When the average Westerner hears “Muslim,” a number of images come to mind—mostly negative. Some of the conflict between Christianity and Islam rests on real differences. But a lot is based on misconceptions. Here are some of the most common misconceptions that Westerners have about Muslims:
Misconception 1: All Muslims are terrorists.
Much has been written about how Islam was established “by the sword,” or how Muslims engaging in terrorist activity are simply obeying what the Qur’an tells them to do. It is certainly easy to find Muslims using the Qur’an to justify violence, and there is no denying that Muhammad was himself a warrior. Even when you give the Qur’an the most gracious benefit of the doubt, asking “What would Muhammad do?” will lead to a very different place than “What would Jesus do?”
That said, most of the Muslims you encounter—either in Western or in Islamic countries—are not violent people. They are kind, peaceable people and they are often embarrassed by the actions of Muslims throughout the world (as we are of some Americans, other Christians, and even ourselves at some point!). While there is a good chance they see world politics very differently from the average Westerner, you will most likely find them warm, hospitable, and peace-loving.
This is not to say that most Muslims don’t believe Islam will one day rule the world. I simply mean that there’s no reason to think your Muslim friend is plotting your assassination. Arguing that violence is an inextricable part of Islamic doctrine may be a good debate to have in certain settings, but it will get you nowhere in most of the relationships you form with “normal” Muslims. Many are wonderful people who will astound you with their charity.
Misconception 2: Muslim women all feel oppressed and unhappy.
Westerners often think of the Islamic woman as severely oppressed. They often have a mental picture of a hunched over woman walking six feet behind her husband, staring dutifully downward… can barely read or write, longing to get out from under the oppressive rule of Islam and their dictatorial husbands.
This is often very far from the truth. Here are three things to keep in mind about the women of Islam:
A. Many Muslim men and women are happily married. No Muslim man I know personally has more than one wife—and most didn’t have any desire to. The married couples I met when I lived in a Muslim country certainly didn’t do “romance” as Westerners are accustomed to, but neither were the women the demeaned sex-slaves many often assume.
There were, of course, some exceptions. I had friends whose wives were rarely allowed out of the back of the house, must less out into the community. And there are certain cultures in which oppression seems more the norm than the exception. My friends who have lived and worked in Afghanistan, for instance, assure me that they have yet to hear a story of female oppression there that exaggerates the tragic situation. But in many places, Muslim women do not see themselves as oppressed.
B. Women are often the most ardent defenders of Islam. Ironic but true: despite Islam’s history of oppression, women will often be Islam’s most ardent supporters. Many Islamic women, especially in the Western world, call for reform in how women are treated in Islamic culture, but rarely for an end to Islam itself.
C. It’s hard to argue, however, that the Qur’an and Hadith don’t speak disparagingly of women. The Hadith says that 80 percent of the people in hell are women. In explaining why the witness of a woman is equal to only half of a man’s in court, it says, “Because of the deficiency in their brains.” The Qur’an says that Muslim wives “are like a field to be plowed,” which has often been used to legitimize patriarchy and male dominance in Islamic society. And none of this takes into account localized practices and applications of these principles, which often includes female circumcision or extreme double standards for pursuing divorce or punishing immorality. I know some Islamic scholars will say that I (and many other Muslims) will say that I am reading these texts wrongly, and we should be charitable to them and allow them to interpret their own holy books. However, the majority interpretations of these texts throughout the history of Islam has not produced good situations for most Islamic women. The fact remains that much of the worst oppression of women happens in Muslim countries. Islam lacks the robust Judeo-Christian teaching on male and female as alike and equal, made in the image of God. Many Islamic women do feel impressed, and showing Muslim women their dignity in Christ has, in many places, proven to be an immensely effective evangelism strategy.
Misconception 3: Muslims worship a different God than Christians do.
I know this one might be a little controversial, so hear me out. Muslims claim to worship the God of Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Many missionaries find it therefore helpful to use the Arabic term for God, “Allah” (meaning literally, “the Deity”), to refer to God, and to explain that the God Muslims believe in, the God of the Prophets, was the God also present in bodily form in Jesus Christ and the One worshipped by Christians for the past two millennia. This is not the same as saying that Muslims are really “proto-Christians” or that becoming a Muslim is like a “first step to becoming a Christian” or that Christians are “completed Muslims” or anything like that–simply that we are both referring to the only, One deity when we say “God.” (And, we are certainly not saying that Muslims have an alternate way of getting to heaven outside of faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.)
You might ask, “But isn’t the Islamic God so different from the Christian God that they cannot properly be called by the same name? Aren’t we worshipping two different gods?” Does believing wrong things about God mean someone is worshipping a different God? Many of the Jews of the Apostles’ day outright rejected the concept of the Trinity. Did the Apostles therefer claim that these Jews were worshipping a different God? No. They told them that they were seeking the one, true God wrongly, and that they had very wrong ideas about him. Of course, we can think of other situations where such a conflation of terms would be unhelpful. For example, we couldn’t say that Zeus is another name for God and that the Greeks simply had a few things wrong about him, like his pesky persistence in wielding that trident. The Judeo-Christian conception of God and the Greek conception of God are so different that use of those terms interchangeably would be detrimental. Muslims take as their starting point, however, the God of creation revealed to Abraham. For this reason, many missionaries find it better to claim that Muslims worship the one God wrongly, with some very distorted ideas about him, than to claim they worship a fundamentally different God.
On the other hand, I know many Christians who find the use of Allah more confusing than helpful when talking to a Muslim. It’s probably best to let our audience determine whether calling God “Allah” (lit. the deity) is helpful. But in general, I have found that it is most helpful to say that while Muhammad was right in pointing his polytheistic culture toward the one, true God, much of his preaching was incorrect. This seems to be a good starting point from which to begin discussing the gospel with a Muslim.