Islam and Muslims
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding. Proverbs 3:13 ESV
My Journey toward Understanding
One of the first Muslim people I ever met was a very friendly and welcoming African man. It was many years ago on a university campus in Philadelphia, and I was just trying to strike up conversations with people about faith in God. Would anyone be willing to talk with me about the gospel?
Lama shared with me his struggle around religious identity, since he was brought up in a Muslim family but had attended a Christian school. Which faith was true? Every now and then I find myself wondering what happened to Lama. Did he find clarity? Would he call himself a Muslim or a Christian today?
I knew very little about Muslims at the time, but it was clear to me from Lama’s demeanor and conversation that he was a very genuine person with a lot of depth and a lot of care for other people.
Islam: A Way of Life
My journey into understanding about Islam and Muslim people has continued over the years, with introductions to people from all over the world and from many different walks of life. Before I ever read books about their religion, I learned about Islam from Muslim people. What became very obvious very quickly was the fact that Islam is a total way of life. One of my first Muslim friends had two wives, permitted in Islam, and insisted on eating only with his right hand, something he had learned from Middle Eastern culture.
Somewhere around that time I took a university elective on Islamic philosophy, which also introduced me to Islamic history. The professor lectured for every class time without using any notes. It was amazing! Names and dates just rolled off his tongue. At the end of the first class a student led him out by the hand. He was blind.
It would take me years to really understand that my brush with Islamic history needed to be more than a novelty of my university days. How could I, a Christian under the command of Christ to His church to carry His gospel to every nation, not know something about the history of a faith followed by at least one in every five human beings?
One of the things I quickly noticed through spending time around Muslims is that the Muslim calendar is a really important part of Muslim people’s lives. Our Muslim friends have taken their events as an opportunity to show us lavish hospitality, beyond the typical invitations to share a meal with them, and to help us learn about their beliefs, practices, and customs. Living in a Muslim country showed me that Ramadan, the 30 day month of fasting, is a special time for many Muslims and can have quite a profound impact on their faith. Invitations to break the fast with them after the sun sets during Ramadan have been really special times for me and for other Christians who value friendships with Muslim people.
Islam’s Five Key Doctrines
Probably the most important of Islam’s five key doctrines, tawheed or oneness of Allah, was explained to me by Muslim friends in Philadelphia during evenings of conversational exchange about the Qur’an and the Bible. Years later I would learn just how much unitarian monotheism in Islam differs from Trinitarian monotheism in Christianity, but those early conversations sitting in a circle on the floor in our Muslim friend’s living room were very enlightening. I found out that Muslims and Christians view things like sin and guilt quite differently. I also began to get a feel for the need for peaceful, winsome interactions between Christians and Muslims rather than putting people on the defensive.
Islam’s Five Pillars
Living for some years among Muslim people also taught me about the five pillars of Islam that regulate the lives of Muslim people on a daily—even constant—basis. Faithful Muslims pray five times a day, but on Fridays they attend congregational prayers at the mosque, especially the men. I’ll never forget the painful lesson of how critical it is for a Muslim to be ceremonially clean for each prayer time. I was driving in our city on a Friday afternoon, just as Muslims were making their way to the mosque in the Muslim country where we lived. By the time I saw the middle-aged man dressed in his newly cleaned and pressed set of clothes it was too late. My left front tire hit a pothole and dirty water splashed up on his clothing! His prayers, along with his merit for performing them, were ruined. No amount of apologizing could fix the problem. Things like that are just burned into your memory!
The Hadith and the Sunnah
Before moving to a Muslim country, I had no idea how much influence the Hadith and the Sunnah have on the daily lives of Muslim people. I had always thought the Qur’an, like our Bible, would be the main source for how to live. What I discovered was that people I met quoted the Hadith often and seemed to know it better than the Qur’an in many cases. What the Prophet Muhammad said and did was the model for their lives, so the Sunnah was also really important. If the Prophet Muhammad stepped onto his left sandal, then stepped into his right sandal, and then finally stepped into his left sandal, that’s what they did too. If he slept on his right side, so did they.
I was also exposed to the effects of Islamic law while living in a Muslim country. We were very saddened when the happily married couple living in the apartment below us got divorced because of friction between their two families. They loved each other and so wanted to be reunited in marriage. The issue they were facing was that in Islamic law a divorced woman must first be married to another man before she is allowed to return to her first husband. I think someone found a way around things so that they did get back together without another marriage in between.
Muslims Are People
Maybe one of the most important things I have learned about Muslims through the years is that Muslims are people, just like anyone else. Maybe that’s a strange thing to say, but I think many people who don’t have Muslim friends often look at all Muslims the same way. It’s easy to see Muslims as just people who follow a certain ideology. Or maybe they seem like they all dress or look the same, so we don’t see them as having different personalities, experiences, or even beliefs. So we can think that all the women cover their heads and all the men grow long beards. We then fail to see the individual person and it doesn’t cross our minds that Muslim people might actually have needs we might be able to meet, or that they might be able to meet some of our needs as well. My own experience is that living in this fallen world means we all have areas of need. It’s just a matter of time until they show up. So if we are friends with Muslim people, we will begin to meet one another’s needs. And as our lives intersect with other people’s lives, the gospel gets right into those places!
Islam: A Way of Life
A way of life – The word Islam refers to the religion or way of life. A Muslim is a person who follows the religion of Islam, or in the majority of cases is born into it and is identified as a Muslim because of his family background, whether or not he or she actually lives according to the code of the religion. Of course, devout Muslims would prefer to narrow the definition of a Muslim to describe that person who truly is faithful in keeping the laws required by Islam.
Muslim definitions – Muslims themselves variously define Islam as peace, purity, obedience, submission to Allah’s will, and “the straight path.” In fact, Muslims request Allah’s guidance onto the straight path multiple times per day as they recite “The Opening,” the first surah or chapter of the Qur’an, during their five daily prayers. Many Muslims in the West have also taken to describing Islam as a religion of peace, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Submission – If we were to very briefly summarize some of the authoritative definitions of Islam by Muslims we could describe Islam as follows:
Islam is submission, consistent with the natural order of all things, to Allah in mind, will, and actions, and to the revealed will of Allah, the way of life commanded by Allah, and the affirmation that “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Origins – We must keep in mind that a Christian definition of Islam puts the founding of the religion officially at the time of the creation of the worldwide Muslim community in 622 A.D., the year when Muhammad and the early Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution from the then dominant tribe in Mecca, the Qur’aysh tribe. Indeed, the Muslim calendar is dated from 622 A.D., so that events observed by Muslims are about 11 days earlier each year in the Gregorian calendar.
A Muslim definition would differ about when Islam began, claiming that Islam is the original and natural religion, having existed since the time of Adam, and that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, Aaron, David, Jesus, and a number of other biblical characters were Muslim prophets. Muslims believe that Islam has always existed as the true and original religion given by Allah to mankind.
Comparison – A helpful comparison between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be found at: http://christianityinview.com/xncomparison.html.
Islamic history and our responsibility – Islam is a religious faith with a large and fast-growing number of adherents, deeming it worthy of the study of any educated person, if for this reason alone. For much of the time since the beginning of the Muslim calendar, Islam existed as an empire in various forms, centered in various headquarters, and developing, spreading, and impacting various cultures.
However, when we think of the command of Christ to carry His gospel to every nation, it becomes our responsibility to know something about the faith of those with whom we will necessarily build relationships. Furthermore, Muslim people do not expect us to know anything about Islam, much less Islamic history. Any effort on our part to master some of this information will communicate to Muslims that we care enough to take the time to learn about what is important to them.
There is one more reason why it is a good idea for us to study Islamic history. It has intersected with our own at many times and on many points, both positive and negative. Some awareness of this historical interaction can be helpful in our own interactions with Muslim people.
Sources of Islamic history – The history of Islam is derived from a number of sources considered authoritative by Muslims, including the Qur’an, the Hadith (traditions), the Sīra (biographies of Muhammad), the Tafsir (interpretation, usually of the Qur’an), and Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
For a detailed and revealing treatment of the history of Islam from a Muslim perspective, see: http://alim.org/library/biography/stories/SOP.
For an interactive timeline of the history of Islam, visit: http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/accessislam/timeline.html.
Christianity Today has a page on their site showing the 3 Phases of Christian-Muslim Interaction: Christian History Timeline at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2002/issue74/16.26.html.
Christianity in Muslim lands – Philip Jenkins has written a book which sheds light on the existence of Christianity in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, before and during the time of Islam’s ascendancy, and shows the important role of the church during those times, even with regard to some of the advances credited to Islam. Jenkins book can be ordered easily online. (Jenkins, Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. New York, NY: Harper One, 2008, http://www.amazon.com/Lost-History-Christianity-Thousand-Year-Asia–/dp/0061472816/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390267983&sr=8-1&keywords=the+lost+history+of+christianity).
Lunar Calendar – Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which renders the Muslim year about 11 days shorter than our calendar year. This difference results in Muslim events occurring at a different time every year during our calendar.
Because an awareness of the events in the lives of Muslim people can sometimes open doors for friendship with them, it can be very helpful to know when those events are each year.
Ramadan – The month of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, is especially one of those times, when Muslims break the fast each evening at sunset with a “breakfast” called iftar, which we might call an iftar dinner. Muslims often invite non-Muslims to join them at the mosque, or even in their homes, for iftar.
Eid – Eid-ul-Fitr, the three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan, is also an important time to be aware of. Muslim families and mosques celebrate this festival, where they can once again eat during daylight hours, and mosques often hold events to which non-Muslims are welcome.
Doing the Research – You can find out about the special dates and events that have meaning for your Muslim friends and neighbors. Here is one of many places to do your searching: https://www.makkahcalendar.
Islam’s Five Key Doctrines
There are five key doctrines that every Muslim must uphold. A departure from any one of these means that a person is not a Muslim.
1. There is only one God, Allah, who created and maintains the world. Submission to Allah and to his all-pervasive natural law is synonymous with Islam, the natural religion. One implication of this is that all human beings are born Muslim and it is their family and society that leads them away from what is natural for them to follow. Muslims do not believe in original sin. What is needed is not salvation from sin but rather a calling and the knowledge to follow the right path. Tawheed, the oneness of God, demands that all human beings worship only Allah and turn away from every other object of worship. True worship is performed only in conformity to Allah’s revealed will, given in the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad, Allah’s final messenger, who embodied the message of Islam. Tawheed is Islam’s key doctrine, and to depart from it is to commit shirk, which is defined as associating one or more partners with Allah.
Unitarian monotheism in Islam contrasts greatly with Trinitarian monotheism in Christianity. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity is perceived as blasphemous by Muslims, who view it as associating partners with Allah. Many Muslims believe the Trinity refers to God, Mary, and Jesus. This misunderstanding of the Trinity is derived from some of the words of the Qur’an, and implies that Christians believe that Mary the mother of Jesus was in some way physically the wife of Allah. Of course, all Christians find this blasphemous, but it is important to know about this misunderstanding so that it can be corrected through conversations with Muslims.
2. The Angels, created from light, are Allah’s servants and perform various tasks. Jibreel (Gabriel) is the greatest of these and is the angel who brought the Qur’an to Muhammad over a period of about 22 years.
3. The Messengers of Allah are his prophets, who bring his word and his law to mankind. Their chief purpose in every generation is to guide mankind back to the worship of Allah. Muslims recognize and respect a number of biblical prophets, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. The last and final prophet is Muhammad, who is called the “Seal of the Prophets” and is revered beyond any other human being.
4. The Books which Allah has sent down include the Taurat (the Law of Moses), the Zabur (the Psalms of David), the Injil (the Gospel of Jesus), and the Qur’an. However, Muslims are taught that only the Qur’an exists in its original form. To Muslims the Bible is not the original books which they are required to believe in. There is no reference to this in the Qur’an, however, a book which affirms the Scriptures of the Jews and the Christians as authoritative for all mankind.
5. The Day of Judgment is indeed a fearful day for Muslims, when their good and evil deeds will be weighed in a scale to determine their standing before Allah. Ultimately, though, only Allah’s will finally decides whether a person will enter paradise or hell.
Some Muslims would include a sixth important doctrine of Islam, predestination or predeterminism, the teaching that all things are already determined by Allah’s will.
Islam’s Five Pillars
Worship in Islam is supported by the five pillars, which regulate a Muslim’s life and prescribe every ritual in the minutest detail.
1. The Shahada (creed), “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah,” states the religion’s central doctrine. It is also recited as a vital part of a person’s conversion to Islam and its proclamation is often enforced if a person’s allegiance to Islam is in question.
2. Salat (prayer) is a critical ingredient in every faithful Muslim’s life. It is performed five times a day at set times and its content is memorized. Salat is viewed as effective in ordering a Muslim’s mind toward Allah and helping him or her to turn away from distractions and temptations.
3. Zakat (almsgiving) is performed as a necessary ritual in Islam. Every Muslim is required to give 2 1/2 percent of his or her current wealth to serve the less fortunate of the Muslim community. In some Muslim countries the practice of Zakat is enforced through mandatory deductions from a person’s bank account.
4. Sawm (fasting) is mandatory for all Muslims during the month of Ramadan, the month when it is believed Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an from the angel Jibreel. Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn to dusk during this month. Special allowances to make up the fast later in the year are made for pregnant women, travelers, and those who are ill.
5. The Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca is required of all Muslims once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able. During the pilgrimage, Muslims all wear the same simple, white garment, demonstrating that in Allah’s sight all are equal.
The Hadith and the Sunnah
Influence – The Hadith (Islamic traditions) and the Sunnah (example of Muhammad), are hugely influential in the lives of most devout Muslims. They are also vital for the framework and context they provide for understanding the Qur’an and for their key role in the formation of Islamic Law (Shari’ah).
Definition – The Hadith are traditions recounting what Muhammad said and did, and what he allowed and forbid. Sunni Muslims accept 6 main collections of Hadith. The most trusted and well-known collection was compiled in 870 A.D. by Imam Bukhari, a scholar from Bukhara, in modern-day Uzbekistan. His collection contains 7275 Hadith.
Examples – Many of the Hadith record sayings and actions of Muhammad that may sound strange and unfamiliar to western ears, like the miracle of the splitting of the moon in the following Hadith:
Narrated Ibn Masud, During the lifetime of Allah’s Apostle the moon was split into two parts; one part remained over the mountain, and the other part went beyond the mountain. On that, Allah’s Apostle said, “Witness this miracle.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari 6:387)
However, many of the Hadith are much more down to earth and practical, covering topics like the Qur’an, salvation, Muhammad, miracles, prayer, fasting, the pilgrimage, almsgiving, jihad and violence, punishment, the Day of Judgment, hell, paradise, the spirit world, Jesus, legalisms, women, Muhammad’s wives, food, and medicine.
One example is this Hadith concerning disease:
Narrated Abu Huraira, The Prophet said, “There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari Book 76, Hadith 1)
Daily life – Many Muslims seem to know more about the Hadith and their content than the Qur’an, following their teachings in their daily lives.
If you are interested in reading more of the Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith collection, please visit: https://sunnah.com/bukhari
Muhammad’s example: a pattern for life – The Sunnah is the example set by the life of Muhammad. It is considered normative for all Muslims to follow and is believed to be the pattern of life revealed by Allah for the Muslim community. It is because of the Sunnah that Muslims will put on their right sleeve and right pant leg first when they get dressed and take off the left one first when getting undressed. It is also the conscious reason for sleeping on one’s right side, or sitting down to drink a glass of water in three equal parts, or using an olive twig for a toothbrush. The greatly loved prophet of Islam is revered even in the way Muslims conduct the mundane affairs of life. The Qur’an itself enjoins on Muslims to follow Muhammad’s example in this verse:
“Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.” (Surah Al-Ahzab 33:21)
The basis for Islamic Law – Shari’ah, or Islamic Law, is based on four sources: 1. The Qur’an (Islam’s holy book), 2. The Hadith (Islamic traditions), 3. Ijma (consensus of scholars), and 4. Qiyas (reasoning, e.g. by way of extension, narcotic drugs must be forbidden because alcohol is forbidden).
To varying degrees, Shari’ah law governs how Muslims live their lives in Muslim countries, covering such areas as marriage, divorce, polygamy, custody laws, inheritance, food and drink, economics and business, crime and punishment, apostasy, and blasphemy.
In some western countries, most notably the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, some Muslim groups are pushing for the adoption of Islamic law or at least testing the legal system for ways to advance aspects of Islamic law. In the view of many Muslims, Shari’ah is necessary for the faithful and consistent application of their faith. Conflict can occur when Muslim people’s commitment to the application of Islamic law intersects with the laws of a state or country that is governed by a different set of laws.
The reach of Shari’ah – Many Muslims in North America may not welcome Islamic law or advocate for its adoption. However, whether or not Shari’ah is the legal law of the land, some of its principles can still be applied within the lives of Muslims as they are enforced on a family and community level. Muslims will look to Islamic law as a way to determine how to live out certain aspects of their lives. One example is the efforts being made to provide home loans without interest to Muslims, as usury is forbidden in Islam.
Perhaps the important thing for us to understand is that Islam is not simply a religion, just one more compartment within the lives of people who call themselves Muslims. It is, when properly applied, an entire way of life. We should not be surprised by how far the principles of Islamic law reach into the lives of Muslims, even in North America, or by some of the struggles that Muslims face in trying to relate to those principles.
Muslims are People
Cultures, not culture – A common mistake many western people can make, including Christians, is thinking that all Arab people are Muslims and that all Muslim people are Arabs. Only 20% of the world’s Muslim people are Arab or speak Arabic. The countries with the largest Muslim populations are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, none of whose populations speak Arabic as their mother tongue. The fact is that the worldwide Muslim community is hugely diverse. There is not just one “Muslim culture” but rather many different cultures of Muslim peoples, all with their different customs, traditions, foods, music, and languages. That diversity is reflected among Muslim peoples in North America as well, with the largest ethnic groups being African American, South Asian, and Arab. The majority of Arab Americans are Christians, not Muslims. Awareness about these kinds of realities is very important for fulfilling our responsibility to love our Muslim neighbors and obey our Lord’s Great Commission.
Worldviews – Just as there is no one Muslim culture, so there is no one Muslim worldview. Yes, Islam informs the worldviews of Muslim people the world over, resulting in many common understandings among Muslims from various different cultures and traditions. All Muslims must believe certain doctrines to be considered Muslim, and a common aspect of Muslim worldviews is the awareness of being part of a worldwide community, or Umma. However, we do a great disservice to Muslims and to our own understanding of the world we have been entrusted to reach out to with the good news of Christ when we view Muslim people in stereotypical ways. Some Muslim peoples suffer greatly as persecuted minorities living under non-Muslim governmental policies, such as the Uyghur Muslims of northwestern China. Their worldview will be much different than that of an upper class Pakistani living in Islamabad, or an Egyptian engineer in Charlotte, NC.
Community vs. Individual Orientation – Because of their diverse cultures and worldviews, our Muslim neighbors may be very community-oriented, finding their identity and meaning in their cultural group and perhaps especially in the Muslim community, or they may be much more individualistic, mirroring the way many North Americans view themselves and the world. It can be very helpful to know whether a person’s background allows for individual decisions, for example, or whether they are inclined to approach decisions as the right and responsibility of the group.
Personality and Experience – Muslim people are individually as unique as any of us, and learning about their experiences is very helpful for effective outreach to them. Some Muslims in North America have begun recording their stories and experiences in ways that give us insight into what it is like to live in our cultural context as Muslims from various walks of life, cultural backgrounds, and even convictions and persuasions. As an example, here are the first two books in the “I Speak for Myself” series:
Ebrahimji, Maria M.., and Zahra T.. Suratwala. I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim. White Cloud Press, 2011.
Ali, Wajahat, and Zahra T. Suratwala. All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim. White Cloud Press, 2012.
Relevance – Why is any of this important? Why do we need to affirm that Muslims are people too? These things are important so that we never approach Muslim people as simply numbers within a demographic or nameless members of our society. Knowing about their diversity helps us to want to get to know them personally, without applying stereotypical ideas to them. Recognizing that each Muslim person is unique helps us to care about them, to build genuine friendships with them, and to learn about their hopes and dreams, their joys and sorrows, their achievements and their challenges. How else can we understand a person’s unique journey and how God’s Word specifically addresses them in their need, for the Savior and otherwise?
As you think about welcoming people from other cultures into our own, please keep in mind the following thoughts about cultural awareness:
When our international friends enter our culture and society they are beginning a journey with many unknowns. They may expect our culture, even of people who call ourselves Christians, to closely mirror what is shown in TV shows, movies, gaming, etc. We have an opportunity to demonstrate how our biblical beliefs, more than our culture, govern how we live our lives.
Culture goes the other way too. When we befriend people from other cultural backgrounds we are embarking on a journey into new territory, entering into people’s lives who have very different ways of doing things.
Understanding and being sensitive to the cultures and customs of our international friends is hugely important for welcoming them well, for building trust with them, and for glorifying the Lord in how we relate to them.
The purpose of this page is to help equip us with knowledge and awareness for this cultural journey into the lives of our Muslim friends who come to us from another culture, or whose parents have passed on cultural traits to them from another cultural background. In presenting this knowledge we draw on the Lord’s gracious provision of long experience in the Muslim world and among Muslims and other cultural groups here in North America. We readily admit that many Muslims may “break the mold” and be exceptions to the general rules we provide here. We do not want to encourage stereotypes or generalizations. We only want to suggest cultural traits you may encounter and benefit from being aware of.
We ask that you please read this material prayerfully, asking the Lord to build it into your growing ability to effectively minister God’s grace across cultures.
The honor and shame worldview
All of the aspects of appropriate cultural expression included on this page fall within a very important paradigm in most eastern cultures: the honor/shame worldview paradigm. Mastering the appropriate ways of interaction can show honor instead of shame, both in terms of Muslim people we meet and our own reputation. Of course, some of the Muslims we meet may already be making big adjustments to our western cultural context, but if we emphasize an awareness of the things listed below, we will be much less likely to offend our Muslim friends and much more likely to honor them and their families.
The importance of family and community
We may be very used to our individualistic Western culture, but for Muslim people an individual finds his or her identity, honor, respect, meaning, and so much more, as a member of a family and community. It is so important for us to remember this when relating to individual Muslims, and to try to understand the implications of our words and actions, not just for the one person we are talking to, but for his or her family and cultural or religious group. A family or community’s honor is greatly impacted by the actions of the individual person.
What do you answer when someone says to you, “What’s up?” “Not much,” right? The words don’t seem to have any meaning beyond acknowledging that there is another human being somewhere near us. The opposite thing happens routinely in many Muslim cultures. People can take quite a long time greeting each other because after they ask about the person him or herself they go on to ask about the person’s family and health and other aspects of their life from various different angles. The Islamic greeting, Assalam-o-Aleykum (Peace be upon you) and it’s reply, Wa Aleykum Assalam (And upon you peace) is the appropriate way to greet Muslims the world over, even in places where greetings are still used from pre-Islamic times.
Always use the right hand. As a rule, men and women should not shake hands. Some Muslims will place their hand over their heart after shaking hands (e.g. Pakistan and Afghanistan). In some cultures it is important to greet everyone in a room when entering the room, which can include shaking hands.
Beyond shaking hands
Muslims will often hug members of the same sex on special occasions (e.g. Eid celebrations) or if old friends have not seen one another for a long time. Some Arabs will “air kiss” next to one another’s faces, but only among the same gender.
Contact between men and women, boys and girls
It is best to avoid all contact with people of the opposite sex. Some western women find it very natural to touch a man’s arm when talking to him, but this should definitely be avoided. Normal and perfectly acceptable ways of relating within western cultures can communicate very unintended things to Muslims. Muslims can interpret eye contact, smiling, laughter, spending time together, and any kind of physical touch between men and women as an indication of affection beyond mere friendship. It is important for men to minister only to men and for women to minister only to women.
Humor and laughter are a great part of relationships. At the same time, it is better to be conservative in how we relate to people of the opposite sex in the area of laughter, as mentioned above. In some Muslim cultures too much familiarity between men and women in laughter can appear scandalous.
Eye contact and winking
It is always best to avoid or minimize eye contact between men and women. This may be especially difficult for western people who are used to a more direct interaction with people around them, but it is important to remember, as direct eye contact can be interpreted as being very forward. Avoid winking, as in some Muslim cultures winking always has sexual connotations.
Use of the right hand only
Never use your left hand for shaking hands, eating, drinking, pointing at anything, or handing something to someone. The left hand is associated with bodily functions below the waste, i.e. going to the bathroom.
The safest way to gesture at someone or something is to use the entire hand. The way we point to or at something or someone in western culture may appear very rude in Muslim cultures. Pointing with one finger, using the thumbs up sign, the “ok” sign, and beckoning for someone to come using an upturned hand are offensive in many Muslim cultures. When beckoning someone to come to you it is best to use a downturned palm.
The soles of the feet are considered dirty by many Muslim cultures. For this reason, it is good to avoid crossing one’s legs so that the bottom of one’s feet are facing someone else in the room. Another thing to remember is that if you ever have occasion to visit a mosque, it is good to sit on the floor with legs crossed and your feet under you, avoiding the more comfortable position of leaning against the back wall with your legs straight out.
Muslims remove their shoes when entering a mosque and typically a home. This is good to remember when visiting the homes of our Muslim friends, who will often have a large collection of their own shoes outside the front door or inside on a shelf.
Pork is so taboo for Muslims that for some more secularized Muslims not eating pork defines what it means to be a Muslim. Needless to say, avoiding pork or references to pork around Muslims is helpful. What do you do when a Muslim asks you if you eat pork or asks you what it tastes like? One suggestion is to talk about what Jesus said in Matthew 15:10-20. He says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth …” Focusing on the words of Jesus and even reading the passage with a Muslim person may not seem to disarm the immediate question, but it may give them an opportunity to think more deeply about the real importance of their question. Peter’s experience with adjusting to God’s grace for the gentiles in Acts 10 is another good place to end up with Muslims.
In spite of the strict prohibition against drinking alcohol in Islam, many Muslims do drink, some more discretely than others. Pakistan, for example, is facing a growing problem with alcoholism and deaths related to home-brewed alcoholic drinks. However, Muslims universally acknowledge that Islam forbids drinking alcohol, so we should avoid using alcohol around Muslims or joking about it.
Women will feel more comfortable around Muslims if they dress more conservatively. What does this mean? A longer length dress or skirt is fine. Stay away from sleeveless shirts. Shorts must be avoided entirely. If wearing pants, which is ok, a longer shirt covering the body is acceptable. If visiting a mosque it is best to be prepared with a headscarf, which some mosques even require for women visitors. Men will also communicate respect for Muslims if they dress conservatively. Even though some Muslims may appear more informal, it is still better to dress wearing casual slacks and a decent shirt, especially when first meeting people. Muslims do wear jeans, but many times will dress a little nicer when going out. In many Muslim countries, men are often careful to cover themselves, even wearing long sleeves. Shorts should be avoided by men as well, except when taking part in sports events or when with very close Muslim friends.
It is impossible to overestimate the positive impact of a cheerful and friendly demeanor in our relationships with Muslims. Some Christians have become overwhelmingly loved and accepted within Muslim cultures through consistently demonstrating a friendly, warm, smiling attitude toward others, even earning the descriptor “very good human being.” We cannot overstate the benefit and blessings that come from a healthy emphasis on being the “fragrance of Christ” among our Muslim friends.
Events and people vs. time
Although many Muslims do appreciate how punctual we tend to be in the West, many Muslim cultures do default to placing a high value on the event and the person over punctuality. This requires patience for those used to people arriving on time and events starting at the stated time. Being impatient will achieve nothing good. In the western context, Muslims may well be much more punctual than in some Muslim cultures. However, if we emphasize giving attention to people and a willingness to spend time with them, we can’t go wrong. People from many other cultures view westerners, including Americans, as enslaved to our schedules and calendars. Muslims can be pleasantly surprised when we love them through an “unrushed” demonstration of attentiveness and friendship. This is just one more way to show them honor and respect.
Many Muslims will greatly appreciate being given a printed invitation to an event. This is especially true of Iranians but of others as well.
It has been said that it is hard to outdo Muslims when it comes to hospitality. Most Muslim cultures have hospitality firmly built into them. This is partly due to the emphasis on earning merit in Islam through showing hospitality to guests. Some of this also comes from the desert hospitality of the Middle East, where a person’s own honor is at stake based on their ability to welcome and protect guests … and even enemies. No matter the motivation, Muslim hosts are some of the most gracious, generous, and self-sacrificing of any peoples. We would do well to receive their hospitality graciously, and show them extravagant hospitality as well. One part of showing hospitality is serving food or drinks to guests without asking, as in some cultures they may politely refuse one or more times. Another part is showing how much we care by finding out what foods are acceptable to them (halal) and which are forbidden (haram).
Muslim cultures vary on whether it is appropriate for a guest to bring a gift when invited to a Muslim person or family’s home. There are resources online which can answer this question specific to the culture of the person giving the invitation.
Placing the Qur’an on the floor or even on a chair where someone would sit is considered a sign of great disrespect to the holy book. We should show respect for all holy books, including the Qur’an and the Bible. Biblical references, Bibles and New Testaments, and devotional materials should not be kept in or displayed in bathrooms, which are considered an inappropriate environment for holy books. When hosting Muslims at a Christian venue or in a Christian home, Bibles should be placed respectfully on a table or shelf. (To give you an idea of how seriously Muslims take respect for their holy book, Muslim homes will often feature a special shelf up high in the room, especially for holding the Qur’an.) When carrying the Bible, we should hold it with our right hand, at least above waist level.
Respect for older people
This is an area of great opportunity for us in building relationships with Muslims. Older people are still shown great respect in many Muslim cultures, though this beautiful and biblical aspect of culture is being lost, even in some of the most traditional societies. Showing respect for older people we meet among Muslims through using terms like Dr., Mr. or Mrs., for example, and through letting them walk in front of us or go through a door ahead of us, or through serving them first when it comes to food or drinks, goes a long way in building goodwill and relationships of trust.
Honor and respect
If Muslim people know that you are trying to show them honor and respect, they will more easily forgive any cultural blunders you may make. How can you do this? Being agreeable when talking with those older than you, rather than disagreeing with them or arguing with them is one very powerful way. Deferring to those in authority and being aware of people’s status within their own community or culture is another. Learning about a Muslim immigrant’s culture, customs, traditions, religion, history, and geography of their country also does wonders for relationships with Muslim people, who are often surprised to find out that we know anything at all about such things. Yes, there is a strong, patriarchal honor system in many Muslim cultures that has evil tendencies, such as honor killing of apostates from Islam or of girls who date or marry outside their family’s wishes. We do not want to show respect for this broken and godless aspect of some Muslim cultures. However, we wish to emphasize the fact that so many of the things listed above for appropriate interaction with Muslims and avoiding offense are in fact ways of showing honor and respect, in keeping with the biblical commands to regard others as more important than ourselves and to do to others as we would have them do to us.
Qur’an photo credit: Habib M,henni/Wikimedia Commons