CHAPTER ELEVEN: ADVICE FOR ENGAGING IN THEOLOGICAL DISCUSSIONS WITH MUSLIMS
Before we discuss specific Muslim objections to the teachings of the Bible, I want to look at some general dos and don’ts for Christians engaging in theological discussion with Muslims. Christians shouldn’t seek arguments just to prove they have answers to them, but at the same time they should address them if they come up rather than not answering or changing the subject, because this would give Muslims the impression that those questions are unanswerable. The Biblical model for discussion with non-Christians is given to us in Acts 17 and Acts 25. Here we see how the apostle Paul took on his opponent, not avoiding the question but answering respectfully yet directly and without compromise and without avoidance, and always bringing the subject back to Christ. Here, then, are a few things for us to remember in our discussions.
- Your aim isn’t to win a theological argument; rather it is to lead someone to Christ. Try as hard as you can to remove the obstacles between you and your contact without waiting for the result. Convincing someone isn’t your job, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. We don’t know how God is using our conversation. It is after all “to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:16). Encourage your contact to read the Bible if the question is answered there, as the Bible has more convicting power than your words.
- Restrict the conversation to one or two subjects. Where possible, try to establish them beforehand. The first time your contact jumps to a new subject before reaching a conclusion to the current one, tell them to take a note of the new subject so you may discuss it after you finish with the one at hand. Jumping from one point to another might be a genuine search for answers, but it is also one of the tactics used by many unbelievers to avoid reaching a point where they have to make a decision. It’s also a waste of time and effort for both of you.
- If you are asked about something you don’t know, just say you don’t know; don’t try to make up answers, but rather tell your contact you will research the topic and come back to them. Be very careful not to forget to get back to them, though, as this could have a very negative impact, and might be considered either dishonesty or avoidance.
- No matter how courteous you are, sooner or later you will step on someone’s toes. With Muslims, no matter how much respect you are showing they will always demand more. In such a conversation being fair and polite is important and has a great impact on your contact, but do remember it has to be done without compromising theologically. I remember once I met an American convert to Islam, and we ended up talking about religion. At one point in the conversation, my contact used a wrong translation of a Qur’anic verse. I tried politely to correct him and point out another translation that is actually closer to the original Arabic. Even though my opponent doesn’t speak a word of Arabic and even though it is my first language, he got really angry and stormed out. Later that evening when I went home, I got a phone call from our host who called to apologise for his friend’s behaviour. I was told that those who were present were dismayed with the Muslim convert’s reaction and attitude, and they said he stormed out because his arguments were weak and he was frustrated by his inability to answer the questions. The point is that a polite and composed discussion, even if it doesn’t have an immediate effect on the person arguing with you, might have a great effect on those who are listening, and it might have an effect on your opponent later on. It is possible to overcome your opponent’s attacks by showing respect and not antagonism. It might sometimes be helpful to remind the person you are talking with that you expect to be treated the way you are treating them. It might also be helpful to remind yourself that you are not arguing for yourself, you are trying to help them to be saved, and you are not actually arguing with them alone but there is a spiritual war going on in the background.
- Keep in mind that sometimes your opponent could be trying to make you upset or angry on purpose, either to prove to themselves you can’t answer their objections, or to make a point to anyone listening that you have no answer and that is why you are getting angry. They would then proceed to apologise if they upset you by his questions, thereby gaining the upper hand. Again, remember it is not about your ego; sometimes you may even need to lose an argument to win the person.
- Make sure to point out to your contact how important the subject is. This is the most important subject in his life as it is concerned with his eternal life. That means you have to take the subject seriously. If you don’t, how would you expect your opponent to do so? And if you are serious about the subject you will be taken seriously.
- Try to avoid getting into a discussion of questions like “What do you think about Mohammed?” or “What do you think about the Qur'an?” It is all too easy for these questions to turn into a fight, or at the very least end the conversation. Make your answer to such questions short and clear, something like: “You don’t need my opinion about either Mohammed or Qur'an” or “We were talking about Christ not Mohammed, and if you read the Bible you can form your own opinion.” Try to be clear without attacking Mohammed, which will not go down well.
- Any conversation about Mohammed has to be conducted with care. Muslims might not object with anger to someone saying they don’t believe in God, but they will definitely respond angrily to anyone who puts down Mohammed. Of course as Christians we can’t venerate Mohammed, but at the same time we shouldn’t insult him. It might be tempting to comment on topics such as Mohammed’s moral character, but try to avoid it! Firstly, this isn’t going to achieve much; you will find yourself engaged in a discussion around who is morally better, Mohammed or the prophets of the Bible. As we Christians believe every human is a sinner, proving Mohammed is a sinner isn’t going to be helpful. If however you highlight the person of Christ, the comparison with Mohammed is going to happen automatically in any Muslim’s mind without your needing to mention him. I remember years ago there was a wedding in our church. The father of the bride was working in an important Islamic institute as a chief engineer, so he had invited many of his Muslim colleagues. Our church pastor had just a few minutes to deliver a Christian message to a room full of Muslims. He started by talking about the wedding at Cana and how Christ didn’t walk away when he was asked to do something miraculous; then he moved on to talk about how Christ was always ready to help those in need, answer their questions, and even accusations. He didn’t say a word about Mohammed or Islam, but every Muslim in the room was already comparing what the pastor said about Jesus with Mohammed’s refusal to give a sign, his refusal to help someone who is in need, and the way Mohammed got angry at anyone who criticised him, refusing to answer questions and discouraging his follower from asking. They couldn’t get angry with the pastor as he said nothing about Mohammed, but they couldn’t help but compare the two.
- Be extra cautious when you use theological terms because:
a) they rarely mean the same thing to Christians and Muslims;b) sometimes such terminology may mean nothing at all to Muslims, such as kingdom of heaven, holiness, anointed, etc.; andc) sometimes the terms we use may even be considered blasphemous to a Muslim, like sons of God, brothers of God, the blood of God, etc. We need to know what those terms mean to a Muslim and be able to explain what we mean by them. We should try to use terminology that is clear – again without any compromise. For example, it is easier to talk about Christ with a Muslim when you use the title “Christ” and not the name “Jesus” as he only knows “ ‘Isa” the prophet and not Jesus the Son of God, and of course we have no problem referring to Jesus as Christ.
- Any time you quote the Bible try to do so from the Bible and not from memory. Often the context will make what you read clear, and it will instil in your contact the attitude of going back to the Bible and knowing the context of a verse.
However, if you are using a Bible be careful how you treat it. As Christians, we don’t venerate the paper of a printed Bible and we quite often highlight verses in our Bible, write notes in the margins, etc. All of these are unacceptable to Muslims, who hold the physical Qur’an in great esteem and would not dream of marking it in any way. It might therefore be helpful to have a copy of the Bible without any notes or markings. Similarly, when you’re done reading, don’t put your Bible on the ground but on a table or a chair. This might seem irrelevant to us, but is significant to Muslims who might otherwise interpret your behaviour as disrespecting your Scriptures.
On a related note, if you own a Qur’an and need to refer to a verse in it, avoid bringing it to a discussion but rather see if your contact will let you use theirs – or they may prefer to look it up for you. Some Muslims believe – based on the teaching of Mohammed – that non-Muslims shouldn’t touch the Qur’an. Of course the availability of the Qur’an online now makes it much easier to look up a verse on the internet, and Muslims seem to be ok with this.
- Before any conversation you should know not only on what the Qur’an agrees with the Bible, but also what they disagree with. Areas of agreement are often more important than points of disagreement, as often these similarities make no sense in Islam and can only be understood through the lens of the Bible. (See chapter 12 below)
We also need to know what we believe in, because sometimes we may engage in irrelevant discussion which has no theological effect at all, like the time you might spend defending a person’s (or even your own) sins. We already believe everyone is a sinner (Romans 3), so there is no need to justify what some pope or monk has done.
- Accept the things you agree on – for the time being – and build on them. The Qur’an has snippets of many Biblical stories and concepts but without any details, while the Bible goes into these things with greater depth and clarity. Focussing on these points may allow the Christian to freely talk about the Bible, as your contact may be interested to see what Christians say about something he has read in the Qur’an, such as Christ’s birth, the Exodus, miracles of Jesus and Moses, etc. See the next chapter for a discussion of such points.
- Always consider your contact’s perspective. Think of the golden rule: “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) If you were in their position, how would you like to be treated? It is always a good idea to give your contact all the information and let them make the decision; don’t make it for them. It is much easier for people to change their mind when they think they did it themselves rather than when they think you are dictating to them what to think.
- Keep in mind what denomination, or sect, of Muslim you are talking with. If you are talking with an orthodox Sunni, then it might be easier for them to agree with something you quote from Qur’an or Hadith, because they are familiar with it, but it might be harder to get them to read the Bible. If you are talking to a nominal Muslim, then there is little point in quoting either the Hadith or the Qur’an, as they most likely have never read any of them.
- Finally, as a servant of Christ, remember the advice of 18th century German theologian Johann Albrecht Bengel: “Don’t engage in an argument without knowledge, without love, and without reason.” To this I might only add “without prayer”.