By David Marshall
Christians who seek a deep understanding of Islam, and who hope to relate in authentically Christian ways to Muslims, will soon become aware of various challenges. In these reflections I suggest that Christian engagement with Muslims needs to be characterized by intelligence, humility, and confidence: intelligence that avoids stereotypes and shows respect for the other by seeking an informed, sympathetic understanding of their history, experience, and perspective on the world; humility that asks what God may be teaching us through encounter with Muslims; and confidence that, informed by intelligence and purified by humility, issues in competent and joyful Christian witness.
Though few Christians engage in the academic study of Islam, in principle all Christians should seek to understand their Muslim neighbors (and the place of Islam in their lives) with the kind of sympathetic intelligence with which we hope to be understood ourselves. Churches, seminaries, and other Christian institutions should promote this kind of intelligence. An intelligent Christian understanding of Islam must grasp the distinctive Islamic doctrine of God and of sacred history. Firmly embedded within this is Islam’s insistence that Jesus is neither the Son of God nor the crucified and risen Savior of the world, but rather a prophet, a bearer of divine guidance, and a forerunner of Muhammad, the final prophet. From earliest days, Muslim-Christian encounter has had to negotiate these divergent theologies.
Rather than belittling these differences, dialogue today must embrace intelligent and peaceful disagreement, but it must also recognize that the history of Christian-Muslim relations has never been just a matter of doctrinal debate. Political and military conflict has marked this history from the start. Deep in the collective Christian consciousness, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, there is a memory of Islam as a powerful, invading force that gradually converted the Christian populations of the Middle East, and for a while dominated or threatened much of Christian Europe.
However, the Crusades are a reminder that this history of conflict has not been one-sided, and it is vital, especially for Western Christians, to understand that more recent history has seen a dramatic reversal in the balance of power between the Muslim world and the at least nominally Christian West. Whereas for more than a millennium Islam was an extraordinary success story, apparently set to dominate the world, a huge shift in global geopolitics occurred with the rise of the Western powers and their hegemony over much of the Muslim world, especially during the 19th century.
Although since World War II the peoples of the Muslim world have achieved independence, at least in formal political terms, the sense of being dominated by the West, and the grievance that generates, are perhaps now stronger than ever. This crisis for the Muslim world has brought massive disruption of familiar patterns of religious authority, law, methods of education, social behavior, family life, the role of women, dress, and so on. While some Muslims have seen this upheaval as an opportunity for reformation and progress, many others have experienced it negatively. The crucial take-away for Christian thinking is that Islam, as a great collective identity, has experienced traumatic reversal and humiliation at the hands of global powers that have historically identified as Christian. Christians need to grasp this history and the shadow it casts today.
Although Christians should reflect on Islam in the light of the Christian faith, it is also essential not to attend solely to Christian or other outsider sources, but to listen to what Muslims themselves say about Islam. A great difference in the situation of Christians in the West today as compared with earlier generations is that there are now substantial Muslim communities living among us. We therefore have abundant opportunities for learning about what Muslims actually believe and how this motivates them, as well as about debates among Muslims over how to interpret and apply Islam today. Western Christians should also be aware of the variety of majority-minority situations between Muslim and Christian communities around the world, including the experience of Christians who have lived as minorities alongside Muslims for centuries, sometimes in very difficult contexts.
A significant strand of biblical passages encourage a humble, open-hearted attitude to what God may have to say to us through religious others, those beyond our own community of faith. Take, for example, the Book of Jonah, in which the Gentile characters are much more compassionate and responsive to God than the disobedient, miserable, self-obsessed Israelite prophet. In this story a challenging voice from within Israel is saying something like: “Yes, God has made covenant with us, and has called us to make his name and his ways known among the Gentiles. But rather than looking down on them, let us relate to them with the same generosity of spirit that God has shown to us, for God is already at work among them and may have much to teach us through them.”
Likewise, when Jesus encounters despised or feared outsiders such as Samaritans or Roman centurions, or speaks of them in stories, he often draws his disciples away from instinctive hostility to the religious other and into a surprised recognition of God’s work beyond their community. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith [as a Gentile centurion has shown].” What does it look like to love your neighbor? Learn from a compassionate Samaritan, then “Go and do likewise.”
The parallels between the relationships of Jews to Samaritans in the time of Jesus and of Christians to Muslims today might prompt Christians to consider what we have to learn in encounter with Muslims. Muslim approaches to prayer and religious discipline more widely are perhaps the aspect of Islam for which Christians most easily feel respect and even “holy envy.”
While Christians cannot with integrity simply imitate Muslim prayer, there are pointers in how Muslims pray that can make us aspire after Christian prayer that is more disciplined, more embodied, that engages communities more effectively, and that makes God more visible in the world. Muslim fasting has been a salutary reminder to many Christians of a widely neglected part of our tradition. Christians might also be prompted by Muslims to reflect with humility on how they relate their faith to public life, or fail to do so. Lesslie Newbigin once commented: “The vigor of the Muslim challenge to the contemporary secular society is surely something which ought to awaken the conscience of Christians.”
There are many reasons, some already mentioned, why Christians are often anxious, rather than confident, in their attitudes and approaches to Muslims. So how do we make the journey from anxiety to confidence?
One way is simply to make contact with Muslims. Obvious advice, perhaps! The reality, however, is that while the Christians in the West who are most anxious about Islam usually have no personal contact with any actual Muslims, Christians whose daily lives or work bring them into touch with Muslims, or who have made deliberate efforts to form friendships with Muslims, are often very positive about the experience and may speak of sensing God in these encounters.
Muslims are often keen to show hospitality, as are mosques and other Muslim institutions; they are usually glad to welcome groups from colleges or churches. As thresholds are crossed, meals are enjoyed together, and shared humanity is recognized, anxiety begins to be eroded and confidence begins to grow. Muslim and Christian communities may then also find that they are not locked into patterns of inevitable conflict or uneasy truce, but can move beyond these to cooperate for the common good.
When such relationships develop between Christians and Muslims, questions about religious beliefs and practices often follow naturally. As dialogue develops, the question of Christian confidence arises again, now in a different sense, as Christians may often struggle to respond confidently and competently to the questions that Muslims typically ask. Well-taught Muslims have clear views about how Christianity has gone astray, and are often very direct in saying so.
Rather than being intimidated or irritated, Christians should see such Muslim questions as a salutary challenge to develop a more deeply considered and confident understanding of affirmations at the heart of our faith, which we may see as wonderful paradoxes, but which Islam rejects as incoherent and unworthy of God: Jesus as fully human and fully divine; the Scriptures as divinely inspired and yet obviously human documents; God as three-in-one; the Cross as divine wisdom in foolishness and divine power in weakness.
Intelligence, humility, and confidence — some Christians, and some churches, will emphasize one more than the others, but all are needed. If as Christians we can relate to Muslims with confidence in our faith, but also with sympathetic intelligence and self-critical humility, open to being changed by God through the encounter, God will be glorified and we might become more recognizably the Church of Jesus Christ, for the blessing of the world.
The Rev. Dr. David Marshall (email@example.com) has worked in Christian-Muslim relations on the staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury and at the World Council of Churches. He has taught at Duke Divinity School, the University of Notre Dame, and Georgetown University. He works freelance and is available to teach in person or online.