Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Yes, I know I posted about ISIS last week, but an old friend asked me to comment on a video made by “Brother Rachid.” (I’m posting Glenn’s name because he asked me to link to his facebook page.) I’d not heard of Brother Rachid before, but he’s famous enough to have his own Wikipedia entry, so that’s something. Rachid is connected to the website Islamexplained.com, but I don’t know the nature of this connection, since the site is in Arabic and I don’t know any way to get its content in English. (If someone can figure it out, please let me know.) You can also see him at Facebook.com/daringquestions. Rachid hosts a call-in show on an Arabic TV station, in which he tries to explain Christianity to Muslims. You can find some of this on YouTube; while the broadcasts are in Arabic, at least some of his shows have English subtitles. I certainly support the effort to explain Christianity to Muslims; I hope all Muslims will accept Christ one day. But as followers of Christ, our methods must be ethical and honorable.
The video in question is in English. Brother Rachid has a heavy accent, but he is clear enough to be understood, and he is a compelling speaker. However, he uses poor reasoning in arguing that ISIL is Islamic.
One nice feature about this presentation is that it begins with 10 seconds of a speech given by President Obama in September 2014. In this clip, Obama states that ISIL is not Islamic, as “no religion condones the killing of innocents.” (While I called it “ISIS” last week, Obama and Rachid use the term “ISIL,” so I’ll go with that for this post).
As I explained last week, Obama’s central position is as follows:
The vast majority of Muslims say that Islam does not condone the killing of innocent people;
ISIL kills innocent people, and urges others to do the same;
Therefore, ISIL is not Islamic.
There are of course other ways to define the term “Islamic.” One can point to things like citing the Qur’an, praying to Allah 5 times a day, dressing and behaving according to protocols described in the Qur’an and other literature, and so on. If we use these criteria, then, yes, we might call ISIL “Islamic.” However, we would then obligated to call a whole host of un-Christ-like people and un-Christ-like behavior, past and present, “Christian.”
This is the gist of Brother Rachid’s argument. He never claims that most Muslims themselves accept ISIL as Islamic. Instead, Brother Rachid is stating that President Obama should listen to him, an ex-Muslim, rather than the Muslim majority (most of whom were also born and raised in Muslim families).
Let’s try to imagine an articulate, educated young man, born and raised in the US, who has converted from Christianity to Islam. (There are quite a few.) I’ll call him Brother James. James goes to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and tells Muslims that modern American “White Supremacist” groups follow the established Christian tradition which supported slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. James of course provides extensive quotes from the Bible, along with citations of important “Christian” figures through history. Maybe, to clinch his point, James throws in some video of Christian “snake handlers”.
I can see some Muslims listening to James. After all, he was brought up in a Christian home, went to a Christian church, and he has studied Christianity all of his life. And his arguments make some sense. It will be easy to find all sorts of nasty stuff that Christians have said about Muslims over the past 1,000 years, and show how the church at various times strongly supported brutal American slavery, assisted Hitler’s rise to power, and all sorts of other ugly events in history.
However, I would hope that some Muslim in James’ audience would be curious enough, and bold enough, to seek information about Christianity from practicing Christians. The only way I know for people to learn what it is that most Christians really believe, is to talk to Christians – not “ex-Christians.”
(This, by the way, is one reason that we American Christians must proactively develop relationships with our Muslim neighbors. Muslim websites have all sorts of crap about Christianity, often provided by some convert who “knows the truth about Christianity, because I was brought up that way.” My Muslim students come into my classes believing all sorts of nonsense about Christians and Christianity.)
Back to Obama’s position. Even if they pray and read the Bible, the President does not want to say that White Supremacists, guys like Ammon Bundy, and a host of others are “Christian” (and I along with most Christians don’t want to hear this). Therefore, to be consistent and fair, he insists that since most actual Muslims believe that Islam strongly opposes the taking of innocent life, and that ISIL teaches and practices the opposite of this fundamental belief, then ISIL is not Islamic.
Some readers may want comments on some of the details of Brother Rachid’s presentation, so I’ll write a little more. First of all, the fact that ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has a PhD in Islamic studies, does not mean anything, any more than does the fact that Brother Rachid has a bachelor’s in Religious Studies and that his Dad is an Imam. People with degrees, even advanced degrees, often make serious mistakes. Good scholars correct themselves through discussions focused on evidence-based arguments, not qualifications. Until al-Baghdadi convinces a sizable portion of other scholars of Islam that his views are correct, it is proper to call his views “fringe” at best. Let’s focus on sound reasoning, rather than scholarly credentials.
I have no doubt that ISIL members pray five times a day, wear their hair and beards just so, enter the prayer area with right foot first, use the correct hand for latrine functions (yes, this is in the hadith) and so forth. Our churches also have people who are very, very careful about behavior. For example, Baptists historically forbade movies, square dancing, card playing, Sunday sports, women’s’ pants, and so on. In the 21st century, Evangelicals who try to push these sorts of behavioral norms risk being dubbed “Pharisees,” alluding to passages like Matt 23:13-39 and 1 Cor 13:1-3. In the Evangelical world, the only ones who might claim that rigorous behavior is evidence of being a “real Christian,” are the “Pharisees” themselves.
Brother Rachid quotes several verses from the Qur’an, including 8:67, 9:39, and 47:4. He also cites a passage from the hadith. 47:4 looks strangest to me, since it seems to advocate beheading enemy soldiers in battle. From an academic standpoint, I’m a little curious about how ISIL’s logic proceeds from killing soldiers with swords, to executing civilians in this manner. One might also point out that if ISIL REALLY wanted to do it right, they’d give their soldiers swords instead of guns (which, to my knowledge, are not mentioned at all in the Qur’an).
The other verses all have clear parallels in the Bible. I will save comments about how Muslims go about interpreting the Qur’an for a later post, but for now, I’ll just say that Christians have developed systems for figuring out how to correctly interpret verses which seem to say “unchristian” things. We do not accept the authority of verses which are not interpreted according to our Christian conventions; therefore, we must respect the conventions of others when we cite their Scriptures.
Brother Rachid talks a little about the “caliphate,” but I think that he did not think this through, since he actually weakens his position by raising this issue. Theoretically, one can become “caliph” only if the vast majority of Muslims agree. (This is one of the basic ideas of Sunni Islam, which represents 90% of Muslims worldwide). By definition, if the majority are right, then al-Bagdadi has no right to call himself “caliph.” If the majority are wrong, then the only “true” Muslims are those aligned with ISIL, and everyone else has no legitimate connection to ISIL. (I’m sure that Brother Rachid knows that even the other terrorist groups think that this “caliphate” business is nuts.)
I could say more (and I will, if there is interest about some point), but I hope that this is sufficient to at least considering why Christians should hesitate about labeling ISIL “Muslim.”
Again, although Brother Rachid’s reasoning in this video is weak, I support his efforts to help Arabic-speaking people learn about Christ. I truly hope that he is successful in this venture. Like him, I also want Muslims to find Jesus. This is one reason I started this blog, and composed this post. When Christians use weak arguments to slander another religion and its practitioners, we are telling the world that we are ignorant, unprincipled, or both. This is a bad, bad way to represent Christ to the world.
A Christian blog and podcast by Ray Burns.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts