Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
One of the most notable and noticeable features of 21st century American churches is our emphasis on creating a visitor-friendly environment. Throughout the country, churches of virtually all denominations teach members to go out of their way to make visitors feel more comfortable.
Why do we do this? Part of the reason is to increase membership: people are more likely to join a church in which they sense a warm friendly atmosphere. But there is another reason to make visitors comfortable: we want to show the world that Christianity is a good thing for society and that Christians are good neighbors and responsible citizens. If we can “reduce the mystery” about what actually happens in church, making ourselves available to explain our practices and to answer questions, then we Christians become that much more able to impact society for the better.
Should non-Christians visit our churches in order to learn about our faith? We hope so, especially since we know that there is a lot of misinformation out there about churches. If people visit, they can get an accurate picture of who we are and what we do. So we hope and pray that the uninformed will come by.
Many American Muslims apply this same reasoning to their mosques. Contrary to what many Christians believe, Islam is a missionary religion, with most of its growth occurring through missionary activity. And Muslims have further incentive to be cordial to visitors in order to “reduce the mystery.” If people see that mosque activities routinely encourage people to respect God and to be kind to each other, then Muslims will be able to live much more harmoniously within a non-Muslim society.
I’ve visited a number of mosques over the past eight years, and I’ve always encountered genuine friendliness. So I had reason to expect nothing less when I finally made it down to the largest mosque in my area, the Mosque and Islamic Center of Hampton Roads, led by a retired NASA scientist, Dr. Ahmed Noor. Dr. Noor is not technically an Imam, but he is a knowledgeable, capable leader.
I was not disappointed during my visit. I watched a group of Muslims engage in salat, “ritual prayer;” listened to a lecture on Islam given by the mosque leader Dr. Ahmed Noor; then chatted with Dr. Noor for another hour about his views on a number of issues relating to Islam and the role of his mosque in society.
The lecture began on a note which may interest many Christians: a Muslim practice known as dua. Dua is probably best translated as “petitionary prayer.” A popular misconception among Christians is that Muslims engage in “ritual” prayer only (salat), which they do five times daily. In reality, Muslims are encouraged to talk to God often, whenever and wherever they wish. One reason for Christian confusion is that we use the term “prayer” to refer to any communication we have with God, whereas, for Muslims, the word “prayer” refers only to salat. To describe other communication with God, Muslims use the term dua. But dua is what Christians would call “petitionary prayer” – that is, human beings asking God for something.
Dua at the start of a lecture is simply a request that God might aid human understanding, much like Christians do before a Bible study. In a formal setting (lecture, study of the Qur’an, talk about Islam, etc.), dua will include a relevant recitation from the Qur’an. Here, the recitation came from Qur’an 20:25-28: Moses said: My Lord! relieve my mind and ease my task for me; And loose a knot from my tongue, that they may understand my saying. Appoint for me a henchman from my folk.
If this looks familiar, it is because this passage is part of the Qur’an’s version of Moses’ conversation with God at the burning bush. According to Exodus 4:10, Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue. The Hampton Roads Muslims apply Moses’ words here as part of their request for God to help them understand the teaching to come.
Dr. Noor’s presentation was about positivity in Islam. A couple of interesting passages from the Qur’an included 84:6, Truly, O man, you are working toward your God whom you will meet, and 94:6-8, Lo! With hardship goes ease. Therefore when you are relieved, work more, and strive to please your Lord. The exact words of the Qur’an are different from what we find in the Bible, but as happens so frequently, the general theme certainly follows Christian teaching.
Like many mosques, the Hampton Mosque regularly hosts outside groups who wish visit and talk with the mosque leader. Most Muslim congregations see this as a necessary mosque function, in order to show people how they really practice Islam.
I am not going to say that everyone needs to take the time to attend lectures on Islam. But every Christian who wants to know what Muslims really do, must absolutely visit a mosque. Yes, it may be more comfortable to learn about Islam by watching your favorite news channel or looking at a website, but it is also much less informative. We Christians need to see for ourselves what a mosque is like, and we must talk to actual Muslims before we can make fair judgments. As in so many ways, this is a case in which Christians need to apply the Golden Rule as expressed by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, Do to others what you want them to do to you. Even if people have no inclination at all to accept Christ, we want them to visit so that they will at least gain an accurate picture of Christians and Christianity. If we hope that Muslims will visit us, shouldn’t we visit them as well?
Call your local mosque, and see what they say about Christian visitors. You may find a very friendly reception waiting for you!