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Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims

Does Islam need a reformation?

A pastor friend of mine suggested this to me recently, but his idea is hardly unique. This week will see the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famed “95 Theses,” so “reformation” has been on a lot of our minds.

Most Christians, including Catholics, agree that the Reformation brought positive changes to the church, stressing grace through faith ahead of religious ritual. It is because of the Reformers’ work that modern Christians put so much emphasis on God’s grace and on each individual’s need for that grace.

Historians usually say that the Reformation ended by 1600 A.D, yet the church continues to evolve. My Presbyterian friends like to say that the church is “reformed and reforming.” This means that while modern Christianity is rooted in the ideas of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and others of that age,  “reformation” is (or should be) part of what the church continues to do. We must be ever on the lookout for ways to be better disciples of Christ, and better sources of life and hope.

Since 1600 the church of course has changed, often for the better. Just in the past 200 years, we’ve radically altered our ideas about things like slavery, race prejudice, the role of women in society and in the church, Catholic/ Protestant relations, anti-Semitism, and so on. Today, we are rethinking our views on a number of issues, including homosexuality, Christian relationships with members of other religions, and the role of the church in a democratic society.

Christians disagree about what God wants the church to look like. Some want us to bring back ideas and practices from the past; others think we should continue to change along with society. But almost all of us agree that God wants today’s church to change. In fact, we might even say that God wants another church reformation!

Believe it or not, Islam also has changed and is changing.  Islam worldwide looks much, much different than it did prior to 1850. One reason that we don’t always see changes in Islam is that, frankly, it is much easier to try to understand something that does NOT change. So while we admit that Christianity in 2017 is much different from Christianity in 1817, we imagine that Islam has somehow remained the same.

A big issue for Muslims since the early 1800’s has been the proper interaction of Muslims with the Western world. At the time of the Reformation, Muslims could largely ignore Christians, but not now – especially as Muslims have to admit that the “Christian” world is richer and more powerful than the Muslim world. While Muslims believe that God wants people to practice Islam, they tend to acknowledge that something has gotten off track!

So for the past 200 years Muslim thinkers and leaders have been debating the following two questions:

  • Does God want Muslims to adopt some Western ideas and practices, or does he want people to avoid them?
  • Does God want Muslims to seek and accept friendship with Christians, or should Muslims view Christians as rivals only?

The Muslim world has yet to agree on answers to these questions. But just as some Christians may call themselves “fundamentalists” while rejecting all forms of race prejudice, we need to allow that many Muslims choose to embrace the hijab and follow Islamic dietary laws, while firmly denouncing every kind of violence in the name of Islam.

Does Islam need a reformation? It couldn’t hurt. The good news is, reformation is happening. (For fun: google Tariq Ramadan, who is often called the modern Muslim “Martin Luther.”)

As Islam changes, we should allow it to change. If we do not wants Muslims to associate Christianity with things like slavery, anti-Semitism, the repression of women, and so on, let’s allow Islam to move on from uncomfortable and unpleasant episodes in Islamic history.

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2017 by .
The Text in Context

Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts

Mark Biddle

Mostly on the Bible

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