by Ralph E. Brown
Some years ago in the city of Shikarpur, West Pakistan, a blind Christian evangelist and I were invited to meet with some of the Muslim religious leaders in the courtyard of a neighborhood mosque.
Some years ago in the city of Shikarpur, West Pakistan, a blind Christian evangelist and I were invited to meet with some of the Muslim religious leaders in the courtyard of a neighborhood mosque. My Pakistani coworker was a convert from Islam. The motive of the mullahs was to win my blind friend back to Islam. Our motive was to give witness to our Lord Jesus Christ. We sat in the mosque courtyard with our shoes at the door, in the midst of a zealous but friendly Muslim group, and with a silent audience peering over the mosque wall. As we sipped sweet tea, we listened and talked, asked questions and answered questions, and from the Bible sought to proclaim Christ to our Muslim friends. This was only one meeting, but to us it was an experience in dialogue.
Dialogue is a key word in the study of the world mission of the church. R. Pierce Beaver tells us that "dialogue is the `in’ word today. Everybody is for dialogue, both in mission circles and in academic theological quarters."1 In many areas this is a day of tolerance, leading to open discussion and interaction between people of different religions, philosophies, and opinions. "The age of dialogue is with us whether we like it or not, right or wrong."2
But what is dialogue? Theologians, missionary statesmen, and missionaries themselves differ considerably in their understanding of what dialogue is and what it involves. Robert L. Slater writes: "Dialogue means conversation. It is a term used, for example, with reference to what the characters in a novel say to each other as distinguished from what they do."3 Although the Greek word dialegomai portrays the idea of debate or argument, the English word "dialogue" concerns conversation. Lindsell believes that dialogue means "to exchange ideas".4 The exchange is between people. "Strictly speaking… there is no such thing as a dialogue between religions, for the engagement is not between abstractions but between believers".5 Thus it is more proper to refer to the Christian-Muslim dialogue rather than the dialogue between Islam and Christianity.
The World Council of Churches’ statement drawn up at the Kandy Consultation in 1967 attempts to define the fundamental nature of dialogue as"…this genuine readiness to listen to the man with whom we desire to communicate."6 But if our concern is only to listen, we are simply on the receiving end of a monologue. Further on, the Kandy statement does say, "We recognize that readiness to listen to each other may justly be coupled in both of us with a desire to proclaim to each other."7
Some confine dialogue to ecumenical study centers, such as are found in several Muslim countries, where there is "a structured colloquium with a panel of experts politely exchanging views."8 But dialogue cannot be limited to the academic sphere, if there is to be genuine communication between Christians and Muslims. Only friendly conversation will not necessarily produce witness. But the object of any attempt at dialogue should not be solely to win an argument. Beaver reminds us: "Dialogue is not disputation, which is a verbal attempt to conquer a foe. Arrogance and pride always enter into disputation and real communication becomes difficult."9
Dialogue must of necessity concern not only mutual understanding and the comparison of ideas, but also the grappling with religious truth. R.M. Speight questions whether any dialogue can be carried on in an atmosphere of complete objectivity in any realm, cultural, political, or religious.10 And Hendrik Kraemer believes that in the interest of straight thinking it is quite impossible to escape controversy and mutual cross-questioning.11
Dialogue is a meeting of minds and hearts and voices. It presupposes right attitudes. In the words of the 1964 Bangkok statement of the East Asian Christian Conference: "True dialogue with a man of another faith requires a concern both for the Gospel and for the other man. Without the first, dialogue becomes a pleasant conversation. Without the second, it becomes irrelevant, unconvincing or arrogant."12 Beaver goes so far as to say that dialogue is "an evangelistic necessity" and "the only alternative to a religious `cold war.’"13
The danger in dialogue is that the biblical teaching of proclaiming, persuading, and inviting men to come to Christ as the only Savior may be so diluted in the dialogical encounter the Muslim sees no need of coming to Christ in repentance and faith. One certainly is benefited and stimulated by the profound scholarship and gracious attitudes of the great Islamic scholar, Dr. Kenneth Cragg. I personally owe him a great debt. But in reading Dr. Cragg’s writings, one gets the impression that in his fairness to and understanding of the people of Islam, he weakens the biblical emphasis of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Cragg’s contribution to a sympathetic understanding of Islam does not seem to be balanced with a clear call to Muslims as sinners to consider the claims of Christ. In a sermon written for Muslims, Dr. Cragg builds on the theme of the Quranic injunction to seek forgiveness, but fails to clearly state that only through Christ and his cross is there God’s forgiveness.14 The only Christian Scripture referred to in this sermon based on a Quranic text, is 2 Corinthians 5:19, and a vague reference to the atonement is made. The approach is to the Muslim scholar, but nevertheless, there is a lack of Paul’s appeal, "Be reconciled to God."
Dr. Cragg’s concern for dialogue with Muslims has led him to advocate "careful occasions of inter-worship."15 This seems to lead dangerously toward religious confusion, a denial of the mediatorship of Christ, and syncretism. In all fairness, it should be mentioned that Dr. Cragg in some of his writings speaks out against syncretism and compromise. For instance:
Sympathy with Islam and its meanings does not involve a diluted Christianity. On the contrary. It is out of the fulness of the truth of the divine Lover that we may live in the power of his love for men. We shall not the better penetrate into the ends and meanings oaf Islam for getting apologetic or diffident about the incarnation and the cross.16
L.J. Swidler, in writing on the subject of Christian dialogue with non-Christians, seems to present the thinking of many ecumenical Christians:
They (Christians) must come to the other religions, which have been on the earth for hundreds and even thousands of years, with a humility that seeks to learn what roles they play in God’s Providence, in what ways they manifest God to man, how they lead man toward salvation.17
This ecumenically oriented view of dialogue which dilutes the gospel deemphasizes the must of personal conversion and rejoices that an age of aggressive missionary activity is hopefully at an end.18 Swidler suggests that in a certain sense it array be the task of a Christian in a Muslim land to help ignorant Muslims become better Muslims.19 But is not our mission to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ and to plead with Muslims to come to him? The approach should certainly not be with an attitude of superiority, but with the conviction of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Savior and God incarnate. MacQuarrie of Union Seminary rejects this approach when he writes:
There can be creative dialogue, to use Tillich’s expression, among great religions only if Christians frankly abandon claims to superiority. This means that there must be an end to proselytizing, and to the imperialistic dream of a single religion for all the peoples of the earth.20
In commenting on MacQuarrie’s position, E.H. Cressy points out how unrealistic it is:
Today several religions are coming to envisage themselves as world religions and superior to all others. To think that the Christian can dissuade them merely by giving up his own convictions and inviting them to engage in dialogue is unrealistic. Should the Christian request his opposite number to divest himself of his own religious faith and enter into dialogue on even terms?21
Roman Catholic thinkers differ in their view of dialogue. The Vatican II decrees seem to stress that the Church has a mission in dialogue, but there are some strong statements which seem to be very universalistic.22 R. Avens writes: "The Christian faith is radically universalistic. Every human being is under God’s grace and can be saved; every world religion is under God’s grace and can be a way of salvation."23 But there are Roman Catholic conservatives who even question the validity of dialogue and are asking themselves such questions as, "How is it justified? What connection has it with the question of salvation? For it is beyond dispute for a Christian that the only Savior is Jesus, and that the only basis of salvation is faith in Jesus the Savior."24 The evangelical must reject any ideas of dialogue which dilute the gospel, destroy the uniqueness of the Christian message, and deny the Christian the joy and blessing of sharing Christ with the people of Islam. Dialogue need not be reduced to a mere anemic inter-religious contact, but can, and should be "an evangelistic tactic" in spite of the rejection of this term by the ecumenists at Kandy.25
Granted there may be different approaches in dialogue, but the fundamental concept that the claims of Christ must be shared when dialogue with Muslims occurs would be accepted by all evangelicals, and by some who may not be considered as thorough-going evangelicals. In his dialogical encounters at Ephesus as he met Jews and Greeks both in public and from house to house, Paul declared, he taught, and he testified the basic message-repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (See Acts 20:20-21.) And although the word "controversy" seems to be obsolete today when it concerns witness to Muslims, there is New Testament evidence to suggest that Paul engaged in controversy with a dialogical spirit. The word dialegomai is translated "argue" in the Revised Standard Version in Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; and 24:25.
The evangelical Christian living among Muslims believes that he can engage in dialogue as he endeavors to be true to his evangelistic mission. Lindsell points this out:
Dialogue does not mean that concessions have been or will be made to the standpoint of those with whom dialogue takes place. The notion that even to engage in dialogue is to make a concession is false, nor does dialogue presuppose that either party will change his mind.
From the outset the evangelical is a propagandist in the best sense of that abused term. He is an evangelist. His purpose is to change the mind of the other person. He does not engage in dialogue simply to find out what the other person is thinking. He listens and talks so that he can answer error and convince the other person that the Christian faith is true.26
Although evangelicals believe in dialogue, we insist that it is not synonymous with evangelism but only one method of evangelism. And in witness to Muslims it is an important one. Speight is concerned about the confusion on this point:
It sometimes appears that the word "dialogue" has replaced the word "evangelism" in the vocabulary of the church elite. Dialogue as a replacement for evangelism involves some great changes in concept as well as a verbal alteration….Such a substitution of dialogue for evangelism does not seem to be legitimate….When dialogue serves Christian missionary ends, it does so only as a part of the whole endeavor, and gives way ultimately to proclamation and apologetics.27
Dialogue is not without its dangers. It cannot serve only as a friendly academic or philosophical confrontation. McDormand shows the dangers to witnessing:
Much that passes for dialogue…is interested in questions but resents and rejects answers. All the while, the Christian Gospel offers answers, redemptive answers, to the most fundamental questions hard pressed humanity can ask. The Christian witness must confidently and humbly offer answers. It must have a sympathetic appreciation of the difficulty many have in accep8ting the Christian answers, and it must realize that seeking love is very patient.28
Another danger is that in a dialogical encounter the Muslim may be convinced of the truth of Christianity on an intellectual plane, but he still needs a personal, dynamic relationship with the living Christ. Georg F. Vicedom stresses this: In the mission it is not a question of proof of a better religion. It is a matter of witnessing to the living Christ so that he may find entrance among men. Men should be offered the salvation of God.29
Dialogue with Muslims is not just inviting them to a bargaining table, or to a friendly exchange of views, nor is it mere Christian presence among them. It is going to them in love, with a sympathetic understanding of their beliefs, convictions, and practices, but in proclamation that they are sinners who need Christ, even as we are sinners who have found Christ. The Christian is "an ex-beggar giving another beggar the same kind of bread that saved his life."30 In fact, evangelical Christians "must aggressively reach out to initiate dialogue. They have been sent to others, not commanded to wait for them to come. They are to go out, not to remain at home in their pleasant isolation from the world."31
Dialogue has to do with attitude as much as method, but the goal must be kept in view, the goal of witnessing, proclaiming, declaring the truth of the gospel. Speight, who is strong on apologetic, believes that dialogue is a preliminary to apologetic: Having endeavored, as objectively as possible, to understand and enter into sympathy with the Muslim through study and dialogue, the missionary turns to his apologetic…the ultimate, though often not the immediate, aim of this apologetic is conversion.32
We as evangelicals are compelled by the command of Christ, the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and the very nature of the gospel to witness to Muslims in dialogue and in proclamation. "So we say yes to presence; but no to presence without proclamation. We say yes to dialogue; but no to dialogue without decision."33
It is difficult to understand how true and effective dialogue can occur if one party refuses to converse. This is, unfortunately, very often the case in the Christian-Muslim confrontation. Bishop Stephen Neill comments on this problem of Muslim interest: But it takes two to make dialogue; the most disappointing factor in the present situation is the almost total failure so far of the Muslim scholar to approach Christianity with that reverence and open-mindedness which he rightly demands of the Christian scholar in his approach to Islam.34
Neill goes on to quote Dr. Charles Malik who has candidly said, "There isn’t a single Moslem scholar in all history, so far as I know, who has written an authentic essay on Christianity."35
If there are very few scholars who show interest in really understanding Christianity, what can be said of the mullah or the average Muslim? Happily, the modern, often Westernoriented intellectual, and the student community, are considerably more open to the possibility of dialogue than the religious leaders and the common man. A Muslim scholar came to Robert L. Slater at the Center for the Study of World Religion at Harvard and said, "The majority of Muslims know little or nothing about Christian thought; nor are they likely to give much heed to books written by Christians."36
Perhaps one reason that many Muslims are not interested in dialogue is that of fear. "Moslems are not fully confident that the new Christian approach signals a genuine willingness for an authentic dialogue. They are afraid that dialogue is nothing but a new form for converting Muslims to Christianity."37 There is a distrust on the part of many Muslims of one with a missionary motive. Beaver tells of one learned Muslim historian of religion who "would exclude all people from dialogue who have a missionary motive."38
Some books written by Muslims reflect little of the dialogical spirit. For example, Maryam Jameelah, a former Jewess, dedicates her book Islam versus Ahl al Kitab Past and Present "for those who want to combat the menace of Zionism and Christian missionary activity in Muslim lands."39 She concludes her book with:
On what foundation can a lasting reconciliation between Muslims, Jews, and Christians be based? We must realize that under the existing circumstances, no friendship is possible. Jewry and Christendom have joined hands to destroy us and all we cherish….It would be sheer folly to kiss the hands that are beating us….Peaceful relations and mutual respect among us can only be achieved through strength.40
Al Faruqi speaks out in support of dialogue with Christians, but he condemns the Christian mission to Islam and suggests that "the mission chapter of Christian history, as we have so far known it, had better be closed, the hunt called off, the missionaries withdrawn and the mission arm of the Catholic Church and of the World Council of Churches liquidated."41 In the light of the general Muslim disinterest, it appears that Christians living in Muslim lands must take the initiative in seeking those who will respond to some sort of dialogical meeting and pray for more response on the part of the ulema and the average Muslim to sit down and talk in an atmosphere of genuine love and mutual respect.
BARRIERS TO DIALOGUE
Aside from the Muslim disinterest in dialogue, there are historical, contemporary, theological, and practical barriers to the Christian-Muslim dialogue.
1. The religion of Islam is post-Christian and from its inception has challenged the basic doctrines of Christianity. Kenneth Cragg writes:
Islam is the only major post-Christian religion. . . only with Islam is Christianity antecedently formative of doctrines which disallow it and of judgments that contest its convictions. Only in the Quran is there a definitive Scripture which has a consciously "Christian" pre-occupation in its themes and emphases.42
Theologically, Islam is Christianity’s most skilful competitor and the Muslim faith challenges the finality of the gospel because it is "the only universal faith which claims to have surpassed and superseded Christianity."43
2. Islam, a missionary religion, is Christianity’s greatest missionary competitor. "Islam has also been the only world religion to win great numbers of converts from Christianity."44 Muslims are aggressively competing with Christians for the souls of men. Fry reminds us that "in its very inception, Islam stands as a judgement on the Church of the seventh century for its failure to evangelize Arabia; by its continued existence, it testifies to the most tragic failure of the Church’s evangelistic mission in the successive ages."45
3. The minority status and the ghetto complex of the Christians in Muslim lands is another barrier to dialogue. Fearful of losing their identity, Christians are often considered inferior by the majority community and exhibit a depressed people image. Referring to Christians in the Middle East, Fry remarks:
Cut off from the larger community by custom, conviction, conscience, and social class (sometimes also by language), the ethnic churches became passive, pessimistic, and introverted. They neither sought nor welcomed converts from the Muslim world; indeed they were frequently forbidden to do so. The churches were isolated from society.46
Much of this description is applicable to the churches in Pakistan and India as well. Dialogue is virtually impossible when there is such ghetto-type isolation.
4. The remembrance of the political and military clashes of past centuries, especially the Crusades, has been a serious barrier. Forgiveness comes very slowly and Christianity is still considered by most Muslims as an aggressive religio-political movement. There has been tension for a thousand years between Dar-al-Islam and the Christian west, with faults on both sides. "To us the Crusades are very ancient history; to the Muslim they are as though they had happened yesterday."47
5. Western Christian behavior has not always been exemplary in Muslim countries. The impression left by some soldiers, hippies, and tourists has been that Christians have no spiritual or moral convictions. "The Christian world, by failing to exemplify the faith it confesses, has given a poor witness to the world of Islam."48
6. Christian missionaries and national Christians residing in the Muslim world have often revealed through impatience, unloving attitudes, and insensitivity to the beliefs and practices of Muslims that they themselves are a barrier to true dialogue. We are convicted by the words of Kenneth Cragg:
It is just that fact that it is "our" Gospel which makes it so profoundly suspect and suspected. That "we" are its messengers is its deepest discredit. For the white and western world, with which for the most of men Christianity is so closely, even irretrievably, associated, has given most of men so much cause to distrust both it and what it bears. Imperialism, race, apartheid, exploitation, sheer insensitivity…the frequent failure to respond to the unqualified desire of mankind to love and be loved-all these grimly overshadow the loving-kindness of what we announce about God.49
Only a Christian who has lived in a Muslim environment can understand how often we fail in communicating the love of Christ to inquirers, friends, neighbors, and other members of the Muslim community. A more sanctified missionary and Christian community would most certainly contribute to more effective dialogue in witness to Muslim peoples. His statement may be intemperate and inaccurate, but we can learn something from Al Faruqi’s stinging indictment of Christians when he says, "The Western world knows of no Christian who, moved by the Sermon on the Mount, came to live among Muslims as a native, who made their burden his burden, their hopes and yearnings his hopes and yearnings."50
7. Both Christians and Muslims are negligent in reading each other’s literature. It is true that Christian minorities are often faced with the vitriolic writings of the majority community, while on the other hand many of the classic Christian apologetic works are banned by government action. Nevertheless, both sides need to read what the other is writing with a desire to understand.
8. Roman Catholics, such as Alex Zanotelli, a young Roman Catholic missionary in the Sudan, believe that the divisions among Christians are a very real and serious barrier to dialogue. Many Protestants share this view. Zanotelli writes: There is good evidence for suggesting that the Christian disunity has enabled Islam to spread so quickly. Was it not the encounter with a bitterly divided Christendom, torn asunder by Christological disputes, that made Mohammed look with ridicule on Christianity?51
Evangelicals agree that disunity in the church is a barrier, but more particularly division caused by sin, strife, church politics, and deviation from the great evangelical truths of God’s Word. Muslims, who have their own movements, can understand denominational differences much more than divergent views of major Christian doctrines.
9. The greatest barrier to dialogue is spiritual. Our Muslim friends are blinded by the god of this world to Christ and His truth. There is a wide gulf in the Christian and Muslim understanding of sin. The offence of the cross is ever present. As Neill so aptly suggests, "that which we ask him to look for in Jesus is in itself a cause of grave offence to Muslim pride. We suggest-we cannot do otherwise-that he find a Savior. The Muslim affirms that he has no need of any such thing."52
THE APPROACH WE CAN TAKE
Earlier missionaries to Muslims are often categorized as controversialists who had no interest in dialogue, only in forthright proclamation. One gets the impression that the analysis of the old-time approach is sometimes over critical. Certainly it is difficult to accuse Samuel Zwemer and W.H.T. Gairdner, both displaying considerable controversy in their writings, of not loving the Muslim people to whom they gave their lives. But there is some truth to the claim that "Christian approaches to the Muslim, with certain notable exceptions, have been carried out on the basis and in the spirit of polemic."53 Polemics is not synonymous with Spirit-filled witness. Witness sometimes involves controversy, but our primary mission is to witness to the saving grace of Christ, not to argue on a doctrinal level. What approach can we take in seeking to win Muslims to Christ and his church?
1. We must proclaim Christ in faithful witness. Whether through monologue or dialogue, the people of Islam need to be continually exposed to the gospel as it is presented in faithful witness. As Bavinck has said, "This message has only one powerful weapon, namely, that its messengers know that if they bring it obediently and honestly, trusting in God’s help and in His Spirit, it will somehow touch the heart of man."54 A positive, articulate, and faithful witness to Jesus Christ means to engage by the power of the Holy Spirit in both dialogue and proclamation. Some ecumenists, like those at Kandy, declare that "dialogue is proclamation," a most ambiguous statement.55 The evangelical stress in witness to Muslims should be proclamation in dialogue.
The way of dialogue which Bishop Neill calls "the better way" seems to be the most favorable approach for the evangelical Christian as he seeks to faithfully witness to Christ in the context of the contemporary Muslim world.56 In many towns and cities bazaar-preaching may be pass& (though literature distribution is not), but "any missionary or fraternal worker whose love and humility can be sensed by other persons, who can listen as well as speak, and who is a seeker after truth as well as a witness to truth can find half a dozen opportunities for dialogue in the normal contacts of every day."57 Is not this way of dialogue, in an evangelical sense, linked closely to personal evangelism?
2. We must proclaim Christ in love. This is the virtue that validates our faith. The world of Islam needs, in the words of Eric Bishop, "an explosion of friendliness." "Ordinary people want friendship, the only cogent antidote to the bitterness, disillusionment and antagonism that have vitiated the Christian approach to the Muslim peoples."58 Agape love is the sum total of all the Christian virtues and attitudes which are needed in our relations with Muslims: sensitivity, humility, patience, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness. This is the Christian presence which is so necessary in the Muslim world today. To witness to God incarnate the missionary himself must seek by God’s grace to be love incarnate. Dr. Daud Rahbar, a convert from Islam, writes:
The basic qualification for a missionary engaged in dialogue with Muslims is the quality of his personal presence . . . . His inability to speak with faultless accuracy about the historical traditions of Islam and Christianity will be amply compensated by his personal radiance and graciousness . . . . the primacy belongs not to the amount of factual information but to the transparency of love; though learning is an immense advantage.59
3. We must proclaim Christ with knowledge. An experiential knowledge of Christ and a thorough knowledge of our faith are vital, but it also means that we need to try to know and understand the Muslim and his faith. Jean Corbon suggests how to get out of the present impasse in the Christian-Muslim encounter: "Our first effort should be directed towards remaking the acquaintance of the other, getting to know him afresh, discovering him with unprejudiced eyes: `being born with him’ as he is."60 Getting to know the inner spiritual vitality of the Muslim is referred to by Speight as identifying with him in "interiority." He feels that this is a basis for the Christian apologetic to Islam.61 This suggests the possibility of genuine dialogue on such subjects as knowing God, knowing yourself, prayer, the conscience, inner spiritual struggles, etc. There is a great need today for thorough evangelical missionary scholars who can seek to know the Muslim mind and faith, and can share their evangelical insights with others. But even the average Christian worker in Muslim lands needs to diligently study the language, culture and religion of Muslims to be well-equipped for witness.
4. We must proclaim Christ with earnest, persevering, believing prayer. Brian Farghar believes that if we are going to meet the challenge of "the reproach of barrenness" in the world of Islam we need unique workers, unique faith, and unique prayer backing.62 Missionaries need to rededicate themselves to the primary task, that which the early apostles gladly assumed, "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). A praying church and praying proclaimers are indispensable in our approach.
We must continue to witness to Muslims in dialogue and proclamation, faithfully, with self-giving love, believing prayer, and in humility always learning. Our witness is primarily positive, in the power of the Holy Spirit. "The real Christian concentration is not: `we have the revelation and not you,’ but pointing gratefully and humbly to Christ: `It has pleased God to reveal Himself fully and decisively in Christ; repent, believe and adore."63 Christ’s love for us and for the Muslim compels us to witness. We need not only to be willing, but eager to preach the gospel to Muslims. In the words of Bishop Stephen Neill, "Our task is to go on saying to the Muslim with infinite patience, `Sir, consider Jesus.’ We have no other message."64
1. Beaver, R. Pierce, The Missionary Betwteen the Times (New York: Doubleday and Co. Inc.), p.113.
2. Covell, R. "Dialogue-Friend or Foe," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter, 1969, p. 3.
3. Slater, Robert L., "The Coming Great Dialogue" in Christianity: Some Non-Christian Appraisals, David W. McKain, ed. (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1964), p. 2.
4. Lindsell, Harold, "Attack Syncretism with Dialogue," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, Summer, 1967, p. 205.
5. Slater, loc. cit.
6. Hayward, Victor E.W., ed. &qu