OK, take a deep breath. Trust me when I say I’m not asking anybody to throw away their Bible and start planning their pilgrimage to Mecca. I am, however, going to attack some truly damaging language that I hear from many of my fellow Christians on the subject of Islam…language that I maintain is neither edifying nor honoring to God, and actually flat-out wrong. There are many issues that need to be addressed in Christian attitudes toward Muslims (and, I’m sure, vice-versa), but one of the first we need to face is our sloppy language.
So I repeat my title statement: Every Christian ought to be a muslim. Note, first of all, that I used a lower-case “m” in the word “muslim.” I am not suggesting that any follower of Jesus should change faiths. In fact, I hope it’s clear to any reader of my blog that I wish for more, not fewer, people to follow Jesus. But while capital M “Muslim” is the name for a follower of the organized religion of Islam, lower-case m “muslim” means simply “one who submits;” by implication, one who submits to God.
I don’t speak Arabic. I do, however, speak Swahili, which has significant Arabic roots, and while I’m going to explain in terms of the language I actually know, friends of mine who do speak Arabic have confirmed the truth of what I’m about to say. In Swahili and in Arabic, if you take a verb and put either an “m” or “mu” prefix onto the front of it, the resulting word is a noun that means “a person or creature who does that verb.” So for example, the Swahili word “kuzunguka” means “to spin or turn around,” so “mzungu” means “one who spins around” (which hilariously is the term Africans coined to describe white Europeans and Americans). In Arabic, the word “islam” simply means “submission.” A “muslim” is just a person who does “islam,” that is, a person who submits.
Islam is, of course, not the only faith that calls its followers to submit to God. In the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the original temptation and sin of Adam was not the fact of eating the forbidden fruit, it was the desire to “…be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5) In deliberate contrast to the human desire to usurp God’s position in Genesis, followers of Jesus are exhorted to “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:5-6). Jesus’ example is further illuminated in Phil. 2:8 to be his humility and obedience even “unto death on a cross.” Jesus is our ultimate example of submission, “islam,” to God.
Of course, the objection many Christians will immediately raise leads me to my second point of language: submission to WHICH God? While this may be a hard truth for some to grasp, the answer is “the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad.”
Time for another deep breath, folks. Please note that I have not said that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all equal, identical, one religion, or anything of the sort. There are plenty of places where Jews, Christians, and Muslims disagree, and some of them are highly significant. But Christians have got to get off their pigheaded high horse (dare I mix animal metaphors?) and face the reality that, whatever other important differences exist, the God of Islam is NOT a different God than that of Christians and Jews. He is the God of Abraham; among his names are Elohim, YHWH, Father, and Allah. Do you notice that “Elohim” (a plural of “El”) and “Allah” actually have a similar sound? There is a reason for that…both Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages; that is, they come from a common ancient root. The names “El” and “Allah” are the same. Furthermore, Arabic-speaking Christians (at least those who haven’t been corrupted by fundamentalist American ideologues) have been using the name “Allah” to refer to the Father for many centuries. When Christians in America make the claim (and I heard this in a church as recently as a month ago) that “Allah is an idol and a false God,” they are at best displaying breathtaking ignorance, and at worst blaspheming the very God they claim to worship.
Many Christians will raise the objection at this point “well, Muslims say Allah is not the Father of Jesus, so he must be a false god.” Funny thing about that claim, it doesn’t seem to apply to Jews, who also do not believe that God is Jesus’ father (unless they’re what we call “Messianic Jews”). If that criterion renders Islam a false religion, it must do the same for Judaism. You can’t have it both ways…and yet the most conservative Christians do not doubt that Israel in particular and Jews in general are still God’s special, chosen people. That’s another discussion, and not for this time, but for now, accepting the deity of Christ cannot be a criterion for otherwise worshiping the “right” God unless the same criterion is applied equally to both of the other Abrahamic faiths.
There is much more to say with regard to Muslim-Christian relations, and I expect some day to take on more of it. But at the very least, let us please acknowledge that Allah is the God we Christians also worship, and may we all strive to be small-m “muslims” to Him.