Living in peace with our Muslim neighbors

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The good news allows Christians to live in peace with people of other faiths

By Gordon Nickel

At many places of work and leisure today, Christians have the opportunity to enter into friendly relationship and meaningful faith conversation with Muslims. This has been the case for many Christians in the Middle East for more than a millennium. The opportunity for most Christians in the United States, however, has come relatively recently. Perhaps because of this, many American Christians have questions about the way in which the relationship with Muslims should play out.

These questions are important, and happily Christians are not left alone in attempting to answer them. They have the guidance of the New Testament, a scripture written in the midst of the missionary discovery of new cultures and religions. Christians also have the wisdom of missionaries who have served Christ long-term among Muslims, and the vision of clear-eyed mission leaders for peaceable gospel witness among Muslims.

For Christians, the basic rule is to approach Muslims with love and respect. Out of that love comes the freedom both to be realistic about Islam and to share with Muslims the good news of God’s love demonstrated to the world through the death of Jesus on the cross. Christians will find that they disagree with Muslims on some very basic faith commitments. However, disagreement does not mean that Christians cannot get along well with Muslims. In fact, a commitment to the gospel means that Christians will seek to live in peace with Muslims no matter how deep the disagreement may be.

Much in common, many differences

As people living together, Christians and Muslims have much in common. They share the same humanity and the same basic needs. Christians believe that Muslims are created in God’s image just like they are. They believe that Muslims are loved unconditionally by God, and that God demonstrated his love for all of humanity in history in an unmistakable way. Christians believe that all humans are imperfect sinners by God’s holy standard, and that Jesus gave his life to save Muslims just as much as any others. They believe that ethnic or cultural distinctions make no difference in the good things which God wants to do for people. All of these understandings carry great promise for peaceful coexistence in a multifaith society.

When Christians and Muslims converse together, they also find many things which are similar in their faiths. For example, they share a belief in a Creator God and the stories of many characters from the Hebrew Bible. Both Christians and Muslims believe that God gave his law to humanity and can expect from his creatures their obedience. Both confess only one God. Many Christians and Muslims—arguably a significant majority of each respective world community—also share a similar philosophical approach to truth.

However, beyond these and similar affirmations Christians and Muslims disagree over who God is and whether he has revealed himself in the world. One of the main reasons for this is that in the process of the formation of Islam, Muslims responded to their perceptions of Judaism and Christianity. They rejected the Christian confessions of the deity of Jesus and his redemptive death on the cross. These denials became part of the sourcebooks of Islam. Few have described this process as directly as has Dutch missionary-scholar Hendrik Kraemer in The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World:

In the years of its genesis Islam, having originally taken a friendly attitude towards Christianity as the valid religion of revelation for the “nation” of the Christians, became antagonistic towards it by the mouth of its prophet, that is virtually by the mouth of divine revelation. This antagonism to and indignant rejection of some cardinal elements of Christianity (Jesus’ Sonship, His death on the Cross and consequently such doctrines as the Trinity and Reconciliation or Atonement) are incorporated in the Qur’an, the basis of the Moslem faith, and so belong to the system of Islam. To reject Christianity is with Islam not merely the natural and intelligible reaction of every religion or world conception that has sufficient vigour in it to want to maintain itself: with Islam it belongs to its religious creed. 

Many parts of the Qur’an, notably the four longest suras or chapters near the beginning, appear to contain polemic with Christians and Jews. This is certainly how the earliest Muslim commentators on the Qur’an understood these passages. Christians believe that if people want to know what God is like, they need to look at Jesus (John 1:18). Muslims believe that Jesus is a merely human prophet and that to associate what is merely human with the transcendent God is shirk, the gravest sin.

Because these matters are so central to the faith of both Christians and Muslims, to avoid them in faith conversation would be inauthentic and strangely artificial. Christians who hold to the truth of the New Testament will want to affirm both the deity and redemptive death of Jesus. They may also attempt to remove misunderstandings about the meaning of “Son of God,” a term with which Muslims have major difficulties.

No salvation to offer

Differences appear to reach back to the origins of Islam in the seventh century. According to the earliest biographies of Muhammad and earliest extant commentaries on the Qur’an, Christians from Najran (in Yemen) came to Medina to make terms with Muhammad when his conquest of the Arabian Peninsula seemed unavoidable. The Christians explained to Muhammad their belief in the deity of Jesus, and Muhammad denied their claims. According to Muqatil (died A.D. 767) and Wahidi (died 1076), when the Najran Christians first met Muhammad, they asked him, “Why do you vilify and dishonour our master?” In other words, the Christians perceived that the preaching of Muhammad included a belittling of the Lord they held dear.

There is also the evidence of the famous Dome of the Rock, built by the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 691. The ruling caliph ordered a continuous Arabic message to be inscribed along the top of the inner and outer faces of the colonnade which circles the beautiful octagonal building. In the seventh century, the majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were Christian. The Arabic inscription proclaims repeatedly that God does not have a son, that God is not “three,” that Muhammad is the apostle of God, that God and the angels “pray upon the prophet” and that believers are to do the same. These Muslim statements appear to deny divine glory to Jesus and to claim authority and glory for the prophet of Islam.

The differences between the gospel and Islamic teaching, therefore, go to the heart of each respective faith. Another important example is that Islam does not offer humanity salvation from sin in the terms of New Testament preaching. Muslim scholars explain that in Islam, humanity is not considered to be in need of salvation; therefore, drastic measures like the sacrifice of a righteous prophet are not necessary. The Muslim teaching on crucifixion seems to match this doctrine. Muslims say that Jesus did not in fact die on the cross, but was rather “taken up” by God at the moment when the soldiers were about to seize him.

Partly because of the denials of the death and divine sonship of Jesus, Muslim teaching on the love of God is very different from what Christians affirm from the gospel. Statements on the love of God in the Qur’an, for example, make the love of God for humans conditional on their obedience to God’s law and on following the prophet of Islam. There is no command to love either God or humans, nor is human love based on the love of God. God is not “love” in the Qur’an.

Significantly for conflicts in the world today, Muslim teaching on response to situations of conflict is very different from what we find in the teaching and example of Jesus. All of the sourcebooks of Islam were written during the conquest and military domination of the Middle East by Muslims. The earliest biographies of Islam’s prophet tell a story of military engagement in Medina and throughout the Arabian peninsula. The Qur’an contains 12 commands to fight the enemy and five commands to kill. Islamic Law made these scriptural commands and the story of Islam’s prophet normative for Muslim behavior.

All of these matters are best checked in the sourcebooks of Islam themselves and in conversation with orthodox Muslims whom we have the privilege of meeting. There is a range of diversity in the way in which Muslims interpret their tradition, but there is virtual unanimity that the Qur’an and the traditional words and behavior of Islam’s prophet are the twin bases of authority for all.

Compassion and open witness

There is no necessary link between disagreeing on crucial points of faith and Christian anger or antipathy toward Muslims—much less thoughts of political enmity or physical confrontation. Points of deep faith are not settled by force or threat of force, by raising one’s voice, by polemical skill or deception or manipulation. (Neither, of course, is anything settled by avoiding crucial issues or trying to smooth them over without open discussion.) Christians make their confession as clearly as possible and attempt to make the best case they can.

If they seek to follow Jesus in their manner, their approach will be invitation not compulsion. They listen carefully and sympathetically in turn to the confession which Muslims make and take the opportunity to challenge truth claims which seem to them false. However, beyond that Christians defer to the relationship between God and each individual and leave each person freedom to consider and respond as each sees fit. The response of the conversation partner does not affect the quality of the on-going relationship.

A model for the successful combination of compassion and open gospel witness among Muslims is the story of Herb and Ruth Friesen and their children, MBMS International missionaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Few knew more about how to serve the physical needs of Afghans in the operating theatre and at the front gate. At the same time they risked their lives to introduce Afghans in discrete, appropriate settings to the only One who could save their souls.

Hope for peace

Many who wish for peace between Christians and Muslims today seem to assume that peace will be achieved through finding and highlighting similarities between the two faiths. This assumption deserves examination. Do the New Testament and the behaviour of the earliest Christians give us the impression that Christians understood peace to be established by the similarities between the gospel and other faiths? Or was it rather the particularity of the good news about Jesus which allowed Christians to live in peace with people of other faiths in the midst of public persecution and defamation?

“He himself is our peace,” writes Paul, and from that basis he hoped for the reconciliation of the most hostile groups of his day. God made peace “through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Jesus’ teaching and example of peace are unique. It is Jesus who blessed the peacemakers. His command to love the enemy rings out in a world addicted to revenge and the cold arithmetic of “justice.” No such command will be found in the Qur’an.

To the contrary, the Qur’an appears to forbid friendship with the enemy of Allah (Q. 60.1). Ultimately the distinction traces back to the respective concepts of God. In the New Testament concept, humans are to love their enemies because God first showed the way (Matt. 5:45-48).

The command of Jesus to love both neighbor and enemy gives Christians the amazing freedom to engage in significant ways with people of all cultural and religious backgrounds. Christians may use that freedom both to be realistic about Islam and to share with Muslims the good news of God’s love demonstrated to the world through the death of Jesus on the cross. Peace will be at the heart of their message, and their message will be the only sure anchor for their peace.

Gordon Nickel, whose doctoral dissertation was on the earliest commentaries on the Qur’an, teaches intercultural studies at Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) in Langley, BC. He and his wife, Gwenyth, worked among Muslims in Pakistan, India and Germany as MBMS International workers from 1986-2003. He is the author of Peaceable Witness Among Muslims, a 1999 Herald Press book that provides an evangelical Anabaptist approach to Islam. The Nickels provide a respite home for at-risk children in Vancouver, BC.

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