I have never really
understood why some people look at dialogue and mission in terms of either/or. Evangelical
Christians in particular (whose theology I share) have shown an unwarranted
suspicion of dialogue simply because it has been used by some as a substitute
for mission. These words should never be divorced: not only are the two words
compatible, but they must shape each other.
Growing up in a
Muslim-majority society as a believer in God and Jesus Christ, I knew that I
was different and gradually realized that I have something very precious to
share with my Muslim friends.
I first had the
opportunity to discuss religion with my Muslim peers at school. I was surprised
that many Muslim schoolmates were very interested to know more about Christianity
and Christians. I, too, wanted to get a better understanding of Islam. A unique
opportunity presented itself when the teacher of Islamic religious education
accepted my request to attend his class. He would regularly ask me to give my
views as a Christian on certain topics, and the discussions often extended
beyond the classroom.
In Paris, after I completed a degree in Christian theology,
as an Arab Christian I felt a compelling need to relate my faith to Islam. This
was reinforced when I worked for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students
(IFES) amongst Arab and Muslim students. They would ask me challenging
questions that I had not seriously considered as a theological student. Hence it
wasn’t difficult for me to find research topics for my Islamic Studies
dissertations at the Sorbonne. Studying Islam made me re-examine my major
Christian beliefs, which I had often taken for granted.
For 12 years I worked for
the mission-oriented All Nations Christian College, in England. I was in charge
of its Islamics course to which I invited a Muslim lecturer to contribute each
year. His or her talks provided opportunities for genuine and often animated
interaction between students, the speaker, and me.
For three years now I
have been working for World Vision, whose mission statement echoes what Jesus proclaimed
at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:17-19).1 This Christian aid
organization operates in 20 Muslim majority countries, with majority Muslim
staff in places like
Afghanistan, Mauritania, and Somalia. Providing orientation on
Christianity and Islam to all our staff has been a fascinating experience, as
we engage on faith issues and learn from each other about our respective faiths
and often about our own! Without ignoring the distinctive beliefs of each
tradition, the common ground we have enhances our work for the good of the
communities we serve.
I take dialogue to mean a
deliberate effort to engage genuinely and respectfully with each other; willingness to listen and understand; a
readiness to learn and be challenged; a desire to relate to, communicate with, and
be understood by one another. In Christian-Muslim dialogue, the focus is the
Christian and Muslim faiths and their implications for individuals and communities
in this life and the next.
For many centuries
Western Christians have ignored or confronted the Muslim world. Ignoring
Muslims is no longer an option in our “global village” where Muslims and
Christians live next to each other. Some Christians seek to reach out to
Muslims in confrontation, attacking Islam in a war of words. This approach is
counterproductive as it usually inspires Muslims to become more radical in
their beliefs, and often provokes an offensive reaction, too—Muslims attacking
Christianity even more vehemently. A polemical engagement with Islam is also incompatible
with “the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15), which is about love,
reconciliation, and forgiveness.
often takes the form of apologetics for at least two reasons. First,
Christianity and Islam make conflicting truth claims about God’s revelation, which
for Christians reached its climax in Jesus Christ, and for Muslims, in the
Qur’an. Second, Islam acknowledges Christianity as a God-given religion; at the
same time, it rejects the core of the gospel (the divinity of Christ, his crucifixion,
and resurrection). Christian apologetics is about giving a “defense” of the
Christian faith to those who attack it (see
1 Peter 3:15). This, however, should be done with “gentleness
and respect.” Even in a heated debate the Christian apologist must refrain from
polemics, personal attacks, and derisive arguments about Muslims and their
and Outcomes of Dialogue
Dialogue should be
understood more broadly than verbal engagement. It is a way of life: an open
attitude toward others, seeking to reach out and to welcome people, including
those who are different or even antagonistic. Understood this way,
Christian-Muslim dialogue is an encounter at three levels, like Jesus’s
encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26).
First, Christians and
Muslims meet each other as human beings, with common needs and aspirations, joys
and sorrows, hopes and struggles.
meet as monotheistic believers, sharing many beliefs and ethical values,
despite differing understanding of these.
Christians and Muslims claim to be God’s witnesses. An integral part of
dialogue is removing the huge misunderstandings we have about each other’s faith,
so bearing witness.
dialogue is measured by its outcomes: a better understanding of each other’s
faith and of one’s own. It should also lead to better relationships between the
two communities, strengthening their social commitment. Dialogue is also an
excellent school for tolerance. It helps us overcome our ignorance, our
prejudice, our self-centeredness, our fanaticism, and our spiritual pride.
Relating to Muslims Christ’s Way
in their scriptures a lot about Christianity and Christians, while there is nothing
in the Bible about Islam. However, Jesus gave us a clear and helpful command about
how we should relate to people in general: “In everything, do to others what
you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). How do we want Muslims to relate to us and to our
faith? I would like here to highlight some implications for us Christians who
want to engage missiologically with Islam and Muslims.
First, as an
expression of loving our neighbors, we must show respect to Muslims and to what
is at the heart of their identity, i.e. their Prophet, their religion, and their scriptures. This attitude requires avoiding catch questions, derogatory
comments, and inflammatory language. True: some Muslims do not comply with the
Qur’anic recommendation to argue with Jews and Christians “in the best possible
way” (Qur’an 29:46). But this is no excuse for Christians to indulge in
vitriolic criticism of Islam.
This does not
mean abstaining from any criticism of Islam, but we can put critical comments
in the least offensive language and substantiate them. Jesus enjoins his
disciples to look critically at self-proclaimed prophets (Matthew 7:15-20); in
the same breath he also commands them to take a long and critical look at
should do our best to be fair. This means, for instance, when comparing
Christianity and Islam, having a right balance between highlighting
similarities and pointing out differences, so that our picture is not distorted.
Fairness also requires comparing like with like: not comparing moderate
Christians with extremist Muslims, ideal Christianity with popular Islam,
beautiful texts in the Bible with problematic passages in the Qur’an, and vice
versa. In this, Christians must not ignore the Old Testament when looking at
issues such holy war, polygamy, penal code, prophethood, and theocracy.
need to study Islam and befriend Muslims. In interacting with Islam, it is
critically important that we use Islamic material in an appropriate way. We should
adopt a learning and humble attitude. We need to acknowledge that the Muslim
community is the custodian of its own tradition: they are the authoritative
interpreters of their scriptures. Some approaches tend to Christianize Islam,
others to demonize it; neither does justice to Islamic teaching, which should
be considered on its own merits.
perspective on Islam ought to be incarnational, sympathetic, and critical. It
should be concerned more with Muslim people than with Islam. As disciples of
Jesus Christ, we are under a double obligation to love our Muslim neighbors as
ourselves and to share the good news with them. Not only do the two commands go
hand in hand, but the second is best carried out as an expression of the first.
Dialogue is indeed the privileged way of “speaking the truth in love”
(Ephesians 4:15) to Muslims as well as to other religious communities.
A version of this paper first appeared as a part of the Lausanne
Movement Global Conversation, April 3, 2010.
1World Vision defines itself as “an international
partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek
justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.”
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Chawkat Moucarry serves with World Vision International as the director for interfaith relations. An Arab Christian from Syria, he currently lives in the U.K.