrorist acts against Christians. Yes, sharia law declares jihad (war) against Christians and Jews. Yes, Christians in Muslim lands are second-class citizens, denied promotion and other opportunities and rights. Yes, there is continual pressure on them to abandon their faith. Yes, converts are persecuted and even in some cases sentenced to death. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There is much evil in Islam. And yet Jesus prayed that the Father would forgive those who nailed him to the cross, for they did not know what they were doing. We are called to love Muslims, and bless those who persecute us. This is unambiguous in the New Testament.
Fifth, we are to be innocent as doves, yet shrewd as snakes (Mt 10:16). Jesus has sent us out among enemies. He instructs us to love our enemies, but still understand the dangers in living among them. A healthy attitude is alert to risks, being wise and careful stewards of our lives and opportunities without being fearful.
Finally, on September 11, we need to develop a healthy attitude toward Muslims by recognizing that Muslims need Christ. Islamic devotion, no matter how regular or intense, is not a substitute for faith in Christ as the only savior and Lord. Their piety is not enough to please God. They cannot save themselves by climbing the Five Pillars of Islam to heaven.5 In Sunni Islam, the Five Pillars are Shahada (Confession), Sala (Prayers), Zakat (Alms-giving) Sawm (Fasting), and Hajj (Pilgrimage). Their recognition of Jesus as a prophet is not enough. Their belief in God’s existence and even in other fragments of truth must not blind us to this fact: no matter how religious, pious, or even well-behaved Muslims are, they still are lost without Christ.
They need our witness that Jesus is the bread of life and the living water (John 6), that Jesus is the good shepherd (John 10), that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11), and the only way to the Father (John 14:6).
More Muslims have accepted Christ since September 11, 2001, than all the 1,400 years of Islam. This is a reason for much rejoicing. Yet the harvest is still plentiful and the laborers are still few. Let us mobilize ourselves and our churches to turn the table on Satan and see a massive movement to Christ among Muslims. Jesus said go… and I will be with you. Without him we can do nothing, but with him there is nothing we cannot do. The impossible task of reaching Muslims with the gospel is only possible with the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us.
Indeed let us think Christianly about Islam until every Muslim has the opportunity to hear the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Lord of the harvest, who is the way, the truth, and the life.
- 1Sharia is an Arabic word for law or constitution. It refers to Islamic law which is based on the two holy books of Islam, the Qur’an and Hadith. Sharia composes a complete system of law for Islamic society.
- 2“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
- 3Luke 8:16; Jesus prepared his disciples for suffering; he taught them how to speak in the midst of persecution and not to dodge persecution. They should be wise and blameless (Mt 10:16-25. In the midst of persecution, Jesus also taught them to only fear God, not people, for much is at stake (Mt 10:32)
- 4Romans 1:16.
- 5In Sunni Islam, the Five Pillars are Shahada (Confession), Sala (Prayers), Zakat (Alms-giving) Sawm (Fasting), and Hajj (Pilgrimage).