Within the Church, Christian-Muslim relations have been largely the concern of a small group of specialists. All that changed on September 11, 2001. Who are Muslims? What do they believe? What are the differences among Muslims? Can Christians and Muslims live together peacefully in the same society? These and other questions have fueled an outpouring of interest in education and encounters between Christians and Muslims.
A particular danger is over-simplification about Islam and Muslims-either positive or negative-that thwarts true dialogue, true education, and genuine Christian mission.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy offers the following guidelines to individuals, churches, and Christian organizations, particularly in the West, that aspire to interact with Muslims. Suggestions, feedback, and reports regarding efforts at dialogue are welcome.
In Christian-Muslim dialogue, it is appropriate and necessary to:
- Seek to understand Islam and Muslim peoples. Most U.S. churchgoers know little about Islam. If our churches are to show Christ's love effectively to our Muslim neighbors (near and far), we must clear away misconceptions and gain accurate insights into Muslim beliefs and practices.
- Open ourselves to talk with all varieties and stations of Muslims. Of course, we recognize that some Muslims will decline the invitation to dialogue. But we must let them make that choice, rather than screening our potential interlocutors for their presumed compatibility with our own perspectives.
- Give testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is our duty to do so. Ultimately, Christ himself is the greatest blessing that we could offer to our Muslim interlocutors. The 2002 Oxford Consultation on the Future of Anglicanism noted helpfully: "Saint Paul uses dialogue and Saint Luke uses dialogomai to describe evangelism. It may involve arguing, explaining, proving, proclaiming and persuading (Acts 17:1-4, 17)" (see www.wycliffe.ox.ac.uk for the consultation reports). It is our hope that numbers of Muslims would be persuaded by the testimony of Christians whom they encounter.
- Make sure that the Christians entering into dialogue with Muslims have a firm grasp of an orthodox faith in the mainstream of the Christian tradition. Since their faith may be challenged and stretched in the dialogue, the Christian participants must know where the heart of that faith lies and where its boundaries are. Churches do no favor to the Muslims by sending out Christian "representatives" whose own faith is uncertain, confused, self-contradictory, and unable to distinguish between confessional essentials and their own idiosyncratic views.
- Endeavor to have the Christian side of the dialogue represent not just the U.S. churches, but also the global Christian community. It would be preferable to have persons in attendance who could address Islam from an African or Asian Christian perspective-particularly Christians who have lived as a minority group within predominantly Muslim nations. If the presence of such persons is not possible, some means must be found to keep their perspectives in mind. What cannot be permitted is a situation that reduces Christian-Muslim dialogue to another "North-South" confrontation, as if Christianity were equivalent to the "North" and Islam to the "South." In fact, we know that a growing proportion of the world's Christians live in the "South," and millions of Muslims are living in "North." For this same reason, the Muslim side of any global dialogue ought to include not only Muslims from predominantly Islamic developing nations, but also Muslims who live as minorities in non-Muslim nations.
- Affirm some points of theology and morality that Islam and Christianity have in common. These illustrate the "natural law" or "common grace" that is revealed to all, as Paul argues in Romans 1-2. This affirmation is particularly strategic, as secularists in western societies often mischaracterize natural law principles as narrowly Christian doctrines that do not belong in the public square.
- Address the deep differences between Islam and Christianity. Most basically, these relate to the person of Jesus Christ, who is at the center of our Christian faith. Muslims do not believe that he was God incarnate, that he truly and willingly died on the cross, that his death was the one atonement for all human sin, and that he was truly raised from the dead for our eternal life. In addressing these differences, Christians show themselves wiser and more winsome when they place their emphasis on positive affirmations of their own Christian faith. Negative judgments about Islamic beliefs and practices-although these are sometimes necessary and are often implicit in the affirmations-should not be the principal theme of the Christian participants in the dialogue.
- Work together with some Muslims on certain public issues in which we and they may have similar concerns (for instance, free exercise of religion in the United States, opposition to abortion, and promotion of refugee resettlement). We do so for the same reason that Christians are prepared to work with Jews, Mormons, and even atheists where we share common convictions about what justice requires.
- Find ways in which our churches might practically show the love of Christ by being of service to our Muslim neighbors, here in the U.S. and internationally. We need to ask our Muslim interlocutors about the needs in their communities.
- Discuss concepts of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom, as promulgated in international covenants to which most Muslim nations have subscribed. U.S. Christians should discuss how we find these concepts in accord with our Christian faith, how western societies developed these concepts historically, and the benefits that they have brought our societies. We should encourage our Muslim interlocutors to consider these concepts in the context of Islam, its history, and their own personal experiences.'
- Allow the open expression of concerns, fears, and grievances regarding the other party in the dialogue. A dialogue cannot advance very far unless it addresses the problems that each side perceives in the other. U.S. Christians must expect to hear Muslim complaints about the medieval crusades, modern western imperialism, and contemporary American society. It is fair to acknowledge that some of those complaints have validity. But it is neither historically accurate nor helpful for the Christians to accept the notion that the West is to be blamed for most of the ills in the Muslim world. Muslims must take primary responsibility for their own societies, as the historian Bernard Lewis argues.
- Intercede for fellow Christians (and other religious minorities) who suffer persecution or restriction in predominantly Muslim nations. Particular concerns relate to bans on religious proselytism or conversion, state attempts to restrict or control religious activities, attempts to subject Christians to Islamic sharia, and other legal and political structures that treat Christians as second-class dhimmi. Christians should appeal to their Muslim interlocutors on the basis of reciprocity. Christians in Muslim nations ought to enjoy the same freedoms that Muslims do in the West. And as Christians commit themselves to safeguard the liberties of Muslims in America, so we must challenge Muslims to ensure religious freedom for Christians and other minorities in Muslim nations.
- Attempt to meld Christianity and Islam, pretending that they have the same basic teachings and that the differences between the two are merely trivial points of theology.
- Aim to establish inter-faith organizations that embody a new "macro-ecumenism," joining Christians and Muslims in a unity analogous to the unity of the Body of Christ. If Christians do participate in inter-faith organizations, these should be merely forums for dialogue and channels of limited cooperation - not bodies that pretend to a false unity where none exists.
- Try to formulate and celebrate common acts of worship. As Christians who worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as instructed by our Lord Jesus, we find any worship that omits those names and concepts of God (offensive to Muslims) to be impoverished rather than enriched. We do not wish to strip our worship down to the point that Muslims would find it acceptable, nor do we require Muslims to reduce their worship to a point that would be acceptable to Christians. It is better to worship alongside Muslims, with them practicing what they consider to be proper worship while we Christians observe, and vice versa, rather than trying to have a common worship.
- Expect that all blame for Christian-Muslim conflicts can be assigned to parties in the dialogue. The conflicts are too complicated and longstanding, and the dialogue too incomplete, for this assumption to hold. As Paul Marshall observes, "The Muslims who actually participate in dialogue are not usually the ones engaged in murder, kidnapping, or the rape of Christian women" (Their Blood Cries Out, p. 220). Likewise, an Eastern Orthodox or African Christian may not feel personally culpable for the crusades or Western European imperialism. Of course, Christians may express regret for abuses that other Christians have committed against Muslims, as God convicts us of those abuses. But we must not demand apologies from our Muslim interlocutors as the price for dialogue, nor must they require apologies from the Christian participants in the dialogue. We must not imagine that the differences between Islam and Christianity can be reduced to particular clashes.
- Speak of the world as if it were neatly divided into spheres of influence, Muslim and Christian (and other), with no overlap or movement between the spheres. As noted above, there are millions of Christians in predominantly Muslim nations, and vice versa. In a free society Christians can convert to Islam, and vice versa. We cannot accept the notion that there is an "Islamic world" in which western Christians have no right to "meddle." And, of course, Muslims have every right to be interested and involved in what goes on in western nations.
- Talk only to elite Muslim scholars and religious officials who present a "textbook version" of Islam. It may be even more important to know the "popular Islam" as it is practiced on the street. We may learn more, and have a more fruitful conversation, by going to the local Muslim grocer than by going to the imam at the mosque.
- Play political games inside the Muslim community, elevating leaders that we Christians favor and ignoring those that we dislike. It is not our place as Christians to determine who is and who is not an authentic leader in the Muslim community. We should simply talk and cooperate with all who will talk and cooperate. Naturally, some Muslims will be more willing to talk and cooperate than others. It is likely that our Muslim interlocutors will be more "moderate," more tolerant, more interested in democracy, human rights, and good relations with the West. And it is undeniable that we would prefer to have such persons exercise more influence within the Muslim community, for the sake of the values just named. But our ability to boost them inside their own religious community is, and should be, quite limited.
- Assume that dialogue, in itself, is the solution to the theological and political issues between Christians and Muslims. Dialogue may clarify the real issues and remove some imagined issues. It may enable Christians and Muslims to work together more readily on matters where cooperation is possible. Mutual ignorance is a problem between Christians and Muslims; however, it is not the deepest problem. As Paul Marshall remarks, "The [extreme Islamist] people engaged in persecution are neither stupid nor uneducated.... We will not understand persecution if we think it is a mere misunderstanding to be resolved through more education and chatty conferences" (Their Blood Cries Out, p. 220).