Like most Americans old enough to remember, I have a clear memory of what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was standing in the front of Hyder Auditorium administering a humanities exam to some 200 Milligan College sophomores when an ashen-faced colleague entered from the side door and whispered into my ear that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Little did I know this event would eventually reshape the kind of work I would do as a professor at Milligan.
In the months and years that followed 9/11, students at Milligan were preoccupied with the same sorts of questions that troubled many Americans. Who are these Muslims and why do they hate us? When and where will the war(s) begin?
One thing was for sure: Islam was suddenly on everyone’s radar. Which is not to say most of my students had any real understanding of Islam. And yet it became obvious to me (and others) that many students sincerely desired to better understand how Muslims viewed themselves, God, and the world.
Students began to ask why there were no classes on Islam at the college. Understandably, they were frustrated about the lack of instruction on a subject that would clearly be a significant force in the world they were inheriting.
And so it was that I agreed to teach an introductory course on Islam. I admitted then that I did not have the expertise to teach a semester-long course on the history and theology of Islam. I was trained to teach the history of Christianity, not Islam. But the need was great and the challenge was intriguing, so I took the plunge. Since the fall of 2003, I have taught the course four times, and it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my nearly 20 years teaching at the college level.
One reason the course has been so rewarding is it forced me to build relationships with my Muslim neighbors in the local community. Now, I know I should have been reaching out to Muslims long before my panic over teaching the course set in. I know, and knew, what Jesus taught about loving our neighbors. But I don’t think I would have been so determined to get to know my Muslim neighbors if I hadn’t so desperately needed their help in teaching this course.
After several phone calls and e-mails, I was able to meet several leaders of the local mosque; they took me out for coffee and conversation. I think they were impressed that Christians were interested in learning about Islam, and they graciously agreed to help any way they could.
And what help they have given! Each semester I have invited Muslims from our local community to speak to my students about being Muslim in America. Most of my students are sincere, devout Christians and they are deeply interested in people of faith. For many of them, it was the first time they could directly ask Muslim people what they thought about Jesus, what they thought about prayer, why Muslim women wore the hijab (head scarf), and why many Muslims around the world seem so angry with the West.
I have been proud of how respectful and genuinely interested my students are in learning about their Muslim neighbors. And in our debriefing sessions, I’ve been gratified to see my students were disarmed by how charming, polite, and . . . well, normal their Muslims neighbors seemed.
Another component of the course that makes some of my students nervous (initially, it made me nervous too) was our field trip to the mosque for Friday prayers (jum’ah). We have heard calls to prayer (adhan), observed Muslims praying and performing the ritual prostrations, and heard sermons summoning believers to righteous purity.
My students have been impressed with the apparent heartfelt devotion of Muslims at prayer. They have also been impressed with how hospitable their Muslim neighbors are in welcoming Christians into their house of worship. After our visits to the mosque, my students have usually been eager to share and discuss their impressions about the experience, making for some fascinating classroom discussions.
Mostly, I think, my students gradually learn they do not need to fear their Muslim neighbors. The next time my students see media images of angry, fist-clenched, rifle-toting Muslims, I would hope at the very least that those images are complemented by the gentle, hospitable faces of the Muslims they have met in our community.
To study Islam as a Christian opens the door to becoming a more faithful disciple of Christ. It helps us better understand and better love people many in the world would have us fear, dismiss, or even hate. It does not mean we suggest there are no differences between how Christians and Muslims understand God. There are major differences, and these should not be dismissed as unimportant. But often, even these major differences presuppose points of contact, shared ground between Muslims and Christians.
Take, for example, our understanding of Jesus. For Christians there is nothing more important than our understanding of who Jesus is, what he taught, and what he accomplished on the cross. And here, there are significant differences between Muslims and Christians.
But most of my students are surprised at how much material about Jesus is included in the Koran. They are surprised the Koran teaches the virgin birth of Jesus and relates stories about his power to work miracles (including some stories Christians would regard as apocryphal). Students are surprised the Koran gives Jesus lofty titles such as Messiah (al-Masih), Word of God (kalimat Allah), and Spirit of God (Ruhullah). They are surprised to learn most Muslims believe (based on a Koranic text) that Jesus will return to earth soon before the resurrection of the dead and the Day of Judgment.
But the differences in how we view Jesus cannot be minimized. Muslims do not believe Jesus is the Son of God, they do not believe Jesus died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin, and they do not believe he defeated the powers of darkness by rising from the dead. For Muslims, Jesus is a distinguished prophet of God; indeed, one of the five greatest prophets, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad. But he is not, as he is for Christians, the second member of the Triune God, eternally begotten of the Father.
Does this mean we cannot talk to our Muslim neighbors about Jesus? Absolutely not! In fact, I have discovered it is extraordinarily easy to talk about Jesus with Muslims. Since they love and revere him as a prophet, a bridge of understanding is already in place that can lead to a deeper understanding of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).
The Muslim understanding of Jesus as a prophet is an inadequate understanding of Jesus, but it at least gives Jesus a special place of honor. After the man born blind was healed by Jesus, the Pharisees asked him, “What have you to say about him?” His reply, “He is a prophet” (John 9:17), was inadequate, as he was soon to learn. Yet Jesus engaged him in conversation and lovingly drew him to a fuller and truer understanding.
May we pray for God’s grace to love and not fear our Muslim neighbors, to understand and not caricature them, and to build bridges of friendship and mutual respect.
Craig S. Farmer is professor of history and humanities at Milligan College in Tennessee.