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Understanding Islam
Oct 1, 2005

Muslims now constitute a significant minority in Western countries, most notably France, Britain, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Consequently, those in the West engaged in theological discourse and pastoral work can no longer consign Islam to the outer limits of their universe of religious concerns. Islam is no longer just “over there,” an exotic feature of distant cultures; it is a well-established component of our own religious landscape and deserves attention from all who work to further the Reign of God in our culture.

Having taught courses in Islamic civilization as part of the religious studies curriculum at both secular and church-related institutions, I can give ample testimony to the antagonistic images of Islam obtaining in, and actively perpetuated by, many Western circles. In some cases, it is alarmism that fuels the antagonism (“Muslims are taking over the world!”); in others, the indignation of post-modern Westerners who resent the very existence of a powerful religious tradition which seems to foster “unenlightened” values (“Islam is intolerant, it oppresses women, etc.”). It is a situation fraught with the real possibility of bigotry and violence.

As “people of religion,” we can be particularly effective in shaping religious sentiment toward Muslims in our society. We can either stoke the fires of antagonism, feeding into the dominant societal trend of “demonizing” Islam and Muslims; or we can fight those fires, challenging people to come to a well-informed, balanced appreciation of this “other” in our midst. Most of us, I assume, would affirm the desirability of the latter option. I would like to offer a few suggestions as to how that option might be realized.

First, expose the caricatures - both our own and those of others. Such caricatures are usually based on the assumption that Islam is monolithic and that Muslim communities are homogeneous. Both assumptions are false. Just as there are many “Christianities,” there are many “Islams” and most have very little to do with “Islamism,” that militant, extremist fringe of Islam which, despite its claim to “traditionalism,” actually violates such perennial Islamic values as tolerance, forbearance, hospitality, and broad-mindedness. A number of excellent resources can help you in this process - see the attached reading list. All the recommended authors are Christians who have done much to dispel the rampant misinformation concerning Islam.

Second, reflect on what underlies our tendency to caricature Islam. Many in the Christian world have thrown themselves headlong into the process of challenging the traditional shape of our society and want to eradicate the very memory of its “oppressive” structures. Modernity is uncomfortable with the demands of tradition. When Islam presents itself - unabashedly, unashamedly - as a traditional religion, i.e., as a religion based on the structures and values of a traditional cultural system, those who are shaped by secular culture wince. They are reminded of what our own communities once affirmed (and in some quarters, still do affirm) to be true and what was once imposed (and in some quarters, still is imposed) as obligatory. Moreover, I think many recognize, even if only reluctantly, that in dismantling the traditional shape of our religious life, in many ways our religious communities have been debilitated. Islam's vitality and self-confidence reminds us of what we have lost. In short, the growing strength of Islamic identity and the resurgence in Islamic practice only serve to underscore the progressive weakening of Christian identity and the steady diminishment of Christian practice in secularized Western societies. We resent Islam's newly found vitality because it draws attention to our present malaise.

Third, appreciate the practical, external expressions of faith that typify Islamic life. We have much to learn in this regard from Islam. A few years ago even Pope John Paul II pointed to the Muslim fast during the month of Ramadan as an example of the kind of zeal and discipline Christians should, but today rarely do, bring to Lenten fasting. Islam also requires regular prayer - at least five times a day for the observant Muslim. (While at the University of Pittsburgh, I would regularly chance upon a Muslim student in a quiet corner of a library “making salat” on a prayer rug.) How many Christians can claim to set aside time for prayer so regularly? Muslims must give alms (zakat), not just when they feel moved to do so but as a requisite part of their religious practice; year by year they return a certain percentage of their wealth to the community to even up the inequalities that separate the “haves” from the “have nots.” Do we feel so obliged to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor in our communities? Islamic life requires pilgrimage, an experience now largely de-emphasized in modern Christian life. It requires bodily acts of worship like bowing and prostrating, gestures often dismissed as archaic to the “sophisticated” modern Christian. In short, for all of our talk of “incarnational” Christianity, we are becoming a religion less and less likely to enflesh our religious sentiments in external expression. We stress thought and emotion over physicality, enforcing a kind of neo-Gnosticism that sees religion primarily as a “spiritual” sentiment, having little to do with bodily performance. This is, I would say, a most unfortunate trend. Islam reminds us of the need for physical religious enactment.

Fourth, highlight the Islamic emphasis on community life and on the individual's accountability to community standards. As Christianity in the Western world becomes more atomized and Christian spirituality more privatized, Islam provides a strong testimony to the power of community. One of my Muslim students once remarked, “Wherever I go, whether in the Islamic world or outside it, even if I cannot find a local community of Muslims, I am always aware that I am part of a worldwide community. This is always at the forefront of my mind. It forges my whole identity. It guides my every action. The umma [Islamic community] gives me strength, and I willingly give it my loyalty.” In a culture where commitment to religious community is becoming increasingly rare, and accountability of any sort (whether to a religious tradition or any other “authority”) is seen almost as an infringement of personal rights, the communocentric emphasis of Islam can seem somewhat archaic. It should, however, challenge us Christians in particular to revitalize our communal structures, even if that means drawing boundaries between ourselves and “the world,” boundaries that have been blurred by encroaching secularization. In re-thinking our definition of religious communities and re-shaping the dynamics of life within them, we can learn some valuable lessons from the Muslim experience.

Fifth, use dialogue with Islam as a way not only to increase our appreciation of the Islamic tradition but also to deepen our appreciation of the distinctive features of our own. Make no mistake about it: despite sizeable areas of “common ground,” there is a wide theological chasm between Islam and Christianity. It was largely in reaction to an often distorted presentation of Christian doctrine that Islam formed its own doctrinal heritage. Islamic doctrine challenges us to embrace anew those facets of Christian theology which differentiate us from Muslims-especially the mystery of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ-and then to find new and ever more insightful ways of articulating these dogmas. Simple repetition of traditional formulas usually does not suffice to foster greater understanding of Christianity among Muslims (or among Christians, for that matter)! In questioning the central Christian doctrines, Islam serves us well: it requires us to focus specifically on those distinctive beliefs that are constitutive of our view of God and the world and to find more effective ways of proclaiming and explaining them both to those within the “household of Christianity” and to those without.

Sixth, and finally, make personal contact with Muslim communities and individuals. It is much more difficult to caricature people we know than those we keep at a distance. Call the local Islamic center and ask to be put on the mailing list. These centers often sponsor lectures of public interest; attend one and talk to members of the host community. Groups from the mosque and your church may want to exchange visits. Social service programs can provide opportunities for mosque and church to join together in a common cause. The possibilities for such encounters abound and, if realized, usually bear much good fruit.

Conclusion: On their course evaluation forms, two students in my “Introduction to Islamic Civilization” wrote remarks that I found especially gratifying. The first wrote, “When I signed up for this course, I had nothing but disdain for Muslims; now I am actually able to see the beauty of their religion.” The other wrote, “Studying Islam has made me better able to see what it means for me to say that I am Christian.” These students articulated well what I consider the two main reasons for us to come to an appreciation of Islam. Doing so will enable us not only to affirm this important “other” in our midst and but also to clarify our own identity.

[reprinted from In Communion issue 10, July 1997]

Fr. Theodore Pulcini, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA. 


  • Cragg, Kenneth. The House of Islam. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1975
  • Denny, Frederick. W. An Introduction to Islam. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1994.
  • Esposito, John. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Y., ed. The Muslims of America. Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • and Adair T. Lummis. Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study. Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Speight, R. Marston. God Is One: The Way of Islam. New York: Friends Press, 1989.