To Christians and Muslims – A Response to Increasing Tensions

I am writing this post as a Christian, but I am writing too for the sake of an appeal to the common values we all hold most dear. In light of the Paris, Lebanon, and Baghdad terrorist attacks, this is necessarily a time of mourning. Christians and Muslims join together in this time of sadness, for the loss is not only limited to one religious group; Muslims were killed in these attacks too. We all mourn. I agree with President Obama in that “this is not just an attack on Paris and the people of France. This is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

Sadly, I have seen many people resort to stereotypes and over-generalizations of all Muslims, as if Islam itself was to blame for this atrocity. I have heard calls to close our borders to Syrian refugees, the very people who are fleeing ISIS themselves, and I have heard a strengthening resolve against Islam as a whole throughout the Western world. Many of my Christian friends have responded this way as well. They think Islam is a dangerous, violent religion, and in that regard, a threat to all of us. This feeling is, however, NOT based on truth. One of the primary motivators for ISIS recruitment is the growing characterization of an Islam vs. the Western world mentality. This anti-Islam phobia merely helps draw in recruits to commit these atrocities many times over. The more we paint this picture as a “battle of civilizations,” Christianity vs. Islam, the more conflict we will face. It is time for us all to come together in friendship closer than we ever have before. The good thing is that Christians and Muslims have already been doing some of this hard dialogue. First, many prominent Muslims issued “A Common Word Between Us and You.” Christians have likewise responded and initiated talks and calls to common action and love for one another – I will get to this more later.

First, what are the stakes? Over half of the world considers themselves either Muslim or Christian. Conflict here means world conflict. Peace here means worldwide peace is within our reach. Our Muslim friends have already written, “Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.” We all recognize the magnitude of this relationship and its implications for the entire world. Further, the processes of globalization will only increase tensions if we do not learn to live with one another even though we may have different beliefs. Trade is becoming more interconnected (e.g. we rely on the Middle East for oil), communications are much more advanced (e.g. we can talk to anyone in the world almost instantaneously), and migrant movements are more commonplace; therefore, people of all religious faiths are increasingly living in close proximity to one another. All of these factors contribute to the shrinking of the world, not literally, of course, but in terms of confronting all of us, as commonplace, with a lifestyle other than our own. The stakes indeed are quite high.

As Christians, we learn from Jesus, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Mt. 7:3-5). Because of this, we must realize our own complicity in this “sacred” violence that has become an unfortunate cycle in the world today. The Christian response to A Common Word was first, “…we want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors…we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and the Muslim community around the world.”

In the Spirit of re-affirming our common values, together we condemn the actions of ISIS. Islam is against ISIS just as much as we are. Muslim fighters are trying to repel ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. We recognize that ISIS is not faithful to the essence of Islam, and we commit to working alongside one another for peace and reconciliation. To my friends skeptical of Islam, I would like to make some efforts to clear the air. Islam is not a violent religion. In fact, just as I would argue is the case with Christianity, it is one of the greatest forces for peace in the world. Let’s look at a few of our common beliefs – between Christianity and Islam. (Disclaimer: I am obviously not an Islam scholar. On that note, I welcome any of my Muslim friends to both critique and add to anything I say below).

handshakeChristians and Muslims are united in our common love for God and for our neighbor. In Islam, love for God is the primary concern, just as in Christianity and Judaism love for God is the most important commandment. For Islam, God isn’t merely “loving,” as if it were only something that God did. Rather, God IS Loving, God IS Forgiving, God IS Mercy (Qur’an 11:90, 85:14). This is obviously very similar to the Christian claim that “God IS Love,” a confession we hold onto tightly in our own faith (1 Jn. 4:8). One of the most important consideration in Islam is from the Prophet Muhammad saying, “The best that I have said – myself and the prophets that came before me – is: ‘There is no God but God, He Alone, He has no associate, His is the sovereignty and His is the praise and He has power over all things.’” The principle of the oneness of God imply for both of us love due ultimately to God alone (Lk. 10:27, Deut. 6:5, etc.). Just how Christians are told we cannot serve two masters (Lk 16:13), so too the Qur’an notes “God has not assigned to any human two hearts within his body (Qur’an 33:4). There should be only one subject for our highest affections: God. We hold this in common, and we allow it to form the rest of our lives.

What should we do in response to God? Before all else, we should be thankful. As Christians, we are to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (Ps. 100:4). We do this in response to the gift of creation, and to the goodness of God in our lives. The prayer recited by traditional Muslims 17 times a day expresses this very same idea: “Praise be to God…the infinitely Good, the All-Merciful…we ask you for help, guide us onto a straight path” (Qur’an 1:1-7). We are thankful for the gift of life, and we are thankful that God is merciful and forgiving, knowing that humans are inclined towards sin more often than not.

How are we to live out this love for God? In both Islam and Christianity, love for God is chiefly expressed through love for our neighbor. Those of you who have been influenced by anti-Islam sentiments are likely to be thinking that Muslims are supposedly called to kill those who do not share their exact faith (though my examples above show we hold much in common!) and that we are considered infidels unworthy of life. My friends, this is not the essence of Islam.

From Jesus, we are taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Mt. 5:43-45). Similarly, the Muslim authors of A Common Word wrote, “Love of our neighbor is an essential and integral part of faith in God and love of God because, in Islam, without love of the neighbor there is no true faith in God and no righteousness.” They cite the Prophet Muhammad who also said, “None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.” Sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, huh? “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Mt 7:12). We are united in our common love for God and by our common love for our neighbor. For Christians, the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is most generally all of humanity, just like it is in Islam, but Jesus clarifies by means of a parable, ‘The Good Samaritan,’ that even our enemies are our neighbors. The Samaritans, those who the first century Jews had contempt for, those who were treated as scapegoats for the nations’ tragedies, THEY are your neighbors Jesus says. Lest my comments make it seem like Islam limits the concept of ‘neighbor,’ the Qur’an exhorts Muslims to “…be kind to the neighbor who is near, and to the neighbor who is a stranger, and to the friend at your side, and to the wayfarer…” (Qur’an 4:36). Neighbor, and hence the recipient of neighborly love and obligation is extended even to those unknown to us, the “neighbor as stranger.” In terms of enemy love, Islam holds out hope that God will elicit affection between former enemies and make even them into our friends who are by our side: “It may be that God will bring about between you and those of them with whom you are in enmity, affection. For God is Powerful, and God is Forgiving, Merciful… you should even treat them [your enemies] kindly and deal with them justly. Assuredly God loves the just” (Qur’an 60:7-8). In summary, in both Christianity and Islam, love for neighbor is one of the chief markers of love for God, and this love for our neighbor is especially important to show to those considered enemies.

Both of our religious traditions also give us profound resources for initiating reconciliation and peace between one another. I’ve seen many of us, in America especially, call for ISIS’ violence to be met with retributive violence. Now, I am not a complete pacifist in all situations, but all of us should be able to recognize that it is antithetical to our Christian faith to pursue vengeance and meet violence with violence (Rms. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Speaking to the disciple who drew his sword at Jesus’ arrestors, “Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). We should make all of our efforts to repay evil with good. As Peter taught us, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pt. 3:9). Almost word for word, the Qur’an admonishes Muslims everywhere to ‘endure evil patiently,’ to repay ignorant addresses (such as those who are anti-Islam today) with ‘words of peace,’ for repaying evil with a good deed has the power to transform enemies into friends (Qur’an 41:34-35, 16:126, 25:63). When we are wronged, we are to forgive the wrongdoer. This does not just let them off the hook. Rather, in our acts of forgiveness, we name the wrong as wrong, yet at the same time, we work hard for the rehabilitation of the wrongdoer. To their enemies, Muslims are taught to “pardon them, and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in the matter,” (Qur’an 3:159) and in their pardon to “say ‘peace!’ for they will soon come to know” (Qur’an 43:89). Likewise, in the central event of Christianity, the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 22:34). Jesus prayed this just as he was the victim of a horrible act of violence. Crucifixion functioned as a type of terrorism in the Roman Empire, meant to elicit fear of and obedience to the emperor.

In Christianity, we are warned about the temptation to merely cite passages of the Bible that help our selfish causes. Sometimes we go through the motions of our religion for the sake of benefitting ourselves alone without concern for the other. In these times, Isaiah, speaking from the Lord, reminds us, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Is. 6-9). Our true faith, the real “will of God”, is to help those in need and to love our neighbors. In the Qur’an too, Muslims are warned against superficial habits that have no concern for the betterment of the world. “It is not righteous that you turn your faces to the East and the West (speaking of a ritual that could be turned into an occasion for pride); but righteousness is… to give wealth for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wanderer…and to set slaves free…and be patient in tribulation and adversity and times of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the pious” (Qur’an 2:117).

As all of these expressions of love for neighbor come from both of our religious traditions, let us remember that we are never to force others to our beliefs by means of violence for that would violate our call to love our neighbor and therefore to transgress against our love for God. The Qur’an says, “let there be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). As Christians, we are also called to give others the dignity they deserve as children of God, made in the image of God. We both hope and pray that our unique witness will convince those to share our beliefs, but this cannot be done through violent means. Peter tells us, “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Pt. 3:9). The Qur’an expresses similar sentiments of witness when it says, “In God we have put our trust. Our Lord, do not make us a cause of temptation for the evildoing folk” (Qur’an 10:85). Our actions should never lead those of us who do not share our beliefs to deride our faith. We should set the highest example possible in the way we love one another. Seeking revenge, visiting retribution of our enemies, and stereotyping our hatred onto 1/4 of the world’s population is quite unlikely to make them find Christianity appealing.

I hope in this post my readers have not felt like I was just giving a huge list of the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. In spite of these similarities, there are many many differences (obviously) between Christianity and Islam. Nonetheless, I hope my readers walk away from reading my words with inspiration grounded in our common concern for love of God and neighbor. Everything else we do should be done in light of this fundamental concept in both faiths. It is not just that we have random, inconsequential similarities; rather, both faiths are centrally concerned with this two-fold love. I do not want a list of our similarities to stop at just that, a list. On the contrary, I want this post to be a call to ACT upon our commonalities. Let us be friends, not enemies. Let us work together for justice and peace. We must not generalize one another as evil nor label the actions of a few as the norm for the many. Our first resort in situations like the one we find ourselves in today should be peace and reconciliation. Let us only try to outdo one another in good works and in concern for justice. We decide to leave all judgements up to God. “So vie with another in good works. To God you will all return, and He will then inform you of where you differ” (Qur’an 5:48). Paul also tells us, “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

There is much more I could say, but I must close. To my Christian friends, Islam is NOT the problem. Extremist violence in God’s name is the problem. For thousands of years, people have been appealing to the divine to sanction their violence – regardless of whether they were Greek, Roman, Christian, Nazi, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, or Jewish. Muslims are mourning around the world today with all of us because they too are victims, not just perpetrators, of these acts of violence in God’s name. We have all been guilty of using divine sanction to harm our fellow neighbors. Please, take a few days to just mourn with the rest of the world before you point fingers. To love is to open oneself up to suffering in love, let us do that for all the victims of “sacred” violence throughout the world today. If my post did anything, I hope it inspires you towards common love of our neighbor, whether Christian or Muslim, Male or Female, Atheist or Agnostic, and on and on until we recognize that we are all part of this community called earth. As we mourn for the loss of life all around the world, may we return with a greater resolve to make peace.

I close with Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

If you found this post helpful, PLEASE SHARE this with your friends who could benefit from it as well.

For further reading I can only recommend books I have personally consulted. There are plenty of books on Muslim-Christian relations but I am unfamiliar with nearly all of them. Nonetheless, here are a few books and essays worth considering.

First, a link to Muslims’ A Common Word Between Us and You

Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf. My professor, Dr. Volf grew up in conditions of genocide in Croatia. He has made a lifetime of addressing conflict and reconciliation from a Christian perspective.

For info about Islam, consider reading the Qur’an for yourself as well as Prince Ghazi of Jordan’s book which introduces non-Muslims to Islam called What is Islam and Why. He has also written on the topic of “love” in the Qur’an: Love in the Qur’an. Ghazi has a BA from Princeton, a PhD from Cambridge, and this book was adapted from his second dissertation at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.



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