A Christian Response to Islam in America

Dr. Warren F. Larson

Warren Larson is Academic Program Director and Associate Professor of Muslim Studies at Columbia International University. He served as a missionary in Pakistan for 23 year and has written extensively on Islam, including: Islamic Ideology and Fundamentalism in Pakistan: Climate for Conversion to Christianity?  He lives with his wife in Columbia, South Carolina.

John Esposito, arguably the most influential non-Muslim American scholar on Islam, at times sounds prophetic.  The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (1992) suggests Islam is a threat to the West—particularly America.  His book a decade later, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (2002), could have been given the title: “I told you so.”  He says a war conducted militarily, rather than diplomatically, will lead to an increase in anti-Americanism, global instability and blood shed.  American foreign policy, he says, is what is behind the anger and agenda of militant Muslims. 


There is no doubt that American foreign policy, including support for Israel, troops in Saudi Arabia, and military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, angers Muslims.  In fact, the Bush Administration’s goal to root out radical Islam has enraged many Muslims.  But America is not solely to blame for Islamic extremism.  Globalization, years of unhappy Muslim-Christian encounters, and “Westophobia” in the Muslim media could also be listed.  Another issue is the fact that conspiracy theories, like the one that makes Jews responsible for 9-11, are rampant in the Muslim world (Riddell and Cotterell, 152-160).


It is also true that a major reason for Muslim militancy is to be found deep within Islam.  This is not to say that most Muslims do not want peace, but an American convert to Islam, who later turned to Christ, spoke as an insider:  “Christianity teaches us to love our enemies.  With Islam it’s quite the opposite.  You should be just, but you should hate the enemies of Islam.  And if they openly struggle against Islam, they should be eliminated” (Christianity Today, April 7, 1989).


Such sentiments can be traced back to the Qur’an, for though war is evil, Islam’s demise is a worse evil: “ … Fighting is a grave offense; but graver is it in the sight of Allah to prevent access to the path of Allah…” (Qur’an 2:217).  One Muslim put it this way: “The world as we know it today is how others have shaped it so we have two choices: either to accept it with submission, which means letting Islam die, or to destroy it, so that we can construct a world as Islam requires.” In Islam Under Siege, 2003, Akbar Ahmed says that many Muslims feel they are not only under siege politically and militarily, but culturally as well. 


In their attempts to set things right, militant Muslims are using negative portrayals of non-Muslims in the sacred scriptures of Islam.  According to surveys done by Q News, the largest Muslim periodical in the UK, and the BBC, Muslim radicalization is increasing all over the world (Riddell and Cotterell, 193-194).  It is also true that groups like al-Mahijiroun in England, under the fiery preaching of Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, are using the freedoms of the West to mold the minds of fellow-Muslims.


This article therefore does not minimize the danger faced because of a growing Muslim perception that America has targeted Islam.  The threat from militants is very real, but the material below builds on what Carl Ellis has been saying for years: “Islam is the greatest threat to the Church” (Christianity Today, April 3, 2000).  It suggests that Christians can be an instrument of peace in the face of rising tensions.


Why Americans Convert


“Should Christians Convert Muslims?” in TIME (June 30, 2003), suggested evangelicals are wrongheaded when they try to convert Muslims, but it failed to mention Muslim attempts—and success—in converting Christians.  Below are some reasons why an estimated 2 million African-Americans, many of whom claim to be former Christians, have embraced Islam.  


Decadence of Western Society

First, they are looking for self respect, discipline, family values, moral standards and deliverance from drugs and alcohol.  According to Islam, they can change the stereotype of the young Black male on drugs, out of work and in jail.  It’s a new way of life, a path not only to God, but of self-respect and dignity.


African-American women also convert because they see in Islam an emphasis on modesty, chastity and clarity of economic rights.  Many had been abandoned to fend for themselves and their children because of irresponsible and faithless men.  An African-American imam (mosque leader), invited to speak in my class at Columbia International University, said: “Jesus paid it all is not what American Blacks must hear!”


Islam then becomes an alternative to intrinsic immorality and corruption—symptoms of a society in the last stages of decomposition.  It comes with a well-ordered prayer ritual, specific guidelines on relationships, clear male leadership roles and family values—even a new name!  Since Christianity is deemed powerless to effect social change, Islam can establish laws, control moral behavior and produce reform. 


Failure by the Church

Second, converts to Islam say Christian discrimination left them disconnected and disenfranchised, but now as vice-regents in Islam, they have the distinction, purpose and empowerment that even the Civil Rights Movement did not give them.  As Bruce Fields notes in Introducing Black Theology: Three Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church, it is unfortunate, that “because the issue of racism still exists in our society, it still exists in the church” (53). He adds that “if the world does not see true unity among those who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, the church should not be surprised when the world is unimpressed with our proclamation that the Father has sent the Son (64). 


Something similar is happening to Latinos.  “Islam is Luring More Latinos “in The Washington Post quotes a young woman who had been a devout Catholic:  “I felt a strong sense of belonging.”  Another says she felt a “sense of sisterhood …with others who wore hijab (veil).” 


Failure to Understand Islam

Third, there is widespread ignorance in regard to Islam.  Muslims equate Islam with peace, but the word for peace in Arabic is “Salaam,” not “Islam.”  It means “surrender or to make peace by laying down one’s arms in submission.”  So to claim that Jihad means striving in the cause of Allah by personal devotion is not the whole truth.  Muhammad’s call to Jihad was primarily to fight infidels (pagans), Jews and Christians.  In the oldest biography on Muhammad, author Ibn Ishaq states that the Prophet conducted 29 battles and planned 39 others.  And, supported by commentaries and classical writings, the Qur’an claims that Jihad is the only sure way to paradise (Qur’an, 3:169).  It is to the Qur’an that Syed Qutb, ideologue and motivator of militant Islam, appeals when he builds his case for jihad (Qur’an 4:74-76; 8:38-40; 9:29-32).  These passages alone, he states, suffice to justify the universal and permanent dimensions of Jihad (53-76). 


Americans also need to understand that where Islam dominates, Muslims are never free to abandon Islam.  Maududi, the most influential Muslim scholar in the 20th century, insists that both Qur’an and Traditions demand an apostate’s execution.  He might be faulted for quoting the Qur’an (9:11-12, as it only says to fight against those who “violate their oaths,” but is on more solid footing with Bukhari’s canonized tradition: “Any person, i.e. Muslim, who has changed his religion, kill him” (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, p. 45). 


One problem is that the sacred scriptures of Islam sends out mixed singles as to how to treat non-Muslims.  On the one hand, the Qur’an admonishes Muslims to ask “People of the Book” if they have questions (10:94; 21:7, 48) and condemns violence and killing (5:32).  On the other hand, the next verse says those who wage war against Allah should have their hands and feet cut off (5:33).  Down a few verses it says Muslims should not take Jews and Christians as friends (5:51).  Some traditions suggest Muslims should not even salute Christians (Dawood, 41, 5186; al-Muslim, Vol. 3, 5245, 1156).


Notably, there are ample references in the sacred writings of Islam for militants to use in furthering their deadly cause, like texts that say “fight against” unbelievers (Qur’an 9:5, 29; 8:39; 4:74).  Islamic traditions that predict how Jews will ultimately be exterminated are equally disturbing:   “The Last Hour would not come till the Muslims fight against the Jews and the Muslims will kill them until the Jews hide themselves, and the stones and trees would speak up saying … ‘There is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him’” (Al-Muslim, Book 40, No. 6985). 


Where Do We Go From Here?


Christians Need a Good Dose of Optimism

Stan Guthrie admits in Missions in the Third Millenia: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century that ministry to Muslims is difficult, and that nine-tenths of the worst persecution takes place in Islamic states.  But he reminds us that many Muslims are in fact embracing Christ.  In Indonesia, for example, the church may have grown to 20 million, far beyond official estimates. 


Similarly, in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and   Religious Studies at Penn State University, wonders if Islam and Christianity can peacefully co-exist (168, 179), and thinks more Muslim-Christian conflict is on the horizon (188).  Though he does not consider the dangers of nominal Christianity, his work is encouraging, because it provides research from the secular viewpoint that phenomenal church growth is taking place in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 


Jenkins goes on to say that the total number of American Muslims is closer to 4 million—not 8 million as claimed (105), and that Muslim immigrations to the United States will be exceeded by a larger influx of Christians from Africa, Asia and above all Latin America (105).  In The North American Resource Guide, Mohamed Nimer, CAIR board chairman concurs.  Though difficult to estimate both immigrant and Black Muslims because of policies about religion at the U.S. Census Bureau, he feels the total number of Muslims in the U.S. is more like 4.1 million, including immigrants.


Christians Need Training on Theological, Evangelical and Historical Levels

American Christians need to be prepared for Muslim missionaries because Islam is a missionary faith:  “Call men to the path of your Lord” (Qur’an 16:125) and “Witness to the nations” (Qur’an 2:143) are for Muslims what the “Great Commission” is for Christians.


This is why the Muslim World League spends vast amounts of money in mission—building mosques, sending missionaries, printing literature.  And Islam has been successful in getting into American schools.  The leader of Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services in Berkeley, California, is quoted in Aramco World (January/February, 2002) as saying: “A decade ago the average 7th to 12th grade social studies class spent three to four days on Islam and the Middle East.  Now it may spend up to 3-4 weeks or more.” 


American Christians need to know that according to the Qur’an Muslims think Christians worship three gods: “Say not three” (Qur’an 4:171; 5:171).  They need skill in responding to Muslim assertions that Jesus did not die.  This might include knowing those Qur’anic references that seem to suggest he did in fact die (Qur’an 5:117; 19:19; 3:55).  And they must be able to articulate that Christians do not view Jesus as son in a physical way—as charged.  Christians need to know that in the Qur’an Jesus is sinless (Qur’an 19:19) whereas Muhammad is not (Qur’an 36:27; 40:55; 47:19; 48:2).


Furthermore, how many Americans understand that not even one of the 99 names of Allah say he is longing and willing to save?  In Islam, God has the power, but lacks the will to save lost, helpless sinners.  Compare this with the Bible: “God is not willing that any should perish” (II Peter 2:15).  How many would-be American converts to Islam know that in the Qur’an God only loves the righteous (Qur’an 3:76)—not the sinful (Qur’an 4:107)?  The Bible, in contrast, says he even loves his enemies” (Romans 5:10). 


From the above it seems Muslims are on a treadmill where they can never do enough to please God.  During a recent Muslim-Christian dialog for better understanding I attended in Columbia, South Carolina, the Muslim speaker from India stated that God only draws near when Muslims pray more than the prescribed five times a day.  


Finally, many American converts to Islam think Christianity sanctions slavery whereas Islam has always been against it.  The truth is it was the influence of evangelical Christians like John Wesley and William Wilberforce who fought against it and helped to end it.  They need to know that because Muhammad kept slaves, Islamic countries, like Somalia and Mauritania, were among the last to abolish it.


Christians Need to Wage Peace on Islam

Judaism, Christianity and Islam lay claim to the God of Abraham and believe that peace is one of God’s characteristics.  Amazingly, all three faiths believe peace will only come through the Messiah, the Prince of Peace.   Note that in the Qur’an it is Jesus (Isa al-Masih) who is Messiah—not Muhammad (Qur’an 3:45).


And in the Bible, it is the Messiah who will exercise awesome power by restraining evil and judging fairly:  “He will judge between the nations … they will beat their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) and “he will rule them with iron scepter (Psalm 2:9).    Micah also describes the Messiah’s global reign: “He will stand … for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.  And he will be their peace (Micah 5:2, 4-5). 


So rather than defending Israeli policy in the Middle East, we need to pray for the “peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6).  God’s “Road Map for Peace in the Middle East” culminates in the just reign of the Messiah who will judge all nations—including Israel.  The last chapter of the Old Testament (Malachi 3) says that when he comes “he will be like a “refiner’s fire” and put the Jews on trial for their many sins. 


Yet having said that, he will also be “very angry with those nations,” some of whom hate the Jews with an implacable hatred (Zechariah 1:15).   He will “gather all the nations” (Zechariah 14:2) and he will “fight against those nations” (Zechariah 14:3).  His judgment will be against the entire world, including America as the world’s number one advertiser of a life-style allowing adultery, homosexuality, pornography, and abortion. 


The good news is that when all else fails, people in Jerusalem will recognize their crime of crucifying the Messiah, and they will grieve and repent for their sin (Zechariah 12:10).  They had rejected him when he had wept over Jerusalem: “If only … you had known … what would bring you peace” (Luke 19:41).  And repentance will not only take place among the Jews: “All the nations of the earth will mourn” (Matthew 24:30).   The last book of the Bible reiterates that grieving and repentance will take place by the Jews as “those who pierced him,” but adds that “all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him” (Revelation 1:7).  This surely includes Muslims who have some understanding of Jesus, but do not see him as Savior in all his glory, all his majesty and all his divinity.  (Remember that one in every five citizens of Israel is a Palestinian, Israeli Arab.)


Christians know that Jesus, not only will be the bridge between people of all races and religions, but he is the bridge between humankind and God.  This is the only way Muslims, Christians and Jews can have peace among themselves.  When Jesus forgave sin (Mark 2:10; Luke 7:48) as only God can do (Isaiah 43:45; Mark 2:7; Qur’an 3:135), he also said, “Go in peace” (Luke 7:48-50).   It is no coincidence that at birth the Messiah was called “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:18).  The Bible says, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).  It says, “He [Christ] is our peace … [He] destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…thus making peace…[He] came and preached peace…“(Ephesians 2:14-18).


So we do not need to publicly defame Islam and demean the Prophet of Islam as some American Christian leaders have done since September 11, 2001.  This creates more cultural and social stumbling blocks than already exist before Muslims get to the stumbling block of the cross.  To do so goes against the biblical injunction: “If it is possible … live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) because it stirs up hatred, fosters mistrust and suspicion, and unnecessarily hurts Muslim sentiments.


And we can even be people of peace in the way we greet Muslims.  Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for them who persecute us.  The greeting Jesus probably used, “Shalom aleichem” (Hebrew) is very similar to the universal Muslim greeting in Arabic of “Salaam Aleikum” (Peace to you).  This is only a small thing, but blessing Muslims in the sense that we greet them with warmth, sincerity and goodwill, is faithfulness in that which is least.


Finally, waging peace on Islam means reaching out to the Muslim immigrants in our midst (nearly 60% of American Muslims are immigrants) and not hating them.  Unfortunately, since 9-11, some in our midst who look Middle Eastern have been unnecessarily harassed and treated unfairly.  It is instructive to see that the Bible commanded the Israelites to “love the aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).  It commanded them to gather the aliens in their towns so they would learn about the Lord and so that children of the aliens would hear it and learn to fear the Lord (Deut. 31:12-13).   


In conclusion, Muslim militants have turned to hatred and violence because they perceive Islam is under attack and that perception is real and spreading all over the world.  Since Islam does not teach love for enemies, bur rather hatred, some Muslims are tempted to fight America.  The best way for Christians to respond is to look to the cross as the bridge to reconciliation.  The battle will not be won by wrapping ourselves in the flag of patriotism and missiles won’t win the battle either.  Esposito is right on that point.  Most Muslims are true seekers after God as indicated by their prayer several times a day that God would lead them in a straight path (Qur’an 1:6).  Christians must reach out to Muslims with the Gospel of Peace.




Ahmed, Akbar S., Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World.  Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003.


Ali, Abdullah Yusaf, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, new ed.  Beltsville, MD: Amana  Publications, 1989.


Esposito, John L., The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Fields, Bruce L., Introducing Black Theology: Crucial Questions for the Evangelical Church.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, Inc., 2001.


Guillaume, A., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah. Karachi, PakistanOxford University Press, 1978.


Guthrie, Stan, Missions in the Third Millenia: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century.  London: Paternoster Press, 2001.


Jenkins, Philip, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Mawdudi, Abu’l Ala, The Punishment of the Apostate According to Islamic Law.  Translated and annotated by Syed Silas Husain and Ernest Hahn. n.p., 1994.


Nimer, Mohamed, The North American Muslim Resource Guide: Muslim Community Life in the United States and Canada.  New York: Routledge, 2002.


Qutb, Syed, Milestones, Cedar Rapids, IA: Unity Publishing Company, 1964.


Riddell, Peter G., and Peter Cotterell, Islam in Context: Past, Present and Future.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2003.

Copyright© 2003, Dr. Warren F. Larson. Used by permission.