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Understanding Islam
Jan 1, 2002

Christianity and Islam are the two largest religious traditions. Both are global in scope. Together, the adherents of these two communities of faith comprise almost one-half of the world's population.

The ways Christians and Muslims relate to each other in the 21st century will have a profound impact on both communities and the world. Clearly, global interdependence requires more than tolerance in the midst of diversity. Economic, ecological, and military dangers underscore the need for mutual understanding and cooperation across religious and cultural boundaries. Unfortunately, the large majority of Christians and Muslims tend to view the other through the lens of misinformation and stereotypes. This problem is made worse by the media's tendency to focus on the most violent and sensational events.

Knowing very little about Islam, most Christians in the U.S. shape their views in response to stories about terrorists blowing up the World Trade Center, a zealot's call for Holy War, hostage takers, or the sharp rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan. While these images are rooted in the behavior of small groups of Muslims, they are hardly representative of the more than one billion Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are horrified by violent extremism. Consider the following facts:

- Minister Farrakhan's supporters represent less than 20% of the African-American Muslim community. Some Muslims consider this movement to be another religion. The large majority are following traditional Islamic teachings out of camera range.

- The largest Islamic country is not in the Middle East. It is Indonesia with more than 160 million Muslims. There are more than 100 million Muslims in each of the following countries: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. China has over 30 million Muslims, more than any Middle Eastern country except Egypt.

Why should Western Christians base their images of Islam on the behavior of extremist elements rather than the hundreds of millions of people who are not behaving violently?

Turn the image around and the problem comes into focus. Imagine that you are a Muslim living in Tunisia. You know very little about Christianity. But, you see and hear strange stories on the TV and radio: David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX; the scandals of Jim and Tammy Bakker; bombings by the IRA in Ireland; more than 20,000 documented cases of rape or murder of Bosnian Muslim women and children; or, a recent media frenzy over the group known as Heaven's Gate. If your image of Christianity were shaped largely by media attention to these violent and sensational stories, how accurate would it be?

In addition to pragmatic needs for cooperation, the Bible challenges Christians to examine relationships with others: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16); Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 19:19); and If it is possible, so far as it depends on you live peaceably with everyone (Romans 12:18).

How is it possible to avoid bearing false witness against or to love one's neighbor, or to live together in peace if we know so little about our neighbor? Even worse, how is it possible to live in faithfulness to these biblical imperatives when much of what we think we know is incorrect?

Most Christians and Muslims have similar views on God's revelatory activity through Prophets. The Bible and the Qur'an convey similar things about angels and devils, the last judgment, heaven and hell. They also differ at crucial points, most notably the understandings about God's activity in and through Jesus. The differences are real and profound.

For Christians, the similarities and differences with Muslims have important consequences for mission and witness, as well as for dialogue and cooperation on common concerns. However one approaches these concerns, the prospects for constructive encounter is linked directly to a better and more accurate understanding. Now, perhaps more than ever, people of faith and goodwill need to make concerted efforts toward such understanding. The road is not blocked, and there are ways to move forward.

A good place to begin is with study programs in churches and intentional dialogues with local Muslims. Such efforts can help to correct stereotypes and begin to put a human face on others with whom we share this increasingly fragile planet.