Islam: Our Reactions and Responses
When agents of the United States Secret Service are being trained to recognize counterfeit money, they are given, not funny money but real U.S. currency to study. It’s only after examining the real thing very closely and becoming intimately familiar with its details that the agents can rapidly and confidently identify false bills.
So it is with faith. On the surface Islam seems to have much in common with Christianity. Both religions profess a faith in one God, angels, prophets, heaven and hell, and both await the day of judgment that is to come. A deep knowledge of God’s scriptures and close examination of Islam, however, reveal a counterfeit religion, not only differing in the details but coming from an entirely different source.
Islam Is Not About Love
If we were asked to describe briefly what our Christian faith is all about, we would be wise to answer with these words of Christ: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). At the foundation, God’s law is not really about do’s and don’ts, but more fundamentally God is concerned with the state of our hearts. Love is at the core of Christianity, and what is more, the Bible tells us that God is love (1John 4:8).
In contrast to the Bible’s more than 650 references to love, the Islamic holy book, the Quran, contains the word “love” only three times, twice referring to romantic love between a man and a woman, and only once in relation to God. In that instance it appears in the negative: “God does not love the unbeliever.”
Islam’s “Pillars of Faith”
So what is at the core of the Islamic faith? Islam is summarized by five “pillars.” These are the five duties that every Muslim must perform. Often they seem superficially similar to Christian practices, but in reality they are very different.
Shahadah, or profession of faith, is the first of the five pillars. To fulfill this requirement one must repeat, in Arabic, the specific phrase which when translated means, There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. Muslims are encouraged to say it as often as possible, but it must be said in Arabic, regardless of whether or not the person understands Arabic. Christians seek understanding of the scriptures, not repetition of creeds that they don’t understand.
Salat, or ritual prayer, is the second pillar. To Christians prayer is a privilege from God, the ability to communicate with him. For the Christian, prayer is a two-way street; we talk to God from our hearts and listen to what he may be telling us.
Islamic prayer is a ritual duty, not a privilege, and there is no element of communication with God; in fact the very possibility of direct communication with God is denied by Islamic scholars. (Even the prophets, according to Islam, received revelation only through intermediary angels.) Muslims are required to perform the prayers five times per day according to a set schedule. Each time they must perform ceremonial washing. They must face in the direction of Mecca and conform to a pattern of body motions including touching the ear lobes with the thumbs, bowing at the waist, kneeling down and touching the forehead to the ground. They repeat this pattern a specified number of times and must utter Arabic phrases at set times during the ritual. Any deviation from the pattern results in their prayers not being counted. In practice few Muslims actually pray five times a day; the burden is so great that most give up. Christians in contrast are taught to pray, not five times a day, but continually (I Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer for Christians is not a chore but refreshment and comfort.
Zakat (alms giving) is the third duty of Muslims. They must give away one-fortieth (2.5%) of their tradable assets (apart from their home) each year. They may not give to just anyone in need, but only to poor Muslims, to encourage them to remain in Islam, and to the poor who are willing to become Muslims. In contrast, Christians are to give to anyone who has need, not as an inducement to convert but out of love. The Old Testament encouraged giving a minimum of 10%, but Jesus taught us to share all that we have. What matters to God is not the amount a person gives, but the heart. Islam makes no such distinction.
Sawm is the Arabic word for fasting, but Islamic fasting is different than a Christian would understand it. Muslims fast communally from sunrise to sunset during the lunar month of Ramadan. Christ taught his followers to fast in secret, not to be seen by others but rather as a personal act of devotion to be seen by God. In Islam, fasting is not a personal affair but a public one. In some Islamic societies people fasting are encouraged to act the part; looking tired and acting grumpy reminds everyone that they are fasting, and helps to reinforce conformity to the fast. Most Muslims actually gain weight during the month of Ramadan, because every night, after the sun goes down, a feast begins. In the words of one Somali Muslim, when the sun sets and the evening prayers are said “everybody just pigs out after.”
Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should perform at least once in his or her lifetime. The pilgrimage is seen as a source of extra merit, or Baraka. By performing the Hajj and other good deeds and religious obligations, Muslims hope to outweigh their sins and be granted access to heaven.
Just as important as what the Muslim believes is what the Muslim does not believe. Islam teaches that man is not by nature sinful; that Jesus, while being a respect prophet, is not God nor the Son of God; that Jesus did not die on the cross, so neither did he rise from the dead, all of which are central beliefs of the Christian faith. Therefore, while sharing several superficial similarities, Islam is at odds with the core of Christian faith.
These five pillars (to which some Muslims add Jihad, holy war, as a sixth) are the basics of Islam. However, doing them, even doing them perfectly, is no guarantee of heaven. A verse in the Hadith, the sayings of the ‘prophet,’ says, “A man may be as close as an arm’s length from Paradise and God may put him in Hell, or he may be as close as an arm’s length from Hell and God may put him in Paradise. All is dependent on the will of God.” Muslims interpret this to mean that God’s freedom, even the freedom to change his mind arbitrarily, cannot be limited by any assurance of salvation for his followers. Christians believe in a loving, consistent God who never changes; therefore, we can be assured of our salvation, not because of our many good deeds but because of his mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ
Common Christian Reactions to Islam
Having reviewed some of the basics of what Muslims believe, let’s consider our response to Islam. Over the centuries of Christian contact with Muslims, there have been three common reactions that Christians have had: fear, fury and fascination. Each of these reactions, while understandable, is not the way Christ would have us respond to our Muslim neighbors.
Fear is possibly the most common reaction to Islam. In our own times the threat of Islamic terrorism has caused many Christians to develop a deep fear of Muslims. Some fear an Islamic takeover, others fear for their personal safety or the safety of loved ones who may be overseas. But fear is not limited to the threat of physical danger; often we are afraid of offending Muslims or even afraid to talk with them. Fear is certainly not from God. The most common command in all of scripture is “Do not fear.” Fear can be like an infectious disease; we can catch it from someone and spread it to others. The more it spreads the more damage it does. Sometimes fear can quickly grow and overwhelm us, like the child on the camping trip who is in the tent trying to sleep after hearing ghost stories around the campfire — every crack or rustle becomes a giant bear in the child’s imagination, setting the stage for a miserable night. That kind of fear can become unbearable and crippling.
Very close to our fear reaction is our tendency to become angry or enraged. Some Christians who are otherwise loving and kind can be tempted to become hateful and furious because of the things that some Muslims have done. The attacks of September 11 provoked some very strong emotions in American Christians, not all of them Christlike. The long history of attacks, injustices and “dirty tactics” that have been carried out by Muslims is a source of a great deal of rage to the point that some people who call themselves Christians have even said such horrible things as, “Let’s nuke ‘em all.” It’s natural to become angry when we are attacked and it can even be holy to have righteous anger in some situations. It is all too easy go beyond that, however, and begin to hate. In the past, that has led to some very unchristian actions, like the crusades, being carried out in the name of Christ.
More subtle and just as dangerous as the first two reactions, fascination is a common response to Islam. There are many aspects of Islam that seem, to a curious outsider, to be mysterious and attractive. The intense devotion and fervor displayed by some Muslims provokes a certain awe in some Christians. Despite Jesus’ teaching against the Pharisee’s religion of works, it is easy to wonder, “How can someone with such great devotion be displeasing to God?” It is certainly natural to be interested in different cultures. As Christians we are encouraged to attempt to understand and empathize with people who are different from ourselves. Islamic culture is so different and mysterious to outsiders that some people are drawn into it out of curiosity. After the most dramatic display of what is wrong with Islam, the attacks of 9/11, American conversions to Islam actually increased as people attempted to understand this foreign faith.
Love, the Right Response
What then should our response to Islam be? A Christ-like response to Islam would be love. Love is not compatible with fear. Fear drives us to be silent and prevents us from confronting the issues that we need to. Missions to Muslims countries have actually declined since 9/11, largely because of fear. Perfect love, the Bible tells us in I John 4:18, casts away fear. Love, rather, encourages us to be bold in our attitudes, in our prayer, and in our interactions with Muslims. Love also conquers our fury. Our rage is a barrier to effective Christian witness, leading many to seek to quarrel with Muslims. Love leads us, not to wimpy weakness, but to gentleness. Paul tells us, in 2 Timothy 2:24, that “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but be gentle towards all, able to teach, patient.” Lastly, a fascination with Islam can lead us to overlook the many errors and falsehoods of the religion. We live in a culture that emphasizes tolerance when it should value love. Love leads us to uphold truth. If you love someone who is caught in a sinful and destructive pattern, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is the only Christ-like thing to do.
We may not all experience all of these reactions, but chances are we all will have one or more of them. Some of us rarely fear, but perhaps anger is our tendency. Whatever our reaction, we must acknowledge it, give it to God and allow him to transform our attitudes. It may help to remember that the greatest victims of Islam in all of history have been Muslims themselves. The only answer for these lost and hurting people is the love of Christ that can set them free from the burden of the law and of sin.
—By André Houssney, who was born in Lebanon and has worked in Missions there. He lives in Lafayette, Colorado, works with missionary organization Horizons International, and is a member of Indian Peaks Community Church.