Answering this question requires asking some of my own
“What do you think of Islam?” I would have preferred the question, “What do you think of Muslims?” I know my answer to that question: I love Muslims, and I know that God loves them so much that he extends the same grace to them that he has extended to me, though his Son, Jesus Christ. I love to share the Good News but experience has shown me that time and many, many conversations are needed to gain the opportunity to speak and be heard.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, non-Muslims have been asking me what I think of Islam, but before that Muslims mostly queried me. It is not a bad question, and I have never shrugged it off. I have usually felt compelled to meet the question with one of my own, though, which is, “What Islam do you want me to think about?”
Islam is diverse
There is great disagreement, even acrimony, about the nature of “true” Islam—and not just among Muslims. Before 2001, I held a small collection of books, articles and tapes on the topic of the nature of “true Islam.” Since the later part of that year, my collection has grown considerably.
That this is so reveals a bit of the diversity within the unity of Islam, but it also reveals the polarization within and without Islam over its relationship to 9/11 and similar acts of terror. So when asked by a Muslim what I think of their religion, I have found it useful to try to understand just what the inquirer thinks their religion happens to be.
There are accepted variations within Islam, different schools as to certain methodologies. There are also variations noteworthy in that each party views the other as something less than the true (or pure) Islam that they represent. The split between Sunni and Shi’a is familiar to many outside of Islam. Perhaps not so familiar are other divisions, contrasting the mystical with the sober, formal with the folk or Arab-based with the local manifestation of faith.
A “post Christian” religion
It is common for Christians to express ignorance of Islam, in any form. It has been and is less common for Muslims to express ignorance of Christianity. Why is this the case?
From the Christian standpoint, Islam is only anticipated in the Bible, not mentioned by name since it had not then been established. The informed student of the Bible has some idea of what to do with revelation different than that contained in Scripture. For example, Galatians 1:7–9 speaks of people who are “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” At the same time, it should be acknowledged that during their earliest encounters with Islam, Christians wondered whether they were encountering a Christian heresy, a false religion or an instrument of God’s wrath.
Islam is a “post-Christian” religion, both in its advent and in its message. Its adherents see it as being the most ancient and true of religions, the natural religion of humanity. This can be a little confusing to the non-Muslim. It helps to understand that, as an article of faith, Muslims believe that Islam was always the will of Allah for humanity and that the first man, Adam, is among its prophets. Muslims also believe that Islam was revealed through a series of prophets, only to be corrupted into religions other than what had truly been revealed. So in one sense, Muslims see Islam as superior to other religions because it has always been Allah’s intent.
At the same time, it is an article of faith that this “true” religion was ultimately perfected during the lifetime of Muhammad. Muslims accept as evidence of this truth the fact that Allah gave this series of revelations to Muslims after other “religions of the book” were well established; the later word corrects and replaces the earlier word.
Here I am reminded of my years as a civil servant. Nearly every day I received in my inbox revisions to the regulations that guided my work. I would cast aside the old regulations in favor of the new; there was rarely cause to return to those earlier pages. And so Muslims feel little need to consult earlier works, except from curiosity or for polemical purposes.
In Muslim eyes
Chronology is not the only proof, however; what timing suggests, revelation makes explicit. First of all, the Qur’an is self-identified as bringing correction, clarity and completeness to Allah’s history of revealed encounters with humanity. In Muslim eyes, the “books” given to the Jews and to the Christians, our Bible, isn’t worth reading because Jews and Christians have changed the words to confuse Allah’s message. If this were not the case, then there would have been no need for the corrective of Qur’anic revelation. Muslims see Islam as superior to other religions because Allah “capped” revelation with it; nothing else remains to be revealed or will be revealed. The Qur’an is not just Allah’s latest word; it is his last word and uncorrupted word on his will for humanity.
Secondly, the Qur’an itself has much to say about Christians and Jews, what they believe and how Muslims should relate to them. Thanks to the Internet, it is not at all difficult to cull every reference within the Qur’an to Christians and to list these references in chronological order of revelation. Doing so reveals a steady progression from suggesting common cause with Christians to warnings that those who claim to follow Christ will not rest until they cause you (the Muslim) to stumble away from the truth and embrace Christian lies.
The combined effect of these beliefs is to secure in Muslim hearts a sense of superiority over the Christian faith, a fear that Christians are relentless in their efforts to lead Muslims astray and a belief that they know everything that they need to know about Christianity—from the Qur’an. I have myself met Muslims who have offered that they were experts on Christianity, and indeed all religions, having studied them through the Qur’an. This also explains the audacity of the Pakistani Muslim who wrote editorials in local newspapers on the occasions of Christmas and Easter outlining the “true” significance of Jesus Christ, entirely from Muslim sources.
I know of no actual follower of Christ who lives the religion described in the Qur’an as Christianity. So Christians do well to inform Muslims of what they actually believe and practice as followers of Christ, recognizing that one’s testimony will have its effect, even if one cannot be expected that our words will lead Muslims to admit, “Well, the Qur’an got that wrong!”
Confronting our ignorance
It would be enough if Christians found themselves defending their understanding of their own religion against erroneous interpretations of it, but there is more. Muslims and Christians have had centuries of encounter, and Muslim arguments against Christianity and in favor of Islam amount to much more than knocking down the “straw men” Christians of the Qur’an. Does it surprise you when I say that, in confronting Muslim ignorance of Christianity, we must also confront our own ignorance?
Sure, Muslims will ask certain questions polemically, but that does not discount the fact that accepting important Christian beliefs on faith should not mean those questions are unanswerable or unthinkable. The Bible encourages us to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), and that does not mean the answer is “Because I said so!”
It is vital for a Christian to have a solid understanding of Christian basics because an inquiring (or merely engaging) Muslim will have questions about them. As U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren, we have acknowledged 18 articles in our Confession of Faith as representing vital areas of Christian belief and practice. Are you prepared to answer Muslim questions about the Trinity? Do you understand the difference between Christian and Islamic perspectives on revelation? Can you explain the need for redemption from sin and how that must be accomplished? Is the use of violence within God’s will? If we cannot explain, defend and live our confession among ourselves, it is hard to see how we might do so before Muslims.
Understanding in truth
I have never wanted to be counted among those accused of comparing the “best” of my religion with the “worst” of another’s; neither do I want the other to treat me in that fashion. A “Golden Rule” in regards to religions need not, and I believe must not, require that I accept another’s religion as equal in truth to my own, but that each party be understood in truth and not in the projections or wishes of others.
Should Muslims understand Christianity and take the measure of me as a Christian through my adherence to the authority of the Bible and my success (and my weakness) in following the pattern of my master, Jesus Christ? Should Christians understand Islam and take the measure of Muslims through their adherence to the authority of the Qur’an and their success (and failure) in following the pattern of their master, Muhammad? I believe the answer to both questions must be “Yes.”
For many years, I struggled with the fact that my academic study of Islam appeared to give me a wider and deeper understanding of Islam than many Muslims. The many times that Muslims begged me to tell them more left me with the conviction that I was not called to make Muslims better, or at least better informed, Muslims. Given what I have already said here about letting the religious speak for themselves, I do not see myself in that role, but I do see the relative value of pressing both Christian and Muslim to be authentic to their foundations.
It is fair for a Muslim to ask a Christian why he or she claims to love Jesus (and live in obedience to the Father), but does not do what he has said or live a life according the pattern revealed within the Bible. It is also fair for a Christian to ask a Muslim why he or she claims to love Muhammad (and live in obedience to Allah), but does not do what he has revealed or live a life according to the pattern revealed in the Qur’an and sacred traditions.
It is on the basis of these shared values and requirements, the authority of our texts and our adherence to the model for living out each text, that the true nature of our faiths may be compared and contrasted fairly. And that Christian and Muslim can begin a conversation between those who would follow one who despised the sword and carried a cross, and those who would follow one who despised the cross and carried a sword.
Tim Bergdahl is currently pastor of Madera Avenue Bible Church, Madera, Calif. Bergdahl, a graduate of MB Biblical Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary served with his wife, Janine, as missionaries with MBMS International to Pakistan from 1990 to 1996. His academic work concentrated on topics related to Islam.
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