Teaching Christians about Islam is a daunting task. I guess that is the reason not too many preachers devote much time for that.

Islam is a complex religion. Though it is a world religion with many unified core beliefs, there are approximately 3500 sects in Islam. Though it is followed by more than one billion people in the world (estimated growth to 2.2. billion by 2030), it is a small minority that commands the attention of the world. Though its Holy book, the Qur’an is filled with admonitions to be gracious and compassionate toward others, it is the few verses about waging war against the infidels that often make the news.

Islam is a religion of paradox, starting with the paradox of having an unlearned, illiterate man, produce one of the greatest literary work, religious or not, in the Arabic language in all of history. You have some brilliant minds who have expounded on the difficult topics found in the Qur’an, while some communities of Muslims are led by illiterate men who can only recite what they have memorized from their childhood.

Other paradoxes include a religion that claims to have the idea of peace embedded in the very word that names the faith while its founder, who was also a military leader, didn’t hesitate to pick up arms and wage wars against his opponents. Islam also receives harsh criticism for its treatment of women in places where the Law of Islam (Sharia) rules, and yet by all accounts its founder was known to be generally kind to women.

There is, to be sure, a menacing, virulent form of Islam which dominates much of our world. Islam continues to be the only religion in which a former practitioner, say one who converted to Christianity, for example, is in immediate danger of suffering material loss, if not loss of life. Many converts have to remain silent about their new found faith or flee for their lives. A person voicing any criticism against Islam can also become an immediate target for execution by certain groups.

This is not just speculation, it is a fact. In the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh, a film director who made a movie about Islam’s harsh treatment of women was later brutally murdered on the streets as a sign to anyone not to mess with Islam. Salmon Rushdie, who wrote Satanic Verses, had to go into hiding for the longest time. A Danish cartoonist who drew pictures poking fun at Muhammad, had to be put into protective custody at once. The cartoons themselves caused riots, including deaths, around the world. And on top of all of that, Islamic countries lead the statistics in terms of places where persecution against Christians is still rampant. These examples are undeniable and there are many hundreds more I could cite.

These are some of the reasons why tackling a subject such as Islam in a typical evangelical church is a challenge of gigantic proportions. But it must be done. If for no other reason, it must be done because Christians in general are so ill-informed about Islam. The paradoxical nature of Islam, the bent toward violence on the part of some groups, 9-11, the Boston bombings, etc., etc., have convinced many that Muslims are the enemies and we must oppose them at every turn. That is, however, a huge mistake.

Here are some additional mistakes Christians in general make about Islam:

1. The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, is NOT an equivalent to what the Bible is for Christians. Christians think nothing of setting their Bibles on the floor or letting the grease of a burger fall all over its cover, but Muslims will not allow their copy of the Qur’an to be placed anywhere below their waist. The Qur’an, for Muslims, is not an inspired book written by human authors who were supervised by God. Rather, it is the very words of God, dictated to the Prophet Muhammad, word for word, punctuation by punctuation, enunciation by enunciation. As one author said, if for Christians Christ is the Word made flesh, for Muslims the Qur’an is the Word made book. The Qur’an, thus, is an instrument of Divine will; it is the ultimate Word of God, of which a tablet is preserved by God in heaven.

And this word is only in Arabic, since that was the language in which it was delivered to the Prophet. All other versions of the Qur’an in any other language are not the Qur’an but merely interpretations of it. That is why Muslims of any ethnicity anywhere memorize and recite the Qur’an in Arabic, regardless of whether they understand what they are saying or not. People, including pastors, who have the audacity of suggesting or actually carrying out the act of burning copies of the Qur’an have no idea about how egregious this act is for a Muslim. Think about some of the modern “art” that has dared depicting Jesus in human feces and you will begin to understand the outrageous nature and stupidity of such an act.

2. Not every Muslim sympathizes with acts of violence committed in the name of Islam. There are 3-6 million Muslims in the U.S., depending on who you listen to. In any case, it is a staggering number. The vast majority of these folks are peaceful people. They are conservative in the way they dress. In fact, I have brought some Muslims as guest to churches in the past and they were scandalized by the way some of the people dressed to go to church. They are family oriented people. They believe in some core moral values of fearing God and doing good to your fellow human beings. They are not at war with Christianity or the West. They are just trying to make it in this brave new world. If you try to get to know them, you will find that in many ways they resemble you with your dreams and aspirations for a better future.

3. Muhammad was not a terrorist. You remember when the most Reverend Jerry Falwell announced on public T.V. that Muhammad was a terrorist. The next day six Christians got killed as a result of riots in Indonesia. Mr. Falwell should have known better. There are things you never say in public even if you believe them in private. Muhammad was a warrior, yes, but his wars were by and large in response to enemies who were attacking him. From the tradition of the Qur’an and the Hadiths (sayings and customs of the prophet catalogued by his companions), it seems obvious that Muhammad was by nature a kind and devoted man. He was not a perfect man by any stretch of imagination, but he doesn’t come across to me as a criminal either. Christians need to learn to respect Muhammad, if for no other reason, only for the fact that he commands the allegiance of about one third of the world’s population today.

4. Islam is more than a religion, it is a way of life. In my previous life as a director of a non-profit working with internationals, I dialogued with a Muslim in one of our churches. When it was time for question and answer, one lady briefly shared her story about how she became a Christian, then she asked my friend, Mahmud, “When did you become a Muslim?” He looked at me with this puzzled look on his face and asked, “What does she mean?” The question didn’t make sense to him because no one ever “becomes” a  Muslim, you are born into it. It is part of who you are when you live in a Muslim country and it regulates your life, from what you eat to what you give to the poor, to how you should pray and how many times, to who you should marry and how many times, etc., etc.

There is so much more I could say but this post is quickly becoming a compendium. Let me just say that the saddest thing I heard in connection with the recent bombings in Boston, in addition to the loss of lives and limbs, and the pain of those who survive, was the statement regarding the older brother, the one who was killed by police. At some point in the last couple of years, he said, “I don’t understand Americans. I have no American friends.” I just have to wonder whether the story would have ended differently if one, just one Christ-follower, had reached out in love to those two young men. That thought has kept me awake many hours.

Please come this Sunday as we kick off our series on “Religions of the World,” starting with Islam. And please pray for me as I preach this message.

Pastor Ivanildo C. Trindade