Politics and Current Events

Why on Earth Would a Christian Dedicate Their Life to Studying Islam?

Why in the world would a white Christian American make a career of studying Islam and Muslim civilizations? Why would anyone put himself through the ridicule or the ostracization? I have been called things like “terrorist sympathizer” and “al-Qaeda operative” on social media not only by strangers, but also by a few personal acquaintances. So why even bother? I am not a Muslim. I do not belong to any Middle-Eastern ethnicity. Why should I care what the average American thinks about Muslims?


To answer this question fully, we need to hop in my DeLorean and travel back to March 1998. This was my first time ever travelling outside America’s borders. The Air Force squadron I was assigned to at the time had deployed to Saudi Arabia to support Operation Southern Watch, which enforced the southern no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein’s regime between the two US-led wars in Iraq. Immediately upon arrival at the base, we were given a briefing about the local customs. The officer giving this talk instructed us not to shake an Arab’s hand with our left hand because “those people are only a generation or two away from wiping their asses with their left hands.” Cultural taboos regarding left hands do exist, but this particular comment was a complete distortion designed to dehumanize Arabs. In fact, the entire speech gave me the impression that there was something inherently “uncivilized” about “those” people.


On another deployment to Turkey, we were told not to take pictures of the mosques because Muslims were “fanatical” and would not approve (of course this is also untrue). Degrading stories about Muslims, Arabs, and Turks are rampant among US military personnel. Rumors about Middle-Eastern men being “homosexual perverts who only have sex with women to reproduce” are the most common, at least from my experience. I continued to hear similar sentiments expressed after 9/11 while working in the civilian sector. I have lost count of how many times I overheard a co-worker advocate nuking the entire Middle East. Although I never fully adopted these attitudes, I didn’t really challenge them either. Being an avid Fox News viewer and right-wing media consumer only exacerbated this indifference towards anti-Muslim bigotry.


While completing my bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, I came to realize just how distorted my image of Islam was. In addition to taking many courses on Middle Eastern history and the Islamic faith, I came to know several Muslim professors and students personally during this time. I cheered alongside Muslim students at Tar Heel games. I visited a few Muslim professors in their homes and ate meals with them. My daughter played with Muslim children. I started to see Muslims as human beings – yes, this is a strange thing to say. However, many, if not most, of us fall into the trap of xenophobia at some point in our lives. The key to avoiding this trap is exposure. Stereotypes only work when we shelter ourselves among our own. Muslims only make up around one percent of the US population and most of us do not interact with them on a daily basis. Thus, our only exposure to Islam is through the media, in which Muslims are almost exclusively discussed in the context of terrorism and fundamentalism.


As my time at UNC progressed, I found myself increasingly correcting misconceptions among friends. I also developed a strong appreciation for the tremendous influence Islamic civilization has had on the West. It is no accident that the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution did not occur until after the translation of countless texts from Arabic to Latin beginning in the late 11th century. Medieval Muslim physicians made monumental advances in medicine. The very first medical schools in Europe relied heavily on the writings of Muslims like Abu Bakr ar-Razi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to form their curricula.[1] There is strong evidence that the methods of education in Muslim societies influenced the development of universities in the West.[2] There is also evidence that Islamic legal principles influenced the development of the English common law system by way of the Normans. President Reagan even cited the 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun’s thoughts on the economy and taxation, ideas which are in many ways similar to those of Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek.[3] This is but a minuscule sampling of the many, many ways our society has been deeply impacted by Islamic civilization.[4]


Muslims are people too. That simple fact is the basis for my decision to pursue a career studying Islam. I reject outright the “clash of civilizations” thesis advanced by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington which posits that conflict between Islam and the West is inevitable and unavoidable. I reject any notion that I am more civilized due to my status as an American or a Christian. I reject any black-and-white worldview that paints either Islam or Christianity with a monolithic brush.


Unfortunately, we as Christians are some of the biggest offenders. We place Christianity on a pedestal as if only Christian-based society led to freedom, science, and modern civilization but treat Islam (and other faiths as well) as inhibitors to those things. History tells us that at various times and in various contexts both Islam and Christianity have been friends and enemies of science and that both have advanced and inhibited freedom. Both have tolerated other faiths and both have persecuted them. A little humility and honesty requires us to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly that both societies have produced. Intellectual laziness is an epidemic among both apologists and polemicists for both the West and Islam.


Roughly one out of every two people on earth identify as either Christian or Muslim making it imperative that we learn to live alongside one another in peace and harmony. Because Christians are called to love our neighbors, we must change the way we talk about Islam and Muslims. We must stop treating the ideology of al-Qaeda as representative of orthodox Islam. We must stop attempting to define Islam for Muslims and let them speak for themselves. We must open our ears when they speak out against terrorism. We must open our eyes when Muslims take a stand against the persecution of Christians. Muslims in Iraq recently rallied holding signs stating “We are Iraqi, we are Christian” in support of those persecuted by ISIS. In the past few years, Muslims have formed human chains to protect churches in Pakistan and Egypt. We must realize that groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda are not just threats to Christianity, they are threats to all of humanity, Muslims included.


Let me be clear. I am not saying Christians cannot critique Islam or the practices of certain Muslim groups. What I am saying is that it must be honest and balanced. We cannot emphasize violence in the history of Islam while whitewashing events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or witch trials from the history of Christianity. We cannot rely on pseudo-scholars and media pundits who have dedicated their lives to attacking Islam either.


Several evangelical Christians claiming to be ex-Muslim extremists, including Walid Shoebat, Kamal Saleem, and Ergun Caner, have emerged in the past decade only to be exposed as frauds. These men have made large sums of money by duping other unsuspecting Christians, and even many non-Christians, into buying their books and convincing the federal government to give them homeland security funds to give speeches.[5] We must steer clear of Christians such as these who bear false witness (Exodus 20:16, 23:1).


Muslim intellectuals around the world are working for change and critiquing Islam from within. Especially important is the work of feminist Muslim scholars like Kecia Ali, Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, and Leila Ahmed.[6] These women vehemently reject the misogynistic practices found in many Muslim societies and do so using the Qur’an and other Islamic sources. Also important is the work of Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident Shiite cleric living in exile from Iran and now teaching at Duke University. He is considered one of the most important critics of the Iranian government and is highly influential in Iran’s Green Movement, which emerged following the 2009 election that re-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an election noted for strong irregularities. We as Christians do more harm than good when we dismiss people such as these as “liberal Muslims who don’t practice their faith properly.” These are the people we should be propping up in order to defeat the extreme fundamentalism practiced by the Taliban or in Saudi Arabia. And we surely cannot support reform-minded Muslims while at the same time denigrating the faith that they hold so dear.


There is no reason Christians cannot proclaim their belief in the supremacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ or critique certain Islamic concepts in a way that shows love and respect for Muslims. My Muslim friends love the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an just as passionately as we love Jesus Christ and the Bible. In order to truly live the gospel, we must treat Muslims as we would treat our fellow Christians. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). 


With this introduction out of the way, I hope to write much more about Muslim-Christian relations in the coming months. This is indeed a hot button issue that evinces very strong opinions. Thankfully, Conciliar Post provides a platform for respectful, fruitful, and civil dialogue on these topics. Something severely lacking in our polarized political atmosphere.

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

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