by Warren Larson
John Esposito, arguably the most influential non-Muslim American scholar on Islam, at times sounds prophetic. His book The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (1992) suggests Islam is a threat to the West—particularly America.
John Esposito, arguably the most influential non-Muslim American scholar on Islam, at times sounds prophetic. His book The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (1992) suggests Islam is a threat to the West—particularly America. His book a decade later, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (2002), could have been titled: “I told you so.” He says a war conducted militarily, rather than diplomatically, will lead to rising anti-Americanism, global instability and bloodshed. The root of militant Muslims’ anger and agenda, he says, is American foreign policy.
Certainly, American foreign policy angers Muslims. Among the offending policy points are support for Israel, US troops in Saudi Arabia and military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush Administration’s goal to root out radical Islam has enraged many Muslims.
But the US is not solely to blame for Islamic extremism. Globalization, years of unhappy Muslim-Christian encounters and “Westophobia” in the Muslim media are factors. Also at fault are conspiracy theories, such as one claiming Jews carried out the terrorist acts of 9/11, which are rampant across the Muslim world (Riddell and Cotterell 2003, 152-160).
It is also true that a major reason for Muslim militancy is found deep within Islam. This is not to say that most Muslims do not want peace, but an American convert to Islam (who later turned to Christ) offers this insider perspective:
Christianity teaches us to love our enemies. With Islam it’s quite the opposite. You should be just, but you should hate the enemies of Islam. And if they openly struggle against Islam, they should be eliminated. (Christianity Today 1989, 38)
Such sentiments can be traced back to the Qur’an: “Fighting is a grave offense; but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah” (Qur’an 2:217). One Muslim put it this way: “The world as we know it today is how others have shaped it, so we have two choices: either to accept it with submission, which means letting Islam die, or to destroy it, so that we can construct a world as Islam requires.”
In Islam Under Siege (2003), Akbar Ahmed says that many Muslims feel they are not only under siege politically and militarily but culturally as well.
Attempting to set things right, militant Muslims are using negative portrayals of non-Muslims in Islam’s sacred scriptures. According to surveys by the BBC and Q News, the largest Muslim periodical in the UK, Muslim radicalization is rising worldwide (Riddell and Cotterell, 193-194). Groups like al-Mahijiroun in England, under the fiery preaching of Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, use Western freedoms to mold the minds of fellow Muslims.
This article does not minimize dangers faced because of a growing Muslim perception that America has targeted Islam. The threat from militants is very real, but the material below builds on what Carl Ellis has been saying for years: “Islam is the greatest threat to the Church” (2000). Christians can be instruments of peace in the face of rising tensions.
WHY AMERICANS CONVERT
The Time magazine article “Should Christians Convert Muslims?” (Van Biema 2003) suggested evangelicals are wrongheaded when they try to convert Muslims, but it failed to mention Muslim attempts—and success—in converting Christians. Below are some reasons why an estimated two million African-Americans, many of whom claim to be former Christians, have embraced Islam.
1. Decadence of Western society. They are seeking self respect, discipline, family values, moral standards and deliverance from drugs and alcohol. According to Islam, they can change the stereotype of the young black male on drugs, out of work and in jail. It’s a new way of life, a path not only to God, but of dignity and self respect.
African-American women convert because in Islam they see an emphasis on modesty, chastity and economic rights. Many had been abandoned to fend for themselves and their children because of unfaithful and irresponsible men. An African-American imam (mosque leader), invited to speak in my class at Columbia International University, said: “Jesus paid it all is not what American blacks must hear!”
Islam then becomes an alternative to corruption and immorality—symptoms of a society in its final stages of breakdown. Islam comes with family values, guidelines on relationships, clear male leadership roles, a well-ordered prayer ritual and even a new name! While Christianity is deemed powerless to effect social change, Islam can establish laws, control moral behavior and produce reform.
2. Failure by the church. Converts to Islam say while Christian discrimination left them cut off and disenfranchised, now as vice-regents in Islam, they have purpose, distinction and empowerment that even the civil rights movement did not give them. As Bruce Fields notes in Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church, it is unfortunate that “because the issue of racism still exists in our society, it still exists in the church” (2001, 53). He adds that “if the world does not see true unity among those who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, the church should not be surprised when the world is unimpressed with our proclamation that the Father has sent the Son” (64).
Something similar is happening to Latinos. In its article “Islam is Luring More Latinos,” The Washington Post (29 January 2001) quotes a young woman who had been devoutly Catholic: “I felt a strong sense of belonging.” Another says she felt a “sense of sisterhood with others who wore hijab (veil).”
3. Failure to understand Islam. Ignorance abounds about Islam. Muslims equate Islam with peace, but the word for peace in Arabic is “salaam,” not “Islam.” Islam means “surrender or to make peace by laying down one’s arms in submission.” So to claim that jihad means striving in the cause of Allah by personal devotion is not the whole truth. Muhammad’s call to jihad was first and foremost to fight infidels (pagans): Jews and Christians. In the oldest biography on Muhammad, author Ibn Ishaq states that the Prophet conducted twenty-nine battles and planned thirty-nine others (1978, 628). And, supported by commentaries and classical writings, the Qur’an claims that jihad is the only sure way to paradise (Qur’an, 3:169). Ideologue Syed Qutb, motivator of militant Islam, appeals to the Qur’an when he builds his case for jihad (Qur’an 4:74-76; 8:38-40; 9:29-32). These passages alone, he states, justify the universal and permanent dimensions of jihad (1964, 53-76).
Americans also must understand that where Islam dominates, Muslims are never free to abandon Islam. Maududi, the most influential Muslim scholar in the twentieth century, insists that both the Qur’an and Traditions demand an apostate’s execution. He might be faulted for quoting the Qur’an (9:11-12), as it only says to fight against those who “violate their oaths,” but is on more solid footing with Bukhari’s canonized tradition: “Any person, i.e. Muslim, who has changed his religion, kill him” (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, p. 45).
One problem is that Islam’s sacred scriptures send mixed signals on how to treat non-Muslims. While the Qur’an admonishes Muslims to ask “People of the Book” if they have questions (10:94; 21:7, 48) and condemns violence and killing (5:32), the next verse says those who war against Allah should have their hands and feet cut off (5:33). A few verses later says Muslims should not take Jews and Christians as friends (5:51). Some traditions suggest Muslims should not even salute Christians (Dawood, 41, 5186; al-Muslim, Vol. 3, 5245, 1156).
Notably in Islam’s sacred writings, numerous references call for militants to further their deadly cause and “fight against” unbelievers (Qur’an 9:5, 29; 8:39; 4:74). Islamic traditions that predict how Jews will ultimately be exterminated are equally disturbing:
The Last Hour would not come till the Muslims fight against the Jews and the Muslims will kill them until the Jews hide themselves, and the stones and trees would speak up saying “There is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.” (Al-Muslim, Book 40, No. 6985)
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
1. Christians need a good dose of optimism.Stan Guthrie concurs in Missions in the Third Millennia: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century that ministry to Muslims is difficult, and that nine-tenths of the worst persecution takes place in Islamic states. But he reminds us that many Muslims are embracing Christ. For example, Indonesia’s church may have grown to twenty million, far beyond official estimates.
Similarly, in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, wonders if Islam and Christianity can peacefully co-exist (2002, 168, 179). He sees more Muslim-Christian conflict looming on the horizon (188). Though he does not consider the dangers of nominal Christianity, his work is encouraging because it provides research from the secular viewpoint of Africa, Asia and Latin America’s phenomenal church growth.
Jenkins says that the total number of American Muslims is closer to four million—not eight million as claimed (105), and that Muslim immigrations to the United States will be exceeded by a larger influx of Christians from Africa, Asia and above all, Latin America (105). Mohamed Nimer, board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), concurs in The North American Resource Guide. Though difficult to estimate both immigrant and black Muslims because of religion policies at the US Census Bureau, he believes Muslims in the US number closer to 4.1 million, including immigrants.
2. Christians need training on theological, evangelical and historical levels. American Christians must be prepared for Muslim missionaries because Islam is a missionary faith: “Call men to the path of your Lord” (Qur’an 16:125) and “Witness to the nations” (Qur’an 2:143) are for Muslims what the “Great Commission” is for Christians.
This is why the Muslim World League spends huge sums on mission—building mosques, sending missionaries and printing literature. Islam has been successful in getting into American schools. The leader of Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services in Berkeley, California, says that a decade ago the average Social Studies class spent little time studying Islam and the Middle East. She said, “it would have been three or four days, and now it’s three or four weeks, maybe six. This is a huge change” (Collier 2002).
American Christians should know that according to the Qur’an, Muslims believe Christians worship three gods: “Say not three” (Qur’an 4:171; 5:171). Christians need skill in responding to Muslim assertions that Jesus did not die. This might include knowing Qur’anic references that suggest he did in fact die (Qur’an 5:117; 19:19; 3:55). And Christians must be able to articulate that Christians do not view Jesus as son in a physical way, as Muslims charge. Christians need to know that in the Qur’an, Jesus is sinless (Qur’an 19:19) whereas Muhammad is not (Qur’an 36:27; 40:55; 47:19; 48:2).
Furthermore, how many Americans understand that not even one of Allah’s ninety-nine names say he is longing and willing to save? In Islam, God has the power but lacks the will to save lost, helpless sinners. Compare this with the Bible: God is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet. 3:9). How many would-be American converts to Islam know that in the Qur’an, God only loves the righteous (Qur’an 3:76)—not the sinful (Qur’an 4:107)? The Bible, in contrast, says he even loves his enemies (Rom. 5:10).
From the above, Muslims seem to be on a treadmill where they can never do enough to please God. During a recent Muslim-Christian dialog I attended in Columbia, South Carolina, the Muslim speaker from India stated that God only draws near when Muslims pray more than the prescribed five times a day.
Finally, many American converts to Islam believe Christianity sanctions slavery whereas Islam has always been against it. The truth is that the influence of evangelical Christians such as John Wesley and William Wilberforce, who fought slavery, helped end it. They need to know that because Muhammad kept slaves, Islamic countries like Somalia and Mauritania were among the last to abolish it.
3. Christians need to wage peace on Islam. Judaism, Christianity and Islam lay claim to the God of Abraham and believe that peace is one of God’s names. Amazingly, all three faiths believe peace will only come through the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Note that in the Qur’an it is Jesus (Isa al-Masih) who is Messiah—not Muhammad (Qur’an 3:45).
According to the Bible, the Messiah will exercise awesome power by restraining evil and judging fairly: “He will judge between the nations…They will beat their swords into plowshares” (Isa. 2:4) and “will rule them with an iron scepter” (Ps. 2:9). Micah also describes the Messiah’s global reign: “for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace” (Mic. 5:4b-5a).
So rather than defend Israeli policy in the Middle East, we should “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6). God’s “Road Map for Peace in the Middle East” culminates in the just reign of the Messiah who will judge all nations—including Israel. The Old Testament’s last book says that when he comes, he will be like a “refiner’s fire” and put the Jews on trial for their many sins (Mal. 3:2).
Yet he will also be “very angry with the nations,” some of whom hate the Jews with an implacable hatred (Zech. 1:15). He will “gather all the nations” and “fight against those nations” (Zech. 14:3). His judgment will be against the entire world, including America as the world’s number one advertiser of a lifestyle allowing adultery, abortion, homosexuality and pornography.
The good news is that when all else fails, people in Jerusalem will recognize their crime of crucifying the Messiah, and they will grieve and repent for their sin (Zech. 12:1-10). They had rejected him when he had wept over Jerusalem: “If you, even you, had only known…what would bring you peace” (Luke 19:42). And repentance will not only occur among the Jews: “All the nations of the earth will mourn” (Matt. 24:30). The Bible’s last book reiterates that Jews will grieve and repent as “those who pierced him,” but adds that “all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him” (Rev. 1:7). This surely includes Muslims who have some understanding of Jesus, but do not see him as Savior in all his glory, majesty and divinity. Remember that one in every five citizens of Israel is a Palestinian Israeli Arab.
Christians know that Jesus not only will be the bridge between people of all races and religions, but he is the bridge between humankind and God. This is the only way Muslims, Christians and Jews can have peace among themselves. When Jesus forgave sin (Mark 2:10-12; Luke 7:48) as only God can do (Isa. 43:25; Mark 2:7; Qur’an 3:135), he also said, “Go in peace” (Luke 7:48-50). It is no coincidence that at birth the Messiah was called “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The Apostle Paul says, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “He himself is our peace, who has…destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
We need not publicly defame Islam and demean the Prophet of Islam as some American Christian leaders have since September 11, 2001. This creates more cultural and social stumbling blocks than already exist before Muslims get to the stumbling block of the cross. Doing so defies the biblical injunction, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18) because it stirs up hatred, fosters mistrust and suspicion, and unnecessarily hurts Muslim sentiments.
And we can even be people of peace in the way we greet Muslims. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The Hebrew greeting Jesus probably used, Shalom aleichem, is close to the universal Arabic Muslim greeting, Salaam aleikum (peace to you). This blesses Muslims by greeting them with warmth, goodwill and sincerity.
Finally, waging peace on Islam means reaching out to Muslim immigrants among us (nearly sixty percent of American Muslims are immigrants) and not hating them. Unfortunately since 9/11, some who look Middle Eastern have been unjustly harassed and unfairly treated. It is instructive to see that the Bible commanded the Israelites to “love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Scripture commanded them to gather the aliens in their towns so they and their children would “hear it and learn about the Lord” (Deut. 31:12-13).
In conclusion, Muslim militants have turned to hatred and violence because they believe Islam is under attack. That perception is real and spreading all over the world. Since Islam does not teach love for enemies, but rather hatred, some Muslims are tempted to fight America. The best way for Christians to respond is to look to the cross as the bridge to reconciliation. The battle will not be won by wrapping ourselves in the flag of patriotism. Nor will missiles bring victory. Esposito is right on that point. Most Muslims are true seekers after God as indicated by their prayer several times a day that God would lead them in a straight path (Qur’an 1:6). Christians must reach out to Muslims with the gospel of peace.
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Ellis, Carl. 2000. “Answering Islam’s questions.” Christianity Today, 3 April, 7.
Esposito, John L. 1992. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.
______ 2002. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Warren Larson is the academic program director and associate professor of Muslim Studies at Columbia International University. He served as a missionary in Pakistan for twenty-three years and has written extensively on Islam, including a book on Islam in Pakistan. He and his wife, Carol, live in Columbia, South Carolina.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 48-55. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.