Recently our church has experienced in-depth discussions about other religions. One of the most important religions for us to understand is Islam. Internationally the number of Muslims will be about the same as the number of Christians after 2050. Islam is the third most common religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism. All three religions are monotheistic and have a common patriarch in Abraham. In the Memphis area alone there are roughly 15,000 Muslims who attend nine different mosques. Many are physicians and other professionals who have immigrated here from other countries.
Muslims view both the Old and New Testaments as scriptures which contain some errors. However, the Koran, believed to be divinely imparted to Muhammad around 610 A.D., constitutes the final word from God. Jesus is viewed as a great prophet, but Muslims do not feel that He was the Son of God. The five pillars of Islam are 1) the belief in one God (Allah) and His prophet Mohammad, 2) prayer five times a day, 3) daytime fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, 4) almsgiving with a 2.5% annual contribution of wealth minus personal expenses, and 5) a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The practice of Islam includes dietary rules similar to Jewish kosher laws. Pork and alcohol are forbidden. There is belief in heaven and hell, the return of Jesus, resurrection of the dead, and a personal accounting of one’s deeds to determine one’s ultimate fate. Practicing Muslims are encouraged to attend a mosque for their prayers. According to one of my Muslim friends, men and women pray separately so that the men will not be distracted. Muslims benefit by practicing their religion – e.g., the HIV epidemic and alcoholism only minimally affect countries with Muslim majorities.
Research on American Muslims
Pugh Research Center conducted a survey of Muslims in America in 2017. 1001 Muslims were interviewed. Many were immigrants with 75 nations represented in the sample. 89% were proud to be both American and Muslim. 80% were happy with their lives. 73% felt there was little to no support for extremism among American Muslims. 65% felt there were no contradictions between Islam and democracy. 70% felt that working for justice and equality in society was part of their Muslim identity, and 62% said the same about protecting the environment. Roughly half of Muslims reported discrimination toward them because of their faith, but an equal number said Americans had voiced support for them. 62% on the survey felt that other Americans did not see Islam as part of mainstream American society. 65% of Muslims reported that religion was very important in their lives, and 43% attended a mosque weekly. Practicing Christians have a similar level of commitment.
Most U.S. Muslims (64%) say there is more than one true way to interpret Islam. They also are more likely to say traditional understandings of Islam need to be reinterpreted in light of modern contexts (52%) than to say traditional understandings are all that is needed (38%). This is important since the United States with its democratic traditions and separation of church and state eventually influences religious practices. Historical examples include the cessation of polygamy among Latter Day Saints and the statement on freedom of religion issued by the Second Vatican Council.
Muslims in Memphis are civic-minded. They operate a free healthcare clinic open to all faiths. Muslims have conducted food drives for impoverished Central Americans. Also they have recently opened a food bank in an economically deprived area of town. They hold an interfaith dinner annually to collect charitable donations for non-sectarian causes and to share ideas with other religious groups.
Christian Response to Muslims
What is the most appropriate Christian response to the Muslims among us? Most of this blog’s readers know about Heartsong Church, its pastor Steve Stone, and its welcoming of the Memphis Islamic Center. Heartsong opened its facilities for use by Muslims during construction of their nearby mosque. The story was broadcast on CNN and provided a marked contrast to persecution of the Muslim community in another Tennessee community, Murfreesboro. In his latest book Christ in Crisis Jim Wallis relates a sequel to the Memphis story. Stone received a call at 2:00 a.m. from a group of Muslims in Kashmir. (It was about 2:00 in the afternoon in Kashmir.) The caller said his group had seen the CNN segment and for a time sat silently together. Then one said, “I think God is speaking to us through this pastor.” Another said, “How could we ever kill those people?” Another went out to the Christian church near the mosque and washed it clean. The spokesman added, “Pastor, please tell your congregation that we don’t hate them; we love them. From now on we will protect that little Christian church near us because of what you did.”
Social media and the web are awash in false information about Muslims – the threat of shariah law (no threat at all), bloodthirsty verses in Koran (false and taken out of context), and poor treatment of women (only in primitive regions of the world; in contrast, Muslim women have held positions as heads of state in Pakistan, India, and others). As Christians we should follow the example of Jesus and extend our love and acceptance to our Muslim neighbors.