Although most people say they don’t know much about Muslims, virtually all of us already have strong preconceived ideas about them, many of which are unfortunately shaped by events like 9/11. As a basis for talking to our friends we need to understand the individuality and diversity of their beliefs. Just as the bounty of the ocean cannot be summed up with one particular attack of a surfer, Muslims as a people cannot, and must not, be summed up by a few men on one terrible day. Muslims are also created in the image of God and therefore vast beauty and diversity is just below the surface if we are willing to look.
The term “Islam” means to submit to God, specifically the one true God of Abraham, and the term “Muslim” is simply the one who submits to God. This oneness of God and the need to submit to him are the most unifying elements of Islam. Even within the varied expressions of the practical aspects of this belief by Sufi, Shia and Sunni sects, they all still return to this core value.
However, there is an overlapping and sometimes distinct value placed on community. For some, being a Muslims simply means to be a part of a community even if ones particular religious belief is considered unorthodox by all the others within that community.
An uncommon but valid example of this is a Muslim Atheist. Some Arab Muslims attending Arab universities have stopped believing in the existence of God, but if you ask them “Are you still a Muslim?” they answer “Yes”. Why? because they are still members of their community. Some Muslims place such high value on community that it eclipses the original meaning of the word Muslim itself.
Another example is not just the beliefs but the amount of practice as well. Some Muslims are very zealous to practice every detail to perfection while others are happy to do the minimum or even much less. Muslims see and understand that many are just going through the motions while others are very serious in their belief. Within the Muslim community, and within the Qur’an itself, those who actually practice their religion from their heart are called “believers”. Muhammad is even quoted as telling some of his followers “I see that you are Muslims, but you are not yet believers.” This is very similar to how in Matthew 15:8-9 Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” (Contrary to how many of us think, the term “believer” (not “Christian”) is the primary title of those who followed Jesus in the book of Acts.)
Another surprise for Christians may be if or when a Muslim tells them “You are a Muslim.” Although this may be confusing to the Christian it is actually a compliment acknowledging the righteous way the Christian is living. In the Qur’an, all the major prophets, including Jesus and his disciples, were called Muslims simply because they submitted to God. Although many Muslims will say “You can only be a Muslim today by believing Muhammad was the final prophet” many others will be far more generous with the term. As one Muslim leader in a mosque told me “Whether you are a faithful Jew, Christian or Muslim, you are actually a Muslim because you submit to God.” A proper response for the Christian is to simply thank his friend, but not to start calling himself a Muslim.
As we see, there is much more in common between Muslims and Christians than most realize. Both communities have sects (even if “denominations” is the preferred term), both have sincere members of our community and others who seem to only submit to God when they are in a religious service, and both have people who claim to be members but actually bring great shame on the rest of the group. For a Christian, or someone from a Muslim community, to say “Muslims are like this . . . “ can be a dangerous statement as it may only represent one small branch of Islam and not the diversity that actually exists on a global scale.
Clearly, the failure to acknowledge the variety of colors within Islam is as mistaken as to believe that something that can’t attack a surfer must not be from the sea. Each Muslim is a unique story waiting to be read, so walking with him or her in true friendship is the best way to understand the individuality of how God has created them, and how God has prepared the to receive his gospel! As Christians begin this journey they not only find traditional stereotypes being shattered, but a true friend as well.