Christian Response to Islam: A Struggle for the Soul of Christianity

(Editor's note: Azumah's latest book, My Neighbour's Faith, is on the topics discussed in this article. See sidebar inthis article for Azumah's comments on his latest book, along with publisher information.)

One of the crucial issues facing Christians around the world today is finding the right balance in our response to the various challenges posed by Islam and engagement with Muslims. The quest for an appropriate Christian response to Islam and engagement with Muslims has sadly polarized Christians along evangelical vs. liberal, truth vs. grace, or confrontational vs. conciliatory lines.

As an African, my own struggle is the way these positions are presented as absolutes in either/or categories. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City (9/11), the Iraq war, the Madrid bombings, etc., the division among Christians has deepened. Reflecting on the situation, Joseph Cummings talks of a titanic struggle going on in the heavenly realms—a struggle not between Muslims and Christians or between Islam and the West, but “a struggle within Christianity itself, a struggle for the soul of the Christian faith.”1

What Cummings is suggesting, and I couldn’t agree more, is that Islam per se is not necessarily the greatest challenge facing Christians today, but rather how Christians choose to respond to Islam. There seems to be a general consensus that we should be talking about Christian responses rather than “response” to Islam.


To work out what constitutes an appropriate
Christian response to Islam, there is a need to
identify the various faces of Islam.

To work out what constitutes an appropriate Christian response to Islam, there is a need to identify the various faces of Islam needing responses. I want to suggest four needing considered Christian responses:

  1. The militant and violent face of Islam, including Islamic terrorism.

  2. The ideological face of Islam in the form of Islamists conceptions of an Islamic State.
  3. Islamic/Muslim criticism, rejection, and polemics against Christian beliefs.
  4. Islamic missionary activity—daw’ah.

These faces of Islam impact Christians in different ways in different contexts, and will therefore elicit different responses from Christians depending upon the context.

Responding to Militant Islam
In our post 9/11 world, Islamic militancy seems to have become the driving force for responses to Islam and engagement with Muslims. In order to think of a Christian response to Islamic militancy, it is vital that at least three facts are stated. For as Jesus said in John 8:32, there is freedom in knowing the truth.

  1. Apart from instances of communal violence in Indonesia and northern Nigeria, Christians are not the primary targets of jihadists Muslims. The targets are specific governments and states (Islamic governments and states included). Western democracies are surely prime targets.

  2. While Christians and several other non-Muslims have been victims of Muslim militancy, the actual number of Christians killed in Islamist violence pales in significance when compared with the number of Muslims killed. In other words, Muslims are the main victims of Islamists violence.
  3. Research shows that Islamic militancy creates disaffection in Muslims concerning Islam. Some convert to Christianity (where there is a friendly Christian presence) or simply backslide.

All the facts therefore point to the fact that Islamic militancy is more of a threat to Muslims and Islam than to Christians and Christianity. For Christian citizens whose nations are targets of Islamic terrorist groups, Paul makes it clear in Romans 13 that dealing with such threats is the responsibility of governments and state security forces. In times like these Christians should remain patriotic citizens without compromising their prophetic calling or sacrificing their pastoral care for the weak and vulnerable.

Responding to Islam as an Ideology
Related to but different from Islamic militancy is Islamists’ concept of an Islamic State where shariah law is enforced as the legal code in civil and criminal matters. The history of early Islamic conquests of Palestine, Syria, and North Africa teaches us that Muslim militancy per se has never been the main factor for demographic changes in favor of Islam. Instead, pressures from the discriminatory tenets of the shariah and the humiliation of Christian minorities have been the single most effective factor in the conversion of Christians to Islam. 

My Neighbour’s Faith: Islam Explained for
Christians: An Introduction

By John Azumah

John Azumah. 2008. My Neighbour’s Faith:
Islam Explained for Christians. Corby,
England: Cana Publishing/Hippo Books.

In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist
attack on America, interest in Islam among
Christians across the world has been on the
increase. Since then, on a regular basis we
read about and see Muslims blowing
themselves and others up in the name of
their religion, while at the same time we hear
Muslim leaders and Western experts
proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace.

One theological student in India once said to
me, “Sir, I am confused! We hear Islam is a
religion of peace, but we also read about
and see Muslims praying with AK-47 rifles
and teenage girls shot dead or disfigured
for not wearing a veil!” To add to the confusion,
Islam itself is far from being a monolithic entity.
There are Muslims who assert and genuinely
believe that Islam is a religion of peace, while
there are others whose discourse and
activities proclaim the opposite. All are using
Muslim scripture and traditions, and all claim
their version of Islam is the “true” Islam.

The war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict has further added to the confusion
by splitting the Evangelical Christian front as
to what constitutes an appropriate Christian
response to Islam. On the one end are those
who strongly believe Islam is a threat and
must be exposed as such. This approach ends
up instilling fear in Christians about Islam. On
the other end are those who insist that the
best approach to Islam is to act out of love and
grace to Muslims. Hard questions and difficult
issues are swept under the carpet.

The purpose of writing My Neighbour’s Faith:
Islam Explained for Christians is to attempt an
approach to Islam which is guided by truth and
grace following the biblical teaching that Jesus
was full of truth and of grace. To sacrifice one
on the altar of the other is to betray Christ.

My approach in My Neighbour’s Faith is guided,
on the one hand, by my experience of having
Muslims as neighbours in Africa. Islam is
therefore the faith of my neighbour and as
the ninth commandment teaches, Thou shall
not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
On the other hand it is guided by the same
experience of Islam in Africa as a rival tradition
to Christianity—the only missionary religion
after Christianity, a religion that raises
questions and makes demands and claims
over Christians and Christianity in ways that
no other religion does. Telling the truth about
Islam includes raising the hard questions and
talking openly about the difficult issues in the
conviction that good relations can only be built
on accurate and critical knowledge of one another.

In doing so, however, I have endeavoured to
keep the human face of Islam at the heart of my
writing. In Africa, as already noted, Islam is not
an impersonal system of beliefs or the religion of
immigrant communities. Rather, it has a human
face: the face of a close relative, a neighbour,
a teacher, and even a head of state. Maintaining
the human face of Islam is therefore crucial if
Christians are to avoid the trap of ending up with
a hateful discourse. In my treatment of Islam,
grace is an important factor because it as a
tradition that has shaped the lives and values
of millions of people across generations and
continues to guard the identity and destinies
of millions today.

A vital need to provide Christian theological
students with credible and balanced information
on Islam in order to prevent them from falling
prey to unhelpful material on the market or
simply separate themselves motivated me
to write My Neighbour’s Faith.  

Islamic ideology therefore poses a serious challenge to Christians in Muslim majority countries in ways that Muslim personal and family laws in the West do not. Christian responses to Islam as an ideology will therefore vary from context to context. Speaking about ideological opposition, secular ideologies are to Christianity in the West what Islamic ideologies are to Christianity in Muslim countries.

Christians in the West should have the same concerns about secularist forces as Christians in Muslim countries as about the enforcement of shariah law. However, in light of 1 Corinthians 12: 25-26, Christians everywhere have a duty to stand in solidarity with and speak on behalf of Christian minorities facing discrimination and persecution wherever that may be. This does not mean, for example, that British Muslims should be demonized for the treatment of Christian minorities in Pakistan.

Responding to Islamic Anti-Christian Polemic
In its scripture (the Qur’an) and traditions (the Hadith), Islam is generally critical and polemical of Christianity. Anti-Christian polemic is deeply rooted in Islamic source books, and individual Muslim figures and groups have taken it up as their vocation. I have had occasions to challenge my Muslim friends to substitute the term “Muslim” into every place the word “Christian” appears in the Qur’an and to read the passages and tell me how they would feel if they were reading that about Muslims from the Bible.

Of course, I also tell Christians that in order to appreciate the Qur’anic anti-Christian material, they should read what the New Testament, especially the Gospels, say about Jews in general and Jews religious leaders in particular. That said, the question is not whether Christians should respond to Islamic anti-Christian polemic, but how we should respond.

I have heard some Christians say the best form of defense is attack. I personally do not like the word “defense,” let alone “attack.” It sounds like we are seeking revenge, which is unbiblical (see Romans 12:19). Christians are commissioned as witnesses to the transforming power of the gospel (Acts 1:8), not as defenders of the faith.

The aim of our response should be to correct and remove misunderstanding as far as we are able—not to attack Islamic beliefs and undermine the integrity of Islam sources. Robust apologetics, not polemics, should be the Christian response to Islamic anti-Christian polemic.

Responding to Islamic Daw’ah
Islam and Christianity are the two main missionary religions. While both religions have always taken their missionary calling seriously, it could be said that from the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century Christian missionary activity far outstripped its Islamic rival. However, since the post-colonial era (late 1950s onwards) Christian mission in Western hands has come under much accusation, attack, and suspicion, and has since been increasingly on the retreat into university departments and theological seminaries.

The few who venture into missions often do so as clandestines in hostile territories. Simultaneouly, Muslim governments and organizations have embarked upon very aggressive daw’ah in Africa, Asia, and the West. This has been given a huge boost by the discovery of oil in large commercial quantities in Muslim countries.

Islamic daw’ah itself, however, is not the real challenge to Christianity. The challenge lies in the criminalization of Christian missions resulting in Christian missionaries resorting to clandestine strategies in order to share their witness with Muslims. The other challenge is governments (mainly Islamic) and fundamentalist groups who put legal impediments in the way of people who want to change their religion, especially conversion to Christianity. 

By way of response, rather than behaving like drug traffickers always figuring out how to be one step ahead of law enforcement agencies, Christians need to publicly and consistently speak up for religious freedom. We have had the civil rights and gay rights movements and this might be the time for a Religious Rights Movement. The question Christians need to raise with Muslim scholars, activists, governments, and organizations is how Islam can criminalize an activity it is itself actively engaged in across the world. 

Christian Response as a Witness to Islam
It is essential that any Christian response to Islam is not seen to be driven by fear and self-preservation. Jesus is very clear that: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” The crusades are a good example of a Christian response to Islam out of fear and self-preservation. But what is more, the legacy of the crusades and the witness it left in the Muslim psyche about Christianity speaks for itself. To quote Cummings once more:

It used to be commonly said that Islam was Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I believe that is not true. I believe that Satan’s greatest masterpiece was the Crusades. Why? Is it because the Crusades were the worst atrocity that ever happened in history? I think Hitler was worse. Stalin was worse. Pol Pot was worse. What is so horrible about the Crusades is that it was done under the symbol of the cross; that Satan succeeded in distorting the very heart of the Christian faith. The cross is at the heart of the entire Christian faith, and for the Muslims and the Jews of the world, what does the symbol of the cross now signify? The cross now signifies, “Christians hate you enough to kill you.” What is the cross suppose to signify? It is suppose to signify, “God loved you enough to lay down his life for you, and I love you enough that I would lay down my life for you.” Satan succeeded in taking the very heart of the Christian faith and turning it around to mean not just something different, but to mean the exact opposite of what it was supposed to mean.2

A Ghanaian proverb counsels that if someone deliberately breaks wind into your face and you muster all your muscles to take revenge, you could end up soiling yourself with stool. However we choose as Christians to respond to Islam, the question that should guide us is: What witness are we likely to leave behind in our response, and how will it serve the course of the gospel and our mandate as witnesses to that gospel?  

 

Endnotes

1. 2008. “Toward Respectful Witness.” In From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues among Muslims. Ed. Dudley Woodberry, 319. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey Library.

2. Ibid, 322-323.


Dr. John Azumah is director of the Centre for Islamic Studies at the London School of Theology in Northwood, Middlesex, United Kingdom.