We Need to Reclaim the Discourse about Islam in the Church

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March 28, 2019

by Martin Accad

By now, everyone has heard of the shootings at the two mosques of Al Noor and Linwood in Christchurch, New Zealand, that led to the deaths of 50 Muslims and the wounding of 50 others at prayer on Friday the 15th of March 2019. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident these days, with Muslims testifying to being spat at, or women telling of their hijabs being ripped off their heads, in London and other cities in the West. According to a BBC article, UK police have recorded a 40% rise in religiously-motivated hate crimes in England and Wales, from about 6,000 in 2016 to over 8,000 in 2017-2018, 52% of which were aimed at Muslims.

Bigoted attitudes, so common on social media, and the hateful discourse of politicians, may be broadly identified as contributing to this growing atmosphere of division. But in this post, I want to focus particularly on the rise of negative writing about Islam since 9/11, a large proportion of which has emerged from within Evangelical circles worldwide.

Admittedly, the attacker was not motivated by religious feelings, Christian or other. In an online manifesto published before the attack by a man under the same name as the apprehended attacker, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, he described himself as “a 28-year old Australian citizen” who “espoused far-right and anti-immigrant ideology.”

It is not my purpose here to provide a list of titles of “dangerous” books written about Islam. Indeed, it would not be appropriate to point a finger at books or authors at such a time of high emotions. What I want, however, is to provide a few pointers to readers who want to learn more about Islam, so that they might decide for themselves which writings are motivated by Christly love, which ones lead to life and redemption, and which ones might lead to more conflict, hatred, and death. I will propose here only three principles, given the limited nature of a blog post.

First, it is important to know that Islam is extremely diverse—as diverse at least as Christianity and other faiths. Diversity in religion is usually an expression of diversity in opinion on the interpretation of key texts that are often critical in the inspiration of religious practices that will contribute either to the good or to evil in society. The meaning of a religious book never exists in a vacuum but is always the outcome of a specific interpretation.

Hint number 1: if you pick up a book that seems to paint broad strokes about Islam, representing all Muslims as one thing—whether positive or negative—this should raise your first alarm of suspicion.

Second, the intentions of an author are usually reflected in the tone of writing. If the style of writing is bullish, polemical (warlike), or disparaging, chances are that the author is motivated by his or her own hurt, anger, or fear, or that they are driven by an intentionally divisive and destructive agenda. It is important to note that “polemical” writing is very different from one which is “academically critical.” You can be critical of certain elements of a religious tradition after examining them, without using your findings to discredit the entire religion or its adherents. Academic critique is complex and will generally employ a methodology that appeals primarily to the intellect rather than to emotions. If it is done well, it will give credit where it is due while discrediting some concepts through balanced rational analysis, avoiding generalizations that are disrespectful of people and certainly avoiding personal attacks.

Hint number 2: if the book you are reading employs broad stereotyping and other methods that have been employed by racist ideologies, you might as well put it down. You will not get any wiser about Islam by reading it.

Third, religious traditions are complex and therefore they are to be studied and presented through lenses that bring out their complexities. If the books you are reading about Islam are simplistic (often with simplistic and stereotypical titles), chances are that the author is not well educated in Islam and is simply repeating generalities they have heard at seminars or read in one-sided presentations of the religion. I understand that complex reading is not everyone’s cup of tea and that our social-media age has not trained us to maintain ideas in tension with each another. But the New Zealand massacre has revealed that our world is too fragile for us to accept simplistic ideas uncritically. In addition to the multi-faceted nature of all religions—including Islam—no serious scholar can avoid the fact that religions evolve and change constantly.

Hint number 3: If you are reading a book about Islam that tells you that Muslims will always behave in a certain way because Muslims have always done so throughout their history, you may conclude with confidence that the author is not seeking after the truth but is anxious to represent a certain manifestation of the religion as its eternal and unchanging manifestation. It is not yet too late to put that book down.

The age of social media is an age of citizen activism. Just as citizens have been able to organize and mobilize themselves in solidarity and support of good causes, angry and populist leaders have been able to gather support for destructive agendas leading to lethal action. The minds of this age are shaped by books and the media—whether interactive and social or more conventional. Writers, bloggers, and social media activists have a tremendous responsibility for the way that our societies and communities interact with one another. If you are a writer, God will hold you accountable for the sort of influence you have on people who are impacted by your writing, good or bad. If you are a reader and consumer, God will hold you accountable for what you choose to feed on and what you choose to reject, good or bad. As global citizens, we are responsible for the fate of our world.

Though, as mentioned above, I have chosen not to provide in this post a list of books on Islam that I consider harmful and of others I consider helpful, I will at least point you to my upcoming book, Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching Across the Christian-Muslim Divide (Eerdmans, to appear on the 7th of May 2019). The purpose of this book is to bring out the historical and interpretive complexity of theological conversations between Christians and Muslims, and to propose ways that we can move those important conversations forward. You can pre-order it now here.

8 Comments

  1. K.R.Green says:

    Thank you Dr. Accad for sharing helpful tips on the selection processes needed for book reading on Islam. With so much being written by less-than-well-informed writers and bloggers we need good criteria for our selection strategies. Do you have others that might be shared on the fly? We also hope your forthcoming book will be in e-book format for Kindle as the pre-order is not.

  2. Martin Accad says:

    I expect my book will quickly come out in e-format as well. There are many good books about Islam. Let me suggest a few “safe” Evangelical authors, such as Colin Chapman, Ida Glaser, John Azumah. Of course there are many others. What others do you and others know of?

  3. K.R.Green says:

    Thank you Martin… we look forward to the e-book coming soon! I have been challenged deeply by David Shenk, Paul-Gordon Chandler and Nabeel Jabbour to name only a few as well, but I am still perplexed to find so much presupposition on the part of readers as to what books they might even be willing to read on the subject. It seems increasingly difficult with each passing day to hold hopeful optimism for reverent and civil discourse even with those of the same faith! It seems to me that divine surgery on the human heart of the redeemed in Christ Jesus is needed first if there is ever to be any hope for valued discourse between Islam and Christianity going forward. My opine…

  4. Ayman Ibrahim says:

    Thanks for this, Martin. I find the three hints helpful. However, if “Admittedly, the attacker was not motivated by [Christian] feelings,” why should this massacre be an occasion for the Church “to Reclaim [its] Discourse about Islam”? I fail to find the causal link. It’s like if, for instance, in the wake of ISIS massacring 21 Copts in Libya, people rush to condemn slavery in the Middle Ages, or to call to deleting all polemic verses in the Quran against Christians and Jews. Are Christians to blame for the actions of the 28-year man? I am uncertain of the reasons for such a call, unless the main point of the piece was to point to books which you find unhelpful and to point to others, which is fine. Further, if we do truly need to “Reclaim the Discourse,” on what basis should this be done? On cultural classifications and contemporary definitions of “bigoted attitudes,” “hateful discourse,” and “atmosphere of division,” or on biblical texts and scriptural assessment relevant to what constitute religions and prophethood outside and post the gospel of the Lord Jesus and his kerygma. Of course, I agree that “God will hold [us] accountable for the sort of influence [we] have on people who are impacted by [our] writing, good or bad.” Thank you for this piece.

    • Martin Accad says:

      I draw no direct causal link Ayman, between the shooting and the writings of evangelicals, as you point out. However, our writings affect cultural discourse—at least we’d like to think so—otherwise we wouldn’t bother writing at all. I do believe there is direct correlation between writing on Islam among evangelical circles and general thinking on Islam in our churches. And particularly in some states in the US, where evangelicalism is such a strong cultural force, I think such writing has more impact than we think, even on foreign policy design.
      Even supposing there is no correlation at all, the church still has the responsibility to influence popular discourse in a way that encourages love and not hate.

    • Martin Accad says:

      Ayman, I want to point a couple more things I find problematic in your comment:
      1) When I call us to reclaim our discourse about Islam in the church as a response to the NZ massacre, the parallels you suggest are bad ones. This is not like asking people to condemn slavery in the Middle Ages in response to the ISIS massacre of 21 Copts. There is absolutely no connection between the ISIS massacre and medieval slavery. Nor is it like asking people to delete Qur’anic verses containing polemics against Jews and Christians. You don’t delete verses from a book considered to be Scripture by a religious people, nor did I ask Christians to delete any Bible verses. A correct analogy would be to ask Muslim countries and institutions in the MENA, in response to the ISIS massacre of 21 Copts, to review their school curricula and to purge them from bigoted views of non-Muslims. That’s the correct parallel and in my view it would be perfectly legitimate. In fact as you may know, Muslim voices and initiatives precisely to review these curricula have been loud and unprecedented and in some cases are bearing fruit. So now it’s our turn…
      2) When you state that if we are to reclaim the discourse in the church, we are to reclaim it not driven by PC concerns but in line with scripture (if I’m reading your rather vague hints correctly), I agree with you in principle. But then you go on to make vast assumptions with which I disagree. You are basically saying that when the Bible speaks about “false prophets,” it is speaking about post-Christian or non-Christian religions, and that evangelical writers are therefore right to view Muhammad as a false prophet (I believe I’m reading you correctly). I disagree with your hermeneutic. When we read of false prophets in the New Testament, it is a reference either to false teachers who are spreading teaching that contradicts the teaching of the apostles (such as in Jesus’ warnings in the gospels, in 1 John or 2 Peter, similarly to when Paul warns of false teachers), or it is a reference to political figures and developments (such as in the book of Revelations and other apocalyptic writing). Your sort of hermeneutic is precisely what I am inviting us to move beyond because I view it as dangerous. If I don’t view Muhammad as a prophet, it is not because I despise him or think he’s an anti-prophet. It is simply because I have a Christ-centered theology that considers that in Christ all things have been fulfilled. My theology allows no room for new prophethood or a new scripture after Jesus. But this does not derive from a negative view of other religions. It has to do with my high view of Christ. On the other hand, from an academic viewpoint, there are many legitimate ways of understanding Muhammad and his early movement quite differently from viewing him through an “anti-prophet” lens. There are academic critical lenses that are far more biblical than the polemical one because they help us be peacemakers and loving, yet without compromise on Christ.
      There is much more to be said, Ayman, but it may need to be said “offline”. Best regards.

  5. Ayman Ibrahim says:

    You are kind and thoughtful to take the time to write, Martin. Thank you. So, the piece begins with NZ shooting as a central introductory example, affirms the shooter was not driven by Christian motivations, and then moves to calling the church to reclaim its discourse on Islam, but you “draw no direct causal link” between the two? I am unsure how this can work, or how it can be productive. This is a reason why I draw completely unrelated and exaggerated parallels, so that it is clear that the “link” between the introductory example and the central call of the piece is imaginary. As for reclaiming the discourse while not “driven by PC concerns but in line with scripture,” I am glad we agree in principle. All the best to you, too. Congratulations on the forthcoming book. Wish you every blessing.

  6. Greg Smith says:

    Thanks for writing this very sensible piece. I think you might like to read this article I published recently based on research among evangelicals in the UK… Smith, G. (2018). Evangelicals and the Encounter with Islam: Changing Christian Identity in Multi-Faith Britain. Entangled Religions, 5, 154-209. Available freely online @ https://doi.org/10.13154/er.v5.2018.154-209 https://er.ceres.rub.de/index.php/ER/article/view/7343

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