Islam requires strategic engagement, SBTS professors say at Alumni Academy
With fresh news reports about Islam appearing daily, and the need for global gospel proclamation as critical as ever, Christians need to learn how to engage with Islam theologically and strategically, said two professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during the Aug. 8-9 Alumni Academy.
Ayman Ibrahim, Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Southern Seminary and senior fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, and John Klaassen, associate professor of global studies at Boyce College, led the seven sessions of the Alumni Academy, which culminated with a Q&A with both Ibrahim and Klaassen.
Ibrahim, who grew up in Egypt, said Islam is a traditional faith with multiple sacred texts. Although the Quran is the center of Muslim didactic literature, the Hadith (a collection of Muhammad's sayings) and the Sira (a biography of Muhammad) are also important. Christians can gain a great deal of respect from Muslims with whom they interact by reading both the Quran and the Sira because it demonstrates they care about understanding their religious system, he said.
While believers evangelizing Muslims should illustrate points from the Quran, they should not spend significant time there, Ibrahim said. They should use the Quran to prove to Muslims that their sacred text assumes the reliability of the Bible, but then move from the Quran to the Bible as soon as possible, Ibrahim said. The Sermon on the Mount is particularly helpful, he said, since it challenges some of the pillars of Islam, requiring heart transformation more than good deeds.
“If you asked me what Muslims need the most, I would tell you: hope. And there is no hope apart from the gospel,” he said.
There are three broad approaches to understanding Islam among secularists, Ibrahim said, each of which are perpetuated by feverish media coverage. A polemical approach only recognizes Islam’s negative characteristics and is more interested in broad-brush arguments and treating all Muslims as terrorists, he said. An overly sympathetic approach recognizes only Islam’s positive characteristics, claiming Islam itself is harmless. There is also a critical approach, where scholars analyze Islam objectively. Most of these academics are atheists, and this is how Islam is studied in a secular university, Ibrahim noted.
In contrast to these approaches, Christians should employ a critical-theological understanding of Islam, Ibrahim said, which thoughtfully engages with Islam but does not apologize for its grounding in a theological worldview.
“We need to think critically, we need to go deeper in understanding Islam, but we cannot avoid our theology,” he said. “If you move to study Islam without strong theology, your missiology will be corrupt. Your theology determines your missiology — your understanding of mission.”
When engaging Muslims, Christians should be aware that there is no one form of the religion practiced by all. Instead of thinking of a single “Islam,” Ibrahim said, Christians should think of the religion’s worldwide representation as various “Islams.” Each person a believer encounters will therefore be different, and should be treated as an individual.
“All Muslims are not the same, and you need to have this as a bottom line before we start [discussing Islam],” he said. “If you begin thinking about Muslims as emerging from a monolithic faith, you’re missing the point.”
Islam is built on five pillars of constant religious observance and comprises an absolute worldview system, said Klaassen. The pillars — the creed (shahada), prayer (salat), giving alms (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj) — require careful attention and include strict parameters. Prayer must occur five times a day, starting at sunrise, and must involve extensive ceremonial washing. They will pray in Arabic, Klaassen said, even though most Muslims do not know the language and simply recite sections of the Quran without understanding.
The culture of Islam is significantly different than that of the United States, said Klaassen, author of the 2015 book Engaging with Muslims. It is driven by an honor-shame dynamic more than the West, which aligns more closely with a guilt-innocence dynamic. Those sharing the gospel with Muslims should always be aware of these cultural markers, making it clear that when Jesus died on the cross, he took the shame of sinners upon himself but did not lose his honor, Klaassen said. These categories are not common for Westerners.
Because of the significant effect of shame on Muslim cultures, converting from Islam is extremely damaging socially, Klaassen said. The religion dictates Muslims’ entire lives and forms a worldview that requires absolute commitment.
“You cannot convert out of Islam,” he said. “To convert out of Islam is to shame your family — it is to reject everything you have ever known and everything you have ever heard.”
Believers engaging with Muslims need to break the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, between preaching the gospel and living among Muslims, Klaassen said. For believers called to full-time overseas missions, they will need to learn a professional skill which allows them to fit into Muslim communities.
“Especially for our brothers and sisters who go overseas and work, it’s important that we do things that affect the community,” Klaassen said. “When we just come in and put gospel on top, then often it’s not seen in a favorable light.”
Alumni Academy provides free ongoing instruction for alumni and prospective students of Southern Seminary. To find out more about the program, visit sbts.edu/alumni.