Don’t tell them what they believe
Seems obvious this one, doesn’t it? But quite a lot of people don’t seem to think so. Quite a lot of people begin a discussion with Muslim people with, ‘So, you believe…’ Don’t be one of those people.
Just imagine somebody came up to you and did that. Imagine this person had never set foot in a church, had read up on Christianity by reading a few articles on the Internet, and then presumed to reel off what you happened to believe. Imagine, firstly, how accurate that is likely to be. Imagine, secondly, even if it is broadly true, how annoying it would be.
It doesn’t help Iranian Muslims if you reel off a load of beliefs that Muslims apparently hold, only to find out that you are telling them what Sunnis believe when Iran is a predominantly Shia country. Consider also just how accurate it would be if somebody told you what you believed by reeling off what Protestants believe. You would rightly think, depends on the kind of Protestant doesn’t it? Likewise, reeling off what Sunnis believe will have the same effect.
Ask them what they believe
Rather than presuming you know what they think already, treat them like you would anybody else and ask them what they believe. You may already think that you know what they believe, but let them tell you that because there will certainly be nuances to their particular belief that you don’t fully grasp. You may already know they believe in the teaching of Allah, but let them tell you about that and why they believe it. You will gain far more by listening and responding to what people actually believe – with all its complexities and nuances – rather than foisting your own understanding of what you think they must believe.
The best way to achieve this is to ask questions. Ask your Muslim friend to tell you about the kind of theological questions you want to know. Ask them what they believe and ask them why they believe it. Let them tell you how they are made right with Allah, why they believe Mohammad is a credible prophet, what different things mean. That way you can address what people actually think rather than what you assume they think.
Know what the Qur’an says so you can point to similarities
Just because it is best to let people tell you what they believe doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your homework and try to gain an understanding of what their authoritative texts say. If you know what the Qur’an teaches – though you will ask your friend to tell you what they think it teaches – you will be forearmed with the knowledge to point out similarities between the Qur’anic text and the Christian Bible.
This is important because many Muslims function on a principle of authority. They accept the prophets we hold in common as authoritative. Many of our stories have significant overlap. They may well reject the Bible out of hand, but where the Qur’an supports the biblical text, it pays to know. You can point to where the text they consider authoritative agrees with God who is really there.
This is the tactic that the Apostle Paul used. He began with what the people already believed was true. When he went to the synagogues, he began with the Jewish scriptures and showed how they pointed to Christ. When he went to Athens, he began with the idols that they acknowledged and highlighted how their limited understanding was partially true. In the same way, we can point to the things that are true in the Qur’an and affirm what agrees with our Scriptures.
Know what the Qur’an says so you can point to the differences
Of course, we can’t simply point to all the similarities in our texts and have done with it. If that’s all we do, we are essentially affirming Islam as right and true. As with all beliefs, it lands on things that are true but it inevitably goes awry.
Knowing what the Qur’an actually says means that, having noted the points of truth and agreement, we can also point to where it is evidently untrue. We can show not only where our stories diverge but why. The differences between the Qur’an and Scripture carry huge theological ramifications that call for investigation. Which set of scriptures are the most cogent when set side by side?
But we must also know what the Qur’an says so that we can challenge its own internal consistency. At various points the Qur’an disagrees with itself. There is a complex system of abrogation in place (yet another reason it is better to ask Muslims what they believe rather than telling them what the Qur’an says – they will view it similarly to when Christians get asked stuff about Levitical laws). But there are inconsistencies that are worth pressing into. But to do that, you have to know what it actually says.
Often, we find ourselves too scared to challenge things because we don’t want to offend anybody (you will generally find that most Muslims do not have this qualm!). Other times we can be so gentle in our efforts to understand that we fail to share the gospel. We don’t like to disagree so we don’t like to point out differences.
But I have found it pays to be honest. Where you think something doesn’t quite hold together, it is best to say so. Where you think something touches on a truth that we see in our scriptures, it is good to say so. Where you like a concept, it is good to say so. Where you really don’t like a concept, it is good to say that too.
Unless we are prepared to be honest in our exchanges with our Muslim friends, they will be entirely pointless. We can pat ourselves on the back for engaging in a nice, soft, liberal interfaith meeting if we like, but the kingdom impact of that will be zero if we aren’t prepared to honestly challenge them in their beliefs as they certainly will do to us.