Is Islam the Enemy?

In the months since the terrorist bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the massive U.S. cruise missile attacks on targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan, considerable media attention has been focused on militant Islam. Exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden has become the new, sinister symbol for violent Islamic extremism. Various political leaders, pundits, and op-ed writers have dubbed him the world’s most dangerous man. Amidst the daily news of presidential scandal, the faltering Russian economy and the McGwire/Sosa home run race, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared war on terrorism. Albright warned that this war will last for years, perhaps decades. She even raised the specter of potential terrorist uses of chemical and biological weapons or small nuclear devices targeted on domestic and international sites.

Terrorism is neither new nor limited to Islamic militants. Images of the federal building in Oklahoma City and bombings in Northern Ireland are etched vividly into our consciousness. But it is certainly true that a number of individuals and groups identifying themselves with Islam have periodically lashed out with violent terrorist actions in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Algeria, and elsewhere in the past three decades.

This extremist dimension of contemporary Islam is real, but far from representative. It is highly misleading when politicians and journalists speak about an "‘Islamic threat" as some type of monolithic entity. Such stereotypes serve to reinforce popular perceptions of Islam as somehow inherently violent and menacing. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are as offended by a violent act carried out in the name of Islam as most Christians are horrified by atrocities perpetrated by Serbian Christians or the Real IRA.

The facile association of Islam with fanaticism and violence confuses rather than clarifies issues. Clearly, Islam is an increasingly powerful political force in many lands. Many countries with predominantly Muslim populations are in the midst of change. Islamist movements are active in the process. Some Muslims seeking change are Sunnis while others are Shi’ites; some are working within the framework of established political parties; some are operating underground in an effort to disrupt the status quo; some political leaders are cynically using religion to gain support for their policies.

During the course of the past 20 years, I have had extraordinary opportunities for direct involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. In addition to living in Egypt in 1977-78 and traveling to Iran three times to help facilitate the peaceful resolution of the 1979-81 hostage crisis, I have traveled throughout the Middle East on more than 30 occasions. Much of my involvement has centered on church-related ministries in Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.

One overriding impression derived from these endeavors and my ecumenical work with U.S. churches centers on the pervasive ignorance of and misperceptions about Islam. In fairness, both Clinton and Albright have underscored the distinction between terrorists and Islam. While laudable, such rhetorical nuances are lost on most Americans, not to mention Muslims and others abroad whose views are instead shaped by U.S. military actions.

Concerted and sustained educational efforts to fill the void are needed now more than ever, for Islam is not only the world’s second largest religious tradition but will soon pass Judaism as the second largest religion in the United States. It is essential that Christians in the West understand more accurately some of the fundamental tenets of Islam. Thoughtful study can help clarify points of convergence and disagreement among these descendants of Abraham. It is particularly important during this time of political confusion and upheaval that the churches take the lead in improving understanding.

Some Basics of Islam

The central message of Islam is lodged in the simple confession of faith: "‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." Islam is a radical monotheism. Muslims affirm the one, true God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe whose will has been manifest to humankind through prophetic revelation. The final revelation, according to Islamic teaching, came through Muhammad and is now in the Quran (sometimes rendered Koran), which they consider to be the literal, perfect, and complete word of God. Muslims believe the proper human response to this revelation is obedience both in the worship of God and in all aspects of life.

Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews. Many non-Arabic speakers, confused by the name Allah, have not made this connection. Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. In the Middle East today, the 12-14 million indigenous Arabic-speaking Christians pray to Allah, just as the French pray to Dieu and Germans to Gott. For Muslims there is no ambiguity: the one, true God is the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and everyone else in creation.

In 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad had a profound and disturbing experience he understood as a revelation from God mediated by the angel Gabriel. Shaken by the episode, he doubted both his sanity and his worthiness to be God’s prophetic messenger. Encouraged by his wife and a few close friends, he came to accept this calling and responsibility. Over a period of the next 23 years, he uttered the messages he perceived as coming from Gabriel.

The basic themes in the earliest passages in the Quran include the sublime majesty of God, the futility of idol worship, the certainty of God’s judgment, and human responsibility for faith in God and for fair, compassionate behavior in society. Later themes include a variety of doctrinal teachings as well as social and ethical responsibilities in areas such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Numerous passages address responsibility toward children, the poor, and oppressed, commercial dealings and also prohibitions against criminal behavior such as theft, adultery, and murder.

The life of faith begins with the affirmation of God’s oneness. This is the first of the five devotional-ritual duties known as the "‘pillars of Islam." Prescribed prayer is the second and most conspicuous manifestation of piety. Five times each day, Muslims are called to prayer. The worshippers stand in rows of straight lines oriented toward the central sacred site, the Ka’bah, in Mecca. The symbolic unity of Muslims in prayer reflects the conviction that all people stand equally before God.

The three other pillars include almsgiving, fasting during the daylight hours throughout the month of Ramadan, and, at least once in one’s lifetime, making the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca during the time set apart each year for this striking ritual. Woven through these devotional-ritual practices are threads symbolically uniting Muslims as equal members of their community of faith. This does not mean that all is harmonious in the house of Islam. Ask 10 Muslim women in different countries about equality in Islam, for instance, and you will find no consensus.

A close look at Islamic history reveals patterns that are common in other religious communities: a rich tradition, inspiring people to their highest good, and at the same time one replete with schism, power struggles, and political and military conflicts.

Even so, it is important to underscore the inaccuracy of the stereotypical Western image of Islam as backward, anti-intellectual, and unsophisticated. The error of this image is particularly ironic in view of the major contributions Muslims have made in the shaping of Western civilization as we know it.

When Europe was languishing in the "‘Dark Ages," Islamic civilization was thriving from Spain, across North Africa, through the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia, and eastward into India. Most people are surprised to discover the substantial contributions of Muslims in science, engineering, navigation, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, architecture, horticulture, and calligraphy.

Muslims are very proud of their history and civilization. For the past four centuries, however, much of the Muslim world has been dominated by external powers. Some of the convulsions and upheavals evident in various predominantly Muslim lands today are born of frustration stemming from centuries of external control, superpower domination, and contemporary leaders who are rarely in power by virtue of popular choice.

Many Muslims today believe that Islam can once again provide the framework for civilization--political, religious, economic, and social. Careful contextual analysis in settings such as Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia reveals widely diverse views on how best to implement any kind of authentic Islamic state. Implementing the ideal continues to prove an elusive goal.

Similarities and Differences with Christianity

Rooted in the monotheistic tradition of the patriarch Abraham, Christians and Muslims share a common heritage with Jews. Both acknowledge one God, an omnipotent creator of the universe, the immortality of the soul, the existence of a future state of rewards and punishments. Both affirm similar moral and ethical standards for life in community.

Muslims perceive Muhammad as the last in a long succession of prophetic messengers sent to humankind. Many of the prophets named in the Quran are also major figures in the Bible. These include Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Most Christians are surprised to discover the importance Muslims attach to Jesus. Mentioned by name in 93 different verses, Jesus is venerated as one of the greatest prophets. He is unique by virtue of the miraculous virgin birth as well as his distinctive names. Jesus is called a "‘word" from God, the "‘messiah," and "‘a spirit from God." In the final analysis, however, Muslims are clear: Jesus, like all the prophets, was human.

The error of Jesus’ followers, according to the Quran, is that they claim things about Jesus--namely, that he was God’s son, divine, that he was resurrected by God and is now part of the Trinity--that Jesus never claimed for himself. These are dangerous teachings in the Islamic understanding because they challenge the absolute oneness and unity of God. Accordingly, the Quran includes stern words of warning for Christians and others who associate anything so immediately with God.

At the same time, Jews and Christians are called "‘People of the Book" and even promised their reward in paradise (Quran 2:62 and 5:69). Thus, the Quran includes both an affirmation of the similarities in basic theological and ethical perspectives and a clear rejection of the central Christian understanding of Jesus’ divinity.

The different religious communities are explained as part of God’s plan. The diversity is caused, ironically, by different reactions to the various prophets. The fact that humankind is divided into various communities is explained as a test for people of faith. The emphasis falls on responsible behavior here in this life.

If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but (He has not done so) that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete with one another in good works. To God you shall all return and He will tell you (the truth) about that which you have been disputing (Quran 5:48).

In our increasingly fragile and interdependent world, this verse presents a positive challenge. While Christians and Muslims will not come to complete theological agreement (with one another or among themselves), we can come to a better mutual understanding. And, by living out the best of our religious traditions, we can "‘compete with one another in good works."

Steps Toward Understanding and Cooperation

Given the long history of animosity and misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims, it is clear that there are no quick fixes. There are no easy answers or simple solutions that will ensure mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation. But the road is not blocked. There is a way forward. There are specific things that Christians and local churches can do to work for a future wholly different from the tortured past.

Education provides the basis for mutual understanding. Uninformed or erroneous views about the other are at the root of many problems plaguing Christian-Muslim relations. Churches can and should develop study programs to learn more about Islam. Through presentations by informed leaders or working through an introductory text, Christians can develop a more accurate understanding of this rapidly growing religious tradition. Building on such a foundation, it is possible to address numerous questions in a fair and balanced manner: What is the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites? Who speaks for the larger Muslim community? How are the roles of men and women understood in Islam? To what extent does Louis Farrakhan represent Islam or even the African-American Muslim community?

Happily, there are resources to assist in this educational process. Many denominational bodies have offices devoted to Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. Various ecumenical organizations--from local and state councils of churches to the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches--have been working on interfaith issues for several decades. The staff in these various offices are happy to provide resources and guidance on developing study programs in local churches or as an ecumenical initiative in a community.

A second type of program involves dialogical encounter with Muslims. My former church, First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, engaged in such a dialogue this fall. The leader of the local mosque came to First Baptist for four weeks both to talk about Islam and to engage the Christians on various issues he and other Muslims face as a minority community in Greenville. In the process, the participants in the dialogue were able to put a human face on Islam. This experience is particularly important since dramatic events in the news often tend to do the opposite: dehumanize the other.

Not all dialogical encounters are productive. Since people have different agendas and perspectives, it is important to be clear about the focus and the ground rules for the encounter. There are so many questions and issues that might be addressed, it is wise to focus the parameters for the dialogue.

Beyond educational efforts and structured dialogue, Christians and local churches might consider working together with local Muslims on social projects of mutual concern. Societal problems such as homelessness, poverty, and the proliferation of drugs plague many communities. In some settings, Christians and Muslims can strengthen their efforts by working together. Many Christian clergy and chaplains, for instance, have discovered that their Muslim colleagues have been remarkably successful in programs of drug and prison rehabilitation. Why not learn from one another?

As the Muslim population continues to grow in the United States, more and more communities will be faced with new questions. How can public schools accommodate dietary needs or religious holidays for Muslim students? How does the presence of Muslim students relate to debates about prayer in school? Now is the time to be building the foundation needed for a healthy, pluralist society.

Christians and Muslims have traveled a long and often bumpy road together for some 14 centuries. On the eve of the 21st century, there are ominous signs that continuing mistrust and misunderstanding combined with upheaval and rapid political change may make the journey forward even more difficult and dangerous. But we are sojourners together on that road into the future. The ways in which Christians and Muslims choose to travel that road will have profound consequences for both communities--and for the world.

CHARLES KIMBALL is professor of religion and chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author, most recently, of Angle of Vision: Christians and the Middle East (Friendship Press, 1992).

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