Recently in Sydney there has been a billboard advertising campaign, with signs carrying various messages, including “Jesus: A prophet of Islam”, placed around the city. Run by Diaa Mohamed from the Islamic organization MyPeace, it certainly got some media attention. What was more interesting was the Christian response to it. Some were positive about it, others were negative, and some even said that it was offensive.
Diaa Mohamed himself says the whole purpose was to educate non-Muslim Australians about Islam, and to try to overcome the misconceptions that exist in the public forum about his religion. He hoped to build bridges between Christians and Muslims on the commonality that both have in holding Jesus in high regard.
What I want to talk about is the whole approach we take as Christians when creating public dialogue with Muslims.
Two responses, by Christian groups who have set up websites in response to the MyPeace campaign, illustrate different approaches to engaging Muslims. The first is RefutingMypeace.com.au, which is fairly aggressive. Notably, it has a big slogan on the front page of its website: “Muhammad was a false prophet”. The other website is AussieChristians.com.au, which is trying to set up friendly dialogue with Muslims. This second group have also run a billboard advertising campaign, which says “Dear Aussie Muslims, glad you want to talk about Jesus. Love to chat more.”
The first response takes what we could call a polemic approach, a “let’s go on the warpath and attack Islam, expose its errors, and tear down the Muslim’s understanding of the world so that he can rebuild with a Christian one” method. The danger with this approach is that it doesn’t lend itself to building good relationships. Often it drives a deep wedge between the two groups.
I remember a statistic suggesting that the average American needed to hear the gospel around eight times before they became a Christian. A Muslim missionary has suggested that the average Muslim needs to hear the gospel around one hundred times before they convert. The polemic approach tends to divide us far sooner than the hundredth gospel explanation can be given.
The second response takes a gentler, friendlier approach, aiming to build a relationship so that the other side will feel heard and in return be willing to listen to what we have to say, hopefully for the hundredth time! The danger of this approach is the temptation to avoid topics and questions that might divide and damage the relationship.
Of course, the alternative to both of these approaches is to not engage with Muslims at all—a fairly popular approach I have discovered amongst Christians!
There is a place for both the approaches outlined above, although I think the first polemic approach should be left to the experts because it takes extensive knowledge to do this in a fair and truthful way. (Sadly, I have noticed that some Christians exaggerate and perpetuate falsehoods about Islam in order to win the argument.)
I began my witnessing with the polemic approach, studying and gaining as many arguments as I could. I researched the Qur’an and the Hadith (Islamic writings about the traditions of Islam) in order to find weaknesses so I could throw grenades at the Muslim worldview. But what I found was that I was mostly dealing with Islam rather than connecting with Muslims. I did sometimes engage Muslims, but couldn’t maintain a good relationship with one for very long, and so I couldn’t tell if they’d actually heard and understood the whole gospel that I dearly wanted them to hear and believe. Nor did I often work out what it was about the gospel they couldn’t accept. I tried to love my Muslim friends, but never really had any long enough to do so.
When I reflected on the debates that I had with Muslims, the majority of the time was spent on the divinity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, the supposed flawless transmission of the Qur’an, and the prophetic status of Muhammad. Occasionally we would venture into topics of forgiveness and justice and love, but I was never sure that they understood what I was trying to say during these discussions. The problem with my approach was that I spent most of my time attacking Islam, which resulted in very little said about the gospel, and the bits that were shared were often lost or drowned out by the attacks.
I also found that this polemic approach was often used as ammunition for the political agenda that some Christians have of suppressing the influence of Islam in the west. As a result, many Christians were less likely to approach Muslims around them with love and care in an effort to engage them with the gospel. This agenda stirred up the fears, and as a result the overall message these Christians (for the most part unintentionally) were sending to Muslims in Australia was “We don’t want you here” rather than “We love you and God loves you”. Surely the first port of call for Christians is to obey the Great Commission rather than protect the social structures and norms of their country, even when they feel threatened by a religious group.
I now think one of the best methods in Muslim evangelism is for Christians to seek to befriend Muslims and patiently share the gospel with them, taking the time to remove obstacles and explain any misconceptions that they have. This is something that all Christians can do even with little knowledge of Islam.
Many of the Muslims I’ve met are what we would call nominal, but there is one Muslim I’ve befriended who takes his religion seriously. At first I found that I had to listen to him explain Islam and advocate its virtues far more than I could speak. Over time, however, I managed to present the gospel to him, taking the care to include the concepts that he had used for more effective communication. He has heard the gospel, he has heard my problems with Muhammad and the Qur’an, but still we are friends and continue talking.
I wanted to model this approach to a larger group of people, and I also wanted to see if it could be done in a public forum where others could sit in. I approached my devout Muslim friend, and asked him if he could find a spokesperson for Islam who I could publicly dialogue with. I had to take great care in explaining that it wasn’t to be a debate. I explained that I would give a presentation on the essence of Christianity, the other side would give a presentation on the essence of Islam, and then we could ask genuine questions of each other in a friendly manner. I also explained that the aim was not to smooth over our differences but to help clarify what they are, and why they are significant.
The end result was a public dialogue in our church hall between a Muslim sheikh and myself. I had explained to the Christian side that they weren’t to ask attacking questions, and to make sure the tone of any questions were gracious. At the first meeting there were a number of Christian theological students, some members of our church, and about five Muslim men.
We had a very good dialogue that night. Since the Muslim sheikh was from a Shiite background, we learnt a lot about Shia beliefs. Most of what is written on Islam is from a Sunni perspective, so it was good to get a Shia viewpoint directly from the source. Encouragingly, I got to explain the message of the Bible, and in particular why Christians not only believe Jesus died on the cross but also why it is so fundamental to Christianity.
Both presentations produced a range of questions, mostly from the sheikh and myself as we sincerely tried to understand the other’s position, especially when it clashed with our own theological understanding. Perhaps the best moment of the night was when the sheikh started asking questions about the logic of the crucifixion and how it could make sense of God, and even of Jesus.
“Isn’t Jesus reported to have cried out on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But if you say that he never sinned and was perfect (a claim which we also make), then how could he have said this?”
“I’m not sure I understand your problem.”
“Surely it is a sin to think that God is not there for you. It certainly isn’t trusting God. How could Jesus think that God had forsaken him?”
“But what if it were true?”
“What were true?”
“What Jesus is crying out on the cross.”
“What are you saying? That God had forsaken Jesus?”
At that point all the Muslims in the room reeled back in horror.
There was a moment of silence.
“But why? Why would God forsake Jesus who was always faithful?”
There then followed an explanation regarding penal substitutionary atonement.
We had far more things to say and questions than the first meeting allowed, so we arranged fortnightly meetings over the next few months. Lots of topics were explored, and at times we discussed the topics frequented by polemicists, but the majority of the time these were discussed in a fair and gentle manner. We took a break for Ramadan, and the sessions finally ended when the sheikh travelled
to Lebanon for an indefinite period.
To my knowledge no one was converted by these discussions. But the best thing was that they were constantly challenged by the message of the cross. There were times when we answered the challenges Muslims often throw at Christians regarding the inerrancy of the Bible, and times when we challenged them regarding their beliefs and scriptures, but what was preached again and again in different ways (particularly to clarify objections) was the gospel message of the cross of Christ. To my estimate they must have heard it at least some thirty times. I guess they just need to hear it another seventy more times. A real possibility given that we are still friendly.